Saturday
Apr302011

Tom Mason on Pirates and steering The Blue Buccaneer

 

Tom, you had a track on your last album Pirate Song so I assume that  the theme was something that you wanted to explore further and that you have an interest in.

I wrote Pirate Song after a few tours of the Virgin Islands with Last Train Home and a band called the Big Happy. I thought  I needed a pirate song, and so I found some glossaries on the internet, including talklikeapirate.com, and wrote a drinking song using all the terminology I could find. 

Not long after I wrote it I was cast in the national tour of the Broadway musical Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash. The sixteen member cast, a mixture of musicians and actors, would gather in hotel rooms for late night, post-show jam sessions, and Pirate Song was always a big hit. My cast-mates convinced me to start writing a musical, and I began devouring all the books and source material I could find. As I wrote more and more songs for the project I realized how much fun they’d be to play with a band.

These are all original songs that you have written for the album. Was  it difficult to write a set of songs around the one topic and what did  you use as a reference source for the music?

It’s such a rich era that I even wrote some songs that were left off the album. It may seem like a stretch, but looking at the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in modern America, the project has given me somewhere to focus my sense of frustration. The pirates may have been a cruel and ruthless lot, but they rose out of dire economic circumstances with almost no hope of advancement.

As far as the sources go, I have to confess my retention skills are not great when I’m reading, (the only thing I remember from a year of taking Chinese is my translation of James Brown’s I Feel Good!) but certain passages in the books I read spark ideas for songs. Sheriff’s Dance was inspired by The Pirate Hunter, a book about Captain Kidd, and The Empire of Blue Water, about Henry Morgan with great descriptions of the cruelty of the press gangs, inspired In The Service of the King. Blackbeard has provided me with a lot, especially in Decked Out Like the Devil; his modus operandi was all showbiz, scaring his victims by weaving lit fuses into his hair, to the point that they would surrender with little or no fight. I now have a shelf filled with books about pirates.

Musically there were a number of major influences on the CD. On a trip to Australia in 2005 I saw and befriended The Bushwackers, the legendary 40 year old Aussie band that often draws comparisons to Fairport Convention and the Pogues. I was blown away by how much fun they were, and loved their songs about the bushranger Ned Kelly and about Australian history. Then while on the road with Ring of Fire I started learning Irish fiddle tunes on the mandolin, songs I’d first played in an old-time band in Chicago years ago. Those songs and the Bushwackers material colored some of The Blue Buccaneer. I also didn’t shy away from afro-cuban rhythms (a good part of the history of pirates took place in the Caribbean, after all.) I’m naturally more of a blues player, so when the material veered into that territory I played up what the “talk like a pirate” creators call my “Pirattitude”.

The album comes across as a lot of fun to have made, was that the case?

Without a doubt! There was Paul Griffith on drums, Lorne Rall on bass and myself and we went into Thomm Jutz’s studio, he’s been guitarist for Mary Gauthier, Nancy Griffith and others. I’d given them rough demos and charts and I gave them free reign. I was thrilled at how much variety they gave to the grooves. (At some point I’ve learned not to try to control sessions, and that anything the musicians I work with come up with is  far better than I could have dreamed of.) After laying the basics I took the tracks home and started inviting my friends over to play. It all took place during the Christmas/New Year’s vacation, typically a very quiet time around Nashville,but there was a Jolly Roger flying just off the Cumberland River where a rowdy bunch of rovers were singing and playing. 

I love it when musicians step out of their usual realm and play a style outside of what they’re known for. I had Peter Hyrka, Nashville’s Stephane Grappelli, playing Irish fiddle lines before his one-take nailing of My Little Pearl, and much of the back-up vocals were done by Phil Lee, Eric Brace, and Peter Cooper, Americana artists I play guitar for frequently. If it hadn’t been recorded over the holidays I would have had even more denizens of East Nashville coming by. My whole approach to the band is, much like the pirate ships themselves, to recruit on the spot.

You work both as a solo artist performing your own work and a sideman for others and have played with Phil Lee for a long time. Do you get a different degree of satisfaction from each role?

I do. When I’m performing my own material the greatest challenge is to get the mind to stop, much like an actor, because self-consciousness is the enemy of good performances. I don’t want to stop doing either because they feed each other. It’s easy to be a sideman when I believe in the work and the showmanship, which is the case with Phil. I also generally do my own set with Phil, and Eric Brace of Last Train Home has me do some songs every show, so I’m reaching people I may not reach on my own. I’m  also able to see the perspective of both sidemen and band leaders, which eliminates a lot of frustration.

Having done some acting you seem well able to bring some sense of theatre to your performance. Would you like to explore the link  between music and theatre further?

Very much so. I try to bring theatricality to all my shows, and I think that’s a very important aspect these days. With the proliferation of youtube and instant downloads, I think live performance is our major currency, and feel more akin to traveling vaudevillians than the rock bands I grew up with. I’m also going to finish the pirate musical, and the touring I do with The Blue Buccaneers gives me a chance to do more research. 

