Monday
May122014

Beth Nielsen Chapman Interview

Beth Nielsen Chapman was born in Texas in the 1958. In 1976, Chapman was playing in Montgomery, Alabama with the group Harmony for whom she played acoustic guitar and piano as well as singing. She later achieved success as a songwriter in her own right with many artists recording her songs. Beth has released 12 solo albums since 1980. The latest titled Uncovered came out this year.

When you started as a musician, who were your main influences?

Being brought up in an air force family we moved every few years all through my childhood. I think I was exposed to so many more types of music and culture.  But when I was around 11 or 12 and starting to write songs, I would say I was hugely influenced by the late 60’s troubadours to the singer-songwriters of the 70’s. Also, by then I was already dialled in on the great song writing of the 30s and 40s by way of my parent’s record player! Then throw in the Beatles and stir! 

Did you find it hard to gain a foothold in the industry when you started out and what was your first big break?

Initially in my late teens I found myself already signed to a publishing/artist agreement,  not a very good one.  But by 1980 I had signed with Screen Gems Publishing and Capitol Records.   I recorded my first record at the legendary Muscle Shoals sound studio with Barry Beckett producing.  The record came out at the same time as the huge blastoff of disco.  So it wasn’t to be my time. Ten years later I put out my second record on Warner Reprise,  so I guess you could say it as a long process!

With 10 studio recordings, spanning 20 plus years, what changes have you noticed in your approach to song writing over the time?

I teach a lot around the process of song writing. And I continue to re-learn myself that (the) best approach to song writing is always from a childlike place of play and openness. So after all the years of writing I’m still courting that fresh intuitive step off into the “unknown”.

Do your early songs stand the test of time or do you ever wish to review them and bring the perspective of an older view to bear, in hindsight?

In my very early songs there are a few gems I think still hold up today. But most are me trying things, and though they are good, there is still a lack of consolidation for the idea or what the song exists to say. Not that they all have to be super important, but there is an element of coherence and focus in a great song—no matter the subject matter---that illuminates it clearly and resonates. I don’t feel drawn to go back and rewrite from an older perspective. Too busy writing from now!

You have written many songs for other artists; Bonnie Raitt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, Faith Hill, Waylon Jennings and Martina McBride to name just a few. Tell me about the challenges here and how you got started on this road

Not sure I understand the question; the challenges of having my songs recorded by these artists?  None whatsoever!

When you tour and hear your creative muse affirmed and celebrated by admirers all over the globe, how do you feel and does the affirmation encourage you to continue playing live?

All of the above! Performing feeds writing and writing feeds performing and both feed me!

I have heard you say that the creative spark flows through you when you open yourself to the opportunity – is this the secret to successful song-writing?

I believe that creativity is like air.  Like oxygen. It’s there for everyone to tap into and pull through the filter of each person’s perspective, history and heart. It’s like a flow that washes through us as we breathe it in and breathe it out with our renderings. Just like some people can take a deeper breath than others, I believe some of us are breathing into our creativity much more shallowly than we have to. There are many reasons for this, from being damaged, or discouraged, or being caught up in a belief that they are “not creative” masses of people live their lives defining themselves this way and by doing so limit their own experience of the “divine intervention” of the creative flow. Nothing pleases me more than seeing someone shift out of this prison and start to experience their birthright as a creative person.

If you have a unique insight into the creative firmament, it lies in the fact that so many artists have wanted your song-writing talents and a guiding hand – is this ever daunting?

Hmmm….well I do feel very fortunate to have had some incredible artists record my songs. It’s always a thrill and I’ve never had any feeling whatsoever of it being daunting. I’ve also enjoyed co-writing with some of those artists. But most are really great songwriters and don’t need me to write with them. But it’s such a blast to write together! 

You are very generous with your gifts and have mentored many young musicians over the course of your career. When I look at a local talent like Ruth Trimble, who now tours and plays with you on a regular basis; what does it take for artists like this to break through the queue of talented hopefuls to sit at the commercial table for the feast?

It takes great songs or the potential for great songs and also it takes a very centered good head on their shoulders. Ruth is very rooted and a joy to work with.I often tell her the biggest threat to me (who’s now grown to depend on her organizational skills!) IS the fact that she’s a very talented artist and writer and it won’t be long ‘til she’s going to be doing the full time “Ruth Trimble” career! Learning about the business is essential to a long successful career in music,  that and producing great music -  both very different muscles, but both important in the long run. It’s rare to find someone so young who’s got a command of both. But then Ruth was managing a Boots Pharmacy when I met her!  So coping with a tour is probably a walk in the park by comparison. Still she needs to make time to keep writing great songs. In other words….try to clone herself!  If only!

As an Irish Artist, how great a talent does Ruth Trimble have when compared to the long line of recognised singer-songwriters that you have worked with?

I’m not sure I’d make a distinction like “as an Irish Artist”. She stands on her own as uniquely talented and original. Where she can go with that is limitless.

You have toured Ireland previously and I wanted to ask about the reaction that you received to your body of work at the various shows?

