Thursday
Aug092018

Interview with James Wilson -Sons Of Bill

Sons of Bill’s fifth studio album OH GOD MA’AM, might never have seen the light of day. A series of setbacks including marriage breakdowns, addictions and James Wilson suffering a dreadful hand injury when falling on broken glass, could have resulted in the project being abandoned. Fortunately, these stumbling blocks were conquered and perversely contributed to the recording of their most mature album to date (see our Music Review section). The band from Charlottesville Virginia – which includes brothers James, Abe and Sam together with Joe Dickey on bass and Todd Wellons on drums – took advantage of the additional time available to them to experiment beyond their trademark luscious guitar and harmony driven tones. The venture has resulted in their most impressive and perfected work to date. Lonesome Highway caught up with James Wilson while on tour in the U.K. to discuss the album, which was released by Loose on 29th June.  

The recording of your recently released album OH GOD MA’AM was delayed for a number of reasons, not least the horrific hand injury you suffered. What effect did the delay have on the finished product?

I’m not sure other than the fact it took much longer than expected. But it also gave us a chance to live with the music midway through the process like we’ve never been able to before. We knew we weren’t going to hit print on this album until we knew it was our best. 

They say that tragedy inspires creativity, but just how difficult was your period of recuperation and did you consider walking away from the project and band at that time?

It was certainly a time of hardship, in a time when the music industry is just as precarious. No one makes it through life without crippling tragedies, but ours just seemed to hit each of us all at once.  I knew I wanted to finish this album, but we all sort of made the unspoken decision that if the album was going to be finished, we were going to have to grow and make something different. It couldn’t be just another record of rock and roll innocence.     

Much of the writing is understandably dark, with unanswered questions, reflecting both personal and worldly issues. Given that the song writing duties are shared, how was it co-ordinated given that the writers had different issues to deal with at the time?

We live in strangely superficial, and unreflective times - which I think is reflected in both our art and politics. It doesn’t feel like there is a lot of room for art to articulate our internal lives very much, since so much of our lives are lived on the surface. We tried to make a record that was comfortable in its introversion, and hopefully it reaches people there. If you dig deep inside yourself, and strike oil, people think you’ve tapped their phone lines. That’s what you shoot for anyway. 

Was it intended to be a concept album, to be listened to in its entirety rather than a collection of unconnected songs?

Not at all. But I do think its best listened straight through. I feel like this one really works as a whole, as a single piece.

The title of the album is interesting, can you tell me what inspired it?

It’s just a band inside joke. Todd our drummer was accosted by a prostitute in Tampa one tour and that’s what he shouted.  Since then we haven’t stopped saying it. The title to me falls somewhere between intrigue and terror, but also formal, it just felt right for this record.

Do you feel it’s more difficult or smoother working with siblings and does the "big brother knows best" attitude prevail?

Not at all, you have to trust your band mates artistically and at the end of the day the music has to win. Trust your goosebumps and follow the music.

You recorded in both Nashville and Seattle, working with both Sean Sullivan and Phil Eek as producers. Were there specific reasons to engage two producers?

Not really, the album was just a longer process given all of our personal setbacks. It was always a dream of mine to work with Phil Eek, and he’s an incredible artist and engineer. He was hard on us in all of the right ways. 

The album heads in different directions than much of your previous work with a more electro indie sound. Abe (Wilson) brings much of the material to other places with his synthesizer playing. Did employing Peter Katis to mix the album heavily influence this?

We were just bored with our knee jerk way of doing things and took time to find a sonic palette that fit these songs. We had more time than ever to make this record so we got the chance to really experiment in a way we never had the luxury to before.

Is the album an exercise in collectively "shaking off demons" or an indication of a change in musical direction going forward?

I think it’s a more mature record. I think there is an adult humility too it, and I don’t see us regaining the innocence of youth any time soon.  But as I said before you’ve got chase down what gives you goosebumps, and that changes throughout your life. If you’re not doing that you’re not making art you’re just engaging in product assembly.  

Molly Pardon makes an appearance on the album, adding vocals on Easier. Given that you guys harmonise so well what was the impetus to invite her to perform?