You live in Nashville and often play in Austin but how is it for a  professional musician outside those particular pockets of musical interest?

It’s especially great to tour to some of the smaller cities, where we often get a good response because they’re hungrier for music. I actually haven’t been booking many shows in Nashville the past few years, and am more apt to grab my friends, jump in the van, and go play in another town. I love Nashville because the level of musicianship and songwriting is so high, but other scenes have us beat as far as daring and originality go.

Have you any ambition to do another themed album or will you just let new songs dictate the direction of the music? 

I do want to release an album of my Nashville songs, songs that I’ve written and co-written over my years here that are more firmly entrenched in the Americana and country genres. I’ve also always intended to put out an all electric record in the style of Tom Verlaine and Television, but I think that one will be put off forever!  At the moment I’m still writing more songs for the musical. 

Although you have been associated with and play roots music the scope of what you do and play is much wider do you put any restrictions on the music you make?

I don’t put any restrictions on my music, and my favorite music is when different styles come together. I can understand the fervor of purists and revivalists, but I’d rather hear something I’d never heard before, something with a little mystery. I used to hang art in museums, and a painter friend told me he never painted representational work because there was no need with photography, and I like that attitude. I place myself in the Americana field out of some ideal that I think Americana should represent, a melting pot of influences.

Have been a full-time musician/actor for some time how difficult is it for you to make a living these days?

Damn near impossible! As they say, it’s either snack or famine. Something usually trickles in just in the nick of time, though. The carrot on my stick is the dreadful jobs I’ve done in the past, ever reminding me to keep working! 

As musician who have been your lasting influences?

There are so many but I can point out some characteristics that have influenced me. The Band created a nostalgia for a time that never quite was, which drew me in. Dylan and Waits transported me, and I liked that. As a musician I started out playing the blues. I had a piano teacher who figured out that I would practice more if she taught me boogie woogie. A lot of the artists whose writing I liked were into the Harry Smith Anthology, and when I was a child my family would sing folk songs. 

You have played in Europe, how do you find the different audiences  tend to respond to your music as there is a sense that the songs on The Blue Buccaneer would be probably be appreciated over here? 

I’d love to tour with the Blue Buccaneers in Europe, and would especially like to recruit players over there to do shows with us. I’m working on coming over in the summer of 2012 if not sooner.  It’s such a joy to play with new people, and I never shy away from it. Paul Griffith, Lorne Rall, and I did a tour of the Virgin Islands last month and were joined by a pair of seventy year old percussionists who took the groove to a whole new level.  I hope to get some Irish and Scottish musicians to play these tunes when I’m over there, sort of my version of the Rolling Stones jamming with Muddy Waters.

Interview by Stephen Rapid, photograph by Ronnie Norton

Saturday
Feb192011

Dave Gleason Interview 

 

Dave Gleason is based in California and with his band Wasted Days has released the fine albums Turn and Fade (2010), Just Fall To Pieces (2007), Midnight, California (2004) and Wasted Days (2002).
He is a singer/songwriter, a producer and an admired guitarist. Dave Alvin siad of him “Dave Gleason is one of my favorite guitarists. His playing is wise and lyrical but he’s also a serious gunslinger. If Dave Gleason walks into the room, I set my guitar down.” He is a player who is continuing the great tradition of California country. Lonesome Highway has taken the opportunity to ask him a few questions:
At what point growing up did you connect with classic country and decide that this was the music for you and who were you’re primary influences then?
When I was a young boy (6-7 years old), my Father played lead guitar in honky-tonk country bands in Northen California. At that time (the mid 1970’s), there was still a thriving country & western live music scene in California-though by the late 1980’s this was pretty much entirely gone. Anyway, the record collection around the house consisted of Buck Owens/ Merle Haggard/ Rodney Crowell/ Emmylou Harris ... basically albums with James Burton, Albert Lee, Don Rich and Roy Nichols playing their Telecaster guitars - which is the true California Country sound in my opinion. The sound of that music immediately resonated with me, and it always has. I also heard alot of Roy Orbison/ Elvis Presley/ Creedence Clearwater ... things like that. Though I did not start pursueing a career in this style of music until I was in my 20’s.

 