I’ve always felt very welcomed by Ireland and aware of a deep appreciation for poetry and songs. It doesn’t get better than that!

You display a deep spirituality in your writing and you speak of the love of God in our lives. Given the cards that you have been dealt, with the death of your first husband and your battles against both breast cancer and a brain tumour; what do you draw on for continued strength along your journey?

I’m a very hopeful person generally and I have always felt deeply connected in my beliefs and at the same time have, even as a little girl, always believed that all cultures and paths of faith reflect back from the same source of spirit. (It is)as if humanity was a big diamond with lots of different angles, but one big gorgeous light shining through it all. That comforts me and as I draw from my spiritual roots for strength in my life~ and it also brings me a deep respect for other cultures and their way of celebrating their connection to the divine light of spirit. 

I wanted to ask about your approach to song writing, in that you can appear to write essentially from personal experience. Does this sensitivity and vulnerability, when you share difficult themes, challenge you in trying to strike an appropriate balance?

It’s interesting that in most writing the most specific incidental detail can illuminate and trigger a much broader emotion in a song. When trying to be broad or general a song ends up being very boring.  It’s the personal bits that connect folks to the stuff of life and the deeper meaning. I sort of write my way through my grief, joy and feelings. Even if not one of those songs ever went out the door, the writing of them has already had a value to me. Add in that a song can then go off into the world and lift someone else who hears it later and there’s the gift. 

Finally, having pleased your rural Irish fans with a recent tour, can we expect a return visit in the near future?

Yes!  I’m thrilled to be working with a great company MCD and Mission PR and will be back in September 27th performing at Whelan’s and there will be other gigs coming throughout the south around that time!

Interview by Paul McGee. Photograph by Vincent Lennon

Tuesday
Apr292014

Moot Davis Interview by Stephen Rapid

 

1 Great jacket on the cover. A Manuel? It’s a contrast to the suited Moot of Man About Town. Which one is closer to your spirit?

Thank you, that suit was made by Jaime Custom Tailoring in Hollywood, CA several years ago. He makes stage clothes for Dwight Yoakam, Chris Isaak and ZZ Top. When I got hooked up with Pete Anderson back in 2003, I started going to Jaime to have things made. Believe it or not, I’m still paying off this jacket. 

After I take all the photos from an album shoot, I try to find ones that speak to me, that standout, that are evocative and tell a story.  This album cover is strong image and there’s mystery to it. And it’s the mystery that I identify with more so then the rhinestone suit or the business suit of “Man About Town”.

2 To the music now. The press release describes it as more roadhouse rock than country. Was that a natural development?

It’s a natural progression going from the honky-tonk stuff to more sort of classic rock and that’s really what I’ve been listening to a lot of. I still revisit the old “golden era” honky-tonk stuff every now and then but it seems to be on the more of a special occasion. “Man About Town”, had 3 or 4 rockers and the rest country/honky tonk, my plan was always to flip that on this album. 

3 You are using your regular band on this album. Did this allow you to work the songs up live in advance?

Yea, we worked on the songs for about a year and a half. I would write them and bring them to the band and I have a rough sketch but we really started beating the songs up and give them their own kind of sound as I would bring them in. So it was a really nice change to have my own guys (Bill Corvino, Joe Mekler, Michael Massimino)with me as opposed to using studio musicians which can be a little sterile. 

4 All your albums have been produced with a guitarist/producer. Do you find that’s advantageous recording with a working musician?

 Yes, plus I really love the sound of the guitar and I love people who know how to play it. I also find that communicating with guitar players who are also songwriters (both Pete and Kenny write some killer songs), makes a big difference.  So it’s the combination of them being a working musician and songwriter that I find this most attractive.

5 A lot of artist seem to be seeking a description to define what they play feeling that the straight term “country” is open to be misunderstood these days. What’s your take on that?

Well, I’m less interested in labels and terms and more focused on songs.  When I sit down and work with the guitar, I never know what’s going to come out. I mean, it’s kind of like a channel and if it works that day, you’re an open channel and I’m receiving some sort information from somewhere and whether that’s going to be country or roadhouse rocker or whatever, I really don’t know. And I try not to ask too many questions about it, I just try to dial  in the cosmic radio, to get the right frequency you know? 

6 You have worked outside the major label system but were you ever approached by a major label?

I did, SONY Nashville got very interested right around the same time I hooked up with Pete Anderson. They flew out to see us play in Los Angeles and we had dinner afterwords. They were all very nice, and they called me a few days later asking me if I wanted to play ball.  I had the gut feeling that I’d make better albums with Pete, and I knew that he would never go for their deal of “keeping Pete as producer but recording albums in Nashville”.  The SONY guy also said something to the effect of “we already have a “Derailers”, on the label so we would have to change your direction.” This is also before Pete and I had any of our differences, so I thought the right thing to do was to stay with Pete, loyalty wise and for the good of the music. So I told the SONY guy “I wasn’t much of a ballplayer” and that was that. 