Molly is the best singer in Nashville in a town full of singers.  She has this amazing ability to be both perfect, while still transmitting emotionally and lyrically.  I would have let her sing the whole album if I could!

What tracks in particular are the ones that you’re particularly proud of?

Gosh, really the record as a whole I would say.  But Sweeter, Sadder, Farther Away has a tragic simplicity too it that I’m proud of.  

The sound brings to mind 1980’s UK bands such as New Order and Echo & the Bunnymen, together with more current bands War On Drugs and The National. Were they conscious influences on you when recording the album?

They were certainly big influences on us growing up along with their more ragged American counterparts REM and the Replacements. We just searched for the sounds to fit the songs and settled somewhere pretty awesome, I think.

In fact, many industry insiders together with punters would feel your profile should be up there with both War On Drugs and The National. How frustrating has it been in not reaching much larger audiences given the calibre of your back catalogue

Art is one thing and commerce is another separate thing. Commercial success has to do with a million factors that are outside of your control. I can stand by the music we’ve made, and I won’t be ashamed to play it for my grandkids. At the end of the day that’s all you can really hang your hat on, and it’s the only thing you should never compromise.

Has material from the album been challenging to recreate live given the complex arrangements?

It has, but we just fall back on our experience as a touring band. We make eye contact, count to four, and rock like murder, as Paul Westerberg says.  

Five albums in and having navigated so many obstacles and hurdles over the past twelve years, do you feel stronger as a band for the experiences and where do you see yourselves twelve years down the road?

Rock and roll is about survival in the 2000’s. We’ll continue to survive and make music god willing.  I plan on making music until they throw dirt on me.

Interview by Declan Culliton

Friday
Jul272018

Interview with Ana Egge

Ana Egge is very typical of the type of artist that appeals to us at Lonesome Highway and one that is greatly admired by our team. Difficult to slot into any one genre – even Americana – she has recorded ten albums over a career that spans two decades, together with appearing on records recorded by Ron Sexsmith, Nels Andrews, Joel Plasckett and Matt The Electrician. She has toured with Iris DeMent, Ron Sexsmith, Shawn Colvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore and performed on stage with Lucinda Williams, John Prine and Sinead O’Connor. Her pedigree was recognised early in her career when, at 19 years old and following the release of her debut album River Under The Road, she was voted Best Singer Songwriter and Best Folk Artist by the Austin Music Awards. Her latest recording White Tiger, released in June of this year and reviewed by ourselves, is yet another wonderful addition to a catalogue of recordings that should take pride of place in every serious music lovers collection. If in any doubt Lucinda William’s declaration should convince you. "Listen to her lyrics. Ana is the folk Nina Simone!’’ Ana took the time out to chat briefly with Lonesome Highway about her roller coaster career to date and her latest recording.

By modern day standards your upbringing would be considered unconventional. Did the freedom and lifestyle you enjoyed growing up inspire you as a songwriter?

Yes absolutely. We didn’t watch much tv and I had tons of time outside in the quiet. I still love and long for a quieter time in my life. Space and time is mostly what I need to write and I had loads of that when I was young that taught me a hunger for that.

Your music has evolved and varied over the years, Americana long before the genre was recognised. I expect your inspiration came from a diverse range of artists?

I was just a guest DJ on a radio station in Boston and got to pick 10 songs that inspired me. I included songs by The Buzzcocks and Django and Dolly Parton.

Has the emergence of the Americana genre given your music a home or managed to introduce your work to a wider audience?

I still don’t really fit in there either unfortunately. I think I do, but I haven’t really been welcomed or acknowledged by the powers that be. Still an outsider.

Your homemade guitar Junior seems to be leading a life as charmed as Willie Nelson’s legendary Trigger! Do you still tour with it?

I do! Just had a crack in the back fixed and had to play one radio show in NJ last week without her. I REALLY missed her.

Recording albums in to double figures is no mean career achievement given the vagaries of the music industry. How do you compare the industry of today with your early career years?

It couldn’t be more different. My first album came out in 1997. Tower Records was still everywhere. People still bought physical albums and streaming didn’t exist. 

Your debut album River Under The Road was recorded with Asleep At The Wheel back in 1997. How did you get them on board and what were your career expectations back then? 