You have been writing the bulk of the songs, mostly about relationships that have failed, are you unlucky in love or does the inspiration come from observation?
Inspiration for my songs do not (entirely) come from personal experience-luckily! I have always enjoyed writing from the perspective of heartache and bar-room situations- and I certainly have had enough experience with both to feel qualified to write about it.
Do you think traditional country/honky tonk is going to survive when the genre is being pushed between outlaw country/punk, southern style rockism and outright pop country for radio?
 I think there will always be people playing traditional country music, and I think there will always be an audience for it, but it really has gone underground. You have to really look for it - or really want to look for it. Texas seems to be the only place - at least in the U.S., that traditional country music was and still is very much alive and well and mainly supported.
How difficult is it to survive as a working musician in today’s environment?
Today’s environment for a musician is very difficult. There are so many people out playing/singing and putting out records, and fewer and fewer venues to play. I have had to be very aggresive and very creative to be able to consistantly find venues and towns to stay active in - as I have no help in booking or management. It is very difficult to keep up with this, as well as the creative process. What I have done for years is play lead guitar for other artists as well as keep my solo career going.
You have played guitar with Johnny Dilks, how does your role there differ from playing under your own name?
Johnny Dilks is a great friend of mine. We have played alot of music together. I really enjoy being the frontman/singer-songwriter alot and I love to do solo/acoustic shows - the whole thing. But I also love to play lead guitar, so I really enjoy letting someone else run the show and just get to stand off to the side and PLAY and maybe sing some harmonies. Also, I can reach an entirely different audience-who may not ever come to see me play or have maybe never heard of me. I played lead guitar with Mike Stinson for quite a while as well-after Tony Gilkyson left the fold.
You play, produce, sing and write. Do you have a preference for any of these roles?
I enjoy all aspects very much - I would love to get into producing a little more. It would be alot of fun to work with other artists, see what I can add or bring out of other artists. I really enjoy the songwriting  too, though I am sitting on at least 200 plus songs that are ready to go, which I really want to get out there - so I have slowed down on the writing lately! I’ve got bags of lyrics, tapes and tapes laying around.
On your covers, especially on Just Fall To Pieces you are all wearing Manuel jackets. How important is the look to you?
Dressing the part, or just dressing up to go entertain and play is something I take very seriously and just plain enjoy. I think an audience likes to see it, they like to see an artist put some effort into it (look at The Fabulous Superlatives!). That is a good point and something I really see a lack of these days - cool western wear is not that hard to find.
Who of your contemporaries to you admire?
Well let’s see, off the top of My head - Marty Stuart & Kenny Vaughn, I always like to hear what The Derailers are up to. I can’t leave out Jim Lauderdale, who I think is the best we’ve got these days and he is one heck of a cool guy. Mike Stinson is a great friend, and I love his albums. I have always dug Lucinda Williams too - since the mid 1980’s I have been paying close attention to her. I think Dave Alvin just gets better and better - I love his work.
Has technology affect you in any way and are your audience download savvy or do they want the physical product?
 I don’t really know ... I have always done well selling the CD’s at live shows and through distribution - though I have done well with downloads too. Seems like people still like to buy something they hold in their hand. I can understand that and I have never downloaded any music in my life. I also have thousands of LP’s/ 45’s/ 78’s and some, but not many CD’s. I am very glad to see the re-emergence in the LP format over the last few years - as you can probably imagine!
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now? 
In 10 years? Well I sure hope that I am around doing what I do. Putting out records, have some cool people to play with, have some cool people to play to. 
Interview by Steve Rapid.
Wednesday
Dec292010

Tift Merritt Interview

 Tift has been a regular visitor to these shores as either a solo artist or with her band. Her most recent performance was a number of her own gigs as well as opening for Mary Chapin Carpenter. Tift hopes to return early in 2011.

Given the fact that your career path means spending long periods away from home and family and having to deal with a lot of non-musical factors have you ever regretted your career choice?
I've never regretted my career choice because I never really felt like I had much of a choice. I've tried to stop and walk away and the first thing I do is write songs. Music and being a writer have always been what made order of my life. What I've learned, more than anything, is that everyone's choices and everyone's job has ups and downs, rewards and consequences.

You often have to travel on your own or with another player for some gigs. Do you find that gives you time for reflection that can be used as inspiration for song writing or do you find it a lonely pursuit?
Like anything, it really depends. While I love to be alone, being alone in a strange city or motel room around strangers can be hard. I usually don't have time to really write on the road, as the best in you is given away during the shows. I love to go to museums on tour, and I did have a chance to write quite a bit on a recent tour opening for Mary Chapin Carpenter as we were on a bus and I had a dressing room to myself all day. Generally, though, touring comes down to being alive in the music for the hour or so that you are onstage.  

You've released both live and studio album, how do you compare the experience. Is one more nerve wracking that the other?
Sitting in a studio and biting your nails over every detail is much more difficult that performing purely in one single moment. Though taking the time to labor over a record is rewarding, the immediacy of music is always what one is after. I've been thinking about making a record in an old theater for the very reason of keeping the intensity of performance as present as possible. 
 
You've spoken about the time you moved to Paris on your own to begin writing the material for what became Another Country, what special impetus did that situation bring to the writing process?
Freedom. That was a very innocent and rare and pure period of time where I lived very simply. I was free from the constraints of what I knew, the culture I was accustomed to, anyone I knew, and most importantly, the language I was accustomed to. I enjpyed how intimate and human basic communication can - from ordering a coffee or asking directions and depending on someone's eyes to understand. The writing on that record is so plain for that reason, and I am proud of that.

You have brought your music to many fans in the U.S. and Europe do you think there is much of a difference between the two audiences?
I find that European audiences are so attentive and loyal. I am lucky to have experienced that in the US as well, but you are much more likely to find people fraternizing at the bar in the US.

