Interview by Stephen Rapid. Photography by Ronnie Norton

Rick Shea found he had an affinity with the guitar from an early age. This was the start of a life as a noted guitar slinger, singer and songwriter which has seen him release seven albums, either under his own name or joint albums with Patty Brooker and with Brantley Kearns. He also has produced a number of albums as well as playing guitar with California roots artists like Dave Alvin, James Intveld and Heather Myles. When not playing, Shea works in a music shop. His life is surrounded by music and he continues to make a living from his music. His love for his music means he continues to record and perform even though he has never seen the financial rewards he should have. Lonesome Highway caught up with him on his recent visit to Dublin.

When you’re thinking about making a new album  what’s the starting process for you?

Basically it’s just coming up with the songs. The recording process sorts itself out pretty easily as I’m recording myself these days and I know so many other people that record and have studio set ups. So the biggest step is coming up with the ten to twelve songs that I want to record.

In order to get twelve do you write more to get those?

I’m not really like that, I usually just write the ten or twelve songs but there may be five or six songs along the way that I don’t complete as I might get sidetracked with them.

Do you write to a particular theme or just take them as they come?

I generally can’t think that broadly. I tend to focus on one song at a time. They can come from a little guitar part, that I like, where I think “that’s a nice little guitar part” and then I need a reason to play it. That’s a good source of inspiration. Quite often I think of myself as a guitarist first and so often in the writing process that can seem like excuses for me to play the guitar. They come from different places. I can have a general idea and work from there or sometimes it’s a melody or a chord progression. For me it’s any angle that gets it done is ok.

Do you find the lyric writing hard in that case?

It can be. But it also can fall into place very nicely which sometimes surprises me and some times makes me nervous.

Is co-writing an option then?

I like to co-write but I generally don’t sit down with a person and say “let’s write a song”. I usually come at it from where I already have something along to a certain extent and I’m either having trouble completing it or I think this person writes in that style and that they could bring something complementary to it. That’s usually my approach to co-writing but I’ve also been brought in from the other way. People have had songs where they feel that they’ve gotten to a certain point and they’ll say “what do you think of this” and we can then complete a song together. They way they do it in Nashville where they sit down to write by appointment is not the way I do it though I have done that with a few people and one girl in particular Jann Browne, who did a lot of writing in Nashville. She was very good, she had a lot of ideas and she was fast. I get nervous with that as I feel I need to sit down and mull things over.

You have worked with Jann and Rosie Flores and made a duet album with Patty Brooker...

Yes, I was very happy with that album. She and I did some co-writing for that. We also sat down and worked out all the vocal arrangements. 

She plays bass doesn’t she?

She does. She’s learning to play the bass. It worked out well for a lot of the smaller shows we did together.That made it easier to do some things. 

You mentioned earlier that the California country scene isn’t as strong as it used to be. What to you attribute that to?

It’s kinda fractured, But the people I tend to see moving on were people who, while not making a judgement or anything, had moved to California at some point from somewhere else. They were trying to get something going and had worked for a certain amount of time there and got to a certain level and maybe then felt that it had stalled and maybe thought “I could have a little more success in another place”. People who I work with a lot, who I know, are people who grew up there and their families are there and are probably not going to go anywhere else. They’re pretty deeply tied to California. 

You moved around a lot growing up as you came from a military family. How did that affect you?

I’ve been in California since I was twelve years old. The story of California is of people coming there for different reasons and so the rarer thing is those who have roots going back generations. It is a place that people seem to be drawn to and in that sense I do feel very much a part of California.

When you settled there what inspired you to first pick up a guitar?

Just being a kid and being attracted to it. Music always appealed to me and I had played a bit in the school band and then just through friends. I seemed to be able to pick parts pretty quickly and I recognized that I seem to have a natural thing for it. Then, fairly quickly, I picked up an old Fender guitar, my parents got it for me and at that time having a Fender guitar was the greatest thing.

So was it Beatles, Stones and British Invasion through to Bakersfield and Buck?