I was mostly just blown away about everything that happened for me back then. Many doors were opened by incredible people. I didn’t understand how I could be so lucky but now I see more like they recognized me as one of their own. Music brings people together for a reason especially when it brings us together to collaborate! I lived on an intentional community in NM with Sarah Brown’s family. Sarah Brown was the bass player in the house band at Antones in Austin. She’s played with Bonnie Raitt and so many others. She was my entrée to the scene there. She introduced me to everyone, taking me around with my guitar to sing my songs. 

Your 2007 covers album Lazy Days featured material from a range of artists including 60’s Brit pop bands The Kinks and The Zombies to Arcade Fire. Did the album reflect bands that had an appeal to you or was it about the particular songs that featured on the album? 

I am a fan of all of the songwriters I covered for that project. There were a couple of songs that I wasn’t previously aware of that I found for Lazy Days however. It was an interesting thing to keep it to laziness. Not allowing songs about love or romance or sleep. Only laziness. There were a couple Nina Simone songs and Dylan too that I really wanted to do but after really pouring over them I had to admit that there weren’t really about that.

Your recently released album White Tiger, with it’s laid back and peaceful vibe gives the impression of an artist in a very comfortable place at present. A fair reflection?

Yes, that’s fair. 

I had recognised many similarities in the work of both yourself and Anais Mitchell prior to hearing White Tiger and was therefore pleasantly surprised to learn that she features on the album. How did you both connect?

Anais and I first met in 2004 and have been friends ever since. She’s brilliant.

Producer Alec Spiegelman (who also worked with Anais Mitchell) co-wrote three of the album tracks. Had you worked previously with Alec?

Alec has been touring with me for 3 years. Eventually we started writing together (I’m goin’ bossa nova) which led to making this record together.

Tell me about the album’s title track. Obviously dealing with a friend in help of support. Was the song written in reaction to a person’s actual predicament or is the individual fictional?

Based on truth. And a very difficult time that my friend has been going through. Sometimes it’s hard to bellieve that things will get better. When things are so bad you just want people to acknowledge that. And not have to make up some silver lining ya know? Just, as a friend to say, yes, this is just horrible. But I didn’t want to leave it at that. I wanted to say, you’re going to make it through this. It’s horrible now, but soon you’ll be in another place. A better place.

Equally is the gorgeous Dance Around The Room With Mea personal reflection of motherhood?

Totally. I wrote it for my daughter who’s 4. Such a simple song and so uplifting!

Girls, Girls, Girls is such a killer song.  It’s so catchy and radio friendly that it could feature in a TV commercial in the future! Your pension royalties secured perhaps? 

From your lips to God’s ears!

You’re presently residing in Brooklyn which is as far away as possible from your childhood residence in North Dakota. Are you well and truly a city girl at this stage?

Oh man, I long for my space and quiet! But I so love living here. NYC is a special place. I’m in love with this city. I am amazed by all of the great music and constant influx of talent and art and all of my favorite writers coming through town to read from their new books. It’s a wonderland in many ways. 

I believe you are due to play the U.K. in October of this year. Any possibility of a trip across the Irish sea for a few shows? 

We are working on that! I so hope so!

Interview by Declan Culliton  Photograph by Shervin Lainez

Wednesday
Jul112018

Interview with Lera Lynn

Lonesome Highway’s last encounter with Lera Lynn was spending time with the Nashville based artist in 2016 before she performed at Whelans in Dublin, her first appearance in Ireland. That tour was on the back of her album Resistor, a body of work that followed her appearances in the TV crime drama True Detective and continued Lynn’s intentions to explore various musical directions. Her latest album Plays Well With Others (reviewed elsewhere on this site) was equally challenging and adventurous, searching out co-writers among the Nashville music community and finding the space to write and record, given the hectic work schedules of both herself and her collaborators. Lera took the time out to discuss the concept and creation of the album, having just come off a five date mini tour of the album which included performances at Athens Georgia, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania and finally the official album launch in Nashville. 

Where did the idea for a duets album come from?

The idea just came into my head one day and it wasn’t kind of a priority at that time. I just chipped away at it and eventually I had enough songs for the record.

How long did it take to write and record?

