Bob Schneider: The Ugly American Grows Up (Texas Music Magazine, Summer 2001)

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Bob Schneider on the cover of Texas Music Magazine, Summer 2001. (Photo by Jimmy Bruch)

The World According to Bob

Bob Schneider spent 10 years establishing his reputation as the wildest showman in the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Then he cut the crap and got down to the serious business of being himself.

By Richard Skanse

When Bob Schneider answers a question, he frequently opens with a point “A.”

“A,” he’ll begin, explaining why touring these days is a more tolerable experience than it used to be, “we’re not traveling in a van. When you’re traveling in a van, it makes everything more difficult …”

He’ll then ride the topic out for another couple of minutes, listing or detailing other relevant factors (e.g., “Plus, I’m just having a lot more fun playing the music I’m playing now …”), but it’s worth nothing that there is never a specific point “B.” He either lets point “A” blur into a loosely related tangent that takes on a life of its own, or says all he wants to say with point “A” and moves on to a new topic.

Few things about Bob Schneider seem to make sense, but this does. Any music fan in Austin who’s ever tried to keep up with the guy’s career as he habitually jumps from one band and musical genre to another will tell you it’s entirely within character for him. For as surely as Bob has spent the last 10 years building a reputation as one of the most dynamic and popular showmen in the “Live Music Capital of the World,” he’s also become somewhat of a local poster boy for Attention Deficit Disorder. 

Many of the things that go into making Bob “Bob” seem contradictory, but his hometown popularity and chronic restlessness are entirely dependent on each other. It’s the constant need for change that keeps Bob wired and at the top of his game, and it’s because of his success that his short attention span is such a local in-joke. In a town as music friendly as Austin, lots of musicians band-hop and test-drive different styles. But when Bob shifts gears, people here take note. And, more significantly, they follow him wherever he goes. Sometimes it takes people a little while to figure out exactly what he’s doing and catch up to him, but once they do, Schneider’s latest band inevitably ends up being the hottest night out in town. 

He’s a one-man phenomenon, the pied piper of Austin who’s fronted four of the city’s most popular bands in recent memory — Lonelyland, the Scabs, the Ugly Americans, and Joe Rockhead — and released the best-selling album in the 19-year history of Waterloo Records, the city’s premier music store. “You can call me Bob,” goes the punchline to “Batman,” a poplar song in his live set, and it’s a testament to his familiarity in Austin that people do not say Bob Schneider, but just Bob. Like Waylon, Willie, and Doug. Bob. 

When people call you by your first name, they figure they know you. They make assumptions about who you are: some good, some bad. People in Austin assume they know Bob Schneider, but their assumptions are as predictably varied as the many guises Bob has worn and cast off over and over again. He’s the sexist pig who dates one of America’s best-loved sweethearts. He’s the foul-mouthed frontman of the city’s most notorious party band, and the guy who sings that pretty “Metal and Steel” song that’s been on heavy rotation on KGSR (FM 107.1) ever since the White House was just a pipe dream for George W. He’s the hardest-working man on the local music scene and a lazy bum who owes his success to his famous girlfriend. He’s the nicest performer you’ll ever meet after a show and a bit of an aloof jerk. He’s a genius, he’s a hack. 

Bob’s heard all of these, and readily allows that if he too were watching Bob Schneider from a distance, he might make some of the same assumptions himself. Some he might agree with, others get under his skin, but for the most part, he maintains a detached attitude of, “eh, whatever.” It goes with the territory of being a public figure, a rock star. And Bob Schneider has assumed himself a rock star since long before anybody else bothered to assume anything about him at all.

ANATOMY OF A ROCK STAR, Part 1
Give the People What They Want

It’s a Friday afternoon in May, and Bob Schneider and band are doing a soundcheck at Austin’s storied blues club, Antone’s. He knows the room well, having spent the better part of the last three or four years playing this stage two or three times a week. Bob has played Antone’s so many times, in fact, that parts of the club look like a shrine to all things Schneider. To the right of the stage, just behind the soundboard, a wall is adorned with a giant circular logo for Bob’s old band the Ugly Americans. Below it is a sign for another band of Bob’s, the Scabs, picturing the group in their trademark Reservoir Dogs-style black suits over the legend, “It’s your world and we’re just here to rock the shit out of it.” Over at the merchandise counter, an entire shelf is devoted to Scabs and Schneider paraphernalia. If not for the Doug Sahm and Stevie Ray Vaughan portraits balancing things out, the joint could be mistaken for Bob’s answer to Dollywood. 

But for all the countless occasions Bob has played here over the years, tonight’s show is special, a sort of homecoming. Bob and Antone’s — and the rest of Austin, for that matter — haven’t seen much of each other lately because he’s been on the road supporting the major-label re-release of Lonelyland, the solo album makeover that introduced Bob’s music to the Austin City Limits and AAA radio set and sold an impressive 15,000 copies as an indie release (mostly at a single record store). Needless to say, his fans are overdue for a fix, and the club will be packed. People will begin lining up outside hours before Bob takes the stage at midnight. “His absence has only fortified the hometown crowd by leaps and bounds,” says Antone’s general manager Brad First. “We’ve been getting calls all week about this show.”

Tonight’s performance is billed as the Bob Schneider Show, essentially an electrified version of the Lonelyland band Bob started in early ’99 as an outlet for the more introspective, singer-songwriter type songs he was writing that didn’t fit either the Ugly Americans or the Scabs. Now, with the Ugly Americans defunct and the Scabs seemingly on the brink of being phased out as well, the Bob Schneider Show is a catch-all affair. The set tonight will be heavy on the side of what one might call grown-up Bob songs (identified as the ones loosely reminiscent of Sting and Bob’s musical idol, Tom Waits, or more specifically, the ones not explicitly about the female anatomy and sex acts), but still loaded with enough hard funk and blue material from the back catalog to keep the kids happy. This is a paramount concern for Bob, and always has been. His motives have matured a lot over the last decade, even over the last year, but the primary goal for every show remains unchanged: “Give the people what they want.”

Brad First, who had a hand in managing both the Scabs and Bob’s older band, Joe Rockhead, notes that Bob’s commitment to crowd-pleasing has been intact since day one. “Certain things about his act have gotten refined a little bit since then,” he says, “but he was always a showman, jumping around and always very aware of how important it is to bring the audience into the performance onstage with you: not to perform for the air over anyone’s head, but right there at the crowd.” 

Joe Rockhead was not Bob’s first band upon his arrival in Austin at the end of the ’80s, fresh from dropping out of the University of Texas at El Paso after guest lecturer Terry Allen told his art class that studying art was a sorry excuse for not actually doing it. During his first few years in Austin, while he was working at a couple of different T-shirt screen printing companies, Bob figures he moved in and out of maybe 10 bands “that came and went in the blink of an eye.” But Joe Rockhead was the first to stick, the first to be successful enough for Bob to quit his day job. When he talks about the band today, some eight years after the group broke up, Bob lights up like one recounting a first true love.

“I poured my heart into that band, and at the time it was definitely the best thing I’d ever done,” he says. “I totally believed in it, and I was heartbroken when the band broke up. It was just devastating to me. I put so much energy into that thing, I thought it was the coolest band in the world.” 

He wasn’t alone. “Joe Rockhead was the best band to ever come out of Austin,” says Wayne Sutton, former guitarist with the recently disbanded Sister Seven. Sister Seven — then known as Little Sister — arose out of the early ’90s Sixth Street funk scene at the same time as Joe Rockhead. Both bands (along with Soul Hat) were mainstays at the Black Cat, and as Sutton remembers it, trying to keep up with Bob Schneider and gang could be brutal. “Joe Rockhead was the band you didn’t want to play before, and you never wanted to have to follow.”

Joe Rockhead was also a band you didn’t want to have to clean up after, thanks to Bob’s habit of preparing food like hot dogs and peanut butter sandwiches onstage and throwing them out to the audience. “I just did it to be special,” he says simply. Such gimmicks — he favors the word “tricks” — quickly became a hallmark for Bob, who maintains that he’s always believed that “presentation is 98 percent of what makes rock ’n’ roll great; content, two percent.”

“When I got here in the ’80s, there was a ton of bands doing the craziest shit in the world,” he recalls. “I’d go see Miracle Room, and they’d have power tools and cut open metal trash cans onstage, which would sent out hot, deadly shrapnel into the audience which could have blinded people. And bands like Crust, where the guy would like, fuck a cow skull and burn his testicle hair off with a Bic lighter. That was the shit that I loved. I was never that crazy. I didn’t want to shock anybody to death — but I did want them to have a good time. That’s been key all along. The thing that separates good from great is pretty huge, but I think the thing that separates great from truly great is super small. If you go that extra step, it makes all the difference in the world. I want every show to be something that people will tell their grandkids about.”

If any single Bob performance lingers in people’s minds that long, it will likely be the Joe Rockhead reunion gig in October 1999. They reformed strictly to do the honors of closing the last night of Sixth Street’s legendary Steamboat, where they had moved their residency shortly before breaking up in 1992 after their crowd grew too large for the Black Cat.

“They tore it down,” marvels David Cotton, who booked bands at the Steamboat for 18 years. “They rehearsed for about a month for that one show. Bob brought in a lot of food — tomato soup and I don’t know what else, but after the show there was three inches of goo throughout the building. And Bob was buff for that show, too, like he’d gone into training for the show. His energy was amazing — he’d run up the side of the walls like a skateboard kid.”

“I had forgotten how powerful that band was,” Bob says. “And how angry I was at the time when I was writing all those songs. All of those songs were totally based on anger — just me screaming about how pissed off I was at everything. I definitely wouldn’t want to be touring the country playing in a band like Joe Rockhead now, because it’s not who I am now. But I look at the lyrics that I was writing back then and they’re as good as anything I write today.”

What was he so pissed off at the time that inspired those songs? “The same things that piss me off now,” he laughs. “When you’re young, you’ve got a lot of energy and a lot of piss and vinegar anyway, and I was always really concerned with being right. And if you spend all your time concerned with being right, you’re going to spend most of your time completely pissed off at the world, when the fact of the matter is the world is the way it is and it’s perfect the way it is. But I didn’t really see eye to eye with the world, and maybe as I’ve gotten older I can appreciate the way the world is a little bit more and see the beauty of it.”

Or, as he puts it more succinctly in one of the strongest tracks off of Lonelyland, The world exploded into love all around me / And every time I look around me / I have to smile.”

ANATOMY OF A ROCK STAR, Part 2
Bob’s Wild Years on the Road to Lonelyland

The pretty blonde propositioning Bob is not the first young woman to confront him moments after he’s finished his two-hour set at Trees, a mid-sized venue in Dallas’ Deep Ellum district. But she’s by far the most insistent. “Bob, do you think I can just have a little kiss? My boyfriend says its ok …” Bob, in an awkward moment, smiles and politely declines. “I don’t feel comfortable doing the kissing thing,” he apologizes. “I do hugs!” She persists, but he holds his ground and eventually pushes his way back to the merchandise counter, where he will sign autographs for half an hour until the club’s bouncers start clearing out the stragglers.

A week later, over dinner at Green Mesquite BBQ in Austin, Bob grins a little shyly when the incident is brought up, but shrugs in a way that says he’s used to it. “With any band, if you an pick up a guitar and go into a club and play for five people and one of them’s a girl, at that stage of the game you’re turning people away — though you’re usually not unless you have a girlfriend,” he explains. “For the last four years I have had a girlfriend, so I’ve had to turn a lot away.”

Such was not always the case, however. Bob has never hesitated to admit that hormones — coupled with a deeply rooted lack of self esteem — were the prime motives for his initial pursuit of rock ’n’ roll.

“Basically, I’m writing songs so that people will love me,” he says frankly. “That’s the only reason I do it. And the cool thing about art is you can take liberties. When I’m writing songs, I always make myself the good guy and the other person the bad guy. And nobody knows. They’ll go, ‘Oh, he’s such a great guy!’ But am I a great guy? No, I’m just like everybody else. Everybody’s got their dark side, and everybody’s got their good side — they just show one more than the other.”

Bob was born into a musical family, the son of a professional German opera singer. When Bob was 2 years old, he moved with his parents and younger sister from Ypsilanti, Michigan, back to his father’s native Germany. They briefly moved back to the States a couple of years later so that his father could study under a voice teacher in, of all places, El Paso, but the family was back in Germany again before Bob entered junior high. Bob (who is fluent in German) would later return to El Paso on his own after two years of college in Munich, choosing UTEP for the final year and a half of his college career “because they accepted me.”

If Bob inherited a performance gene from his father, though, a love of opera did not come with it. “I was forced to go to a lot of opera, which when you’re a kid really sucks,” he explains. His calling was rock ’n’ roll, which he first turned to with his junior high band the Warriors for the same reason any other boy slamming into puberty ever wanted to be a rock star: girls. “The reason I play music is because I was too afraid to ask a girl out,” he says. “I figured I’d just play music and then they’d ask me out.” It worked, and by the time he got to Austin, Bob knew how to work it like a pro.

“He was kind of a womanizer,” laughs Cotton, who continued to work with Bob after the Steamboat closed when he began booking Lonelyland’s Monday night residency at the Saxon Pub. “I don’t think Bob ever had a lot of male friends. That never interested him at all, but there’s always been four or five girls waiting in the wings for Bob. And Bob works that angle, too. On the guest list at early Scabs shows, pretty much all the beautiful girls got in free. Which made sense, because in rock ’n’ roll, if a bunch of beautiful girls show, everyone else will come — including more beautiful women.”

Bob’s rep as a ladies man during the ’90s went hand in hand with what he now calls his party stage. “I definitely use to party quite a bit,” he admits. “I think everybody does when they’re younger. My whole life I’ve been really curious, and I’ve wanted to try out all the new experiences that life has to offer. I think drinking and doing drugs and stuff allowed me to experience a lot of things that I don’t think I would have experienced had I not done those.”

“I don’t think Bob was ever physically addicted to liquor,” offers Cotton. “And I don’t think he ever did cocaine, unlike most of us in the ’80s. He was just a guy that would drink beer in the morning and go all night, and he could keep up with everybody. He’d be up till dawn.”

Between the women and the all-night parties, Bob was living out two-thirds of the rock ’n’ roll fantasy that he fully expected to be completed when the Ugly Americans, the band he initially thought of as a side project during the last days of Joe Rockhead, secured a national record deal with Giant Records. The reality check was a harsh one. The band was dropped by the label before their album was ever released, and even after Capricorn Records picked the band up in 1996, scant attendance at shows and marginal-at-best record sales made it painfully clear that the world outside of Austin didn’t care. “It was horrible,” Bob says with a grimace, equating the experience of touring with the band to “banging your head against the wall. It really sucks all the fun out of playing music when you’re on the road for weeks and weeks, and at the end of that time, you’ve played for maybe 50 people.”

Not helping matters any for Bob was the fact that the Ugly Americans were really only one-fifth his own band, and four-fifths the other guys’. That set-up was fine for a side project, but not what he wanted from a full-time gig. “I just wasn’t crazy about that band at all,” he says now. “But I stayed with the Ugly Americans only because we were signed and only because we were putting records out … I was only doing it because I wanted to be successful and sell records and be rich and famous.”

