Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band's Just like Moby Dick delivers trademark wit (“Houdini Didn't Like the Spiritualists”) and wisdom (“Abandonitis”) fueled by vibrant narratives (“Sailin' on Through”). We recently spoke legendary songwriter about his first new collection in seven years.
“I've never felt an obligation to put out a record every two years,” says Allen, an accomplished visual artist whose sculpture containng late songwriter Guy Clark's ashes soon will be housed at Texas State University's Wittliff Collections. “I've always thought that was some record label promo bullshit.”
Alt-Country Specialty Chart: Explain how the album took shape.
Terry Allen: The songs (are about) a desperation and the different stories that people go through from just being alive. I got stuck trying to figure out the record's sequence until we recorded “Sailin' On Through” and I say, “Just like Moby Dick” at the end. That phrase clicked and clarified how the record ought to feel. I try to make a record be one work because I've always had a hard time thinking of a record as just a bunch of songs.
Sequencing is a lost art.
Yeah. I think it's a digital thing. That's what I loved about (Allen's record label) Paradise of Bachelors. They were all about putting this out on vinyl when they first approached me. I miss the idea of being able to plot a record with Side A and Side B and making the work progress. I think that got lost when CDs came along even though you still had a sequence to work with. Digital blew that all to hell. I think that's why there's been a resurgence in vinyl. People miss the density of a group of songs.
Tell the story behind writing 'Abandonitis.'
Well, you get sick of songs that are just about self-pity. “Abandonitis” is about the fact that everybody goes through bullshit. Might as well get used to it. Deal and move on.
Describe working with Shannon McNally.
This might be the most collaborative record I've ever done. Shannon was great. A bunch of musicians and writers had the opportunity to sit down and write as a group. We pitched each other ideas. Some songs like “All These Blues Go Walkin'” came out of that. I've never really collaborated like that before except maybe in some theater pieces. Shannon is a great singer, very smart, a great writer.
Will you collaborate again?
Well, we just had another session with (the album's producer and longtime Bob Dylan guitarist) Charlie (Sexton) in Marfa and wrote a bunch of songs. Shannon, (Allen's son) Bukka and I wrote a song about Dr. John. She was really close with Dr. John. So, that's something we have on the backburner. I know she wants to go down to New Orleans to record it. Collaborating been a real special surprise to me.
You've known Charlie some time.
Yeah, I've known Charlie since he was a little kid. I've done things with his brother Will, but I've always wanted to do something with him, too. We did a show at the Paramount Theater in Austin and played all these new songs in 2019. I really needed to do something new. I've been wallowing in the past doing so many reissues and exhibitions of older art work lately. Texas Tech took all our archives. It just fell in line for us all to work together on the record.
Speaking of archives, your Guy Clark sculpture will be going to the Wittliff.
Yeah, it is. We're planning something around South by Southwest when we'll be playing (Willie Nelson's) Luck Festival. There will be some kind of commemoration. I wanted to get the sculpture to Texas and that was the best way. I had talked to (archive founder) Bill Wittliff extensively about the piece, but I didn't know if it would be in limbo after he passed. Bill had already prepped them for it, though. They're excited about getting it and I'm excited they'll be getting it.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers' Years fortifies equal measures country (“Good As Gold”) and rock (“New Ways to Fail”) with razor sharp songwriting (the title track). We recently talked with Shook about the new collection, her creative process and growing as a songwriter.
“I've never really written a song with the intention of having it fit a record,” the North Carolina native says. “The song we as a band think are the most cohesive are the ones that go on the record. Some songs on Years were a few years older but a handful are newer.”
Alt-Country Specialty Chart: Tell the story behind writing the title track.
Sarah Shook: I wrote “Years” about two weeks before we went into the studio. I was uneasy and felt like the album was missing something. “Years” was a culmination of the themes and ideas presented earlier in the record and the song tied up things nicely at the end. I think “Years” is the most self-aware track on the record.
Describe the album's common lyrical theme.
There's drinking, murky introspection and relationship conflicts. Writing songs from your own perspective is easy, but I tried to tell the story from the both points of view in the song “Good As Gold.” I put myself in the other person's shoes and had empathy for their perspective. I was trying to understand where things are in this relationship and how and why they got to where they were.
Writing from another perspective probably develops more empathy for people in general.