It was about a year of writing, whenever I was home and the other writers were home and we recorded it in just over a week.

The selection of artists includes talented emerging artist from the Nashville musical community together with some more established names. Andrew Combs and Dylan LeBlanc were particularly inspired choices. How did you handle the selection process?

I thought "who would I love to sing with, who would I love to write with." Everyone was a friend through music, playing together, touring together and people that I hit it off with personally and artistically. I have a lot of respect for Andrew and Dylan and had admired their work and wanted to work with them in some way. So we ended up collecting songs and it took shape from there.

And how did the connection with Rodney Crowell come about?

Well, I met Rodney back at a show he was playing with Sheryl Crow and he told me that my manager had sent him my CD’s and he had been driving around for months with them on rotation in his car and he said "you know you’re a poet (laughs)." I was floored by that but took it as an opportunity to ask him could we write together! He was very kind to me, In fact the song that we wrote together was the first duet that I’d ever written. He showed me the ropes and I carried that spirit through all the other co-writes.

Did you set down a common thread in the writing process for the others to follow?

No, and that was really important to me that the songs did not come across as songs for Lera written with some other person. It was important to me that the style of the other artists showed through.

The selection of collaborators really work as duet albums can go one way or the other. There is a consistency throughout in as far as it sounds like an album rather than nine individual tracks?

Well I’m really glad to hear that as it’s a challenge to make a record that feels connected when there are so many artists involved. The style does vary a lot from song to song but one method that I thought might help was to restrict the production to acoustic instrumentation. It was difficult for me to do that because I love electric guitars, keyboards and fun sounds but I felt that if we limit every song in this way they will connect. Though when I listen to the record it does not actually strike me as being an acoustic record which it obviously is!

How did the connection with John Paul White come about and the idea of co-producing with him?

Well, we toured together and I think I asked him to sing Almost Persuaded with me and that was how the relationship started. He’s a great singer and I really wanted to do a duet with him. He loves that song and when we were touring together I told him I was working on a duets record and that I’d love to come down to Florence, Alabama and write a duo with him. He said he’d love that and why not come down and we’ll make the record together at my place in Florence. 

And the album took only just over a week to record?

Yes, we had the band there for a few days and got a few singers down for a couple of days and then Ben Tanner mixed it.

Do you intend touring the album and what format would that take in terms of the musicians that would accompany you?

Well, we’ve just done a tour which was a challenge as most of the artists on the album also have their own records out or are writing records and it’s also incredibly expensive. We didn’t have everyone that appears on the album on all the tour dates. John Paul and Bradley Adams did some shows and we did meet up with Dylan and Andrew for some shows. John Paul stood up and took over the roles of some of the people who couldn’t be present at some shows and likewise Peter Bradley Adams. There are songs from the record that I can do without a duet partner but the album is not really meant to be toured, it’s not really possible.

You launched the album on June 22nd at 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville. How did that go?

It was amazing, surreal. It was a two hour long show which might not seem that long but it was one of the longer shows I’ve done. It was so much work, so much coordinating, rehearsals, the band, getting everyone on stage, the set list. The whole thing was filmed and we hope to release that soon as an archive. It was a lot of work but really fun and I wish we could do it all the time!

You included TV On The Radio’s Wolf Like Me, a song that you’ve been performing live for a long time on the album. A different dynamic that some of your previous versions of the song?

Exactly, that song has been lurking over my shoulder for years but I’ve resisted recording it for so long. Originally I made a quick video of it as a tribute to the bass player Gerard Smith’s passing and it felt wrong for me to record it at that time. Seven or eight years later people are still asking for that song so this seemed a good time to record it. Obviously I’ve grown a good bit as a musician and I wanted to do something a little different and I love the way that track came out its one of my favourites on the album. 

Talking about those eight years, is it easier or more difficult to make ends meet these days?

It’s easier in some ways and more challenging in others. When you’re young and naive everything is fun. Oh my God we’re on stage, Oh my God we’re on tour and then one day you wake up and it’s Oh my God I’ve to pay rent, can I pay this bill, will I ever be able to start a family, how can this sustain me. As you have a little success it can become a little confusing as to what direction artistically you want to go without alienating some of your fans. 