Having worked with  a number of major labels and seeing how they work and the demands they make on an artist do you see your future there or possibly with an independent?
I'm not sure what shape the music business will hold for me, but I would say that people who believe in what you do are the most crucial ingredient, and beyond that, hard and fast rules are hard to find these days. I think it is very exciting that people can put records out on their own these days. I was on a major before the music industry really took a sharp left turn, so what I saw may not apply anymore. I don't like to compromise, and I don't consider myself an entertainer for entertainment's sake. I make what I make, and I imagine my decisions will fall where I find support for that.

What's the most important thing to look for in a label?
That is a pretty good question these days. What is really important is to find someone who is passionate about what you do, willing to protect it, and has some muscle to follow through. If you are asked to change your name, show your cleavage, fire your band and write a hit, you should probably run.

You are, obviously, passionate about your music do you see that changing for any reason in the future?
I would surely hope not. The music business is hard, for sure, but I don't think music is really about the music business. I am usually passionate about whatever I do, from making soup to watching old french films. I always want to be learning, and I figure that if that hasn't changed yet, I'm probably out of luck.  

What motivates you to write the songs you do and how much of yourself do you put into them?
Something I care about or something that touches me is always where a song begins. I put an enormous amount of myself into writing a song - both in heart and in energy. But a song that is worth its salt usually takes on a life of its own and stands on its own legs by the time it is finished.  Whether it is some sort of magic you can't explain, or something the lyric demands, a good song usually crosses a distance from being purely a personal statement to something that makes its own way without me in the end.
 
Do you write in forms other than songs and when did you start songwriting? 
I started writing songs and stories when I was a teenager. I always wanted to be a writer. I love writing prose and there is always a stack of vignettes that accompany a good batch of songs but I usually don't have the time to go back and take them from ramblings to something polished and finished. For awhile, I really thought that writing short stories was where I belonged, but over the years, I have really come to love the potency of story telling in just a few sentences which is a song.

What have been your highs and lows so far?
That is a really hard question to answer in a few sentences. I have had some opportunities as a musician that I only dreamed about - being nominated for a Grammy, singing with Emmylou Harris, writing in Paris - and sharing those victories with my family and friends who have believed in me is something that I will keep forever. But the highs and lows that come along in anyone's life are terribly personal and usually somehow tied to each other. The lows earn their way to the highs and the highs give way to the lows, and the details aren't that interesting to anyone but me, but the lessons they elicit make their way into my songs. 
After the mid-term elections and what seems to be a loss of ground for Democrats, do you feel worried about what's happening in the U.S.? I know you met and played for President Obama and would have been a supporter.
I was very honored to do some small part for Obama's campaign, but I certainly worry about what is happening in the US. Politics don't make sense to me.  I wrote a song called
Do Something Good about it.  I just don't understand how decisions are continually made that just seem immoral and hurtful are continually justified on the basis of money and the interests of a few. To me, if one has power, one should use it to do good, not consolidate more power. I guess that is why I am a folk singer.

Are their places you haven't yet played that you would love to visit?
I would really, really love to spend more time in Italy, Spain and Portugal. I really love the Mediterranean countries.
 
Finally, do you ever see your self make another out and out country record like the Two Dollar Pistols one you did at the start of your career?
You never know what might come about. I love pure, spare storytelling and the rawness of early country music. My work usually is centers itself in songwriting, and at this point, I try to write in a way that honors the tradition of roots music while at the same time tries to push forward with a voice that is my own.

 

 

Thursday
Dec022010

Darrell Scott Interview

With a long career that has seen him travel the roads of the US and Europe playing his music solo or as a member of a number of varied combos during which time he has released 7 albums under his own name. The latest of which is a double album Crooked Road. He has also recorded with and is touring with Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy. 

 

Can you tell us something about the genesis of Crooked Road your new double album which has been described as a reflection on your personal journey?

It's very specifically about being a guy and my relationship with women. I first got married at 20 and also I turned 50 while making the record and it was something about that coming of age that made me want to do something significant, what felt like a personal significance. I'm not necessarily industry orientated. I mean who puts out a double record these days. Especially in these iPod times of downloading one track. The other part of it was I wanted to play and sing everything on it. That goes back to when I was 16 and I got a four track reel-to-reel. I spent nights and night and nights, days, weeks months just throwing things on different tracks. I'd play bass on one track, the sign on another.

 

So it was a combination of that 50 year old guy going back to an idea I had when I was 15 when I wanted to play and sing everything. It's not like I want to do that the rest of my life but It's something I wanted to do.

 

When your recording on your own do you have a set template that you work to?

What I do is, well I wanted to have a click (a guide rhythm track) but I never did. The engineer didn't have one and neither did I but I still wanted to record so I didn't bother going around looking for one. So what I did was to start with the principle instruments and the vocal. So if it was a piano vocal that's what I did. If it was a banjo vocal I did that and if it was a guitar I started with that. I figured if I got that and it was right in it's essence, not so much in its production, and got the song across I thought that was a good place to start. So I added to that and if anything took away from that essence I knew it wasn't the right overdub or not the right instrument. That was my criteria. 