7 Would you consider the major label route with all that that entails?

I would consider everything but the small labels that I’ve been on and I, we been doing what labels used to do, which is artist development. That’s where you get three or four albums to find yourself as an artist, to find your sound, to develop. We’ve been doing that on a shoestring for years and I think it’s really paying off. I’m very proud of the “Goin’ In Hot” album. 

8 You own the label, Crow Town Records, with Michael Massimino are you considering other acts for the label and why that name?

 I have a pretty singular focus on what I’m doing and I leave all that kind stuff to my business partner Michael. This is a pretty new venture for us and I think we’re going to see how this album does and then go from there. I know Michael certainly is interested in taking on other acts but the label has to be able to be profitable. Our namesake comes from the old west novels series “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry. I read all those books along time ago and was fascinated by this town “Crow Town” were all the worst of the outlaws hung out. The name has stuck with me through the years and it just ended up being our record label name.

9 Does your music sustain you or do you need to work in other areas? 

This year we are pretty busy so I don’t have to take up any secondary work, on years were not touring so much, I’ll do some behind the scenes work on film and television shows either New York or Los Angeles. 

10 When the studio you recorded the album in burned down did you feel that you would have to start the process again and if so would you have changed anything?

Yea, I was already trying to work it out in my head how we’re going to start from scratch again and rerecord the whole thing. You can’t quit, so I was just trying to see when everybody schedule would allow us to get back in the studio. I wouldn’t want to change anything really. I was concerned with recapturing what we had. 

11 The reaction to the album has been very positive. Does that make it worthwhile or do you have to have the commercial part?

You do need a little bit of the commercial part to stay in business and go on to make the next one. That being said, I’m really glad that the reaction to the albums been positive and it does make it worthwhile, this is a creative process and you do something privately and then you try and share it with people and you hope they like it. 

12 Is it a vital part of the process to have an album to back up a tour or can you survive without a regular album release?

My personal goal is to release an album the year for the next five years, or as close to that as I can get. It’s always good to have new product to sell when you’re on the road but there are a lot of places even in the United States were we haven’t been yet, so as time goes by, those are the areas we’re going to start focusing on in between releases. 

13 After your time in Nashville, where you recorded your gig sales album you hooked up with Dwight Yoakam producer Pete Anderson who also played with you live. Looking back why do you think that didn’t take off for you both?

I think it served it’s purpose, but I don’t know if that formula was ever supposed to really be anything other than it was. During our time together we toured all over the United States Europe and Japan, got several songs placed in films and made two really good albums. Did it come close to the success that he had with Dwight, no, nowhere near as close. But I’m not Dwight and my path is different than his, even though some of the same people show up in each career. 

14 You have played in Europe before but making the trip seems more difficult now, especially with a band, have you any plans to release the album in Europe and to tour also?

The album is distributed worldwide, so it’s definitely released in Europe and we’ll take any opportunity to come over there that we can. The last time we were there in 2013, we had a full U.S. band and we had a blast. It just seems that the economic troubles that our countries find themselves in, make it harder for offers to come perform.

15 As an artist what goals do you feel you would like to achieve in the future?

Again, the idea is to release an album the year or as close to that as possible for the next five years. Along with that constant touring both in United States and abroad, hopefully some more placements in film and television. That, and to continue to make new music. Those are my goals and that is my path.  

Sunday
Mar162014

Interview with Jim Lauderdale

 

I first became aware of Jim Lauderdale when he had a track featured on the second volume of the Town South Of Bakersfield compilation. That collection was produced by Pete Anderson who went on to produce a whole album on Lauderdale that went unreleased at the time of recording (1988) though a couple of singles went to radio at that time. It was later released thanks to fan Tony Rounce on Westside in 2001. Planet of Love was the first Jim Lauderdale album to be officially released coming out in 1991 on Reprise. It was produced by John Leventhal and Rodney Crowell and contained Jim’s classic song about George Jones, King Of Broken Hearts. In support of this Reprise arranged a European tour that found Lauderdale playing in Dublin alongside fiddler Mark O'Connor and the band Little Texas as part of their label's sponsored tour of Europe.

I was totally taken with this slice of country that was in marked contrast to Little Texas' pop-orientated confections. Jim Lauderdale had brought with him a dream band that included the late Donald Lindley on drums, Dusty Wakeman on bass, Gurf Morlix on pedal steel and Buddy Miller on guitar. They were exceptional. Jim noted that that particular gig, in Bad Bobs, was one he still remembered as one of his all-time favourites. After their set I made it my business to meet Lauderdale and we have stayed in touch ever since.

During his career Jim has been with both major and independent labels and now releases albums at a pace to keep up with his prolific writing talent. His next release will be a double CD of country songs entitled I'm A Song. It showcases 19 tracks of new material and a new version of King of Broken Hearts and features such guests as Kenny Vaughan, Al Perkins, Patty Loveless and Lee Ann Womack. Lauderdale was in Ireland for the Belfast Songwriter's Festival and an Ubangi Stomp-promoted gig in Dublin.