None of that happened, though, and in 1996, Bob, staring down a potential mid-life crisis at the ripe old age of 30, had himself a moment of clarity. His problem wasn’t with all the fame he had yet to achieve. It was simply that he wasn’t having much fun anymore. The first step he took towards fixing the situation was to stop his drinking. According to a 1998 Austin Chronicle article, Bob checked himself into a Colorado rehab facility shortly after recording the Ugly Americans’ first album. “That’s something I don’t like to talk about,” he says today, simply noting that he doesn’t drink at all anymore.

“After awhile, it just got to be a little self-defeating,” he says. “I think I kind of grew up a little bit and realized that it wasn’t any good for me. And when it stopped being fun, it was like, well, what’s the point of doing this if it’s not fun? Because I want my life to be fun. I want to have as much fun as I can. So I made the decision to slow down, be good to myself, and try to be nicer to other people. And it’s been good.”

As impressed as he was with many of Bob’s “chaos-barely-under-control” performances with Joe Rockhead, Brad First readily points to the “sobriety factor” as the turning point in Bob’s career. “He’s much more focused now,” First says. “Back then, there were times when some of his shows stank, because he was just too smashed to play or perform well. Now he’s very health oriented. He works out and he watches his diet because he knows that’s all a necessity to be able to endure the kind of road work that he’s doing and stay healthy.”

Around the time that Bob was going sober, he began to rustle up a new side project, the Scabs, which would theoretically allow him the freedom to express any creative idea he could possibly dream up. “The whole notion on the Scabs was, there was no idea that wasn’t valid,” Bob says. “If I had the notion to play Sesame Street covers or do songs about anal sex or songs that mentioned the word ‘pussy’ in it — whatever. I did it all. If I wanted to do weird rock opera spiels or really sappy ballads or songs that made no sense, it didn’t matter.”

Nor did it matter to Bob that the first couple of Scabs shows received even less fanfare than say, an Ugly Americans gig in Iowa. The night before the Scabs began their Monday night residency at the Steamboat, Bob and co-conspirator Adam Temple (a fellow Ugly American) played a warm-up gig at the Hole in the Wall. “We played two Scabs songs. One was called ‘Hot Beer and Cold Women,’ and that went over like a lead turd. And we played a song called ‘I Fucked Your Daughter in the Ass, Boy’ — acoustic style — and right when I announced the title of the song, this table of four women immediately got up and left the club. And when we were finished, nobody clapped — no response whatsoever, except wide-eyed bewilderment. And then some old drunk at the bar turns around and says, ‘I like it!,’ then turns back around and keeps drinking his tequila.

“We walked off stage,” Bob continues, “and I felt extremely nervous about playing our first gig at Steamboat the next night.”

But the more he thought about it, the more Bob came to like the idea of playing music that could offend people to the point of clearing a room as opposed to playing rooms that were empty because nobody bothered to show up in the first place. It proved he was making a statement. “A lot of the material we were playing early on was sketchy,” he admits with a laugh. “But at the same time, I really believed that a lot of the material was done truly in the sense that we were doing something that was great art, and that it was good for people. We just really felt that Austin needed to be woken up, that it needed something that was annoying and shocking.” 

As the Scabs’ notoriety grew and more and more people started coming out (and they came in droves once the band committed to all dance music, all the time), it became apparent that people either loved the Scabs, or hated them — and Bob liked it both ways.

“The worst thing that I can possibly think of being is ‘pretty good,’ like average,” says Bob, his face curdling on the word. “I got that a lot with the Ugly Americans. People would come up to me and say, ‘You guys were pretty good.’ It’s like, ‘Fuck you!’ Either love it, or hate it. And that’s what I liked about the Scabs. There was very little in between.”

Apart from touring commitments with the record label and a few shell-shocked early audiences, the transition from the Ugly Americans to the Scabs was fairly seamless, particularly after a series of personnel changes left both bands identical in all but name. Bruce Hughes, Bob’s co-frontman in the Ugly Americans, was the last member to cross over. “I always thought the Scabs really, really sucked until I joined,” Hughes says with a laugh. “Then it turned into one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life.”

Bob still calls the Scabs the best band he’s ever played in, too, but after it evolved from an anything-goes project to a hardcore party band, it left him without a proper outlet for the more serious and mellower songs that he’d by then decided he really wanted to sing. So in 1998, after releasing the Scabs’ debut, Freebird, and the Ugly Americans’ swan song, Boom Boom Baby, he recorded a quiet little solo album called Songs Sung & Played on Guitar at the Same Time and premiered an early version of his acoustic Lonelyland band at Stubb’s. The response to the record was promising — garnering Bob some of the first positive press reviews of his career — but even after a move to a Sunday night residency at Steamboat, Lonelyland simply couldn’t compete with the 900-strong sell-out crowds the Scabs were drawing at Antone’s. In early 1999, some 20 people showed up for what was supposed to be Lonelyland’s farewell show, and Bob called it quits for his solo career.

Two months later, after sitting in one night with Stephen Bruton’s songwriter’s circle the Resentments at the Saxon Pub, Bob changed his mind. He secured a Monday night residency at the intimate club, reformed Lonelyland (now featuring Bruton on guitar, Bruce Hughes on bass, David Boyle on keyboards, and Mike Longoria on drums), and subsequently found himself on the fast track to the most successful and personally rewarding phase of his career to date. In December 1999, he released Lonelyland, the album, and the world exploded into love all around him. The following year would bring him and the Scabs nine wins at the Austin Music Awards (and 10 in 2001, including Musician, Songwriter, and Band of the Year), bragging rights to Waterloo Records’ best-selling album of all time, and, ultimately, a major-label deal with Universal Records.

ANATOMY OF A ROCK STAR, Part 3
The Sandra Factor, the World, and Beyond

If ever there was a time when Bob Schneider might be entitled to put on a few rock star airs, it would be now. But the Bob Schneider walking around today signed to one of the biggest record labels in the known universe is a lot older and wiser than the punk who signed with Capricorn five years ago, punch drunk on naive dreams of fame and fortune. When he arrives for a four-hour photo shoot under a sweltering Austin sun on one of his few days off from the road, he is a model of Zen patience, gamely following the photographer’s every instruction with nary a fidget, complaint, or rolled eye. His only hint at vanity is the moment when he joking tells the photographer that his only two concerns are his chin (a pronounced characteristic Bob shares with Jay Leno), and that he doesn’t end up looking fat.

Other than that, Bob is nothing if not convincing in his lack of illusions about himself in the wake of his recent successes. When he signed to Universal, impressed by their commitment to re-releasing Lonelyland as is, and their promise that he could continue to release “non-commercial” records on his own, one of Bob’s first thoughts was not so much the prospect of selling a million copies as it was the relief it’d be to not have to go to Waterloo one or more times a week to hand deliver more CDs to them.

Bob is also keenly aware of the fact that, at least as of now, the local success of Lonelyland has yet to translate on a national level. The crowds on the road have been encouraging, but the lead single, “Metal and Steel,” after a strong opening on AAA stations, has yet to make a significant impact on radio outside of Austin’s KGSR (which was a supporter of the album well before Universal picked it up). Since its re-release in early March, Lonelyland has sold in the neighborhood of 25,000 copies, most of them still in Austin — but Bob remains optimistic about his label’s support. “If that was like the Bee Gees or something, the record would be over,” he says. “But most of the people there are so behind the record, they’re like, ‘If it takes a year or a year and a half to get this thing rolling, we’re going to stay behind it.’ Now, it’s only been two months, so we’ll see what happens in six months or a year, but they seem fully committed. And I think they’re going to come through.”

Bruton, who has worked with more than his fair share of promising young stars in his career (including Kris Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt), thinks Bob is wise not to assume his success at this point is a done deal. “It hasn’t happened yet,” he says. “It’s in a building phase right now. But I think that the way things are happening at Universal, he’s got a better chance than most now if they stay behind the record and have good luck with the songs — and the songs are there.”

In light of the album’s slow start on the national scene, Bob is understandably wary of what his publicist calls “the Sandra Factor.” On the local level, Bob’s year-and-a-half-old relationship with actress Sandra Bullock (whose late mother, incidentally, was also a German opera singer) made for little more than a footnote to his already established career and a few gossip column inches, but he’s acutely aware of the danger of playing that card for national exposure. They started dating, he casually notes, unprompted, after she came to him looking for music for her 2000 film Gun Shy — a gig that landed him on both The Tonight Show and CBS’s The Early Show singing his soundtrack contribution, “Round & Round,” long before Lonelyland was even a glimmer in Universal’s eye. “They’re pretty good,” opined anchor Bryant Gumbel after the band’s performance, no doubt to Bob’s chagrin.

“Here’s the deal with the whole Sandy thing,” Bob says with a sigh. “A, it’s nobody’s business who I date and what they’re like. And, it’s a little annoying because I worry about people who don’t know me and have never heard me play any of my music making an assumption about who I am based on who I’m dating. I worry about somebody thinking, ‘Well, the only reason that I’m hearing about him is because he’s dating a famous personality.’ Which is something I do. If I see someone who’s with someone who’s a celebrity, I instantly write that person off, even if I don’t know anything about them.

“So, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he continues. “If my relationship lets people be exposed to what I do, then that’s great. And if it stops people from checking it out because they make up their mind about who I am because of what my relationships are, then that’s something I can’t control.”

It all goes back to people’s misconceptions about him, which Bob knows will never change. Regardless of the Sandra Factor, he knows people, particularly peers and critics, who have never seen him perform will always be suspicious of his success. He knows people who don’t know him will always read his shyness around strangers, even outspoken fans, as aloofness. And he knows a song like “I Fucked Your Daughter in the Ass, Boy” will likely forever be misinterpreted as a work of sexist misogyny when, as he explains it, it’s a fantasy about being able to bypass all the schmoozing that clogs one of life’s most awkward relationships, so that a guy and his girlfriend’s father can be “honest and real when they interact with each other, and really relate.”

He shrugs it all off. All that matters to Bob Schneider right now is the fact that he’s finally figured out what works for him and what doesn’t work for him. “I’m not exactly sure what I want to do,” he says. “But I know what I don’t want do. And the real big thing is, I’m not doing anything that I don’t wanna do anymore.

“Music to me used to be about getting people into bed, it used to be about becoming famous, it used to be about selling a million records, it used to be about being signed,” Bob continues. “Now I’ve been signed, and I’d still like to sell a million records, don’t get me wrong — but the thing that’s changed is that I don’t think anything’s going to change if I sell million records or not. Nothing that matters is going to change. The only thing that might change is more people might know who I am outside of Austin. But a far as my happiness with who I am? That won’t change at all.

“That’s what I think when I look at Kurt Cobain,” he offers. “I think that guy was one extremely unhappy guy, and when he got everything he thought he wanted and he was still completely unhappy, I don’t think he knew what to do. I think he thought his life was helpless and so he killed himself. So, I don’t think that stuff matters like I used to, when I first started out and it was really important to me. My goals are the same. I still want to be famous. I still want to be really successful at what I do. But the reason for having those goals has now changed. Now, I just do it because it’s fun to do it today.” 

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Filed under 2001, Features, From Texas Music Magazine

Review: Martin Zellar’s “Rooster’s Crow”

From LoneStarMusicMagazine.com, March 1, 2012

MartinZellarRoostersCrow

MARTIN ZELLAR
Roosters Crow
Owen Lee Recordings

In a marginally more fair world, the Gear Daddies — pride of Austin, Minn., — would have made it at least as big as fellow Twin Cities alt-country forerunners the Jayhawks. On top of writing great, catchy songs, the Gear Daddies were most of all fun — unlike, say, those dour mopes in Uncle Tupelo. But the band bowed out after two very fine albums and one odds-and-sods collection (1988’s Let’s Go Scare Al, ’90’s Billy’s Live Bait, and ’92’s Can’t Have Nothing Nice), leaving frontman and principal songwriter Martin Zellar to carry on with a solo career. He’s recorded a handful of solid albums since then, most co-credited to his backing band the Hardways (a shifting lineup anchored by fellow former Gear Daddy Dominic Ciola on bass). It’s tempting to call Zellar’s latest, Roosters Crow, his best outing since the Gear Daddies’ glory days, but even a quick revisit of his previous solo albums proves that he never really lost his touch for marrying painfully bittersweet emotions to obscenely hummable hooks. Suffice it to say, though, Zellar (who now lives with his family in Mexico) remains in top form on Roosters Crow, which was recorded just outside of the other Austin at The Zone in Dripping Springs, Texas. The whole record is loaded with talented “locals,” with producer Pat Manske having rounded up such Texas heavies as Kevin McKinney, Lloyd Maines, Bukka Allen, Brian Standefer, Billy Bright, Michael Ramos, and Chojo Jacques to support the Hardways (paired down here to just Ciola and drummer Scott Wenum) and both Terri Hendrix and Kelly Willis to sing backup vocals on a pair of songs each. Zellar, in turn, brings 11 songs equal to the all-star occasion, the best of the bunch being the jangly loser’s lament “I’m That Problem,” the achingly wistful “Some Girls” and the cautiously optimistic closer, “It Works for Me.” Lyrically, Zellar’s grown a lot darker over the years, but then again he’s always sung the plight of the down and outs, even throughout the Gear Daddies’ peppiest sing-along choruses. Roosters Crow finds him a lot older and a fair deal more somber, but two decades on from Billy’s Live Bait and the unforgettable “Stupid Boy,” there’s still a buoyant kick to his voice and jangle to his melodies that always hits the spot. — RICHARD SKANSE

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Filed under 2012, From Lone Star Music Magazine, Reviews

Billy Joe Shaver: In the Name of the Son (from Texas Music Magazine, Spring 2001)

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Honky tonk heroes (and me): A snapshot of the author as a young man (left) with Billy Joe Shaver, Eddy Shaver, and Keith Christopher at the Rodeo Bar in New York City, circa 1998.

In the Name of the Son

It’s hard to be a Christian soldier in a world that takes away everything you love, but for Billy Joe Shaver, the earth rolls on.

By Richard Skanse 

Billy Joe Shaver had a perfectly good reason, apart from just a parent’s instinctive fear, not to believe the police when they came to his Waco home on the night of Dec. 30, 2000, to tell him his son Eddy was in a local hospital, clinging to life. “No, my son’s not here [in Waco],” he told the officers, knowing Eddy was in Austin, where he was due to begin recording a solo album that week. 

But as the darkest night of his life, and his world, quickly unraveled, Billy Joe would soon learn the awful truth: Eddy had checked into a Waco motel with his wife and accidentally overdosed on heroin. “The lady at the emergency room told me they’d found him dead on the floor in the motel room,” Shaver says. “They brought him to the hospital and got some kind of a faint heartbeat, but couldn’t get his blood pressure up. They CAT-scanned his brain and said they didn’t know how long his brain had been dead, and that if he’d made it through he’d just be a vegetable. They asked me if I wanted to pull the plugs, and I said, ‘no, please don’t,’ because I had hope that he’d make it.” 

