Terri Hendrix (from Texas Music Magazine, Fall 2007)

SkanseLand: The Richard Skanse Archives

Terri Hendrix Texas Music

You Gotta be Strong

Terri Hendrix and the Art of the Spiritual Kind

By Richard Skanse

 

“To grow a garden,

You’ve gotta have patience

You need to work in it every day

Mother Nature will give you

the most resistance

But you can turn it into

something anyway …”

—TERRI HENDRIX, “Acre of Land”

“Welcome to the Cavern Club!”

If you’re a stickler for details, Lloyd Maines is off by about 46 years and an ocean and change. But judging from the cheers his quip gets from the fans in attendance at Terri Hendrix’s Aug. 31 CD release show for The Spiritual Kind, everyone within earshot of her guitarist is on the exact same page. Crammed elbow-to-elbow in a tight space way too small for comfort, or even for ordering a drink without passing money to strangers pressed up against the bar, but right on the same page…

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The Dixie Chicks (The Journal of Country Music, Feb. 2002)

Dixie Chicks Journal of Country Music.jpg

Bringing It All Back Home

In order to refresh themselves both personally and artistically, the Dixie Chicks have returned to their Texas roots.

By Richard Skanse

From a strictly technical point of view, the 35th Country Music Association Awards were a bust for the Dixie Chicks.  For the first time in four years, the reigning queens of the awards show circuit walked away from “country music’s biggest night” empty handed.  Maybe a year off the road made them a long shot for Entertainer of the Year (a prize they handily won in 2000, but lost out this time to Tim McGraw), but when Lonestar broke the Chicks’ three-year stranglehold on Vocal Group of the Year, you half-expected to hear the mournful strains of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” swelling to the rafters of the Grand Ole Opry House.  It looked like a turning of the tide; the momentum the group had gathered on the wings of twenty million albums sold and their marathon Fly tour the previous year seemed gone, three years of near deafening buzz reduced to a whisper.

And then with a whisper, the Dixie Chicks roared louder than anyone had ever heard them roar before.  When they took the stage for their performance mid-way through the show, there were no video screens, flashing lights, fog machines, or pyrotechnics.  Just three young Texas women and a small back-up band in a bluegrass-style semi-circle, singing a heartbreaking song called “Traveling Solder” about a high school girl with a bow in her hair and her chaste love for a lonely, frightened U.S. soldier writing to her from the hell of Vietnam.  Penned by Dixie Chick Emily Robison’ brother-in-law Bruce Robison, it was an uncommonly moving, timely song, rendered all the more powerful by an exquisitely delivered, sensitive performance rivaled only by the Dixie Chicks’ premiere of their own song “I Believe In Love” on the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon two months earlier.  Even as part of a CMA telecast that seemed to favor traditional-minded fare like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and “Murder on Music Row” over neo-country commercial trifles like “I Wanna Talk About Me,” the Dixie Chicks’ acoustic performance that night raised the bar.

“It was all about the song,” says Dallas Morning News country music critic Mario Tarradell.  “Listen to the solemn, powerful nature of this song.  Absorb it.  The performance was not so much about the Dixie Chicks as it was about that song, and I think that was a real powerful statement.  If people hadn’t thought that there was another side to this band, then that performance revealed it.”

Later that night, as singer Natalie Maines, banjo/dobro player Emily Robison, and her newlywed sister, fiddle player Martie Maguire (formerly Seidel, by a previous marriage) made their rounds at the after-show party circuit in Nashville, there were no condolences on their shut-out.  Only awed praise, and congratulations for staying the course and true to their passion even while embroiled in a controversial contract-disputing lawsuit with their label, Sony Music.  On a night dedicated to celebrating the achievements of a record industry, they had brought something more to the table: a celebration of artistic independence, a celebration of music.  “There wasn’t a new record or any product out there, so there was none of the politics of a new single or anything like that,” says Emily’s husband, singer-songwriter Charlie Robison.  “They just got to play whatever they wanted to and have a good time.  All the people talking about it afterwards was just icing on the cake.”

“Friends of mine called me and said that their performance was the truest, best, let-me-show-you-my talent performance of the show,” recalls Blake Chancey, who co-produced (with Paul Worley) both of the Dixie Chicks’ mega-selling Sony albums, Wide Open Spaces and Fly.  “Strip away the lights and the band and just focus on the music and what they do, and my God, these people are good.”

That’s essentially the same epiphany the Dixie Chicks themselves came up with in the months leading up to the Tribute to Hereos telethon and the CMA Awards.  But in order to find their center again, they had to step out of the spotlight, completely out of the system and get back to their roots.  Like Willie Nelson and the rest of the outlaw brigade before them, they had to get the hell out of the Nashville fishbowl and find their way back home to Texas.

* * *

In the fall of 2001, after nearly a year-off spending time with their families and recovering from the Fly tour, the Dixie Chicks entered an Austin studio to record some demos with Natalie’s father Lloyd Maines, an in-demand producer on the Texas music scene and acclaimed steel guitarist (he’s all over both of the Chicks’ Sony albums).  Casual was the rule.

“With our lawsuit with Sony and everything, we were just like, we’re in Texas, we’re off, we didn’t have to do anything, but we were ready to be creative again,” says Natalie.  “We started out in my living room here in Austin, just playing around, playing music.  Martie and I wrote some songs with Marty Stuart – we wrote ‘I Believe In Love’ and another one in that tempo.  It just seemed like the next phase: just be laid back.  I think we’ll probably burn out from being the big performers and having to have everything be so big.  It’s nice to just make music, and make music that we all admire and are into right now.  ‘Traveling Soldier’ was another on of the songs we did, and we had ‘Angry All the Time’ on our list of songs to record too …”  She pauses to laugh.  “But we didn’t tell Bruce so we didn’t know when Tim McGraw recorded it.”

When they began recording, they decided to keep the arrangements acoustic – and most significantly, drum free.  “I think it’s scary to put away the drums,” admits Emily, “because there is a certain security blanket to having a band behind you.  And when it’s just basically acoustic instruments and you, you can hear the dobro and you hear banjo just out there.  You hear the harmonies, and you hear the crack in your voice in the way that we’re recording this.  We felt that something that was missing on the other albums was just that presence, where you can hear every breath and you can hear every note, because when you have that many instruments things ten to get buried.  So that’s kind of the scary part of all of this, but I think it’s turning out well – and it’s pushing up to play better.”

The world got to see evidence of that on the CMAs and on the telethon, but it remains to be seen whether the album the Dixie Chicks have been recording – they’re past the phase of calling it demos – will ever see the light of day.  They remain optimistic that it will, but how soon, well, that’s the million-dollar question.  Emily says they want people to hear it, and have an opportunity to pick it up at places other than local record stores in Texas.  And unconventional as the recordings may be, one imagines that Sony would happily release it to patch things over and get the trio working on their next blockbuster.  But before any of that happens, there’s a very sticky contract battle to work out.  Last summer, flush from the unprecedented success of their two albums and tour and feeling that Sony got a hell of a lot more than it originally bargained for when it signed the group to a six-album contract in 1997, the Dixie Chicks called for a renegotiation.  Sony answered with a breach of contract lawsuit, and the Chicks answered back a month later with a $4.1 million lawsuit of their own.  As this article was written, both parties were still in a deadlock.  “There’s nothing to tell at this point,” sighs Emily.  “The legal process is slower than the music business.”  Sony had no comment.

At stake is the immediate – and possible long-term – future of the single most dynamic, groundbreaking, acclaimed, and successful country act of the last twenty years.  Others, most notably Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, can claim some of those titles, but the Dixie Chicks alone off the full package.  When examining the phenomenal success that the band has achieved since the 1998 release of their major-label debut Wide Open Spaces, there are two very different angles to choose from.  There are the numbers, beginning with an astounding twenty million albums sold for two releases.  Wide Open Spaces recently made it into the Guinness Book of World Records on the distinction of being the best-selling album by a country back of all time (it’s certified eleven times Platinum, for sales of eleven million copies).  Fly, the 1999 follow-up, trails close behind (9x Platinum at press time) but may very well eclipseit, as Sony continues to mine singles from it.  The album debuted at the top of the pop charts and dominated the country charts for months, still entrenched in the Top Twenty more than two years after its release.  The Fly tour, and eighty-five city marathon of sold-out arena and theater dates (including a two-night stand at New York’s Radio City Music Hall), raked in $47.3 million, landing at #6 on Pollstar‘s list of the Top Ten tours of 2000 (finishing ahead of blockbuster acts Bruce Springsteen, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Metallica and Britney Spears).  Accoring to the Chicks’ lawsuit, Wide Open Spaces and Fly have generated no less than $175 million.  Add to that ten Top Ten singles, five of them chart-toppers, and the awards: four Grammys, nine CMA Awards, including wins for Entertainer of the Year, Album of the Year (Fly), Video of the Year (“Goodbye Earl”) and Vocal Group of the Year in 2000, and eight Academy of Country Music Awards.  The list goes on.  And on.

Numbers like that – particularly the album sales – are not to be taken lightly, as the lawyers on both sides of the lawsuit between the Chicks and Sony Music would quickly testify.  But they only tell half the story.  No less significant in the big picture is the road the Dixie Chicks have paved on the way to breaking into the record books, leaving behind a trail of broken-down doors and untouched compromises.  There are those that would contest the latter.  Robin Macy, who co-founded the group with Martie, Emily, and Laura Lynch in Dallas in 1989, balked at the addition of drums to the band’s traditional, western swing, and bluegrass-inspired sound and flew the coop shortly after the group’s second independently released album in 1992.  Three years later, when Martie and Emily asked remaining singer Lynch to step down in order to bring Natalie Maines into the fold, the Dallas Observer alternative weekly screamed “sell out,” a stance it has hardly strayed from since.  Singling out Wide Open Spaces as one of the worst local releases of the ninties, a seething Zac Crain flippantly dismissed the album as “the sound of two talented musicians selling their souls, urged on by on chubby loudmouth.”

Millions of fans, critics from Rolling Stone to Billboard, and musicians of no less caliber than Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Ricky Skaggs, and Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel begged to differ.  The album’s first single, the Kostas and Pamela Brown Hayes-penned “I Can Love You Better” (#5) was bouncy, peppy country pop, as accessible and contemporary as any Shania Twain tune, but it was a Trojan horse.  “There’s a devil in that angel’s face,” warned Maines in the opening verse, and indeed there was – Robison’s own snarling dobro, coursing throughout the entire song just below the hi-gloss surface like a snake in the grass.  But it was the next single, “There’s Your Trouble” (#1), written by Tia Sillers (co-writer of “I Hope You Dance” for Lee Ann Womack) and Mark Selby, that would turn the country music industry on its ear.  Though dobro was not entirely unheard of in modern country radio, banjo was – and yet there it was in “There’s Your Trouble,” not as quirky color, but driving the song.  “Getting the banjo on country radio literally scared me to death,” admits Chancey.  “It hadn’t been on it for ten years.  I kept going, ‘Emily, I don’t know …’  Finally she just put her foot down and said, ‘Blake, this is what I play.  You figure it out, but this is what I do.’  Now all these people are introducing the banjo on their records because it’s accpeted, and that’s 100 percent directly releated to Emily.”

Martie’s instrumental presence – on fiddle and mandolin – was just as prominent throughout the album.  “What you have to keep in mind is it’s them playing,” marvels Bruce Robison.  “Those girls could go to a bluegrass festival and hang on their own with anyone that was there, the hottest pickers in the world.”  They could write, too, as evidenced by the sisters’ heart-wrenching “You Were Mine,” the album’s third #1 single and still Nashville’s finest moment on disc.  “Loudmouth” Maines was loud, brash, and not so much in-your-face as plowing right through it, her explosive West Texas twang bolder than Tammy Wynette crossed with a hungry wildcat.  She brought an edge and an attitude that hadn’t been heard on country radio since fellow Lubbock native Waylon Jennings was cutting Billy Joe Shaver sides in the seventies.  But it wasn’t an untamed beast, that voice; wrapped up in the sisters’ angelic harmonies and channeled through a lyric like “You Were Mine,” it could be an instrument of devastating beauty.

And yet when Fly was released in the fall of 1999, it made Wide Open Spaces (still entrenched in the Top Five) look like a baby step.  “They make the competition sound like kid stuff,” enthused Rolling Stone of the album.  Even the Observer‘s Robert Wilonsky grudgingly praised it, including it on his list of the best albums of 1999.  The fiddle, banjo, and dobro (and Lloyd Maines’s steel guitar) were even more prominent (particularly on the rave-up “Sin Wagon”), and the songs across the board were better, an intriguing mix of group originals like “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Without You” (both when to #1) and bold picks like “Let Him Fly,” by Austin-based singer-songwriter Patty Griffin and the controversial “Goodbye Earl,” by Dennis Linde of Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” fame.  The latter song, a feisty, light-hearted take on the deadly serious subject of spousal abuse and revenge, initially hit a brick wall of resistance from conservative program directors, but bolstered by support of women’s groups and the Chicks’ own unyielding resolve, Sony stuck by it, releasing it as a commerical single that eventually went Gold.

The Dixie Chicks were no less unconventional in their approach to touring.  Although they played before thousands of dedicated country fans on the George Strait Country Music Festival, they also reached out to the rock, folk and alternative markey by participating in the women-in-rock spectacle, Lilith Fair, a stint that earned them a very vocal fan in Sheryl Crow.  And when they landed their own headlining tour, they didn’t recruit another fellow hot new country act to open for them in order to boost ticket sales, choosing instead to share their mainstream audience with their own heroes.  Taking alternate turns opening up for the Dixie Chicks on their Fly tour were artists like Patty Griffin, Ricky Skaggs, Joe Ely, Willie Nelson, and, for the tour’s stop in Natalie’s hometown of Lubbock, local legends the Maines Brothers, featuring her father and uncles.

“That was the first time the Maines Brothers had played together in about four years,” says Lloyd, adding that the show went off without a hitch despite no more rehearsal than a few minutes arranging a set-list backstage.  “It was all the Chicks’ idea.  They thought that since it was in Lubbock, it would be a neat thing to have the Maines Brothers open.”

Including the Lubbock show, Lloyd sat in with his daughter’s band for ten dates on the Fly tour, an eye-opening experience even for a seasoned veteran with hundreds of gigs under his belt playing with grizzled road hogs like Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely, and Robert Earl Keen.  “They totally blew me away,” he says with a mix of pride and wonderment.  “That show was as big an undertaking as a Barnum & Bailey Circus, aside from having to clean up after the elephants.  And those girls, even though they’ve got management and tour managers, they still ride pretty tight shotgun on how things are run.  They’re extremely involved, and a lot of the final decisions are theirs.  That was about six months of solid, intense work, and I think they grew a lot and learned a lot about the business during that time.”

But even though the headlining tour was a first of monumental importance for the Dixie Chicks, they were hardly the inexperienced, ditzy blondes they mockingly portrayed themselves as in a series of promo spots.  When they first entered the studio to record Wide Open Spaces, it was patently clear that they brought more to the table than musical chops: they brought the savvy business sense and stubborn determination to back it up and hammer their dream into reality.

* * *

By now, the origins of the Dixie Chicks are fairly common knowledge, at least to casual trivia buffs.  It’s a back-story oft-summarized as a sort of Beverly Hillbilliesstyle fairy tale.  Talented singers Martie and Emily Erwin form band with original lead singers Robin Lynn Macy and Laura Lynch on a Dallas street corner.  They dress in kitschy cowgirl outfits and play a wholesome blend of western swing and bluegrass for tips, eventually becoming the toast of the Texas banquet scene until Macy and Lynch leave the fold and firecracker Natalie Maines comes on board after the sisters are blown away by a demo given to them by her father.  Out go the cowgirl duds (but not the girly, pink RV), along comes the major label deal, and well, there you have it.

While that more or less gets the job done in a quickie Reader’s Digest kind of way, a little gets lost or distorted in the condensation.  “Everybody always said it was a pink RV, but it was actually beige on the outside,” insists Tom Van Schaik, who played a pivotal role in the Chicks’ history as their first drummer.  “It was pink on the inside.”  Scott Matthews, who filled the drum seat for the last few months leading up to the release of Wide Open Spaces, recalls that it was decorated with a disco ball, and somewhat affectionately adds that the Allegro RV was “a piece of shit.”

More significantly, however, Matthews (now drumming with Austin honky-tonker Dale Watson) recalls the Dixie Chicks being the single most organized and well-run band he’s ever played in.  “That was the only band I’d ever been in at the time that had an office,” he says.  “They had their own suite in Dallas, near the Galleria.  They had a secretary.  I got a paycheck every week in the mail, with everything itemized, taxes taken out … I’d never had that in any group before, and haven’t since then either.”

Emily laughs when Matthew’s bewilderment is related to her.  “Oh, we had our little business running, definitely,” she says.  “I think that was a lot of the Robin and Laura influence.  From the beginning, it was very much a business – that was not a concession.  You can have your art, but you can be smart about how you promote yourself.  We were the ultimate self-promoters.  We did start on a street corner, but we had our business card within three weeks of starting out on the street corner, because we wanted to have something to hand out to all the conventioneers that were walking by at West End Market in Dallas so hopefully we could play their party.  We got an office, and we printed our own T-shirts.  To me it was fun because I didn’t got to college – I kind of put that aside to do this – but I did feel like I was getting my business degree in a certain way because I was learning how to do all this stuff.  How to deal with promoters, book our own shows, hire out all our sound, all that kind of stuff.  We knew about distribution, and we knew how much it actually costs to press a CD.  That all came into play [later], because when you’re doing your record contract, we were like, ‘No, we’ve pressed our own CDs – it shouldn’t cost that much, y’all are inflating that.'”

Not surprisingly, the Dixie Chicks did very well for themselves during their independent years.  They did a brisk business in merchandise at shows and through the mail, and supplemented their low-paying club gigs and touring expenses by playing countless corporate gigs.  They sang at Dallas Cowboys games, at Ross Perot parties, and inaugurations for both Governor George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton (the latter landing them a pic on the front page of the New York Times).  Debt was never an issue – they paid for everything, including hotel rooms, in cash.

But for all the seriousness in which they took their business, the driving force behind the Dixie Chicks then, as now, was the joy of making music.  Lynch has nothing but fond memories of her days with the band.  “All four of us had so much fun when we’d get together,” she recalls of the earliest days.  “It was just a big laugh-a-thon.  We had what we called a really special synergy.  Individually, not so much, but together, we were ten, not four.  It was just really wonderful.”

The four women first crossed paths while playing bluegrass festivals in central Texas in 1989.  Martie and Emily, both graduates of the get-’em-while-they’re-young Suzuki violin training-method, had been playing in the teenage bluegrass band Blue Night Express.  Math teacher, actress, and die-hard folk music purist Robin Macy was fronting the Dallas-based bluegrass group Danger in the Air, and Laura Lynch, a former TV newscaster, was between gigs following the dissolution of her western swing and bluegrass band in Houston.  Macy invited Lynch to sing back-up in Danger in the Air, Lynch met Martie before the show, one thing led to another and soon after they were all practicing harmonies in someone’s living room, preparing for their debut gig on the corner of Market and Corbin in Dallas’ West End Marketplace.  The Dixie Chicks Cowgirl Band was born.

Charting the dramatic evolution of the Dixie Chicks’ sound is simple, provided you can get your hands on the band’s out-of-print first three albums.  Their 1990 self-produced debut, Thank Heavens for Dale Evans, is a testament to Macy’s purist vision for the band.  Characterized by Lynch as a “spur-of-the-moment, happy-go-lucky” project recorded for a song, it’s compromised entirely of impeccably played, NPR-worthy cowgirl kitsch and spirited bluegrass.  Little Ol’ Cowgirl, issued two years later, fourn the other women making considerably more headway in steering the band towards a more diverse sound.  Highlights included a stunning cover of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” and the sexy, jazzy Lynch and Martie original, “Pink Toenails.”  It also introduced drums as a permanent fixture of the band’s sound, after a trial flirtation on a two-song Christmas single, “Home on the Radar Range.”

“It was a step forward,” understates Larry Seyer, who produced the album.  “You don’t usually have drums in bluegrass type bands.  It was a bold step for the girls to make, and it was the right step, obviously.”

Macy felt otherwise.  Citing “creative differences,” she left the fold in August of 1992.  “The other three women wanted to make a hard right turn toward the commercially-viable, radio-friendly, young country format,” she explains.  “I chose the path less traveled.”  She went on to record two albums with Dallas’s “retro-metro” trio Domestic Science Club (with Sara Hickman and Patty Mitchell Lege), and now plays with the Wichita-based bluegrass band Big Twang.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Chicks pressed on with renewed force.  Although their third album, 1993’s Shouldn’t a Told You That, still bore the legend “Cowgirl Band” under the group’s name on the cover, it was worlds removed from their debut of just three years earlier.  Sweet, pretty, and immediately accessible, it plays like a kinder, gentler version of Wide Open Spaces, featuring tunes by writers like Radney Foster, Kim Richey, Jamie O’Hara, Jim Lauderdale, and John Leventhal.  Finally, it seemed, they had a calling card suitable for entry into the big leagues, even if it wasn’t the Chicks’ artistic highpoint.

