Tuesday
Oct232018

Clay Parker and Jodi James Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview by Declan Culliton

Tuesday
Oct162018

Interview with Kimmie Rhodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LH: Do the songs come easily?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coda:

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

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

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

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

Interview by Paul McGee                                                           

Tuesday
Oct022018

Interview with Minton Sparks

 

To describe Minton Sparks as unique hardly does her justice. Unparalleled is probably a more accurate description of the speaker/songwriter Nashville resident whose music, poetry and storytelling about people and places in the rural South are gossip laced, provocative, intoxication, hypnotic and spiked with black humour. Minton took time out from her hectic schedule to discuss her career path to date and much more.

Comparisons with Flannery O’Connor and Hank Williams regularly feature in articles written about you. Were they actual influences and what other writers and musicians stimulated your chosen career. I’m particularly interested in your musical inspirations given that your Gold Digger album suggests full on blues, gospel and jazz leanings, whereas your earlier work were more rural country?

I’m a big Flannery O’Connor fan.  Musical influences are all over the board. Tom Waits, John Prine, the Indigo Girls, Patti Smith. My collaborator guitarist, John Jackson, is one of the most versatile musical talents I know. Once the piece finds it home note, or what I’m trying to say, he finds a way to come under that and make it soar.

You are extraordinarily unique in that no one else (with the possible exception of punk poet John Cooper Clarke) is mixing the spoken word with music as you do. What was the deciding factor that inspired you to put music to your poems?

I was a published poet for years before it dawned on me that maybe twenty people were reading my work. My guitar teacher at the time, Rob Jackson, was willing to begin putting my poems to music. Together we forged a possible new genre. It took me a couple of records to figure out what I was even doing because I didn’t know an artist at the time doing the same thing.

I particularly love the logo on your shirts that reads ‘The best country singer that doesn’t sing’. Not an absolutely accurate characterisation to be fair. Had you ever considered singing in full voice when you decided to put your words to music?

The past few year I’ve begun song-writing, working with dear friend John Hadley. So today I have 2 or 3 songs in each performance.

Which came first as a developing artist, the stories or the music?

The stories always come first. It takes me forever to dig in and see what the tone is, once I know that the piece comes together. Stories always point to something larger. Gold Digger the title track to current album evolved over time. I tend to edit after I’m able to perform a piece before an audience.

Are you the nosy next-door neighbour and people watching type in creating your tales, or are they all very much works of fiction?

I’m a sponge for drama. Always eaves dropping on nearby conversations. So, I guess you could say I’m the spy next door.

There is tragedy, black humour and desperation in your tales and characters. You seem particularly sympathetic to the people you write about and their predicaments. Do you consider yourself as a conduit representing the relationships and circumstances of ordinary and often voiceless people?

I worked as a therapist in my early days, and then attended Divinity school (though I dropped out later) so I’m very interested in giving a voice to the voiceless, or more importantly listening to those who are not listened to traditionally.

Tell me about the Nashville Writing and Performing Institute that you founded and the motivation behind it?

After each performance, someone comes up desperate to tell the stories caught inside their throat.  After a couple of years, I decided to create the Nashville Writing and Performance Institute as an outlet for folks with trapped stories. We have an open mic for the school once every few months so that students have a chance to perform their writing for an audience. I taught Psychology for 10 years and absolutely love teaching transformation. It’s deeply rewarding to hear someone own a story that used to hold them back. Novelist Dorothy Allison always says, “we are every story we ever survived”. I love her.

From your experiences conducting storytelling workshops across the country. Can the gift be taught or does the student require an inherent skill set that just requires a framework?

The story finding the page is a birth right that a lot of people never discover. I feel like our writing voice is basic to humanity; and it’s a fabulous way to alchemize experiences that otherwise get stuck in the throat. Whether or not, the result looks like someone has “a gift” or not, doesn’t matter. It’s the storytelling that heals the heart.

Does the current political in The States situation give you food for new material or is it a topic you’d prefer avoid?

Oh yeah, the week after the last presidential elections I wrote a piece, Fight Club, out of desperation. I’m trying to see why “my people would ever vote for someone who is so against their basic interests, their basic decency.

You have been working and performing with guitarist John Jackson for ten years at this stage. How influential is he is creating the music that decorates your lyrics?

We’ve worked together long enough that he completely understands the under song of the stories I write. He finds a way into what I’m saying musically. It lifts the piece into another realm. Very lucky to work with him.