Prior to the show Jim and I caught up and I started by asking Jim how technology had changed his life. He said that it had taken him a long time to get comfortable with the process and he only started to text in recent times but, aside from communicating, it had allowed him to co-write. "The two songs I co-wrote with Elvis Costello were written when we were on the road in two different busses. So I had to get someone to send him the ideas I had. Also with Robert Hunter I've written quite a bit with him over the internet".

This way of writing has enabled him to be more prolific with his album releases. In eighteen months Jim hopes to have released five albums. He has lately been releasing albums two at a time and he felt that at this stage in his career it can't hurt. "Though I love live gigs, my favourite thing to do is to go into the studio". Song ideas come to him all the time, but without a project in mind he may not finish a song without a deadline which becomes  an important part of the writing process. I wondered did he then go over his notes when he had a recording project upcoming? "Sometimes, but I'm very disorganised. There have been several instances where I can't find the exact melody. For instance there's a song called Vampire Girl that I thought might suit Buddy (Miller) and myself. I started to hum the melody when I was on a plane, I felt when we come to record we can do this. But when it came time to do the recording I couldn't find it so I started again and then lost that version. Buddy still liked the idea and so it wasn't until the night before we recorded it that it all came together". Other songs though, he has completed and knows where they can be found, but overall Jim finds that,  though it's stressful, working under pressure produces results.

Jim also has to remember all the song details, so that when it comes time to release an album he has to put all the writing credits together. Something he was in the process of doing for I'm A Song, so that copies could be manufactured for an upcoming Australian tour. He had been working with Jeremy Dillon, an Australian director who was doing a documentary on Jim. When Dillon arrived in Nashville there was no studio footage shot, so a session was booked. "I wanted to have James Burton and Al Perkins come in, so we went into the old RCA Studio A". The studio is leased now by the artist Ben Folds who rents it out. They spent a day recording and filming there and they cut around nine song in the old way,  all tracking together. But after the session Lauderdale realised that he only had these nine songs and he wanted to add a new version of King Of Broken Hearts. Jim thought about how George Jones had re-recorded some of his classic songs and he felt it might be a good thing to do,  as the original album is long out of print. He felt the need to add a couple more songs to complete the album. The list of possible songs kept growing and then a waltz melody came to him in the studio. Musicians like  Kenny Vaughan and Russ Paul were on a break. "I had no lyrics so I thought’ I'll send this melody right now to Robert Hunter’ and the very next day he sent me a lyric which was great". An old writing partner, Odie Blackmon, was his co-writer on a number of songs. He has also included a version of I Lost You one of the songs he'd written with Elvis Costello that was on the Costello's National Ransom album. Jim also expressed disappointment that Costello's band The Sugarcanes, which included Jerry Douglas, didn't have a longer run. They played Vicar Street during that particular tour to much acclaim.

Towards the end of 2013 he released a bluegrass album called Old Time Angel which he wanted to record in the old way, using just one central mic for vocals and a couple of other mics to pick up all the instruments. His man of choice for his bluegrass albums is Dobro player Randy Kohrs who produced Old Time Angel. The other album that came out around the same time was an album Black Roses, one that he'd had in the can for a while,  which he'd recorded with the North Mississippi Allstars in their studio. Spooner Oldham was on piano and David Hood was on bass. Both were musicians that he had wanted to work with. He described that as a "blues, baroque soul" style of album. There is also an acoustic solo album that he wanted to do called Blue Moon Junction a reference to the fact that he often tours solo and wanted an album to reflect that. That  situation has often been dictated by the expense of taking a band out on the road.

He justified this level of releases by saying that "I still feel like a newly signed act in a lot of ways and don't feel I'm hurting myself by releasing this many records and I really felt compelled to do them". There is also another album in the can, one he has recorded with Nick Lowe's band. Jim describes it as a combination of soul, mercy beat and a bit of rockabilly. He particularly wanted to play with Lowe’s band and producer Neil Brocklebank. "Nick has always been one of my favourites and I've always loved his band". He recorded the album in London but only arrived there with one completed song, thinking he would write the rest while there. It was stressful as he was writing after playing a series of gig. A further complication was added when his guitar hadn't arrived and he missed his flight so the time he had allotted to write was lost. He finished another song that he had originally sent to Costello as a title and melody. That song titled I Love You More turned out to be one of his favourites. For a second round of recording he had a number of songs he's written with Dan Penn. "He's such a terrific guy". John Oates (of Hall and Oates) was also another collaborator for the album's songs. "John actually has very deep roots and we really clicked as writers". 

We talked about the changing face of the Music Row styled song and how many writers were now out of favour, something that must have a deep effect on his career as a writer for other artists. "There was a period in Nashville when I was very fortunate, where people where recording my songs. Now that's over, pretty much. I will pitch some to George Strait, who's going to record soon, as he still has five records left after his farewell tour. But that practice is now ended unless someone comes along who wants to integrate that into today's country". Everyone has a time and he mentioned writers like Dan Penn, who had a lot of cuts for a time, and then directions changed and it got harder to place songs.