“We had just dreamed and prayed major label interest of really any sort,” says Lynch.  “We really turned out a third album that was way below our potential in every way – vocally, arrangements, everything.  But we hoped that would get us a major label, and it took awhile, but finally we did get Sony’s interest.”  But according to Blake Chancey, who signed the Dixie Chicks to a developmental deal in 1996, it wasn’t the commercial viability showcased on Shouldn’t a Told You That that sold him; it was the Chicks’ live show.

“To be honest with you, I had passed on them before,” says Chancey.  “But I had not seen them in their environment.  But then I went and saw them at the Broken Spoke, this Texas honky-tonk in Austin, and I got to see them jam.  Long solos.  You could see how much they really enjoyed being on stage and just jamming and being musicians.  That’s what really got me.  They musicianship was incredible.  I would have called them to do session work for other artists.

“Six or seven months after they were signed,” he continues, “their manager came to me and told me, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but the girls want to try someone else singing lead.  They’ve found this girl through Lloyd Maines, his daughter, who can really get up there and belt it out and allows them to stretch musically, to play outside the box more.  They want to try this for four or five months and then they want you to come to a show, and if you don’t like it, then we won’t go forward.'”

Chancey was stunned at the news, but he played along and eventually caught the new lineup at Austin’s La Zona Rosa.  He sums up his reaction in two words: “Holy guacamole.”

* * *

Natalie Maines grew up smack in the middle of what old-school Texas music fans affectionately call the “Lubbock mafia.”  There are numerous theories on why the West Texas cit and the surrounding flatland plains have produced so many of the state’s most treasured musicians – from Buddy Holly to Waylon Jennings to Terry Allen to Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock (collectively known as the Flatlanders) – ranging from UFO activity to the water supply to, most commonly, the simple fact that there wasn’t a hell of a lot else to do in that area.

The Maines family name has been well known on the Lubbock scene for decades.  The Maines Brothers lineup that Natalie’s father played in when she was growing up was the second generation of the band, the name originally adopted by his father and uncles.  In addition to his roadwork as a steel guitarist with the Maines Brothers and the Joe Ely Band, Lloyd Maines also established himself as one of the state’s most in-demand producers, helming literally hundreds of Texas albums beginning with Terry Allen’s 1979 masterpiece, Lubbock (on everything).  Terry and his actress/songwriter/playwright wife Jo Harvey were frequent visitors to the Maines household, and Natalie says some of her fondest memories of childhood were the vacation spend with the idiosyncratic couple.  “Their life was way more rebellious than our life,” she laughs.  “Even though my dad was in music, we lived a very normal, boring life in Lubbock, Texas.  So when I’d go out to Santa Fe and see them as a teenager, it was so much more artsy and hippie and laid-back, and that’s about where I was at that point in my life.  I remember when I was little I would just love that Jo Harvey would cuss in front of me.”

Growing up surrounded by music, Natalie began singing as early as age two.  Though she figures she didn’t give much more conscious thought to what her father did than any other kid might give their father’s work, her confidence in the studio all these years later can no doubt be traced to the hours she spent – often bored out of her mind – sitting in on her father’s sessions.  Sometimes she might get to push the “record” and “stop” buttons on the control board when he was overdubbing a guitar part; other times he’s have her sing on a track or commercial when a child’s voice was needed.  She has no earthly idea what her debut recording was.  “I’m singing on some old Terry Allen record [1983’s Bloodlines], and I didn’t even know that.  They just told me the other day that I’m on there.”

But whereas formal classical violin lessons were a house rule for the young Erwin sisters, Natalie insists her parents never pushed music on her.  “I think when you grow up in a family like mine it’s not something that has to constantly be recognized – it’s just how you live,” she explains.  “I never took vocal lessons.  I took some piano lessons and my dad would try to teach me guitar, but he’s wind up just playing and I would wind up singing so he wasn’t the best teacher.  But I always knew I was definitely going to do music.  I wasn’t the type that was in contests, always trying to be on television, trying to be heard, because I just knew it was something I would always do and that if I waited for my time that it would come, and that’s exactly what happened.”

When opportunity knocked, it could not have come in a more laid-back fashion.  Lloyd Maines was introduced to the Dixie Chicks when producer Larry Seyer hired him to play steel on Little Ol’ Cowgirl, and the women took to him immediately.  Later on, he proudly gave them a two-song tape he had produced for Natalie when she was auditioning for a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston (which she would only attend for one semester).  “It was an Indigo Girls song and a Maria McKee song, ‘Panic Beach,'” he recalls.  “I thought it would be fun to give the Chicks a copy of the tape just to show them what my daughter sounded like.  At that point they weren’t looking for another singer – it was just a casual tape hand-off.  I think Emily or Martie said, ‘She’s a great singer,’ but then they just dropped it, and I didn’t hear another word for six months.”

During that time, the sisters had come to the fateful decision that they had taken their sound as far as it could go with Lynch.  If was a painful transition, and one that Lynch confides she would have never made herself at the time.  But the road had begun to take its toll on her, particularly as it didn’t allow her as much time with her teenage daughter as she would have liked.  She stepped down graciously and wished her former bandmates well, and insists that they remain close friends to this day.  She now lives in Fort Worth with her second husband (a rancher and Texas State Lottery winner), and serves on the board of directors of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.

After Laura’s departure in October of 1995, Martie and Emily went back to Lloyd Maines and asked if he could produce a demo of a song they had written, “You Were Mine.”  They casually asked him to try and get Natalie to sing on it.  “They came to Lubbock, hired me to produce this demo and paid Natalie like $100 to sing this song,” says Maines.  “And Natalie just walked in and nailed it.  But nothing was ever said about that being kind of a test.  And then about two weeks later, Martie calls on a Monday night and says ‘What would you think about if we asked Natalie to join the band?’  I said, ‘I don’t know – she’s real young, she’s been with a few bands in school, but she’s never done this.  She’s a great singer but I don’t know that she’s ready for the Chicks.’  Martie said, ‘Well, we think she is.  Laura’s really needing to get off the road, and we’re ready to make a move.’  They called Natalie the next night, offered her the gig, and she was in Dallas by Sunday night and she did her first gig that Tuesday – literally a week from the night they first called her.”

Natalie’s debut was an inauspicious one.  It was for a Quaker State convention, and the Chicks were hired simply to dress up in saloon girl outfits and sing a couple of Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire songs with lyrics changed to reflect a Quaker State motif.  “All we had to do was sing these two songs once, and we stayed at this luxury resort all week,” she laughs.  “It was completely humiliating, but a lot of money and a lot of fun.”  But shortly thereafter, we she made her official Dixie Chicks debut at a show in Houston, she hit the ground running, and it was all the rest of the band could do to keep up with her.

“Talk about a light switch,” says former drummer Van Schaik with a low whistle.  “It was all of a sudden the Dixie Chicks sound that everybody knows today.  It was an instant fit, from the harmonies to the attitude.”

That attitude in no small part can be traced directly back to music and characters Natalie grew up around, from the Allens to roadhouse rocker Joe Ely.  “I think growing up watching him [Ely], I feel like I did subconsciously pick up some things from him,” she says.  “It’s not like I practiced copying him, but just that natural way of getting into the music and rocking out.  Just seeing that Texas music and country could rock.  It doesn’t always have to be a two-step and you don’t have to pop it up.  It can have an edge.”

* * *

The last year has been a period of regrouping for the Dixie Chicks, both personally and musically.  There have been new marriages (Natalie to actor Adrian Padar, Martie to Irishman Gareth Maguire), new responsibilities (the birth of Natalie’s son, Jackson Slade Pasdar), and new family ties (Martie’s husband’s brother is married to Natalie’s older sister Kim – making all three Chicks officially related, sort of).

“It’s weird to think that we’re both aunts to my sister’s baby that she just had,” laughs Natalie.  “We love spending time with each other, but it’s funny because I used to feel sorry for Martie and Emily because even though there was no fighting or hard feelings, sometimes you want to get away from people, and I felt bad that they had to spend Christmas together.  And now that’s me!  But we’re doing fine.”

Bringing the Chicks even closer together is the fact that, after a period of hopping from different homes around the country, from Nashville to Los Angeles to New York to Montana, all three of them now live happily back in Texas.  Emily and her husband Charlie reside in San Antonio (with a ranch in nearby Bandera), while Martie and Natalie live an hour north in Austin (also home to Natalie’s parents).  It’s been a grounding – and rejuvenating – experience for all of them.

“I know a lot of people talk about it and I don’t want it to become chiched, but there’s definitely something in Texas, especially in Texas music that is just so different and you just can’t grasp it unless you’re here and you can experience it,” says Emily.  She and Martie are not natives – they were both born up East, but the family moved to Dallas when Emily was only two so she proudly claims the state as her own.  It has, in no uncertain terms, made her who she is today.  “I think when we came down here, music made its way into our family.  Even in the middle of North Dallas, it made its way through and seeped into our family.  There’s just a culture about it – it’s not just music, it’s something more.  And just from being in the middle of all that, I think that is what created my destiny.

“We promised ourselves way early on before any of the success, or kind of when the success just started, that we would always leave time to just get re-inspired,” she continues.  “We saw a lot of counterparts working so hard and burning out.  I think we understand the importance of mental health as well as physical health.  It was just a natural time to take some time off.  My husband and I live on a ranch, so it’s been taking care of the animals and doing stuff that has completely been a 180 from the road and what you do to promote a band out there, so it really is very grounding for me.  I think it makes us want to go back in the studio and want to go back out in front of people, because you get hungry for it again, and I think that’s ultimately very important for longevity.”

In light of the Dixie Chicks’ decision to put aside the drums for the sessions they’ve been recording recently in Austin, it’s tempting to cite destiny again.  A full decade after they first introduced drums to the sound, here they’ve come full circle back to their purer beginnings.  But it’s not so much a retroactive step back as it is a matter of all three of them continuing to do what’s always served them best: making music that they want to make, their way.

“It is scary going in and making that big change,” admits Natalie.  “We didn’t know if we were ever going to release these songs, or if they would just be for us, because we thought, ‘Are we going to completely scare our audience by doing something like this?’  It’s probably been the first thing that is sort of an unknown to us.  Usually we’re very confident about the albums.  But I know that I’m very confident about this record, and I know that I love what we’re doing.  And then to get the huge feedback we got from the Tribute to Heroes thing and then the CMAs – even from our manager, who listens to dance music, he loves it – that’s awesome.  We’ll see what happens with it.”

Whatever happens to the acoustic album, Natalie is adamant about one thing.  “We’re not basing our career on the legal issues,” she says with conviction.  “That was our big deal going into this.  We’re not going to have this lawsuit dictate when we can put out music or when we can record music or when we can go on tour.  That’s what we made our management and our lawyers promise us, that we would get to continue even if it caused a couple of problems [laughs] for them, that we would get to do what we wanted musically.”

Speaking strictly for himself – albeit from his Sony office in Nashville – Blake Chancey exudes nothing but optimism that he will be working with them on a new, full-on (“commercial”) Dixie Chicks album very soon.  “I don’t know if the business end will all be straightened out, but I think we’ll get together and talk about the music, because we all love it so much that we cannot not talk about it.”  The lawsuit, he insists, has not come between him and the women at all.

“I trust [Emily’s] judgement in everything,” says Charlie Robison unequivocally when asked about the Chicks’ contract battle.  “When you do something like this, it’s a very scary thing – almost like signing with a record label for the first time, only this is even scarier than that.  But one of the reasons I wanted to marry my wife was they’ve always done stuff by their heart, and if this works against us then we’ll deal with it.  It’s just about doing the right thing for themselves – trying to stay true to themselves.  It’s just doing what they like to do.”

“I have every confidence in the fact that they totally know what they’re doing,” offers Lloyd Maines with equal conviction.  “They’re still on a steady path.”

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Robyn Ludwick (from LoneStarMusic Magazine, July/August 2014)

Robyn Ludwick

Hard woman with a heartache

By Richard Skanse

The Devil’s Backbone Tavern in Fischer, Texas is the kinda place that looks pretty much exactly like you’d think it would. Not necessarily dangerous or menacing — certainly not at 5 p.m. on a weekday, when the amiable bartender calls you “Hon” and the happy-hour crowd consists of a single table of laid-back, silver-haired locals nursing Lone Stars, Pall Malls and small talk. But definitely weathered and worn, with every wooden surface inside its long stone walls — bar, stools, tables, floorboards, even the ceiling — carved, scarred and seasoned by generations of patrons living and dead. It’s the kind of place where a matter-of-fact “ghost warning” sign seems no more incongruous than the shuffleboard table, and that lights up a woman like Robyn Ludwick the minute she walks through the door.

“Don’t you love this place?” she enthuses after ordering her own Lone Star, selecting a little Vern Gosdin and Conway Twitty from the jukebox, and cracking a side door to take an admiring peek into the large adjacent — and very dusty — dancehall. “This is the coolest part of the bar, but its been closed forever,” she says wistfully. “I really wish somebody would do something with it — it’s gorgeous.”

Ludwick has lived a few miles away in Wimberley with her husband and two kids since 2003, but the Devil’s Backbone has been one of her favorite Hill Country haunts for more than 20 years. “I’ve been coming here since I was in high school, when my brother Bruce was going to Southwest Texas and I would come stay with him during the summer,” she says. Even then, the old beer joint felt like home.

“My mom was a bartender for a long time in Bandera when we were kids,” she explains, waxing nostalgic and bittersweet in equal measures, “so we spent a lot of times in bars and dancehalls.”

Her older sister — aka the “white sheep” of the bunch — managed to grow up and out of that world. Not so Robyn and her two older brothers, Bruce and Charlie Robison. Although their dad was a coach and all three of them were jocks for a spell (“I set a record for the most 3-pointers in one game,” she says proudly), one by one they gravitated toward the neon-lit nightlife. But the lure had very little to do with mother (they’re estranged) and almost everything to do with music. In Robyn’s case, it came down to a virtual showdown between her two favorite female role models as a teenager — and pitted against Lucinda Williams, Texas All-American hoop star Clarissa Davis ultimately didn’t stand a chance. As Ludwick would tell Gurf Morlix years later when she approached him about producing her third album, 2011’s Out of These Blues, “I wanted to be Lucinda Williams when I was 15 years old, which was probably one of the reasons why I started playing guitar and doing bad girl things.”

But although getting into trouble proved easy enough for her, young Robyn originally didn’t get very far in her “Becoming Lucinda Williams” manual. She stopped short at the “fall in love with a bass player” chapter and ended up marrying one John “Lunchmeat” Ludwick, 11 years her senior, when she was 20. Her brothers, both already well along their way with their respective songwriting careers, were less than amused. “They never forgave me for that,” Robyn says with a laugh, still happily married 21 years later. “And I don’t know who else they would have liked me to be with — they love Lunchmeat. But it was like I had broken their hearts because I went and married the bass player.”

And yet somehow, they all got through it OK as family. Lunchmeat remained Bruce and Charlie’s go-to bassist, and Robyn even ended up singing on some of their records as well. That was apparently just enough to scratch what was left of her music itch, though, because she spent the rest of her 20s happily finding her feet in a very different world: forensic engineering. “I actually got my degree in civil engineering, from UT, but I started studying this kind of exotic form of engineering under a guy who was one of the lead expert witnesses in the state, and I found it fascinating,” she explains. “Forensics is sort of the creative side of engineering, because it involves a lot of going-backwards problem solving and failure analysis. It’s almost like the CSI of engineering. And I figured out that I was good at it.”

She started her engineering career proper in 1998; a few years later she and Lunchmeat had their first child, sold their small house in Smithville and found their new place in Wimberley. Life was good. And then she got laid off.

“Long story short, mold happened,” she says. A lot of her job at the time had entailed doing residential foundation claims for insurance companies, and in the wake of “that first big mold case in Dripping Springs that changed history,” a lot of engineering companies that did insurance work were wiped out.

“I thought it was the end of the world, because I got laid off 24 hours before we were supposed to close on our house,” she says. “And I took it personally because I was young at the time, and I had a baby and a bass player for a husband — it was fucking scary, you know? We were able to close on the house and move into this very beautiful community, but I had to cash in all the retirement I had at the time. And then we had this total health scare with my little boy, where I’d read a lot of these potentially very scary type diagnoses, and I just didn’t sleep for like six months …”

It wasn’t until then, at 31 years old and at the end of her emotional rope, that Robyn Ludwick started writing songs. And once the floodgates were opened, she couldn’t stop.

“All of these things just kind of hit me at once, so a lot of it was very personal and heavy,” she says of those first songs that came rushing out. “It was a combination of everything I was going through at the time, plus all this other stuff, going all the way back to my childhood, that I had never really got out of my system before because we never had money to get any kind of therapy. We all went through a lot of crazy stuff growing up — a lot of it dealing with our mother — but there was no like, getting anything ‘worked out’ when you were a kid in the 70s; you just survived or you didn’t.”

She remembers being “frightened as hell” the first time she sang any of her songs for her brothers, both of whom were at the top of their game at the time. Bruce recalls being rather nervous himself.

“I think I was scared of whatever it was she was about to do, because she sat me down and it felt like an intervention,” he says. “But then she played me a few songs, and it was amazing. I hadn’t heard them at all before that and didn’t even know she was writing, but they were all obviously really good and very intense — way more than mine. She delves pretty deep into our history and stuff in a lot of them, and they were all so well put together. So it was a really power- ful moment when she played those for me.”

Bruce sings “Departing Louisiana,” a song from Robyn’s 2005 debut, For So Long, at the beginning of Our Year, his new duo record with wife Kelly Willis. Charlie recorded two of his sister’s songs, “Monte Carlo” and “Out of These Blues,” on his 2013 covers album, High Life. He first heard “Monte Carlo,” a song about their mother, when Robyn played it at a Robison family song-swap at Steamboat; after she finished it, he got out of his chair and walked over to kiss her onstage. “Out of These Blues” was a song she wrote for him when he was going through his divorce — but he waited the better part of two years before listening to it, knowing full well how deep and true his sister’s loving but unflinchingly honest words would cut.

“I wrote ‘Out of These Blues’ for Charlie because his whole persona, his talent really, is convincing people that he’s the king of the world, that he doesn’t give a shit,” says Robyn. “And he’s a lot of people’s hero because of that, including mine. But at the same time, I’m his little sister and I know when he’s hurting. And he and I don’t always communicate in the ways that we should, but that song was like an unspoken, you know, ‘I’m hurting because I know you’re hurting, and this is my homage to you … this is me saying I love you, but it’s also about how fucked up you are!’”

Par for her course, Ludwick pulls no punches on the new Little Rain, her fourth album and second produced by Morlix. And no target, no matter how dear to her heart, is too close to home. In “Heartache,” for instance, she addresses head-on some of the most personal struggles that come with the territory of spending more than 20 years married to your best friend. “It’s been so long now, forgot how sweet love once was,” she sings with frustrated anguish. “I hope you’re picking up what I’m putting down/I’m growing tired of all this round and round and round and round …”

“In a way, it’s kind of fucked up that that’s the only way I can communicate sometimes,” she admits with a laugh. “I should be able to just go, ‘This is what I need and what I want and what hurts me,’ but I can’t because I’ve got all these walls and shit. But music is my way of breaking those down, and sharing with people that think I have this really tough exterior or that I have the world by the balls — that I really don’t. I’m struggling and battling things just like every- body else.

“A lot of my songs, starting from my first record through to this one, are all sort of an amalgam of my past,” she continues. “And maybe they’re not all about me in particular, but there’s a lot of family stories and a lot of underdog stories. Like ‘Longbow, OK,’ which is about a young girl in a small town with no options and lot of difficult adult situations around her, and she’s a total survivor. All of that is a lot like my life, except that I was never actually molested. So I’ll go to extremes like that sometimes; it’s like making a movie — you have to have a balance. But overall I’d say it’s about 75-percent fact and 25-percent fiction.”

Although Little Rain has only been out since mid July, Ludwick already has her next record — a duet album with Australian singer-songwriter/guitarist/producer Bill Chambers (father of Down Under Americana star Kasey Chambers) in the can. “We still need to do some overdubs, but it’s pretty much done,” she says. “We did half of it in Australia back in January, and finished it in May at 12th Street Sound in Austin when he was in town.” Tentatively titled Mr. Saturday Night, she expects it’ll be out in early 2015.

“Bill and I met a few years ago when he was in Austin producing an Australian singer-songwriter who was a fan of mine,” she says. “The guy wanted me to sing on his record, and I wasn’t sure at first, but I did it to meet Bill because I was such a huge Kasey Chambers fan since the ’90s. After that we kind of kept in touch and came to realize we had a lot in common; it’s funny how you tend to relate very quickly to other musicians who come from a musical family. Because it can be pretty tough, you know? It’s a curse and a blessing.”

Indeed, Ludwick admits that from day one, she’s made a concerted effort — “almost to the point of professional suicide” — to not lean or bank on the Robison family name in regards to her music. “I love where I’m from, and my brothers have always been encouraging and supportive, but I just went way beyond what probably anybody else would to make sure that, in my mind, nothing was ever handed to me when I got up onstage,” she says. “I was that way to the point of just completely neurotic behavior, but it was really important to me. So when people found out and would come up and say things like, ‘My gosh, I had no idea,’ it always made me so happy. And then I would start gushing with pride that I was part of this musical family, because I was able to sort of be independent and on the same playing field.”

