Q&A: Courtney Marie Andrews (from LoneStarMusicMagazine.com)

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Courtney Marie Andrews (Photo by Alexa Viscius)

The prolific and widely travelled (but still “emerging”) singer-songwriter talks about her new album, “Old Flowers,” and the beauty of coming to peaceful terms with the end of love.

By Richard Skanse

(from LoneStarMusicMagazine.com, Aug. 29, 2020)

By the time she hits 30 this fall, Courtney Marie Andrews will have officially spent half of her life as a performing artist and songwriter. Or actually a little more than half, if one goes all the way back to her salad days as a 13-year-old riot grrrl plotting her escape from Phoenix, Arizona.

Although her first band, a Bikini Kill-inspired feminist punk trio called Massacre in a Miniskirt, never did get around to playing anywhere outside of rehearsal, by high school Andrews had redirected all of that earnest intensity into a prolific outpouring of strikingly mature acoustic confessionals that would make her the toast of a burgeoning Phoenix coffeehouse folk scene. In short order she had three full-length albums and thousands of miles under her belt, using MySpace to book solo gigs on both coasts and touring as far afield as Australia as a backup singer and keyboard player for Arizona alt-rockers Jimmy Eat World. All by the ripe old age of 20.

But Andrews’ story isn’t that of yet another teenaged wunderkind, because at 21 she effectively hit the reset button on her career by moving to the Pacific Northwest and leaving her first three records behind, figuratively if not literally buried in the Arizona desert. Or, as she’s put herself, “I’ve erased them from the world,” blithely dismissing them as reminders of being “sort of burned by a bad deal I did when I was a kid, because I didn’t know anything about the music industry yet.” Jaded but unbroken, she began (somewhat) anew with 2012’s No One’s Slate is Clean and 2013’s On My Page, continuing to tour but surviving in large part through bartending and a steady run of studio and side gigs, ranging from playing “psychedelic” electric guitar for songwriter Damien Jurado to singing backup for European pop artist Milow. It was on account of the Milow job that Andrews found herself living for a spell in Belgium, nursing her way through a recent breakup and reflecting on the inherent loneliness of a rootless “Table for One” existence lived not “free,” but rather “always chained to when I leave.” The resulting songs  shaped her beautifully introspective Honest Life — Andrews’ sixth album overall, the third that she still acknowledges, and in many ways, her first to really count.

“I used all of my bartending money to make that record, because it just felt like so much was at stake,” she’d later recall. “Which I guess is kind of funny, because when I made Honest Life, I was playing to like, three people a night.”

But the album’s release in August 2016 put an end to that — and her bartending days, to boot. As Honest Life garnered critical acclaim and landed on multiple year-end lists, Andrews’ shows began selling out on both sides of the Atlantic, leading to her “International Artist of the Year” win at the third annual UK Americana Music Awards (following previous winners Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell). Her next record, 2018’s even more widely lauded May Your Kindness Remain, won her another UK Americana award for “International Album of the Year,” along with a nomination for “Emerging Artist of the Year” back stateside at the Americana Music Association’s Honors and Awards at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. And although she didn’t actually win that one, the fact that she was asked to sing alongside Brandi Carlile and Irma Thomas for the evening’s closing tribute to Aretha Franklin left little doubt that she’d made the team. The handful of unforgettable dates she played opening for and duetting with the great John Prine the following spring — a year to the month before his death — just made it official.

Courtney Marie Andrews’ “Old Flowers” was released July 22.

With all of that momentum at her back, Andrews was on pace for what most likely would have been the biggest tour of her career when her next album, Old Flowers, was announced, back in the first week of March of this year. Of course, COVID-19 nipped that right in the bud, along with pretty much everyone else’s original plans for 2020. But from a glass-half-full perspective, upon its eventual arrival in late July (seven weeks later than originally scheduled), Old Flowers proved to be a profoundly apt soundtrack for life slowed to a more meditative crawl under quarantine lockdown. In stark contrast to May Your Kindness Remain, a robustly soulful, full-band set that showcased Andrews’ boldest vocals and most outward-looking songs to date, Old Flowers is a quiet storm of a record, as intimate as an epiphany after a dark night of the soul or a private conversation between lovers. Andrews describes it as an album “about heartbreak,” with all 10 of its songs written in the wake of a nine-year relationship coming to an end. But calling it a “breakup album” doesn’t really do justice to the emotional range and thematic sweep of those songs, through which Andrews surveys the entire relationship in deeply personal yet remarkably relatable detail. In the title track, sequenced right at the halfway point, she makes it patently clear to both her ex and herself that a backslide is off the table: “Please go home now, I can sleep on my own / I’m alone now, but I don’t feel alone.” But it’s telling that for all the implicit sadness between those lines, there’s no real rancor in that moment, let alone much in the way of regretful hindsight to poison the happy memories she revisits in the first half’s wistful “Burlap String” and “If I Told.” Mind, there’s definitely some blood on the tracks here, too, with just enough still-raw vulnerability laid bare to keep things honest. But long before Andrews comes to the zen denouement of “Ships in the Night,” Old Flowers reveals itself to be more of a sincerely heartfelt, clear-eyed tribute to the most impactful love of her adult life — and the independent woman that emerged in its wake — than an embittered postmortem.

It’s also, at least to this avowed Honest Life evangelist, the best album that Courtney Marie Andrews has made yet — and a frontrunner for my personal favorite album of 2020, period. Having first interviewed Andrews two years ago for a profile that I unfortunately never could quite pin down, I was grateful to finally have the opportunity this summer for a proper re-do. We talked by phone in June, a few weeks before the release of Old Flowers.  


I remember you saying in our interview back in 2018, a little before your last album came out, that you didn’t really have a “home” at the time because even when you weren’t on tour, you kind of just hopped from Airbnb to Airbnb in different cities. Is that still the case? Or did you finally plant roots somewhere?

Yeah, I have! I have a house in Nashville now.

What made Nashville “the one”?

You know, I don’t know if I’ll ever think any place is the one. But it’s the right one for now. (Laughs) But I kind of landed here because I made some really great friends here, and it’s an easy place to tour out of.

In theory, at least! I know quarantine has been hard on most artists who make their living from gigging and touring, and assume it’s been especially weird for you, given how used you are to moving around so much for so long. But have you found any silver lining in the stillness?

Yeah, actually it’s probably been really good for me, to just sort of stop for a minute. I think creativity has been a saving grace during this time. I’ve just sort of travelled inward and started exploring my creativity in new ways, and that’s been really, really great. And it’ll just make tours that come up all the more memorable!

Well, I can’t say that I’ve been all that productive myself over the last three months, but I have listened to Old Flowers a lot in that time. I became a fan of your music with Honest Life, then going back to everything I could find that came out before and of course everything since. But in the three months that I’ve had my advance of this new album I think I’ve already listened to it more than all of your other ones combined.

Ah, man, thank you so much! I’m so happy to hear that.

In a note you posted about the album and the relationship that inspired it, you wrote, “These songs are my truth. I think they might be yours, too.” Just as a listener, it’s really remarkable to me how songs that can seem so unabashedly personal, down to those really fine details, can still somehow be so relatable to others. Does that ever kind of mystify you, too, from the writing end?