Your last album release Gold Digger was particularly powerful and somewhat darker than your previous work. It also rocked out gloriously on tracks like I Am From, Hi Helen and the title track and jazzed out on Mary Kaye Disciple and Black and Blue Tattoo. Was this experimental or a general change in musical direction for you?

We decided to record with a band on Gold Digger. At the time Joe McMahan a fabulous guitarist and producer here in Nashville suggested I do a record with some of the best musicians we could find. Go in the studio and see what we heard. He pulled in Dave Jacques on bass and Shad Cobb on fiddle. So, Joe produced and played on one side of the record and it was just going to be five songs. Six months later we went into the late, great, Brian Harrison’s studio to finish. Brian produced the second side. I’m constantly evolving musically because the stories are coming from a different place as time goes on. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with folks like Chris Thile, Keb Mo’ and Waylon Jennings.

You’ve graced the Grand Ole Opry, which is a commendable achievement. How did the performance go?

The performance was a dream come true. My Dad always said that I couldn’t claim success until I was on the Opry.  What he wouldn’t understand is they never have spoken word artists on the Opry. So it was thrilling to play both at Ryman and out at the Opry House. The audience was incredibly open to us. Bill Anderson was complimentary after the performance saying, “I think we are going to be hearing a lot more from that lady with the purse!”

With the wealth of female talent in Nashville that find it difficult, if not impossible, to get deserved radio play, what outlets are available to you to market your work?

We almost have to make our own outlets. Americana stations will play us although it’s not an easy fit. We did play the first Americana show here in Nashville. We have a couple of loyal station in Ashville, NC.  We’ve been recently featured on the ACME radio show, and a local WXNA. We are touring and getting the word out that way. We really want to do a European tour next summer

And getting gigs, given how distinctive your shows are, easier or more difficult than regular musicians?

I have a regular series here in Nashville at the city Winery Lounge called, “No Lady’s Land” I’m trying to get the most brilliant talent as openers for the series. That’s how we met Emma Swift. Otherwise I’m out playing storytelling festivals, colleges, and performance spaces of all stripes.

You have worked with two of my favourite artists and indeed storytellers, Sam Baker and Jim White. How did that come about?

I met Jim White in Atlanta on a co bill at the Grocery on Home house show produced by the infamous Matt Arnette.

Jim and I became fast friends and he invited me to spend the winter in Calgary at the Banff Art Center with Sam Baker and Mary Gauthier trying come up with a Southern musical play of sorts. All those guys are brilliant and we had a wonderful time together. I’m so inspired by Sam, Mary and Jim.

I’m aware that you have had pieces published in literary journals but have you considered an anthology of short stories expanding on various tracks from your albums?

I’m in the middle of writing a collection of short stories having to deal with growing up working in an Amusement Park in Bunnell, Florida.

This will probably sound like a ridiculous question but your accent is to die for, to someone like myself from this side of the world! Is it altogether natural or exaggerated for greater affect?

I’m from a small town in Tennessee. I’m afraid it’s authentic. 

You performed in Ireland a few years back. Any plans for a return visit?

We loved playing the Belfast Songwriting Festival and would absolutely love to go back.

Interview by Declan Culliton   Photograph by Gina Binkley

 

Tuesday
Sep252018

Interview with Jeremy Nail 

Texas born Jeremy Nail is a survivor in the true sense. His latest and most impressive album Live Oak was released earlier this year. In many ways it follows a similar theme to his 2016 recording My Mountain, both albums having been written following his recovery from sarcoma, a rare soft tissue cancer, which resulted in the amputation of one of his legs. Written in the aftermath of such trauma, both albums are powerful, soul searching, reflective and yet laced with positivity and resilience. Lonesome Highway tracked down Nail to discuss the albums and his chosen musical career path.

How did the writing process for your recently released album Live Oak, compare to your 2016 recording My Mountain? 

It was a very similar process, actually. By the time I had finished My Mountain I had developed a style of writing that felt very natural. I like to work each line until the song can stand on its own as a written work. I like to experiment with melodies as well.  On Rolling Dice there was a version I had that was done on a keyboard, and had a few lyrical changes here and there. Live Oak had a sort of upbeat, Grateful Dead feel before I changed the melody completely. Once we get in the studio, we quickly realize what is working and what is not.   

Alejandro Escovedo is a man much admired and loved by Lonesome Highway and an artist that recovered from his own health issues to return stronger than ever. He appears to be like a father figure or even possibly a tutor, in your artistic journey. How did your relationship develop with him?