The fact is, though, that for as long as she’s been writing songs, making records, and playing on stages as far from home as Australia and all over Europe, Ludwick’s not only proven she can keep up on that same playing field as her older brothers, but do it all while also juggling the responsibilities of a demanding day job. Not long after the lay off from her first engineering job that sparked her songwriting career, Ludwick found gainful employment with another engineering company.

“The nice thing about having my engineering career is, it has really allowed me the freedom and ability to say ‘no’ to a lot of things in the music business,” she says. “And sometimes that’s a powerful thing — to not have to fall into the habit of, you know, doing every gig. I think that’s actually helped me get to where I am now as fast as I have, because perception can really be a huge part of this business.

“But at the same time, though, sometimes I do find myself wondering, ‘God, what could I do if I actually had all that extra time to write? How far could I go then?’” she admits. “And it’s getting to the point where things are really starting to happen for me, and on the engineering side they’re starting to be like, ‘We’re not really cool with you leaving six times a year to go touring outside of the country.’ So, maybe it’s a sign: Do I give up opportunities and play it safe, or take a leap of faith?”

That’s the question Ludwick leaves on the table at the Devil’s Backbone. Two weeks later, on July 3, she reports back via email with her decision.

“Guess what? I quit last week — how’s that for a plot twist?” she writes with a smiley. “Brave or stupid? Only time will tell.”

 

 

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Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison (from LoneStarMusic Magazine, July/August 2014)

“This will be our year, took a long time to come …”

 Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison had so much fun making their first album together, they decided a victory lap was in order. But after this year’s Our Year, they’re putting the Bruce & Kelly Show on hold: “We don’t want to push it!”

By Richard Skanse

Kelly Willis can’t remember the first time she ever heard “Harper Valley PTA.” “I’m sure I heard it a lot before I ever really even paid attention to it,” she admits over a glass of iced tea on the patio of Austin’s Spider House Cafe. It’s a sweltering afternoon in early June, the day before she’s due to hit the road for a week’s worth of tour dates in the Northeast with husband Bruce Robison, their four young children, and a brand Bruce & Kelly duo record, Our Year.

“It’s just one of those songs that’s been around my whole life,” she says.

Quite literally, too: Texan Jeannie C. Riley’s 1968 recording of the Tom T. Hall tune was the No. 1 country song in America the very week that Willis was born in Lawton, Okla. Years later, Willis would grow up to take on the skirt-chasing Bobby Taylor, gin-nippin’ Shirley Thompson and the rest of the “Harper Valley hypocrites” in her own ultra-confident, head- turning cover of the sly classic. She rehearsed it in secret, determined to “punk” her husband by fielding a supposedly off-the-cuff request for the song at an Austin gig over a year ago. (The audience, or at least the part of the crowd that followed Willis on Twitter, was in on the prank with her.)

Willis nailed the song that night, just as she later did in the studio. Listen to the finished cut on Our Year, and you’d swear Willis was born to sing it. But really, it was all just a lark. Asked if she’s ever had any kind of lifelong personal connection to the original, she dismisses the notion with a casual shake of her head. “Not really, no,” she admits, shrugging a little apologetically. “It’s just a fun song.”

Nevertheless, she certainly remembers another day in June, 15 years ago, when another lark led to her meeting the song’s writer face to face. The independent label Rykodisc had just released What I Deserve, Willis’ critically acclaimed “comeback” album that endeared her more to the alt-country set than her first three albums on MCA ever did with the mainstream. Game for a little fun in the midst of the album’s publicity cycle, she accepted an assignment from RollingStone.com — arranged by her then publicist, Joan Myers, and this writer, at the time an editor for the magazine’s website in New York — to play roving reporter at that summer’s Country Music Association’s Fan Fair festivities in Nashville. Her quick run- in with Hall, colored by her self-consciousness about not being too “germy,” was the highlight of her diary report.

“That was the first time I met him, and he kind of scared me, because he saw the Rolling Stone badge I had and I think he maybe thought I was someone coming to make fun of country music,” Willis recalls. “He wasn’t very nice to me at first. And I was already nervous, because I’m not an interviewer, and I asked him something like, ‘You tell such great stories in your songs … do you have any literary writers that you love to read? Do you like to read?’”

She cringes. “And he went, ‘Yeah, I read,’ — really mad at me! Like I was suggesting that he didn’t read or something, I don’t know. But I think he saw that I was about to cry, and then he got super nice. And was very sweet to me for the rest of the interview.

“But yeah,” she continues, smiling. “That was pretty memorable.”

Willis has no idea if Tom T. Hall himself remembers their Fan Fair moment — let alone whether or not he’s heard her cover of “Harper Valley PTA” since its release on Our Year in late May, or if he would ever connect the dots between the Kelly Willis singing his song and the amateur Rolling Stone correspondent he almost made cry all those years ago. (“But wouldn’t that be cool?” she muses.)

One hopes the recording does eventually cross his radar in one way or another besides just being another line on a royalty statement, though, because Willis and Robison do his song proud. Although true in sassy spirit and rootsy arrangement to the 1968 Riley model, the slightly slower tempo and sultry slur of Willis’ vocal infuse every line and note with Tennessee late-summer humidity. You can practically hear the beads of sweat dripping off those PTA members’ brows as Mrs. Johnson calls them out one by one.

It’s a flat-out terrific track, and the fact that it’s surrounded on Our Year by nine others just as fine is testament to not just the respective talents of Willis and Robison (whose richly plaintive lead vocal on the string-kissed cover of the 1977 Vern Gosdin hit “A Hangin’ On” is 24-karat A.M. country gold), but to the character and charm of the distinctive sound that they’ve spent the better part of the last four years honing to perfection.

“Man, the greatest thing (about working together) was really coming up with this sound,” enthuses Robison, calling from the Austin airport a few days later, within minutes after their return from the aforementioned Northeast jaunt. First heard on stages in and around Austin in the months leading up to 2012’s Cheater’s Game, the couple’s debut full-length together after nearly two decades of managing separate solo careers under the same roof, it’s a sound that Robison likens to “all the harmony duos that I always loved, where the two things add up to something really different … It’s like a Simon & Garfunkel thing, where the vocal sound and harmonies are all right there at the front and center, and they’re there to present the song.

“After about halfway into Cheater’s Game, I just looked up and it was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s like 1991 again!’” he continues, flashing back to the hungry salad days when he and his older brother, Charlie, were both just starting out on the Austin music scene. (Willis, married at the time to her first husband, drummer/ songwriter Mas Palermo, was already one of the hottest things in town and newly signed to MCA.) “You know, you have a period when you’re starting out where you’re putting your thing together, and you work really hard, and then you get to where you’re kind of just wondering what comes next. I was at a point where I was really looking for something to kind of start the engine up again, and finding that sound together was something that I really found invigorating. It got me excited and looking forward to all the bits of doing this that maybe I hadn’t been that excited about for awhile.”

Cheater’s Game was greeted with considerable excitement by fans and critics, too, many of whom had been clamoring for the “first couple of Austin country music” — Willis the willowy, rockabilly-reared darling of the alt-country set and Robison the Bandera-born gentle giant who routinely wrote smash hits for the Dixie Chicks, George Strait, and Tim McGraw — to record a full album together after years of “Robison Family Christmas” engagements and a 2003 EP, Happy Holidays. From the outside looking in, it seemed like a no-brainer. After all, Willis had been covering her husband’s songs for years on her own records (most notably “Wrapped” on What I Deserve), and the exquisite “Friendless Marriage,” a song they wrote and sang together on Robison’s 2001 album, Country Sunshine, put to shame just about every other male/female country duet ever recorded this side of George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s divorce in the mid-70s.

But as far as Willis and Robison themselves were concerned, all of that was more than enough. “The thing is, I always felt like we were already collaborating, even playing a fair amount of shows together, so we really didn’t see a big reason to do a record proper,” says Robison. “And for decades, I was a fan of Kelly’s first, you know? And I’ve always been very protective of her — of her sound and her career and everything like that.”

Willis, of course, has long been a fan of her husband’s, too. But she notes that when they met each other and first started dating in 1992 (eventually marrying in ’96), they were both already solo artists, “and we just weren’t interested in being in a duo or a band. That wasn’t our motivation or our thing; it didn’t seem like we needed to do that, because we were very happy just making our own music.” Even in the privacy of their own home, where they happily share parenting and domestic duties but almost never write together. In fact, apart from a song they came up with right before going into the studio for Our Year that didn’t make the cut, Willis says “Friendless Marriage” is the only other song that they’ve co-written.

“We don’t sit in a room and write together very well,” she says. “And I have no idea why, but we’ve tried it several times, and we just can’t do it.”

Over time, though, they came to find out that they actually could, with baby steps, pull off the duo/band thing in tandem with their individual careers. “Little by little, as we worked on these little off-shoots together over the years, it just started to feel like we could do it and it wouldn’t threaten either one of us or make us forever linked musically,” Willis says. “And as we began to figure out our roles with each other, we knew that it really worked, it was really fun, and people really responded to it and liked it. So it just kind of organically happened, and finally it just felt like the right time and the right place for us to make a record together.”

At the encouragement of their manager at the time, Mike Crowley, the couple turned to their fans and Kickstarter to finance Cheater’s Game. Willis admits that they originally had reservations about going the fund-funding route, “because the perception is that you need money, and it can make you look a little desperate if you don’t do it right.” But upon deciding to try it out as a “one-time thing” and determined to make it count, they played ball and had fun with it, filming their tongue-in- cheek project video with actor friend Bill Wise playing his clueless, trailer-park talk-show host alter ego, Gill Webb. (“And you are father and daughter?” Webb asked at the outset. “Here’s a question: Why are y’all here today?”) Their fans loved it, ponying up just shy of $45 grand, and the popularity of their very funny “Gill Webb Show” clips on YouTube and social media continued to help promote the record long after it was paid for and released.

Robison had recently sold his Austin studio, Premium Recording Service, so they recorded the album in Nashville with producer Brad Jones (Hayes Carll, Chuck Prophett, Josh Rouse). After having produced his last several solo albums himself, Robison was more than ready to hand the reins over.

“One of the things I’ve come to realize overthelastcoupleofyears,justdoingalotof listening to the records that I love, is that I don’t think we make as good of records as they used to,” he says. “And man, I don’t care if it was the Beatles, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, or Willie Nelson, but all those guys worked with producers. And I realized I couldn’t do it all. There were times when I felt like I could do it all, but now I feel like you can’t really be there and make the music that you need to make and also be worrying about ‘is this the right take’ and all that kind of stuff. And after we started talking about working together, I saw just how much Brad understood the songs and the vibe and where we were coming from. It just gives you someone else to bounce things off, and I thought that was invaluable. He had a huge impact on what we ended up with on every song.”

The whole experience of making Cheater’s Game — not to mention the response — was so positive, that they kept all the same pieces in place (minus the Kickstarter factor) for Our Year. Same producer, same studio, same even-split of Willis-sung songs and Robison- sung songs, with shared harmonies by both throughout and only one song (the T Bone Burnett cover “Shake Yourself Lose”) arranged as a classic, verse-swapping duet.

“We just let the songs decide who sang what,” Robison explains. “Kelly’s a little better at that than I am, because I’m more tempted to get excited about too many things at first and just throw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks, whereas she has a real good center about the material and just knows whether a song fits for her or not.”

As was the case with Cheater’s Game, most of the songs on Our Year are covers, with the album bookended by Robison singing his sister Robyn Ludwick’s “Departing Louisiana” and Willis taking the lead on the closing track, penned by Chris White of the ’60s British rock band the Zombies. In between are two Robison originals (“Carousel,” co-written with Darden Smith, and “Anywhere But Here,” co-written with Monte Warden) and one by Willis (“Lonely For You,” written ages ago with Paul Kennerly.)

“Bruce actually did that song on his first record,” she says, “but when Sony bought the record from him, he wrote three new songs for it and kicked three off, and that was one of the ones that got kicked off. I forgot all about it until we pulled it out of the bone pile. Bruce will probably tell you I brought it up, but I think it was his idea.”

Willis concedes that it’s usually her husband who brings the lion’s share of songs to the table. “Bruce spends more of his energy on music than I do in general, because I get more caught up taking care of the kids and worrying about that side of our lives,” she says. “I mean, he’s a complete hands-on dad, too, but he just makes more of an effort to find time for music than I will, so he did a lot more of the legwork on both of these records than I did.”

She certainly makes the exceptions to that rule count, though. In addition to the aforementioned “Harper Valley PTA,” which has been a highlight of their live sets ever since that first night she whipped it out and knocked Robison’s jaw to the floor of the Continental Club Gallery, Willis was also the one who introduced the Zombies’ “Our Year” to their repertoire.

“I think I had just been searching and searching for stuff that we could do at our holiday shows that wasn’t just your standard Christmas song that everyone’s sick of hearing,” she recalls. “I’m not sure what made me think of that one, but it just felt like a good New Year’s song: goodbye to the old and hello to the new, this hopeful thing. We’ve been doing it for years now, sometimes with him singing it and sometimes with me, to the point where we don’t even remember who sang it last from year to year. Bruce was actually going to sing it for this record, but then Brad had us switch it around and came up with a great new harmony for Bruce to do that was different from any way we’d ever done it before. And then it was Bruce’s idea to do it without drums and to add the steel to it, which I think sounds really sweet.”

No matter who’s singing it, “Our Year” will doubtless stick around in those Robison Family Christmas shows for years to come. But outside of that annual tradition, opportunities to hear Willis and Robison singing their other songs from Cheater’s Game and Our Year onstage together are running out … at least for the time being.

“Right now, our plan is to quit playing together at the end of August, and then start working on solo stuff again,” explains Willis. “We just need some separation in our life, because it gets a little overwhelming. Being in any relationship involves constant problem solving, but normally you get to go to work and solve problems with other people. But when you live with someone and work together all the time, too, it can be really draining, because then you’re solving problems with the same person both at home and at work. So there’s no escape or refuge or comfort to look forward to; you don’t get to come home and tell the other person, ‘Today was awesome, but …’”

That’s not to say that all their time recording and touring together over the last few years ever brought the couple close to an actual breaking point. Far from it.

“We really do recognize that this is something special,” Willis insists. “You can feel it when you’re doing good work and when things are connecting, when the band is right, the energy is right, and the crowd comes excited and ready to hear what you’re going to do. That’s all good, and we know that that’s what’s happening right now, and we’re just enjoying it. So so far, so good — but you don’t want to push it if you can help it. So after we got this whole thing running and did all this work to kind of come up with this sound, the idea all along was, ‘Let’s just get in and cut the songs we want to record, capture this moment in time, and then we’ll move on.’”

So, after they’ve given Our Year its due and finished their victory lap together, Willis aims to start recording her next solo album — and first since 2007’s Well Travelled Love — either at the end of this year or in early 2015. Robison, meanwhile, will busy himself “tinkering” with songs out at his new recording studio in Lockhart (he’s calls it Bruce’s Country Bunker), though he doesn’t have a new record of his own on the calendar yet. (Presently, he’s leaning toward the idea of maybe putting out his music single by single.)

Still, regardless of what comes next from Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison as solo artists, rest assured that we probably haven’t heard the last yet from the Bruce and Kelly Show.

“I think probably in a few years, we’ll do something again,” Willis says. “Because I know I will really miss it. Bruce is really fun to be on the road with, and to be onstage with him and singing with him, it just feels like the best music I’ve ever done. And it also feels so great to have somebody to play with who cares just as much as you do about what’s happening.

“So, I’m sure we’ll do it again,” she assures with confidence. “It’s too much fun not to.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Features

Rodney Crowell (from LoneStarMusic Magazine, May/June 2014)

Rodney Crowell LSM Cover

Above and Beyond

From Houston’s Chinaberry sidewalks to Nashville, L.A., and the top of the country music charts, Rodney Crowell has lived long and prospered by the art of the song. But he’s still hell-bent on chasing his own elusive carrot as far as he can run.

By Richard Skanse

It’s Tuesday, March 11, the night before the starting gun for the official opening of the 2014 South By Southwest Music Festival and Conference, and Rodney Crowell is already off and running on his 11-shows-in-four-days promotional blitz. “I’ve got a record coming out, so I’m going beggin’,” he says at the outset of one of his first of interviews of the week. “Rattling the ‘love-me’ cup across the prison bars of life.”

The quip gets a simpatico chuckle from fellow songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard, who has lured Crowell an hour south of the SXSW hubbub in Austin to talk and play on Roots and Branches, Hubbard’s weekly KNBT-FM radio program taped live in front of a small audience at Tavern on the Gruene in New Braunfels. “The last time I saw you it was in Augusta, Ga. — it was an ice storm, and there was also an earthquake,” Hubbard says by way of intro. “We’re a hard-hat area when we get together,” nods Crowell.

Mother Nature sits this one out, though Crowell isn’t Hubbard’s only guest: he’s slotted between an up-and-coming Civil Wars-type Americana duo from Nashville called the Carolina Story and regional favorites Midnight River Choir. But Crowell’s the only cat in the room with a pair of Grammy Awards to his name — the latest, for his Best Americana Album-winning duo record with Emmylou Harris, Old Yellow Moon, not even two months old yet. When Roots and Branches producer/KNBT program director Mattson Rainer congratulates him on the record (which also won Album of the Year at the 2013 Americana Music Honors & Awards), Crowell feigns hubris (“We just took all the awards that we could haul home!”) and recounts an anecdote about asking a bewildered NARAS rep if they could please mail his Grammy check directly to his home address, because, he told them, “this is really important to me, and I want to show it to my wife.’”

“They gave me a look like, ‘Is he serious?’” Crowell says with a mischievous laugh. “‘Well, Mr. Crowell … you know, there’s actually no … it’s voted on by your peers …’ And I said, ‘Man, I’m joshing you!’ They thought they had a rube right out of East Houston …”

        Crowell later plays one song from Old Yellow Moon, the reflective “Open Season on My Heart,” and closes with the exquisite title track from 1995’s Jewel of the South — one of the handful of good but largely forgotten albums he recorded in the decade between his 1988 country smash, Diamonds & Dirt, and his critically acclaimed, 2001 Americana “comeback” statement, The Houston Kid. But the fact that he first plays three songs in a row from his aforementioned new record, Tarpaper Sky — and not one pick from the fistfuls of time- and chart-proven classics he’s penned over the last 40 years — comes across not so much as “love-me” begging as it does the conscious act of an artist who’s really not big on victory laps. Crowell says as much when Rainer, playing the straight man to the freewheelin’ Hubbard by trying to cover some missed bases in the interview, dutifully brings up Crowell’s best-selling record.

“You’ve had No. 1 songs, and top 10 songs, and you had five No. 1 songs from one album, Diamonds & Dirt,” Rainer marvels, earning a cheerful whoop from the audience at the mention of the album. “You and Michael Jackson … I don’t know how many albums produce five No. 1 songs …”

“Well, what about it, Mattson?” Crowell asks wryly. “What are you driving at?”

“I just thought it should be mentioned before you get out of here, some of the successes that you’ve had,” Rainer presses. “What would you say would be your career-defining song … the song that got people to return your phone calls?”

Crowell mulls it over for a moment before conceding that his ’70s composition “Till I Gain Control Again,” memorably covered by both Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson, was the most probable “door opener.” This wins more cheers of recognition from the audience, but the way he sort of squirms around the question belies a clear discomfort with the notion of defining his career by any fixed moment in time.

“Not to avoid your question, but it’s kind of hard to talk about success, because the carrot needs to stay out there, you know?” Crowell explains. “I don’t want to own the carrot too close.

“Success is a funny thing,” he continues, “in that, by the time you get to success, it’s gone.”

He says this with the conviction of a man who knows from truth, as learned from decades of first-hand experience. But the funny thing about Rodney Crowell is how many times he’s also proved it wrong.

* * *

Counting the duo record with Emmylou Harris, one-off side-projects like 1997’s The Cicadas and 2004’s The Notorious Cherry Bombs, and 2011’s somewhat hard-to-categorize KIN: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, Tarpaper Sky is Crowell’s 18th album in a recording career now spanning nearly four decades. Factoring in records (outside of his own) that he’s helmed as producer doubles that catalog, while a full round-up of albums featuring Crowell’s name in the credits as a songwriter, guitarist and/or singer increases the tally exponentially. Not a bad run for a guy who titled his 1978 debut Ain’t Living Long Like This.

But as should be the case with any artist worth the title, it’s not the quantity of Crowell’s work that matters most so much as the quality. And the longevity of his career wouldn’t account for much either if not for the fact that he’s not only maintained his standard of quality, but consistently strived to push it higher — ideally just out of even his own reach. Mailbox money and touring on nostalgia alone may pay the bills and even keep a fortunate few flush for life, but Crowell hasn’t gone the distance as a performer and songwriter by coasting on the fumes of past glories. Songs like “Till I Gain Control Again,” “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” and “After All This Time” (one of those five chart toppers from Diamonds & Dirt and his first Grammy winner) still hold up decades on, but there would be no Houston Kid or Tarpaper Sky if Crowell wasn’t still writing songs fit to stand beside if not even above them -— as attested by such highlights from his latest as “Famous Last Words of a Fool in Love,” “The Flyboy & the Kid,” and especially “Oh What a Beautiful World.”

