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Lucero’s When You Found Me Soars High
Lucero’s When You Found Me pulls (“Have You Lost Your Way?”) and punches (“Outrun the Moon”) with incendiary highway fury. We recently spoke with lead singer Ben Nichols about the ways similarly seeking literature informs his writing.
“I will lift lines directly out of literature sometimes and put them in my songs,” the Memphis-based singer-songwriter says. “In fact, I had many songs inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. So many good lines made great lyrics.”
Alt-Country Specialty Chart: You turned those into an entire solo album.
Ben Nichols: Yeah, I ended up writing the entire Last Pale Light in the West album about that book. I went through and found my favorite lines and scenes and put them in the songs. The phrase “last pale light in the west” is after the main action in the book when the main character called the kid is walking out on the plains. He looks over and sees the sun going down. I thought “last pale light in the west” was beautiful.
Explain what other characters in Blood Meridian stood out.
There was one story that was about a character who was in there for two pages out of this six hundred page book. His whole life story is told in one paragraph, which was amazing. I added to it and that became “Chambers,” which is about a guy who fought in the Mexican war and ended up with a group of scalp hunters who were the main subject in Blood Meridian. He story takes place out side of theirs, but it inspired me. The way McCarthy writes in general is very inspiring.
Describe his greatest strength as a writer.
McCarthy is just on another level. Blood Meridian takes place in the 1840s and 1850s, and the language he uses seems like it could have existed for all eternity. It seems like a novel that has always existed. McCarthy uses some pretty big, archaic words. I think he sometimes uses words that aren’t even in the English language. They’re definitely not in the Oxford English dictionary, but you don’t really need to know the specific meanings the way he uses them.
Explain what drew you to the story in general.
Blood Meridian gives a western a historical seriousness, significance, and biblical weight. You wrap that up with a spaghetti western feel? Oh yeah. That’s hard for me to resist. McCarthy has become a bar to shoot for in my own writing even though I know I’ll never attain that level in the same way I want to write rock and roll songs like Bruce Springsteen, heartbreak songs like Willie Nelson, and dark songs like Townes Van Zandt.
Describe your ultimate goal as a songwriter.
I strive for a universal quality as a songwriter. I like songs that could have been written in any era no matter the music and lyrics that exists on their own without the music. Song lyrics are poems. You put a certain chord progression underneath them and give them a vocal melody that these three simple words become life changing. Melodies speak directly to our emotions.
– Brian T. Atkinson
Gretchen Peters' The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury swaggers (“Leavin' Kentucky”) and sways (the title track) with compelling immediacy (“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”). The album spotlights her primary songwriting influence.
“I think of Mickey as the country version of Leonard Cohen,” the longtime Nashville resident says. “He has very Cohenesque verses in his songs. Those are the ones that really drew me to them for this record that I made. I think Mickey's in the top three pure genius songwriters in country music history.”
Alt-Country Specialty Chart: Explain how you found Mickey Newbury.
Gretchen Peters: I discovered Mickey Newbury in my late teens in the late Seventies when I was living in Boulder, Colorado. The country hippie thing was happening in the Colorado music scene with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Flying Burrito Brothers, and everything that grew up from that branch of the tree. I hadn't been exposed to that when I was a kid, but I found a guy who owned a little record shop. He figured out I was interested in learning about this. I'd go in there once a week, we'd go in the back room and he'd throw records into my hand. Newbury's records came into my possession in that process.
Describe your first impressions.
Mickey was a link between the folk music I'd grown up with and the country music I had completely fallen head over heels for. This may sound like a cliché, but the first thing that drew me into his songs was his deep well of sadness. There was something deeply moving and sad about his songs, and I've always been very attracted to those qualities. I identified with him on a very cellular level. I'm sure I couldn't put it into words then, but I've spent time thinking about it the past couple years as I've been doing this record. I think he had this vision of himself as an artist.
You obviously agree with the many who feel Newbury was underappreciated.
Yeah. People who know about Mickey know how great he was, but I do feel sad that he's not really given his due in Nashville outside a small coiterie of songwriters and musicians. Honestly, they're from an older generation now. I'm sure a lot is that Mickey left Nashville (and moved to Oregon at the height of his success). Also, Mickey rejected what Nashville was about and I don't think that sat well with a lot of people. However, everybody who knows anything about country music will acknowledge what a brilliant songwriter he was. He's in the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame.