Um … no. (Laughs) Because I’m a human, and you guys are humans too! And we all have moments that maybe are shaded a little bit differently, but they’re kind of all rooted in the same, you know, story.

We’ve literally all “been there.”

Yeah!

But that said, making even some of the most specifically detailed parts of your own story resonate in a way that feels familiar to the listener is kind of a hallmark for you. My favorite song of yours is “Near You,” which I was happy to hear you do in your first quarantine live-stream back in April. I assume that whole song is a true snapshot of an actual personal experience of yours, but every line somehow really hits the bullseye for me. And I imagine you hear that from people about a lot of your songs.

Thank you. Yeah, “Near You” is actually a song that has sort of resonated with a lot of people, which is funny because it’s not on a record. I wrote that song when I was like 19 years old, so it’s getting to be a decade old now. (Laughs) But I thought that for quarantine it was kind of a perfect anthem.

I knew you had a version of “Near You” on your Leuven Letters EP a couple of years before re-recording it as a single in 2017, but I didn’t realize it was that old. So I’m glad that you let that one stick around, unlike the three whole albums you made in your late teens that you’ve since purged from your catalog. And I can understand why did that, but there’s a few old clips of you performing some of those early songs still on YouTube, and the couple I’ve heard, especially one called “Darling Boy” — the maturity that was already on display there is staggering to me. Do any of those songs ever come back to the surface in your set lists these days, or have you completely divorced yourself from all of them?

I’ve probably divorced myself from all of them, just because of the time that they were born out of was a particularly painful one. So I just try to avoid singing them all together. But also I think artists just have a hard time with the really early catalog stuff, you know? I was raised right when the internet was becoming a thing, a classic millennial, and we didn’t have that kind of blessing-in-disguise of having to wait to record our songs. So the first songs I wrote, I recorded at home and put out …

With no filter.

No filter! (Laughs) But then you learn so much as you get older and develop this whole skill set to where, when you look back … I think it’s just easy to get over-critical about those records, you know?

Well, luckily I guess you felt you’d learned and developed just enough by your fourth and fifth albums (No One Slate is Clean and On My Page) to let them stick around and even be reissued, and by Honest Life you were clearly confident enough to really put yourself out there. Coincidently, just like now with Old Flowers, I remember you describing Honest Life as sort of a break-up album, too — or at least one that you wrote in the wake of a break-up. Without meaning to pry too much, was that the same relationship?

It’s the same person, yeah. I’ve known that person since I was 17, and we kind of, you know, dated since we were so young, broke up a few times, got back together. So it was definitely … I learned so much from that relationship, and wrote all of my records in that relationship — or out of it for a month or two at a time. (Laughs)

I think the real beauty of Old Flowers is that you use the whole album to reflect on that one long-term love of your life, as if saying something that impactful deserves more than just one song or a even few songs here and there. You really give the story room to breathe, and allow yourself the space to examine it from different angles.

Yeah. I mean, it’s so nuanced, love — it’s not just, you know, “hey I love you, this is it.”

Each song on the album plays like a memory, but it sounds like they’re not necessarily all in chronological order, because of course memory doesn’t really work like that. So some songs reflect where you’re at right now, others flashback to the very beginning of the relationship or to more recent history, and then “Ships in the Night,” the last song, sounds like it’s you looking back from months or even years further down the line from the present. Unless I’m reading that one wrong.

No, that was super intentional. “Burlap Strings,” the first song, is in sort of that first stage of grief, where you’re wishing you could go back and change things. And then the album sort of follows the trajectory of all the different emotions you go through. And then “Ships in the Night” is like, several years later, where you’re sort of reflecting on it all and wishing the other person well, in so many words.

This might be a weird thing to ask a songwriter, but when you commit to a project like this, or maybe when you first realize where it’s going — do you ever do any kind of research? All of these songs have clearly been lived and experienced, but just in terms of helping you focus or maybe express or approach something in a way that maybe you haven’t before, were there any writings or even other albums that you studied or kind of marinated in?

I don’t think I’ve ever done research intentionally. But I think as a songwriter I personally have always done subconscious research, where I’m just like, reading something and it affects my writing but I don’t even realize it until later. And that sort of happened with Old Flowers. I was listening to a lot of instrumental music during the making of this record, instead of listening to a lot of songwriters, like I’ve done in the past. But what I was doing was a lot of reading, like a lot of Mary Oliver poems, and Jack Gilbert. And I feel like those two poets really sort of penetrated my view love in a lot of ways, and the feeling of grief and coming to terms with the end of love. I really respect both their views on that, and I think it’s very in line with my view on it. So I think that that was my subconscious research that I didn’t even realize until later.


The way you write yourself about “coming to terms with the end of love” is really what defines this record. It’s full of heartbreak, but there’s not really a song on it that’s like, “you hurt me.” I mean, you do sort of play around with that conceit in “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault,” but it’s clear that you see through that.

Yeah. And I think “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault” is almost like a stab at my own ego. (Laughs) It may be not clear in that song that I’m aware of how silly that is to say, but we have all been guilty of that. And I think I was making myself very aware of how we all place blame on somebody else, because it’s easier. It’s easier to do that, or to place blame on something that happened in our lives. But really … well, there’s this Jack Gilbert poem, “Flying Not Failing.” It’s a poem that I’ve actually loved for a long time; an English teacher gave it to me a long time ago and said, “study up.” And his poem basically says, in so many words, like, love doesn’t have to be a failure because it came to an end; it can be a triumph, it can be this beautiful thing that happened. And yes, it didn’t work out, and yes there was crying and wanting to jump out of a driving car when you get into a fight — all these things that are sad, because in Western culture, we so often just make it this sad, poor me thing. But with Old Flowers I just wanted to take ownership of the fact that I loved this person for a long time, you know? And we did hurt each other — but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t triumphant that you spent this time with somebody. So I guess that’s just a thread throughout it.

The name is escaping me at the moment, but what was that movie with Jim Carrey, about completely erasing all memory of someone after a breakup?

Oh, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Yeah. Anyway, I thought it was a beautiful film, but that whole premise of actually wanting to erase someone who was that important to you from your brain, just because things went south — I couldn’t relate to that at all. Because I just can’t imagine it being worth losing all of the good memories, too. 

Right! And that kind of reminds me of that Blaze Foley line (from “Clay Pigeons”): “I could build me a castle of memories, just to have somewhere to go.” I think that says a lot about how I view love as well.

It’s also telling how, in “Carnival Dream,” you sing, “Will I ever let love in again? / I may never let love in again” — but never “I will never let love again.” You hear a lot of songs where people definitively say “never again,” but you stop short of going that far. Because you don’t know!

Right. And I think that’s sort of my view on life in general: I don’t know! (Laughs) I sort of take the philosopher standpoint where you can just continually ask questions forever if you want to.

The story you’ve told about that song is really something, about you and your ex both having essentially the same dream about trying to find each other at this carnival. But that’s also what the album as a whole kind of sounds like to me; there’s a fever dream quality to it, like it’s literally haunted. It’s like you’re going from room to room through an old house, or that Blaze Foley “castle of memories” you just mentioned, and the floor and walls creak with every step. So I kind of laughed when I noticed the band credits for “meanderings” on the song “Break the Spell.” Can you explain what that entailed? And speaking of “Break the Spell,” what is that weird, ghostly howling sound in that song?