Whether or not the songs he writes today or will write tomorrow ever register as “hits” or garner more Grammys doesn’t really matter, either; that’s not the carrot Crowell’s chasing. But that’s not to say he hasn’t caught up close enough to that kind success for it to bump him on the head more than a few times over the years. There may be a handful of bigger household names in Americana and Texas (and certainly country) music today than Crowell, but few of his peers have had careers marked by as many spikes in good fortune — both commercial and artistic — as he has.

He took his hardest knock/reality check on the chin immediately upon landing in Nashville in August of 1972. Crowell, who had just turned 22, high-tailed it to Music City from Houston with pal Donivan Cowart, flush with high hopes stoked by a album they’d made together in Louisiana for a hustler who’d told them he’d landed them a 10-record deal with Columbia Records. But once they got to town, they found out they’d been had: there was no record deal (let alone the accompanying tour they’d been promised as a support act for Kenny Rogers and the First Edition), and both the tapes and publishing rights to their Rodney & Donivan album had been sold off for a whopping hundred bucks to the Wilburn Brothers’ Sure-Fire Music company. Crowell and Cowart never saw a penny of it, as their dubious champion had already skipped town. The album never saw the light of day, though, as Crowell’s kept it under lock and key ever since he and Cowart charmed their way past a receptionist and pinched the masters from the Sure-Fire offices. (“Good for you,” Doyle Wilburn told Crowell with a laugh years later, after Crowell confessed/bragged about the heist.)

After that inauspicious start, though, Crowell’s all but run the tables throughout his entire career. He might rightfully argue that notion, and it’d be wrong to chalk any or all of it solely up to luck, but suffice it to say that a fast-forward survey of his last 40 years really backs up the line in his 2003 song “Earthbound” about him making out “like a bandit.” Not long after snatching his first record back from the Wilburns, Crowell fell in with the misfit crowd of Music City mavericks (many of them fellow Texas ex-pats) orbiting around Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, and finding the stones to share songs with that circle raised his writing chops and confidence in double time. Both served him well when a right-place/right-time circumstance landed him a publishing deal under guitarist/songwriter Jerry Reed (of “Amos Moses” fame), and soon afterwards a demo tape of his songs found its way into the hands of producer Brian Ahern, who was helping a young grievous angel named Emmylou Harris shape her Reprise Records debut in the wake of Gram Parson’s death. Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine” ended up being the opening track on that album, 1975’s Pieces of the Sky, and “Till I Gain Control Again” took flight on Harris’ second album later that same year, Elite Hotel. By the time Harris was making 1976’s Luxury Liner, Crowell wasn’t just contributing songs: he was living in Los Angeles and recording and touring as a member of her Hot Band alongside such seasoned vets as James Burton, Emory Gordy, and Glen D. Hardin. Harris and a handful of Hot Band members in turn sang and played on Crowell’s Warner Bros. debut two years later (along with Ry Cooder, Dr. John, Willie Nelson, and Mickey Raphael.)

Ain’t Living Long Like This still holds up as one of the best records Crowell has ever made, though it didn’t make Crowell a star in his own right. But his songs on the record weren’t long for obscurity. Harris recorded both the title track and “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” on her 1978 album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, and the Oakridge Boys later polished “Leaving Louisiana” (co-written by Crowell and his old partner in crime Cowart) into a No. 1 smash. Waylon Jennings also rumbled his way through “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” taking it to No. 1 in 1979 and securing its place in the Outlaw country hall of fame.

Johnny Cash’s cover of the album’s “Song For the Life” (on his own 1978 record, Gone Girl) was not a hit, but Crowell did hit it off with the Man in Black’s daughter Rosanne round about the same time. They married in ’79, raising Crowell’s daughter Hannah from a previous, short-lived marriage in the mid-70s and producing another three daughters of their own (Caitlin, Chelsea, and Carrie.) Crowell also produced Rosanne’s first six albums, culminating in 1987’s King’s Record Shop. His burgeoning production skills were put to additional use on a pair of early ’80s Guy Clark albums and even a 1982 live album called The Survivors by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis — 23 years after a 9-year-old Crowell was taken by his father, an aspiring country singer himself, to see the same three legends perform at Houston’s Magnolia Gardens on the banks of the San Jacinto.

Crowell’s first three albums of the ’80s — 1980’s But What Will the Neighbors Think, ’81’s Rodney Crowell, and ’86’s Street Language — didn’t fare near as well as the records he produced for his wife, but he caught up with a vengeance with 1988’s Diamonds & Dirt. In contrast to the slick but spiky L.A. songwriter vibe of the three albums that preceded it and even his progressive-country leaning debut, Diamonds was unabashedly country, with every song seemingly fine-tuned for maximum radio impact. Goosed with rockabilly rave-ups and Bakersfield-style hot licks and buoyed by Everly Brothers-worthy classic pop hooks and harmonies, it’d probably be deemed too edgy and Americana by current Clear Channel standards; but released at the tail-end of what Steve Earle later called country music’s “great credibility scare” — a 15-minute window of golden opportunity for Crowell and fellow iconoclasts like Earle, Dwight Yoakam, and Lyle Lovett — Diamonds hit the mainstream at exactly the right time.

Although Crowell’s next record, 1989’s Keys to the Highway, kicked another two singles into the Top 5, the big hits dried up quickly soon after. The ensuing decade also took a heavy emotional toll, bookended by the deaths of his father and mother and also marked by the end of his marriage to Cash. Still, Crowell’s ’90s were far from the classic Behind the Music third-act crash. His “selfishly amicable and thoroughly modern divorce” from Rosanne (as Crowell would describe their 1992 split years later in his memoir) didn’t offer much in the way of exciting tabloid fodder, and there were no addiction-addled midlife-crisis meltdowns or riches-to-rags stories for the gossips, either. He took care of his daughters (sharing custody with Rosanne), met and fell in love with the woman who became his third wife (country singer and actress Claudia Church, who he’s still happily married to today), and kept on working and writing. And though the four albums he recorded between 1992 and 1997 didn’t sell a lot of copies, they were all released on major labels, and no matter what he tries to tell you to the contrary, they’re all pretty damn good (especially 1992’s Life Is Messy).

And then he wrote his masterpiece. Or at the very least, the record that launched the most acclaimed and creatively bountiful stage of his career, 13 years after his apparent commercial peak: 2001’s The Houston Kid. The cathartic (though not always comforting) process of writing and recording the songs on that album — almost all of them rooted in autobiography or drawn from composite memories of his parents and dirt-poor Houston childhood — rebooted Crowell’s muse and spun it 360. First he looked all the way back to his parents’ courtship to shape the framework for his memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks (published by Knopf in 2011). Then he turned inward, back around to the present, and finally straight ahead and up for the songs that would form his next several albums: 2003’s soul-searching (and stirring) Fate’s Right Hand; 2005’s seething and beautifully despairing The Outsider; and 2008’s brutally honest and moodily ruminative Sex & Gasoline. The sum total of that stunning four-album run (plus the book) is a vivid self-portrait of a man in full at the top of his artistic game. That he also still works and plays well with others is affirmed by not only his recent Grammy-winning duo album with Harris, but his 2004 reunion album with his old road band, the Notorious Cherry Bombs, and 2011’s KIN, the collection of songs he co-wrote with his favorite fellow Houston-reared memoirist, Mary Karr, and then recruited a host of his most distinguished Americana peers to color in with their own voices.

Tarpaper Sky (released in April on New West Records, marking Crowell’s debut on the label) is Crowell’s first album issued solely under his own name in six years. Blame the gap on irresistible women: He actually started the album back in 2010, but pushed it aside when the Karr and Harris projects came up.

“The songs that Mary and I did just sort of caught fire, and the next thing you know, we had a record,” he says. “And then right about when that was getting done, Emmy called me and said, ‘Let’s do this,’ so then that naturally jumped ahead, too.”

Crowell recalls a recent conversation in which he was asked, “What are you up to?” and was surprised by his own reply. “I told them, ‘I have a solo record coming,’” he says, then laughs. “A solo record! It just sounded odd to me, like I was taking time off from being in a band or something. There was that four-year period in there I guess where I was collaborating with women, but it still sounded weird: ‘I have a solo record coming out!’”

It’s now Friday of SXSW week, and Crowell has talked to so many people about his new “solo” record over the last few days that he’s probably experiencing serious deja-vu. To wit: just a few minutes ago, he wrapped his second appearance on a Ray Wylie Hubbard-hosted radio show of the week, this time for a SXSW special on Sirius/XM Radio’s “Outlaw Country” channel. The taping was done in a woodshed in the East Austin backyard of Texas Music Office director Casey Monahan, and it’s Monahan who secures us a quiet place to talk on the back porch of his across-the-street neighbor. Crowell is gracious and forthcoming, but most of our interview will end up being continued via phone a week later when he’s back at his home in Nashville, as he’s in clear need of a few hours of crash time before being due onstage at tonight’s official Americana Music Association showcase downtown. Like all SXSW sets, it’s only a teaser and all-too-short; tomorrow night’s crowd at McGonnigal’s Mucky Duck in Houston will no doubt be treated to a considerably more generous survey of his 40-year catalog. But tonight, 40 minutes and a fistful of songs new and old are all Crowell and his tightly wound band — anchored by the extraordinary guitarist Steuart Smith, a longtime Crowell collaborator and sometime Eagle — need to seal their week in Austin with a bang … and leave even the mighty Lucinda Williams with a very tough act to follow.

* * *

You’re at the tail end of what’s been a busy week for you here. How’s your SXSW been? Tonight’s your last show, right?

Yeah. Day one and two were a lot of fun, just seeing how many gigs we could get in. We got in four, but I thought we could have fit in seven. [Laughs] I’m kidding. We could have done five, though. And then yesterday we got the hook at my own record label’s party … but that was kind of fun, too.

That’s a fine way to start a relationship.

I thought, “This is really auspicious, man! They gave me the hook!” And it pissed me off, you know? Then I thought, you know, it should be that way. Anyway, they said we did 30 minutes, but I’m sure we only did 26. We could have got one more song in. I should have been a man and done another song.

They say when you go to prison, the first thing you’re supposed to do is find the biggest guy in the yard and punch him in the face. To assert yourself.

Yeah. You know, I wimped out. I’m pissed off at myself for wimping out.

At the taping you did the other day for Ray Wylie’s show in New Braunfels, you were asked about success, and I loved what you said about always wanting to keep the carrot in front of you. Would you be going stir crazy right now if you didn’t have a new project ready to work on right after winning your Grammy?

I don’t know. Good question. When I wrote Chinaberry Sidewalks, during the last three years of writing that, I worked every day. Every day. You know, I’d take a Sunday off every now and again, maybe two in a month. But man, I just like to work. And as long as I’m working like that, I don’t really goof off anymore. I don’t really take vacations. So I get these songs, and they start to move the energy, so I’ve got to record them. I’ve got enough songs in the can for another record already, and I’ve got some more new songs coming, and Emmy and I are writing some songs and thinking about making another record, too. So it’ll be interesting to see what it feels like someday to not have anything to show. I’m not saying that I want to do that, but I haven’t ever really considered it — if I’d be restless or not. If things keep going, if I don’t fall over dead, I’ll probably work like this until I do. I mean, I’ve raised four girls and they all have their lives now, and Claudia and I just have a dog to take care of, so I can pretty much just do what I want to do. And outside of working, I might take a walk around the neighborhood, but that’s about it. Other than that, I just want to get better at playing the guitar and trying to figure out how to play the blues.

I want to come back to that in a bit. But let’s start with Tarpaper Sky. What was the original catalyst for this album when you started it back in 2010?

I really wanted to experiment with Steuart Smith, who, you know … we had worked on The Houston Kid intentionally together, and we had worked on Diamonds & Dirt intentionally together, but then the Eagles got him. And we had worked sporadically on the records that I made between Houston Kid and now. But we had some time where he was off from the Eagles, and I said, “Let’s go into the studio, let’s get some of those guys from the Diamonds & Dirt sessions, and let’s see what we can cook up.” And so Steuart and I just started conversations where he asked, “What do you want to do?” And I went, “Well, I want to do some landscape painting.” So we sort of started working from there, and the conversation went, “What would that be like?”

What exactly did you mean by “landscape painting”? Can you elaborate?

Yeah. “Long Journey Home,” “Fever on the Bayou,” “Frankie Please” … although they’re not like pastoral, wistful visions of what it looks like out there, the narrative in those songs is not so singular as, you know, Fate’s Right Hand and The Houston Kid and Sex & Gasoline.

Or The Outsider.

Well, I tend to think of The Outsider as less singular and more just pissed off about invading Iraq — but everybody was pissed off about invading Iraq. But Tarpaper Sky was really less a singular narrative from my perspective and more … it’s not really broad-stroke love songs, like commercial broad strokes, but it does pull the camera back a little bit to look at the subject matter.

Anyway, once we had that idea in mind, the first thing we did was try to find out how to record differently, so we unplugged the headphones in the studio and got everybody to play just to the natural sound of the room, so that it would all be live. Instead of a production, the record is a performance. The last three years, that’s what I’ve been most interested in. I kind of wore myself out on production, so I think I’ll be committed a lot more to performance from now on — which means playing and singing it live, and that’s your record. And that’s what Tarpaper Sky is: Landscapes and live performance.

You mentioned working with Steuart Smith a number of times since you made Diamonds & Dirt together. But what was it about some of the other players from that record that made you want to work with them again? Who else did you bring back from those sessions?

Well, Barry Beckett (piano/organ) passed away, and he was a big part of that record back then. Barry was the ballast, you know, this great musician from Muscle Shoals who we were all wanting to impress. So Barry’s gone, but Eddie Bayers (drums) and Michael Rhodes (bass) have played on practically every hit record to come out of Nashville. And because they’re working musicians, they get called to play on a lot of records that they’re not necessarily proud of; you know, honestly, they’d tell you that. But they’re really good musicians, so I was like, “C’mon man, come on over here and let’s do this.” They’re fun to work with and really spontaneous. One of the reasons for unplugging the headphones was so that they would not be in the same mindset that they are in when they make the pop country records.

Did any of the songwriting come out that spontaneous, live-in-the-studio set up?

Well, you know, I’d had “Fever of the Bayou” for 25 years but it had no last verse. Will Jennings and I started the first two verses way back there, and we said, “This is kind of cliché Cajun stuff here, what do we do? We’ve gone as cliché with these first two verses as we could possibly go.” So by the last verse we were just at a loss. But when if finally dawned on me that I could write a bunch of clichéd, Cajun English-French patois and get ourselves out of the jam, new life came into that song.

And “God I’m Missing You” actually came from KIN. Lucinda sang it on that record, because we let everybody that we invited choose the songs they wanted to do. I actually had my fingers crossed that I’d get to sing that one myself, but Lucinda jumped on it, and you know, “Yes baby, that’s yours!” And she killed it. But I still had my own version in mind, and figured, “This is OK to do this again, this is a long way from what she did with it.”

“Jesus Talk to Mama” was a thing that I wrote just thinking about my mother. She was a Pentecostal gal, you know, and she always wanted me to write gospel music. She thought that’s what I should do. Anyway, I wrote that one when I was in Australia. And “Grandma Loved that Old Man” had been around since The Houston Kid — I wrote it right after that record, but it just didn’t really fit the next couple of things I did. “The Long Journey Home” was probably five or six years old before I got around to it, and “The Flyboy & the Kid” had been around for a while, too — I wrote that 10 years ago with Guy in mind.

So you know, I would say the thing about Tarpaper Sky is, there’s 25-year-old songs, 10-year-old songs, 9-year-old songs on there. The newest songs are “Famous Last Words,” “What a Beautiful World,” and “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You.” I actually didn’t realize Billy Joe Shaver had a song of his own called “I Couldn’t Be Me Without You,” which is funny because you’d think I would know everything of Billy’s. So I called him and was like, “Billy, I’ve written this song here, and I didn’t know your song …” But he just said, “Hey man, you can’t copyright a title!”

Knowing that you wrote “The Flyboy and the Kid” with Guy Clark in mind, right or wrong, I immediately peg you as “the Kid.” Have you always been “the Kid” in one way or another? I mean, you were “the kid” when you played drums in your dad’s honky-tonk band growing up, and there’s no telling how many times you’ve been referred to as “the Houston Kid” in print since that album came out.  

Well, with “The Flyboy & the Kid,” it just rhymed, that’s all. And the “Houston Kid” thing wasn’t anything I was really thinking about at the time when we made that record, but it just kept showing up in those songs, and so that’s how that became that. But Steuart Smith and I did used to joke about this thing where, anytime we were in a car together when it was snowing and there was ice on the ground, if I was the one driving I would speed up, hit the brakes and see if I could make it slide. And Steuart would always say, “That’s the Kid coming out!”

Like all the other songs from KIN, you co-wrote “God I’m Missing You” with Mary Karr. I know you’ve long been a fan of her prose and books, but she had never written songs before you talked her into it. Did she bring anything new to the process that you can put your finger on that’s stuck with you?

Oh sure, that’s easy. That’s real easy. Mary’s a poet of the page, you know? I don’t know if you’ve read any of her poetry, but she’s got five or six books of poetry. So when I kind of cajoled her into doing it, I said, “Come on, you should really trust me with this …” And I wanted to find every way we could to let the poet’s voice speak. And here’s the simplest example of that: “Anything But Tame,” which is one of my favorite things that we wrote together, the opening line for the melody that I had was, “When our feet were tough as nails and our eyes were sharp as flint.” I liked “nails” because you can really sing that “a” vowel. But Mary was shaking her head, and she said, “No … our feet weren’t tough as nails. When you’re running around barefoot, your feet were tough as horn. Like hooves.” I said, “Yeah, you’re right, but it doesn’t sing, like ‘nails’ does.” But I started singing it with “horn,” and now, I wouldn’t sing it with “nails” in a million years, because “horn” is so much better. And that was the poet’s voice, not the songwriter’s, because if the song had been all mine, I probably would have shot it out there as nails. Now, there were still a few times where there were words that Mary had where I said, “Mary, I can’t sing these, nobody can sing these words — I know it’s what you would put on the page, but it just can’t be sung. Too many vowels.” And in those cases, it would be the songwriting technique that would overrule the poet choice. But every chance we got, we followed the poet instinct. And now I do it a lot, a lot more consciously than I used to.

What about writing your memoir — did that experience inform the way you write songs now? What did you take away from that?

Revision. Revision, revision, revision … revision! More revision. What’s that quote by Truman Capote? “Great books aren’t written; they’re re-written.” So I spend a lot of time revising now. I still get those good couplets, you know, but if I get maybe half of a song or verse that just falls out of the air, you can bet that the second half of it is going to involve a process of revision, trying to cobble together the rest of the song with verses that sound just as fresh and just as good. I used to let second halves of songs stand on the merit of the first half of the song. But I don’t do that so much anymore.

Does all that painstaking revision ever get in the way of pure inspiration, though? Do you ever lose the plot?

I do go too far sometimes. But I don’t throw anything away; I just keep looking, keep     digging, keep listening. And sometimes I go back and go, “Oh, I had this right two weeks ago.”

Speaking of revision, on Old Yellow Moon, you finally got around to singing and recording your song “Bluebird Wine” — 38 years after Emmylou sang it on Pieces of the Sky. But you changed some of the words in it.

Right. That was Emmy saying, “This is us coming full circle, you’ve never recorded this, let’s do this.” I said “OK, but I gotta revise this … Those first two verses, I don’t like those soft rhymes.” There was something about the not-quite-saying-what-I-meant aspect of a 21-year-old’s version of a song that just didn’t sit with me. Back in 1974, when I first heard her version before the record came out, I thought it was like, perfect, because I was seduced by the beauty of that arrangement and the recording and her voice and just the idea of my song going out there. But you get a little distance from it and you go, “Hmm, those first couple of verses are weak.” I took a swing at it for my very first record that I made, and we just didn’t get it. Maybe because subconsciously — I don’t think I knew this consciously at the time — I couldn’t stand behind it.

That song first got to Emmylou via a publishing demo of yours, right? Were you still living in Nashville at the time?

No, I had moved to Austin by then. But before that, this bass player that had worked with Anne Murray came through Nashville, I met him through a guitar player, and he said, “You got any songs?” I said, “Here, take this tape.” And he took it up to Canada, and it just so happened he took it to the guy who ended up producing Emmy. Well in the interim, I bailed on Nashville and I moved down here, over on Endfield Road, in late ’74. But Emmy recorded that record, did “Bluebird Wine” and “Till I Gain Control Again” (the later on her Elite Hotel album, also from 1975) and then came through here, played the Armadillo, and called me and said “Come sit in with me.” That was January of ’75. And the next day, she said, “I’m going to L.A. tomorrow, and I’ve got an extra ticket — you want to go?” That was back when you could travel on somebody else’s ticket and you didn’t have to deal with security. So the next day I went to L.A. with her and stayed for seven years. I joined the Hot Band and gave up my place here (in Austin). Before that I had actually planned to live here.