Describe how this record finally took shape.
I had been thinking about doing an album of Mickey's songs for about fifteen years. I just said, “It's now or never.” I realized concurrently that Cinderella Sound Studio, which is the studio where Mickey recorded all those great records from the late sixties and early seventies, is still a working, operating studio run by the owner Wayne Moss. Wayne played on those Mickey records and has all the Mickey Newbury stories that you want. Also, he's a renowned guitar player who played the famous guitar riff on Roy Orbison's “Pretty Woman.” I've taken people into Cinderella who I know would appreciate what went on in there, which is like a living, working museum.
Describe how the recording experience went.
We went in blind and it was magic. The place basically hasn't changed since 1969. The studio itself is in a converted garage in Madison, Tennessee. Linda Ronstadt recorded her first album there. Steve Miller recorded there. The list of people will blow your mind. There's gear and memoribilia from all those eras. In fact, Linda Rondstadt used the bathroom as a vocal booth, which I did on this album. It was the best room to get isolation on the vocals. I'm a big believer that places – especially studios – hold magic in their walls. Once I figured out that we could do that and we cut three tracks there and that we got something really great, I thought, We gotta do this.
Explain how you approached interpreting his songs.
I had to feel my way around interpreting Mickey's songs. I wanted permission to play around with the song structures a little bit when I needed to, and I talked with several people who know Mickey. I knew that he fooled around with his songs all the time because I listened to all kinds of bootleg recordings. He would take lines from one song and put it into another. He would change titles. Sometimes his songs structually were strange once you got down in there and looked, partly because he would produce a song on his own records more like a pastiche.
Must have been a challenge taking on songs by such an amazing singer.
He was such an operatic singer with an incredible voice. I had to get away from his records and sit down with my guitar and go, “Okay. If I had written this song, how would I have recorded it? How would I sing it?” I didn't lay down any parameters as far as which songs to do. They didn't have to be hits. I cut some of the later, folkier ones that he wrote. I found the songs that I identified deeply with and went with those. I have to admit that some of the more straight ahead country songs definitely were a challenge but turned out the best. My god, his singing was every bit as genius as his writing.
– Brian T. Atkinson
Whitney Rose's We Still Go to Rodeos sails (“Just Circumstance”) and soars (the title track) with effortless elegance. We caught up with the South Austin resident to talk about the new collection, her all-star producer and watching her biggest touring year evaporate during the COVID-19 crisis.
“It's been a little heartbreaking sitting at home and seeing all the show cancellations that come in pretty much daily,” Rose says. “Everything was normal just a few months ago. This was supposed to be my busiest year, so seeing all that go away has been a little disheartening.”
Alt-Country Specialty Chart: Describe how the new record took shape.
Whitney Rose: I keep a list of my songs that haven't been recorded and also went through this insane writing spurt. The team for Paul Kolderie (Radiohead, Lou Reed, Uncle Tupelo), who produced the record, serendipitously reached out around that time. He's based in upstate New York and I happened to be traveling through New York right after that. I looked into him and we agreed to do lunch. I had a bunch of very, very fresh tunes, so why not? We met and I adored him and gave him some demos that I'd made at home. He said he'd be happy to make a record with the tunes. “Okay,” I said. “Let's do it.”
Paul has an impressive resume.
Yeah, he has a very, very impressive resume and some really great stories, but unfortunately those aren't mine to tell. You know, there are so many horror stories about being in the studio, but I must have a horseshoe stuck up my ass. Obviously, I've had some stressful moments, but I've never had a negative studio experience. Paul was always pleasant and always had good ideas as well as being respectful of my imput. That means a lot to any artist recording the songs you've written.
Explain how these songs fit together.
Making records is so funny because they're so dependant on some days in the studio. Maybe you're supposed to be recording a really upbeat song, but you're not feeling it. So, you offer a different track. “Yes,” you say, “this is the one we ought to tackle.” It wasn't, “Oh, this is better than that song.” It's more that everybody in the band is feeling this one today. We record all the beds live on the floor and add other things later. Everyone's mood is so important – at least to me. I feel like that comes across.