In hindsight how have your appearances in True Detective impacted on your career, has it been positive or negative?

Well I certainly saw a large jump in my profile right after True Detective and I still have fans coming to the shows saying ‘we discovered you through True Detective’ and that’s great. It’s been a few years since True Detective and life goes on, new things are happening. It was a challenge artistically following that project because I think a lot of people saw the show, heard the music and thought ‘oh this is who she is’, without realising that I was writing music for a particular character in a show, which is part of what I do anyway, that kind of dark stripped down theme. Though I did enjoy the challenge of making the Resistor record after that and creating something that satisfied myself, my old fans and new fans that discovered my music through the series.

The last time we spoke you expressed how much you enjoyed the acting role. Is that something you would consider exploring or one off?

Oh my God, I would love to do more acting and I have been approached about other acting opportunities that I hope will pan out. I expect it could be an all-consuming project for a while though and not just a side project.

Any plans to tour Europe in the near future?

Yes, we are going to be coming over in late November for about a month. Not officially announced yet and no date in Ireland unfortunately but we will be in England, Germany, Russia and Norway.

Scandinavia appears to be very much an emerging market for U.S. acts?

Yes. We will be over there touring with Thomas Dybdahl, a Norwegian artist. Funnily he and I also wrote a duet that will be on his record which will be out later this year. I wrote a couple of songs with him on the record that he made in L.A. and it was a really fun record to work on. I’ll be doing some shows with him and several of my own.

Next project. Are you thinking electric acoustic or have you any definite plans?

I have tried a lot of different tones and colour powers this year. The only thing I can promise you is that it will be different!

Interview by Declan Culliton   Photograph by Alysse Gafkjen

Friday
May042018

Interview with Dori Freeman

I have fond memories of a showcase gig performed by Dori Freeman at Cannery Row during Americana Fest in 2016. Allocated a graveyard slot, directly before Rodney Crowell and his band were due to perform, the then 24-year-old came on stage accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, a lone figure in the centre of what - excluding The Ryman – must be the largest podium at the festival. Challenged by an annoyingly talkative audience, many who only paused their conversations to clap when she finished each song, she finally silenced them mid set by bravely singing Ain’t Nobody a cappella, which took some nerve. I thought ‘thumbs ups and well done to you’. I wondered just how difficult she found it to engage audiences most particularly when she’s not the headline act. "Developing good stage presence is still very much an ongoing process for me. I find talking and engaging the audience in between songs infinitely harder than just performing. Playing and singing comes naturally to me; being the focus of a large crowd does not. I have a very dry and sometimes dark sense of humour which doesn’t always easily convey on stage."

It doesn’t get any more authentic country than Freeman. Born and reared in Galax Virginia (famous for its annual fiddling convention), she is very much a home bird and follows the musical traditions of both her grandfather and father, whose Front Porch Gallery and Frame Shop forms part of the Crooked Road music trail in Virginia. Even though she was surrounded by music from childhood it was not until 2014 that she plucked up the courage to send some music to Teddy Thompson – whom she had been a huge fan of - by way of a Facebook message, that has resulted in them working together on both her self-titled album released in 2016 and its successor Letters Never Read, which followed last year. The connection with Thompson was a meeting of minds by two people from families steeped in musical traditions and I enquired of Freeman what he brought to the recordings that particularly made an impression on her. "Teddy always has a clear idea of what things should sound like and is very frank and precise in his directions and suggestions without being pushy or mean. He knows how to get a good performance out of someone which is exactly what you want in a producer. And of course, any time Teddy sings on one of my tunes I’m thrilled. Having that calibre of singer on any song elevates the recording."

Powerful and soul bearing lyrics are a feature on both albums, giving the listener the impression of a writer using her art to deal with the often-difficult realities of modern day life. Cold Waves on Letters Never Sent is a typical example of her ‘bear it all’ style lyrics. ("And in the evenin' when I lay my baby down, I listen to her breathe the single sweetest sound, I pray she'll never lose the tenderness she's found, and that she'll never know the pain to which I'm bound")."Without song writing I don’t know how I’d cope with all the very human struggles of life. It’s the easiest way for me to communicate my feelings and the process that brings me the most resolution and perspective. There is something about putting words and melodies together that brings me great relief and joy."

