Wednesday
Nov282018

Kayla Ray Interview

The topic for our weekly Lonesome Highway Radio Show on 103.2 Dublin City FM some weeks back was "Outlaw Ladies in Country Music of Today and Yesterday." Nine artists featured, not surprisingly Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, KD Laing and Elizabeth Cook were all selected. Possibly not quite as obvious but equally deserving of the accolade were Charline Arthur, Gail Davies, Kimmie Rhodes and Audrey Auld. All these names would be familiar to hardcore traditional country music lovers. The final artist that we felt also justified the distinction was a young lady from Waco Texas named Kayla Ray, her recently released album Yesterday & Me having made quite an impression on the lovers of all things classic country amongst us at Lonesome Highway. What’s principally notable about Ray, unlike so many of her contemporaries, is that she is heart and soul country, not someone dabbling experimentally in the genre or playing the pop / country card trick. A flag bearer for traditional country among her generation perhaps. ‘’Wow. I’m thrilled to be a part of that list. I would be proud to be considered that, carrying on tradition via truth is certainly my intent.’’

Yesterday & Me follows her debut album Love & Liquor and contains lyrics that are particularly striking and forthright, projecting a no holds barred honesty in her writing. "I wrote all of those songs over the course of the year or two following my 2014 release. This album is very reflective of the stages of my life at the time and any trials or tribulations of that era bore great lessons worth sharing in a very transparent fashion.’’

The opening track Rockport is the ideal song to enlighten the listener of the direction in which the album is heading. A tale of intended liberation and challenge that descends into drug addiction and suicide, it was written by Jon Dews, a friend of Ray’s. "Jon is a brilliant writer, a brilliant dude and an all-around great friend. I knew the first night he played it for me I had to cut it. The melody paired with such a vivid story just pulled me in and blew me away."

The other cover on the album Once A Week Cheaters, sung with Colton Hawkins, is a timeless male/female country ballad that would sit comfortably on any Porter Dolly or Jones/Wynette album. It was written, but never recorded, by the exceptionally talented country singer Keith Whitley, who passed away at such an early age from prolonged alcohol abuse. "My friend Erin Enderlin - an incredible songwriter out of Nashville. Look her up, y’all won’t regret it - had been given this demo along with a few others by a man who was an early plugger for Whitley. It was a real honor to have the shot to record that song. And, I’ve known Colton Hawkins (we call him Banjo) for ages. We’ve knocked around the Waco circuit together for years now and I’ve always thought his delivery was so effortless and expressive. He’s a big Whitley nut just as I am and I knew he would be perfect for the job.’’

The ongoing opiates epidemic and the whole issue of anti-depressant prescription, which combined are the biggest killer in The States at present, and the blatant involvement of the pharmaceutical industry and medical industry, is addressed inPills, in both a humorous yet ‘in your face’ manner. A YouTube video captures Ray performing it with a smile on her face. However, it’s a serious topic that she obviously has strong feelings about. "Sure, we live in a very strange time concerning big pharma, vulture capitalism and the perpetuation of addiction. No one is immune and it’s worth shedding some light on.’’

There has been no shortage of gifted female artists from The Lone Star State over the years. Rosie Flores, Nanci Griffith, Lee Ann Rimes and Lee Ann Womack have been household names for decades together with the more recent breakthrough artists Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and to a lesser degree Sunny Sweeney and Sarah Jarosz. In a comparable manner to both Lambert and Musgraves in particular, Ray writes passionately about her home State, but in an edgy fashion that is less likely to have Country Music Radio queuing up to playlist her material. The track Red Rivers Valley’s Run Dry is very much a slice of hometown Texas for Ray, the subject matter which is very close to her heart. "Yes! You could say that. Tifni Simons sings on this track with me. She was our favourite bar tender at Papa Joes, our local haunt. The story is reflective of both her life as well as that of the journey of many women I’ve known, struggling to find their place and something that represents survival. While very little of this story is literal, I do believe that there are elements of existence that happen no matter the location. This track is a co-write with my dear friend Joshua Barnard, who played all of the lead guitar on this album. He and I were kids together and he knows me better than most. We were touring through the Red River Valley and I presented him with the story line to which he replied, “Sounds like a waltz to me”. The rest is country music.’’

There’s no end of torment and suffering on the album, beautifully articulated it has to be said. The album’s title Yesterday & Me and the track itself is as much about looking forward as over one’s shoulder, implying lessons learned and gained. ‘’Thanks for your kind words. It means a lot that you listened so closely. And yes, absolutely. This song as well as the album as a whole is very personal. It is about pain, struggle, triumph, regret, reflection and the hope that tomorrow brings.’ 

A preference for writing autobiographically emanates throughout the album, potentially therapeutic in attempting to put closure on certain experiences. "As I age and venture out, I am enjoying more of a story line building approach. However, my innate reactions as a writer have always been to write from an autobiographical standpoint and, writing has certainly always been my go-to in working through any emotionally challenging situation. What is refreshing about Ray’s music is that it is both natural and free willed. Her influences and musical backstory have always been in country music. Unlike many of her peers she did not embrace a rebellious grunge period in her teens.Her signature sound is unapologetically classic country, which is a breath of fresh air given that the majority of ‘country’ music being produced these days is anything but traditional and more mainstream pop or rock. ‘’This means so much to me. I am trying to write with purpose and that gets so easily washed away with all the distractions of mainstream production. I guess I just missed grunge! Country music still deals with all the sex drugs and rock and roll themes, it just does it in a way I have always found more relatable.’’

The classic country revival or continuity seems to be more common in Texas than Tennessee. Artists following Ray’s roadmap are often not given the light of day in Nashville, or are diverted down a Music Row pop backroad. The impediments are not defeating her and if anything, seem to create a motivation for her to keep on fighting the machine. ‘’ I do see a big current change happening and it is exciting!!! As far as frustration goes, I welcome the challenge. Working from a deficit and creating triumph in the name of something I care about is something I take great pride in. So, as far as that dilemma goes, I say bring it on. I will certainly never quit." 