She had already recorded your songs, but had you actually met Emmylou before she came through Austin and invited you to sit in at the Armadillo?

Yeah, I had met her in D.C. a little before that — I went and taught her “Till I Gain Control Again.” And we hit it off, ended up staying up all night playing, singing country songs.

What was your first impression of Emmylou when you met her?

My first impression? [Laughs]

Well, I can only imagine Emmylou Harris in 1974 … did she spin your head around?

Hah! My first impression was, I walked into the Child Herald in D.C., there’s this willowy girl onstage singing, and of course it was love at first sight. I didn’t know she had a boyfriend. So first things first, I was like, “I’ve got to make a play for this girl!” And she very kindly dodged my advances. And so we got into a discussion about music and we started playing and singing, and thankfully didn’t mess up a good friendship because of my boneheaded …

Boner?

Yeah. So, actually, it became really productive as opposed to what might have been really destructive. As Emmy says, we still get on and play together because we never got married. And there’s something about that, you know? That we can be collaborating like we do now, whereas had we blown it way back when …

So you go out to L.A. and end up playing in Emmylou’s Hot Band. You’ve talked a lot in the past about what an impact Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt had on you when you first got to Nashville — how being around them could be really intimidating for a young writer, but also a great learning experience. But what was more intimating: figuring out how to write songs around those guys, or going to L.A. to join a band where you had to play guitar next to …

James Burton? [Laughs] Same thing! Same thing. My education in Nashville in the early ’70s with those guys you just mentioned was all about learning how to write songs and figuring out how to know about the craft of the language. I had a sense of melody, but to be around those guys, I was watching guys who really knew language: Guy and Townes and Mickey Newbury; I was around Mickey less than Guy and Townes, but they were all producing language, like, serious language. And so, I got it, I got that that’s what it was. I was young and impressionable, but it was the perfect thing for me to stumble into to really be a dedicated songwriter. And really, my dedication to “the carrot” that we were talking about, it goes back to there. Because I was watching those guys going, “Fuck!” I remember Townes playing “Pancho & Lefty” not long after he wrote it, and it was like, “Fuck me!”

And then I go to L.A., and I fall into a band with Glen Hardin and James Burton … and you know, Emory Gordy. So that became a lesson in arranging, in how these great musicians played together. They don’t really think a lot about the language of songs, but man, they were really inside arranging a band of six musicians, how to arrange everything. They would talk about how to make a guitar part and a piano part and a fiddle part and all of this stuff work to make music, which was another aspect my education. And that information is what I used later on when I was producing records, like some of those Rosanne Cash records … it was from what I learned being around those guys. I mean, the first day I got to L.A., I walk in and John Hartford and Richard Greene are sitting at the kitchen table there on Lania Lane, talking about arranging songs.

Unless I’m mistaken, Emmylou’s cover of “Pancho & Lefty” on 1977’s Luxury Liner was Townes’ first big cut as a songwriter. But by that point, she had already recorded a handful of your songs. Were you ever aware of any degree of jealousy from Townes or any of those other guys who you really looked up to and studied under, but who hadn’t yet “broken through” quite like you did so quickly?  

Well, you know, Townes couldn’t be pissed off about that, because I got Emmy to record “Pancho & Lefty,” and he knew it. But my conversations with Emmy were never really about my songs. They’d be more like, “‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ is a great song … how would it sound if you sang it?” And Guy knew that conversation was going on, because I was having the same conversations with him and he was having them with other people. Guy was talking to Mickey Raphael and telling him, “You should get Willie to record ‘Till I Gain Control Again.’” So Mickey takes that song to Willie and he starts singing it, and that was the way that all worked. A lot of people were pushing each other’s songs. So I don’t think it was competitive. Although, I could claim a lot of naivety, because I was just in a scene having fun, and you know, you step in the water, get on the boat, and you’re already down the river. But still, the discussion about songs was never about mine; it was about the song.

I know you didn’t start to really hone your songwriting craft until you started hanging with Townes and Guy, but you already had some degree of music experience before you got to Nashville — having played in bands in college and high school and all the way back to when you were playing drums in your dad’s honky-tonk band as a kid. And you came to Nashville thinking you already had a record deal for the album you’d made with Donivan Cowart. Was it with Donivan that you first started writing songs of your own?

Yeah. He and I have been running together since about 1970. I met Donivan my first day of college at Stephen F. Austin, or at least on what seems like my first day there. Somebody knew I played the guitar, and they said, “Oh, I know this other guy that plays guitar, too,” and it was Donivan. So we started playing guitar and hanging around and trying to impress girls, and eventually we accrued a few dollars from playing together and got ourselves a house off campus for $50 a month, if you can believe that. But really my first introduction to songwriting was his brother, Walter Martin Cowart, who was 10 years older than us and would occasionally pass through town. He was a truck driver, but he’d been a history major in college and listened to Dylan, and he kept a notebook that he wrote poetry and songs in. And they were pretty good songs, too. So Donivan and I started emulating him and writing our own songs. But they were really shitty songs. I didn’t write any good songs until I got to Nashville, and that took a couple of years.

The record you and Donivan made together never came out, but did any of those early songs from it ever resurface anywhere, even in revised form?

No! They’re all on an 8-track tape at my house, but if they got out they wouldn’t stand. It would be an embarrassment to anybody involved.

But you still keep in touch with Donivan?

Oh yeah. He’s my front-of-house sound guy. He was our front-of-house sound guy with Emmylou for a whole year, and also a recording engineer on Old Yellow Moon. And he’s recorded a lot with me over the years. He’s a solid guy, and he was a really good songwriter, too. I think in the beginning he was a better songwriter than me. But he drifted away from it.

After the false start with that record you made you Donivan, you eventually got your first publishing deal through Jerry Reed. How did that come about?

Well the best part of that is, before that happened, I was ready to pack it in and move back to Texas. At the time I’d been playing this happy-hour gig at a place called the Jolly Ox, and my boss there had said, “If you ever play an original song, I’m going to fire you.” I needed that job badly, but I finally broke after about the fifth day. I was just pissed off, you know, because Townes had been screwing my girlfriend behind my back. Susanna Clark (Guy’s wife) clued me in on that. So I was like, “Fuck all this, I’m going back to Texas,” and at my gig that night I played this brand new song I’d written called “You Can’t Keep Me Here in Tennessee.” And right down the aisle comes my boss saying, “I told you no originals! After your set, you’re fired!” And the guy right behind him says, “Oh, good, because we want to record that song tomorrow.” It was Jerry Reed’s manager. So the next day I went down to RCA Studio, where Chet Atkins was producing, and taught Jerry my song. After that I had a gig writing songs for $100 a week.

So I guess that kept you in Nashville for a little while longer. But you still ended up back in Texas.

Eventually I did, like at the end of ’74.

What led you to Austin?

Hippie girls! And there was KOKE radio, and just … Austin was paradise, you know? And I mean, I was actually happy in Nashville; this time I wasn’t running away like I almost had before, it was an actual choice. Emmylou had already recorded a couple of my songs for a record that hadn’t come out yet, and I knew that I had a job writing songs, and I thought, “I could do this from Texas, and it’ll be alright.”

Were you already married at the time? To your first wife and the mother of your oldest daughter?

No. I was living here with Hannah’s mother, but that was already over, really. Hannah wasn’t born yet. What happened was I left for L.A. with Emmy in early ’75 and we started the Hot Band a few months later and then went on the road for a while. And when we took a break, instead of going back to L.A. I stopped off in Austin and kind of rekindled things with Hannah’s mother. But we knew it wasn’t going to work out so I went back to L.A., and then a few months later she called me and said, “I’m pregnant and I’m going to have this baby.” And I said, “Well, come out here and I’ll be its father and help you through it.” So we got married, but it didn’t last too long, and in the end she went off and I got custody of Hannah and that was that. I was a single parent in L.A.

That must have been right around the time you started recording your first “solo” record, 1978’s Ain’t Living Long Like This. Do you have good memories of those sessions?

Oh, I’ve got great memories of making my first record. I have memories of me and Dr. John and Ry Cooder and Emmylou and Emory Gordy and Mickey Raphael and Jim Keltner doing a second take of “Elvira,” and the rough mix of that far-exceeded the final, carefully mixed version. There was some real, raw music there, and I was delighted with that experience. But I just didn’t know enough about recording yet at the time to understand what happened between the night we recorded that song and the final mix. Had I known then what I know about the process now …

I’ll take your word for it as far as all that goes, but I still think it’s a great album. It’s one of my favorite records of yours and from that whole progressive country era. But it sounds like you were already going in a completely different direction by the time your second record came out. When you were making But What Will the Neighbors Think, did you even think of yourself as a country artist?

No, I wasn’t. Not at all. I was just a songwriter trying to find a voice. You know, I think with What Will the Neighbors Think, I was certainly under this influence of … I had been to London and I had heard “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello at Dingwalls, just blasting, and Hank DeVito (songwriter and pedal-steel player) and I just looked at each other in stunned silence going, “What the fuck was that?” I mean, it was just an unbelievable sounding attack. So of course we wanted to figure out how to do that. And so that was my New Wave period. So I’d say … that’s a young man searching, you know.

Did you do a lot of touring behind that record and your other two from the first half of the ’80s, Rodney Crowell and Street Language? Was the label supportive?

Oh yeah. That was back in the days when Warner Bros would write a check for me to go out on the road with (fellow Hot Band alumni) Larry Londin and Emory Gordy and Richard Bennett and Hank DeVito and Tony Brown; they’d spend bookoos of money to put me out on the road, saying, “You’ve got a good record, let’s put you out there … We’re not worried about singles; let’s just go figure out who your audience is, and then maybe we’ll figure out which song we want on the radio.” They had a department at the record company back then called “artist development,” and man … anytime I’m meeting my colleagues coming up now who are trying to find their way, I just go, “Thank God for artist development when I came along.” Because I was an artist developing, and it got me out there and put me in place to learn some stuff.

Diamonds & Dirt would probably qualify           as “Americana” if released today, but it’s still the most “country” album you’ve ever made. Did your label finally point you in that direction?

Well, not really. I’ll tell you, I remember clearly … Steve (Earle) had made his first album, Guitar Town, and that spoke to me; I was like, “Steve is being himself.” And also, there was one other thing that happened at that time, where the notion struck me that, “Ah, I’m going to do that stuff that I grew up on; that’s a part of myself that I’m going to get in touch with.” You know, Diamonds & Dirt is … I covered “Above and Beyond” on there, which was the first song I ever sang in public, back in my dad’s band; it was one of those things where the little 11-year-old gets out from behind the drums and sings a song, that kind of cute, cornball country stuff. But that was the first song I sang in public. So the core tone of that album was country music, which is really where I came from. And I didn’t see it as commercial. But after I finished it, the promotion guy from Columbia came over and we listened to the record together, just he and I, and seeing his (very positive) response to it, I said, “Shit …” Then I started thinking, “Hmm, maybe I have something here.” And that’s when I told Rosanne, “I’m going to step on the gas here and follow this. I’m going to be on the road and I’m not going to be around as much.” Because up until then I’d been a pretty responsible parent, you know? And Rosanne said, “Hmm. I don’t know what this is going to do to our marriage,” which was pretty prophetic, because I got out on the road and I ran after that thing for about three years.

But as it turns out, I didn’t like that country scene. At that particular time, I wasn’t ready for it. But I still found myself falling into that pose, where I had my silver-tipped boots and all that stuff. It’s like, you know when you walk into a room and people look at you and they project something on you, like “That’s that guy,” and then you start carrying yourself like that guy, rather than who you are. I call it the Elvis Syndrome. And some kind of intuitive knowledge or something made me realize, “If I continue to do this and I try to create from this place, I’m going to lose it. And what I’m going to be able to create years from now is going to be diminished because the choice I’m making here is personality and stardom over artistry.” That may not have been true, but that’s certainly how I felt about it at the time.

The other day on Ray Wylie’s show, you played the title track from 1995’s Jewel of the South, introducing it as a song you were really happy with, even though it was never a hit. I thought it was nice to hear a song from that period, because the five albums you released between Diamonds & Dirt and The Houston Kid tend to get brushed aside in overviews of your career. The narrative arc of your bio implies that you sort of lost your artistic compass during the ’90s.

Yeah. I did. But I also had some responsibilities that I eventually accepted. Tony Brown signed me to MCA and they gave me a lot of money up front, and the idea was that they were going to take it back to that Diamonds & Dirt thing. But my heart wasn’t in it, even though I certainly went for the money, and so for three or four years, that really was a low point in my career for me. And then I just shut it down and drove the kids to school, single parenting again. But then I met Claudia, and my mother moved to Tennessee and she and I got close, and once I got quiet and still, that’s when the songs that eventually became The Houston Kid started to come. And all that memory that was coming up was also what prompted me to start working on Chinaberry Sidewalks. And I remember a real conscious moment where I sort of realized that, “OK, this sort quiet period that I’ve been in has come full circle.”

Right before The Houston Kid, I went and made a different record, and for some reason I took it over to Richard Dodd, the producer and engineer, and played it for him. And he said, “You know, that’s really good, Rodney — now put it on the shelf and go and make something that’s really you.” And I’d spent a lot of money on making that record, so I was pissed off, like, “Who the fuck does he think he is?” But by the time I got home, I got it, and said, “From here on out, I’m only going to do work that, if my kids want to claim their father’s legacy as a recording artist, this is going to be it.” And that’s when I started making The Houston Kid, and from there I feel like I’ve been a lot more consistent than I was from ’78 to ’98.

Right. But just like “Jewel of the South,” a lot of the songs recorded on those ’90s albums still hold their own. Let the Picture Paint Itself, which isn’t even in print anymore, had “Stuff That Works,” a great song you co-wrote with Guy Clark. On The Outsider you revisited “Say You Love Me,” another Jewel of the South song, and “Still Learning How to Fly,” the opening track on Fate’s Right Hand, was actually first recorded on 1997’s The Cicadas, the side-project record you did with your road band at the time. So with hindsight, don’t you think maybe you’ve been a little rougher on those records than they deserve?

Well, I’ve been very open about my feelings about how I didn’t really discover my voice and figure out how to use it in a way that made me appreciate it until about when I was turning 50, with TheHouston Kid. So anytime people would maybe argue about how they really liked something I did before that, I’d always go, “No, it wasn’t my performance that you liked — it was the songs that I’d written.” And maybe I was able to deliver those songs the best that I could at the time, but I’d be like, “I knew Ray Charles, I know what he did, and I need to get as close to that in my own way as I can.” So my argument was always, “I may have been a fully formed songwriter a long time ago, but the fully formed recording artist didn’t get here for me until about the year 2000.”

Although you started them around the same time and they both explore memories from your childhood, you didn’t finish your book until 10 years after The Houston Kid. So it was interesting going back to the record while reading Chinaberry Sidewalks and hearing those songs as almost like a soundtrack. But unlike the memoir, The Houston Kid isn’t really completely autobiographical. Like up to a certain point, every line in “The Rock of My Soul” rings true to your own story and your memories of your father, but then you get to the part where you sing “I got out of prison ’bout a year ago,” and it veers away from you. Why that detour out of yourself? Was there a reticence to get too personal at the time, or was it just for the sake of the song?

That was for the sake of the song. Because it went out of my first-person narrative really into the culture of where I grew up. A lot of guys from where I grew up went to Huntsville. So the narrator’s, you know … the lens pulled back, and that narration becomes the narration of East Houston, really. That was one of the songs that my mother actually heard before she died. I played it for her, and she said to me, “You know son, I don’t care about people knowing about me and your dad and what happened between us, but I don’t want people thinking that you went to prison!” And I said, “Well, Mom, if that’s where the song needs to go, that’s how … the stakes have to keep rising into something to get to the resolve.” And her eyes just kind of glazed over and she goes, “Well why don’t you just stop back there without that verse? You already told the story!” And I went, “Well, I can’t argue with that, Mom.”

Going back to Chinaberry Sidewalks, my favorite passage in the whole book is near the very end, where you’re in the hospital beside your dad on his deathbed, and you flash back on all these beautiful memories that weren’t mentioned at all before. It’s just one paragraph, almost like a coda, but for me it was like a light illuminating the whole rest of the book.

And you know, when I was sitting in the hospital with my dad during those last five days, that flashback really happened. A lot of that stuff was coming up, like how Jacinto City had a semi-pro football team for a couple of years — God knows where that came from — and Dad was 29 years old and played defensive back. He wasn’t in shape to play football, he was a construction worker, but he was out there and he was so proud of himself. And part of why I put that in there with all that other stuff came from me wanting to frame that question of how you could really idolize somebody like that and at the same time just be so mad at them.

As a reader, you do wonder that a lot of times, because the portrait you paint of your father isn’t always very flattering. And you only really get little glimpses of an answer until the very end.

Yeah. And I thought really hard about all of that less flattering stuff, because I knew the ending, and I said, “God, am I really going to go into this?” But I had already gone into it in the song “The Rock of My Soul,” so I said, “Yeah, I’m going to go into all these really despicable things my dad did, and my mother, too.” But I did it because I knew they both redeem themselves. Of course you have to get to the end of the book to get to what I was driving at. But I’m glad you mentioned that. You’re the only person who’s ever mentioned that passage with those warm memories of my dad. But I was proud of that.

You also write about how you later got to introduce your mom to Roy Acuff at the Grand Ole Opry and how meaningful that was to you both, since she and your dad first met at an Acuff dance. I take it your dad got to witness some of your success, too, didn’t he? What did he make of it?

Oh, he enjoyed it. He didn’t get to meet Roy Acuff, but the doors were swinging open more and more and more. And I know he was really proud of me. But you know, he didn’t come from … with his upbringing, it wasn’t anything that you could say; it couldn’t be like “Son, I’m proud of you.” It’d be more like … well, he’d talk about songs.

Your daughter Chelsea has now taken after both you and her mother by pursuing her own career as a performing songwriter. She’s already put out a couple of really good Americana records of her own. Did you or Rosanne ever try to talk her out of getting involved with the music business?

Oh no, I’m very supportive. When Chelsea first started doing it and she brought me her first batch of songs, I made the mistake of trying to say, “OK, that’s a really good start. Now let me tell you what you ought to do to really make a record out of this …” And she kind of flatly said, “Stay out of my business!” So she went off on her own. But now that she’s found herself, now she’ll come to me and we’ve been collaborating together. I would say Chelsea reminds me of me a lot; she actually reminds me more of myself than she reminds me of her mother. She’s certainly as smart as her mother, but … Chelsea’s development is going to play out in its own time. And I feel good for her about that, because knowing how it was for me, I think her best work is really out in front of her.

You said at the start that you’ve got enough songs ready for another album, and that you’ll probably do another record with Emmylou soon, too. But you also said something about wanting to figure out how to really play the blues. Did you really mean that?

Oh yeah! That’s been my musical study over the last couple of years. I’m not much into what you’d call sports-bar blues, but I’m really drawn to the acoustic kind of country blues. I always loved Lightnin’ Hopkins, but also, you know, Son House, Blind Blake, Mance Lipscomb, R.L. Burnside’s acoustic stuff … and Howlin’ Wolf really comes down that way, too . I’ve really thrown myself into observing all those guys. But the thing is, I’ve been inspired by a lot of different artists over the years: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, the Beatles, certainly Elvis Costello in 1977. And whenever someone inspires like that, the job of that inspiration is not to try and do what they do, but try to find in yourself the thing that inspired you and create your own version of it. So I’ve been learning how to focus in on the blues as I understand them, coming from inside of me, and I’ve got to say, I’ve really been enjoying it. And my intention is, I’m going to try my best to create something that will stand as my version of what we might call country blues. You’ve always got to be careful about talking about what you’re going to do in the future, but I’m committed to this.

Did you ever get to see Lightnin’ Hopkins in Houston, back in the day?

Oh yeah, yeah. I saw Lightnin’ Hopkins four or five times back in Houston. He came to Lee College one time when I was going there, he and Alan Lomax. Alan stood up and clapped his hands and sang old songs that he’d collected, and Lightnin’ would sit in a chair and play the blues. And I remember thinking, “I don’t know about that other guy, but I like the guy sitting in the chair playing that shit!”

Last thing here: Do you have another book in you?

Yeah. I started out thinking that I had to know the end, which is the luxury I had with Chinaberry — I knew the end, so I knew how to make the arc. But this time around, it sure seems like what I have in mind about writing, I don’t have the end to it yet. So I may learn something, or I will learn something, about how to create the arc of the narrative without knowing what that end is ahead of time.

Chinaberry Sidewalks was as much about your parents as it was about you, and really only covered your childhood years in detail. Would this one delve more into your life in music?

It would be from memory again, so it would be memoir. But although I’ve had all these years in the music business, I really don’t want to write about my career. What I can write about, though, are some really interesting people and my inter-relationship with them. I think I can make that the story, rather than, you know, “And then I wrote …” I’ll never do that.