Her vocals and song writing are timeless, self-assured and unbelievably natural. Life’s tales and struggles beautifully yet simply articulated without any gimmickry, as if a conscious decision that the material. "Yes, on both records we wanted to keep the instrumentation and production simple to feature the vocals and lyrics. This is something Teddy and I have always agreed on and I think it’s just a good rule of thumb for any recording session."

Light-hearted material also features in her anthology, with the hilarious Ern and Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog, written by her grandfather Williard Gayheart back in the day and sung unaccompanied by Freeman on the current album.The imagery generated by the lyrics are so simple yet credible as the young country lover boy navigates, after an encounter with his female flame, every pot hole, ditch and fence, skipping his way home in the black of night, only to be attacked by a neighbours ‘rascal pup’!  "I’ve known the song since childhood, but only started performing it about 3 years ago. It’s a song that often gets the most attention and interest from the audience. I think people respond and connect in a deeper way to true stories, whether they are sad, dark, or in this case silly and sweet." Continuing on the nostalgic theme is the inclusion of Jim Reeves Yonder Comes A Sucker, a versionless faithful to the original, with a disciplined drum beat and vocals dominating, breathing new life into the song. "Yonder Comes A Sucker was a song I just happened to stumble upon when I was listening to some of my dad’s records at his house. My husband and I were just jamming one night in New Orleans when he still lived there and that’s (appropriately) where we came up with, the whole second-line kind of sound and beat."

The mention of her husband, fellow musician Nick Falk who plays drums and claw hammer banjo, brings to mind witnessing him play with her on stage at The City Winery in Nashville last year, a feature which presumably makesthe logistics of touring more feasible. "Performing and traveling with your spouse make things so much easier logistically and financially and just more fun. I’m so fortunate to be in that position."

Male artists combining marriage, parenting, song writing and touring is a difficult enough challenge but it must be considerably more stressful being an artist, mother and wife. I queried if she set aside dedicated periods to write and if attempting to keep all the balls in the air at once generated subject matter for material. "I just write when I can. Usually at night or when my daughter is a preschool or my husband is on the road. I’ve never been the kind of songwriter who can appoint a specific time to write. If I do that, nothing good will come. It will sound forced because it is. I just have to wait ‘til an idea comes along and then try and run with it."

Kacy (Anderson) and Clayton (Linthicum) are second cousins and a young musical duo from a rural landscape outside Saskatchewan and not unalike Freeman have been similarly recording a stripped back blend of country and folk music with both local and U.K. influences. It’s interesting that they feature on Freeman’s cover of Richard Thompson’s (Teddy’s father) Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight.The combined vocals between Freeman and Anderson are wonderful. It’s a noteworthy collaboration given their collective appreciation for Brit Folk, enriched with the introduction of an element of ‘country’ into the song. "I saw Kacy and Clayton perform at Folk Alliance a few years ago and they were by far my favourite performance of the whole conference. They don’t put on airs or try to be anything or anyone they’re not, which is something I’m always drawn to in performers. So many musicians now rely on gimmicks, wardrobe, theatrics, etc. so to see a duo like Kacy and Clayton who are downright amazing well-rounded musicians without all that is inspiring."

The quality of albums being recorded by female artists like Dori Freeman at present is at an all-time high, yet the opportunities for radio play and exposure for females seems to be a constant struggle. Two years and two albums into her career I asked if she found this a frustration and how positive is she going forward."It is definitely more difficult in most respects for female musicians. The struggle to be taken seriously as not just a musician, but a band leader/frontwoman/songwriter, and the general criticisms, mostly physical, that women are subject to that men aren’t. Fortunately, I have a lot of really supportive and uplifting men in my life from my husband, my manager, Teddy, my father, and I think times are changing given what we’ve seen with the Me Too movement and others like it. I feel like I’m in a good and positive place with my career and its growth over the last few years."

Freeman, both in her music and interviews is enormously proud - and rightly so - about the rural Appalachian environment she was raised in, together with its musical traditions and indeed those of her families. She’s certainly not one to uproot to Nashville or elsewhere, as others have done, to further your career."I’ve never seen moving to a big city as a necessary step to better my career. I know so many musicians who do live in cities all over and we all travel the same amount. Having my home here in the mountains to share with my family and raise my daughter is much more important to me, and honestly improves the quality of my songs and makes me a better performer."