Well, there’s a harmonium on there, or maybe it’s a pump organ — I can’t remember which one it was, but it’s some kind of woodwind key situation. And then the “meanderings” was just … well, I should first mention that the studio we were working at (Sound Space in Los Angeles) is just this insane play land of vintage gear. Like, everything from ’80s synths to super old world music instruments. So we’d do probably five or six takes of us not hearing the song at all, but just playing on whatever instrument called to us, and that’s what that is. And we did a lot of that kind of stuff, just creating these moments in the room together, and keeping a lot of first takes. We didn’t pressure ourselves to make things perfect; it was about, “Wow, I could tell you really felt something on that take — we’ve got to run with that.” There’s mistakes throughout the whole record, but that’s what we were going for.

There’s just you, producer Andrew Sarlo, and two other musicians on the record. I read that Matthew Davidson and James Krivchenia are in a band together (Big Thief), and Sarlo had worked with them before, but how did you come to work with them?

Well, my manager also manages Big Thief. And as for Andrew … I wanted to do a test run with producers this time, rather than just choose somebody and go with them, you know? So I chose like three producers I was going to go and meet with, but then Andrew was the first one and I knew immediately, so I just went with him, afterall. (Laughs) I knew right away just from the way he talked about the songs that I’d sent him, his commentary on them. Because when you send Andrew a song, he’ll send you paragraphs back about it, and a lot of people just don’t do that anymore. He was so articulate and so invested from the very beginning, and I just really, really loved working with him.

Well, you made a beautiful record together, and whether or not you work with him again, I look forward to hearing what direction you go in next. Honest Life felt very intimate and introspective, and then on May Your Kindness Remain you started looking more outward and it was more about empathy for others and the world around you, with you really belting out a lot of the songs Aretha-style and the production leaning more towards big and bold, classic Memphis-style soul arrangements. But Old Flowers really turns that focus back inwards and feels even more hushed and understated that Honest Life did. Obviously that makes sense given the subject matter of these songs, but — just because I remember you talking about how much fun you had making May Your Kindness Remain, were you at all surprised to find yourself going back to that quieter place so soon?

Yeah. But I just never think about things in a strategic career sense. This is just something that happened in my life and my art reflected that. The next record, who knows what will call to me? But I feel like it’s important as artists to always just do what feels right in the moment and to trust that. Because you know, if I was to think about my career strategically, I would have made a lot of different choices! (Laughs)

My time’s about up here, but I’d be remiss if we didn’t talk a little about the video you made for “Burlap String.” When you premiered it back in April, you wrote about filming it in Bisbee, Arizona, at the site of a memorial to your musician friends Derrick and Amy Ross, who both died in October 2013 (Amy from a blood infection and her devastated husband by suicide later the same day). I first read about their tragic story after hearing your song, “A Song for Amy Ross” (from the 2014 Leuven Letters EP), which is honestly one of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard.

Oh, thank you.

I know they performed together as a duo, “Nowhere Man and Whiskey Girl,” and you described them as your “DIY music mentors.” How so? And how far along were you in your career when you met them?

Well, I had already released many records before kind of meeting them. They were maybe 15 years older than me, and living in Bisbee, where they would play a weekly gig at this place called the Grand Saloon on Wednesdays, like three hour sets. And Amy … she had one of those crazy musical brains where she could hear something on the radio and play it that night without looking up the lyrics or anything. She was just a really inspiring woman. But they were both inspiring to me in the sense that, they assured me that I could be a lifer doing this, too, even if it might not look like how you would expect it to. You know what I mean? It might not be like living in the Hollywood Hills or Topanga Canyon in the ’60s. Instead, I might be living in a studio apartment in a little town like Bisbee, or you know, just bumming around — but still doing what I want. They did that and lived true to that, so I think in that way they were my mentors. Their outlook on life, and their outlook on creating, are very intertwined with my own ethos about those things, and I hold all of that very close to me.

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Filed under 2020, Features, From Lone Star Music Magazine

Q&A: Eliza Gilkyson (from LoneStarMusicMagazine.com)

Eliza Gilkyson by rodney burseil

Eliza Gilkyson (Photo by Rodney Burseil)

Talking quarantine blues, apocalyptic tendencies, and her “2020” mission to set things right through the power of peaceful protest and stubbornly purposeful folk music.

By Richard Skanse

(From LoneStarMusicMagazine.com, May 1, 2020)

“Today is the day our record is released into this strange, alternate universe that we’re living in right now where I can’t tour …” 

Under more ideal circumstances, Eliza Gilkyson undoubtedly would have opted to celebrate the launch of her latest record, 2020, at a different venue — pretty much any venue — other than her garage.

Eliza Gilkyson picks a different theme for each of her weekly quarantine live-streams (Fridays on Facebook at 5:30).

Don’t take that the wrong way. Like countless other artists sequestered in the time of COVID-19, Gilkyson has dutifully learned to make lemonade out of quarantine lemons and a decent wifi connection; and as makeshift performance spaces go, that garage — or at least the tapestry-decorated corner of it that she allows on camera — ain’t shabby. With lighting and mixing assistance from her son and producer, Cisco Ryder Gilliland, her live-streaming set-up is a fair sight (and sound) better than most, and she’s embraced her Friday night broadcasts on Facebook as an opportunity not just to stay connected with her audience, but to deep dive into her catalog for thoughtfully curated theme sets: e.g., “Songs of Comfort and Consolation,” “Songs for the Earth,” “Love’s Shadow,” etc.) She’s not singing to digital crickets, either. To date, every one of her “ELIZALIVE” episodes has been watched in real time by hundreds of fans around the world: far more, at least per show, than could ever be accommodated by most of the prestige listening rooms and even some of the smaller theaters she normally plays when she can tour.

And yet, still … there was just something about her April 10 live-stream, showcasing songs from her released-that-same-day brand new album, that underscored both the limits of the medium itself and an unintentional irony baked right into 2020’s title. Because if ever there was an album not made for a time of social distancing, it’s this one. 

“I was really hoping that we’d be marching together and singing these songs together at shows,” a resigned but resilient Gilkyson told her online viewers at the outset. More than just an after-the-fact hope, though, she explained that it was actually her intent behind writing those songs and making the album in the first place. Inspired by “the great tradition of Seeger and the old-school folk movement,” her aim was to help like-minded souls find courage through solidarity in the fateful run up to the 2020 election. And you can hear that sense of purpose running throughout the entire record, from the opening call to action of “Promises to Keep” (“I’ve been counting on my angel choir / to put some wings upon my feet / Fill me up with inspiration’s fire / And get me out into the street”) straight to the closing affirmation of “We Are Not Alone”: “We are conjuring our forces / And coming face to face with every fear / But there is comfort in our voices / reminding us of all that we hold dear.” 