Recording live is the way to go.
Oh god, yes. I can't imagine doing it any other way. I'm interested in learning other ways to do it, but I've never done any other way.
Tell the story behind writing 'Just Circumstance.'
I've spoken to my songwriter friends who travel a lot. We all watch crime television. You don't always get the food you want or see the people you want, but I'm convinced that by being on the road a lot you have one constant: HLN is always there with Forensic Files. The narrator (Peter Thomas) has become like a lullabye for me. HLN is always on a different channel, which can be a pain in the ass if you're a little tired or really tired or maybe a little stoned or really stoned. You have to flip through to find his voice and fall asleep at a reasonable hour. True crime got my into watching Orange Is the New Black. I started watching that around the time I wrote this tune. I became really interested in the criminal justice system and the experiences for imprisoned women. Some stories out there are crazy.
Interesting that true crime lulls you to sleep.
Yeah, I'm fully aware that it's very weird, but his voice is so lulling and soothing. I'll watch a couple episodes if I'm not totally tired. Sometimes I'll just watch an episode if I'm really tired. I'll go to sleep within thirty seconds.
So, that opens the album. Explain why you closed with the title track.
It wasn't overly intentional. The name of the title track originally was “Things We Ain't Got.” I was listening to my final masers and I heard the line “we still go to rodeos,” which punched me in the face because it could mean so many different things. Now it's weird because none of us can go to actual rodeos right now, but it stuck me as being symbolic that there's always something good.
Also, I never like to be too precious about naming songs. I just thought it was a cool song and record title because there's a lot of heartbreak on the record. I wanted the title to show that I'm not a huge curmudgeon. Things can drag on for way too long if you get precious. It's not the last record I'll make by a long shot and I wanted to get it done so why not?
Yeah. Hopefully, you'll get to tour the record at some point.
Yeah (laughs). I hope so, too, but I just keep reminding myself that everyone I love is healthy and not everyone is having that experience. I would never complain about it because that would be really shitty. I lost a few gigs? It's a lot less than some people are losing.
- Brian T. Atkinson
Mando Saenz crafts narratives with equal measures heart (“Cautionary Tale”) and home (“All My Shame”). The top Nashville songwriter – whose songs have been recorded by Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack, Stoney LaRue and many more will showcase each on his as-yet-untitled forthcoming album tentatively due by year's end.
We caught up with Saenz last week to talk about how the new collection took shape. “My management at the time with the backing of my publisher Frank Liddell booked some time with producer Ken Coomer to make a five-song EP,” the longtime Nashville resident says. “Basically we were just wanting to get some new content out there since it had been awhile since my last record."
So, you've extended your EP into a full length.
Yeah. After tracking those songs I was pleased with the direction and the treatment. We were taking creative risks, which seemed to work well with the songs I had been writing. I thought it would be good to go ahead and track another batch and make it a full-length project while we were in a good place
Were these all new songs or ones you have been working on?
A bit of both. They were new in the sense that they were written after my last record, but some had been around for awhile. I had to go through everything I’d written since my Studebaker record, most of which were work tapes in my voice memos. There had to be at least 60 songs, so yeah some of them went back awhile.
Tell the story behind writing 'Cautionary Tale.'
I wrote “Cautionary Tale” with Zach Dubios. We started fresh with this one, playing a progression that led itself to some cool melodic vocals and random lyrics. The title “Cautionary Tale” was spat out. Apparently that title has been used before, but I don’t care. We kept writing lines supporting the title in circles. We changed the cadence in chorus while not leaving the circle. The lyrics are abstract but simple and right there in front of you. “Fool me once, shame on you. Do it again, what’s a fool to do?”
Describe the albums common lyrical theme.
This record has a lot more co-writes than any of my others. Mainly because I had been co-writing so much for my publisher. I think we picked these songs, however, because they had a lot of my point of view in them lyrically. As far a common theme, I would say your typical glimpse into the inner landscape dealing with love, fear, weakness & strengths. Which I guess I’ve always kind of written about. But at the end of the day it’s all over the place. Which I honestly don’t mind. Too much of the same thing might lose interest.
Tell the story behind writing 'All My Shame.'