Followers of this talented young lady will be heartened to learn that she is writing and gathering material for another album and as a final question I explored whether her tried and trusted formula, which worked spectacularly well on her two recent albums, would prevail to which she replied."Yes, and yes. Wink wink."

Interview by Declan Culliton

Friday
Apr272018

Interview with Jason James

 

Genuine young classic country artists are as difficult to uncover in recent years as hen’s teeth with ‘country’ music continuing its wretched decline into the dreaded pop crossover so much beloved by the music industry movers and shakers. Artists embracing the ‘outlaw’ country tag thankfully continue to emerge with young ones Colter Wall and Tyler Childers the latest pair to join that club that includes some wonderful ‘I’ll do it my own way’ acts such as Whitey Morgan, Dallas Moore and the commercially successful Chris Stapleton, all representing the male sex.

Not to suggest that female artists aren’t every bit as worthy of the outlaw tag, to do so would be an insult to Elizabeth Cook, Nikki Lane and Lydia Loveless to mention but a few. Unfortunately, breakthrough classic country artists are not emerging in the same numbers, so the discovery a few years back of the young Texan Jason James was a joy to behold to the champions of that genre among us Lonesome Highway purists. 

His 2015 self-titled release was uncompromising and no-frills honky tonk, groomed, polished and perfected by years of performing at dance halls and clubs across his home state. It’s more than likely that he would have continued to travel around Texas making a living as a live performer had his mother not taken the bull by the horns and unknown to him sent some demos of his songs to New West Records. Studio sessions were arranged by the label in both Austin and Houston with some crack session players and the results impressed label president John Allen to the extent that he lined up additional studio time in Nashville, to finalise the recording.  Three years later and we wondered had James joined the gang of musicians that deliver a once off classic and disappear off the face of the world, until the news filtered through that he was, in fact, about to start work on another album.Lonesome Highway tracked down James to get the lowdown.

We’ve been loving your self-titled album at Lonesome Highway since its release.  The whole package unapologetically captures what we consider to be classic country – with two capital C’s -  across the twelve tracks. It’s ironic that an album with so much in common with decades past sounds so refreshing! How satisfied were you with the final product?

Ha-ha well, thank you so much! Means a lot. Sonically speaking I had a pretty good vision of what I wanted. That being said it can really be tough to find the right producers that can help manifest your vision into a product. Both John Evans and Keith Gattis knew exactly where to steer the ship when it came time to record.  I am happy with the record very much ... considering the length of time in between sessions and all ... I'd say it flows real well. I can tell some things but that's because I was there! But, when I have listened to the record at times it is very fluid. Gattis did a great job in that respect. Not venturing from the overall feel of the record that John Evans had it going in. There was no real ego on the record, it was for the sake of the songs.

You’re beginning working on a follow album. What timescale can we expect?

Pre-production is already under way. We should have the record done by the end of July and a release date is scheduled for late this year or early next.

The last album was recorded in Austin, Houston and Nashville with an impressive line-up off players to say the least.  Where will you record this time around?

It was all over the place last time. And yes, I was blown away sitting in the studio with those cats. I've stayed close with most of them too. As honoured as I was to play with those guys I'd hear them shouting after a take "now that's country music!" For as serious as the situation was for me professionally, I've never laughed as much as we did in the studio. It was incredibly light hearted. I think we're going to record in Austin this time with John Evans again. 

Will you be using players from your band for the album? 

I'm not sure. We may. Depends on scheduling and all. When I'm not on the road with my guys they are making a living playing constantly. 

You included a co-write with Jim Lauderdale (Walk Through My Heart) on the album. How comfortable are you writing with others as opposed to working alone?

I wrote that with Lauderdale and Odie Blackmon and it was my first ever co-write with anyone else. Ever. I had no idea what would happen but at least I'd get to hang with those two fellas. Glad we got a song as good as that out of it Lol. I prefer to write myself though. Prolific doesn't always mean great but ... I have a lot to say. I feel possessed at times like I have some deadline to say everything I can say. But, I'm also open to work with others. I've had to learn to not hold my songs so tight to my chest. Other input can be great. 