Ray’s musical journey to date reads as the perfect apprenticeship, both technically and administration wise.  She toured with The Texas Playboys as a teenager gaining invaluable experience in many ways and the perfect introduction to performing in the live setting. "I remember being scared to death most of the time! Those guys are legendary!’’ She progressed from there to work as tour manager to Jason Eady while still in her early twenties, more priceless exposure to the highs and lows of touring.  

"Oh, you know all great country songs start with, once I was dating this tele picker. Ha! Really though a mutual acquaintance was playing lead for him at the time. There was a management need to be filled, and I was going to school for commercial music management, (as to eliminate the middle man in my own career for as long as possible). I saw an opportunity to hop in a van with boys I loved who made music I loved. I was free and I could do it, so I jumped at the chance. Some of my fondest touring memories were made with those Eady guys and I learned so very much from each of them.’’

The connection with Eady proved fruitful, he went on to co-produce the new album with Ray. It also resulted in an introduction to Eady’s wife Courtney Patton and other accomplished female songwriters on the same page as her. "I just love Courtney so much. Watching their relationship blossom has been so awesome. She is great. So are Brennan Leigh, Erin Enderlin, and Jamie Lin Wilson just to make a few." Another common tread between Ray and Eady is their love of all things Merle Haggard! "Oh yeah! Our camp invented the game of the “Hag Off”. Basically, knowing more Merle than anyone else in the pickers circle. It’s a heated match till bloody the end. Ha!’’ 

Given how vast Texas is, Ray could probably spend a lifetime touring that State. However, she harbours ambitions to try and reach a greater audience and in particular to try and bring her music to audiences in Europe. ‘’Oh yeah! We’ve toured in 16 other States since the album release, with no intent of slowing down. I fully plan of touring in Europe just as soon as I can figure out how to make the logistics work! Honestly, I look at it like I do music here in the States, taking a hit is like placing a bet and I can’t wait to put my chips on Europe!’’

The commercial success of artists like Kacey Musgraves, Brandi Clark and Miranda Lambert must result in some head scratching and thinking ‘maybe I should dumb it down and sugar coat my music a bit’ or would that be taboo? "I think we live in a time where both are obtainable. I have my goal and I don’t intend to waiver. Should I be awarded the opportunity I still fully intend to hold fast to my integrity.’’

The touring continues for Ray, continuing to get more people on board, but she’s also at the planning stage of her next musical venture."I think we have a lot of steam left in this album however, I do have a really neat project in the works but, I’ve decided to keep its content under wraps for the moment. I will say, the boys and I are awfully excited about it!’’Hopefully we get the chance to see Ray perform in Ireland in 2019. "I would LOVE to do this! Any reader willing to give some advice on how to make it happen please feel free to reach out. Have guitar, will travel!’’

Interview by Declan Culliton

Saturday
Nov172018

Hannah Aldridge Interview

Existing as a musician in today’s overcrowded market requires a lot more than simply talent. The real dynamic is getting exposure, which for the majority of emerging artists is the first and most difficult obstacle. ‘Can I afford a publicist, a tour manager, a plugger?’‘Should I tour solo or with a band?’‘Can I even afford to tour?’These are ongoing dilemmas that particularly challenge American and Canadian acts that tour Europe, given that many of them recognise a greater opportunity to establish a core following in Europe than in their homelands. Without the financial support of a record company, a luxury that few enjoy, the cost of touring can be crippling and offer little reward for the hours of travelling in cramped vans, sleeping in less than salubrious accommodation and clocking in exhaustingly long days and weeks.  

With all this in mind it was interesting to chat with the Muscle Shoals native Hannah Aldridge a few short weeks after she returned home to draw breath after a gruelling European tour - a tour which also included recording her third album. Given the loyalty and support given to Aldridge by her U.K. followers, she decided to record a live album in The Lexington in London and rather than perform with a full band she undertook quite a novel method for the recording. The show comprised of a mix of solo songs by Aldridge, duets with a number of U.K. artists and the guest artists also got to perform a few of their own songs. She closed the show by getting the full entourage on stage to perform her signature tune Burning Down Birmingham. Altogether it promises to have the makings of a fine album!

But lets go back a few years. The daughter of country music songwriter Walt Aldridge, it cant have been easy to have a Music Hall of Fame inductee as a father and to garner so much industry attention at an early stage in her career. I wondered how much pressure that placed on her as a young performing artist. 

“I think initially I really struggled to find myself as an artist and to feel very confident when performing, but a couple hundred shows later I started to notice that people stopped addressing me as ‘Hannah,Walt Aldridge’s daughter’ and started using my name as a stand-alone statement. That was when I really started to feel like I wasnt living in that shadow.”

Aldridge recorded her debut album Razor Wire at an analogue studio called‘1979’, four years after a traumatic period in her life which found the then 27 year old divorced, with a young child. The album was raw, bursting with emotion and possibly therapeutic by way of tackling the demons that haunted her at that time. Hard hitting songs like Howlin’ Bones and Parchment displayed an ability to write extremely personal and honest material.

“I think I just try to write the dialogue that goes on in my head more than anything. I write in a very conversational way because a lot of my writing is me trying to make sense of my own experiences and thoughts. Sometimes I write a song and sit back and listen and I have no idea how I strung those thoughts together. Its like pulling the curtains back on my inner dialogue.”