As for which side of the political divide Gilkyson is standing on when she sings of and for “we,” rest assured it’s not the one that’s spent the last four years trampling civil rights under foot and locking children in cages at the border, to mention just two of the horrors referenced in the album’s “My Heart Aches.” Other clues, as if needed, abound: The sing-along anthem “Peace in Our Hearts” marches its defiance right up “into the face of the hateful mind,” and the fearsome “Sooner or Later,” heralding a day of reckoning for those abusing power at the expense of both the people and the planet, cracks like ominous thunder just before the apocalyptic cleansing of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” And just for good measure, there’s even a Woody Guthrie song about a Trump — or rather, a brand new Gilkyson song adapted from a letter Guthrie addressed in 1952 to Beach Haven, a segregated apartment building owned by the notorious landlord Fred Trump, Donald’s dad. 

Of course, this isn’t the first time that Gilkyson has looked to Guthrie and his generation for inspiration. Her father, the late Terry Gilkyson, was a contemporary of Guthrie’s who sang with the Weavers in the early ’50s and later led his own folk band, the Easy Riders, before taking his songwriting talents to Disney in the ’60s. Eliza, born and raised in California, released her own first album in 1969, at age 19, and went on to record prolifically throughout the ’80s and ’90s. But it wasn’t until the release of her watershed Hard Times in Babylonalbum 20 years ago that the by-then Austin-based singer-songwriter really hit her stride. Since then she’s been nominated for two Grammys and earned many times over her sterling reputation as a critically and peer-revered paragon of modern American folk music. And as a conscientious crusader from the school of WWWD (What Would Woody Do?), she flies that folk flag higher than ever here in the year 2020, despite the trend toward favoring the more contemporary, hipper handle of “Americana” or even the catch-all “singer-songwriter.”

“I am proud of my folk music heritage and roots,” she wrote on her Facebook page earlier this week, echoing the come-together message at the heart of her new record. “And yes, I’m a sap for ‘us’ and all that we dream of and work towards, and even if we never reach our goal, we had a lot of fun on the way, we got to have a chair in a wonderful circle of dreamers who made sure we had food and a roof over our heads, and who lustily sang along with us. And yes, which side are you on? It’s a damn good question. Sing it loud. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be embarrassed. You’re a folksinger damnit!” 

I caught up with that proud folk singer — via phone, of course — in early April: three weeks into quarantine, two days before the release of 2020, and the morning after the passing of John Prine from COVID-19. 

So, normally I’d start a phone interview with a standard “where are you talking to me from,”  but that seems like a particularly dumb question these days.

[Laughs] Well, I’m at home in Austin, but it’s still a fair question to ask of me, because I usually spend part of the year in Taos. And believe me, we keep looking at Taos and thinking, “Do we need to escape from Monster Island?” But there’s really no place to run, so we’re going to hang in here in Austin. We’re in the age group where you’re really supposed to stay home and not do anything, so that’s what we’re doing. I think in the last three weeks, we’ve gone to the market twice, and that’s it.

I know I’m probably not the first person to bring this up, but what could be more “2020” than 2020 throwing a global pandemic into the picture right before you release an album actually called 2020?

Who knew, right? I knew I really wanted to make this for the election year, because I think this is such a pivotal, critical year in the history of our nation and the history of the earth itself. So I thought it should be named that. But of course I didn’t know what that was going to mean at the time, though. It just keeps getting more intense.

And the hits keep coming. Yesterday we lost John Prine. And I’m sure it wasn’t lost on you that we had a super moon last night, just like the one on the night of the 2016 presidential election that you wrote about in “Lifelines,” on your last album, Secularia: “All of these like minds reel from this blow to the heart / turn to each other on the night of the super moon.

Yeah. Super moon to super moon. That’s basically what we just did: 2016 election, super moon, and now here we are, with the death of John Prine and … end times. It makes it hard not to see this as just something that’s happening that is so beyond our control that it’s just cyclical; that’s it’s the nature of things. And you can’t stop it. You have to just get up every day and hope for the best, because otherwise, you won’t get up.

Did you know John, personally?

You know, I was telling my husband last night about how a lot of people in our genre knew him well, but I did not. I opened for him several times, and he was incredibly sweet to me and very supportive, but we weren’t friends. So I’m just like everybody else: as a musical person, I feel a big hole, and I feel the collective sorrow of what we’ve lost, a role model for artists and for human beings. But he was somebody that I loved from afar.

When did you first open for him? Was that after Hard Times in Babylon?

Oh, no. It was very long ago; I would have to say late ’70s probably, because I was still “Lisa” Gilkyson then — I hadn’t claimed my real name yet. But it’s actually a really sweet story. I was living in Santa Fe, and I got a gig opening for him in Alamosa, Colorado. And I expected nothing, because as usual, I’m always under the radar: nobody knows who the fuck I am, and I was so young really, just starting out. But I opened for him, and it turned out that he and his band heard me, and they came out and watched my opening set. And when I came backstage afterwards, they all came over to my dressing room. John and his band all brought their guitars and they serenaded me. It was like they were honoring me, like they recognized me as a comrade. And it was so touching that I never forgot it.

This is a tangent, and I’ll come back to 2020 in a minute, but … I knew you used to go by Lisa Gilkyson. I actually found a copy of your 1979 album From the Heart, which you released under that name. But I’ve never heard you talk before about how changing to Eliza was you claiming your “real name.” What was behind that?

Well, I was born Eliza, which is an old family name; on both sides of my family there are Elizas. But I guess my parents kind of thought that wasn’t a very classic American ’50s name, so they called me Lisa. And I was Lisa the whole time I was growing up — I didn’t claim Eliza until I was in my 30s. It was at a point where I really wanted to distinguish myself. And it was actually hard to change back to my real name, because I had really identified with Lisa for so long. My brother and sister were very kind about it, but my dad was kind of annoyed that I asked him to call me Eliza, and my friends all had to practice it for about a year before it took. And there were times when I thought it seemed kind of phony, and I felt like, “I can’t keep asking people to do this for me …” But I’m really grateful that everyone did, because now I look back at “Lisa” and I think, “Oh my god, who was that person?” I’ve evolved so much since changing to “Eliza” in my 30s, and that was almost 40 years ago! So I’ve been Eliza now for most of my life. 

Once you got through that initial awkwardness, did reclaiming that name feel empowering?

Oh it was very empowering. In part because it’s an unusual name; you see more of them now, but back then, there was nobody with that name. But it also gave me an opportunity to sort of claim an identity, and also in a way, reinvent myself. But reinvent myself maybe based on who I really am. Because up to that point, I was trying all these different hats on musically, just trying to figure out who I was. And being able to claim my honest name was a big part of finding myself.

Well I’m glad it stuck. But — transition! — it really sucks that, right now, you’re finding yourself literally stuck at home, just as you’re releasing this record that’s all about feeling called to action with “promises to keep” and …

“Get me out into the street!” Right. And now we can’t even do that! It’s so freaky.

But it’s unfortunately par for the course of late. It seems like, at least if you’re on the left, the last three and a half years have been defined by this recurring pattern of surges of hope that inevitably run smack into a wall. From the 2016 election to the Texas senate race in 2018 to the Kavanaugh hearing to any number of things since, it’s been just blow after blow after blow.

I know. And that was what I wanted to address, the emotional roller coaster ride. I wanted to write about the extreme feeling of this time period. There’s so much grief around it, and then of course there’s the anger, and the dashed hopes and the determination to continue — 20 times a day we’re going through this stuff. And you want to just go deep into the cave and lick your wounds, but we have to just keep showing up. And that’s what I really wanted to tap into on this record, rather than just, “Here’s this political stance I want to take, here are the hierarchical powers that I’m fighting, etc.” It wasn’t going to be about that. It was going to be more about, “What can I do to rally the troops?”