Absolutely. Writing from another perspective shouldn't be confined to only romantic relationships. (We) should have the ability to see things from someone else's perspective even if you don't agree with them. Then you can empathize and understand why people do what they do, but it's still important to hae boundaries. You shouldn't allow things just because you understand them more. The healthy thing is remove yourself from the situation if the other person isn't respecting those boundaries.
Describe your songwriting process.
Lyrics, melody and chord progressions usually come at the same time. I'll write a loose arrangement and bring the song to the band. Then we collaborate with the arrangement we feel fits the song best. Our bassist Aaron (Oliva) might have an idea for an intro part. (Lap steel guitarist) Phil (Sullivan) and (lead guitarist) Eric (Peterson) might come up with where they want the solos. Everyone contributes to the final arrangement, which is a special finishing touch we have as a band.
Describe how 'New Ways to Fail' took shape.
I was in a failing relationship and was literally so depressed I couldn't get out of bed. I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, as my dad used to say, when I wrote that song. I was aware I was coming to the end of my tether, but I also felt pretty trapped. There's always that fear of the unknown and anxiety with anyone ending a relationship.
You must be working on a new record.
Yeah. Definitely. We've had a few rehearsals, but then we're back on the road. It's been a rollercoster. There really hasn't been time to sit down and rehearse. So, we decided to take this December, January and February off. We just have a couple shows each month. We'll spend the next three months at home and have a pretty rigorous schedule to get songs ready for the next record. I'm really excited about that.
Chris Knight's new Almost Daylight delivers trademark grit (“I'm William Callahan”) and groove (the title track). Knight's soaring melodies have skyrocketed him up the Alt-Country Specialty Chart into November. “That's great,” Knight says. “People hear songs (on the radio) and go, 'I like that song. Who's this guy?' Then they look me up and maybe come to a show or download some music.”
Alt-Country Specialty Chart: Describe how the album came together.
Chris Knight: Some songs had been around. Some were fairly new within the last couple years. Others were songs I forgot about and then found again and rewrote. They were songs I liked but something kept me from recording them. So, I fixed them.
Explain how you know when they're ready.
I know when I don't doubt myself because I don't like a few lines or a melody. You know when they're good enough. Some songs take hours, some take months, others take years. These songs were already in my catalog with my publishers. I listened to a CD that was with a publisher and found the songs.
Tell the story behind writing 'I'm William Callahan.'
I wrote that a long time ago with my friend Tim Krekel. I liked the song and lyrics, but the melody and a few lines weren't right. I thought I could do something with it and completely changed the melody. I changed it to where I really wanted to record it, which is why it ended up the first track on the record.
Explain how essential personal experience is to your writing.
Well, nothing is spot-on biographical, but there are chards of truth about my family, me, people that I've known. You could hear a story that happened two thousand miles away and find something to write about. Take “Down the River” (from Knight's 2001 album A Pretty Good Day). We fish the Green River. My brother and another guy down there are always at odds with each other. You just turn it into a song. I'm not gonna write a song like “Seminole Bingo” by Warren Zevon. I don't know shit about stock markets and drugs other than drugs are bad.
Tell the story behind writing 'Send It on Down.'
I've sat in the bleachers on a football field on a Sunday morning and probably had a quart of Stroh's beer. It's not that uncommon if you grew up where I did. The girls I like are rich, but there's no way they're gonna have anything to do with me. Everybody's experienced stuff like that. I grew up in the woods but went to town on a Saturday night. My daddy didn't own a hardware store and didn't drink, but that's something we thought up to write about.
Describe working with Lee Ann Womack on that song.
Great. She came in ready to go. She came in to sing with me and had a great part ready. It was surprising. I thought she was gonna put a little harmony on but she did almost a duet. I love it.
You've known her a while.
Yeah, I've known her for more than twenty years. We were both on Decca Records and she married Frank Liddell, who got me signed to my first publishing and record deals. I really appreciated her coming down to sing that. We cut that at Ray Kennedy's studio Room and Board. Lee Ann came over one day when Ray and I were doing overdubs. I'm glad I was able to be there when she came in.
John Prine also appears on the record ('Mexican Home').
I've always been a huge John Prine fan. I did a couple shows with him in the northeast years ago. Ray and John are real good friends. I wasn't planning to cut “Mexican Home,” but I thought I'd put one more song on there right at the end. I started playing it and the band fell in. We cut it pretty much in one take. John's a great guy. Listen to his records. He's just like you think he is.