Her second album Gold Rush followed three years later, with less expression of anger but lots of regret and reflection on songs like No Heart Left Behind, Shouldnt Hurt So Bad and Living On Lonely. It also includes the dynamic Burning Down Birmingham, a crowd pleaser written after a particular frustrating gig in that location. Reflecting on the material on the second album, which appears every bit as autobiographical as Razor Wire, even appearing to re-examine a number of the same issues, I enquire if the sores were healing but not completely gone at that time? “I think those are reoccurring themes in my life,’’ she explained, adding with admirable honesty,“self-destruction, self-doubt, depression, fighting for something, standing my ground, etc. I am usually only compelled to write when Im trying to write myself out of a dark place.’’

Touring these albums drew her to Europe where she has regularly performed solo. I asked Hannah just how difficult is it for an artist travelling solo or does the aloneness create the space and environment to gather thoughts for songs?

“It is almost impossible for me to write on the road’’ she replied. “I have to make an effort to carve out time to write when Im home. It is really difficult to explain to people what its like to book all your own tours, then tour manage your own tours, and spend 250 days a year alone dragging 150 pounds of merch and gear in and out of airports and trains and cars. Some days by the time I get the venue, I have plotted out a whole new career for myself. Then I play the show and decide that I want to keep going. Ha!” But you have built up a growing and loyal fan base in Europe - how important is that market to you in terms of continuing to develop your career? “It’s vitally important. Europe has been the market that has opened its arms to me without any bandwagons, or a label, or agents, or huge magazines. They allowed me to grow and organically build a fan base there and Im so grateful for that. I am currently working on expanding my touring in Central Europe as well.’’

What about comparisons between playing solo compared with performing with a band, for an artist like her who performs in both formats? No doubt it would not be affordable to tour Europe with a full band but I wondered which was her preference. “I love playing with a band because its a different energy on stage. I also love having companions on the road. But I love having total control of the shows and tours when I am alone as well. I feel like I connect with the audience on a more personal level during solo shows.’’

And her talent of winning over audiences early in the sets by essentially including them in the show by using both stage banter and encouraging them to sing a chorus here and there - does that work better in Europe than the States?

“It actually works great both places but I think initially everyone is completely intimidated by it and by the end they feel like we are friends. Some shows I can read an audience and tell that they arent going to participate or listen as well as others, but for the most part, people really enjoy it.’’

Despite Aldridges amiable and gentle stage manner I suspect that she is also a very assertive person. So,what about the talkers, the ones that insist getting near the front and spend half the show talking as loudly as possible - do you react or ignore them?  “I have stopped songs many times and told people talking that I would wait until they were done to finish, because I didnt want to interrupt them. I know the whole goal of music is to entertain people so I do take it on as my responsibility to try to captivate an audience in a way that they dont want to talk and not take myself too seriously. But, also, Im not going to let people talking ruin the show for everyone else.’’ 

Aldridges performances in recent years, even when performing the darker material, depict a relaxed, confident and reconciled individual. Is it a case of having vented all the anger and infuriation and now being in a better place?

“I think I thoroughly enjoy that time I have on stage to be allowed to be myself and say what I feel and what I want without feeling strange. Im allowed to be strange on stage. I feel very relaxed on stage, but only because I play so much. I dont get to talk about my love for vampires and ghosts on a daily basis; or say out loud that I, like so many others have thought about suicide; or say that I struggle with different topics or that I relate to the fear of getting older and so on. It is a safe place for me to talk about those things and joke about those things through music. I know in a room full of people there is at least one person that needs to know that they can relate to someone.’’

And having written so many deep, personal and dark songs is it more difficult to write fictionally?“Absolutely. Even my fictional songs I write from my point of view. I have a hard time writing if I dont feel connected to the topic.’’ 

Having also had experience in co-writing I wondered how it compared for someone that writes so personally? “Solo writing for me has to almost be like a song is just laid in my lap. Those usually just fall right out. Co-writing takes a different finesse and I love it so much on the days where I have no inspiration.’’

Aldridge is difficult to slot into one definitive music genre and not surprisingly is often lazily classified as a country singer, which could not be further from the truth. I wondered how she would describe her music (without using the termAmericana!). “That topic is one that I could write a whole article ranting about, but in short, I would rather be called anything other than lazily being called Americana. If people like my music because it’s county or rock or pop or Americana to their ears, thats absolutely ok for me, but I do not want to be on any bandwagons. I was strongly opposed to cliques in High School and Im strongly opposed to cliques in the music industry. I’m just here to play music and anyone who likes it, likes it and anyone who hates it, hates it.’’

The standard of female artists residing in Nashville presently, outside the commercial country genre, is staggering. Lera Lynn, Erin Rae, Ashley Mc Bryde and Kristina Murray, to name a few, have all recorded super albums this year. Despite this, Margo Price is the only female artist in Nashville to deservedly reach the audience she warrants. How frustrating is this for an artist like Aldridge and what does it takes to break that mould? “Promotion is a powerful thing. The further I go, the more I come to understand that almost none of the music business has to do with music. Luck, money behind you, and/or the right group of friends is what it amounts to most of the time. So, for me, I have to just keep my nose to the grindstone and try not to feel too jaded about these topics and be grateful for the things I have accomplished and the opportunities I have had.”

At the Static Roots Festival in Germany earlier this year I was most impressed that Aldridge hung around after her early showcase, watching all the other acts perform. “It’s extremely important to make sure you are current on what is going on and who is who. Also, when the situation occurs that I see an artist that just blows me away, I always feel like a student trying to learn something. Additionally, I think its extremely important to support each other. There are times I dont watch other people if I am busy or not feeling in the mood, but recently I was reminded about that because there was a specific girl that a friend met in Europe and the first thing that came out of her mouth when they said my name was that she didnt like me because she opened for me 5 years ago and that I didnt pay attention to her. I didnt even remember meeting this girl, but to her she had been mad about that situation for 5 years. I think its important to be aware that not everyone understands if youre tired or having an off day and try your best to always be standing in the front cheering each other on. And the one day that you don’t … you will have someone mad at you for years - ha!