That is pretty much how it happened. I have to say I wasn’t as much of a Beatles fan when I was younger but I did like the Rolling Stones and some of the grittier and blusier based groups like The Animals. I pretty soon began to discover band like Buffalo Springfield, The Grateful Dead and Byrds which led to the Flying Burrito Brothers and then I got really into country music radio. That’s when I was in high school. That when I first really listened to Merle Haggard and I understood it but not in a way that I could verbalize it at the time but I knew that a country music song in the hands of someone like that was a very real expression.

That may be why Music Row tries to move the core audience to a younger audience as usually it has been appreciated by people who have lived a little more.

That’s what it really was for such a long time and that was one of my favourite things about it. You’re right the commercial country music today is youth orientated and market driven. I don’t think that’s good or bad that it’s just what it is. The music that I listen to and that I’m involved with is pretty far outside of that. 

Does that affect your career?

I’m very, very happy to be doing this for as long as I have. It is a tough life and I heard someone describe it as, something that never occurred to me before, “a blue collar job”. It then occurred to me that it really is. The aspect of being onstage has some glamour to it and everything but beyond that it’s hard work, traveling especially. But, as I say, I’m fortunate to be able to do this.

When you play onstage solo or with an artist like Dave Alvin you seem to be totally absorbed by the music.

That’s the place I would try to and want to be. Depending on the situation I might be work very hard just to try to remember where the songs are going. I do a lot of shows were there’s no rehearsal. You listen to songs and try to learn them and then jump in and do the show. 

Is that exciting or terrifying?

There’s definitely some excitement involved but if I don’t feel I’ve prepared enough I can be pretty worried.

Who do you enjoy playing with?

It’s hard to really nail down but I really enjoy working with female vocalists. I love the songs and for me as a male singer their themes and sentiments work within certain boundaries. To work with a great girl singer opens up the whole feeling of what songs can be about.  

That’s a favourite thing of mine and I guess I get to do it plenty with women like Heather (Myles) and Patty (Brooker). I’m not doing anything like that currently. But otherwise working with Dave Alvin has been great as he was truly one of my musical heroes and still is.

Getting to play with him was a real highlight for me.

Is it difficult playing in a band with another great guitarist?

I’ll tell you that nothing has really felt much better to me than when I would play a solo part on the guitar and Dave would turn around and give me a little smile or a wink. He’s gets very wrapped up in his performance and even communicating with him on stage can sometimes be difficult as he’s so focused so that’s a wonderful thing for me.

You also play pedal steel guitar, do you get asked to do that much?

It just depends, there have been times when I’ve played it more often than not but I’m making less effort to focus in that as I think that in the past playing guitar or pedal steel in other people’s bands has made it a little confusing for people who come to see me play and sing my own songs and define just what exactly it is that I do. Is he an multi-instrumentalist, a guitar player or is he a singer/songwriter. Maybe playing guitar is not as confusing but the whole nature of playing pedal steel guitar is different as a lot of people don’t really understand the instrument itself. How it makes the sounds it makes so I’ve been playing that more in the studio. If people want me to record I’m happy to do that. Aside from that it’s a very heavy instrument to carry around.

How does that fit in with having your own studio?

People send me tracks and I’ll record on those and send them back which is nice and I do that without having to leave the studio but that doesn’t happen enough for me to just do that. But along with all the other things that I do it keeps me going. 

Your production is that something you enjoy as much?

I do. I don’t think in terms of my being a producer out for hire though, taking on any projects. For me it’s usually someone I either know or whom I’m familiar with who I have a lot in common with musically. Then I can see really clearly from when I first hear the song what I can do with it. Maybe not entirely 100% but I know that I can produce that album. That’s the way it works for me. It’s kinda on a selective basis. It’s another part of the handful of things I do.

Who have you most recently worked with?

The Good Intentions from Liverpool. Their album is just completed. They came out to my studio. I had played on their first album through a friend of mine Charlie McGovern who was producing that. They had sent vocal tracks over and we had played to that. I got friendly with them through e-mail after that so when I was over in Europe last year I took a side trip up to Liverpool and played with them. We then talked about possible ways to approach doing a new album. So I set up sessions with people like Dave Ravens and we tracked for about four or five days with them (R. Peter Davis and Gabrielle Monk) and they then took the tracks back to Liverpool to have some of their guys play on it.