Was that rallying spirit tangible in the studio? You brought the songs, of course, but did it feel like everyone playing on the album shared that same sense of purpose? 

Yeah. Well, one thing that Cisco did that I think in hindsight was prescient, was he wanted me to go into the studio with a band to cut this. And I hadn’t done that in years. I usually cut to click with my guitar, and I sort of work a lot of stuff out by myself, and then we add layers, piece by piece. But Cisco really wanted a band feel this time, so there was a real sense of solidarity. And I mean, when you’re working with players like Chris Maresh and Bukka Allen and Mike Hardwick and Cisco, there is a real sense of purpose and determination, just because of the kind of players they are. Everybody knew exactly what we were doing and what the music was about.

Did you bring all of the harmony singers in at the same time as the band, too?

No, they all came later, but we did get them all at once. The call went out to the WEWIM (“Women Elevating Women in Music”) group here in Austin, and they all came in together. And everybody had to bring their own headphones, because we didn’t have enough! We had to run a lot of cables from the control room, because in Cisco’s studio, we’d only ever cut one or two things at a time. We’ve never done a big group like this before. So that was challenging but fun, and we had a lot of laughs. And it was also really neat because my granddaughter (Bellarosa Castillo) joined us, too — that was the first time she’s sung with me on a record.

There’s a line in the opening song, “Promises to Keep,” that could be read two different ways: “We’re on fire / on fire / we’re on fire now.” I assume that means “we” as in a movement, rather than “the whole country or world’s on fire” — or did you mean both?

It was both: the troops are on fire and motivated, and the world’s on fire. I actually wrote it in a hotel room while Australia was burning, so it was literal. But it was really more about the collective “we” as in a bunch of us, saying, “get me out into the streets!” And that was one of the really important points that I tried to focus on in this record: singing to the choir, to get us all on the same page. Because you know, we’re very, very disjointed and not unified right now, and we don’t stand a chance if we’re not together in these next steps for the next six months. 

When people use the term “preaching to the choir,” it usually implies that you’re wasting your time instead of trying to reach the unconverted. But in this case getting everyone in the choir not just all on the same page but inspired really is the priority.

Oh my god, the choir is really demoralized right now! And it’s so split. There’s so many disparate points of view, I have to preach to the choir. I mean, there’s nothing you can do anymore to turn the minds or the mental set of the right wing; they’re going to ride this thing to hell. So I have nothing to say there and there’s no argument to be made, because they drank the Kool-Aid. But we — as in the rest of us — need to get our shit together and come together with a real sense of unity and purpose. Because we’re running out of time. 

But as urgent as your message is here, there seems to be element of, if not quite restraint, then at least an almost “zen” calmness to it. When you first announced on Facebook that you were making an album to be called 2020, and noted that it was obviously going to be very political, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was expecting to hear 10 or so brand new songs as furious as “Man of God,” which you wrote in reaction to the Bush administration and the war 15 years ago. But that’s not what this turned out to be at all. There are flashes of that kind of fury, like in “Sooner or Later,” but the main message is far more “Peace in Our Hearts.”

Yeah. Because you’ve got to pick what it is that the collective needs at any one time. And you know, “Man of God” was more about really channeling the anger and the outrage of it all, but we’ve walked a lot of miles since those songs. Things are so much more complex now. And I think we’ve really got to find in ourselves, as individuals and as a collective, the common thing that unites us now, which is a sense of wanting our agenda to be the agenda, to be the ways that the poles shift. And we need to decide, what is our agenda? Is it that we’re just so fucking pissed off that we’re going to tear the building down? Or is it that we’re going to call on the better angels of human nature to fight this battle? So I think that’s why I went in this direction of, “What is the unifying principle?” And that’s “peace in our hearts.” It’s got to be that.

I feel like that also speaks to the fact that you’re writing now in response to a very different kind of threat. You’re not singing so much about taking on the archetypical “masters of war” again as you are about a fight for the soul of America. 

That’s right. You fight for the soul differently than you do for or in the political arena. That’s really true. It comes down to the soul. We’ve lost so many rights, and now it really comes down to moral and ethical choices. 

Did you have to pull yourself back any? Were there songs that were more venomous that you decided just didn’t fit the message, where you were like, “No, I’m not going to go that way,” or did they all just naturally fall in line?

Well, you can’t really control what comes out when you’re writing; you don’t want to control it, you just want to let it come out. But I did have a kind of agenda in wanting to write songs that people would sing, that they would just want to burst into song and sing with me. So you know, singing “with peace in our hearts” over and over again, or even “sooner or later.” Even though that one [“Sooner or Later”] is venomous, it’s also saying, “When is this going to happen, and how is it going to happen, if we take this back?” So it is more of a complex time. But in order for people to sing along, I had to come up with very simple and really fairly positive thought forms. Well, I don’t know if they’re all positive, but they are sing-alongable and simple.

It’s interesting that even in “Beach Haven,” the song you wrote by adapting a letter Woody Guthrie wrote to his landlord, Fred Trump, the message isn’t “Let’s pull the bastard down out of his tower and drag him into the street!” It’s a utopian dream of, “Imagine how beautiful this place could be if we could all just sing and work and play together.”

Right. And I think that’s the message we need right now: “Imagine how beautiful it could be.” And that’s what I was doing with my song, “Beautiful World of Mine,” too. It’s like, “oh my god, yes, it’s awful, it’s fucked — but this is how beautiful it really is.” It compels me to want to dedicate my life to this beauty, and to this vision. And I think that purpose, that arrow, can strike more true than any other approach.

You’ve got a song each on this album by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone”), and Bob Dylan (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”). That’s quite the folk trifecta.

Yeah. And I really thought about it, too, because I know right now that’s sort of … “Okay, boomer.” [Laughs] So Cisco and I talked a lot about how, with that mentality that the boomer era is sort of in the past, do we — do I — really want to do this? Is it just retro? But then I thought, no, it’s not. Because folk music has always been political, and it’s always been about people singing together. And so it just seemed really important to me acknowledge those folk roots, and Seeger, Guthrie, and Dylan are the foundation of urban political folk music.

It’s fitting that you mention that “okay, boomer” mentality, because it kind of leads right into a question I wanted to ask about your father and his reaction, as part of the pre-boomer folk era, to the music of your generation — or specifically to Dylan. There’s the whole popular narrative of Bob Dylan hitting the folk scene of the early ’60s like a meteor, even before he went electric, and sort of wiping out a lot of the dinosaurs. And because your dad came from that generation before Dylan … do you know or remember if he felt threatened?

I think my dad really could see the end of his youthfulness, or — what is the word? — his relevance. I think when the ’60s hit, and certainly by like ’67, ’68, I think my dad saw his whole thing, his genre, waning. He saw that his time was up, and he kind of bailed at that point. He really stopped producing. So I think that does happen. But then you look at Pete continuing on forever and staying relevant, and of course Guthrie never lost relevance; even though he died so many years ago, he’s continually being reinvented. So I think if you dig deep enough for the humanitarian roots behind political folk music, you’ll always mine the archetypical vein and you’ll find the thing that runs true through generations.