The last straight down the line country album that Lauderdale recorded was Country Super Hits, Volume 1 seven years ago,  so he felt the time was right to put out this new set of songs. However over the years with Jim's distinctive melodies and vocal phrasing I tend to think of it as all Lauderdale Music; that although the albums take different paths they come from the same place. He also made inroads back to playing and writing bluegrass which was one of his main musical influences growing up. It was an area in which he was having some success. Because they can no longer get played on mainstream radio, the economics of playing bluegrass are more favourable and many artist have also moved in that direction,  Alan Jackson being one such artist. Jim does mention though that Jackson's next album will be a country record.

There is a possibility that there may be some more traditional country coming from Nashville,  however the odds seem stacked against it. "Nashville still has much of the Brill Building days about it. You get in a room with somebody to try and write a song that will get cut. Oddly enough, that set up rarely worked for me when I paired up with somebody intentionally trying to write for somebody else". Most of Jim's cuts came from someone hearing one of his demos or an album cut. He doesn't listen to radio that often and feels that maybe he should be more in touch with what is current on radio, but just doesn't feel engaged by what he hears. He has recently done a panel discussion with other writers like Bruce Robison. They talked about writing for another artist and that it didn't feel true in some respect, but it would be hypercritical to say that they wouldn't be very happy if someone new cut a song they had a hand in. "But when I've gone through that process it always gives me a sinking feeling".

The quality of demos has been more and more finished in recent times. Sometimes songs being demoed for a particular artist are so close to the artist’s style and arrangement that all that need to be done was to take the demo singer’s voice out of the mix and drop in the particular artist's voice. It was back when Lauderdale was working with producer Tim Coats in Garry Tallent's studio that he realised that what they were doing were in fact finished tracks to all intents and purposes.

Buddy Miller has replaced T-Bone Burnett as musical director on the TV show Nashville. Lauderdale noted that Burnett was a fan of Miller’s and had been helping out when Burnett was one of the show's executive producers. “Buddy is putting a lot of time and effort into it and trying to give some young writers a break, which is good, as it helps nurture a community". He also noted that Miller had used a couple of Lauderdale's songs, one in the first season and one in the current run. One of the producers had spoken to Lauderdale and co-writer Odie Blackmon about some of the scenarios and  they had written songs to suit those specific storylines, but that, in the end, the network has the final say on the song choice. 

Having an agent is important for any artist, or rather having the right agent is important and Jim felt that he hadn't attracted the agency he would love to be with as he, at the moment, isn't sufficiently well known in his own right to draw a big enough audience. This again showed that Jim Lauderdale is a realistic person in understanding where his career is at the moment. Most of his Irish visits have been shows that he set up except when he came with Emmylou Harris and then later supporting Trisha Yearwood.

We talked about the ageing process and Jim said that photography was something of a hit and miss situation and he when he looked at photography now saw how much he had aged. "I really look like that!" being a common reaction to his own photo. This is something that all artist have to come to terms with as they grow older in the public eye. However he is still around and making records, while many of his contemporaries who started out  when Jim did are no longer in the business. That is a tribute to his talent and determination as well as his charm. He is still dedicated to his love of music and its expression.

Jim had been in Ireland a few years back to produce, at my behest, Bray Vista. He asked about them and about any new upcoming acts that are around at the moment. I mentioned a few names to him and the fact that there is a reasonably healthy live scene, especially on the acoustic side of things. Lauderdale reiterated his love of opportunity to come over to Ireland and Jim Lauderdale is a welcome visitor anytime.

 Interview by Stephen Rapid.  Photography by Stephen Rapid

Monday
Mar032014

Interview with Sturgill Simpson

Having released an acclaimed debut album Sturgill Simpson has been touring in the UK (opening for Laura Cantrell and doing his own gigs) to support the UK release of the album, He is also about to bring out a second album and is excited about that. He is the sort of person who is happier talking about his music than about himself but is, like his music, opoen and honest. Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to talk to him prior to his first Dublin date.

Do you find it liberating to be playing gigs in a solo capacity?

I did it before I … well, I still don’t consider myself a professional musician, but it’s how I started out. The first gigs I did were playing by myself. After a year on the road with the band, where you can stretch out a little bit, you still have to follow a bookends regime. But for sets like this I never write a list. It’s about whatever the crowd feels, I feel. But it is very freeing.

Your recording to date have been with a full band though?

Yeah, I think it’s important texturally and there’s still a lot of sonic exploration that I want to do. Doing that without a band is tough, but someday, I’m sure, I’ll get around to the old hauntingly sparse melancholy acoustic album. I don’t think it’ll be the second album though.

You previously front the trio Sunday Valley who can be seen on YouTube. Did you release an album with them?

We did but it didn’t really get released;  we just put it up on iTunes ourselves. We sold it at gig and I think I’m still sitting on 800 physical copies at my house that I ordered right before the band broke up. They’re sitting in a corner doing nothing.

Did you have a natural break-up or did you feel the need to move on?