It opens you up to working with musicians anywhere in the world.

It’s the magic of the internet. It’s amazing to me as I’m technically fairly proficient and I understand all that I’m working on.

Do you miss the set-up of a group of musicians playing together in the same room?

We still do that to a certain extent, sometimes more than others. The recording I do with Dave Alvin is done getting everyone in the studio at the one time and to play the song until we have the arrangement and the performance that he or whoever is producing is happy with. It’s not always possible. The more common thing is to have bass and drums and an acoustic guitar and maybe a vocalist to get a performance at that stage and then to continue to add the other things at a later time.

Has it helped you to sell your own music?

It has. What I think the internet has done is to open up the whole playing field to everyone. Put’s them on a more equal basis so that almost anyone can make an album now and promote it on the internet. It has meant that there is a tremendous amount of music and albums out there. You have to do everything you can to draw attention to your self.

Which means, as you were saying that there needs to be less confusion about what it is that you do.

That is very important. It’s something that I should think a little bit more about.

Having played in Europe a lot is there, for you a difference, than in the U.S.?

So far there is. The audiences have been very attentive and they’re there to hear the songs and music and there’s not any real distractions. I have had a great time.


Kenny Vaughan Interview


It would be easier to say who Kenny Vaughan has not played with rather than who he has played with. He has appeared on numerous recordings and on stage with a hugh range of artists. He played with Sweethearts Of The Rodeo in the 80’s. He also played at the beginning of the resurgence of Lower Broadway with Greg Garing. Later he met and played with Lucinda Williams. In one memorable week in Nashville we saw Kenny playing four nights in a row with four different bands playing four differnt musical styles. That’s how versitile and inventive player he is. In 2007 he was voted The Americana Music Associations Instrumentalist of the Year. He is currently a member of Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives. Two words that readily apply to Vaughan’s guitar work. 

When we spoke in Dublin you mentioned playing punk in New York. Obviously you grew up listening to a lot of music can you let us know what music forms you initially were inspired by other than country?

My father’s Jimmy Smith records featuring Kenny Burrell were an early influence. He listened to a lot of cool jazz and R&B. The British Invasion was the tip off for me and the guitar. Beatles, Stones, Animals, Kinks,Yardbirds and Them. The garage rock scene from ‘65-’66 provided the bulk of material for my first band. We also dug surf - Dick Dale, Link Wray. 

About the same time I listened to a lot of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash with respective guitarists Don Rich Roy Nichols, Luther Perkins. To me, they were as rock ‘n’ roll as anyone. Jerry Lee Lewis was (and is) my favorite country singer.

In ‘68-’69 I saw Hendrix 3 times, saw The Cream twice, saw Howlin Wolf with Hubert Sumlin, Johnny Winter, Captain Beefheart, Buck Owens and The Buckaroos, The Grateful Dead, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, and John Mayall featuring Mick Taylor. I listened to the first Butterfield record with Mike Bloomfield on the Telecaster, also Muddy Waters and Slim Harpo. All before I was 17!

In the 70’s I listened to the Stooges and the Velvets, I saw the Dolls, Roxy and Mott, loved everything that John McLauglin did with Miles and I really liked The Feelgoods with Wilco Johnson. I saw Television, The Cramps and the Ramones early on, as well as early Weather Report, Miles, Abercrombie, Tony Williams with Larry Young, Billy Cobham featuring my friend Tommy Bolin, and took lessons from a young Bill Fissell. Seeing Waylon and Haggard in the 70’s was a revelation and I was way into 50’s and 60’s George Jones . I became friends with a record collector that tutored me in southern rockabilly. By ‘76 I was working with country players twice my age in West Denver playing 50’s & ‘60s country 7 nights a week . I did have a band that played to the punk audience ‘77-’80 in Denver, Chicago, and NYC. I continued to play the country Honky Tonk scene until moving to Nashville in the mid ‘80s.

How do you filter the various musical influences into your own style? How much, for example, of Jeff Beck is there mixed with Don Rich? In other words is everything you have heard a part of an unconscious data bank that you draw from on occasion or are you more specific when drawing on a particular style?