A small number of artists like yourself, Joshua Hedley, Dallas Moore, Zephaniah O’Hora and J.P. Harris are leading the charge in keeping classic country very much alive and kicking. Do you feel that the industry in general is helping or hindering your progress? 

I only know Dallas and J.P. personally. But, I will say that those two guys are some of the most talented and hard working men I've ever known. Anything credited to their success has less to do with the industry but, rather them putting their boots on the ground and grinding and putting out the best material they can routinely.

The larger labels are taking note with Atlantic signing Sturgill Simpson and Third Man giving Margo Price and Joshua Hedley deserved support. Does seeing artists like these getting a break keep you enthused? 

Uh, it's hard to answer that for me personally. I'll be honest- I have no illusions of ever wanting or really caring to be famous. If that happens and there is a "musical movement" then great! I just enjoy singing and writing and touring and doing things I like to do. Fame comes and goes. That being said- I'm happy for them for sure. And from what I've heard of them and about them they are in it to win it. Score one for the good guys and girls! 

Diversities between Texas country and Nashville country have been debated for decades. Do you feel that Texas still recognises and supports ‘real’ country more so than its neighbours?

Yea, that comes up quite a bit. Texas definitely has a lot of dancehalls and county festivals that seem like Mayberry where I play on a trailer and it feels so country. But, I also feel like I haven't been threatened by anyone outside of Texas when I play. I think it's all in your attitude and the way you approach people. We played Chicago recently and everyone loved it. Country music comes from the heart. Not everyone will like it but that's ok. Sometimes I like to stick in Texas because it's my comfort zone. I always feel like someone will make fun of me for being country. That's my own personal issues though (laughs).

Is there much radio support locally for you and your peers?

Oh yea!! I'm played in Texas a lot. In fact, I released just recently a song from the record. "Here Comes The Heartache" it was just put into rotation and it's already climbing the chart. My friends are all on there too.

Like so many younger artists we encounter that are travelling the traditional country path your earlier years involved playing punk and rock. What encouraged you to move towards country?

Lord - I'll be honest. I was so lost for a long time. I was in trouble with the law growing up. Music saved me. I think I liked expressing myself and it just came out in the way of punk. I only played it for such a short time. People have come up to me and I've used the old demos as a frisbee lol. I would cover Hank Williams in the old band(s). When I heard Hank Williams again I realized what my path would be. It directed me here. I owe my life to country music. I love it more than anything and I'll never stray from it.

You’re on the record noting how people at shows tell you they don’t like country music but like what you’re playing, which pretty much sums up the what most people perceive to be country today. Are you finding a younger audience buying into what you’re doing?

Young people all the time come up and tell me they've been a fan for their whole life. I always smile and chuckle. I try to keep the songs simple and catchy so I can see why kids like it. The songs are kinda like nursery rhymes. 20 and 30 something's have also gravitated towards my sound. Young adults who are just now getting a dose of real life and the ups and downs that it throws at them. My music documents loss and the overall struggle. But the melody I try and keep pretty. So, it's a dance in between light and dark. I get people who've had a bit too much to drink and cry at the edge of the stage to "sing their life to em". Of course, my life has been everything but squeaky clean... so maybe they find it comforting to have someone else that has been through it too. We're all on this trip together I suppose. Country music is the misfit. The unwanted, the forgotten but, it's also about salvation. It's real life. Don't try and be a phony son (laughs).

Is the market in Texas big enough for you to survive as an artist like or do you need to establish yourself outside the State?

Oh, this state is huge. Unless you've travelled every bit of it it's hard to fathom at times. I make a living here. But, I'd love to travel and see America and the world. The label I was on kinda tried to keep me only in Texas. I'm not sure why ... but, I got the feeling they didn't see how much people wanted to hear this type of music.

And the European market. There is a hard core following for classic country in the UK, Ireland, Scandinavia and Holland. Do you expect to tour over here? 

Yes Sir! I had a 3-week tour scheduled there and I got no help for tour support and had to back out last minute.  After this record is out though I will most definitely be there! I'll start making announcements soon. 

Interview by Declan Culliton