No, it was definitely on purpose. It was a local band that I played with in Lexington, Kentucky for years. It was never really the music in my heart,  even though I was writing all the music (laughs)! I just kinda reached a point where I felt that this is not what I wanted to do. That’s not best for everybody. I was mainly yelling over the top of myself. It was such a loud band so I never though of it as singing.  

Was that the punk rock influence coming out?

No. It was the punk rock influence in a lot the other band members. I never listened to much punk rock if I’m honest. It was a lot of fun and we had a good following in a local setting. It was fun until it wasn’t. I had realised that I had to do this other thing that I was doing at home by myself 

You’ve stated the influence that your grandfathers had on the music you now play. How did that come about?

Absolutely. Both my grandfathers, really; my maternal grandfather very specifically. He was a big influence just in terms of what he played and the guys that he listened to. We watched Hee-Haw and things like that as a kid. I just wanted to emulate that more than anything. But as a teenager you find things like Led Zeppelin and you steer off the path. In  my early twenties I came full circle and it’s been kinda consuming ever since.

But before coming full circle you absorb the influence that Zeppelin had in their music too.

Yes, very much so. They had folk, blues and country elements in their music. I mean any good music to me is soul music. I was exposed to and absorbed so much traditional country and bluegrass as a young child that after a while your palate says “enough”. Then you got to go see what else is there. 

In those Zeppelin days the only people I was aware of wearing Western style shirts were rock acts. Country was more a red neck thing and thus avoided to some degree.

(Laughs) Yeah.  Zeppelin and Cream. The redneck thing is still a big part of it. Which is weird but it’s more so in the commercial side of things in the States where it’s almost a marketing ploy to put that stamp on your music. I run from it every chance I get. 

Do you have any association with that underground thing that’s going on?

I don’t really have much to do with that and it’s a bit of a scene with some of the punk rockers who had heard Johnny Cash records.

You moved to Nashville; was that a move to get closer to the roots of the music?

That’s exactly why I did that. At the risk of sounding like a cliche and extremely egotistical I wanted to make the kind of country album I wasn’t hearing anywhere else. I had a number of songs that I’d been sitting on for a few years, though most of the album (High Top Mountain) was written while we were recording it. There’s a few I wish I could take back but mostly I wanted to make what I was taught that country music should sound like, or my interpretation of that anyway.

You have said that there’s an element of psychedelia in your music too.

Definitely. I have a second album that’s coming out over here soon. It was recorded back in October and that is very much a psychedelic country record. 

Barefoot Jerry-ish?

No more like if Merle Haggard dropped a bunch of LSD. Which maybe he has (laughs)!

That sort of cross fertilisation is interesting. In the 60s you had both The Beatles and Buck Owens, for instance, aware of each others music.

I’ll give myself away a little bit. I shouldn’t talk as much. But sonically what introduced me to that was a lot of the early Gene Clark or Godson Brothers recordings from the late 60s in California which were so psychedelic and the production approach with people like Clarence White and interweaving acoustic guitar was just so beautiful. 

Especially something like the Byrds Live At The Fillmore where you hear Clarence playing Eight MIles High and blending two strands of music together.

Oh absolutely. 

We talked then about the famous B-Bender that Clarence White played. Marty Stuart now owns and plays it regularly.

Marty and I have the same manager so when they’re doing the TV show taping I get to stop by every once in awhile. I got to pick on it one day and it  feels so weird, it’s almost like playing a hollow body. I don’t know how he does it. Marty tours with that thing. 

We talked about the talent of Kenny Vaughan and how he can play such a myriad of styles that are influenced by Jeff Beck as much as Roy Nichols and so many other players.

What I love about Kenny is that he can hit eight or nine different facets of music in one solo. He’ll sneak it all in there.

We were taking about all the different influences you have come through listening to country music.

Some people can get a little hung up on the tradition and purism side of things. This is 2014 and my producer (Dave Cobb) and I had a long conversation about that. He said “aren’t you worried that people will think you’re running from whatever the last record was?”  I said that I’d already made what I call a traditional record and I felt that I’m not running from it But I certainly didn’t want to turn around and do it again right after that. We incorporated a lot of things this time that will probably take people a little while to get used to. Then I’m not going to make a Merle Haggard record because he already did it and I’m pretty damn sure that I’d never do it as good as he did it (laughs). Taking it somewhere new is the only way it will survive.

We discussed how the better country retro bands in a live context do introduce a new audience to the music and artists of classic traditional country music that they may not come across otherwise. Music needs to be heard in a live context so that it becomes something living and breathing. But that’s only one aspect of the music that is now called Americana.

That can be a self made trap. Building a wall around yourself you become a novelty and I never want to feel that I’m putting a costume on. It’s a bit of a dangerous  road as you build a fan base and then that’s what they expect every night. But on the off-chance I ever play the Ryman I may want to walk out with a disco ball hanging from my suit though (laughs).