 

 

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Rhett Miller of Old 97’s (from LoneStarMusic Magazine, May/June 2014)

Q&A: Rhett Miller

The Old 97’s frontman on the secrets to surviving 20 years together in a rock ’n’ roll band, the joy of dropping F-bombs, keeping up with Tommy Stinson, and not meeting Axl Rose.

By Richard Skanse

“We’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive …”

So begins the first song on the Old 97’s 10th studio album, Most Messed Up, and if you’re not a fan of songs that shamelessly get self-referential — let alone veteran rock ’n’ roll bands that refuse to quietly move aside after 20 good years to respectfully make room for new kids half their age, well … step off the tracks. True to its name, Most Messed Up crashes through the door three sheets to the wind and dead-set on finding not just a hook-up or punch-up but a dozen rounds of each. The four 97’s (singer/guitarist Rhett Miller, bassist/singer Murry Hammond, lead guitarist Ken Bethea, and drummer Phillip Peeples) may all be a lot older than they were when they first rolled out of Dallas with their 1994 debut, Hitchhike to Rhome, but not even their salad days as Bloodshot Records-certified, major-label-bidding-war-provoking insurgent country upstarts found them ever sounding quite this full-tilt and go-for-broke on record. It’s the sound, Miller admits, of a band that still very much has something to prove.

“I’ve always been grateful in a way that there was no massive success that came along, because the hunger that propelled me when I was 15 years old and doing my first gig has never gone away,” says Miller, calling from his home in New York’s Hudson Valley a day before reconvening with the rest of the band to kick off a four-month tour. “You’re always trying to prove it to somebody, whoever that is — like the cool kids, or when I was young, the girls — and I’ve always felt that and I’ve always liked that. I like the drive and the ambition. And yes, I always want to be better and be the best songwriter that I can be, and I want people to recognize that, too. I know that there’s something gross about saying it, but there’s a reason I get up onstage and try so fucking hard every night, and that’s that I want them to get it.

“I don’t want to spend my life apologizing for, you know, trying to be a kick-ass rock ’n’ roller,” he continues. “Because I think there’s something noble about spending your life in pursuit of that, and I’m proud of it.”

Doubtless the rest of Old 97’s would concur, and the performances on Most Messed Up certainly back that up. But it’s part of Miller’s job to talk the talk, and he’s acquitted himself so well in his role as frontman, principal songwriter and band spokesperson that the rest of the group has long since come to terms with his occasional need to pop out for a solo album every now and then. He’s a trooper, too: At this year’s South By Southwest Music Conference and Festival, Miller trekked down to Austin for a week’s worth of Old 97’s promo work all by his lonesome. When we catch up with him a week later, he’s still recovering — but nevertheless ready to hit the road again in 24-hours and get back to the business of walking the walk.

 

You were just back in Texas for SXSW, but you were the only Old 97 here all week. How many frontman-get-out-of-jail cards did you earn by handling all of the band’s SXSW promotional duties yourself this year?

[Laughs] Man … my manager just called me to thank me again for all the hard work or whatever. But I like to work. So if I have to go down there and leave the family, I’m fine with working my ass off. But boy, it kicked my ass this year. I had like seven gigs in 48 hours, and then the panel I did and two interviews and two photo shoots … it was really a lot. And when I got back I was sick for 48 hours, just with a cold and from being run down. So I had to sleep for like 15 hours just to recover. But that’s fine. Like I said, I love to work.

You were born in Austin and grew up in Dallas, but home for you now is in upstate New York. How did you end up there?

My wife and I were in L.A. when we figured out we were going to have a kid, and we just couldn’t really justify staying there because we couldn’t afford anything we would have wanted. And we ended up really loving it here. We live outside of a little college town 90 minutes north of Manhattan, and it’s unexpectedly a beautiful place to live. Although I do miss Texas.

You’re a long way from the rest of the Old 97’s, who are kind of scattered over the rest of the country: Ken and Phillip are still in Dallas, but Murry lives out in California, right?

Yeah, Murry lives in Pasadena, and Ken and Phillip are in Lake Highland.

Do you think the fact that you all live so far apart has actually been a factor in why they Old 97’s have stayed together for so long? Would the band still be together if you all lived in the same town all this time?

[Laughs] No, I think you have a good point. I think when we come together, we’re really together, and when we’re apart … we don’t need to be together. I think there’s something nice to that. It takes some of the pressure off. It’s like when I do a solo record and I tour behind it a lot and I really get to where I miss the guys and I’m so happy to get to come back and make a record with them. And then by the time we’ve made an Old 97’s record and toured the record and done all the work for that, I’m really ready to go back to the solo stuff for a little bit. So yeah, I think your point is a good one — absence makes the heart grow fonder.

When you’re in the middle of making a solo record — obviously you’re not all by yourself, but do you ever consciously miss the guys? Like, “Hey Murry, listen to this! Oh, wait …”

Like the phantom pains kind of a thing? Yeah. You know, there’s a thing that happens that’s kind of like that. After finishing the Old 97’s record at the beginning of the year I went straight to Portland to start work on a solo record with Chris Funk and his band, Black Prairie, which is most of the Decemberists plus a couple of other players. And there were some contentious moments at the end of the 97’s record, like there is in any democracy — there was some back and forth that was really heated. And so I got to this session in Portland with these other guys, and it was just so easy going because we didn’t have all the baggage that 20 years of history can sometimes bring — and because I got to be the boss. There were a few moments where I thought to myself, “Oh, I want to do this … I wonder how I’m going to convince them?” And then I thought, “Oh yeah, I don’t have to convince anybody of anything, I just have to ask them nicely and then they do it!” So not to say it’s better or worse, but it is different. But the 97’s wouldn’t have a 20-year catalog that’s as loved as it apparently is if it wasn’t for that push and pull dynamic that makes us what we are.

Speaking of that push and pull, have there been times over the course of the band’s history when the 97’s really did feel up against the ropes or about to implode? Have you ever come that close to calling it a day?

I’m such an optimist that I’ve never given into the fear or awareness of any proximity to an implosion. But in retrospect, I know that there were times, like in the early days of the band — like there is in any band — where you’re wondering if this thing was going to work. And then you look at your friends who have jobs and who are making actual money and have some security. So I would bet that there were a few moments where we could have easily given up. But at the same time, things really kept moving; we did the Dallas record, then we did the Bloodshot record, and we went straight from that to the bidding war with all the labels trying to give us as much money as possible to get us to sign with them. And from that straight to, you know, we had a pretty glorious three-year run on Elektra where they were spending a ton of money to get people to know about our band, which was fantastic — although in retrospect I can see how that business model failed. You don’t need $300,000 to make a record — come on! But all of those years moved pretty quickly, and there wasn’t a lot of time for second-guessing. And there wasn’t a lot to be unhappy about. We were quickly moving into the position of being basically as successful as the level of bands that we had all looked up to and emulated, like X and the Pixies. Maybe we never played arenas like the Clash did, but you know, they were opening for the Rolling Stones, so whatever. We kind of pretty quickly got to the point that we had all wanted to be at.

After that, the next time that kind of offered a lot of opportunity for disaster was when Elektra was folding, and I had decided to make a solo record. That had nothing to do with me wanting to become a famous pop star, which of course I got accused of a lot at the time; it was really just that I had all these songs that the band didn’t like, and it was making me fucking crazy that I couldn’t release them anywhere. I didn’t see it as being an either/or; I thought, I can do this and that, and the fans will hear the record and realize, “Oh yeah, these aren’t Old 97’s songs, this makes sense.” And honestly, I think that’s how it’s worked it out. But there was a time when I was making The Instigator and all the changes were happening when I think we could have stopped being a band. I think there was some fear and bad feelings going around. But in the end we just came together and said, “If we can get over this, we can be a band for fucking ever. We can be 70 years old and still be doing this and people will still be wanting to hear us, if we do it right.” And fortunately I think we did it right.

The Old 97’s album Drag It Up came out right after The Instigator. Was that the band’s therapy record?

Yeah, Drag It Up was where we really sort of worked through those growing pains. And I can still hear all of that when I listen to it. There are some fun moments on that record — I’m really proud of “Won’t Be Home No More,” and I think “The New Kid” had some elements of triumph about it — but that’s a tough record. It was a tough record to make, and sometimes it’s a tough record to listen to. But I’m glad we made it; you know, you’ve gotta make it to go onto the next one.

I think that “next one,” 2008’s Blame It On Gravity, really did convey a much more positive head space for the band as a whole, and a couple years after that y’all had so much new material to work with that The Grand Theatre ended up being two albums (Volume I in 2010 and Volume II in 2011). But to my ears, Most Messed Up sounds like the most assertive and energetic record you’ve ever made. And it’s also probably the most reckless sounding — like the Old 97’s on a bender. What sparked that attitude about it?

That’s a good question. I’m not positive I have a full answer for it. You know, in terms of the songs, the song “Nashville” is the one that kind of opened the floodgates with these themes. And that was a fluke. I’d gotten put together with this old songwriter in Nashville, John McElroy, and he said, “I think your audience would like it if you walked out onstage and said ‘fuck.’” And we got wasted at 10 a.m. at his house in Nashville and wrote this song in two hours. And it’s funny because out of all the songs on the record it’s got the most narrative voice; it’s the most removed, kind of like a short story. But it really opened me up to the idea that I don’t have to be subtle or hide behind anything, that I can just walk out onstage and go, “Fuck it, I’m going to be honest — all the stuff that I only alluded to on all the other records, I’m going to just fucking stand up and sing it; I don’t have to be embarrassed. This is real life, we’re all grownups here.” And that was really liberating, knowing that I can be as fucked-up as I want and that I don’t have to pretend to be great, and if the songs are raw and I let myself go there, then it’s probably going to be better than if I try to do something fancy and hide behind something else.

That said, though, it doesn’t mean that all the songs are straight-up autobiography. I’m probably a little bit better off than the guy on that album. But it’s definitely me.

So it’s not necessarily a personal mid-life crisis being worked out there.

Well, a little bit. I mean, everybody I know is going through the shit; it’s part of being in your early 40s and realizing that the sweet bird of youth has not only taken off, but flown away to somebody else.

I think my favorite line on the record is “I’m not crazy about songs that get self-referential,” from “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” — a song that is unabashedly as self-referential as any you’ve ever written. But I also always loved “The One” from Blame It On Gravity. I just think it’s fun when you kind of name-check the other guys in the band.

[Laughs] Yeah, or when my friend Robert will end up in songs. The reason I think I wrote that line is because I heard an echo of my friend Jon Brion’s voice, who produced The Instigator for me, and who’s somebody I really admire as a songwriter and as a producer and as a person. When we were making The Instigator, I had a song called “This Is What I Do,” and it was pretty self referential, too. I actually named girlfriends from my past by name. And Jon said, “I like this song, but in general, I really don’t like songs that are self referential. I think it sort of kills some of the potential for universality of a song if you make it specific about yourself.” And I’ve always worried about that a little, and it’s kind of nagged me as I’ve written songs in the 12 years since then. But part of this record, and that song in particular, was, fuck it — there’s no rules. And if I want to sing about being in a rock band for the last 20 years, I’m going to sing about it, and I’m going to tell the truth. So when we play that song live now, I’ll sing that line, “I’m not crazy about songs that get self-referential,” and then I’ll say, “Too late!”

One of my other favorite songs on the album is “Intervention,” which features a guest appearance by Tommy Stinson of the Replacements (and more recently, Guns n’ Roses). How did that come about?

Tommy was there for the basic tracking of the final two songs on the record, which were “Intervention” and “Most Messed Up.” And then he plays additional guitar on three other songs, too. But one of the most fun things he did was … Tommy’s not the world’s greatest singer, per se, but there’s a lot of fun background vocals and yelling that he does, especially on “Intervention.” We were trying to do some banter at the end of the song where the guy who’s going through the intervention would say, like, “Give me back my beer!” or, “I’m not that bad, I can stop any time,” that kind of thing. And at the very end of the song, Tommy says something that I don’t even know what the fuck he’s even talking about, I think maybe it’s a drug dealer reference or something, but he says, “You got … you got Huggy Bear’s wallet phone number?”[Laughs]

It’s so perfect. And his voice is so distinctive. I like Tommy a lot. He actually had a lot to do, I think, with this record being all sloppy and raw and as unapologetically rock ’n’ roll as it is.

How long have you known him?

 Tommy and I did a charity event in Philadelphia about five or six years ago, and we stayed in touch. We just hit it off. We stayed up all night long that night, and I actually bragged about it for a couple of years that I had to carry him and his wife at the time to their hotel room and pour them into their bed — that I’d matched him shot for shot and whatever. And then sure enough, when he came to Dallas when we were doing pre-production for this record, I stayed up thinking that I could match him again, and wound up falling down and breaking my elbow in the hotel room afterwards. So, thanks a lot Tommy! But I guess the moral of the story is, no matter what you think, you can never out-drink Tommy Stinson. So don’t even try.

I think it’s a trip that he’s been in Guns n’ Roses now for almost as long as Slash ever was.

Well he’s been in Guns n’ Roses longer than he was in the ‘Mats! Which is crazy.

You did another interview recently where you talked about Tommy inviting you out to catch a GNR show in Dallas and hang out with the band afterwards. Did you actually meet Axl Rose?

I saw Axl through an open dressing room door, and he was wearing a mumu and getting a foot rub from a small Asian woman. But I was not invited to meet him.

I’m actually an Axl defender and a still a big GNR fan, but that image of him sounds about right.

[Laughs] Yeah. It was a pretty good show, though. If you’ve seen them play recently, you’ve probably noticed that he has other people sing a bunch of songs, which gets a little old. But it was a pretty good show anyway.

I’ve noticed that on past records, the one or two songs that Murry sings and writes kind of stand out from yours, style wise — almost like interludes. But his song “The Ex of All You See” on Most Messed Up seems very much in the same vein as your songs on the record. Did he write it to match the mood or did it just happen to fit?

Murry brought a handful of really beautiful songs to the table, and if we had made a different record, I could imagine at least two or three Murry songs on the record. But when this record was sort of taking shape, he came to us and said, “Look, this record is so tight, and so conceptual in a way, that I don’t really see a bunch of my songs fitting on it. I just see this one song that would really make it rock.” Because he hasn’t had just one song on a record I don’t think since maybe our very first record. But that was his choice; he just really wanted this record to be what it is, a really tight, sort of high-concept thing, and he didn’t want to take it away so we would have to bring it back … I think he just wanted to maximize the punch of the message of the other songs on the record. Which is a testament again to how long we’ve been together and how the egos have kind of all mellowed a little. We’re like a little army, man, roaming around the country.

Were the sessions for Most Messed Up radically different from the ones for The Grand Theatre?

They were not radically different, because we were in the same studio withthe same producer (Salim Nourallah), and we did kind of the same thing, where we did some pre-production to work out the songs so that we could go in and cut them basically live off the floor. But we did it moreso than we did onThe Grand Theatre. On The Grand Theatre, we really left a lot of room for tons of overdubs, and I ended up having to re-sing a bunch of stuff. On this record, most of what you hear was cut live as we recorded to tape. Almost every single line of mine, and a lot of Ken’s guitar, too, and the whole rhythm section. And the imperfections are one of my favorite things about the record. I’m so sickened by the way music’s become this really clean, perfect sounding thing. Where’s the humanity in that? I’m sort of afraid for the future of music, because kids are going to listen to it and go, “ugh, why would I want to be part of something that a machine can do? Why would I devote my life to it?”

Looking back at The Grand Theatre — not to nitpick, but I was always disappointed that you didn’t just release all the songs from those sessions as a big “screw-it” double album, all at once, instead of in two installments. Was that ever the plan?

Yeah. Well, I wanted it to be a double album. I wanted it to be the whole big, commercial disaster, but New West Records apparently was trying to make money. Which is fine — I can’t begrudge them that. And in the end, it was good that we spread it out, because with The Grand Theatre Volume Two, some new songs came in and the songs that we had got a lot better. So it wouldn’t have been as fully realized if we had done it all at once. But yeah, I for sure wanted to do the double album.

You mentioned New West. You’re now with ATO, which I believe is the Old 97’s fifth label. Is there always a period of playing catch-up when you sign with a new label, just to bring everyone there up to speed? Does it feel like starting over?

I would say that so far it’s been easy and good. I don’t know if it’s more work for our manager … it probably is, but that’s good — they should earn their money! But I never had to do it so much. The Elektra to New West switch was really easy and painless, and we had some good years with them, and I still have some good friends at that label and there were no hard feelings at all. They were great. But it did make sense to switch for us, and I don’t think we could have picked a better label than ATO, with the way it skews toward youthful and rocking. We’re not ready to be an old-timey band. We’re not ready to make easy going, back porch, toe-tapping alt-country. In a way, I don’t know if it would be better for our career if we were; maybe oldsters are a better market for us to try and plumb. But, whatever. I love the roster ATO’s got, I love the people at the label, and it feels like such a perfect fit for us.

So I know you’re not looking to call it quits anytime soon, but this being the band’s 20th anniversary, is there any one moment in the Old 97’s history that stands out as a personal favorite?

Gosh. It’s funny, but I think my lack of nostalgia has probably helped in my career. I mean, it’s such a lame answer to say that it’s always the new record that’s the thing that I’m most excited about. But in the case of this record, I’m more excited even than usual. When we got back the masters for this record and I realized how successful we had been in translating these songs into this sort of statement of purpose, and how unlikely it is, for a band without massive success, to be able to do it for this long … that’s a huge feeling of accomplishment. And I take a great deal of pride in what we do. And then lately there’s been some moments of validation, critically and from my peers, and I feel good about right now, and I feel good about the future. For the last, I’d say five or 10 years, I’ve been really aware of the long game in a way that I hadn’t been before. I know that I would like to be the kind of songwriter that, you know, like right now, I want the 20 year olds to look up to and go, “I want to do that, I want to be able to do this for 20 years and still make good records.” And I look at Willie Nelson or Kris Kristofferson, and I think, I want to be that: I want to be that guy that people look up to when I’m an elder statesman and say, “He did it right.”

That kind of sounds an awful lot like Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar speech.

[Laughs] Yeah — I’m chasing myself! But I do feel pretty good about things right now. Knock wood … I’m about to be on tour for four straight months, so we’ll see how I feel after that.

 

 

 

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Kerrville Folk Festival & Rod Kennedy (from LoneStarMusic Magazine, May/June 2010)

City of Song

For 39 years (and counting), the Kerrville Folk Festival has drawn music lovers from all walks of life deep into the heart of the Texas Hill Country. Some come as legends or to launch their careers; others, just to escape the real world, if only for a week or three. But nobody leaves untouched by song — and without a profound understanding of the words “Welcome Home.”

By Richard Skanse

In the before and after, Quiet Valley Ranch can be a little too quiet. Come late morning or mid afternoon or early evening or whatever time of day it is on Monday, June 14, when the very last campsite is struck and the last of many, many hugs is finally exchanged, the 39th annual Kerrville Folk Festival will be over and the ranch will once again feel as empty and forlorn as it does on this rainy Wednesday afternoon in April. While waiting for a photographer to set up her equipment for a photo shoot, festival founder Rod Kennedy sits alone in the middle of the main stage and looks out over the empty outdoor theater that bears his name, his brow furrowed in agitation.

It has nothing to do with the coming deluge, though heaven knows Kennedy’s seen more than his fair share of those over the years. Nor does the ex-Marine, who turned 80 in January, seem all that bothered by any particular physical discomfort, even though it’s been only five weeks since he underwent knee-replacement surgery. He’s not out running sprints in the rain, but in 24 hours he’ll be hopping on a plane with his girlfriend, retired nurse Carolyn Pillow, for two weeks of vacation in Florida and the Cayman Islands, followed by another week of fun and sun in Maui in early May. (“I’ve worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for about 30 years,” he explains with a shrug, “so …”) Kennedy doesn’t even seem to mind having to spend the day before his trip doing a photo shoot and conducting a lengthy interview; he’s patient and gracious, quick to flash a twinkling smile for the camera and a seasoned pro at recounting his eventful life story and the history of all things Kerrville in encyclopedic detail.

Oh, but that bank of lights laying haphazardly at the foot of the stage — left there, he guesses with a disapproving sigh, since last year? You can tell that’s driving Kennedy flat-out nuts. Ditto all the mounds of rolled up old carpet and other unsightly detritus onstage, not to mention that pile of tree limbs just laying out there in the field to the right of the theater benches, or the number of those benches that could use a fresh coat of Kerrville sea-foam-green paint, or the leak backstage, or this or that and 100 other things he probably can’t help but notice as part of the “what’s-wrong-with-this-picture” drill running through his brain. For more than half of his life, “Kennedy” was only his middle name — as in Rod Kennedy Presents — and eight years of retirement hasn’t entirely quelled his producer’s instincts. And so he frets and sighs and tsk-tsks over all that still has to be done before opening weekend in late May — even though he knows full well that his ultra-competent successor, Dalis Allen, and the rest of the festival staff and volunteers will have everything in order just in time to welcome the first wave of returning Kerrverts back “home.”

“We’re ready for you, Rod,” calls Allen, standing in the wings with Pillow next to Kennedy’s captain’s chair, from which he’s watched countless performances over the years. He stands and hobbles over to them with his cane, smiling for the camera as Allen plants a kiss on his cheek.