At 2:48 Sunday morning, New Year’s Eve, Eddy Shaver died. He was 38. Shaver spent the rest of the night and following day with an old friend, Willie Nelson, who had lost his own son, Billy, years before. And then, with Nelson in tow, Shaver soldiered on to a scheduled gig at Poodie’s Hilltop Bar & Grill in Spicewood. Less than 24 hours after losing his best friend, musical soul mate, and only child, Shaver was standing onstage, plunking the strings of his mini-Taylor acoustic guitar with the stubs of his mangled right hand and singing his ragged-but-right songs about Jesus, hard luck, and honky-tonk heroes like himself and Nelson, the wandering gypsy at his side. He didn’t say a word about Eddy.

“A lot of people didn’t know, and I didn’t tell them,” says Shaver. “I just did what I could and the ones that found out, they found out, and the ones that didn’t, they didn’t. I wasn’t there to get no sympathy or nothing. I was just there to do what I’d said I’d do, and that’s what I did. And thank God, Willie came along and helped me.”

Shaver didn’t pay tribute to Eddy that night by talking about him. He did so by merely showing up. “It was a deal,” he explains with a quiet sigh. “Eddy and I were that way. We’d go until we couldn’t go no more. The show must go on. I remember the night my mother was dying. We had a gig to do, and it was at a little joint and there wasn’t no money in it, and Eddy said, ‘No, Dad, this is the stuff we’re in. We need to go on — them people don’t understand. They came to see us and they’d be real disappointed if we didn’t make it.’ So we’d go on.

“But, he’s gone on now — he got him a better gig,” Shaver says with conviction. “Really, I believe that. I believe he’s got a better gig now than what he had down here. I really miss him, but you know … life goes on.” 


I WOULDN’T BE ME WITHOUT YOU

Four weeks after Eddy’s death, Shaver is on the phone from the Waco home he shared with his son, apologizing repeatedly for the yapping of a restless dog in the background. “That’s Eddy’s little pit bull,” he explains. “She’s been whining ever since he died. I don’t know what the hell’s going on with her. She went plumb crazy.” He makes note of the damage the dog has since done to the couch, among other things, and vows to “whip that dog yet.” But it’s a hollow threat, undercut with a sense of genuine affection born of empathy. “She has a little ring around her eye like the one in The Little Rascals,” he chuckles. “Her name’s Shade, because she was born in the shade of a rose bush. She’s mean as hell.”

Shaver can empathize with that as well. “Right now I’m in my mean mode,” he says, dryly noting his desire to go shoot a drug dealer. A line from one of his best songs comes to mind: “Lord it’s hard to be a Christian soldier when you tote a gun …” But Shaver won’t be taking up vigilantism any time soon. “Oh, I’d love to go wading through that drug bunch,” he says. “But I can’t do that. I can’t do nothing about that. That’s up to the law.” 

Shaver sighs heavily, and as quietly as it drifted into the conversation, the fleeting fantasy of vengeance passes. He knows the demon that took his son’s life all too well, having battled it on his own many a time in the past. “Thankfully, nothing ever really grabbed me like it got him, because I was always such a damn control freak. I didn’t want anything telling me what to do, not even a damned drug,” he says. “But I didn’t really set a very good example back then … I was wild, crazy as hell. It’s no wonder that it came to this end. But I can’t blame myself too much, because he was a grown man. He knew what was out there, and he knew how dangerous it was because he’d seen me on the brink of death so many times.

“The last time I really talked to him was about five or six days before he died,” Shaver continues. “We always had good talks, me and Eddy. I wasn’t his father, I was his friend, man. When he was about 14 and he came out on the road with me, I realized we couldn’t make it if we didn’t decide to be friends instead of father and son.” 

Shaver was born in Corsicana and practically raised in the Green Gables Bar in Waco, where his mother, Victory, worked. After serving a stint in the Navy, starting his family, and losing half the fingers on his right hand in a sawmill accident, Shaver set off for Nashville to establish his songwriting career in the late ’60s. He secured a publishing deal with Bobby Bare after playing him a couple of songs in person (he couldn’t afford a demo tape). In 1973, Waylon Jennings recorded Honky Tonk Heroes, an album comprised almost entirely of Shaver’s songs, and that same year, Shaver recorded his debut, the Kris Kristofferson-produced Old Five and Dimers Like Me. Those two albums may well be the foundation of Texas outlaw country, containing such classics of the genre as “Black Rose,” “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me,” and”Ride Me Down Easy.” 

Old Five and Dimers Like Me

Billy Joe Shaver’s 1973 debut, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, produced by Kris Kristofferson.

Thirty years later, Shaver remains the outlaw’s outlaw, a cult hero considered by many discerning Texas music aficionados as the state’s best living songwriter. “Billy Joe is one of those true poets,” raves Rodney Crowell. “He’s the Seamus Heaney of Texas.” 

Billy Joe was 22 years old when Eddy was born in 1962, but they would make their recording debuts within a year of each other. In 1974, a year after releasing Old Five and Dimers, Shaver cut a Willie Nelson/Bobby Bare-produced single for MCA, “Lately I’ve Been Leaning Toward the Blues” / “I Couldn’t Be Me Without You,” with a studio lineup including Nelson and Eddy Shaver, then 12. Two years later, Eddy — who was given his first guitar by Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers Band — began touring with his father’s band. Not long thereafter he was on the road playing guitar with Guy Clark. 

“Eddy surfaced as a wunderkind when he was about 14,” recalls Crowell, who arrived on the Nashville scene from Texas at roughly the same time as Shaver. “I remember seeing Eddy play then, and it was just like, here’s another Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was that kind of precocious genius.”

But this was long before precocious guitar geniuses came into fashion — years before the likes of Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang, and Derek Trucks were even born — and Eddy learned the hard way that older players didn’t like being shown up by a kid. “When Eddy was a teenager, it wasn’t cool for kids to be really hot,” explains Keith Christopher, who currently plays bass with the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band but spent six years in the ’90s touring with Billy Joe and Eddy. “[Back then], you had to shut up and listen, so he was taught to shut up and listen.” 

“I had grown guys in my band that just stayed pissed off at him all the time, ‘cuz he could play so well,” Shaver says. “It was one of those things that just lived with him all that time.”

As Eddy grew older, further honing his chops on the road and onstage with everyone from Dwight Yoakam to Booker T., the jealousy turned to begrudging respect. “He got up and played with that guy from Eagles, Joe Walsh, at one of Willie’s picnics, or it might have been a Farm Aid, and Joe got back on the bus and said, ‘That kid of yours really pisses me off,'” Shaver recalls with a laugh. “I said, ‘How’s that?’ He said, ‘Damn, he’s good. No, he’s not good — he’s great.’ I though that was the greatest compliment anybody could give him.”

“Every guitar player that I’ve ever worked with was totally blown away by ‘that Eddy Shaver guy,'” notes Christopher. “Everyone said his guitar playing scared them.” 

But even as Eddy’s formidable guitar prowess grew, he still never felt he fit in. “Eddy was very misunderstood,” muses Christopher, who figures he got as close to Eddy as anyone, other than his father, during their time on the road together. “He was a shy guy who played this magic guitar, but he didn’t know how to really reach people, or let people reach him. People misconstrued his shyness for arrogance. He was a lonely guy. He just wanted to fit in.” 

It was this sense of isolationism that led to Eddy’s reliance on the pills that, years down the line, would lead to his more dangerous forays into heroin, Christopher believes. “I think he started doing painkillers and stuff because it would make him not feel any pain, and then he actually wanted to talk to people,” Christopher says. “It’s like all of us. You get a crutch, and then after a while the crutch becomes … you can’t talk to nobody unless you have it.” 

Tramp On Your Street

1993’s Tramp on Your Street wasn’t the first album that Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver played on together, but it was their first under the band name Shaver.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Billy Joe and Eddy began touring and recording under the band name Shaver. It was a collaboration that kicked off ferociously with the 1993 album Tramp on Your Street, and continued all the way up to the newly released The Earth Rolls On, recorded shortly before Eddy’s death. Together they forged a one-of-a-kind, roof-raising sound not unlike heavy metal honky-tonk, once described by Eddy as being “like Cream with great songwriter singing. It’s not supposed to work, but it works.” 

“Eddy loved to slam,” Shaver beams — but that was only half the story. He was also an impeccable slide and acoustic player, bringing that stunning opening riff to one of his father’s best later-day songs, “Live Forever,” and laying down some of his finest guitar work on Shaver’s 1998 acoustic gospel album, Victory. 

“When they played together, it was complete magic,” Christopher says. “There were many, many nights where I would stand back and watch the father and son, and it was very moving. Eddy would play the perfect soundtrack to Billy Joe’s movie. The best nights Eddy had were when he’d call Billy Joe ‘Daddy.’ When he called I’m ‘Daddy,’ it just changed everything. It changed Billy Joe. [It] changed all of us.”

But however much Shaver tired to share the limelight with his son, Eddy could never escape his father’s shadow. “He wanted to be respected on the same level as his father was, which was tough when your dad was just writing these killer songs on like, a paper sack,” Christopher says. Nevertheless, he was determined to establish himself as Eddy Shaver, Texas Guitar Hero, rather than just the muscle behind his father’s songs — a role he never felt he was given enough credit for in the first place. In 1996, Eddy recorded his first solo album, a straight-up, freestyle hard-rock effort called Baptism of Fire. It was subsequently only released in France. “That’s a great album,” Billy Joe says. “I actually left it with a few people, but I noticed they never opened it. A lot of people just didn’t know abut Eddy, how good he was.”

Among those who needed convincing, both Billy Joe and Eddy believed, was their record label, New West. After releasing two Shaver albums — the aforementioned Victory and the aptly titled Electric Shaver (1999) — the label was planning on an album more in line with “classic Billy Joe Shaver,” explains producer Ray Kennedy, Steve Earle’s partner at Nashville’s Room and Board Studio. Simply put, The Earth Rolls On, the last album Eddy Shaver played on, was originally intended to be marketed as a Billy Joe Shaver (solo) album, not a Shaver (the band) set. “But I insisted that Eddy be on it,” says Billy Joe. “He was worried about not getting credit, but he dug in and played his ass off. Now, instead of calling it a Billy Joe Shaver record, they’re calling it a Shaver record. So I guess you could say he gave his life for it.”

IF I GIVE MY SOUL

True to its title, The Earth Rolls On is a survivor’s album, forged by two men defiantly battling odds seemingly as formidable as the Bolivian army facing Paul Newman and Robert Redford at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The specter of death that hangs over it, inspiring the title song, was not Eddy’s, but rather that of his mother Brenda, a woman Billy Joe married and divorced at least three times but who remained perhaps his greatest muse, apart from Jesus, in his life. She died of cancer in July 1999, not long after Shaver lost his own mother, Victory. At the same time, Eddy was fighting both his addiction to drugs and for the opportunity to play on his own record. He turned in not only two of the greatest solos of his career with the triumphant codas to the title song and “Evergreen Fields,” but also his first-ever recorded vocal duet with his father, on the rollicking but bittersweet “Blood is Thicker Than Water.”

The Earth Rolls On

2001’s The Earth Rolls On, Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver’s last record together, was recorded a few months before Eddy’s death on Dec. 31, 2000.

If hearing father and son trade barbs with each other in that song — “I’ve seen you pukin’ out your guts and runnin’ with sluts when you were married to my mother / Now the powers that be are leading you and me like two lambs to the slaughter” — provokes a flinch in the aftermath of Eddy’s death, the album’s most beautiful track, “Star in My Heart,” hurts on an almost physical level. Shaver penned the words for Eddy when his son went to California in an attempt kick his heroin habit. “Your soul is bursting at the seams / You’re free to be even more than you could ever dream of … You’ll look the world straight in the eye / And never blink. 

“I wrote that song to him, and he started getting his head up,” Shaver says. “I thought he was going to make it. But I don’t know … it just seems like some things didn’t mix right for Eddy.” 

Even though his son threw away so much, Shaver says he never did get angry at Eddy. “I’ve been there,” he explains. “I know how dangerous it is walking on that cliff. It could happen to anyone. I know he was dreadfully sorry, and I believe he had time to ask forgiveness, I honestly do.” 

Nor, he says, did he ever once shake his fist at God, though he often felt his faith tested like Job’s. “Me and Eddy both prayed about this,” Shaver continues. “We went to a church down there in Austin called the Promised Land. And we both got down, and I remember the preacher saying, ‘What is it that you love the most? The very most in life? Just give it up right now. Give it to God. And just start the well with nothing in it.’ And I gave Eddy up. I said, ‘This is what I love the most, my son.’ And I said, ‘Here he is.’ And I realized that after I’d prayed for God to help me that I’d had so much on me, that He helped me and I didn’t want that kind of help. But He did. He took that away. I wish I hadn’t even prayed, but still, I guess I was at my breaking point. Must have been. Either me or Eddy — one was going to have to go, I guess.” 

Shaver says he’s holding up “pretty good” now, but as for where he goes from here, he doesn’t know. More than once, he says he’s done. “This is it for me,” he swears. “You can stick a fork in me. More than likely, I’ll change my mind, but right now — I just really don’t care to do any more than I have to. Like Willie says, I don’t want to have to do a damn thing I don’t want to. But I want to make sure this album gets heard, because it’s a good one. I’ll give it everything I’ve got.” 

On Jan. 31, a month to the day after Eddy’s death, Shaver set out on the road again for a week-long tour with Kinky Friedman, dubbed “Two Working Parts.” “I’m going out with my pal Kinky, ‘cuz he makes me laugh,” Shaver explains. After their first show together at the Broken Spoke in Austin, Shaver would laugh about winning $100 from Kinky because Friedman didn’t think they’d draw a crowd, but the house was packed with fans and friends, including Joe Ely, Kimmie Rhodes, and Jesse Taylor. 

“When the Lord closes a door, he opens a little window, I always say,” offers Friedman. “Eddy’s death was a great blow to Billy Joe. But I think it’s important that the show must go on, that he gets out and does what he does best. He hasn’t performed solo in a long time, so that might be that little window.” 

Christopher, who lives in New York, says Shaver was planning a trip to the Big Apple at the end of February and asked him “to book us a couple of shows to pay for the trip.” 

“He’s going to do what he’s always been doing,” Christopher says. “He’s not going to let his son die in vain. He’s going to write about his son. So, no, he’s not ‘done.'” 

And in his heart, Billy Joe Shaver knows he’s not, either. Christopher figures Shaver will “outlast all of us,” which may very well be.

“I know God won’t forgive me until I forgive everybody, so I guess I won’t be dying anytime soon,” muses Shaver. “I haven’t forgiven everybody yet, but I will. 

“Might be at the last moment, though.” 