When you see an artist walking out on stage in a Nudie or Manuel suit and the light catches the rhinestones it’s like a light show and you know you’re going to watch that person. Jim Lauderdale does that …

… or Marty. He owns that. Jim and Buddy Miller though,  they crack me up. I did a radio show at Buddy’s house not too long ago and they’re both just the sweetest guys. They’re all about their shirts. They have a collection of amazing shirts. When Jim showed up he and Buddy spent about five minuets talking about the shirts they were wearing. I was like “what’s happening?”.

We enthused about how The Mavericks are a band who, while they have a respect for the traditional values they create something new that’s very much their own from a myriad of influences.

Raul is just about my greatest living musical hero right now. I love the In Time album. When the album came out last year I went down to the Siriuis station in Nashville as they were doing a little live in-studio acoustic concert. It was the best show I’ve seen in ten years. They weren’t even doing their “show” but it felt great and there were probably 40 people in this little room. It felt like it was levitating. It was just so good. 

Tell me something about your new album Metamodern Sounds in County Music?

We came off the road from what seemed like an infinite tour and we cut the whole think for a really good price in about four days. Our producer happened to have a week and a half off so I figured that we’d just done seven weeks of shows and we’re not going to get any tighter and I was sitting on a mountain of songs so we went in with my band to do the record. It was an honour and an extreme … I don’t know if privilege is the word … to have played with guys like Pig and those guys,  but I feel like I got my sound down a little bit more on this one. 

Your road band is you and your trio of bass, drums and guitar?

That’s it, just four little guys. We keep a very low stage volume. My guitarist plays through a little 5 watt Champ. I play my Martin and we kind of let the room do the work. We’re having a lot of fun. In Nashville if you walk in with anything over a 15 watt amp you don’t play there again. They say “well that guy doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing”.

Bluegrass was the next topic up for discussion and specifically the Station Inn. 

You never know who might walk in there. I’ve been in there and gotten free mandolin lessons from Ricky Skaggs. That was so surreal. It’s probably my favourite club in the world. We did our CD release there last year. That meant as much to me as playing the Opry. Bluegrass is what I absorbed and played the most. The first time I moved to Nashville was in 2005 (and) all I was doing was playing bluegrass. At some point, I don’t know, I just fell in love with a lot of the older writers and I started to write a lot. I used to just hang out in the Station Inn rather than playing with anybody other than infinite jam parties around East Nashville. I still don’t consider myself in the music business. I’m not going to meeting or anything. I’m just putting records out and going deeper in debt. 

Do you writing a lot?

I try to write everyday if I can. 

The first album you have said was, to a degree, autobiographical. Is the new one from a different perspective?

I probably don’t want to go into that too much but I kinda wanted to see if was possible to explore outside the box with lyrical themes and subjects through the guise of country music. As I said it is very much a psychedelic record. It’s introspective and everything else. There are no’ tear in my beer’  songs on this album. I felt I couldn’t sing another heartbroken song. I wanted to sing about black holes or Tibetan Buddhism or I don’t know what. It comes out on my label in the States and through Loose on the UK. I didn’t start my music career until I was 34 as growing up in East Kentucky everybody plays music but never in a way where you think I could do this for a living. You do it after work. So I did everything else first. With High Top Mountain I proud of all the songs but that first time as an artist and with a producer you’re feeling each other out. They have their ideas about what they think is best. With this new one I feel that I cleared my throat a little bit and got my sound. I’m pretty excited about the new record even though the first one has only just come out here. 

Finally on your travels have you come across anyone you could recommend or who has impressed you?

Yeah, we played a couple of shows with Jason Isbell and he’s just amazing. He’s a really, really sweet guy too. About half the times, unfortunately, when you meet people that you were just floored by or are in awe of, or you might just want to pick their brain,  they turn out to be giant assholes when you talk to them. They just can’t be bothered. A couple of times they’ve been real heroes of mine. At the same time I can understand it too. I definitely have some days where I shouldn’t be sitting at the merch booth. Outside of country there’s a lot of bands that kinda blow my mind like Tool. I admire what they do a lot. I thought that the last Daft Punk album was pretty incredible. I actually never leave the house when I’m home to be honest. If I’m on the road I don’t get out to clubs. So I kinda get into a hole where I end up listening to the same five or six record for six months. There’s three or four records that I listen to once a week. So I don’t know much about new music to be perfectly honest. But there’s a guy in Texas just put out a good album called Jason Eady (Daylight & Dark). I heard it in a friend’s house and I thought it was fantastic. Great writing is what tends to grab my ear.  

Interview by Stephen Rapid. Photograph by Ronnie Norton

 

 

 

 

Monday
Feb172014

Interview with Sam Outlaw by Stephen Rapid

Sam Outlaw is the performing name of California based country artist Sam Morgan. Outlaw is actually his mother's maiden name. He continues a long tradition of West Coast country music that always seem to be at least one step removed from Nashville. Its exponents generally deliver a more heartfelt, harder brand of honky-tonk, well documented in such books as Gerald W. Haslam's book Workin' Man Blues. Outlaw joins such similar minded contemporary exponents as Dave Gleason in keeping the true spirit of the music alive, yet each is doing it in his own way.