I wrote this with Chris Coleman. He showed up with a kick drum, so that helped set the groove. I’d known Chris for a bit but had never played music with him. We just started jamming and let the kick lead the way, which makes sense now when I hear it. I started mumbling unwritten lyrics, which I like to do. “All My Shame” must’ve came out in what we thought might be the chorus. Then we started talking about how the title related to us in the sense of writing and performing and putting yourself out there naked in a sense. It’s empowering as much as it is frightening at times. This song celebrates the empowering side of it. I always think of strippers when I play it for some reason.
Explain how these songs show your evolution as a songwriter.
I think lyrically these songs may be a bit cleaner than my older stuff. They're less vague. However, it could be argued that there’s a certain charm to not being too literal. I think co-writing lends itself to cleaner lyrics because it has to make sense to everyone in the room. These songs are still pretty open to interpretation though. I’ll always cling to that quality I think. I did take some musical liberties with some of these tunes. They're ideas a bit left of what I’ve done before.
Explain how the pandemic situation has affected your songwriting.
I’ve been writing a lot more on my own, which has been nice. Along with the occasional writing session on Zoom and a weekly live stream, I’ve kept fairly busy. I've been getting back to writing mostly on my own has been the biggest change though. It really hasn’t been much different for me. Writing has always been a form of escape. I tend not to think about everything going on when writing lately. In fact, it takes me away from it all.
Talk about your tour plans when you can get back out on the road.
I plan on touring heavy in the states as soon as possible. Pre-release and beyond. I’ve gotten a lot of interesting from the UK as well to play there when it’s safe, so that is definitely on the horizon a few months after my release.
- Brian T. Atkinson
Kinky Friedman's appropriately titled Resurrection marks his eighth release since millennium's turn. The legendary raconteur's late-career resurgence – including the studio albums The Loneliest Man I Ever Met (2015) and Circus of Life (2018) follows a relative dry spell as a songwriter from the eighties through the nineties. Following is an excerpt from Friedman's chapter in Brian T. Atkinson's recent book The Messenger: The Songwriting Legacy of Ray Wylie Hubbard (Texas A&M University Press).
Kinky Friedman: Ray Wylie Hubbard and I are about the only two musicians from Texas with an inherent sense of humor. I remember finding Ray very funny onstage and off. That was a rarity. Others have a sense of humor but don't reveal it. You don't know that Willie is a really funny guy if you just watch the show, but he could do a pretty good standup act. Ray Wylie and I are so funny that it's really a curse. I think it would have been a more financial pleasure for both of us if we had been serious, pompous-ass motherfuckers to start with. Although now, I'm passing into what could be a real hot air for the Kinkster. Happens every ten years. I get hot. Ray and I did a lot of shit together, but the problem is that I've forgotten the first half of my life. I'm seventy-three now. People get confused. I never recorded “Redneck Mother.” They see me doing “They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” and they think they saw Kinky doing “Redneck Mother.” That's always been true of the public. You do The Tonight Show, and they think they saw you on something else. The public and the media never quite get it right. They think the wrong person did that song. The only ones who ever get it right are Ray and Kinky, and sometimes I'm not so sure about Ray. That was pretty good. The last thing I said right there is the first thing that's made sense.
“Redneck Mother” was a watershed song, one that pushed the spiritual envelope a little and really rung true. It's also fun and funny. “Redneck Mother” was calculated just enough to not succeed as much as “Muskrat [Candlelight]” by Willis Alan Ramsey. It's not gonna be a mainstream commercial success, but it does avoid nostalgia. It's been a long time and the song still holds up. I don't wish I would have written it, though. I think there's only one song I wish I'd written, and I can't remember the title of it. If you find it, let me know. It wouldn't probably be a Ray song. You can tell Ray has a mixed audience of people, a mixed race audience. He appeals to Jewish homosexuals as well as African-Americans. He appeals to a lot of young people, which is good to see.