 

Was that a lengthy process?

You know, I had thought that it would be, but the truth is it was the quickest album turnaround I've ever had. Which seems ridiculous for a double album and something that I played and sang everything on. The only reasoning was it was important that I got the record done so whenever I was home from the road I would schedule with the engineer that I had four days home and I'd spend three of them in the studio. I was really diligent. There's something about turning 50 that spurred me on. It's something - it's not everything. It's just a number but I'm still alive and I wanted to keep going and the songs are still passing through me and I do play all these instruments ... so go sue me if you want to. It's what I do.

 

Had you accumulated songs over a period of time for the project?

I kinda make records based on themes. So some of these songs I've had for eight or nine years and I love them as songs but they never fitted with the theme of the album I was working on. So there songs about relationships there since I was 20 years old. So I realized that I has these songs that I had floating with that subject. In another way it was chronological starting from that first marriage at 20 where I had a song or two. So then in the end I narrowed it down to songs related to three major relationships from that start. Then I divided them by instrumentals that I included on the record. I write instrumentals by just noodling on the guitar or dobro or something. That can turn then into a song sometimes and I'll add lyrics. That became the way of dividing the album into chapters or the next relationship or something. Before I knew it I had enough material that wouldn't fit on to a single disc. So I had to make the decision to trim it down onto one CD or do I find a mid point and divide it into two. Which is what I did. 

 

Was that a decision that was in anyway effected by the way some people now receive music?

I sell my records through gigs and at Amazon and through the website and believe it or not there are actually some stores that have it in the US and in Europe. You through them in a suitcase or in the back of the rental car and see if anybody wants to buy them. 

 

Is there a lot of difference between doing it on your own and paying with a group like The Band Of Joy?

No, it's all music to me. Playing with Buddy and Patty and Robert is great. The singing is fantastic and they take great care of us of course. We walk in and everything is set up and when we walk away the take everything down, so it's all posh compared to what I usually do but what I usually do is actually pretty easy too. I walk in with an acoustic guitar and if they have a piano, great, I'll play that. I just see it all as music and the truth is I love doing my own stuff and I find it really refreshing to do my own thing I wouldn't want to lay back and just be doing all the Robert stuff. 

 

Will you be playing with The Band Of Joy beyond this immediate tour?

Yes, were back in Europe in a little while to do Italy, France some TV and stuff, Jools Holland as well. In January we'll be doing some regular dates in the States which will carry on through Spring.

 

Your songwriting has brought you some high profile covers how do you get the songs out there, is it through a publisher or from your recordings?

It tends to be from my own albums, which has always been to me the reason that there should be our own albums as writers because though my songs do get pitched in the regular publishing way but if you consider that the Dixie Chicks, whoever - fill in the blank name, are making a record how many pitches will they get per day? It would blow your brain. So when you one of dozens to hundreds of pitches you don't really stand a chance but if the artist or producer, or someone in the camp is a fan of my music then it bubbles up from there. A way better presentation, so to speak. When I look at the songs of mine that have been covered there's absolutely a pattern that they were on my records first. So I'm led to believe that that's where they are hearing them rather than through the giant pitch machine.

 

In some cases songwriters will use a demo singer who may use a vocal style similar to that of the artists they're pitching the song to. Have you ever tried that?

I always sing my own demos, but I'd try anything, however my publisher will always say "you sell this better than anyone". I'm not the usual cut anyway. So either the artist wants to say what this song is saying or they don't. It's that simple. There's no middle ground you want to say what my songs are saying as an artist or you don't. I don't mind that, to me that's perfect. 

 

You made an album with your Dad Wayne a while back. Do you have any plans to follow it up?

Yeah, I have another whole album in the can. I need to get off my butt and put it out. When I did that first record I had made enough recordings for two. I'd figured out some songs that would make a good album and released that and there's enough for another good one that I just need to do. He wants it done too. He got enough of a taste of whatever he got from the first one. There was no great shakes in sales but it's out in the ether now. He's a guy who was a labourer, who worked all his life. He's dreamed of making records and having his songs out there but so do a lot of other workers. But the gigs I got him on, and I only do one or two a year, are one's I picked on purpose where I knew they were going to like him as opposed to dragging him around all over the planet. So he got enough of a taste so that he wants that next record out.

Do you have a favourite place that you love to play yourself?

You know really it's anyplace where people are listening. In some places like North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia for some reason I've noticed that areas around mountains are good and I don't know why. There must be some anthropological reason for it. The same with the Rocky Mountains. Maybe the people are a touch closer to the earth. Maybe then they like more earthy kind of stuff. There people seem to know the songs and they want the new record. 

 

Do you play these gigs as a solo artist for the most part?

It's almost always solo. Sometimes a festival

will want a three or four piece band. Sometimes it's a bluegrass festival so they'll want it leaning towards that. But to me, I love it all, so there's no giant leap from playing with Robert to playing solo. That was that and this is this. 