I would say that I am influenced not to play a certain way by things that I dislike. I like early Eddie Van Halen, but have no interest in playing like that.  I love Jimi Hendrix, but can’t play like that. I love Jeff Beck, though he what influence I had would have been from  his first year with the Yardbirds. I’ve been to several of his shows recently and am mostly influenced by his overall attitude. I’d love to be able to play like Django, but I’ll leave that alone. James Burton, Roy Nichols, and Ralph Mooney are about the only guys I’ve actually tried to cop note for note, that was because I loved those Haggard records so much. Luther Perkins as well. People try to play like him but always get it wrong. The early Stones, Bo Diddley, Slim Harpo , Johnny Guitar Watson, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, Guitar Slim, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Vaughan and Hollywood Fats are all, and continue to be, influences. BB, Freddy and Albert King should be counted as well. Then there’s Link Wray, Hank Marvin and Duane Eddy! Sterling Morrison! John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Hank Garland and Grady Martin. Jimmy Martin. Who played the intro on Stay Out All Night by Billy Boy Arnold? Who played guitar on 6 Days On The Road by Dave Dudley? I’ve tried to cop both of those.

Although you are now with Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives on a long term basis you continue to work with other artists. Is it difficult to find the time to take on these projects?

I don’t have to much trouble juggling my time. Work is welcome!

Any news of a solo album?

I have a record coming out September 13th on Sugar Hill. I enjoy doing my own thing as well as being a Superlative. Marty is a huge influence. I’ve learned more in the last 10 years than you could imagine.The Superlatives are the greatest. Our best work lies ahead. My solo album consists of three instrumentals and seven vocal numbers, two of which written with Marty. I wrote the others. The Superlatives backed me and we tracked most of them live with no headphones. The vocals were then overdubbed. Five of the tunes are things I do on stage with Marty. I wanted to get a live feel on the tracks. There are a few overdubs. Brandon Bell recorded, mixed and co-produced at Minutiae in Nashville.

Sartorial style is a part of your performance mode. At what point did you consider how you looked alongside your playing?

I saw the Stones in ‘65. Watched James Brown on TV. Saw Buck Owens in ‘68. Watched Roy Rogers as a kid. What was the question?

All too often country music guitar players tend to be overlook against other genres which is a shame. Who in the genre continues to inspire you?

Nashville is full of killer players. How about Redd Volkaert, Brent Mason, Vince Gill or Guthrie Trapp? To many to mention. My hero is the late, great bluesman Hollywood Fats.

What do you think of the state of both mainstream country as against Americana in these times?

Mainstream country and/or Americana doesn’t have much to hold my interest. The best that Americana offers falls into the “ I like it ‘cause I don’t hate it “ category.

Are there any areas of music that you haven't explored that you would like to?

I’ve done a prodigious amount of exploring. I will continue, I’m sure.

You have, through the years, played with a lot of different artists, which of those performances are you proudest of?

Certainly Marty Stuart!

How do you prepare for a project, either live or in the studio?

I try to keep my fingers moving and my mind open.

Finally, you are a family man, so are there things outside of music you love to do? 

I would like to be a better cook.