Well, yeah, but do you remember if your dad ever expressed his opinion of Dylan in particular, as one songwriter reading another?

You know, I think he “got” it. I don’t think he totally got Dylan’s voice, but … well, I don’t actually remember him saying anything specifically about Dylan to me. But I do remember one time, we were driving somewhere in my dad’s VW van, and we were listening to “A Day in the Life,” which had just been released. And my brother and I were both so excited by the ending of it. Remember how it ended, where it would build and build and then hit that big crescendo? My dad had kind of turned the radio down, but when it got to that end part, either my brother or I — I can’t remember who — reached over and just cranked it up. And we were both like, “THIS is what’s happening!” And our dad just looked us like, you know … [Laughs] Of course he was very musical himself, so he understood that musically it was interesting. But I think he also saw that it was the death knell for what he did. 

Do you remember the first time you heard Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”? I guess you would have been about 13 when it first came out. Did it hit you right away, or not until sometime later? 

I can’t really remember when I heard it first. Did Joan Baez do that one? I can’t remember if she did or not. But yeah, it definitely hit me. Because I’ve alwaysbeen apocalyptic. I have! If you look at the stuff I was writing in 1968, I could see the end of this cycle even back then: I don’t know about the end of everything, but I certainly could see the end of this system as we knew it. I guess somewhere real early I just understood that we couldn’t go on the way we were going. So Dylan’s apocalyptic stuff always resonated with me. “Jokerman” is another one of his that I’ve done. And for the most part, over the years, I’ve had to tamp down my apocalyptic, end-times tendencies. I’d only allow myself one or two per record. [Laughs] 

So exactly how apocalyptic are you feeling right now, four months into 2020 and seven months from the election, with everyone under quarantine? Or to try to put it in a more optimistic way, on a scale of 1 to 10, where would you rank your hope at the moment? 

I think it depends on what it is you’re hoping for. I mean, if you’re hoping for things to go back the way they were, I don’t think that’s going to happen, because time’s running out on the environmental clock. In terms of the environment, I think the pooch has already been screwed, and we’re going to have to change how we live entirely in order to live with the catastrophe that’s coming down the pike. But do we still have time to mitigate it? I would hope that the earth could start to survive whatever we’ve done to her, that the life force is so strong that it could start to regenerate. I mean, you look at the pollution clouds over Wuhan after they shut everything down — it’s very telling, the way the sky clears up and the air clears up.

So, I do think the earth could surprise us. But I don’t know what’s going to happen to human beings. What I do hope for — and maybe I’m at a five or a six right now on the “hope scale” — is that we will be decent through the worst of times; that we’ll be kind to each other, help each other, and share. Because everything’s going to be about cutting back and living with less: that’s what’s coming, either tomorrow or 10 years from now. But one thing that I think we have seen so far with the pandemic is, if the president and his minions could just get out of the fucking way, then people do know what to do. They know how to be kind. So, without someone fanning the flame of divisiveness and cruelty, perhaps we could fall in that direction. And that’s why I’m hopeful with Biden, because he’s not a polarizing person. If we could at least just get back to a neutral gear, then maybe our desires for decency and goodness will prevail. And that’s why my call for unity is so important. Because if we don’t win this next thing … then I don’t know how we ever get it back. I really don’t. It’s so critical, it’s sick. And they’re going to gerrymander and they’re going to hack and they’re going to do everything they can to keep people from voting, so we have to show up in the most undeniable numbers. 

On a completely different note … It’s clear you’ve had a lot more on your mind than looking back on your own career, but 2020 — both the year and the album — marks 20 years since Hard Times in Babylon. Does that blow your mind at all? I don’t mean as in, “wow, time flies,” but rather, could you ever have imagined back then that that record would be the beginning of such a strong and long second or even third wind for you?

I almost think that it was my first wind when Hard Times came out. [Laughs] It was sort of like, “Now we’ve got something going!” Because up until then, I was just like, “Who am I?” But I think it is interesting that Hard Times was really about fluffing the skin off of this sort of wounded person. It was about going to the bottom of the well, like in that song “Persephone”: “On the floor of the cavern / you sort through the seas / separate expectation from the things you need.”  It was about going into the cave and coming out the other side a warrior. And that’s what happened I think with that record for me; it was about mourning a break up and the loss of love, and then reaching a point within myself where I was never going to let that happen to me again. The song “Flatline” was all about that — just girding yourself to go back out there and do it right. And then from then on out, it was all about just rebuilding myself. And it’s a short step from pulling yourself out of your own mire to then starting to care about what’s going on in the world, because you’re not the main focus anymore. Once you’ve lost your sense of navel gazing and self absorption and being a victim, you start to look around and go, “Oh my god, what’s going on and what can I do to help?” And I think that would be the progression of my records in the last 20 years.

I can’t imagine a better song to have kicked off that last 20 years than “The Beauty Way,” the first track on Hard Times. I assume by now you’ve heard — or at least know about — the cover of that song that Nobody’s Girl (the trio of Austin songwriters BettySoo, Rebecca Loebe, and Grace Pettis) recorded for their full-length debut that’s coming out later this summer? 

Yeah! Oh, I was so touched! 

I know this isn’t the first time one of your songs — or even that song — has been covered. But I imagine this one probably feels particularly special to you. BettySoo sang harmony on both 2020 and your last album, and I assume you know Rebecca and Grace, too. 

Yeah. BettySoo and Rebecca are both in our WEWIM [“Women Elevating Women in Music”] group here in Austin, so the fact that they’re doing my song with Nobody’s Girl is a real testament to our love and respect for each other. 

Charlie Faye and I started WEWIM about a year ago; that was our baby. What happened was, over the years, as I got older, I was starting to see all of these other women coming up, these new songwriters, and for a while I was actually very threatened by them. And I was jealous. But there was a point I finally reached like seven or eight years ago where I was like, what the hell am I doing? These are my sisters coming up, and they’re good. They’re really good. But it’s really hard for them; the climate is even more difficult for them now than it was for me, and it was terrible for me when I was coming up. Women never got record deals, because it was all a man’s world. But there’s just so many artists out there now that it’s hard for women coming up today to even get a foothold. So I thought, I’m just going to befriend these people and see what I can do to help them. And that’s how WEWIM was born. WEWIM was initially going to be about, “Hey, let’s get together and talk strategy and about our careers,” but it’s become so much more than that. It’s a therapy group and a safe place for us to cry and to really deal with the stresses and the misogyny and all the other things we deal with, and also celebrate the wonderful progress that we are all making. It’s become a very, very strengthening and loving and supportive tool. We ended up having to close the group after we got around 25 members, just so we could keep it where everyone could be heard in our meetings, but we highly urge other female artists to do the same in Austin and everywhere. It’s the new model for how women go through this musical industry ride together. In my day, we were competitive and out to get each other and get ahead of each other — but today it’s all about, how can we help each other?

That’s really honest though, how you describe your initial wariness to that new generation: “I’ve been building this my whole life, and these kids are getting all the attention now!” Who can’t relate to that? 