Having just completed her live album in London, whats next on the on the writing and recording front? “I just finished that live record and beyond that I am giving myself the patience and room to not have the pressure of a third studio record. It will come when it comes. I dont have any desire to forcing out songs just for the sake of putting out a record. I would much rather write until I have songs I like and then think about recording when thats done so that I put out a great record, not just the first 12 songs I write!”

Interview by Declan Culliton

Friday
Nov022018

My Politic interview

 

 

Kaston Guffey is both a very talented artist and a driving force behind My Politic, a Roots band that embraces all that is great about the Americana/Country/Folk genres in contemporary music today. Growing up in Ozark, Missouri there is a strong likelihood that Kaston was influenced by the music of the Bottle Rockets and Uncle Tupelo, two bands who originated in the state. Also, the traditional Ozark culture, that includes stories and tunes passed between generations and communities, would have left a strong impression on him. 

Kaston writes the lyrics across the seven albums that My Politic has released to date and he also plays a central role in creating the song arrangements with his long-time collaborator, Nick Pankey. As the creative hub of My Politic he has some interesting views on the human condition and growing up in the USA. His music is highly recommended and the band is certainly top of my list as most likely to succeed. An undiscovered gem for many people to explore and enjoy.

Tell me about your long friendship with co-partner Nick Pankey and the origins of the band?

Nick and I started playing together when we were around 14 years old. We played in a couple high school rock bands and when I started writing songs and playing more acoustic stuff, he peeled off with me and we started focusing on making albums. We did 3 full lengths in Ozark, just the 2 of us. We moved to Boston together in 2010 and made 2 albums there in our living room and then we made the move to Nashville in 2014 and got more folks involved. Nick and I have always gelled really well together in life and in music. Like brothers. 

The first three releases were steps on the stairs; 2008, 2009, 2010. All produced by James Carter with both you and Nick. There is the strong sense of a group of friends, in a collective and producing music locally in Ozark, Missouri. Is this how you remember it?

Ozark is a small town, outside of Springfield, which is much bigger. We fell in with some great singer songwriters that were a bit older than us and we played where we could. Springfield has a really strong music community. Unfortunately, we left before we got fully involved in it but every time we go back and play, we meet more and more folks doing great things there. 

These early releases have a very bare bones, confessional sense to the lyrics. They seem to focus on topics such as growing up, moving on, new beginnings, self-doubt, loneliness, relationships, existential questions and looking for hope in tomorrow. Have you always sought to explore the human condition in questioning both the past and the future?

I think so. It is what is most interesting to me. Those early releases were just things that were pouring out. I was pretty closed off emotionally and I think I was using writing as an outlet. I was also just exploring how to write songs. I think the later stuff is a bit more polished and crafted. The subject matter isn't all that different, I’m definitely interested in the human condition and trying to understand what folks are going through and how they deal with it. Myself included. 

Is your song writing process from a personal perspective or do you prefer character songs that allow a freedom in adopting certain personas?

I like exploring both, often in the same song or collection of songs. Sometimes it all comes down to where a line I like ends up taking the song. I think a lot of them start from a personal feeling or anecdote and then that's when I can detach and start building characters, if that is the direction the story feels the most comfortable, or I can stay very personal if it's what is right for the song. 

When did you move to Boston and was this move entirely focused on building your career opportunities further?

We moved to Boston in 2010. For me the move was mostly to get away from what I knew and experience something different. We ended up making two albums in our tiny living room, taking a lot of the things we learned from Jamie Carter and doing it ourselves. I think that experience taught us a lot. 

Your fourth release, American Will, comes across as a more rounded, mature work with the fiddle of Eva Walsh a precursor for your current sound. The country influence seems more pronounced and the writing more observational of heartland America, as opposed to personal experience. Would you agree?

I have to wonder if that was caused by leaving Missouri. I was pretty nostalgic for it while we lived on Boston and I think that feeling was bleeding into the writing. I think that still happens now. We live in Nashville, which is a lot closer to home, but I still get in these writing moods where I want to explore what it was/is like back home; those different characters and experiences of growing up in Missouri. 

Seven albums in ten years has been quite an output and you still have youth on your side. Do you come from a musical family background and what were your influences growing up?

I don't think either of us come from particularly musical families. My grandma played organ at church and my sister Keshia can sing beautifully. I’m not sure about anyone else. When we started making records together, we were also singing in the same choir in high school. That was a major help musically. I was listening to a lot of Dylan records and things like that. I started collecting vinyl when I was 12 years old, so there was a lot of old records to soak up. 

Your insights and observations are very much part of the attraction in listening to My Politic. Does writing come easy to you or does the creative muse visit you on a more sporadic basis?

Thank you for saying that Paul. I feel like I am always writing in some way. I’m sporadic when it comes to sitting down and putting pen to paper, it usually happens when I have 4 or 5 songs going at once. That's when I have to start organizing. Lines and ideas are things I’m constantly looking for, because you always have to be ready for that moment when things start to line up and you feel inspired to actually write it out. The one thing that can always improve is the craft and that just takes doing it over and over and over again. 

My initial introduction to your music was through a review copy of Anchor. One of the key songs on that release is God vs Evolution and I wondered how this song idea arrived?

I wrote that song in Boston before we moved to Nashville. I think that one came out done in one sitting. We grew up in a very religious area and then moved to Boston where things were more scholarly. I liked playing with the differences there. 

The latest release is built around twelve story songs, from different perspectives. Are these characters doomed to loss or is there any hope of redemption?

I think there is. I was going through a lot when I wrote that album. I think there are pieces of my psyche in each of those stories and it was a kind of snapshot of what I was feeling in that moment.  

Since moving from Boston to Nashville have you found it easier to get a foot on that ladder to greater recognition?