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Review: Eliza Gilkyson’s “Secularia”

From LoneStarMusicMagazine.com, Feb. 10, 2019

Secularia

ELIZA GILKYSON
Secularia
Red House Records
Just shy of 20 years into her remarkable second act (2000 being the year that she rebooted her career, at age 50, with the release of her watershed eighth album, Hard Times in Babylon), Eliza Gilkyson remains not just at the top of her game, but the veritable Dame Judi Dench of contemporary folk. Others in her field may invariably garner more popular acclaim, but Gilkyson is the gold standard they would all do well to aspire to; as both a songwriter and singer, she is a paragon of poetic grace, burnished integrity, and eloquent ferocity. All of those qualities burn brighter than ever on her latest, lighting Secularia from within with a warm glow as surreally serene as the album’s cover, an illustration lifted from a 16th-century German tome on supernatural miracles. But although spirituality is indeed Gilkyson’s primary theme here, it’s not the airy-fairy, “Calling All Angels” variety she dabbled with back in her ’80s New Age spell; as its title suggests, Secularia is instead a collection of agnostic hymns inspired by the more earthly but no less mysterious nature — both praiseworthy and damnable — of the human spirit. Not that this is uncharted territory for Gilkyson; although all of the recordings here are new, many of the songs were actually culled from throughout her deep back catalog, including the stunning opener, “Solitary Singer” (a song co-written by her folk legend father, Terry Gilkyson, and grandmother, Phoebe Gilkyson, that she first recorded for her 1996 album, Redemption Road). But the thematic and musical stitching of old and new is seamless, with hauntingly gorgeous production (by Gilkyson’s son, Cisco Ryder Gilliland) that gives the entire album the feel of a deep dream you don’t want to wake from, even when it blurs in and out of the realm of lucid nightmare with lines like “we watch the Empire’s epic fail on shiny hand-held screens” (from “In the Name of the Lord”). Gilkyson’s propensity for writing songs about her “dread of the future, illuminated by the beauty of each moment” has rarely been brought into sharper focus, though at times the only beauty on hand to work with seems to be that of the music itself. In “Lifelines,” she gilds the gut punch of election night 2016 by noting the reassurance of like-minded friends turning “to each other on the night of the Supermoon,” shaken but stirred to action to “light our way home in the dark.” But “Reunion,” a heart-wrenching eulogy for 26 young Nigerian women found drowned in the Mediterranean two years ago, offers no such silverlining to assuage the horror — just the tender mercy of Gilkyson’s empathetic vocal and the mournful undertow of the Tosca String Quartet. And yet, come the closing benediction of “Instrument,” in which Gilkyson both acknowledges and embraces the dominion of time over fleeting mortal life, it’s beauty that ultimately prevails — suggesting that no matter how hard comfort, hope and answers may be to come by when angels are taken out of the equation, catharsis and resilience needn’t be dependent on a deus ex machina. — RICHARD SKANSE

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Kelly Willis: Easier said than done (from Texas Music Magazine, Summer 2002)

Kelly Willis Easy

Easier said than done

Finding success on her own terms didn’t go to Kelly Willis’ head. But becoming a mother did. Fortunately, she seems to be getting over it.

By Richard Skanse 

When Kelly Willis was recording her last album, 1999’s What I Deserve, she was pretty much convinced it would be her last album, ever. Some three-and-a-half-years later, when she was recording her new album, Easy, she was pretty much convinced What I Deserve would still be her last album.

“How did it feel finishing it?” She repeats the first question with a laugh. “I wasn’t even sure I was ever going to start it, to be honest. It was scheduled twice. I think I was supposed to start it in June, and then I was supposed to start it in October and I finally started its in December. At one point I was ready to say, ‘Tell everybody there might not be a record, ever!’ So the fact that I started it, did it, and finished it, to me almost seems miraculous.”

Lest one thinks she’s being overdramatic, it’s worth nothing that the business of making records has never been a cakewalk for Willis, even back in the early ’90s when her former label tried its damnedest to push her along through the you-just-sing-and-look-pretty-and-let-us-do-the-worrying Nashville hit-making machine. The closest she’s ever come to making an easy record was probably What I Deserve, recorded and even mostly written on her own without the safety net, or pressure, of a label behind her. And the only reason making that one might have be easier than her first three, for MCA Nashville, was because she made it knowing she had nothing left to lose at that point. 

“When I made that record, I remember thinking that it might be my last shot — truly my last record, but not by choice,” she says with another little laugh. “When I made it, I couldn’t find anybody that wanted to put it out, until finally Ryko came to the table and wanted to release it. And I remember thinking, ‘Well, these songs might be a little quirky because I wrote them, and I’m not Bob Dylan,’ so I was a little concerned about how it might come across.”

As things turned out, What I Deserve proved to be her best-selling (100,000 copies and counting) album to date and the one that jumpstarted her dead-on-the-highway career and kicked it into high gear. Now firmly backed by a loving fanbase, duly impressed media and a new label (Rykodisc) that offered her full creative control for the first time in her career, Willis was flush with renewed self-confidence. After all that, making Easy should have been just that. Instead it proved to be the hardest album’s ever made.

“It’s such a relaxed record. It’s got a little softer vibe about it than the ones before, so ‘Easy’ seemed appropriate to describing what the album was like,” she says. “But the title doesn’t describe how it went down at all.”

She says she simply “couldn’t get it together.” The problem wasn’t the threat of everything around her falling apart. It was the reality of everything in her life finally falling into place. The problem was in 2001 Kelly Willis became a mother first time, and overnight, making music just didn’t seem that important to her anymore.

With time — and a little getting nudging from her husband — she snapped out of it.

* * *

TX Music Magazine spread

Photos of Kelly Willis and baby Deral Otis Robison taken for Texas Music Magazine by Wyatt McSpadden.

It goes without saying that singer-songwriter Bruce Robison is quick to rave about Easy. It goes with the territory of being Willis’ husband, and, by extension, her “biggest fan.” “I think the music that she’s making at this point and the songs she’s writing are just phenomenal,” he says unabashedly over an afternoon cup of coffee at Austin’s Flipnotics. “And she’d kill me if I said it in print, but I see her voice as original and singular as Emmylou Harris’ or Billie Holiday’s. She was just born with it. It’s gotten better of the years, but it really is a gift.” 

On top of all that, he notes, anytime his wife just finishes a record is cause enough for excitement. “She does a new record in about the same length of time that Boston does,” he chuckles. It’s a ’70s-reared classic rock fan’s way of sweetly saying, she takes forever.

Of course, that’s really only fair when you look at the six-year-gap between her last album for MCA, 1993’s Kelly Willis, and What I Deserve, during which time Willis was briefly signed to the Los Angeles label A&M, which released her Fading Fast EP in 1996. But Robison just happens to move a lot faster than his wife. Willis was signed to MCA and put out her first album when she was only 20 years old. Thirteen years later, she has five albums (and that EP) to her name. Robison took a little longer getting started, picking up songwriting in his late 20s and not releasing his debut until 1996, but he’s made up for lost time with a vengeance. He released his fourth album, Country Sunshine, last summer, and would have had another ready for this year had he and Willis both not decided it was his turn to play house-dad so she could work on her own album.

“She put her career on hold while I put [Country Sunshine] out, and now I’ve got to do the same thing,” he says. “Besides, I should be staying home and writing songs, anyway.” And how. In the time between Willis’ last two albums, Robison’s songwriting career has hit pay dirt, yielding cuts by such A-list country artists as Lee Ann Womack, Gary Allan, the Dixie Chicks (who performed “Travelin’ Soldier” on this year’s CMA Awards and have recorded it for their next album) and most notably Tim McGraw, who turned Robison’s “Angry All the Time” into a No. 1 hit last summer. When he first heard that Tim McGraw was going to record his song, Robison politely asked his label, Sony’s Lucky Dog, to let him go. He left on good terms and started his own label, Boar’s Nest, out of his garage studio. 

A year after its release, Country Sunshine has already paid for itself. “It makes it easier for both uf us to say, ‘You’ve got to keep writing songs,'” he says of recent success. “She was always supportive, but we were lucky enough to have some commercial success that way at the same time that we started having kids. The way we were living before, if we had a kid, it would a have been like, ‘All right, are you going to get a job at the Whataburger? Because we’ve got to buy diapers.'”

But however timely and fortunate Robison’s cuts on Music Row are, one of his most important roles is the one he plays at home. Not writing, not being a good husband and father, but giving Willis a push when she’s stuck. “That’s one of my jobs — nudging her, pushing her along,” he says. “I’m the person who’s saying, ‘Listen, you’re not going to be happy if you’re not singing.’ I had the luxury of perspective with her career, because I saw what it was like with her two years ago when she put that last record out and it was well received and it sold. I saw her enjoy her career in a way that I had never seen her enjoy it before. So I feel like it’s my job to keep moving her along through the parts which are so hard.”

Ultimately, however, Willis writes and records when she feels like it. There was never a time, explains Robison, when he went so far as to tell her to put the baby down and pick up her guitar. “If I did do that it probably wouldn’t be as long between albums as it is, but she goes by her own clock. I’m the son of a football coach, so I’m kind of fascinated by motivation, but she’s not really the kind of person to respond to ‘Loser! You’ll never amount to anything —  get out there and write!’ So it takes a different tact with her.”

* * *

This — if not exactly where the magic happens — is at least where it’s woodshedded. Literally.  The small recoding studio tucked behind the Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison homestead in Hyde Park (just north of the University of Texas in central Austin) began its life as a tool shed, a dirt floor garage. Robison set to work on converting the shack into its new incarnation right after the couple moved into the house in 1996, shortly before their marriage. Six years later, it still has the feel of a space that’s closer to his heart than her’s.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Willis says of the studio apologetically, as though embarrassed over the state of a child’s play room. “Sometimes it actually looks stunning in here, but right now it looks like a storage space.” 

Self-conscious apologies and appearances aside — the room has a backyard-tree-house-with-lots-of-gear kind of coolness to it — this modest studio is where two of the finest albums to come out of Austin in the last year and a half got their start. Willis admits she utilizes it mostly to rehearse and her husband uses it primarily for demos and overdubs, but it’s a good bet that most, if not all, of the songs on both Willis’ Easy and Robison’s Country Sunshine were written right here. This is where one would retreat to write while the other stayed in the house and watched over the primary inspiration for both albums, 15-month-old Deral Otis Robison, named after Willis’ father and Robison’s grandfather, Charles Otis. 

When Willis talks about Deral she lights up in a way that makes her priorities patently less clear. She is charmingly dressed down in jeans and red McGonigel’s Mucky Duck Pub T-shirt, and looks like a woman who would rather be playing with her young son, or even changing a deeper, than sitting in this cold studio talking about matters as mundane as her career and new album. 

Deral is the couple’s first child, and Willis admits that she she’s still learning this whole motherhood business as she goes along. But it wasn’t so much being overwhelmed by her new responsibilities that stalled the making of Easy was it was Willis giving serious thought as to whether or not making music still mattered to her at all. “I was really trying to weigh my choices there,” she says. “I really want to be the best parent I can be, and I don’t know anything about it so every day is a learning experience to me, and I’m finally getting some confidence about it. But that was the thing that mattered the most to me. I’ve been making music now since I was a teenager, and on national level since I was 20. I’m 33 now, and I kind of felt that if I wanted to stop, it might not be such a weird thing. Lots of people switch careers at that point in their life if they’ve been doing something for that long. But, every now and then I come up with that question, and other times when I try to decide if I want to keep doing it, I always do. It’s just like with any job. Sometimes it gets so overwhelming you think maybe if you just do something else it will all be easier, but it won’t. Everything’s hard. And this is the thing that I love, so I always just persevere.” 

It’s that quality of perseverance, every bit as much as her honey-sweet with brass-in-pocket voice and blossoming songwriting skills, that has been Willis’ primary saving grace over the course of the last 13 years of her career, if not her whole life. To this day, she maintains that “the most defining experience” of her life was the divorce of her parents when she was 9, after which her mother moved halfway across the country. “Having a baby has been the next biggest thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says. 

“Things are good now,” she continues, noting that her mother recently retired to Bedford, allowing them to see each other on a regular basis. “But it was a real, real strange time. I was the youngest, and I missed her a lot. I got to see her about once a year, and it wasn’t like I was mad at her, but I was heartbroken about it. But I think as with all children, you just get through it. You know things are bad, but it’s not like you wallow in it. You move on and you make life keeping happening. But it was really pretty devastating to grow up without a mother. My dad did the best he could, but he was a military man — a product of the ’50s — so he wasn’t exactly nurturing. That probably had something to do with me being so shy.” 

Willis smiles sadly when she talks about her father, who passed away two years ago. He was never comfortable with the path she chose in her life, but he always supported her against his better judgment, and made no secret of his pride when she succeeded. “People always talked about it if he was in the crowd, because he would just be beaming with this big smile on his face,” she says. “But he never stopped being scared. As he was dying, he was saying to my sister, ‘I’m just worried about Kelly … she wants to have a baby, and I don’t know how you can have a baby and travel all the time.’ He just worried about this profession, but he was always very proud.”

Willis, who was born in Oklahoma, where most of her family roots remain, overcame her shyness — to a certain extent, at least — when she joined her older boyfriend Mas Palermo’s Washington, D.C.-area rockabilly band the Vibrato Brothers at the age of 16. After her graduation in 1987, she bypassed college and moved to Austin with the band, rechristened Kelly and the Fireballs. Willis quickly fell in love with the town and entrenched herself in the rockabilly scene, but she and Palermo had already moved to a more country sound (and a new band, Radio Ranch) by the time she was “discovered” by singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith in 1989, the same year she married Palermo.

Landing her first major label deal was a piece of cake. Griffith walked into an Austin bar one night, caught part of Willis’ set, phoned her chum Tony Brown at MCA Nashville, and boom — faster than you can say “A Star is Born,” the then 20-year-old Willis was recording her debut album, Well Traveled Love, with her own band. Brown himself, the hottest producer and talent scout in Nashville (his credits included signing Steve Earle, Griffith, and Lyle Lovett) produced, and the band confidently hammered out a batch of songs they already knew by heart. But after that seemingly promising start, nothing was ever easy for Willis again. The record failed to produce a hit single, and eight months after its release MCA rushed Willis back into the studio to record the follow-up, 1991’s Bang Bang. Things rapidly went from bad to worse.

There was a lot of pressure on that record,” Willis recalls. “Even before we started making it the band disintegrated, so at that point I knew things were not going well. It was kind of … unpleasant.” Not helping matters was the fact that by then her marriage was also on the rocks, though she and Palermo— who drummed in her band and wrote many of her early songs — continued to work together. “We just separated, and it took us forever to actually get the divorce just because we were lazy,” Willis laughs.

The growing rift with her producer was more severe. When Willis began to toy with the idea of writing her own songs, Tony Brown wasn’t especially receptive to the idea. “I was trying to develop into more of an artist,” says Willis, citing Steve Earle as one of her role models. “But Tony was trying to make me be a Nashville entertainer. The more I started to want to write songs, the more we started to butt heads and realize that it wasn’t going to work out.” 

The friction came to a head with her third album for MCA, 1993’s Don Was-produced Kelly Willis. “That was the record where it was kind of me against the record company,” she smiles. “But I had Don Was at my side; I would suggest something and he would go ‘Yeah!’ where before they would go, ‘No.’ So that one was really personal.”