Interview by Stephen Rapid. Photograph by Ronnie Norton


Mary Gauthier Interview


Though Mary Gauthier is reported not to have written her first song till she was 35 she spent the time before that on work experience. In other words her work and life, leading to that point, was full of adventure, misadventure and a little melancholy. Her songs are informed by that life and have the ring of truth that the best songwriting has and are universal in many of their themes, not least, her own story of her adoption and her search for her own birth mother. A story which she has told so well on her current album The Foundling. In person, as onstage, Gauthier is open, honest and charming. We sat and talked before her recent performance in Dublin.
When we last met you played me an song you had just written with Carrie Rodriguez (Absence which was released on her album She Ain't Me).
Yeah, that's right and I just wrote another one with Carrie recently.
Do you still like and seek the co-writing process?
A little bit, I like it. With certain people it works.
When you start that process do you have an early sense that it will work?
I have no idea. I never know. 
How does the process usually work?
It's different every time. It's very mysterious really. There's no way I can predict what's going to happen or if anything's going to happen. There's people I've written with who I would have said "that's not going to work in a million years" like Liz Rose. She's only a lyricist and I fancy myself as a lyricist as well. She doesn't play any instruments so why would I do that but it was fantastic working with Liz. I would never have predicted that. Then there are other people whose songs I don't think are the greatest songs in the world but they click with me, then something good happens. It's mysterious ... I never know. I stay open minded about it. You have to go with it.
The Foundling was a very personal album but it must have triggered a response with many listeners.
I had a lot of response. People need to tell their story. All over the world I'm finding that people in an adoption situation, people who have given up a child or those who have lost their parents, at birth or along the way, they need to tell their story. It's a very fundamental human need. 
Have made that album and other albums based on your own story do you have the freedom then to expand away from the personal?
Yeah, I think so. I don't know what's next. I got the song I wrote with Carrie and I'm working on a couple of things. I've been on the road so much that right now that all I seem to be doing is clubs and cars, trains and planes and hotels. I haven't had a real chance to sit down and write but I'm not thinking about that. The way it's always been is one song at a time. Then I see what happens. I don't have an overview I let it happen one song at a time. 
With The Foundling is that the way you wrote it?
I always new there was going to be a time to write a concept record called the Foundling. I didn't know I had started it though in retrospect it looks like Goodbye Could Have Been My Family Name which came out on Filth And Fire CD was the beginning of it. I pulled that in and then I had a couple of songs that I had written that fitted in and then I intentionally tried to write for that concept which was the first time I had ever done that. It was quite a challenge really. 
Did you enjoy the recording with Michael Timmins in Canada?
I loved it. I loved the whole process of working with the (Cowboy) Junkies. Recording with him in his garage studio was great fun and easy. Low stress and he's very calm. I need that as I need to be reassured.
That album was on a new label Razor and Tie. Are you working with them now?
You know I let my manager handle that. I'm lucky to have a good manager so I let him handle that stuff. That stuff makes me crazy. The business part is maddening. 
How is your touring situation these days?
The same. It's always been no easier or harder. It just is. The economy doesn't seem to effect me. I don't have a tour manager. I don't have an entourage. I keep expenses low and make a decent living. I don't notice the big changes out there. I read about it and see them on the news but it's always been about the same for me. There's been the same recession in the States too. The same financial industry collapse. We seemed to have bounced back fairly well now but people are saying it's not stable and people are screaming that it's not sustainable but the life of the troubadour doesn't change much as the same 100 people come to see you in every town and it's never going to be 10,000. Probably never going to be 1000. Where ever I go it's usually between 100 and 500 people. I play, usually, in small theatres and arts centres, basically wherever people sit down and listen. It's for people who listen to words, they save their money to come see you. I'm not going to quit the way I do it because I think it's working. I'm not going to try and make commercial radio songs. I wouldn't know where to begin with that. It's not what I do. But that's how you grow it, by getting a commercial radio hit.
When you come back to Ireland there always seems to be a few more fans here.
There is but it doesn't grow by thousands. It gets bigger rather by dozens (laughs).
Well at least it's growing.
Well it's going the right direction so I'm not going to complain (laughs).
When to you next intend to go into the studio?
The songs have to come first then I'll be able to think about that part. The process is to get ten good ones that I play and if I get a good response then I go make a record. The songs also determine who should produce it. I don't go into a project thinking who the producer should be before I have the songs, it's always after.
Ok, so at what point did you decide that Michael Timmins should produce the album?
I knew it should be minimal. It seemed like it made sense to have a Canadian artist on it. I felt a kinship with Canada at the time and Michael is also an adoptive father. He has two daughters from China and Margo has a son from Eastern Europe. So they understand the story. Also my manager manages the Cowboy Junkies so it was put together and it was easy. 
Did the minimalism of the backing allow you additional scope as a singer?
It allowed me to sing softly and these songs needed to be sung softly. It's a fragile story. 
Although there hasn't been that major breakthrough for Americana there seems to be an audience for the overall genre even if the audience tends to be if a certain age. Do you find that?
I don't know. I just want to connect with the human heart. I don't want to look at people's age or all of the things on the outside. If the audience is listening and appreciating the words and bear with me through the songs that good. I wouldn't want a bunch of younger people coming in and getting drunk and not listening. I 'm just trying to connect with people who will listen. I don't care about age. There's some sort of a spirit that comes through us (songwriters) that connects us. I don't understand it but it's bigger and smarter than us. I just know it's a most important thing. Maybe it is what we are. You feel that pull to that spirit in art. We confuse it with the artist but really it comes through us. Talk to any artist you love and they will mostly tell you the same thing. In that movie Country Strong, which is ridiculous, it's fun to see some friends on the screen but the film is bad. 
We talked about Marshall Chapman who appears in the movie.
Ain't she something. she's a good friend. 
You were doing dates in the past with people like John Prine, do you enjoy that?
Yeah, but I had to slow that down. I'm doing my own thing now. I have toured with Carrie Rodriguez and I'm doing some shows with Lori McKenna - she's amazing - these are singer/songwriters who play the same kind of places that I do. I'm going to play a lot of dates in Canada this summer, from east to west were playing.  As long as the work keeps coming in I'll stay on the road. I've been on the road for a long time (laughs).
While we are speaking Mary's touring partner Tania Elizabeth begins doing the soundcheck in the background.