Boston felt like a more transient city for people. You go to school then maybe you leave. It was a great place to write, play out and record but Nashville is just a whole other thing. It feels more permanent for us here. There are obviously more opportunities because it's kind of the centre of the song-writing / music universe. More than that though, it's really nice to be around creative folks every day and watch each other grow. It makes you want to be better and that's probably the best opportunity we have here in Nashville. 

How did you find the other members of the current band?

We met Will Cafaro, our bass player, up in Boston through a band called Tumbleweed Company. We didn't start playing with him till Nashville. Wilson Conroy was a similar story, we met him over at the Tumbleweed band house too. I heard Jen Starsinic playing her own songs and I thought they were really incredible. When I found out she played fiddle too, I really wanted her to play our stuff because I knew she would approach it from a songwriter's perspective. They are all so incredibly talented and we are lucky to play with each one of them! 

Is touring something that you currently do on a local basis only?

We have done a decent amount touring through the South, Midwest and New England. We haven’t made it over to y'alls neck of the woods yet, but hopefully soon. 

What are the constraints to bringing the band out on tour?

I just want to make sure everyone gets paid and that I’m not wasting their time. That can be difficult. Also, space… Ha, ha! We travel in Kia minivan and when you pile 5 people and all our gear in it, it becomes very close quarters. We all get along pretty good in spite of that. Also, we are really lucky to play a lot of house concerts around the country and the hosts are always so gracious. We usually end up staying at their houses and it makes it so much easier. 

Playing the AMA Festival is recognition for what you are building. What comes next?

We will inevitably make another album, hopefully soon. We would really like get out on the road more that we do. And maybe we come to Ireland? That would be a dream come true. 

Do media outlets such as You Tube bring you more admirers that you are aware of?

I think so. I certainly think YouTube is a place where people go to discover new artists. Videos are important these days.

What is the idea behind the Mad Valley Lodge?

The Mad valley lodge is a house concert series we have been doing once a month for about 5 years now. We usually have 2 artists (mostly local) play. The idea is that it is a listening room. The focus is on the artist 100%. It can get really disheartening when you play gig after gig to folks that couldn't care less that you are there. It has also been an incredible way for us to meet amazing folks in Nashville and build a community of like-minded creative people. The idea was basically to have an intimate listening room for folks that we admire to play their songs in and for the audience to get to have that up-close experience. We love putting it on. 

It has to be all about self- belief, especially based in Nashville where the competition is so fierce. What is the essential glue that makes you endure?

Writing songs and being a part of a community of creative people is what it's all about. Being around really great writers and musicians on an everyday basis just makes you want to be better. These folks become family. 

Well, there you are … Words of wisdom from a talented singer-songwriter who has a real shot at enduring success. There is an energy and enthusiasm that shines through in the performance and creative output of this artist and the music of My Politic is well worth investigating.

Interview by Paul McGee

Tuesday
Oct232018

Clay Parker and Jodi James Interview

Having abandoned solo careers to work as a duo, Clay Parker and Jodi Jones discovered at an early stage that their ability to co-write far outweighed their talent for writing individually. The latest result of their collaborations is the delightful recording The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound, released earlier this year to glowing industry reviews. No Depression, Rolling Stone Country, The Bluegrass Situation and our good selves being among many publications that were suitably enthralled by the album.  Because of their hectic touring schedule, the album took quite a while to write but was recorded in one days sitting as detailed by Clay Parker, when she recently took time out to park the tour bus and chat with Lonesome Highway.

Your recently released album The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound made a hugely positive impression on me when I was given it to review. Despite being prolific co-writers, the album was created over an extended period of time, engaging a variety of engineers and studios. Was this a conscious decision or simply logistics? 

We’re on the road a lot. So, what made sense both economically and logistically at the time was to record in layers. It certainly wasn’t the ideal way to make a record, and for the last couple of years, we’ve been piecing together a studio of our own that functions in the way that we want to make records going into the future. But The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound album began when we found ourselves with a quickly put-together day session at a studio in Nashville where we recorded 12 songs in about 8 hours - just the two of us. We sat on those recordings for a while and even considered releasing them as is. But somewhere along the way, we decided that we’d like to hear some additional instrumentation mixed in. So, we had some of our favourite hometown musicians gather at a dear friend’s studio in Baton Rouge, and we tracked everything else in about 5 days.

Despite this, there is a definite consistency about the recording both musically and thematically. Was this difficult to achieve given the recording process?

No, I wouldn’t say so. Even though the tracking process was spread out over time, the other guys did their thing in 1 or 2 takes per song; and in that way, it was still treated like a live recording where most of the decisions were made in the moment. I think consistency just presented itself - we didn’t really have to strive for it.

There is also an air of calmness and tranquillity across the album. Was this an atmosphere you consciously set out to create or a reflection of your collective personalities?

We’re pretty calm and tranquil people, I suppose. But more than that, we like the sound of space and air and dynamics in most of the songs we play. It’s something we try to achieve when we play live, and that idea sort of dictates how we like to record and mix. 

The last track Killin’ Floorparticularly stands out for me. It weighs in at a hefty twelve minutes plus, yet does not seem a second too long. Tell me about the song and your decision on its length?

Killin’ Floor just sort of fell out one night. One verse was written to the particular melody and tempo, and then verses just kept piling up; but we didn’t really pay much attention to its length while writing it. We ended up printing out the few pages of lyrics, clipping out each verse, and moving them around on the floor until we agreed on the final order.When we recorded it, we told the engineer that we’d only do one take of it because of its length. There are flubs all over the place, and we weren’t sure it would make it on the record. But eventually, we recognized it as a suitable book end to the album.

The album has already been receiving great reviews, even with your relatively low profile. How difficult is it to maintain that momentum and get airplay on radio stations that support Americana and (genuine) country music?