Yes, exactly: “I can’t buy a thrill!” And that is true, because it is a youthful industry. And there is some ageism, which I hate. But there is surrender as well when we age, and we have to be grateful about it. There’s surrender involved as these new people come in with a fresh energy and new music that’s exciting.

But you’ve never surrendered in terms of writing and producing relevant new music of your own. And although I’m not as familiar with all of your super early stuff as I am with everything from Hard Times and on, to my ears it doesn’t sound like your voice has changed that much at all. Do you think it has? 

Well, my voice is a lot lower; I can’t even sing a lot of those earlier songs in the key that I wrote them in. So my voice is really going through some old lady stuff, but I have learned to adapt to it. Because there’s something else that’s emerging that in some ways makes me feel like I’m singing better than I ever sang before. I know how I want to sing these songs, and sometimes my voice won’t let me; I have to warm up, it takes me 30 minutes of warming up to sing anything. Aging is daunting, and there is a challenge there for us to do it with some grace, and to accept that we’re not at the prime of our performance abilities. But yet we have something to offer, because there’s a depth of wisdom and experience in aging that money can’t buy. So it’s a trade out, and it’s all part of preparing ourselves to leave this mortal coil, you know? You don’t get to be young forever, and we’re going to die someday, so it’s good to kind of take notes and prepare. But, the songs still seem to be coming, so that’s always a good thing. Like, thank you!

On that note of … optimistic fatalism: How’s quarantine been treating you? I got a kick out of the selfie you posted to social media with the cheese puff stuck to your face.

[Laughs] Well, I finished the cheese puffs, so that’s over! I’m actually doing okay with things in the self-discipline department, but let’s talk a month from now! It’s easy to fall into sort of a slothful place, so I try to get dressed ever day, and I try to exercise every day. We take the dog on a million walks and work outside in our garden a lot. I unknowingly planted a vegetable garden, so we’ve been eating out of that, which has been really nice. But I’m also doing a lot of stuff online. I kind of alternate between political news and family news and humor, because I think we need to keep laughing.

Are you binge watching anything in particular?

Ozark! Have you watched that? Oh my god! It’s worth going through the whole thing. The acting is so amazing and the characters are all so fully developed, and the plot lines  … there’s just really nothing that compares to that. We streamed all the other usuals that people like, too, but nothing has struck us like Ozark. We just finished the third season and now we’re like, “How can we wait till the next one?” 

You’re also about to start doing weekly (Fridays) live streams on Facebook, right? [Her first, from 2020‘s April 10 release day, is archived here.]

Oh yeah, and that’s been a whole project, too. Cisco helped me set all of that up in my garage.

I know you’d obviously rather be playing these new songs outside of your home, but can you see yourself getting used to live streaming as part of the new “normal,” at least as long as you have to? 

Well, we set up our stage area with lights, so the lights are coming on me and I’m not just looking into my garage at my husband hanging out sitting at the computer, which would be weird. So having the lights has been helpful in that I can get into my stage persona. And I’m okay with not having the clapping at the end of songs, because I know people are out there watching. The part that I miss is, I usually like to travel with a side guy; it’s fun for me to play off of somebody. So having to play everything myself is an adjustment, and I’m used to having more toys and stuff to get just the right guitar sound and set up my voice a certain way. But Cisco has really helped by putting me through a little mixer which makes it sound a little better, so that’s only a small complaint. And, of course, I also miss selling actual product and making a living. That would be novel! I mean, I’m one of the lucky ones who can float for awhile … but I can’t float forever.

Well, here’s hoping that we can all get back out there, sooner or later. And that 2020 can still take a turn for the better. 

Yes! Sooner than later. In every sense of the word.

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Filed under 2020, Features, From Lone Star Music Magazine, Publication Year

Q&A: John Prine (from RollingStone.com)

Screen Shot 2020-04-07 at 11.04.56 PM

(Screenshot from “In Spite of Ourselves” video; Oh Boy Records, 1999)

In spite of himself, John Prine comes up grinning
A candid talk on cancer, cheatin’, and the trouble with happiness

(From RollingStone.com, Sept. 27, 1999)

By Richard Skanse

John Prine is sitting in a midtown Manhattan hotel bar at happy hour, talking passionately — and rather cheerfully — about heartbreak. It’s not that he’s obsessed with sadness; he just loves the songs that inevitably spring from misery — the sound, as it were, of loneliness. “I just like a good, sad song,” he says with a sheepish, sadistic grin. “The sadder, the better. It moves me.”

Over the last three decades, Prine has written more than his fairs hare of world-class wrenchers; songs like the bittersweet “Far From Me” and the incomparable “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” that don’t so much tug at frayed heartstrings as snap them in two. But for his latest album, In Spite of Ourselves, the quintessential songwriter’s songwriter gave his pen a rest and gleefully dug into a heady batch of his favorite “meetin’, cheatin’ and retreatin’” songs, each cut as a duet with a different female singer. Smack in the middle of recording the album, Prine was diagnosed with neck cancer, but after a year of treatment he returned to the project and ended up with one of the most enjoyable albums of his career.

In spite of all the songs about broken love and infidelity, In Spite of Ourselves is packed with wry humor and the sound of a man having the time of his life with nine different women. Prine sums it up best on the title track, the album’s one original, which he wrote for the upcoming film, Daddy and Them (in which he co-stars with Billy Bob Thornton): “In spite of ourselves,” he sings with a delightfully demented Iris DeMent, “We’ll end up sitting on a rainbow … There won’t be nothin’ but big old hearts dancin’ in our eyes.”

You’ve always been known first and foremost as a songwriter. Any doubts, then, about releasing an album of covers with only one new original song?

It was a pet project. I figured, why have your own record company if you can’t do something like this? It’s not like I’m singing Tibetan war chants or something. These are my favorite songs, and I figured I’d just see if some of my favorite girl singers would come to the studio and sing with me. I kind of halfway expected a lot of people to go, “What’s this? Where’s his newest 12 songs?” But in order to keep my juices going, I’ve got to do something like this every once in a while.

When did you start this project?

We started in September of ’97. We were at it for a week and almost had half the record cut. I took Lucinda Williams, Iris DeMent, Melba Montgomery, Connie Smith in one week, and we cut eight songs and we used all eight of them. Then I hit the road and I finished up some dates, I came home around Thanksgiving, and that’s when I got diagnosed with cancer. So I just set everything on the shelf for a year and a half until I got back on my feet and picked the record back up in January. Otherwise, the record would have taken two and a half weeks, it was going so fast.

Did the cancer pose a direct threat to your singing career?

Well because it was in my neck area, there was a possibility that it could spread to the throat. They had to radiate the whole throat, the vocal cords. I don’t think it really did anything — it might have dropped my voice a little bit. One of the things that I had to deal with afterwards was they took the saliva glands out, so your mouth dries up in like an instant. So far I haven’t had any problem doing shows, I just take a big drink of water before a song and hope it lasts until the end. But the doctors were going to try to block my vocal cords so they didn’t get any radiation to them. I said, “You guys ever heard me sing? If I can talk, I can sing. I’ll worry about singing, you guys worry about getting rid of all the cancer.”

Did you write at all during that time?