Ray and I weren't competitive. He was funny a lot of the time, and I think that'll always cost you. If you're gonna come on as Weird Al Yankovich, that's the way to go. Everything you do should be weird and funny. You should understand that you're never gonna be accepted as a serious writer. As Billy Joe Shaver would say, Ray Wylie and I are both serious souls who nobody takes seriously. There are some who do take us seriously, but they're probably living at the Shalom Retirement Village right now or the Bandera Home for the Bewildered. Are you getting all this? It's pure genius. What I'm saying is incredible. I didn't realize I was this spiritual. Like all good songwriters, you've gotta be miserable to write a good satirical song like “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” If you're happy, you can forget about it. I suggest that anyone who wants to write, whether it's satirical or not, should first make sure they're miserable. It isn't hard. I think Flaubert's recipe for happiness is that you have to have three things: You have to be stupid, selfish and have good health. If stupidity is lacking, all is lost. You need those three elements. I think Lauren Bacall stated it differently. She said the key to happiness is good health and a bad memory. That's pretty wise. Writing satirical stuff is really pointless.
Ray going from country to blues is a real strange thing to do. That's akin to Bob Dylan [going electric] at Newport [in 1965]. I'd forgotten how much Bob Dylan was booed the first time he went on tour with The Band [then known as The Hawks in 1966]. They were booed at every show and Levon [Helm] was complaining, “What is the point of this shit if they end up booing us at every single show?” Then he did another tour with The Band years later [in 1974] and it was an amazing success. People were holding up their cigarette lighters. Fuck 'em and feed 'em Fruit Loops. You can't worry about that. Ray's definitely a serious soul and it looks like he's transitioned smoothly to blues. I find the blues stultifyingly dull myself. There are people who are not fucking bored by it like Bob Dylan. He loves the blues, but I wouldn't go to a blues show. Well, I might go, but I might blow my fucking head off.
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.
Southern Culture on the Skids rocks fast (“Whip It on Me”) and furiously (“Certain Girl”) throughout Kudzu Records Presents. Covers transcend (“Devil with the Blue Dress On”). We recently spoke with SCOTS front man Rick Miller.“We actually have two new records called Kudzu Records Presents and At Home with Southern Culture on the Skids,” Miller says. “Kudzu is half a reissue. The first six songs already were a box set of singles – three forty-fives on press-on vinyl.”
Alt-Country Specialty Chart: Explain how you recorded Kudzu. Rick Miller: We recorded it on sixteen track two-inch tape, mixed it down to two-inch tape, which I edited. Then I drove the tape to Nashville. I had a guy there with an old Neumann lathe who cut the laquer masters from the tape right there. Then I took it to United Pressing and they plated it that day. That was an education in vinyl production. Everything was analog.
Vinyl keeps regaining popularity. Yeah, We only did a thousand and those records sold out immediately. People started asking if it could be available as a digital download or a compact disc, so we added seven new recordings and put it out as a full-length album. We used the same artwork as we did back in 2003 except the insides.
Talk about who you worked with in Nashville. His name is Randy Kling. Randy has this tiny place right on Music Row where we dubbed the tape on an MCI two-track. I sat there and watched him cut it, which was amazing. He was close to retiring, but his sons might do something now. I said, “Randy, you’ve cut vinyl and made masters for so long. What do you think the best sounding vinyl was?” His answer wasn’t what I expected.
And his answer was...I thought he was gonna say, “It was those big, old 180-gram vinyls we used to make back in the fifties.” No. He said, “The best sounding vinyl is that really flimsy stuff we used to have back in the eighties.” He said the formula for making vinyl was perfect then. There may be people who say, “I don’t know about that.”
Like how some artists listen back through crappy sound systems on purpose. Exactly right. That’s why NS-10 (amplifiers) are in every studio. You’ll have these beautiful speakers and really high tech monitors with two crappy NS-10s sitting on top. It’s like how we always had a CD player in our van, which was our final go-to (when mixing albums). We would burn a CD, pop it into the old Econoline van and listen on speakers that had coffees spilled on them. That was our bottom line. I had an old Sony cassette player with RCA inputs for the longest time. I would hook up our big MCI board into it to listen to our records. People listen to music that way. Well, now they’re listening on crappy sounding ear buds.
You guys have always done vinyl, right?Yeah, we did every record on vinyl when nobody was doing it, but now we can’t really afford it. Vinyl costs so much money and takes so long to make and sell because it’s way more expensive. I don’t know if people really listen to vinyl so much as collect it. Records all come with digital downloads now. I still listen to vinyl, have a huge collection and a nice turntable. Some people like me still listen to vinyl.
– Brian T. Atkinson
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