Do you like touring together?
I like having an accompanist. It's easier and I like having someone doing that shit [the souncheck](laughs). It makes the songs more powerful. The songs that I'm playing now really need that violin sound. She has a cello string, a low C, on her violin and it just adds to it. It increases my ability to connect with people. I love the company. The three of us (including opening act Ben Glover) get along well. We share meals and things and it's really nice. 
In your shows do you ever do cover versions at all?
I don't ever know what I'm going to do. I don't ever write a set list. The big challenge with this job is to stay open. Stay as open as you can without being sloppy. You have to know the words of these things your going to pull out of thin air. The openness is where the beauty can happen. That's where the magic is. I think artists are open in general, open to everything not just to what song to do. I'm in tune with my intuition, my life is run by my knowing and that is something more than my brain. Intellect can confuse me but my gut generally gets it. 
How do you hold a song idea?
I write it down. If you don't write it down you never remember it. I was in Austin two, three weeks ago and my guitar was acting up so I went to the guitar shop and guess who's guitar was getting worked on there. (Mary shows us a picture on her phone of Willie Nelson's guitar Trigger). I got to hold it when I toured with him. The electronics in his guitar were broken, he was on the David Letterman show and it wouldn't work. The only guy who works on it is in that guitar shop in Austin. 
Mary then shows us a file she shot on her phone of a rattle snake with sound.

I was walking on a trail in Nashville a little while ago and I saw this rattlesnake. Isn't that crazy? That sound if you hear it walking you know it, it's a warning sign. Just like when you look at the sky you know a storm is coming. If a tornado is coming everything changes. It happens so fast that by the time you know you better be active.
You're living there now?
Yes, I live in Nashville and when I'm home I try to relax. I have dinners at the house as I don't go out much. 
Anything else planned?
I'll probably go and teach songwriting in Costa Rica, something I've done in previous three or four years. So I'll probably do it again. People come from all over the world. There's usually from ten to twenty people coming for a week. We work on songs with them, help them to improve what they've written. Mostly I try to help people get to their own personal truths. A lot of people don't have the courage to do that but I pull it out of them. I get them to embarrass themselves and that's when it starts to get good. It's painful but they thank me. People want to be told why their songs are not connecting and I can pretty much get to it. They need to reveal a little more and the walls have to come down. You're not a journeyman in any craft unless you've done it for ten years. Everybody thinks they can be Bob Dylan right off but it takes time. There's people who showed me the way like John Prine certainly, Steve Earle, Hank Williams, Harlan Howard, for sure. I like country and folk, I like them both a lot. 





Tom Mason on Pirates and steering The Blue Buccaneer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As musician who have been your lasting influences?

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

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

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

Interview by Stephen Rapid, photograph by Ronnie Norton