“Somebody’s always kissing on you,” Pillow teases. “I don’t remember what event we were at the other day, but everybody was kissing him on the mouth. Where were we?” Kennedy, boyish grin brighter than the camera flash, answers back, “Who cares?”

Everyone laughs, and just like that — chaotic appearances aside — all is exactly as it should be on Quiet Valley Ranch. Because although the music and crowds and all-night campfire song circles are still a month and a half away, the first magic little moment of the 29th annual Kerrville Folk Festival is already in the books. And come 7 p.m. on May 27, when Allen takes this very same stage to greet the crowd and introduce the first act of the year (singer-songwriter Ana Egge), the City of Song will be in full bloom again.

FOR THE SAKE OF THE SONGS

Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Kerrville Folk Festival — a landmark that will most certainly (and deservedly) be recognized with much fanfare not only by artists, fans and staff at the festival itself, but by media outlets across Texas and probably far beyond. After all, although plenty of artists have enjoyed careers that long or longer, only a handful of other music festivals the world over have ever made it to or beyond the big 4-0. Sure, a little Google detective work will turn up things like the 62-year-old Ozark Folk Festival in Eureka Springs, Ark., not to mention the 53-year-old Monterrey Jazz Festival and maybe even the Library-of-Congress-certified “oldest music festival in the country,” the 152-year-old Worcester Music Festival in Massachusetts, though that last one is really more of a seasonal fine-arts series than a true festival. But when you narrow the search down to continuously running, multi-day music festivals dedicated to showcasing original music, Kerrville’s closest antecedent on U.S. soil is the Philadelphia Folk Festival, founded in 1962. (The famous Newport Folk Festival, which helped launch the careers of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, dates back to ’59, but was dormant from 1971-1985).

Granted, the big anniversary is still a year away. But given that Kennedy, without whom there wouldn’t even be a Kerrville Folk Festival, had a landmark birthday of his own earlier this year, we figured we’d split the difference and get an early jump on the celebration. Allen, who’s produced the festival since Kennedy’s retirement in 2002, can relate.

“I’m already scheduling people for 2011,” she says in early April, while still literally up to her ears in prep work for this year’s festival — which, frankly, might be hard to top. The first weekend alone features not only Kerrville mainstays like Jimmy LaFave, Terri Hendrix, Eric Taylor, Brave Combo and Sara Hickman, but major-label Texas country star Randy Rogers and 2010 festival brochure cover gals the Indigo Girls — arguably the festival’s biggest nationally known headliner in years.

All together, the Kerrville Folk Festival and its shorter kid sister, the Kerrville Wine & Music Festival (held in the fall), constitute 21 days of programming — but putting all the pieces together is a full-time, year-round job. The evidence of this is, literally, all over Allen’s office. Her own little corner of the tiny festival office building on the ranch looks like the “before” picture in a before-and-after study on workspace makeovers, so stuffed with papers, folders, notebooks, posters and music that you suspect the adding of one more business card or CD to the pile would be hazardous to everyone in the immediate area. In addition to booking the festival, which among other myriad logistical details entails making travel and hotel arrangements for every songwriter and band and crew member, Allen is also in charge of managing all of the submissions for the Kerrville New Folk Competition for Emerging Songwriters. “We had close to 700 entries this year — that’s 700 artists with two songs each,” she says. “I listen to all of them, and then we have an online system where 30 to 40 other people have about a month to listen to them. At the end of the deadline, I take all of their scores and my scores, and from there we end up with the final 32. I spent all day yesterday and all day Friday listening to submissions, and I still have a couple hundred to go.”

Songwriters who make it to the “final 32” will get a chance to perform at Kerrville’s famous New Folk Concerts, held the first weekend of the festival at Quiet Valley’s second stage, the Kenneth Threadgill Theater. After that, it will be up to this year’s judges, songwriters Susan Gibson, Tom Prasada-Rao and Ronny Cox, to select the “winners”: six new names to join the ranks of such past New Folk champions as Tom Russell, Vince Bell, Eric Taylor, Tish Hinojosa, Robert Earl Keen, James McMurtry, Slaid Cleaves, Ray Bonneville and BettySoo. Meanwhile, the remaining 26 contestants who “tie for second place” can forever commiserate with fellow New Folk finalists like Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and Jimmy LaFave.

Add to that distinguished list of New Folk alumni even a smattering of the hundreds of other notables who’ve played the festival over the last four decades — including Mance Lipscomb, Willie Nelson, the Flatlanders, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Kevin Welch, Iris DeMent, Terry Allen, Janis Ian, Jimmy Driftwood, Eliza Gilkyson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steven Fromholz, Billy Joe Shaver and even Peter, Paul and Mary — and you’re still only scratching the surface of what the Kerrville Folk Festival is all about. Because no matter how famed and acclaimed many of the artists on the “main stage” lineup may be, people come to Kerrville year after year first and foremost to hear and share songs, not to see the biggest names in music (“folk” or otherwise). The only stargazing at Kerrville is done out on the sprawling campgrounds after dark, when anyone with a guitar can find themselves swapping songs with … well, it really doesn’t matter if its Butch Hancock, Gary P. Nunn or some dude who works for the phone company back in the “real world.” Because here in the Never Neverland of Quiet Valley Ranch, for three decidedly unquiet weeks every May and June, they’re all equals — if not practically family. Some may be better pickers, singers and far better writers than others, but anyone with an original song to share and a modicum of patience will get their turn and an attentive audience.

And there’s even more opportunities come daylight. Although the main stage performances don’t begin until early sundown, throughout all 18 days of the festival, songwriters by trade and hobby alike gather around the “Ballad Tree” and at Steve Gillette’s (of “Darcy Farrow” fame) “Texas & Tennessee” daily song circle/critique sessions. There are also staff concerts, children’s concerts, and even various music seminars, workshops, and a three-day, registration-required Songwriters School.

“I think from the beginning, Rod wanted to create an atmosphere where people could exchange ideas and work on the quality of their songwriting,” says Gillette. “And that’s what makes the festival so attractive to me. Because every year until I’m 90 years old, I can still live and grow as a writer, and going to Kerrville is like going to the well.”

Guy Forsyth, one of the many performers on this year’s lineup who will almost certainly find his way out to the campgrounds at least once during the festival, concurs.

“There is nowhere I imagine you could go that has more songwriters per capita, per square mile, in the whole world than the Kerrville Folk Festival,” he marvels. “If you’re interested in learning how to be a songwriter, you could go and camp at Kerrville for two weeks, and even if you never saw a single show on the main stage, but just wandered around from campsite to campsite with your ears and a guitar, you would probably learn more about songwriting than you would by getting a college degree in it.”

But even though Quiet Valley Ranch may be as overrun with songwriters (professional or otherwise) during the festival as the Hill Country roads are with deer after dark, there’s no entrance exam or audition to get in. Because along with drums and stereos in the campground, exclusion and elitism are strictly frowned upon here, which means that that “Welcome Home” sign at the front entrance applies to seasoned Kerrverts and first-time Kerrvirgins alike, and you certainly don’t have to be a songwriter to feel welcome here and enjoy the festival to its fullest. And whatever stereotype-based misconceptions you might harbor about folk festivals and folk music and the folks that make and/or love it, you don’t have to be a Birkenstocks-wearing, tie-dye-sporting, hybrid-driving, protest-marching, hippie-dippy left-wing vegetarian tree-hugger, either. Heck, so long as you come with music in your heart, you can even be Republican.

Just ask the guy who started it all.

 

SEMPER FIDELIS

As legacies go, one could do a lot worse than “only” leaving behind an institution that’s meant so much to so many people as the Kerrville Folk Festival. And though he shows no signs of being in any hurry to leave just yet, when it comes time for Rod Kennedy to move on up to that big campfire song circle in the sky, his name will forever be associated, first and foremost, with what is unquestionably his greatest production. But the Kennedy that organized the very first Kerrville Folk Festival back in 1972 was no whippersnapper wunderkind fresh out of college. He was 41 years old, and you could easily fill a book just by chronicling the very eventful first four decades of his life … or at least the first seven chapters of his 379-page memoir, Music From the Heart, published in 1998.

“You can skip all of this stuff,” Kennedy offers as he flips through the tome at the dining room table in the house he shares with Pillow in a Kerrville subdivision. “You oughta start with the Chequered Flag, which is what led to me doing festivals.”

But no, it turns out that Kennedy had already produced a successful festival or two even before he opened Austin’s first (and last) racecar-themed folk music club (“Folk songs and fast cars!” was the slogan) in 1965. In 1964, he debuted his KHFI-FM Summer Music Festival, featuring six nights of free concerts at Austin’s Zilker Hillside Theater. It may have been tiny compared to today’s massive Austin City Limits Music Festival, held in the same park, but 15,518 fans, glowing reviews and an eclectic lineup including everything from Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins to Chuck Reiley’s Alamo City Jazz Band to classical music (string quartet and full orchestra) was nothing to slouch at. Clearly, Kennedy was a natural when it came to organizing and staging music events on large scale. He also knew a thing or two about owning and operating radio and TV stations, racing (and collecting) “midget” Italian race cars and even carrying a tune; as a teenager in the ’40s in his native Buffalo, he played the cotillion and private party circuit as the “boy singer” for the Bill Creighton Orchestra.

Kennedy would later draw on all of those experiences (save, perhaps, for the racing stuff) during his Kerrville era. But more than any other chapter from the first half of his life, it was his three years of combat duty as a Marine during the Korean War that had the most profound and life-changing impact on him. “War was the loudest, most disorienting experience I’ve ever known,” he wrote in his book. “The noise, death and destruction, pain and tragedy were close to unbelievable. And, when it was all over, no ground had been taken or given. … We heard on our way home, after a year had passed, that out of an original battalion of 1,050, only 200 came home …”

“I didn’t know why I didn’t get killed along with over half of my battalion,” he says today. “But I knew I was going to have to pay back, somehow.”

Under the banner “Rod Kennedy Presents,” he began producing all manner of theater shows, concerts and outdoor festivals in and around the Austin area. Classical, big band and jazz music were his first loves, but he also developed a strong affinity for blues, bluegrass and traditional and contemporary folk music. Somewhere along the line, he became friends with Texas folk singers Carolyn Hester and Allen Damron (who was also one of his business partners in the Chequered Flag), and with Geroge Wein, founder of the Newport Folk Festival. It was Wein who first connected Kennedy with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, when the folk icon needed a road manager for a few Texas dates on his first solo tour. They bonded straight away over their shared love of music and songwriters, even though, politically, they made for as odd a couple as Mary Matalin and James Carville.

“I thought he was a left-wing bomb thrower at the time that he was doing all the stuff that Peter Paul and Mary did,” Kennedy admits. And though it may have been one of his other folk singer friends, Tom Paxton, who called Kennedy “a God-damned Republican,” the thought probably crossed Yarrow’s mind a time or two, too.

“I found him to be personally very self-contradictory,” Yarrow says of his initial take on Kennedy. “He was, on one hand, very open and warm and authentic. And then he would lapse into his post-Marine perspective, and be a really blotto, biased kind of guy who was very rigid about his evaluation of certain things. He was fiercely judgmental in the military way he viewed behaviors or activities that he considered to be ‘un-American.’ But that was overwritten by his decency as a human being, because his heart and his humanity was always very much there and very special, and his respect for musicians was phenomenal.”

Kennedy had recently been asked by the Texas Commission on the Arts and Humanities to put together “some kind of Texas music” event to unofficially coincide with the new Texas State Arts and Crafts Fair to be held in Kerrville. The concert had to be produced by the private sector so as not to conflict with the state-funded Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio. Kennedy was game, and the first Kerrville Folk Festival was set for June 1-3, 1972 at the Kerrville Municipal Auditorium. Performers would include Damron, Hester, Lipscomb, Steve Fromholz, Michael (Martin) Murphey, Kenneth Threadgill and a band called Texas Fever featuring one Ray Wylie Hubbard. Yarrow wanted in on the fun from the start. In addition to offering to play the festival himself, he also sold Kennedy on the idea of adding a showcase for new songwriters modeled after the New Folks Concerts he’d been in charge of at the Newport Folk Festival during the ’60s. The “s” was dropped and New Folk was born. Although no winners were officially announced at that first year’s “competition,” which unlike the rest of the festival was held outdoors during the day, Yarrow and Kennedy did hand-pick one act to come inside for a main stage showcase: a scruffy band of Lubbock guys (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely) who called themselves the Flatlanders.

“It was all kind of mind boggling,” recalls Gilmore. “I remember this entourage of Secret Service guys came by, and it turned out Lyndon Johnson was there.”

“I remember looking down on him in the front row, and he had shoulder-length hair,” adds Ely. “He looked like an old hippie. I kept thinking it was my old uncle J.B. from Petersburg.”

The festival’s maiden voyage was deemed successful enough to warrant a sequel, so Kennedy booked the auditorium again for the following May. Damron, Hester, Yarrow, Fromholz, Murphey and Threadgill were all back for encore performances, along with B.W. Stevenson, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson. Even with the music now spread out over five days, it was clear the festival would need to find a bigger home if it was to continue. By year’s end, Kennedy and his wife, Nancylee, had sold their house in Austin and moved onto their newly purchased, 63-acre spread nine miles south of town. They had to work around the clock for months to get it ready in time for the third annual Kerrville Folk Festival (May 23-27, 1974). They pulled it off, though the campgrounds weren’t opened to the public until Kennedy’s next major production, that fall’s Kerrville Bluegrass and Country Music Festival (a Labor Day weekend tradition for 19 years before Kennedy became a wine connoisseur and it evolved into the Wine & Music Festival, aka “Little Folk”).

Although it would be several years before it grew into a three-weekend affair, the spirit of the Kerrville Folk Festival as it is known and loved today was already very much in place by the mid-70s. The campfire culture was in full swing, the main stage lineups were consistently solid and the New Folk competition was fast becoming a benchmark for success in a field of music in which earning the respect of discerning fans and one’s peers was deemed more important than mainstream airplay or record sales. Behind the scenes, though, Kennedy often found himself hanging on by the skin of his teeth, as year after year of pounding rains kept the festival in the red. As he put it bluntly in his book, “We were actually flying on unfunded optimism.”

The Kerrville Folk Festival is now run under the umbrella of the Texas Folk Music Foundation, a non-profit 501c. Yarrow frankly opines that the festival should have been a 501c years ago, but Kennedy was determined to keep the whole thing privately run. By the end of the ’70s, though, he did begin selling stock and loan packages to help with cash flow. The ’80s were just as touch and go; in 1987, the first year that the festival was stretched to three weekends, it rained 14 out of the 18 days. But like the hero in an old Saturday matinee serial, Kennedy always managed to bounce back for another thrill ride the following year. Granted, he didn’t do it alone: the numerous “Folk Aid” benefit concerts by Yarrow and other friends of Kerrville certainly helped bail the festival out of a tight spot or two, as did the introduction in the mid-80s of a few key corporate sponsorships (including Texas Monthly and Southwest Airlines). But at the end of the day, it was Kennedy’s unflappable commitment — Semper Fi! — to the music that kept him going.

“I’ve seen him in desperate states, but I never felt that he was going to throw in the towel,” Yarrow says. “It just wasn’t in him to do that. Maybe that was the discipline of his training in the military — he was hyper-dedicated and had extraordinary determination. But mostly, the fact is, he was in love with this.”

It wasn’t just his love of the festival, though. It was his genuine belief in the importance of the songs and their need to be heard. Kennedy may claim to have been a proud Republican all his life until two years ago, “when Obama appeared on the scene,” but he was always tuned in to the decidedly hippie ideal of music as a viable agent for change for a better society.

“I never booked an artist because they were popular,” Kennedy insists. “I booked them because I thought what they were doing met my standard of excellence: It was music from the heart, that spoke to people, made people realize that they weren’t the only ones suffering under a certain problem — it could be loneliness, it could be lack of self-confidence, it could be poorness or it could be the way other people treated them for being fat or short or whatever else. And I felt that our music could bring an end to that kind of treatment of people. I was adamant about it. And I am to this day.”

 

ALL IN THE FAMILY

True to the spirit of the festival, committed Kerrverts are, as a general rule, an open, sharing lot. Getting them to talk at length about the festival is disarmingly — and sometimes alarmingly — easy. What’s surprisingly hard, though, is getting them to pick a single favorite memory — that one perfect Kerrville Folk Festival moment that stands out from the crowd of thousands. What you usually get is an answer along the lines of, “Wow … gosh … I guess that’d be … well, honestly? There’s just too many … I wouldn’t know where to begin …” Now and then they might finally light upon a particularly magic song they heard around a campfire at 3 a.m., but more often than not, they’ll just launch into a sincere rhapsody about the “vibe” or the “people.”

Sometimes, though, you do get lucky. Like when you find one of those most fortunate of all Kerrverts who was there on the night of May 25, 1980, when the Joe Ely Band played chicken with arguably the meanest thunderstorm to ever beat down on Quiet Valley Ranch. It was a classic unstoppable force vs. immovable object showdown, played to a technical draw but with the band’s tenacious performance forever cemented in festival legend.

Lyle Lovett was in the crowd that night 30 years ago, and he remembers it as though it was yesterday. “It was packed that night,” Lovett says. “Joe Ely and his great band — you know, that great band that played on his early records, like Honky Tonk Masquerade — had come in from somewhere on the road and they had just made it in time to take the stage. And right as Joe stepped up to the microphone, there was a bolt of lightning and this big storm just seemed to suddenly come up — and they just kept playing. I’ll never forget the way Joe just stood there at the mic … it was really a powerful thing to see.”

Even Lloyd Maines, whose runaway-train pedal steel playing was as lethal a weapon in that band’s arsenal as Jesse “Guitar” Taylor’s dynamic blues licks and Ely’s Clash-approved rock ’n’ roll swagger, recalls the whole scene with awe, as though he were a mere witness rather than an active participant. “That was epic,” he enthuses. “I think we’d actually played maybe two songs, and then the storm started coming in like crazy. I mean, the wind was just blowing like hell.”

Kennedy came onstage to apologize about having to shut the show down. Apart from the danger to the crowd and band posed by lightning, there was the matter of the wind rocking the speakers so bad that they had to be taken down. “But we still had power,” Maines says. “And Joe had this Fender Super Reverb amp, and he just happened to have a high-impedance mic in the back of it with a plug that he could plug straight into the amp, so we finished out the show with Joe just singing through that amp. There was a huge crowd there, and about half of them stayed and just packed up against the stage. The band was dry because the stage was covered, but the crowd just got soaking wet. But they hung the entire time. It was absolutely just a magical night — one of those high-energy, Mother Nature moments.”

Ely himself adds that Kennedy, undoubtedly fretting about any number of liability issues, was less than thrilled that the band refused to yield to the storm after he’d tried to stop the show. “But we had just driven non-stop 2,000 miles from Duluth, Minn., and we were not about to not play that gig after driving that far,” he says. “I was not invited back after that — but we went out in style!”

Ely wasn’t the only Kerrville performer — or Flatlander, for that matter — who one way or another got sideways with Kennedy during the first 30 years of the festival. “Rod once banned me for life,” laughs Jimmie Dale Gilmore. “When I got a major-label record deal and started touring all the time, I got another gig that I just couldn’t turn down and had to cancel my Kerrville engagement. And I did it quite a bit ahead of time, but Rod didn’t like that at all. It was even in the Statesman the next day: ‘Gilmore banned for life from Kerrville.’ But then I came back the next year.”

Meanwhile, Butch Hancock still gets a kick out of telling the story about the time Kennedy sent him back out onstage for “one more song,” and he obliged with a 30-minute opus. “There’s something like 14 verses, and every verse is about as long as a normal song, so it just went on and on and on,” Hancock says. “I could see Rod out of the corner of my eye, trying to give me the cut-the-neck sign. And then at some point, he finally just left the whole campground I think. At least from what I heard. At any rate, for at least several years, he never asked me to do another encore.”

Even Eliza Gilkyson managed to get herself banned from the festival for several years. Kennedy, who prided himself on running a disciplined, family-friendly show, was not amused when she dropped the “f-word” onstage — an act Gilkyson concedes was “utterly inappropriate” on her part.

“I have some last thoughts on the time I did that, and concerning others who had their own sundry battles with Rod,” she explains in an email. “My conclusion, in retrospect, is that poor Rod was the unfortunate recipient of our last vestiges of parental acting out. Being as we had all at least by then left home, he became our surrogate father figure, and we all had to go up against his rules at one point or another just to butt our heads against something vaguely authoritarian! How’s that for a psych 101 analysis? Anyway, all is long forgiven, at least on my part.”

It’s clearly long forgiven on Kennedy’s end, too, as Gilkyson was invited to perform at his 80th birthday tribute this year at the Paramount Theater in Austin. So were all three Flatlanders, along with a veritable all-star list of other Kerrville favorites from the very beginning up to the present: Ray Benson, Marcia Ball, Robert Earl Keen, Jimmy LaFave, Terri Hendrix, Ruthie Foster and Randy Rogers. Naturally, there was a little good-natured roasting of the birthday boy on the stage that night, but just like the music, it was all delivered with genuine affection. Kennedy says he could see, hear and feel the love “coming over that stage like the Niagra Falls.”