John Schneider effortlessly balances sacred (Recycling Grace) and secular (Redneck Rebel) with a sideways grin. We spoke with the Dukes of Hazard star about the new collection (both released last fall), his new Dukes-themed new movie and singing at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
“I love leaning up against the same brick wall where Bob Willis, Johnny Cash, Little Jimmy Dickens and Willie Nelson – with short hair – leaned at the Ryman,” Schneider says. “Lives have been changed in that room for decades and still are being changed. That place is truly hallowed ground.”
Alt-Country Specialty Chart: Describe how Redneck Rebel took shape.
Kid Rock came to my birthday party. I got up onstage with him and got in touch with my inner wild child. The first song we did was “Duck Blind.” Then we did “Long Way from Lonely” and “Nothing to Do with Love.” It got infectious. (Schneider's wife) Alicia (Allain) and I looked at each other and said, “The crowd is having so much fun. We need to do these.” I also had heard the song “Stoned on the One” by Andrew Pope, which is a hell of a hard song to sing. I didn't know whether I could do it, but we decided to go for it and did the vocal in one pass. That's my favorite thing I've ever done.
Describe the album's common thread.
Fearlessness. I'm enjoying it. People really seem to love “Stoned on the One,” which is such an old school Waylon Jennings-type song. My band Stars 'N' Bars are all over forty and grew up on Southern rock with twin guitar harmonies. They tear it up onstage and inspire me to really go for it especially on songs like “Southern Rock Survivor” and “Backwoods Soul.” I get stronger but also raspier the more shows we do. I'm more proud of how the album sounds, but I honestly believe we're better live.
Explain exactly how you live fearlessly.
Whiskey (laughs). Actually, I do gargle with bourbon and (drink) it when I sing. I put a little lemon and honey in the whiskey and it seems I get less and less fearful the more I gargle. The magic for your voice is eating the lemon rind, which is pretty darn good after sitting in the whiskey and honey.
Describe how Johnny Cash guided you toward the new gospel album.
Johnny and I did (the made-for-television Western) Stagecoach together in 1986. Then I lived at their house for a year and change while I was touring in 1987. I said, “John, people are asking me to do a gospel record.” “Well,” he said, “you should. You will.” “When?” “Don't worry,” he said. “You'll know when it's time to do it. You won't be able to not to.” Alicia and I were at a friend's funeral three decades later and one of the Blind Boys of Alabama sang what's been a favorite rendition of “Amazing Grace” for both of us, which is that song done to “House of the Rising Sun.”
B.J. Thomas was also at the funeral. “By the way,” he said as we were walking out, “you really need to do a gospel album.” That was the straw that broke the camel's back – in a good way. Johnny was right. I looked up in the sky and said, “You were right. We gotta do this now.” People started sending us great material like “Recycling Grace” as soon as they found out we were doing a gospel record. It took thirty years, but it was easy once we started. I'm singing higher and stronger than ever with absolutely no fear on songs like “House of Amazing Grace.” You just go for it when you sing a song to god and it's praise and hope it's a joyful noise (laughs).
You close the album with a real standard “I'll Fly Away”).
Oh, isn't that great? We all went for it and had such a great time. The band was all in the room at the same time when we did “House of Amazing Grace” and “I'll Fly Away.,” which was like having church while we recorded at Sound Kitchen in Cool Springs, Tennessee. Everybody came to worship. We're getting wonderful responses that it's people's new favorite worship album. We had somebody say that it reminded them of (the gospel choir) God's Property because it has that big vibe in songs like “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down.”
Meanwhile, you have the new Christmas movie inspired by Dukes of Hazard.
Yeah, I was writing a book called My Life, My Way. Alecia said, “You know, it's the fortieth anniversary of Dukes of Hazard. Why don't you incorporate all this stuff into a Dukes-themed script for Christmas?” I stopped writing the book when the title Christmas Cars for the movie came to me. There couldn't possibly be a better title for Dukes fans. I play Uncle Denver in honor of Denver Pyle, who was Uncle Jesse on Dukes, and we put songs like “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” and “House of Amazing Grace” in it The great thing about a movie: You can put in any music you want. Why not put your own in there?
The Mavericks' vibrant Play the Hits interprets classics from country (John Andserson's “Swingin'”) to rock (Bruce Springsteen's “Hungry Heart”) and back again (Waylon Jennings' “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”). We spoke to guitarist Eddie Perez about the record and what's next for the band.