That’s a good question (laugh)! There’s surely not a shortage of great music coming out - it’s a big pond with a lot of big fish. We were fortunate to meet some fine folks who specialize in that stuff - who get records from bands like us to some well-known publications - and they really got behind this record. But for us, the indispensable part of what we do is touring

You’ve enduringly created your fan base by constantly touring, self-managing, attracting both punters and industry people. Was this a game plan or did it simply develop when you commenced touring as a duo?

We like the DIY-as-much-as-possible approach to nearly everything - from fixing broken gear to making our own merchandise. So, it’s just naturally what we fall into. 

I’m interested in your writing process as co-writers. Have you a particular trusted format and how different is writing songs to be performed as duets rather than individually?

One of us usually comes up with a musical and lyrical phrase of some sort. We’ll typically get together and shift a couple of words or add/take away a chord or something like that, then we’ll separate for a while and work independently of one another. The interesting thing that happens is that we usually end up working in the same direction - kind of like walking on a parallel path with someone. So, by the time we get back together, we’re usually still on the same page. We take the best ideas and phrases, thread them together, then figure out how it’s best sung. Many of our songs wind up as full duets, and that’s probably the main difference in writing for the duo as opposed to solo work. It stretches what you can do in terms of melody and harmony where the individual parts can weave back and forth.

You were approached to perform in Ethan Hawke’s soon to be released Blaze Foley biopic, Blaze. How did that come about?

Ethan and his crew were scoping out locations to film around a small town in south Louisiana where we play fairly often. They were also looking for local musicians for a few scenes, and our names came up in conversation. A few days later, we had an email from him - which kind of stunned us - and he invited us to join them for about three days of shooting. That was an easy “yes” for us, being that we’re both big fans of Blaze’s music and Ethan’s work. He is an incredible collaborator, but he also has a unique way of unfolding his visions for everyone in the room to become a part of. It was fascinating to watch.We just had a couple of small parts in the movie, and count ourselves fortunate to be involved. We actually just saw it a couple of weeks ago in Austin, and it was great. So great.

Comparisons have been made, not least by myself, of the likeness of yourselves to Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. Are they artists that have influenced yourselves and do you actually listen to much music while touring?

We do listen to a lot of music -- almost all the time. In our tour van, because a friend gifted us with a subscription to Sirius radio, we’ve been listening mostly to Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead (laugh). Otherwise, it’s mostly music from the past… blues, old soulful country, songwriters. And of course, our friends’ records. Any music with guts, that’s what we gravitate towards.As for Welch/Rawlings, we love their music. Somewhere along the way, they shifted the paradigm of what male/female duos can be. While many of those existed before (and after) them, their unique sound blended with a deep and evolving translation of the vernacular of American folk music was a complete game-changer. And now, as a duo ourselves, you can’t un-hear that stuff just like you can’t un-hear the Beatles or the Everly Brothers. So, the comparison is certainly a fair one, and one that makes us feel at home within the tradition of the duet sound. 

What other artists have most influenced you and pointed you in the musical direction you follow?

Between the two of us, we probably share the most appreciation for the music of John Prine and Bob Dylan. It’s visual music that often happens in scenes. There’s always more than one thing going on. I suppose that’s the kind of work we look to. 

Have you a game plan going forward or do you intend just continuing what you are currently doing?

Well, we never want to get too comfortable staying in one place or doing one thing. We’re constantly trying to evolve and dig deeper into something, whether that’s writing new music or piecing our studio together or booking shows or whatever. But our basic modus operandi will remain intact, and we’ll continue putting out records and touring as a duo.

Interview by Declan Culliton

Tuesday
Oct162018

Interview with Kimmie Rhodes

The term ‘Country Royalty’ should never be used lightly, but when you are given the opportunity to meet with an artist who has recorded and released a total of sixteen solo CDs, written and produced three musicals, served as an associate producer for the documentary, They Called Us Outlaws (presented by the Country Music Hall Of Fame), then the feeling of being next to someone with a special talent is hard to shake off.

Add to the above a theatre production titled ‘Is There Life After Lubbock plus many appearances on Film, Stage and TV; a novella/cookbook which she published and her show Radio Dreams, which focused on the history of American roots music and artists. 

Her songs have appeared on multiple television and film soundtracks and she has her own record label and studio, Sunbird Music, for over 25 years. Kimmie lives and records in Austin and tours internationally with her son and producer/multi-instrumentalist, Gabriel Rhodes.

Lonesome Highway met with Kimmie Rhodes during her short tour of Ireland to discuss her career, her creative muse and her recent book, Radio Dreams, a duet memoir with her soul mate Joe Gracey, who died back in 2011. Her enduring relationship with Joe Gracey has a timeless quality and his memory endures through the pages and tales in this excellent book. 

LH: You have concentrated on doing gigs in Northern Ireland over recent visits. Has this been a conscious decision on your part?

Kimmie: No, not at all. I don’t know if the audience is just more receptive to what we do up North or just that I don’t have anybody booking me down in the Republic. I have played the Seamus Ennis centre at the Naul a lot of times and we were at the Venue Theatre in Rathoath earlier this year. If there are suitable venues in the South then I would love to play there. I have travelled all around Ireland; Cork, Galway, The Burren and the West Coast so it would be great to play other places. 

LH: Tell me about Sunbird Studios, your recording hub in Austin.

Kimmie: When I met Joe Gracey in Austin in 1979, he had been mentored by “Cowboy” Jack Clement as a producer and he, in turn, had been mentored by Sam Phillips at Sun Records/Studios in Memphis. That was an independent label and so I guess there was always the spirit of not compromising and just going ahead with what you believed in and putting it out there. Joe had lost his voice to cancer, having been a popular DJ and a singer, so he had become a record producer and had a small publishing company also. 