It was also the last straw. Shortly after the album’s release, MCA unceremoniously dropped her. Nine years later, Willis reports that she and Brown are on friendly terms again. “It feels like he’s proud of me in sort of a father-daughter kind of way, since I was just 19 when he met me and he really kind of started my career,” she says. “I think he’s proud of where I’ve ended up.” But even though she knew things weren’t working out in Nashville, she still took the parting hard.  

“She did go through a lot of heartbreak over that,” recalls Robison, who started dating Willis in ’91. “I can relate to those points in her career, where you’re pushing and everybody’s pulling different ways, and what you’re giving doesn’t line up with what they want. Those are just really frustrating times. But, Austin’s a great place to kind of be isolated from that.”

Willis’ stint with A&M, the label that signed her after MCA, was a brief one, little more than a rebound fling in the big picture. She parted ways with the label shortly after her A&R contact left the company, figuring the only way she’d ever have a shot at being the kind of artist she aspired to become would be to make an album completely on her own — even if nobody ever wanted to hear it. The fact that What I Deserve  subsequently proved to be her breakthrough was a matter of extreme personal vindication.

“It made me feel incredible, made my confidence soar,” she says, still noticeably overwhelmed by the album’s success. “So it was a surprise. But it’s funny, because it’s not like I can go, ‘Now all the people in Nashville [will be sorry] …’ [Laughs] It still hasn’t registered on their radar. So it’s not like it means a lot to me because they have to see I did something good. It’s for me.

***

As difficult as it was for Willis to get her act together in the wake of her son’s birth and recommit herself to music, Easy is as telling a document of her current state of maternal bliss as What I Deserve  was of her then state of frustration-born determination. The last album was a bold and defiant, electric-guitar-driven battle cry. “What I deserve is comfort for my shaken soul,” she sang on the title track. Easy is what that hard-won comfort feels like: gentle, reflective, and predominately acoustic. It’s telling that the easiest song for her to write was the closing “Reason to Believe,” a thinly veiled lullaby to her son: “Now my dreams can all come true / And now my life can follow through / Suddenly it’s all so clear / There’s not a thing that I should fear.”

“I wanted it to sound like a song that could be just a love song and hopefully wouldn’t be too obvious that it was about my son, but I knew that it would be obvious,” she says. “I started the song before the baby was born – it was a melody that was floating around in my head for a long time, and after he was born, the words just filled in one night.”

Although Willis wrote or co-wrote six of the 10 songs on the album, not all of the lyrics touch on her personal life and present contentedness so intimately as “Reason to Believe.” The bulk of them, in fact, are downright sad, songs of heartbreak that speak more of her past (she still points to her parents’ divorce as a major influence on both her writing and singing) than her present. But it’s the relaxed, wistful, and unapologetically country sound of the album that most reveals where Willis was coming from.

“I intended to make a very country record — that was my ambition, because I hadn’t really, really done one of those yet,” she says. “It’s just where I feel like I am. This guy that put together the MCA compilation [One More Time: The MCA Recordings — her former label’s post-What I Deserve cash-in bid] asked me for my input on the songs I wanted on it, and he said he was sort of disappointed [with my picks] because he wanted to put some more of the rockabilly stuff on there. Over time I seem to be getting further and further away from the rockin’ stuff, and I guess this record is just further proof. I’m just not rockin’ anymore as much as I used to.” 

Not surprisingly, Willis’ Easy makes a perfect match for her husband’s Don Williams-inspired Country Sunshine. “How did that happen?” Robison laughs. “Did we just make these records because we were tired? I’m not sure. But we both wrote songs that touched on our experiences since our baby was born. I listen to her new album a lot, because it’s soothing to our kid right now. Both of our last records — I think we should market them that way. I don’t know if it’s just our voices and he’s familiar with them, but they stop him from crying, and he’ll be OK as long as those records are on. I think that they’re very soothing things. Maybe we’re at a very easy-going point in our lives and careers. 

“We’ve had as much drama as anybody else has, I’m sure,” Robison continues, reflecting on their 11-year relationship. “But it’s one of those things where you look back on your story and you wouldn’t change a minute of it. You kind of feel field-tested by flame. I wrote half the songs that she’s recorded of mine about her, during times when were broken up — like ‘Wrapped’ and ‘Not Forgotten You.’ But I can’t argue a bit with the way it all turned out. I’m still trying to make sense of the last couple of years. Between the kid and the people who have recorded my songs and how well Kelly’s last record did, I don’t know … we did something right I guess, but I’m not sure what that is.” 

Although there’s no doubting their sincerity when Willis one Robison each cite the birth of their son as a humbling experience, neither has ever been in danger of letting their egos run away from them. Robison is keenly aware that even though his songs seem to be en vogue on Music Row at the moment, it’s the nature of that game that they could fall out of fashion just as quickly. He only hopes that when or if they do, his turn will come around again somewhere later down the line. And as for Willis, had she ever truly wanted superstardom once her naiveté wore off in Nashville, it was certainly within her reach. She had the voice, the looks, and the youth to be every inch the mainstream entertainer Tony Brown wanted her to be. All she had to do was dutifully stay on the conveyor belt. Instead, she hopped off and chose a less certain path — her own. And if that means never selling “more” than 100,000 records or rising to a level fo fame above that of half of “Austin’s favorite couple,” or “the Henna Chevrolet girl,” or even just “Mom,” you’re not going to hear her complain. 

Besides, if either of them ever wants a glimpse at real fame, they don’t have to look far. Willis recounts an experience at a Willie Nelson concert one Halloween at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes that she and Robison attended with his brother and wife: Texas songwriter Charlie Robison and Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks. “People were coming over for autographs, and they were either first going to Charlie or Emily, and then they’d go to the other. And then they’d come to me and Bruce and they’d go, ‘Well, y’all can sign it too …’

“We were like, ‘Gee, thanks … you’re making us feel really good,'” she laughs. “Once in a while something like that will happen, where they’re just throwing us a bone, and we just feel pathetic. It’s better if they don’t do that at all, because it’s kind of fun to sit on the side and just watch the mayhem.”

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Two from The Who: Q&As with Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle (from RollingStone.com, June 2000)

PART 1
(From RollingStone.com, June 7, 2000)

Roger Daltrey says Who reunion not nostalgia, but “magic”
Consummate frontman praises Pete, remembers Keith and talks tour

By Richard Skanse

There were, of course, rock & roll frontmen before Roger Daltrey. But really, what was the point of ’em? When it came to the Who’s magic bus, Pete Townshend’s songs formed the engine, John Entwistle provided the chassis and Keith Moon brought the high octane rocket fuel, but it was always Daltrey who commanded the wheel. And it wasn’t just his powerhouse voice and epic stage presence that put him in that position. It was Daltrey who founded the Who [as the Detours] in 1962; Daltrey who built the band’s guitars out of plywood; Daltrey who drove the van; and Daltrey who cracked the whip when it needed to be cracked. “Good old Rog,” wrote Townshend in the 1994 Who box set Thirty Years of Maximum R&B, “. . . without his driving, tin-plate, cutter-uppers force, I would still be languishing in the garret of the visual artist I was training to be.”

Not surprisingly, Daltrey has long been the foremost champion of the Who. He’s currently plotting a biopic on the life of the late Moon, and even in the off years since 1982 when the band wasn’t reuniting, he’s never stopped promoting and performing Townshend’s songs, being arguably prouder of them than Townshend himself. So expect him to be in fine fighting form this summer on the band’s stripped-down, rock & roll amphitheater tour.

Whenever the Who reunites, it often seems like Pete has to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, John couldn’t care either way, and you’re playing cheerleader.

In actual fact, it’s Pete this time who really wants to go out and do it. And I can’t believe it’s happening! To be really honest, this is something that’s grown out of those benefit shows last year, and I’m just taking it a day at a time. And of course, I love being with the band — to be on a stage, and even though we’re playing songs that are old, they’re our songs . . .

At the press conference announcing the tour, how did you feel when the “nostalgia question” came up?

What a load of bullshit that is. I mean, if you went to see a Beethoven concert tonight, is that nostalgia? If you go to a museum and look at a Renoir exhibition, is that nostalgia? How can it be nostalgia if it’s our fucking music? It fucking belongs to us and we can play it when and where ever we like. And if people don’t want to come and see it, then that’s up to them — we don’t force anyone. But it’s certainly not nostalgia. And sometimes you go onstage, and mostly by accident, things happen and a musical direction gets switched in a certain way, and it’s just pure fucking magic. And that to me is probably the single most beautiful thing in my life, to have ever achieved something that wondrous. And it happens quite regularly with the Who, so of course I enjoy it and I’m enthusiastic.

What is it about Pete’s songs that allows you to never get tired of them?

There’s a courage and an honesty about them. And I know they were written really about problems of adolescence and just a little bit beyond that, most of them, but they equally apply to problems of middle age and onwards, too. I think there are other problems of middle age and onwards, but it’s frustrated me that Pete has never managed to put pen to paper or pen to guitar and write more about them. It always frustrated me that Pete could do it so well about adolescence and about the young boy growing up, but he can’t write about the middle-aged man figuring out his life with all the problems he faces. I mean, what’s the fucking difference?

Did you ever listen to his solo albums and think, “I’d love to get my hands on that song, see what we could do with it with the Who”?

Yep. I’m a Pete-fucking-Townshend fan. But when we’re in a working relationship, I am honest enough to say, “Maybe you could do something a bit better,” or, “Why don’t you try something a different way?” Pete’s always known that I’ll be honest with him. I would never tell him that something that wasn’t very good was. There’s an awful lot of people who will. I think he is a genius. Well, let’s put it this way — he was a genius. I don’t know whether he is now. There’s a difference between talent and genius. Talent you possess, which is what he’s still got, but genius is when you are possessed, which is what he was. I think when he wrote the songs, there was no doubt that he was a genius. And he’s still got potential to become obsessive again and get back to there, but when you are like that, far too often you’re surrounded by people who just tell you that everything you do is wonderful. And it’s death to an artist — fucking death. Because of course a lot of what you do is wonderful, but nobody — nobody — can do everything wonderfully. We all need that person to say, “Buddy, don’t be a prat — that’s crap!” [laughs]

When the subject of a new Who album has come up recently, you’ve mentioned having some songs of your own that you thought were up to par.

I’m so critical of myself because I lived in paranoia of writing anything for years and years because Pete to me was the ultimate, and it’s kind of a hard place to be when you think, “Let me have a go at writing,” because what can you do? You have no confidence whatsoever. But when I did Rocks in the Head [Daltrey’s 1992 solo album], I took it down to Pete and said, “Just tell me what you think of the lyrics, Pete, because I think I can write now.” And God bless him, he listened to it and said, “They lyrics are great, Roger.” That meant so much to me. And I’ve got three songs now which lyrically I think are really good. I’ve already played him a few demos.

You’ve expressed interest in doing a movie about Keith Moon’s life. What was your relationship with him like?

For the first 10 years of the Who, I think I was probably his number one enemy — mainly because I was in front of him. In Keith’s opinion, the drums should be at the front of the stage and the singer should be in the back. And there was a tour of Europe where they were doing speed more and more and more — I couldn’t do speed, because it’ll dry your throat up — but we did this tour and we were all so out of it and the music was going down the tubes, it was fucking dire. Finally I was so fed up with it, I went in the dressing room and there was Moon’s big bag of pills and I just threw them down the toilet. And he went crazy, came at me with a cymbal, and of course we ended up in a big fight, and I was thrown out of the band. Fortunately, management stood by me, and I promised never to fight again.

And I didn’t fight. For years, I was the butt of all of Moon’s jokes — and he could be wicked — and I had to just bite my lip, but I did it because I loved the band. Once we did Who’s Next, I kind of passed my apprenticeship, and we became more friendly. And when Keith started to have a really bad time, I was the only constant because I was at a period then where I didn’t do any drugs. We got closer and closer and closer, ’til right towards the end when he was cleaning himself up and he finally got off of the drink and the drugs. I had a pact with him, because he said, “I’ve got to tour, we haven’t toured for three years — drummers have to work.” But he’d put on all this weight, and he was brokenhearted. And I said, “Look, Keith, if you get yourself set, we’ll get you a training program, and I’ll make sure we tour.” That was the deal, though God knows how I was going to make sure we toured. But anything to get him to get himself in shape. And we were working on it, and then, boom — he died of the bloody drug that he was taking to cure him.

How have the potential scripts for the movie that you’ve seen missed the mark?

They always just go for the cliches. I don’t want to see a script about the Who on stage at Woodstock. I’m not interested in that. I know how to deal with the Who in film. But none of them seem to have the balls to go to the depths that they’ve got to go to get to the center of Keith Moon. He was an incredibly complex character.

Speaking of complex characters, did you enjoy playing Scrooge last year in the New York production of A Christmas Carol?

Oh, I loved that. But 15 shows a week, that’s fuckin’ hard work, I’ll tell you — it was harder than a Who tour or any tour I’ve ever done. Fucking exhausting.

And how about your role as a fairy king in that NBC miniseries, Leprauchans?

Leprechans . . . was just a mess.

***

PART 2
(From RollingStone.com, June 7, 2000)

John Entwistle ready to join together … again
Bassist says he’s looking forward to his Who holiday

By Richard Skanse

They called him “The Ox.” In the midst of the unstoppable force that was The Who at its most fearsome, bassist John Entwistle was the immovable object. Measured against the extreme stage presence of his bandmates — Pete Townshend’s windmill guitar playing, Roger Daltrey’s deadly swinging microphone and Keith Moon’s explosive, unpredictable drumming, Entwistle was “the Quiet One”; but take away his bass, and the Who’s roar would be reduced to a whisper. Think of the Who’s signature anthem “My Generation,” and Entwistle’s earth-rumbling run down the neck of his bass guitar resonates as loudly as Daltrey’s stuttering “f-f-fade away.”

Entwistle’s also, in his own quiet way, probably the most astutely funny of the bunch. A noted caricaturist, he shudders at the thought of drawing the Y2K version of the Who: “It would take too much ink!” In a bio he penned for himself a few years back when he was touring with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band, he painted himself as the watchman sitting on the Who’s coffin, making sure it stayed safely dead. How then to explain all those reunion tours over the last 18 years, including this summer? Even the most dutiful of guards has to make the occasional run to the loo.

How do you feel going into this Who reunion tour? Eager to get back into it?

I think more so now than before, because it’s down to a five-piece. The last couple of times, there were so many people onstage doing my job, there weren’t hardly any holes for me to fit in and do my little bass bit. Now there are a lot more holes, and I can play a lot better. Pete and myself have gotten eye contact back again, so we’re playing like we used to, not letting someone else play all the melody lines, which didn’t allow us to improvise — which is what I always loved about the Who, and I think a lot of our fans missed that. They’d come and see Quadrophenia two nights in a row and it’d be almost exactly the same show. Now all the shows are different.

How would you compare the new live album, Blues to the Bush, to Live at Leeds?