Nobody Loves is the title of Outlaw's debut album which is full of self-written songs that have a sound like the new-traditionalists of the 80s and 90s,  which is to say country music, but looking forward as much as it looks back. I'm not sure where I came across the name of Sam Outlaw on the internet but when I checked out his site (www.samoutlaw.com) it showed an accomplished, likeable and talented artist and one who appeals to an attractive coterie of ladies too, something that should never be discounted in achieving a lasting career. Some of the current crop labeled of underground outlaws seem to have, predominantly, a male audience. There is, however, much in Outlaw’s music that will have a broad appeal.

Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to contact Sam and ask him some questions. One of which was to enquire if the name Outlaw had caused anyone to accuse him of making association with the "outlaw movement" past or present. The answer was a succinct "no".

You come from South Dakota and now live in Southern California but your association with country music doesn't derive from your upbringing. Where does it come from?

I was home sick from work when I was 22 years old - channel surfing. I stumbled on CMT’s "100 Best Country Singers" or something like, and heard/saw George Jones for the first time. It totally blew my mind. I went out the next day and bought a George Jones album, along with music from Emmylou Harris and others. Before that, the only other good country music I had been exposed to was the Western Swing Revivalist group Asleep At The Wheel (Ray Benson). My dad was a huge fan of their music so their albums were regularly played in our home. Holidays, road trips, etc. 

There has been a strong tradition of honky-tonk in that region that you want to revive. Why do you think it died out and what has been the reaction to your music there?

Music historians could better tell that story than myself, but as far as the reaction to my music in So Cal it has all been pretty positive. The best compliment I can get is when someone says, “I don’t even listen to country music but I really liked your songs.” My guess is that most folks in Los Angeles think country music is only what’s on modern country radio and simply haven’t been exposed to something better.

The music feels right for someone who has experienced sad times. Has country music something to offer in these straitened times?

I think country  music is the best kind of music, so I’m always blessed to hear it. Good times, bad times or in-between. Sometimes sorrow can inspire creativity as a means of processing and exhaling a sad experience but I don’t think one has to “be sad” to write a good heartbreaker, nor is heartbreak a prerequisite for a good country song.  

Some of the best known exponents of California country music have been Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam. How much an influence was that harder edged version of country music on you?

Those artists have been a massive influence on me! Not only directly,  but indirectly. For instance, the first time I heard the song Bottle Let Me Down was from Emmylou Harris’s album Pieces of the Sky. It wasn’t ‘til later that I heard Merle’s version. Dwight Yoakam is particularly inspiring because he’s done it all as an Angelino. 

Who are your main influences past and present?

Too many country influences and heroes to name, but here’s a start: George Jones, Willie Nelson, Ray Benson, Don Williams, Keith Whitley, George Strait, Dwight Yoakam. Non-country influences would mainly be The Beatles I guess. But that’s probably the case for everyone. 

At what point did you decide you wanted to play country as opposed to any other form of music and did you listen or play other styles previously?

When I first heard George Jones something just exploded in my head and heart. A few years later I decided to put a country band together and start playing my songs for people. 

You have released your debut album on vinyl (though it is also available as a download). Was there a reason you decided to do that at this time?

Vinyl is the best. And even though it’s expensive and I figured very few people would buy the album or care that it’s on vinyl it just seemed like the right thing to do.

On your website there are several well-shot short videos that give an insight to Sam Outlaw. Do you see that as a vital medium for spreading the word?

Video can communicate and influence emotions better than any other medium. It’s the best way to tell a story that goes beyond the songs.

How conscious are you of creating a look, an image? Do you have experience in that area?

Look and feel is very important to me. Not so much to create an “image” but to create a larger environment for which people can enjoy the music and feel part of something fun and authentic. I’m learning as I go.

Are you a full time musician or do you need to create an income in other areas in order to fund your music?

I’m a full-time musician with a full-time job to pay the bills (and the band). Ha ha! It’s a lot of work but it’s important to me that my players are paid for each gig and that I don’t have to always rely on favours. Otherwise I’d be asking other people to suffer for my art and that gets old really fast. 

What inspires you to continue to write and sing?

I suppose I’m most inspired by listening to great country music. 

Do you fear for the future of the more traditional forms of the genre as Nashville pushes further towards pop and rap affiliations?

No.

Another line from one of the videos is that you're just "a drifting cowboy looking for sushi" that seems to encompass the old and the new in one sentence. Is that something you're aiming for?

I aim to capture the spirit of country music in an authentic way - much like the “neo-traditionalists” of the 80s and 90s. George Strait records didn’t sound like Bob Wills records, no matter how much he might have wanted them to. Ha ha. I grew up in the 90s but the music I love is rooted in the 40s, 50s and 60s. It all mixes together in the end. 

Where are you hoping to take your music from here?

My short term goals are to make a music video for a new single I’ve just recorded - then record a new album. Label backing would be nice as I’d like to hire the best pickers in the land. The bigger picture has really nothing to do with me though. What I want most is for more people to discover how good good country music really is and to enjoy it with me.