I've wanted to come back to Ireland for a long time. I travelled here with Tim O'Brien and we'd come over to Ireland once or twice a year. I guess I haven't been back since I played in Belfast a year and a half ago. I love it over here. But sometimes it's just a money thing. A case in point is I'm here on Robert Plant's flight. So I'm just able to extend it and do some of my own shows. I thought that maybe I could do Dublin while I was here.

 

How did you get to play with Robert, was that through Buddy?

Yes, through Buddy. Basically it started as a two week recording session with no promise of anything. It may not have gone the whole two weeks if it didn't work out. It may not have worked in the first two days. I didn't have any giant notion. First I knew it was Buddy which is always good. Then it was with Robert - so that's a good way to start. 

Robert is one of the biggest music lovers I've ever known. He knows steel guitar styles. He will talk about this player and that player and he knows their strengths and what their thing was. He knows old mountain songs as well as all the rock and blues stuff as well as rockabilly. He's like an encyclopedia. 

Ronnie: Who have you played with over the years who stand out for you as a defining moment?

I started playing when I was thirteen in a family band. When I left the family band that would probably be one. It was like one door closing and another one opening. Moving to Boston, Massachusetts was another. Moving to Nashville was another. Another would have been working with Guy Clark on three or four records because of the great writer that he is. He's respected and he's the real deal. I don't have any giant strategy I walk through any door that seems like it's open. It's been fairly organic. 

 

When I was 17/18 I played in a house band so on a Friday and a Saturday night we'd have guests that could range from people like Roy Clark to Dorsey Burnette. So you had to back them up so there were a bunch of names from that time. Guys who hadn't had a record out in 30 years but still had an audience. So I was doing that at that age. But there was a point where I thought I'm either going to keep doing this or try something else and basically I quit music for about 5 years and went to school in Boston. I was tired of music as I had know it. I'd thought "if this is all there is too it well I might quit".

 

Did the mechanics of the music business put you off?

Oh yeah, but the music must proceed and it did. If I don't do it and put out my songs who will? Either we're going to do it or were not as the songs are passing through. You have to get off your ass and take them out there to a little club or where ever. Otherwise those songs go to the grave and what's the point. People like a new Dylan or Springsteen have to do it in the way that they can. They don't have the industry on their side so they have to do it by the means available to them. A case in point for me would be Loudon Wainwright, he's as good as anybody but if were waiting for home to fill an arena like a Springsteen we'll never see him so we have to make sure we go to him wherever he plays. 

Saturday
Nov062010

John Miller talks to Lonesome Highway

 

John Miller has been a lifelong country

music fan, his heroes include icon Hank Williams.

John was also the vocalist/frontman, guitarist

and principal songwriter with Glasgow’s Radio

Sweethearts. He now performs solo or with his

band The Country Casuals.

He has released three solos albums One Excuse

Too Many, Popping Pills and his current album

Still Carrying A Flame, as well as two album

with the Radio Sweethearts New Memories and

Lonesome Blue.

What was the spark that made you decide to write

and play country music as against any other genre

you listened to growing up?

I’ve always had an inclination to sing. When I was

a toddler, according to my mother, I would put on

a regular show in the front room just for her.

This involved standing on the dining table (my

first stage) with a dolly-peg for a microphone

belting out Beatles hits.

I had very varied tastes in music as I was growing

up. When I was at school my friends and I had a

reputation of always being in on the very early

days of the next big thing. I was very into punk

rock in my early teens closely followed by a brief

period as a ska loving skinhead. I remember being

very excited at hearing U2’s Boy and Crocodiles

by Echo and The Bunnymen who quickly became

my favourite band. I was content with that until

1984 when, at the age of 20, my infatuation

with The Smiths began. Their debut album was

released one week before my 20th birthday. What

a gift that was.

When I was 16 I sang in an indie band who were

kind of Echo and the Bunnymen meets The Walker

Brothers. At least we thought so (ha ha). We played

a load of shows, mainly in Glasgow, but sadly never

got to make a record.

The main influence in my life was always Country

Music and has been pretty much the one musical

constant for as long as I can remember. When other

people scribbled pop band names on their school

exercise books I would be writing Hank Williams

in the fanciest font I could manage.

Hank was, I guess, the main influence for me but I

was also exposed to Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and

Jim Reeves who were almost household names in

the UK. I listened to loads of other great country

singers too, people like Merle Haggard and Waylon

Jennings, and later I would go out and discover

the earlier Country Greats who had influenced

them. Artists like Wynn Stewart, Bob Wills and

Lefty Frizzell.

So, even as an 18 year old playing Glasgow indie

clubs like Maestros (the King Tut’s of it’s day)

I would be happily playing Hank songs at the

soundcheck. This led to me fronting The Hank

Williams Memorial Band formed in late 1983 to

commemorate the 30th Anniversary of Hank’s

death. Interestingly enough the drummer in that

band was one Craig Ferguson (of Late Late Show

fame).

I suppose eventually a country band was inevitable.