In a way, it’s not really fair to compare the two. Because on Live at Leeds we were shit-hot. We’d done a whole bunch of touring, and we were extremely confident and our sound was perfected and everything was real smooth — we could do a great show every time. This live album is basically where we are now, after four days of rehearsals. We played a lot smoother on Live at Leeds, but I know damn well that I’m playing a lot better than I did on Live at Leeds. So you’ve got the better musicianship to balance it off. But it’s a lot more raggedy. We could have gone in and overdubbed like crazy and made it sound wonderful, but we didn’t want that. We wanted people to know bloody where we were even down to our mistakes. We did do a couple of repairs, but at least we didn’t replace everything like the Eagles — you know, “New live in the studio album!”

What are your thoughts on the prospect of recording a new Who studio album?

The hardest thing is trying to figure how it’s going to work out. I think because we’re jamming a lot more on stage a lot of songs will come out of the next tour. We’re recording every show on DAT so we can refer ourselves to what we’re playing, because we never remember what we played. So I think a lot of song ideas will come out of jamming, and obviously that will make the album a lot easier to do — it will help us find a new direction.

You were spotted in the audience at Pete’s “Lifehouse” concert in December. At any time while watching it, did you imagine the Who playing it?

Not really, no. That’s Pete’s baby. I have no comments on it.

What were your thoughts about the concept albums you did record together? Did you ever have difficulty sinking your teeth into those?

They were kind of a lot different. With Tommy, we started out doing what was basically a single album, but it didn’t make sense. We realized the only way to make it coherent was to make it a double album, because a lot more things happened to Tommy than could be put on one album. We eventually got the double album finished, but we were recording during the day and playing concerts during the evening to pay for the next day in the studio. We knew it was going to be different because it was the first full concept thing that we had done, besides a nine-minute mini-opera thing [“A Quick One While He’s Away”].

When it came to Lifehouse, it was like, here we go, another concept album. It kind of fell apart on Pete, and he did the opposite, making it a single instead of a double album, and it became just a normal album [Who’s Next]. But then Quadrophenia came and I went, “Oh God, yet another!” Why can’t we just do songs that stand on their own? But Quadrophenia was a lot easier because Pete had actually done most of the demos, so it wasn’t anywhere near as hard work as Tommy. But I always prayed that the next album wasn’t going to be a concept album. [laughs]

By the time of the farewell tour . . .

Which one? [laughs]

The first one, in 1982. Were you ready for the band to end at that time?

Yeah, I wanted to get on with my solo career. I thought there were much greater heights to go on to. And after four years of that, I realized that there weren’t any heights to go on to. You’d always get dragged back and have the Who thrown at you. “When are the Who getting back together?” We all realized that the Who would have to get back together again, because they wouldn’t let us do anything else. But yeah, I was full of grandiose ideas when the Who broke up for the first time. But it doesn’t take long to spend five million dollars! [laughs]

These days, whenever you have to stop touring with the John Entwistle Band for another Who reunion, is that at all like having to go back to work for you?

Not really. The John Entwistle Band is a lot harder work. Playing with the Who after that is like a holiday. I don’t have to save my voice because I’m not singing, I’m not having to go to the mic to make announcements, trying to keep the whole thing going while somebody’s changing a fucking string. It’s a lot harder work, and touring with the John Entwistle Band is a lot more Spartan. We travel by bus, and the Who by private plane with big hotel suites. I’m lucky to get a hotel room with my band over $60. It’s a cheapo, cheapo production. So the Who is a vacation compared to that.

What was the origin of your nickname, “The Ox”?

I think it came from Keith Moon. He started by saying I had the constitution of an ox, because I could drink. And then I started putting weight on, and it became a physical thing. I hate it.

Last question: Were you ever clocked in the head by Roger’s swinging microphone?

Nah. If it ever gets close to me, it usually just goes around the head of my bass and puts me out of tune. He has hit a couple of people, but they were both on purpose [laughs]. I’ve seen him even knock someone out for throwing pennies at him. We did a gig with Chuck Berry and there were a whole bunch of rockers there making a lot of noise because we had actually pulled the plug on Chuck Berry because he was running over time. We were contracted to play an hour and a half, and we only had an hour and five minutes left. But we kept playing until they pulled the plug on us, and this guy was throwing pennies, and Roger saw the guy throw it when one hit him on the head. So Roger just pointed to the guy, aimed, and . . . phwump!

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Filed under 2000, Features, From Rolling Stone, Uncategorized

Under the influence of Alejandro

From RollingStone.com, May 8, 2001

A Man Under the Influence

Underground Texas legend Alejandro Escovedo returns with his first album of new material in five years

It’s a week before Alejandro Escovedo is due to return to the road in support of his first new studio album in five years, A Man Under the Influence, and what will surely be one of the most important elements of the show is making its debut appearance at a rehearsal. “I just got it this morning,” keyboardist Bruce Salmon says of the virtual analog synthesizer standing before him, the freshly opened box and packing foam off to the side. “I chased the delivery guy down on the way here.”

Considering that Escovedo has opted not to tour with a cellist or violist this time out and that the focus of today’s lesson plan happens to be Escovedo’s intricately orchestral 1993 album Thirteen Years, Salmon’s new toy seems to arrived in the nick of time. And though unlocking all of the instrument’s features is a matter of trial and error — Salmon exclaims with delight when he stumbles upon a gothic organ sound, then furrows his brow as he tries to figure out how he got it — it quickly becomes apparent that the synth, combined with Luis Guerra’s stand-up bass and Paul Brainard’s lap steel guitar, will be more than up to the formidable task ahead of it. It takes the band several runs through the starkly beautiful “Try, Try, Try” before they find the song’s elusive pocket, and the rocker “Mountain of Mud” takes a couple of passes before Escovedo hears the right mix of Stones and Ramones in the groove, but by the look on the seasoned musician’s face come practice’s end, he likes what he hears.

“I love synthesizers,” Escovedo enthuses. “Originally, when I first went solo, I started out with a synthesizer and a stand-up bass player. I’ve always loved atmospheric stuff, texture, and I wanted to bring it back. This tour I think is our Tangerine Dream or Roxy Music phase — that or Kraftwerk. I’m not quite sure which way it’s going to go.”

He’s joking, albeit only mildly. Given Escovedo’s eclectic background — which covers everything from punk (the Nuns) to cowpunk (Rank & File) to rock (True Believers) to the haunting, almost unclassifiable Velvet Underground-as-a-chamber-orchestra sound he’s perfected over the last 10 years as a solo artist — a little bit of techno thrown into the mix probably really wouldn’t seem that out of place. “I didn’t want to do the same thing over and over again,” he explains. So he pulled together a new band (only drummer Hector Munoz remains from his old crew) and changed the instrumentation just enough to keep himself interested. “I hate to repeat myself,” Escovedo says.

Still, rest assured, Escovedo wouldn’t dream of ever forsaking the guitar. This is, after all, a man still so under the influence of the glam rock he loved growing up that the new album finds him singing the line “My hands are turning numb/But still I gotta strum/My velvet guitar,” and a man who describes his on-again, off-again flings with his unruly garage rock side project Buick MacKane as “a really bad relationship with a girl that you just love to have sex with . . . it’s never really over.” And right now, as he gets ready to return to the road after a rare four months off, Escovedo figures he’s due a good, versatile touring guitar.

“Wanna go to the music store?” Escovedo asks suddenly.

Sure.

“Can you give me a ride?” he continues, earning a whoop of approval from his bassist. “Oh man,” Guerra exclaims in admiration. “He got you S.A. style . . . San Antonio style!”

Escovedo smiles. “My friends always say they’ve been ‘Escovedoed,’” he says proudly. “My family left San Antonio for California when I was eight, but I’ve still got the style . . . I still know how to get a ride somewhere.”

Ten minutes later Escovedo is shopping for a new guitar at South Austin Music a few blocks around the corner. He’s looking for something in a reasonably priced Strat or Telecaster that will give him a “clean, rocking sound, but not real distorted.” He lovingly strums a battle-scarred 1974 Strat, but balks at the price and settles on a perfectly serviceable, $400 baby blue number. He walks out with it with the owner’s blessing to try it out on his own amplifier before buying it, a deal based not on Escovedo’s “S.A. style” but the respect afforded him in this musician’s town he’s called home for the last 21 years.

“We did this amazing tour when I was in Rank & File,” the 50-year-old singer-songwriter begins when asked about his arrival in the city. “We left on the night when Ronald Reagan was elected president . . . with a bag of pot, and a chicken . . . a roasted chicken. We had seven dates in seven weeks, which took us from New York City all the way to Vancouver Canada and then back to New York. When we came here, my friend Lester Bangs was living here, and I just thought it was the coolest place. I had been in New York for awhile, and I had lived in San Francisco, Hollywood, Seattle . . . I’d been everywhere. But I thought I’d always go back home.”

Later this summer, Escovedo really will be returning home, moving with his girlfriend and three young children to his native San Antonio an hour south. “I got ran out of town,” he explains later over lunch at an empty Mexican restaurant. “All the ex-Orchestra members finally got to me. Lynch mob.” There’s also the matter of the divorce he’s going through, one of many painful circumstances that directly or indirectly influenced Escovedo during the writing and recording of A Man Under the Influence.

“There was a lot of turmoil,” he says. “Things were getting tossed upside down everywhere I looked. My band was breaking up. My relationship went sour. I wasn’t sure about a lot of things. It was a tough time. It wasn’t a difficult time making the record, but difficult times surrounded the making of the record.”

Whatever went into it, the results are stunning. Though similar in style to the other five acclaimed solo albums Escovedo has released since the break-up of Austin’s beloved True Believers in the late Eighties, A Man Under the Influence stands as his most accomplished — and tuneful — collection of songs to date. Highlights include the freewheeling, Faces-worthy rocker “Castanets,” and “Wave” and “Rosalie,” a pair of screen-worthy epics lifted from “By the Hand of the Father,” the multi-media play Escovedo co-wrote based on the life of his father. (Escovedo says a full soundtrack to the play — a love letter to his parents that has kept him busy for the last couple of years — should be forthcoming later this year).

“I love ‘Rosalie,’” Escovedo says with exceptional pride. “To me it sounds like an old song — like I wish Sam Cooke was alive to sing it. It’s a cool song to write, and I mean, no one writes songs like that anymore.”

Occasionally, Escovedo will check himself and ask, “Am I allowed to talk about my own songs like that?” But those benders with Buick MacKane aside, this is not a man who takes his craft lightly, given to padding his albums out with filler. Even though he winces when he thinks of the compressed production that he feels marred his last studio album, 1996’s With These Hands, he stands by the songs and notes that he never works on songs he doesn’t like — which may explain why he didn’t write his first song until he was 30, six years after he first picked up guitar.

“I wanted to be a baseball player,” he says of his late start despite growing up in a very musical family. “But I wasn’t big enough, and then I found girls and pot, and that ruined me.”

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Q&A: Bruce Robison (From Lone Star Music, Sept. 2001)

From LoneStarMusicMagazine.com, Sept. 1, 2001

BruceRobison2001

The Bandera-reared songwriter talks “Country Sunshine,” the freedom that comes with having his songs cut by the biggest names in the business, and the things he gets away with by being the so-called “nice” Robison brother.

By Richard Skanse

When Bruce Robison expresses his deep admiration for Don Williams, the Floydada, Texas-born “Gentle Giant” of country music, its just sounds about right. It’s not just the fact that Robison is a giant of sorts himself, standing “taller than most” at 6’7”, and possessed of the kind of easy demeanor that, at least in comparison to button-pushing, wise-cracking fellow artists like Bruce’s brother Charlie, could easily earn you the tag “gentle.” The Don Williams connection goes well beyond Robison’s towering height and nice-guy vibe, and the proof is his fine new independent album, Country Sunshine. The songs are all new, but there’s a quiet, dignified grace that runs through the album that brings to mind the broken-in, sincere comfort of such Williams recordings as “Love Me Over Again” and “Lord, I Hope This Day is Good.” Robison’s more of a writer than Williams — indeed, songwriting, moreso than performing and recording, is Robison’s true calling — but he writes the kind of honest and genuinely moving songs you can imagine Williams singing, and sings them himself with the same sense of spirit if not quite the same grandfatherly voice.

Williams hasn’t actually cut one of Robison’s songs yet, but a handful of more modern giants have and will likely continue to do so. LeeAnn Womack recorded Robison’s song “Lonely Too” for her Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum album I Hope You Dance, and Tim McGraw cut “Angry All the Time” for his current country smash Set This Circus Down — and more importantly, released it as a single. And that’s not even mentioning “Right Man for the Job,” the song he co-wrote with Charlie that will be the next single on Charlie’s major label Step Right Up album, or “Wrapped,” one of the stand-out moments on his wife Kelly Willis’ acclaimed 1999 album, What I Deserve. Over lunch at Jovita’s on a recent rainy afternoon in Austin, Robison confessed to being taken back a bit by the rapid ascent that the McGraw single has taken into the country Top 10, admitting that he’s never had much reason to follow the charts before. Given the way things are going for him lately — what with two of Country Sunshine’s best songs having already been recorded for future release by Womack and rising star Gary Allan — don’t be surprised if he starts paying a lot more attention from here on out.

So where were you when the news came down that Tim McGraw was going to use your song “Angry All the Time” as the next single?

I just happened to be in Nashville, and the publishing company called me and they asked me to come by the office. I thought maybe they were going to drop me, but I went over there, and they had put the fax with the news up on the wall — that’s how they found out [that it was going to be the next single]. I called Kelly, and it pretty much went like this: “We got the new single.” “Uh-uh. Really?” “Yeah.” “Uh-uh!” [Laughs] We did that for about 20 minutes.

It was a big cut for us — a very good thing for myself and my young family. I’m still pinching myself. I’ve mentioned that I thought I was lucky to a lot of people, and a couple of them have said, “Hey, I think that song is great — you’re not lucky.” But I’ve heard a lot of great songs that never had someone like that cut them, where a certain level of success is assured. I’ve been going to Nashville for 10 years but I still really do feel fortunate that this happened, because there have been a lot of fantastic writers, people that I idolize, that have never had something like where it’s like, “Hell yeah it’s Top 10 — it’s Tim McGraw!” It’s wild. When you get a song on one of his records, that’s like hitting a double, and when he decides to single it, it’s a home run. It’s just whether it’s a one-run home run or a grand slam. It takes the guessing game out of it, because it’s going to do well.

You left Sony earlier this year to concentrate on songwriting and go back to releasing albums on your own label, Boar’s Nest. Can you tell me a first person horror story about life on a major label?

Horror story is not the word. I have a different take on it. In my situation, I didn’t feel like I fit into the major label mentality the way it is right now. I was in a situation where I had a record deal with what I think is the best record company in Nashville, and I still didn’t like it. They gave me all the freedom that I wanted — actually too much. They wanted me not to think about commercial country radio and all that, but I knew that at a Nashville record company, if you’re not going to think about the charts or getting on commercial radio, you might as well not be on a Nashville label because that’s what they understand and do best. Kelly’s record was on Rykodisc, and they were great at doing grassroots stuff, but Sony Nashville, that’s not their forte. So I was in a situation that I just didn’t think fit. And then when I found out my song was going to be a McGraw single, I found myself in a position that most people don’t have. I don’t have to worry about how my record performs; I can just do it however I want to, and it will just find its own level. I make my money and my main focus is on a completely different thing — it’s on writing songs and getting them cut. So it really wasn’t a case of “I’ve got this stuff and the mean guys at the label are ruining it all.” Yeah, I’ve had horror stories where I’ve gone in and talked to somebody and they didn’t understand anything about what I was doing and I was doomed to failure, because they’ve got this song and they’re not trying to do anything with it. But I’m not one to curse those guys — I’ll just find a place where it fits better.