So, I started with an independent focus. It was not easy to make a record in those days because everything was analogue and demos were recorded on 4-track TEAC reel to reel machines. When Joe had been a DJ he had played Willie Nelson’s records on the radio and he had invited Joe out to his place, so I got to meet him and we went to his studio, which had two 24-track machines. I was amazed and here was an invitation to make my first record, in a 48-track studio where we just had to come up with the money for the band.

You had to have a label or some kind of a deal in the early 1980’s as making a record back then cost a minimum of $20,000. So, I made my first two records at Willie’s studio. It was hard for me to get a record deal that I wanted. I was not prepared to do what the major record labels wanted me to do; I looked right and I sang well but I was too wild for the commercial market they wanted me to fit into.

So, when digital music came along, we decided to start Sunbird as a studio; it was originally meant to be a writing room behind the house, but we changed that and I had this dream to paint the space yellow and put a white baby grand into the room. Well, I had this photographer friend who owned a white baby grand and her house had burned down, so she needed a place for her piano and there am I doing the dishes one day when along comes this truck with a piano! It’s been in my studio ever since, probably going on 20 years now… We make most of our records out there since those days.

LH: I read that “Cowboy” Jack had said to you that ‘It only takes 3 minutes to record a hit’ and that ‘we are in the fun business, so if we are not having fun, we are not doing our job’.

Kimmie: Well, he was the first person that I met when I first came to Nashville and he had this great recording studio. One day I went to visit him and when I walked in there was nobody about, which was unusual. I went back to his office, where he was there on his own… He asked if I wanted to go for a ride and I thought we would take one of his cars; he had two identical white cars, called R2-D2 and C-3PO. He took me around in a golf cart, bought an entire box of popsicles in a local store and we drove around eating them! He was this legendary figure who was all about having fun. I said that my Dad had grown up in a carnival and he was all about having fun too so I knew that it would work for me and I didn’t have to modify myself in any way. You have to believe in that kind of magic!

LH: Did you have an innate feeling from a young age that music was what came naturally to you?

Kimmie: I think that you are born to be who you are meant to be. Life just placed me with the perfect people, in pretty good timing, to go ahead and develop into who I was. I have always had music in my life, even back to a babysitter who used to play the pump organ for me! She would let me play with the sheet music and that was one of my earliest memories of the magic of music. We were just transported.

LH: And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when I see your son, Gabriel with his amazing talent and natural flow on the guitar, among the many instruments he can play

Kimmie: He has been exposed to music all his life from the time he was a little boy and able to fit into Joe Gracey’s lap. He started with the recorder and then played the saxophone, then he started playing with all the musical people he grew up around. We had moved out to the hill country to be close to Willie’s studio because Gracey was working there. 

There were always characters hanging around like David Zettner, who was Willie’s first bass player after he had stopped playing with Ray Price and decided to form his own band. Zettner had also played bass on my records and there was Johnny Bush on guitar; Jimmy Day on the steel guitar; Paul English on drums; and Bucky Meadows, who had come from the Charlie Christian school of jazz players. Gabe just grew up around all that. 

I was with a British label and I went to record in Memphis before mixing and mastering in Nashville. Gabe was left with David Zettner and Bucky Meadows as babysitters and when I got back, they had taught Gabe how to play the guitar! It would have been almost unnatural for him not to have picked up on music as a young child. 

LH: By his mid-20’s he had progressed to producing your records

Kimmie: I had a publishing deal with Almo/Irving Music, Herb Albert and Gerry Moss, on the back of some success with Trisha Yearwood and Wynonna Judd. Part of that deal was that I would write songs for the company. Mostly I wrote by myself at that time so when I had to demo a song, Gracey would record it and Gabe would play on it, so it was the perfect vehicle for us. He just grew from that and passed me out. At one point, I would leave small instruments lying around the house and they would disappear. Later, I would hear Gabe practicing with them up in his room but he really cut his teeth playing on those demos for big publishing companies. 

I had been involved in writing a play with Joe Sears (small town girl) and while I was gone Gabe had cleared all the furniture out of the way and set up a small recording space where he took about 12 of my songs and made tracks on a couple of small ADAT machines (a magnetic tape format used for the recording of eight digital audio tracks)… He told me that he had gone ahead and produced my next record!! Luckily, I really liked it and it turned into Rich From The Journey, my next release.  

As a side story, Bob Ezrin, who had worked with Pink Floyd on The Wall, was working on a film, Babe, Pig In The City. Bob Ezrin was the music director on the film and one of my suggested songs he liked was Heart Of A Believer. We would be on the phone a lot and he said ‘those guys who are playing with you really know their stuff’ – to which I replied, ‘Well, that is my 20-year old son who just moved the furniture out of the room and produced that track’. 

So, Gabe ends up talking directly to Bob Ezrin, one of his heroes. He really had an almost instant success by producing something that he had no initial permission to do! So, we have had a lot of magic happen. 

LH: What’s it like to play in front of a live audience and make music with your son?

Kimmie: For the most part, I don’t think about it in those terms. We built it from the ground up and it is innate, will always be there, all the time. It is special and we are so close as a Mother/Son, so it is naturally something that people can see. He looks after me so well.

LH: As an artist and a performer, your craft is highly developed. Yet you have a generosity that allows your talents be shared by other stars who have taken your songs and had hits with them (Willie Nelson, Wynonna Judd, Trisha Yearwood, Amy Grant, Joe Ely, Waylon Jennings, Peter Frampton, Mark Knopfler, Emmylou Harris). How does this work for you; is it a conscious decision?

Kimmie: I love to sing and I love to perform but I feel like at some point my writing just surpassed my singing and performing. In terms of having to give up one, then I would always have to write. I would be writing a song for me and it never occurred to me that anybody would want to take one of my songs in the first place. By the time that people did look at my songs, I wanted to have success and it just happened to be that those people were really big stars at the time, so what’s not to like? 