“We've been working hard on a documentary film that tells the history of the band for the last year and a half,” Perez says. “We also might release an all-Spanish record this year, which would be the first Mavericks record in Spanish. Plus, we're getting ready to go on XM radio's Outlaw Country cruise.”
Alt-Country Specialty Chart: Explain how the new album came together.
Eddie Perez: These songs have been influential in different degrees. They had to have a resonance with our front man Raul (Malo). We've been playing them on the road and fans have said, “Hey, we'd love to hear a recorded version of that song.” We started going into the studio last year when we were off the road and experimenting with some covers then that snowballed into this record once we got the energy going. We were thinking about the songs that pertain to the energy and spirit of the Mavericks.
Describe the song selection process.
We have many other covers that find their way onto a Mavericks set list from time to time, but these are the ones we felt most connected to and related most to Raul. The singer is putting that energy across, so the lyric and melody have to have a resonance with him. Raul guided this process. We figured a covers record would be a good thing.
Explain what drew you to 'Swingin'.”.
That was such a massive song for John Anderson back in the day and it resonated with the band. Country music still had a certain sound and connection when the band was formed in 1989. “Swingin'” was always around back then. We'd performed it a time or two and had put our Maverick sound on it before we knew it. What a fun song to do. People dig it live. It was a big influence on us.
Describe how you approach the arrangements.
Well, the songs are all great in their own rights. People will say, “Why cover that song?” Raul stepped back a little – much to his credit – and allowed a band that plays a hundred-plus shows a year the time to get in the studio and experiment. He had great arrangement ideas, but it really is a collective effort. He allows the energy for individuality and we benefit from playing together so much.
Did you find it challenging or freeing to interpret covers?
It can be all kinds of things. I think our close proximity and comaraderie helps. There's not a lot of spoken dialogue about what we're doing. It's just the energy we have like we all speak the same language and we're all drawing on the same musical ideas and principles. There's a certain taste factor for what we do. There's a reason for all of it. It comes down to the sum of the parts for me.
That certainly applies to your cover of 'Hungry Heart.'
Thanks. Yeah, we're all big Springsteen fans, which goes back to the mid-seventies when I was first turned on to music. My father was a big music fan and he was into Bruce. We all have the same reverence for The Boss. We've recorded Springsteen songs in the past, but Raul just felt a connection with this one. He felt like he had a great twist on the melody and style. I feel like we did something in our unique Mavericks way.
I met Steve Earle at Guy Clark's house in Nashville. He was about eighteen years old and talking a mile a minute all the time. Steve clearly was a natural songwriter. His heroes were Guy and Townes, so he had a good basis for storytelling and the Texas songwriter tradition. I'd run into him in bars and talk about this and that. I think Steve liked the danger of Townes and clearly revered Guy. Everything revolved around Bishop's Pub for me. Guy lived near there and would come by now and again.
Guy might come in if Townes was around, but I don't remember Steve actually playing there. It seemed Steve was bouncing back and forth between Texas and Nashville. The Exit/Inn was going on and you'd run into those guys there. I remember talking with Steve at this place called Jock's and he was just going ninety miles an hour about something. I was worn out from doing whatever I was doing and I just said, “Steve, stop. Take a breath. Count to ten.” He was young and full of life.
I hadn't seen him in a couple years. I said, “Hey, Steve, how you doing?” I was thinking he'd do the time honored response: “Fine and you?” Except “How you doing?” to Steve is like the first line in a Russian novel. Two hours later, I'm still standing there listening to how he's doing. That's just how he is. At any point, you can say, “Hey, Give it a drink, Steve.” I saw him the other night on TV in the movie Leaves of Grass. I was thinking, He's really good. It took me a while and I think it took other people a while to realize Steve wasn't just blowing smoke when he was talking. There's a whole lot going on there. I think once he did Guitar Town that became clear to a lot of people. I remember hearing him do “Tom Ames' Prayer,” a very tight narrative story. I guess you would call it a dramatic monologue. It's very well done. I think he was nineteen when he wrote it.
It's a huge honor that he would perform my song “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.” I think in that time period – from the late seventies to early eighties – there were people writing song who were really struggling to get the right lyric. It doesn't mean that they were really stilted, they just worked really hard at things and the way you felt they ought to be said. It seems like songwriting today is just a lot of things blurted out. Sometimes that can work but back then Guy and Townes and John Hiatt, the goal is to write a song with natural sounding poignancy. I think people worked on that aspect. I think that's what Steve was talking about with “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.” I appreciate that another writer like Steve appreciates my lyrics.
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