We hit it off when I filled in playing guitar in his band a few years ago. It was a great experience cut short by health problems that I had to stay home and take care of. When we reconnected, our relationship grew as friends and artists. I was going through this period, of learning how to walk again and dealing with some pain (after battling a rare form of cancer - Sarcoma - which resulted in the loss of one of my legs). He really took me under his wing, and shared a lot about what helped him get through his own health struggles. Alejandro guided me to make an artistic statement on My Mountain in the wake of suffering, which is something he is a master of. I am forever grateful to him for that.

What did you particularly learn from his production input on My Mountain?

I learned a lot about what it means to give songs space. When you add more layers, you still want to do it in a way that serves the song and story being told. 

The Zone Recording Studios in Dripping Springs would appear to be the most perfect setting for recording Live Oak, given how much landscape you use in your song writing. You co-produced at The Zone with Pat Manske, who has worked with the cream of Texan artists. What influenced your decision to work with him?

The last phase of recording for My Mountain was done at The Zone. Working with Pat, we got into a great flow so it felt natural to keep working there. This time around, we collaborated more and really locked in musically. He has a great attention to detail and knows what makes a song special. He also mixed the record onto 2” tape, brilliantly. There is a great vibe with him and the band. I’m anxious to keep going!

The album’s title is inspired by the 600-year survival of an oak tree in Texas and is a classic theme for the album. Was this always going to be the title track of the album or did it surface during the recording process?

For most of the recording process, I thought it was going to be called Abiquiu, but I was afraid people might have a hard time pronouncing it. Then it dawned on me where I was, in terms of place and phase of life. Live Oak was the perfect fit.

The opening track Abiquiu, a small town in New Mexico, articulates the presence of both beauty and decay residing side by side. The sentiment in the song could speak for so many small towns throughout The United States. Presumably it was written based on a live experience passing through the town?

Yes. I was driving through there last summer. What I saw and experienced felt spiritual to me. Both the beauty and decay I saw were very heightened, in such a way that I had to write about it. I grew up going to visit my uncle in Taos who was an artist there, Bill Bomar. There is something about the landscape and air there that is so inspiring to me. 

Till’ Kingdom Come, which bookends the album, speaks of your recovery ‘to this new life that I live and breathe’. On reflection, had you not encountered your health issues, do you consider that your musical career might have headed in a somewhat different direction?

I think about where I was before I got sick, if I would have continued that way I don’t know if I would be playing my own music or doing this at all. Though I was playing in several bands at the time, I had sort of a creative block with my own songwriting. Having this experience changed all of that. I love what I do. 

There is a noticeable calmness throughout the album. Is this a reflection of your state of mind during the recording process?

Maybe so. There is a certain intensity in record making because you are listening so closely, seeing what works and what doesn't. I’m lucky to work with people who share the same instincts.

On the subject of your use of landscapes in your song writing.  Is this motivated by your upbringing in rural Albany, Texas surrounded by lots of open spaces?

Definitely. Going back now, I realize what an influence being raised there was. As I go further along in writing and music, as a listener as well, landscapes are like colours on a painter’s palette.

Your family appear to be either farmers or art purveyors. I understand that you studied agriculture. What encouraged you to the artistic career in favour of agronomics?

I was studying at Texas Tech and I wasn’t doing very well in school. I came home one summer and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. My stepdad, who was also a rancher, was listening to me play guitar one day and said, “You ought to do something with that”. I enrolled in the Commercial Music program at South Plains College, and just took it from there.

Ironically, there are unfortunate similarities between farming and musicianship, given how both careers have dramatically changed from the opportunities they offered a few decades back. How difficult is it to survive in such a crowded musical environment at present? 

Everyone is on different paths. At a certain point, you have to define what success is for yourself. Like ranching, if music is a part of you, hard times will come and go. You do it because that’s what you do and it’s who you are. If I stay creative and inspired, I know things will work out.

Two studio albums in two years is quite an output, particularly when the material reflects personal moments in time, reading in many ways like intimate diaries. Is this a theme you intend to pursue in further recordings and how precious is song writing for you in dealing with everyday challenges? I’m practically anticipating a third similarly slanted album to complete a trilogy!   

I can’t explain it, other than it’s just the way I write songs. As life goes on, so does art and the things you have to draw from. I imagine I will stay the course.

Like so many of your Texan contemporaries you cut your teeth playing in indie/rock bands. Is this a direction you intend returning to at any stage in the future?

I don’t think so. At this point, I am more satisfied making quieter music.

Any plans to tour Europe in the near future?

No plans yet, but I would love to play there.