Once you had made that decision how did you set

about bringing it to reality?

I actually stopped making music soon after the

Hank thing. That lasted for almost a decade but

I knew if I ever went back it would be to make

Country Music.

My chance came about when Duglas Stewart of

the BMX Bandits introduced me to their drummer

Francis Macdonald.

Frank and I hit it off and he quickly became one

of my best friends. We’d talk endlessly about music.

He liked Gram Parsons and I introduced him

to some older Country Music. One day I pitched

the idea of forming a Country band and very soon

after Radio Sweethearts were born.

The first Radio Sweethearts album was produced

by Kim Fowley, not a particularly established

country music fan and someone who is finding

celluloid fame now in the new Runaways biopic,

how did that happen?

Kim was actually in town to work with BMX Bandits

and Frank persuaded him to stay on and spend a

day recording a single with Radio Sweethearts.

The night before we went into the studio Kim

made me sit down in Frank’s bedroom with an

acoustic guitar and sing every song I had written

while he sat with a sheet of paper giving them

marks out of 10. I still have that sheet of paper.

The next day we were waiting on Kim and Frank

arriving at the studio when we got a fax from Kim

listing the songs he wanted us to record. Unfortunately

the band hadn’t even HEARD some of

them which led to a frantic effort to teach them

the songs before Kim arrived. One fraught 18

hour session later we had 15 songs recorded and

mixed.

These songs formed the basis of the New Memories

album which was released in the US under a deal

brokered by Kim and later, with extra tracks, in

the UK on Francis Macdonald’s Shoeshine label.

Talking of Francis MacDonald (of Teenage Fanclub),

he has been there from the start writing

songs on both Radio Sweethearts albums as well

as playing drums. He was also your label boss for

a couple of albums, how important was he to you?

Frank is a real go-getter and is now a very successful

band manager as well a being a label

boss. Being naturally lazy and entirely ignorant

of the music ‘business’ I wouldn’t have got anywhere

without him. He was the one who found all

the Radio Sweethearts guys within what felt like

5 minutes and was certainly within days of the

band idea being mooted.

He also organised shows and recording sessions

where I wouldn’t have known where to begin.

He continued to support me even after the band

split, playing drums on and releasing my first two

solo albums. He plays drums on the new album

too and continues to be not only my very dear

friend but also a great person to go to when I have

any questions about the business side of things.

Your influences come from classic 50’s to early 70’s

country as well as inspiration from contemporaries

like Dale Watson and Tom Armstrong who draw

from similar sources but has that style of country

music lost it’s path in the dash for cross-over mainstream

success?

You’re absolutely spot on about my influences. I

love lots of Country Music from those decades.

Nashville was producing some great Country Music

then but I think I’m much more influenced by

the California sound of singers like Wynn Stewart

and Merle Haggard.

Meeting people like Dale Watson and Tom Armstrong,

and also Robbie Fulks, was definitely inspirational

for me. It was amazing for me to find

and become friends with people who shared my

idea of what real Country Music was.

The so-called mainstream Country Music of today

bears little resemblance to the Country Music I

know and love. Dale Watson has been very vocal

about it and even states that he doesn’t want his

music to be known as Country because that term

has been hijacked by some other kind of music. I

wouldn’t go that far (ha ha).

To me what I’ve always regarded as Country Music

is still and always will be ‘Country Music’. I just

don’t think of that other music as ‘Country’ at all

though I can see a funny look in some people’s

eyes when I mention that I play Country Music.

I don’t think the confusion is such a problem in

the UK though as a lot of people still have a great

affection for the real thing.

Another factor for the music seems to be, on this side

of the Atlantic at least, the need for some audiences

to listen to nothing but old cover songs. Has that

been a drawback in getting your songs across?

I don’t know how it is in Ireland but we have a

very strange beast here which is known as ‘The

UK Country Scene’. I’ve never been very closely involved

with it, though I have occasionally dipped

my toe in the water, but it seems to resemble no

other ‘Country Scene’ on the planet.

There are a whole load of ‘covers bands’ around,

some of whom are excellent at what they do, but

all of whom seem to be doing much the same

thing.

You can often see 3 different bands over a weekend

at one club but you can safely bet they’ll be

playing the same songs. The sad thing is that

that’s what the audiences seem to want. I guess

there’s a comforting familiarity about it.

There are some bands on the scene who play some

original songs but there’s very little scope on the

UK scene for a band doing predominately original

material. Saying that, I have found some clubs who

are happy to listen to what I’m doing so there is

some hope that things may change.

Another substantial part of the Country Music

scene now is the Linedancing fraternity. They often

have no real interest in the music unless they know

which particular dance accompanies that tune.

Sadly, the linedancers are not confined to the UK.

I recently saw a linedance exhibition in the street

in Grindelwald, Switzerland and have had them

turn up at my bigger shows in Germany.

I don’t mind them too much if they’re dancing at

my show but it does irk me a little bit that I can

tell they’re not really listening to the music. They

generally spend half the song discussing among

themselves which dance they think will fit and

barely get into their stride before the song is over.