No. But I do everything to avoid writing. That was a good excuse not to write for a year and a half. I mean, I’m feeling fine right now, but the last thing I want to do is sit down and write a song. I’ve got a feeling I’m getting close to writing, but I don’t know about what. The subject matter is getting stranger and stranger for me. It has to keep me interested, so I’m thinking of turning into a dirty old man. I have to have something that really excites me in order to write about it.

Were you concerned at all about how your versions of these songs would stand up to the originals?

(Laughs) No. I don’t think anybody’s going to wonder if I had a better version than George Jones. The only time it really occurred to me that I was trying to stand in George’s own shoes was when I was singing “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” with Melba Montgomery, his duet partner, and Melba tells me that Buddy Emmons, who’s sitting in on steel guitar next to us, played on the original record too. And all of a sudden, I go, “What am I doing here?” I felt like I was in a karaoke place, and I got to sing along with my favorite artist, but I could take their voice out and sing with their duet partner.

How intimate — or personal — are your own hurtin’ songs?

It’s usually drawing on personal experience. I don’t think I could dig deep enough trying to get into somebody else’s life. Like “Far From Me” — I wrote it about this waitress that I was dating when I was 15 or so, and she broke up with me. It’s great, though; you really feel like you got them back when you can write a song that good about something somebody did to you.

Don’t those songs dredge up a lot of bad memories, though?

Just during the song. But that feels good; you feel like you’re doing your job as a country folk singer. You get there right again, you’re right there in the door when she’s slamming it in your face, just singing about it.

How about at the actual time of impact — when your heart’s being stomped on, do you always feel a song coming on?

Oh yeah. I never know it at the time, but you can get a lot of great ones out of it. I wish I had the wherewithal to do that right at the time when it really hurts, like, “Man, this is going to make a really great song.” But I think I’d rather be happy than sitting around waiting for something sad to happen so I could write a good song about it. They don’t make as good songs, though, I don’t think — happy ones. Right now I’ve got a very happy home life; it’s at a point where I don’t know what I’m going to write about. My songs might all be about whistling and skipping around the house. Or I think I may have to get into a peeping tom mode where I’m writing about the neighbors and their problems. I’m running out of problems here.

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Filed under 1999, Features, From Rolling Stone, Publication Year

Terri Hendrix: From “Wilory Farm” to Wilory Farm (From Texas Music Magazine, Fall 2019)

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Terri Hendrix (and friends) at her Wilory Farm in Martindale, Texas. (Photo by Kim Maguire)

The DIY queen of Texas Music looks back on 20 years of owning her own universe  — and her dream of helping others find their way, too.

By Richard Skanse

Long before she first appeared on the magazine’s cover (Fall 2007, Issue 32), Terri Hendrix could claim bragging rights to being the first artist, period, ever profiled in Texas Music. Not that she ever would brag about such a thing herself — but as the writer of both pieces, I have no such qualms.

When I met publisher Stewart Ramser at SXSW in spring 1999 and heard his plans for this magazine, Hendrix was one of the first two stories I pitched him. My Flatlanders cover would have to wait until Issue 2, but my Hendrix “Spotlight” was fast-tracked to appear not just in the premiere issue (Winter 2000) but as the pre-publication sample article Ramser would use in the first Texas Music media kit.

The timing was perfect. After years of building a grassroots fanbase, the San Antonio-born, San Marcos-based songwriter had just won Best New Artist at the 1999 Austin Music Awards and was one of the brightest rising folk stars in Texas and beyond. Wilory Farm, her second album and first collaboration with Lloyd Maines, had even taken her overseas.

“It was an exciting time, for sure,” Hendrix recalls. “I felt a sense of satisfaction that things were really clicking. We didn’t have a record label, booking agent, management or any of those ‘wheels’ of the industry, but we were playing ball with everybody who did have all of that, and we accomplished the same things they were, all on our own.

“Of course,” she adds with a grin, “I can also remember being gullible as a goose. And naive! I was like a Lab puppy: ‘Who, me? Wow! Let’s go!’”

But considering she owns the masters to every album she’s ever made (18 and counting), Hendrix was never really that naive about what she calls “the part that’s not art.”

And as for the part that is art, well, the genre-blurring breadth and emotional depth of her music speaks for itself. Wilory Farm and its 2000 follow-up, Places in Between — the two pivotal early albums that put her on the map — both sound as fresh and unlike anyone else out there today as they did upon release, and the artistic growth on every record she’s made since is testament to her stubborn refusal to stop pushing herself.

To wit: In 2016, Hendrix released two of the finest albums of her career, Love You Strong and The Slaughterhouse Sessions. Though stylistically night and day (the former folky and vulnerable, the latter bluesy and assertive), both were thematically linked as the first two chapters of an ambitious omnibus she calls “Project 5.”

This September, she continued Project 5 with the eclectic and open-hearted Talk to a Human and the “electronica”-infused EP Who Is Ann? (“Ann” being closet techno-freak Hendrix’s middle name). The final chapter will be a memoir, The Girl with the Exploding Brain, chronicling her life-long battle with epilepsy.

Hendrix first told fans about her seizure condition in 2005, two years after it returned following a long remission. She opened up about it further in her 2007 Texas Music cover story, hoping then, as now, that sharing her experience could help others facing similar challenges.

It was that sense of purpose, coupled with Hendrix’s conviction that music has been a key factor in her mental and physical resilience, that seeded what she considers the most important endeavor of her life: founding the OYOU, a Central Texas-based nonprofit dedicated to enriching people’s lives regardless of age, income or mobility.

Launched in 2013, the OYOU (for “Own Your Own Universe,” Hendrix’s personal mantra) hosts dozens of events a year, including workshops, children’s music camps and free concert series.

In 2017, Hendrix sold her home in San Marcos, the one she called “the house that Jack built” — after the Dixie Chicks’ Grammy-winning instrumental “Lil’ Jack Slade,” which she co-wrote — to buy a 12-acre plot of land in nearby Martindale. Hendrix and her beloved mutts now live in a small apartment on the property, with a pen just outside for a donkey and family of goats.

But she didn’t buy the spread for herself. The nonprofit’s offices are next door to her modest living quarters, and in 2020 she plans to break ground on an OYOU arts center.

“I bought the property so the OYOU wouldn’t have to pay rent, utilities or real estate tax,” she explains. “By keeping the overhead low, you don’t have to fundraise all the time.”

And her name for the property where she’s building this dream? Wilory Farm.

Which brings us back to where our conversation started, 20 years ago. I ask Hendrix, now 51, if there’s any wisdom she wishes she could share with her younger self.

“I remember being really hypersensitive of what people thought of me,” she admits. “People saw me as ‘cheery,’ and I’d take offense at that internally, because I wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. There’s a certain ‘table’ or conversation I’d hoped to be invited to join, and I remember a sense of not quite fitting in and thinking it was because maybe those people hadn’t really listened to what I was doing.

“But,” she continues with a smile, “what’s so wonderful about where I am now is I still respect that table, but I’ve created my own table. And I don’t want to sit at any other table but mine. I really like what I’m doing, and I don’t care if it’s dark or light. People can make any assumption they want about what I do, but it’s not my business to lead them where to go.

“I know my writing, and I’m too busy to justify it to anyone. And that’s a really freeing place to be.”

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Filed under 2019, Features, From Texas Music Magazine

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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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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Filed under 2002, Features, From Texas Music Magazine

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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