It was a leap of faith to leave Sony, but every since then it’s felt like I did the right thing. It was only hard because I’m taking money out of my family’s mouth as an investment to go do these things, but because of Kelly and what she’s got going on and because of what I’ve already got going on, we were able to do that. And it’s been an amazing couple of years. Lee Ann Womack’s record has done amazingly well, and that was before the McGraw thing ever happened. It wasn’t a single but it’s still a great thing — that’s two multi-platinum albums in one year, and Lee Ann just cut another one of my songs, “Blame It On Me,” that will hopefully make it on her next record. And Gary Allan already recorded “What Would Willie Do,” and his last record has almost sold a million so they’re going to make a big push on him next time around. So that side of it is really going great. I don’t think I would have been able to do it otherwise — drop away from the Sony deal. But it felt like, “If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to be able to do it.”

I can imagine Gary Allan doing a good job on “What Would Willie Do,” but I hope he delivers the line about Willie taking a deep breath and holding it as good as you do on Country Sunshine. That’s the best part of the song.

[Laughs] It’s a fun song, and he does a good job of it — I’ve heard it. I really like that song to tell you the truth. It was a lot of fun to get [Willie’s harmonica player] Mickey Raphael to play on it. It was a blast recording that. This was the best recording situation I’ve ever had. It all felt good

When and where was the album recorded?

I recorded it in Nashville. I did a little bit here, but I did most of it at a really cool place called Cowboy Jack Clements Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa. He was the engineer on a lot of Sun session stuff in Memphis in the ’50s, and then he went to Nashville and did a lot of the stuff that was really formative to me through the ’60s and ’70s — Charley Pride, Don Williams, and most of the really great Waylon Jennings stuff. He’s got a studio that is not used all that much at his house, and that’s where they recorded the first couple of Iris DeMent records and the last couple of John Prine records and a lot the records through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that I really loved. So we went in there, and I used some of the musicians who played on those records back then, my heroes. We tracked in Nashville that way, then came back here and put Kelly on it, and Ian McLagan on it and a couple of my friends, and then took it back to Nashville and mixed it there. That’s the way I always work — piecemeal. I have to go where the people are that I want to use.

My favorite track on the album is “Friendless Marriage,” the big George Jones and Tammy Wynette style duet you do with Kelly. Was that a conscious attempt on your part to write and record the perfect country song?

Well, that’s obviously always my goal. I don’t write happy songs hardly ever because to me it’s hard to sound genuine. For me it’s easier to write sad songs, and to me that’s kind of what country music’s always been about. It kind of lost me a bit when it got all up-tempo and positive. I’ve got no use for it — I’d rather listen to rock ’n’ roll or something like that when I’m feeling that way. I tend to write sad songs and I tend to write about a lot of the harder times in life. When I was making records and making songs with an ear towards getting on country radio, they’d end up being like bad rock ’n’ roll songs.

Kelly and I wrote that song together. She woke up one night and she dreamed the melody line and the hook for the chorus. She told me that she’d dreamed this thing, and she asked me if I’d ever heard it before. I said “No,” and I hope it’s not floating around out there. But I said “that’s great!” and I went out and finished the song from the melody line she had dreamed. That was a couple of years ago, and I’ve been working on the arrangement every since then, to turn it into this George and Tammy type of thing. Nobody’s making songs like that anymore, and I miss them, to tell you the truth. It’s a very sincere song. Things are so ironic these days, everybody’s kind of winking at you, but my songs are very sincere in a way that seems antiquated in a way.

But as country as “Friendless Marriage” sounds, there are elements to the album that, while not upbeat and happy, that definitely color outside the lines. A lot of the organ and keyboard on here kind of reminds me of Boz Scaggs or even Supertramp.

That’s what makes this “what is country music” debate that people have nowadays so complicated. In the old days, the people that made country music, their influences were very narrow in a great way. If you grew up in a rural area back in the ’40s and ’50s, you were going to have a certain range of influences. But now, guys like us, what are our influences? They’re all over the place. You can’t help it. Yeah I listened to country music when I was a kid, and I listened to rock ’n’ roll. There was all kinds of crazy stuff everywhere, especially if you grew up in Texas. We’re all a product of our influence. Boz Scaggs? Yeah. I can’t help it. “Lido Shuffle” was my favorite song in the fifth grade. I’ve heard Boz Scaggs all my life. I don’t know if he was a big influence on me, but you can’t get away from it. These days you can’t escape those things when you’re growing up, and they’re going to manifest themselves in your music.

How old were you when you first started writing?

Probably about 25 or 26. I kind of started writing songs out of desperation when I had left college and quit playing basketball. I had nothing. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I didn’t even get close to graduating. I was a lousy student. I was pretty good at literature and things I was interested in, but I couldn’t do anything that I wasn’t interested in so I hardly ever passed any courses. But the moment I started writing songs, doors started opening. I’d never realized how closed all the doors were before, and that I was doing things that I was really bad at. But the moment I started writing songs, someone would be like, “Hey that’s not a bad song, you should show that to my manager, or my publisher.” And I would. Before that it was like, “You’re a lousy basketball player, but you’re barely good enough to make the team, so you can stay around,” or “You’re in school and you paid your tuition, so we can’t throw you out, but …” That’s the way it felt before I started writing songs.

Here comes the inevitable part of the interview where we talk about brother Charlie. I’ve always wondered if it bothered you that when people talk about the two of you, you’re always “the nice one.” And yet, here you’re the guy that wrote what some might consider his most offensive song, “You’re Not the Best.”

It’s very good that you saw that. We went to see the Dixie Chicks last year, and they were playing Charlie’s CD before the show, and my grandmother leaned over to me and said, “I love Charlie, but I hate that song. I just cannot believe he did it — I hate that song ‘You’re Not the Best.’” I think that encapsulates what I can get away with, because she had no idea that I wrote it. Somebody else told her later on, but I didn’t even mention it. But there are songs of mine that Charlie has done and to me, it’s the best of both worlds, because I wouldn’t have the guts to do that song, and I couldn’t sell it anyway. But people love that side of his personality. So if someone wants to pigeonhole us that way, that’s ok. Those are some of the least offensive pigeonholes that can happen. As long as Charlie’s ok with it, too. It doesn’t matter what they say, as long as it’s not true.

He caught a lot of flak for some of the comments he made in a recent interview in the Austin Chronicle. Among them was the one where he said he was a better songwriter than you. Did you call him on that?

No, he called me. I hadn’t read it yet. But you know, Charlie says a lot of things that everybody feels. On one hand, you have to feel that you are a good songwriter, or you wouldn’t have the guts to do it. So he thinks he’s really good, and he needs to. The people that ask me about that, I say, “Well, listen to ‘Loving County,’ listen to ‘My Home Town,’ or ‘John O’Reilly’ off his new record.” And you can make the case that he’s a better songwriter than just about anybody. But then you get into the ridiculous, unenviable task that you guys are in every day of having to compare and contrast everybody.

How intense was the competition between you two growing up, be it in sports, popularity, or anything else?

It wasn’t that intense because it was never a fair fight. Charlie so far out-stripped me in whatever we did. He was a football star in a small Texas town, which you can’t appreciate unless you’ve lived in one and know what that’s like. He’s a very gregarious person and he has a personality that really attracts people to him and has supreme confidence and is in every way the complete opposite of me. So I felt the competition, but he never has. I’ve never been a threat to him. The only time it’s been a problem has been for me. The first few years we played music I didn’t like it because we played the same clubs for a lot of the same people with a lot of the same musicians. But over the last few years, we were able to delineate the differences between us, and that has made it a lot easier and allowed us to work together and each do the things we want to do. We both are making plans to make a record together.

But were there days when I hated my brother? You bet. Are there days when we still scream at each other? You bet and there always will be. But my God am I proud of him now. It would be real easy for me to say, “Man, I’m down there busking on Sixth Street, and Charlie is on the cover of Texas Music magazine.” But eight or nine years ago, I was playing open mics when I met Kelly, and she was making records for MCA. It was a really good learning experience. You learn humility and essentially who you are and how to do your own stuff without being concerned how well they’re doing in comparison. Now, between Emily [Robison of the Dixie Chicks, Charlie’s wife] and Kelly and me and Charlie, I’m just really proud of our whole family and hope that we will be able to continue to do what we all do in a way that we love and also pay the bills.

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Q&A: Willie Nelson (from Lone Star Music, Jan. 2002)

From LoneStarMusicMagazine.com, Jan. 2002

WillieNelsonJanuary2002

The most prolific man in Texas music (“I’ve already forgotten how many records I’ve done this year,” he jokes) talks “The Great Divide,” tae kwon do, and his reaction to “What Would Willie Do?”

By Richard Skanse

Willie Nelson is a man who needs less introduction than the Pope in Rome, but keeping track of the guy is no small task. Or rather, keeping track of the many projects he has up in the air at once is no small task, as keeping track of where Willie actually is physically on virtually any given day of the year is generally no more difficult than typing his name into the search engine of the Pollstar online touring database. Odds are, right now, as you read this, Willie is either playing a show somewhere in America or en-route to a show in his beloved tour bus. But try and keep tabs on how many albums he puts out a year — or at least how many he records and puts aside for release at a later date — and you’re grappling with a task that even Willie himself admits he has trouble with sometimes. Factor in all the appearances he makes on other people’s records — like his duet with Pat Green on the song “Threadbare Gypsy Soul” from Green’s major-label debut, Three Days — and your head really starts to hurt.

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll focus on the BIG Willie projects. Like The Great Divide, his just-released all-star album on Lost Highway Records featuring duets with everyone from Lee Ann Womack to Kid Rock to Sheryl Crow to R&B crooner Brian McKnight. Though some of those names might leave Willie’s staunch country fans puzzled or even worried, fact is, it’s an immensely listenable affair from start to finish. And odds are it will prove to be the Red-Headed Stranger’s biggest hit in years, thanks to the golden touch of radio wonderboy Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty, the guy responsible for putting Carlos Santana back in the public’s consciousness via the smash hit “Smooth” a couple of years ago.

In addition to The Great Divide, Willie’s other recent achievements include writing and releasing a new book, The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes, participating in the triumphant America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon, and racking up two Grammy nominations, for Best Country Album (for last year’s sorta-children’s album, Rainbow Connection), and Best Male Country Vocal Performance (for “Marie,” his chilling contribution to Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt). He also recently earned his black belt in tae kwon do and filmed a martial arts flick. Oh, and he finished three, maybe four other albums, too. All of which amounts to a long-winded way of saying that Willie Nelson accomplished more in his 68th year alone than most mortals do in their 20s, 30s and 40s. For a recap/update, we caught up with Willie on the phone recently while he was holed up in New York City, preparing to tape a two-night stint on The Late Show with David Letterman.

First off, congrats on your two Grammy nominations. The last Grammy you won was way back in 1982, for “Always on My Mind.” Do you get your hopes up every time you¹re nominated?

Not really, no. I’ve always believed in the fact that when you’re nominated, you’ve won. As far as I’m concerned, everybody that’s nominated is a winner. And beyond that, it doesn’t really matter that much.

Will you be attending this year?

No, I won’t attend this one. I’m working in Houston the night before, so it’s a little stretch to get out there. I think my daughter, who helped produce the CD Rainbow Connection, is going out, to be there just in case, so at least we’ll be represented.

Let’s talk about your new album, The Great Divide. When did that project start to take shape?

Well it’s been a year since I first cut the tracks. I did my part in January of last year. Matt Serletic, who produced it, and Rob Thomas had worked together before, and I got to be friends with Rob Thomas and we started talking and decided we wanted to do something together, and one thing led to another …

Quite a few music legends have taken a shine to working with Rob Thomas over the last few years, from Carlos Santana to yourself to Mick Jagger. What is it about the guy that helps him click so well with so many different people?

Well he’s a good writer, and he’s a good singer. And he’s a good picker, and he’s a real nice guy, so he’s got all the qualifications.

I’ve really come to like The Great Divide quite a lot. What strikes me about it is that it’s really eclectic musically, but at the same time, it seems like your most accessible work in years. Was that the aim going into it?

Yeah. We kind of pointed it in every direction — there’s some song that can be played on practically any format really.

So who’s idea was it to have you work with all the different artists? Was that something you wanted to do, or an idea the label came to you with?

I think I’d had some success with that before, and it was a good time to do it. And Matt Serletic has a good phone book, so he knows who to call. He put together the artists other than Rob and I — he put together Kid Rock and Lee Ann, all those folks that were on there. I knew them all, except Brian McKnight, who I’d never met before. But Matt asked me about them, I said, “Sure, go for it,” and he called up everybody. I think there’s safety in numbers. [Laughs]

Didn’t a lot of the artists record their parts separately from you?

Yeah. I was there with Lee Ann, we did that one in Nashville. And Alison Krauss was with us there. And we did the rest of it in L.A. Brian McKnight was in the studio out there, but everybody else came in afterwards.

My favorite track is “The Great Divide,” the one song on the album that you wrote yourself. How long ago did you write that?

I’ve had it a couple of years. Jackie King, who plays guitar with me, came to me one day with some chord progressions and wanted me to help him write an instrumental. And I liked the progression so well that I decided to try and write some lyrics to it.

“This Face” is my other favorite song. It seems so autobiographical and obviously tailored for you that it’s hard to believe you didn’t write it. Were a lot of these songs written specifically with you in mind?

I think they were. As far as I know, every song on that album was written with me in mind, except for “Time After Time” and “Just Dropped In,” which were some old standards.

Was “Time After Time” a song you’d had on your radar for a while?

No, Rob Thomas suggested I do that. It would have not been one that I would have picked. Not that I didn’t like it, but it was so associated with Cyndi Lauper that I probably wouldn’t have done it. But since he asked me to think about it, I said, “Well maybe I’ll try it.”

You’re regarded as one of the century’s greatest songwriters, but you’ve always been very generous in recording just as many if not more songs by other people. Do you make a distinction between your own songs and those that come from others when you record?

Well, not really. The obvious reasons would be that I only write so many, and there is an unlimited amount of standards out there that a guy could sing. Honestly, I did most of my own songs until I started running out, and then I did the Stardust album. And after that I did the Lefty Frizzell album, and then Faron Young, and Webb Pierce and Roger Miller and Ray Price. In the meantime I was writing new stuff, so that gave me time to come up with “On the Road Again” and “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and things like that. But I was glad to know that there was some great standards out there to do until I could come up with some new ones of my own.

Where do you hear new songs these days when you look for material? Do you listen to the radio or watch much CMT?