Interview by Declan Culliton   Photograph by Todd V Wolfson

Friday
Sep142018

Interview with Paul Burch

Paul Burch's unique vision of American roots music has attracted characters and collaborators from punk to honky tonk and beyond. His debut album Pan American Flash (1996) was ranked No. 5 on Amazon’s Best Country Albums of the Decade and all of Burch’s subsequent LPs have been acclaimed up to and including the release of his most recent album, his 12th, Meridian Rising (2016). Lonesome Highway has been fortunate to have seen play in Ireland on a number of occasions and to have interviewed him during this visits. We thought it was high time to catch up with him and ask him a few questions about his musical memories and observations about the Americana music scene in general.

You’ve had a varied musical career that has seen you as an instigator of the scene that revitalised Lower Broadway along side Greg Garing, BR5-49 and others. It’s now a totally different area a regular tourist trap. How do you consider your involvement with the re-genesis of the area now or do you have fond memories of that time?

I do have fond memories of playing on Lower Broadway. At that time I was discovering the first generation of songwriters who had come to Nashville after WWII and started writing from personal experience. I already loved Hank Williams very much and had since I was a lad. But I also started listening to Floyd Tillman who was from Texas and was an influence on Willie Nelson. It’s challenging to write a song as beautiful as Afraid by Fred Rose or as direct as Floyd Tillman’s “Slipping Around” or as funky as Vic McAlpin’s Rocket In My Pocket. Many of the early writers from that era were still around Nashville. And the sound of our band at the time–just guitars and Hawaiian steel - was like a siren song. We had been playing just a few weeks before they came out of the woodwork. Many songs from that time were also admired by my favourite R&B artists like Ray Charles, Arthur Alexander, and Sam Cooke whose work crossed over into rock ‘n’ roll.  

Plus at that time in the early 90s, many of the musicians who played on my favorite records - both country and R&B - were alive and very approachable both in Nashville and in Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Bobby Hebb, who wrote Sunny, came to my work and did a solo concert with just guitar that was absolutely thrilling and beautiful. Though I never met Sam Phillips he was just over in Memphis as was Charlie Rich. I did meet Carl Perkins and George Jones. Everywhere I went I was introduced as someone who was a “pretty good singer” and who cared about the artists. And I was happy to be thought of that way. Downtown there was a kind of flea market junk store that had a whole room piled high with 78s. The good stuff had been picked through but there were lots of one-off pressings of sermons and funerals, odd demos. And it seemed like only Greg, BR549, and myself were interested in that stuff. We had it all to ourselves. To give you a picture of how unplugged we were, around 1995 or so, the Country Music Foundation put out Johnny Paycheck’s early records from the Little Darlin’ era - early 60s - and we each bought out all the copies at Ernest Tubb records. Probably the day it came out. And probably the only copies they sold! But we weren’t listening to the radio at all. I couldn’t tell you what came out between 1994 and 1997 or so. I might as well have been on an island.

We were totally engaged in the music. Everyone told us we would never get anywhere, which just stiffened our resolve - at least mine. My ambition was to make records which itself was considered a bit weird. We really believed that the artists we were covering were vastly underrated. We had the fantasy - mostly wrong - that the musicians from that generation before Elvis knew a change was coming but were not encouraged to be as creative as they could be. As for its current state as a slum for drunks, it was probably inevitable. A lot of investment was happening just as we were getting some press. One might have helped the other. But it didn’t take a lot of vision to see that it could be exploited.  

Your last album Meridian Rising was about an imagined musical telling of the life of Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman. You tell the overall story on your website. Tell me what inspired you to create this set of songs that was conceived in musical style that would have been familiar to him?

By chance I heard an unreleased recording of Jimmie with Clifford Gibson, an African American bluesman who mostly worked out of St. Louis. The song was called Let Me Be Your Sidetrack. It was the surviving take of two that were made and you can tell because Clifford anticipates Jimmie’s yodel at the end. I think at the time I was either working on the songs for Last of My Kind - based loosely on the characters in Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy which takes place in the 1930s - or I was working on gathering songs for a documentary about Appalachia. Both might have been going on at the same time.  

But anyway, I was struck by the recording because Clifford was a good guitar player and played in an open-tuning with phrases that reminded me a little of Robert Johnson who was a few years in the future. In other words, his sound was contemporary to blues at the time but also a little more forward. That’s how I chose to hear it anyway. Clifford was also the only bluesman that Jimmie ever recorded with. So all of this just intrigued me about what Jimmie’s life was like as a musician. I had already read the biography by Nolan Porterfield but it didn’t give me the sense of Jimmie’s personality on record as it connected to the facts of his life. His personality is easy to hear in his music. But integrating the two was what I wanted to do. I thought it would be an interesting challenge as a writer. 