Also, I needed the money. I was married to a man who could not speak for 30 years, but who was able to work with me. I had two sons and we had a daughter, but I just never wanted to be famous in the first place. Success for me was being good at what I did, make a living at it and being able to travel. One of the things about being famous is that you don’t have that freedom to walk down the street anymore. Another thing that was great for me was that I got an opportunity to make good money through writing songs at a time when my children needed me most. I still kept making records and they were always the best calling cards for my songs anyway, in that most of those cuts that were recorded by other artists came off of my records. 

I could travel to Nashville and keep living in Texas so it was a good situation to be at home with my family and then be able to tour when the time was right. I did not want to have a family at the end of a phone all the time so when I was at home I could see my kids in the morning and be there in the evening but when I travelled to New York or L.A. then I was out writing or playing and that got my full energy.  

LH: Do the songs come easily?

Kimmie: When I was working as a professional writer I got on a real roll; I got swept up into it, whether co-writing or writing solo. There was always a song that was unfinished in my brain, playing away and the lyrics were always full of meaning. I would be off in my own world and any downtime, in my brain, I would be always writing. I had 100% permission to do it as it was my job, I was getting paid well for doing it. I have a good work ethic and can be very disciplined when I want to do it. It’s like a journal to me and I always want to do my best. I have always written about what is going on. 

When Joe Gracey died I knew that if I was going to write around then, my songs were going to be just too dark. I didn’t have the perspective of being able to write from that place where you can see the darkness balanced with the light. A good friend of mine, John Gardner, who was a drummer with Don Williams and played on a lot of my records, suggested that we get our families together and just spend a week recording some covers that Gracey would have liked for different reasons. And so that ended up as my 'covers' record. Other than that, I have always been able to pick up the guitar and just write.

LH: Is the process of co-writing a compromise for you?

Kimmie: I got good at co-writing and I would go out to L.A. and write lyrics while the music was mostly written by others. That was an interesting experience. I worked with Kevin Savigar, who was a producer with Rod Steward, who was really great at programming tracks and coming up with melodies. Writing with people like Emmylou, Waylon Jennings, Al Anderson, Peter Frampton, Gary Nicholson was as much about hanging out with them and writing at the same time. I don’t have to write with anyone where it turns out to be a painful experience.

Another pleasure has been working with Chris Difford (ex Squeeze), who formed a partnership with ‘The Buddy Holly Foundation’ to run a week of writing at Pennard House, Glastonbury for aspiring young artists. It’s fun and I get to pass on what I have learned. I also get to visit universities and with honorariums where I get paid and talk with the students. We also do radio classes, women in music, poetry classes. It’s all a real privilege. 

LH: The book has taken up a lot of your focus over the last few years. In addition, your past projects have allowed you to collaborate in other creative mediums. Do you think that having Willie Nelson as a mentor so early in your career helped give you that confidence to try new things?

Kimmi: There are a lot of people with talent out there but when Willie mentored me I think he saw me as a wild child and someone who would have (as we say in Texas), a tough row to hoe and maybe struggle in the business.

 He had struggled in Nashville himself to establish his career as a recording artist and in Texas we didn’t have a music scene; we had a live scene with the dancehalls and he came back to establish himself. He was old enough then to be my father and came from those days when a farmer wanted to put the mule in the barn on a Saturday night and just go dancing. Those were his roots and he had grown up singing Gospel in Church and so had I, with my Father and my Brother. Singing in the choir on Sundays was what we did. We never really had a band but we also performed at sing-ins, with someone on piano where people would sing along.

There was so much focus went into all the things that I have done. The documentary They Called Us Outlaws was a 12-hour production and I was passionate about the Austin music scene and passing on all the relevant detail of those times in the mid to late 1970’s. Lots of people became involved including Doug Sahm, Marcia Ball, Bobby Earl Smith, Joe Ely and many others.

So much revolved around the influence of Joe Gracey and his activity as a DJ, Journalist, Engineer, Producer, Publisher etc. Growing up, Joe had never liked Country music but then he went to work at a Country music radio station in Fort Worth that had Lawton Williams as one of their local DJ’s. Lawton had written the song, Fraulein, that was a big hit for Bobby Helms and had also been on the Chet Atkins label as an artist before he became a radio DJ. Then along comes Chet Atkins making a new radio format called countrypolitan… 

So, Country music radio suddenly changed and then along comes the explosion of the 1970’s with Dylan, The Beatles and The Byrds. Joe is now playing Sweethearts of the Rodeo and Willie Nelson’s record, The Party’s Over, which he really liked. So, he ends up in Austin as a DJ and he started playing Willie and these other Country songs on his radio show and that starts a whole new direction for the scene there. 

All these things came together to create more of that magic. Pretty soon the whole scene took off with artists coming in from all directions. It was just like Hemingway and Paris! 

When I moved to Austin it was as if someone took a fish in the water and just let it go… I was with people who liked me and encouraged and helped me. I found my tribe and it just grew and grew over all these years.

Coda:

Kimmie was more than generous with her time, giving almost a full hour to our chat and we spoke after a very special house concert that our gracious host, Andy Peters, presented with great success. 

Her tours this year have been to support the book release and we met in the beautiful landscape that surrounds the village of Rathfriland, Co. Down, with its rolling hills and spectacular scenery framed between the Mourne Mountains, Slieve Croob and Banbridge.

Kimmie played guitar and told stories between two sets that covered much of her career and she was joined by her wonderfully talented son, Gabriel Rhodes (Gabe), who played some incredible guitar to both colour and lift the songs to new levels of feeling, technique and warmth.

Kimmie’s book is a must-read and captures many stories that will make you laugh and cry along with many insights into her music career. The full title is Radio Dreams: The Story of an Outlaw DJ and a Cosmic Cowgirl. A fitting description for this gracious and humble person who displays a real enthusiasm for life. Natural to a fault and very open to the magic that the World sends her way.  

Interview by Paul McGee