It amuses me to see that and I generally follow up

with a song in a different tempo just to confuse

them. The old fashioned waltzers and two-steppers

need no such debate of course. They simply hit the

floor running and have much more fun.

I guess it does make it difficult to get my music

across in those circumstances but I feel it would

be wrong for me to compromise too much. I can

only do what I do and hope for the best.

At this stage in your career what are your expectations

for your music and where it may bring you?

I never ever expected to be a ‘star’ but at one time

I expected I would make a living with my music.

I realised a long time ago that neither of those

things was going to happen. It disheartened me

for a while and for almost two years I turned my

back on music completely. I then spent another

couple of years slowly working my way back in,

still unconvinced if I really wanted to or not.

Once I got used to the idea that it was simply a

passion and not a career I became much happier

again. I made my new album with no expectations

except to share my music with friends around the

world and, hopefully, recoup my costs. If I do that’s

great, if I don’t that’s also great. The main thing

is I’m getting out there and sharing my music. It

would still be nice to make a living though (ha ha).

That you’re still writing and recording is a testament

to your need to get the music out there. You

also play live with your band the Country Casuals

which aspect of the process do you enjoy most?

Yes, I realise now there is still a need inside me

for my music to be heard, or as I prefer it, shared.

This, I imagine, is the case for all music makers.

The writing and recording process can be fairly

stressful as I am on my own mostly and there is

a nagging insecurity that asks if you’re doing the

right thing. I always think my music is never any

good until someone comes up and tells me it’s good.

Playing live is completely different. Your audience

will soon let you know if they’re enjoying the music

or not. Although the lead up to a show, the

arranging and travelling and such, can be tiring

or stressful the time spent on stage is such a thrill.

You can build up a relationship with an audience

that can never exist in a writing or recording environment

so I guess it’s safe to say that playing live

is my favourite part.

Plus the big bonus is that you get to meet some

great people at the live shows. I’ve met a lot of

people that I now regard as personal friends and

that I regularly correspond with.

The inspiration for the material, for telling the

stories, is part of a tradition in Scotland; one of

the root sources for the strands of music that wove

into what became Country Music. Do you feel a

part of that tradition?

Yes, very much so. I feel a great sense of pride in

the historically recognised fact that Country Music

evolved from the music of Scottish and Irish settlers.

I’ve lived my whole life in Scotland but my grandfather

was from deep in the south of Ireland and all

the songs my Mother learned at his knee I learned

at her knee. To me those songs are very much from

that same tradition. Maybe that’s why my songs are

often very melancholy?

Do you think Country Music will ever come to the

fore in the UK where it has little support on mainstream

radio and TV?

I think Country Music in the UK had it’s heyday in

the 70s when they used to have the massive Wembley

Country festivals and Country Stars appeared regularly

on the Val Doonican Show and even Top Of

The Pops. Sadly, I don’t see that ever happening

again. Even the most mainstream Country show in

the UK, Radio 2’s Bob Harris Country, is restricted

to one hour on a Thursday night.

On your myspace page you have also listed acts

like The Beatles, The Clash, The Smiths and Roxy

Music in your influences. Does that add a layer of

inspiration to your writing or are you just a fan?

Mainly I’m just a fan albeit a slightly obsessive

one at times.

Your music is up there with the best of contemporary

country. Does it frustrate you that it doesn’t

achieve broader recognition?

It’s very nice of you to say so. Thanks for that.

‘Broader recognition’ is a strange thing. I’ve no

idea how it comes about although I suspect a lot

of money and a lot of lunches help smooth the

way. Unfortunately I don’t have the resources to

go along that route. Being a truly independent

artist nowadays I don’t really have much clout or

knowledge for that matter and rely solely on the

good auspices of people like Mark Lamarr who

play my music solely on it’s merit. I suspect there

are some people I’ve sent a CD to who haven’t

even listened to it. That’s the price I pay for being

a ‘UK Country Artist’. Some folks can’t see past

that.

It’s odd that the people who consistently have the

least problems with me being a non-American act

are the Americans themselves. They seem to like

my music just fine.

The fact that the majority of the UK media choose

to tar everyone on the UK Country scene with the

same brush is extremely frustrating sometimes.

I have to point out that I do get a fair amount of

support from some sections of the UK media but

there is still a certain level of unecessary resistance

out there.

Do you have some favourite songs that you have

recorded that you feel hit the nail on the head for

you in terms of writing and recording?

Wow, that’s a tough question to answer. Off the

top of my head I’d say I still have a very soft spot

for Heart On The Line from the second Radio

Sweethearts album. Also This Pain Inside and,

from the latest album, My Dreaming Party. I also

love Two Into Three Won’t Go from my second

CD. Whether they are benchmark recordings or

not I couldn’t say but I like them as songs.

What’s next for John Miller?

Who knows? More of the same I would guess. I’d

like to play and see more places including a return

to the Emerald Isle someday. I’m open to offers

(smiles).

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