Honestly I haven’t heard a lot on the radio these days that I felt like I wanted to go record, unless I was listening to one of the old traditional stations where one of the old hit songs from the ’40s or ’50s would come along and I’d go, “Oh yeah, there’s one that’s ready to come back.” Like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” for instance.

Do you listen much to your own recordings?

No, not really. I listen to them a lot as I’m doing them. And then once I get through with them, you get to the point where you don’t want to hear it again for a while, and then you start working on something else.

You mentioned once in an interview that songwriting for you is a matter of plucking melodies out of the air. Have they always come that naturally to you, or have you ever been blocked?

Usually if I can come up with a first line or an idea, the melodies are not that big a problem. But for me it’s finding that right punch line or the right idea to start out with.

How often are you in the right frame of mind to write?

It’s unpredictable. The last thing that I’ve written was the “The Great Divide,” and that was, well, no, that’s not true. I wrote a couple in Maui a few weeks ago. But the last thing anybody’s heard was “The Great Divide.” I’m not that much of a quantity writer. I don’t feel like I have to write something every day. I used to worry about it when I hadn’t written anything in a while, and Roger Miller used to tell me, “Don’t worry about it. When the well runs dry you have to wait for awhile for it fill up again.”

Have many of the new songs made it into your live set? Your shows are always very freeform and jam-driven, but you don’t often hear too many new songs working their way onto the set list.

Well we’re doing “The Great Divide” every night, and we’ve started doing “Just Dropped In.” So those two we’ll be doing every night. And when the Rainbow Connection album came out I started doing “Rainbow Connection” and “The Thirty-Third of August” and “We Don’t Run.” But every time I put something in you damn near have to take something out, so you’re right, it’s kind of hard to get new stuff in there.

When did you first start doing the medley?

“Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life”? Oh, a long, long, long time ago. I don’t even remember when I first started that.

What about “Whiskey River”? Since you started opening your shows with that, have you ever left it out?

Back before “Whiskey River” came along, I used to open with “Mr. Record Man.” And I would close with “The Party’s Over.” But when “Whiskey River” came along I started working up an arrangement on it, and I worked it into a sort of a rock ’n’ roll, up-tempo, good starting-type song. And I tried opening up with it a couple of times and it worked, so I never did really quit.

Considering how many shows you still do a year, do you and your band still rehearse on a regular basis?

Yeah. We try to do a soundcheck every day before the show if we can.

How do you stay inspired?

Well the soundchecks are really good for us, because we build up some confidence. We haven’t played together now in six weeks, so before we play our first gig I really want to get together for a good long rehearsal. It’s a lot of fun to play if you’re hot and the band is clicking and things are going well, but it’s really a bummer if you get out there and things don’t happen. So we do a lot of songs and a lot of different styles and keys, a lot of spontaneous stuff, because I like to make sure that me and the band are real sharp.

How often do you get the feeling that things aren’t happening?

[Laughs] Not that often, but they stand out.

For what seems like years now you’ve talked about releasing a reggae album. Is that ever going to see the light of day?

It’s still coming out. It’s all done, ready to go. And then I just did a Ray Price album. And then there’s another album I did over in Nacodogches with Paul Buskirk and the guys, and then an album I did with Larry Butler of all Hank Williams songs. So I’m thinking about just putting them all in a box set and putting them all out at once next year.

Do you ever forget how many albums you have in the can, or that you have going at once? Like, “What session are we doing?”

I’ve already forgotten how many I’ve done this year! What year is this? [Laughs]

Tell me a little bit about your new book, The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes. How long had you been working on that?

It wasn’t that long. It took me about 45 days to finish it, and the rest of the time was just putting in the pictures and lyrics and everything. It’s just a little journal of a 30-day tour. I’d write a little bit each day, and tell a joke every now and then to break the monotony. It’s like the old saying, “If you’ve heard this, don’t stop me — I want to hear it again myself.”

I hear you recently did a kung-fu movie, Evidence.

Yeah, in Austin. It was a tae-kwon-do movie. It was a lot of fun, because I did it with a lot of my friends there. I go to that school there, the Master of Martial Arts School in Austin. So I was just playing and having fun with a lot of friends. I don’t know how the movie turned out, but I had fun.

You just got your black belt, didn’t you?

Yeah.

Fighting doesn’t really seem like the Willie-way. Were you in any memorable fights back in the day?

No, I don’t think I’ve ever been in one that I was happy that it happened. [Laughs] It doesn’t matter what end I came out on, it was always something that you wish you could have gotten around.

A lot of your old companions — Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash — have had some rough years recently health wise, but you seem to still be in great shape. Have your doctors ever told you to slow down?

Yeah. One thing that always used to upset me is to have a fat doctor sitting there with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other and tell me to quit smoking and running. There are some good doctors out there that tell you the right thing, but if they tell you not to exercise, boy I’d change doctors, because I know how important that is to get out and get a little exercise.

Do you feel a lot healthier now than you did, say, 30 years ago?

I think so, yeah. Because 30 years ago I wasn’t really trying that hard.

Do you keep in regular contact with the other Highwaymen — Waylon, Johnny, and Kris Kristofferson?

I talk to Kris probably more than I do anybody. I talked to Wayon’s wife a couple of days ago, and Johnny Cash’s wife maybe a month or so ago. Kris was telling them about my black belt, and John was saying, “Oh, that ain’t nothing — I know a 74 year-old woman with a black belt.” So I told ’em “Bring her on!” [Laughs]

Your performance of “America the Beautiful” on the America: A Tribute to Heroes was one the musical highlights of last year. What can you tell me about that night?

It was a highly emotional … well it had been a highly emotional several days since the 11th. And when they called me to come do it, naturally I was glad to go do it, but I wasn’t really sure about anything. I knew “America the Beautiful” was a great song and they requested that I do that, but I had no idea where I was going to be in the show or anything. And then I turned up at the end of the show, which in a way it was great to be in that spot, but on the other hand I was there for awhile and it was highly emotional just listening to everyone do what they did. It was such a spontaneous, no audience type show — it was unusual and highly effective, as far as I was concerned. So by the time I got around to doing my part I was really into it emotionally.

Have you noticed a change in the country during your shows since 9/11?

Well I get requests to do “America the Beautiful” now, and that gives you an indication of where the country is. I’ve never seen it more patriotic than it is today.

How do you think the Bush administration has handled the whole affair so far?

I think they’ve done as best as they could do. I think they were probably correct in not sending a bunch of ground troops over there, not because our guys aren’t good, but when you’re fighting somebody on their own turf on the ground and they know the terrain and you don’t … I just thought it was probably wise not to send 100,000 of our guys over there to try and find Bin Laden. I regret all the collateral damage as they call it I would have liked to have seen them maybe specialize a little bit more and go in there and look for Osama. But we haven’t found him yet. Maybe we will.

On a more positive note … with all the traveling you’ve done, have you found a favorite part of the country?

Well I love Austin. The crowds there are great, and they always have been as far as I can remember. So Texas, and from there, New York’s great. Colorado, California. I love to play in Europe. I love Amsterdam. There’s just a lot of good places to play.

Are there any places you really didn’t like, where you’ve said, “Never again!”?

I don’t like to say never, but there’s some that will be down on the list. [Laughs]

When you’re on the road, what do you miss most about home?

The family. The kids. Other than that, I enjoy playing the music and it doesn’t really matter to me to be out here a long time, except for the fact that I miss the family.

Do you have any career regrets?

I don’t think so. I can’t think of any. I might not have always done the right thing, but good things came from it. I’ve always been pretty much satisfied with the decisions that I’ve made.

What would you still like to do?

If you’d asked me that five, 10, 15, 20 years ago, I’d probably have the same answer. Things have all been pretty good for a long time. I wouldn’t want to ask for any more, except I’ll be glad to take it if it comes along. I’ve sung with a lot of the best singers in the world. Some of my greatest friends, some of my heroes. I got to do an album with Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Hank Snow, Roger Miller, Ray Price . . . a lot of people can’t say that. So there’s nothing that I really have a burning desire to do because I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of things.

You’ve done so many things, Bruce Robison even wrote a song about you. What did you think the first time you heard “What Would Willie Do?”

Well I laughed a lot. It’s a great song, but there’s a couple of funny spots in there. Of course it’s a great compliment. I carry it around with me and I play it for people when they give me any shit! [Laughs]

Do you ever ask yourself, “What would Willie Do?”

All the time.

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Filed under 2002, Features, From Lone Star Music Magazine, Uncategorized

The complicated life of Ray Davies (from RollingStone.com)

Ray Davies discusses his new book, another new book, two musicals, his first solo album and the future of the Kinks

(From RollingStone.com, March 14, 2000)

By Richard Skanse

“I’m all coffeed out,” says Ray Davies as he stands at the counter of a Timothy’s on the Upper West side of Manhattan. “Is your apple cider alcoholic?” There’s a wry look in his eye that suggests he’s joking — probably — but the young coffee jockey looks clearly perplexed. “No? Good.” With a steaming cup of the virgin brew in hand, Davies finds a seat and pulls out an advance copy of his new book of short stories, Waterloo Sunset. It’s the Kinks’ frontman’s second foray into literature, following his acclaimed “unauthorized autobiography,” X-Ray, and disregarding the few inevitable typos, he seems quite happy with the results.

After his early afternoon cider, Davies will catch a plane back to England to dive back into the making of his first studio solo album. He’s also got two theatrical productions to wrestle with – the London musical “Come Dancing” and a projected Broadway endeavor. The only medium he doesn’t have on his plate at the moment is film, though he toys with the idea of revisiting his 1985 short-feature Return to Waterloo. The chilling short story version that closes Waterloo Sunset suggests that he didn’t quite get his way the first time around. “I wanted the character to be a man who murdered people, and my producer said we won’t let you finish the film if you don’t make him friendly,” he says, exasperated. “I said, ‘He’s a rapist. What do you want me to do? Give him a song and dance?’”

Should the stories of down-and-out rocker Lester Mulligan in Waterloo Sunset be read as a sequel to X-Ray?

No. I’ve actually started drafting out the follow-up to X-Ray, and that’s a totally different thing. People always think that it’s something autobiographical — this is a curse. This could have been a thousand people that I know. I think a lot of people had a blank in 1985 and came to life again in 1990. It just happens to people – they go sleepwalking through careers and through lives, and sometimes it takes an event to jolt them back into reality. I chose Lester Mulligan because he represents all of my fears and paranoias, and he’s much more strung out and stretched out than I could ever be. He’s a more extreme version of me. More romantic. I never took the pills or anything. I almost wish I had, because it would give me the credability – it would make a much better Behind the Music. I think the Kinks Behind the Music would probably be the boring let down of all time, because I suffered through my own seriousness and mundane lifestyle, which is not very attractive. And I really like the name Les, because if I’m out looking for a new guitar player, there are two names where no matter how well they played, I just couldn’t employ them – Ken and Les. They’re so un-rock & roll. [Laughs

What’s the status of the solo album you’ve been working on?

At the moment I’m writing songs, and I’m being so picky. I’m doing sketches of songs before I even make a demo. So its going to go through three or four process before I make the record. But I’d rather eliminate stuff now than have it all eliminated when the record’s done. I’ve got about forty songs I’d like to work on, and I’ll cut it down for the record company. But I want to make sure the demos are done as high fidelity as possible because I’ll definitely want to use them as bonus tracks.

How are you approaching your solo album differently than you would another Kinks album?

Well, I’m trying to get Dave’s phone number! There was a meeting in London before I came here. I was doing my will, because I’ve never had one, and I told my lawyer and my accountant, ‘I really miss being in the band, because there’s nobody to be angry at.’ We’re actually on contract to do one more album Kinks album for EMI. But I’ve spoken to my people at Capitol, and my priority is my first solo studio record – ‘please get that done.’ Then, who knows.

The theater’s kept you busy lately. Are there any ties between your ‘Come Dancing’ show in London the production you’re planning for Broadway?

They’re two different shows. The one I’m doing on Broadway is basically an extension of my one-man show. ‘Come Dancing’ is a musical with lots of actors and actresses. It’s about my sisters and how they lived through that time in post-war Britain. This summer we did an eight-week workshop at the National Theater in London, which is unprecedented, they don’t give that much time to people. But I think it will be a piece not for national but for the commercial theater. It’s a very fine line to tread, because theater is a world that is so focused on the bottom line. There’s no courage in the theater. I’d say next to films, it’s the most paranoid, time wasting, exploitive creative environment, but when it works, its wonderful.

What is the status of the Broadway show?

It’s going off Broadway. I’m changing producers, because one of the producers isn’t right. It’s a small show. The difficulty with it is it’s gleaned from a concert piece. It’s not like normally where a writer goes in with a play, the producers read it and the producers say, ‘We’ll do it.’ With this, its coming from something that’s not only proven theatrically, its proven on television on VH1 — it started that series [Storytellers]. So it’s a difficult one for them to understand. I think you have to adapt in the modern theater world the same as in independent films. And it’s getting them to be flexible. If they’re inflexible, it can’t happen.

How would it be different from your regular show?

Well during my last stint at Edinburgh last year, I thought, ‘God, it would be lovely if I could get somebody else to this so I wouldn’t have to work my guts out every night.’ It’s a tough piece to perform. And one of the arguments we’re having in negotiations is about the amount of performances I do a week.

You can hear the collective groans, though: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, tonight the role of Ray Davies will be played by…’

Martin Short! I can’t imagine that. Who would I get to play me? I guess David Letterman knows all the tunes. Conan O’Brien knows all the tunes. But maybe somebody old and grouchy like David Letterman would be a good stand-in. He could have Paul with him. It will be difficult to cast, but that is a reality, because if this happens I have to have an understudy, because you’ve got to have a show every night. Maybe they might have to do a reduced ticket, I don’t know. But they might get somebody who comes in and does such a great performance that they’ll come in and earmark it as their piece. Which would be fine for me.

There’s another reason to give your brother a call.

Yeah. Strangely, my new script, seriously I’m trying to make it something that somebody could step into. The script is revealing; it’s almost in a sense that I’m the villain of the piece, and this person that I loathed since I was born ends up being my salvation, because without him, I couldn’t have done it. Its about brotherly love basically – that’s the essence of the piece. And if I could do that, I’m sure accomplished actors could do it with the right script. I think that’s the thing that differentiated my original Storyteller from other people that have done it since. I was talking to Elvis Costello the other week, and he said he modeled his show on what I did, but he said ‘We could never bring the same thing to it because you were up there, and it had a beginning, middle and end to it, and our show is just to fill an hour time slot on VH1.’

Even with multiple books, musicals and a solo career, your name still usually comes with “of the Kinks” after it. How important is it to you to forge a new identity?

Well the only example of an answer I can give you is, when I first started my Storyteller show, I played the Birchere Community Center. And they phoned up my agent last year and said, ‘We’d love to get that show back.’ My agent said, ‘What, Ray Davies of the Kinks?’ And they said, ‘No, the show…we want the show back.’ To me, that’s success, because they remembered the show, and I was the performer. That’s a real compliment.

Last question: where does X-Ray II start out?

It starts in Belgium. The first line is, “I woke up in Belgium, and I sneezed.” I like things like that.

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Filed under 2000, Features, From Rolling Stone