Gradually, after a few years of keeping the idea in my back pocket, it struck me that using the styles of Jimmie’s influences like the Mississippi Sheiks and others would be the best way to present the story. Occasionally I dipped into his forms but for the most part I had the freedom to draw on sounds and arrangement styles that Jimmie probably enjoyed but didn’t cover. For instance, If I Could Only Catch My Breath  has the kind of death-march sound I know from Duke Ellington’s early records for Okeh, which were out at the same time. Most of all it was a great writing trip. And I got to spend time in that world which is pretty wonderful musically.

Are you working on a new release or what consumes you creative energies these days?

I am working on a record. It might be a series of records - I’m not sure yet.  But I’m hunting and gathering as we speak for release next year. 

After eleven albums does get harder to find something new that you want to express?

Thankfully not. I feel more challenged after Meridian Rising to try to take more risks and do something that is hard to qualify but easy to like. Perhaps initially I wanted to state my case that I could write and sing a song and produce an album. For better or for worse - as far as the market place is concerned -I don’t have run that race anymore.  Ultimately, I’d like to create something so beautiful that it lives far beyond my name. 

You toured at one time as a member of Lambchop was it refreshing to be part of a band rather than leading it or do you still like to be the man in charge?

I like both. I’m not sure anyone was in charge of Lambchop - though certainly Kurt was and is the leader. They were his songs. I’m by nature someone who likes to help. I can’t keep quiet if there is an opportunity to encourage freedom of expression. In my own group there are several members who encourage me to take chances and they’re not afraid to disagree. I think there is a Keith Richards quote somewhere about first turning on the drummer and then the band. Once you’ve done that, look out world. As far as being in charge - I know there are better guitarists, vocalists, bandleaders - you name it. But I’m uniquely qualified to tell the story I’m telling in the way I think it should be told. If I can express myself freely, they will too. We’re in it together.   

Your current WPA Ballclub roster includes some 21 names. Do you ever all get together or do you have to pick and choose to suit a venue or budget?
 

I think you’re the first that’s put a number to it. Typically - on an occasion where everyone can make it - we work best as a quintet. I like the variety of sounds. But anything can work. Ideally it’s nice to have an array of colors that way you’re not boxed in. 

In that light, do you get to tour these days?
Not as much as I’d like to but as I said last time, if someone calls and says “go here”, “go there”, I’ll probably do it. I kind of like working in obscurity except for things that come with obscurity like lack of resources and fewer opportunities. 

A lot of the imagery on your website has a look that seems to be taken from the last century. Is that a time that hold s the most interest with visually and musically for you?

In most cases I used the photos that appealed to me. I was born in the last century so it doesn’t seem so far away to me. As for the photos of me, they where shot just where I happened to be. When the photographer says, “hold still” I’m not going to argue. 

What memories do you have of playing in Ireland?
Good ones!  I’m not there enough. My grandfather’s family was from Cork. I’d like to go back again soon.

Do you have a particular favourite in the albums you have release yourself?
I don’t - but I don’t say that in a disparaging way. They all have their sound, which I’m thankful that happened. I learned something from making all of them. In retrospect, even making one album seems remarkable. I remember thinking after Pan American Flash that it was a nice album and if I couldn’t make a better one or another one, that would be ok. I guess I suffer from being philosophical. I remember the feeling of wanting to write the records and putting them together. But the ability to actually make the songs happen, that’s as much of a mystery now as it was then.  

What about in you production and guest roles?
I’d like to do more. I always keep my ears out. Producing is a lot of work - it’s an investment. 

         
How difficult is it to keep control of your music in these times. It looks like you have the rights to your albums?

Glider Ltd. is my little label which the older records are available on. But I like labels. I wouldn’t want to own one but I don’t mind being on one at all. As Jason Ringenberg says, a team beats a single person everytime. 


What ambitions have you yet to fulfill? Do you have many interests outside musical ones that take up your time? 

I don't know about any specific ambitions other than to stay alive and keep working. I do still think Meridian Rising would make an interesting film or play so I hope a good young film maker or playwright might emerge from the dark who has an idea. I think perhaps I’ve gone as far as I can in its current form. I have a few more album ideas I’d like to pursue. I’m just happy to be interviewed, really. Will anyone be reading this? 

Finally what has music given you? 

A keen sense of purpose and desperation. 

Interview by Stephen Rapid  Photograph by Jim Herrington