It’s a memory that now probably ranks right up there at the top of Kennedy’s own favorite Kerrville moments. But it’s one he might not have lived to see had he not retired eight years ago. He managed to steer the ship through thick and thin (literally to the point of bankruptcy) for three long decades, but that last five years or so may well have been the roughest. His book follows the entire journey in painstakingly meticulous detail right up until the end of 1996, which he sums up as “Kerrville’s most exciting and successful year.” But instead of ending with “happily ever after,” the last six graphs read like he dashed them off right as the ship hit an iceberg. Three major corporate sponsors bailed all at once, his ex-wife (but still friend) had a serious car accident, and the pump to the ranch’s entire water system went kaput, all in a matter of weeks. “I knew I should end my book here,” he finished his memoir with “uh, gotta go now” duress, “and maybe re-title it Hit or Myth, the story that begins with a whimper and ends with a bang!” A brief epilogue, tacked on right before the book went to press a year later, offers a little relief: the arrival of a new sponsor in Elixir Guitar Strings, an encouraging update on Nancylee’s recovery, and even a little joke about the epilogue actually being Chapter 12, because “we did not want to end this book with a Chapter 11.”

Better that, though, than the unwritten Chapter 13, which might have opened with Kennedy’s heart attack in 1998 and ended with him selling his majority stock in the festival to — long story put politely short — “a fellow with a lot of problems.”

“I just had to get out of there or I wasn’t going to make it,” he says. “Too much stress.”

So much stress, in fact, that Kennedy now says that for the first year or two after his retirement, “I never wanted to hear another folk singer or deal with another artist or manager or agent. I hated everything.

“I’ve never told anybody that, so don’t headline it,” he adds with a worried smile. “But anyway, after awhile, I began to get backstage again, and I’d see the people coming back every year, people that I had known for 34 years in this business. And hearing their songs again had the same effect on me that the original songs had, which was to open my heart and my mind and get me to back off a little bit. And now I miss it every day and every moment that I’m not there. Not so much doing the work, but really enjoying the music. And with the exception of last year, I’ve been there practically every night. And I’m going to be back there again this year.”

Then he looks over and smiles warmly at Allen. “Because it continues,” he says confidently, “with this one.”

When Allen stepped into her job as only the second producer in the Kerrville Folk Festival’s existence, she wasn’t exactly new to the gig. She ran her own booking agency for years in Houston, and, give or take a few festivals that she missed in the ’80s, she’s been part of the Kerrville family going all the way back to ’72. She was running a coffee house at the University of Houston back then, and was personally invited by Kennedy’s old Chequered Flag partner Damron to come check out “this thing happening in the Hill Country.” She worked as a volunteer at the festival for several years before finally taking a full-time job running the office. Her first production was 2002’s Wine & Music Festival.

Her job is, in different ways, both easier and more difficult than it was for her mentor. Whereas Kennedy ran the entire operation — from booking talent to ranch maintenance to fund-raising — like a “benevolent dictator,” Allen handles only the creative end (booking, scheduling, MC’ing) and some day-to-day business during the festival, and everything else is overseen by separate committees. The aforementioned fellow with problems was eventually pushed out of the picture by the stockholders on the Festival Board, which later became the Festival Operating Committee when the shareholders handed full ownership of the festival over to the non-profit Texas Folk Music Foundation. Quiet Valley Ranch, though, is still owned by the Ranch Board, which leases the property to the festival year round. Oh, and Who’s on first.

“It’s a bit complicated,” Allen admits with a laugh. “And I have to answer to all of them on some level. But as far as finding and booking the artists is concerned, I’m pretty much still autonomous on that part. Everybody figured out pretty quick that that’s exactly how it had to happen.”

Kennedy reaches across the table and squeezes her hand.

“This is a business, but most people don’t know what this business is about,” he says. “The business is about people, and broken hearts and lonely hearts, and people who want to heal from what this festival has to offer. It’s not just a series of concerts. It’s a family whose roots are deeply embedded in each other’s well being. And I thank God this child has kept it going in the same way that I would.”

 

WELCOME HOME

Indeed, the more things change, the more things stay the same. And Kerrverts wouldn’t have it any other way. Because for all that’s gone on behind the scenes, at the end of the day, all that matters is that the Kerrville Folk Festival continues to offer all of the things that have kept people coming back for (almost!) 40 years now. And between Allen’s Kennedy-instilled commitment to excellence and the Texas Folk Music Foundation’s protective stewardship, there will almost assuredly be a festival for those people to come back to for years and years to come.

“It’s an incredible thing to see when we have the early land rush for campground spots a week before the festival, and thousands of people come, every year,” Allen says.

“The line on the highway is a mile and a half long,” Kennedy adds. “Everything from Cadillacs to cars that will hardly move, just bumper to bumper, with kids hanging off of them, waving their flags when they come by the office.”

Jimmy LaFave, a 1987 New Folk finalist, has been making the pilgrimage out to Quiet Valley Ranch now for 25 years. And he still gets a tingle every time. “When I pull up to Kerrville and walk through those gates, it’s like there’s a particular smell, you know? And I don’t mean the latrines! There’s just a certain feel, like the way the dust gets on your shoes, and when you first see that little ‘Welcome Home’ sign … it’s just an amazing vive. And even though it’s changed a lot, that vibe is still there.”

Ruthie Foster has only been coming to Kerrville for the last decade or so, but it’s telling that she describes the thrill of turning off Highway 16 into the festival driveway almost exactly the same. Like they’re singing the same song. There’s no place like Kerrville, there’s no place like home.

They come from all across Texas, North America and maybe even the globe, not just to hear and play music, but to reconnect with folks they may see only once a year but who they embrace at first sight like immediate family. Many reconnect, too, with their “other,” truer selves, happily exchanging their ties, button-downs and Florsheims for tie-dyes and Birkenstocks, and all the worries of their “regular” lives for a long but somehow never quite long enough vacation in an all together better, truer and more humane world. One where it sometimes rains like a bastard and things may not always go exactly according to plan, except, of course, for the three promises that count the most: songs will be shared, lifelong memories will be made and, before it’s all over, every Kerrvert left standing after 18 days and nights of nonstop music will come together to sing Bobby Bridger’s official Kerrville Folk Festival anthem, “Heal in the Wisdom.”

“It’s an amazing thing,” Hancock says. “I think with all these years of Kerrville, somewhere back in there, I began to see it as a little small city,” muses Hancock. “Do you remember Brigadoon?”

He’s referring to the fictional Scottish town featured in the 1940s Broadway musical Brigadoon, which was later adapted for a 1954 Gene Kelly movie and, a decade later, a TV movie with Robert Goulet and a pre-Columbo Peter Falk. In the story, Brigadoon — along with all of its inhabitants — appears for one day once every 100 years, then mysteriously disappears back into the Highland mist.

“It’s sort of like that, except this one appears every year,” Hancock says. “It really is a great study of a city suddenly appearing out in the middle of a field, and then disappearing after, in this case, three weeks. And it’s wonderful that it comes out with the theme of music. Everybody that goes there, it seems they come away going, ‘Wow! I wish it could be this way the whole year round.’

“What a beautiful wish,” he continues. “People getting along with each other, singing songs and living together. It’s such a positive energy that just makes the whole thing something worth keeping — and worth being a part of.”

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Eliza Gilkyson (from LoneStarMusic Magazine, March/April 2014)

Eliza Gilkyson

Capturing songs, compassion and empathy by the midnight oil

By Richard Skanse

“Oh Eliza, you try so hard …”

That’s Eliza Gilkyson, singing to herself in a song she named after herself (“Eliza Jane”) on her new album, The Nocturne Diaries. Far from being a self-congratulatory pat on the back, though, it’s an exasperated admonishment. Her note to self in a nutshell: Lighten up, lady.

“Oh Eliza, you try so hard, you don’t see nothing

Blue horizon and you’re expecting rain

Lift your eyes and you just might find

You see something good, Eliza …”

“I had to somewhere just laugh at myself that this is what I do in my writing,” says Gilkyson, nodding and laughing again when reminded of a comment she posted on her website a couple of years back, about her tendency to “keep writing songs about my dread of the future, illuminated by the beauty of each moment.” “I’m just torn between these two forces. That’s what I write about, and I don’t seem to be able to edit that desire or that propensity, so I’ve just kind of surrendered to it. But it is almost comical because they are so diametrically opposed.”

It’s a tug-of-war that the Los Angeles-reared, Austin-based singer-songwriter has been waging for well over 40 years. At times that dread, hammered by frustration into righteous fury, has resulted in songs as razor-sharp and poison-tongued as 2005’s “Man of God,” her searing assault on then-president George W. Bush and his “corporate cronies and the chiefs of staff, bowing to the image of the golden calf.”

More often than not, though, beauty has the edge, and not just because of the way that Gilkyson’s gilded, smoky alto catches every glimmering ray of light from her unfailingly gorgeous melodies. It’s her stubborn refusal to abandon all hope without a fight — or, as she put it so well in “Emerald Street,” the opening salvo from her 2008 album Beautiful World: “Hard times comin’, I ain’t jokin’/Just tryin’ to keep my heart wide open.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m an optimist, but I wouldn’t say pessimist, either,” she muses, as though weighing the two on a balance scale. “I think I’m joyful. I think I’m a realist. And I’m a survivor type; I like to look into the future and project scenarios based on the information at hand, because I want to survive and I want my kids to survive. I want humanity to survive — although there are times I think it would be best if were eliminated!”

Such deep thoughts can make for restless nights, which of course is how The Nocturne Diaries earned its name. Every one of her 10 new songs on the album (not counting the two covers) was written in the wee, small hours — or at the very latest, just shy of the crack of dawn. “It used to be that I didn’t write as much during the night, but I do more now because like most people my age, we don’t sleep through the night anymore,” says Gilkyson, 64. “So that’s part of it: Are you going to lie there and stew, or are you going to get up and do something?”

Despite its restless origins and at times arduous gestation (Gilkyson says she and her son, co-producer and drummer Cisco Ryder, missed three deadlines and the album’s original target release date back in 2013 before walking away from it and returning with clearer focus last fall), The Nocturne Diaries is as deeply satisfying and transcendent as any record she’s ever made — including such high-water marks as her 2000 masterpiece Hard Times in Babylon and 2005’s exquisite Paradise Hotel. And although it’s duly haunted by lots of the deep, troubling fears that go bump in the night (and rattle on all through the daylight hours, too), once again it’s the “beauty of the moment” that pervades overall. She opens the album with “Midnight Oil,” which rings out like a stubborn survivalist’s prayer of hope: “Save your sorrow for another morn/Though your heart lies on the ground/Come tomorrow maybe a new world’s born/When we ride the old one down.”

A strong recurring theme is the reassuring comfort — and sanctuary — of loved ones, as best exemplified by “Touchstone,” initially inspired by her husband, activist and University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen.

“That was the first song I wrote for the album, and I think in a way that sort of set the tone,” she says. “I woke up in the middle of the night and just started to worry about everything, but then I felt Robert next to me and I just thought, ‘You are my touchstone.’ I think I even said it out loud, because it really does ground me so much to have his love in my life. And then I thought, ‘My touchstone! My touchstone!’ And I just got up and went downstairs and wrote it very quickly, just bam, like that. And at a certain point halfway through the song I thought of a friend of mine who had terminal cancer, and I thought about her mother, too, who’s also a friend. And I realized, ‘My god, I’m her, too — I’m writing about her daughter, how she feels about her daughter.’ It was that line, ‘When this sad day comes upon us when one must go and the other stays behind.’ So there were all these things running through it, and in a way, that’s probably the heart of the record.”

“Touchstone” isn’t the first song of Gilkyson’s that her partner’s inspired, but it may well be the most tender and vulnerable. After all, it’s Jensen that Gilkyson credits (probably as much as George W.) for the politicized charge of many of her songs from the last decade. “We met at a rally, and I heard him speak and was so impressed. It was like the light switch went on — I was ready to hear a lot of the things that he was talking about,” she says, then adds with a laugh, “He radicalized me.”

Gilkyson proudly let her radical flag fly on her Grammy-nominated 2004 album Land of Milk and Honey and the following year’s Paradise Hotel, but prior to that she by and large looked inward rather than outward for subject matter. Even though she was always a hippie activist at heart (especially during the ’70s, most of which she spent in New Mexico), for years she eschewed politics in her music much the way her father, folk singer and songwriter Terry Gilkyson of the Easy Riders and “Bear Necessities” fame, did during the ’50s.

“I’d love to claim that I was a Woody Guthrie fan from day one, but I wasn’t,” admits Gilkyson, now a card-carrying member of the Woody appreciation society and a regular participant at Jimmy LaFave’s “Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway” Guthrie tribute shows. “But I really loved my dad’s music — I really stand on my dad’s shoulders, and he was a folk guy who was not political. But he was emotional, and he could tap into really deep feelings, and he was a beautiful melody maker.” All of those qualities were certainly passed down from father to daughter, and are as apparent in her own songs as they are in The Nocturne Diaries’ cover of Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders’ “Fast Freight.”

“That was a last-minute add, but I thought it fit with the night theme,” she says, reciting the opening lyric, “I listen for the whistle and I like awake and wait/Wish the railroad didn’t run so near …” “I just loved the idea of getting outside of my nighttime thing and kind of getting into somebody else’s head.” (The album’s one other cover is “Where No Monument Stands,” a powerfully moving tribute to the “the field where the battle did not happen” that Gilkyson borrowed from friend John Gorka, who set the William Stafford poem of the same name to music.)

“Where No Monument Stands” doesn’t really “fit with the night theme,” as it were, but its poignant anti-war message will hit the spot for fans who’ve come to expect such things on her albums. Which is not to say that all of Gilkyson’s originals on The Nocturne Diaries are love songs and lullabies. Rest assured that Eliza Jane still has dread for the future aplenty; her concerns this time around are just more societal and environmental than political in nature. “The Ark” uses the Biblical story of Noah and the flood as a sly metaphor for more contemporary climate concerns. “I sort of got on this kick of wondering how crazy Noah and his family must have seemed,” she explains, “[and about how] people right now who are calling out ‘climate change’ are made to feel marginalized, too.” In the haunting “Not My Home,” she confronts the horror of sexual abuse hiding in plain sight, maybe in that house right down the street from you. “Why don’t they notice something’s wrong?” she asks in the voice of the victim, cowered and unheard but determined to break free. “This house is not my home/Someday I’ll walk out my front door/I won’t come back here anymore/I’ll live the life that’s meant for me.”

“I wanted to write her a way out,” says Gilkyson. “She’s going to walk out of there someday, and she knows that about herself.”

Alas, there’s no such hopeful ending waiting for the narrator of “An American Boy” — only a tragic fate as just another statistic in a seemingly never-ending epidemic of school shootings. That it’s the catchiest song on the record other than the playful “Eliza Jane” only enhances its bone-chilling message, postulating that the problem goes beyond the debate over gun control. “They messed my mind with every kind of med,” she sings, “Now voices whisper in my head/Telling me softly I’ll be better off dead/But I’m not going alone.”

“It’s amazing how the pharmaceutical companies have kept this out of the public eye, but so many of these kids are on meds and they all have a different metabolic reaction to them, and many of them become suicidal and make decisions like this.  And that alone is horribly disturbing to me,” Gilkyson explains. “So I really wanted to create empathy for the boy, in a way, because you know, it’s so awful what they’ve done in those situations, but at the same time they, too, are victims. I wanted to create an empathetic situation where it was not so much a forgivable act as it was understandable …”

Light-hearted, “lighten up” self analysis aside, Eliza really does “try so hard” to do what she does, to confront the truths and feelings not always easy to face, but needed to be seen and needed to be felt. She really is her father’s daughter, and every bit as much of a radical in the way she taps into those emotional veins as she’s ever been when singing against the masters of war.

“Robert’s job is just to get all up in your face with a very progressive point of view, and looking back to when we first met, you can see how the songs were a little bit more ‘up in it,’ too” she says. “But there was a point where I had to realize, ‘I’m not Robert Jensen, and I don’t think that does me any favors to be that as a musician.’ What I want to do is get myself in touch with the feelings of empathy, the things that make me inspired to do something about it and to feel what’s going on out there, how people are born into situations that are so much worse than mine. I want to write about those things without being a preacher or a messenger — I just want to be somebody who invokes compassion and care. And that doesn’t come by being all up in somebody’s face. It’s a much more subtler thing, and music has the power to do that. So I have had to go back and find that person and bring her along.”

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Johnny Cash (from Rolling Stone Online, July 5, 2000)

Johnny Cash Talks Love, God and Murder

In his first U.S. interview in more than a year, the Man in Black discusses his new box set, two new albums and cheating death

By Richard Skanse

Johnny Cash is on the phone, calling from his office outside of Nashville in Hendersonville, Tenn., sounding strong and feeling fine. He has reason to be in high spirits. Less than a year ago, a nasty bout with pneumonia had him knocking on heaven’s door, but he’s battled his way back and now stands poised on the brink of his second major comeback of the decade. He’s currently recording a new album for American Recordings with Rick Rubin, the long-awaited follow-up to 1997’s Grammy-winning Unchained (and its equally lauded predecessor, 1994’s American Recordings). A fourth Rubin-produced effort, a gospel album, is in the can, while a new three-disc retrospective, Love God Murder, together with recent, expanded editions of his two seminal “prison” albums (1968’s At Folsom Prison and 1969’s At San Quentin) have shed fresh light on his singular, four-and-a-half-decade history as a recording artist and bona fide American icon.

The renewed interest in his career is well deserved, but on this morning, Cash, who turned 68 in February, still seems to be taking it all in with an amused sense of wonder. “Sony sent me about two dozen box sets today,” he says with a soft chuckle. “They’re being very, very nice to me for some reason. I didn’t hear from them for many, many years, but now it seems after the success of the American records, Sony’s really interested again.”

So what was the genesis of Love God Murder?

Sony had the idea for three different theme albums — Johnny Cash Sings Love Songs, Johnny Cash Sings Gospel, and Johnny Cash Sings Prison Songs. I thought that was pretty cluttered, so I told them, “How about calling the albums Love, God and Murder? Cut right to the chase.” They liked the idea, and they came up with all these songs for the different ones, and I marked some of them out and added some that I liked better, and this is what the result was.

Did you go back through your whole catalog and cherry pick songs?

No. Well, actually yes I did. I had my discography. I was in the Caribbean, and I just checked out some other titles. I didn’t listen to anything — I don’t listen to my records except for when I’m making them. Or if I’m going to do them live, sometimes I’ll listen to them again — I keep going back to a line of Dylan’s: “I will know my song well before I start singing.” I do that once and awhile. But I pulled out some songs I liked, like “Mister Garfield,” and “Hardin Wouldn’t Run,” which are my two favorites on the Murder album. I put those in there.

Did you have any say in picking your wife, June Carter, Bono and Quentin Tarantino to write the liner notes?

No, that was a surprise to me that they had contacted Bono and Quentin Tarantino. But these record companies and managers have a way of calling in your friends without your knowing about it. [Chuckles] Bono’s writing knocked me out — talking about Moses parting the Red Sea, that whole thing from Exodus that he commented on, and then how he brought it down to me. I thought that really was a nice piece of writing.

I’m told that the box set of all three albums is selling the best, but of the individual volumes, Murder is outselling Love and God like three to one. Does that surprise you?

No. [Laughs] My biggest selling albums have been the prison albums.

What is it about the prison albums that still appeals to people so much?

I don’t know. You know, the biggest song of the nineteenth century was about Jesse James. The whole country was singing the praises of Jesse James. It’s always been an American theme to make heroes out of the criminals. Right or wrong, we’ve always done it. You know, it really is a crime in itself, but we do it. I think there’s a little bit of a criminal in all of us. Everybody’s done something they don’t want anybody to know about. Maybe that’s where it comes from.

Were you ever threatened with any form of censorship for your murder songs?

No. I didn’t ever have any resistance to them. They caused a lot of arguments and controversy. They still argue today about whether or not I was in prison myself, because of those songs. But I wasn’t. I’ve never been accused of a felony. I never spent time behind bars except for a few overnight jail times back in the Sixties . . . El Paso was my last time.

Let’s move on to the theme of God, which you don’t hear quite so much of these days. You grew up singing a lot of gospel and hymnals, didn’t you?

Yeah, I did. My first public singing was in church, when I was a boy. The gospel songs were always a part of my whole musical thing. I have a gospel album recorded with Rick Rubin for American [Recordings] that is probably going to be released sometime next year. That’s probably going to be called My Mother’s Hymn Book. It’s old country gospel songs with just me and a guitar.

Does any song on God represent a particularly trying time for you, faith wise?

Well, there’s songs in there that encourage me. One I wrote called “What on Earth Will You Do (For Heaven’s Sake)” is kind of a challenge to my fellow Christians and to myself as well to walk the walk instead of talking the talk. The other one on there is “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord),” a spiritual that features the Carter Family. That may be my favorite. It’s the one that I sang in every concert through the Sixties, and it always gave me inspiration.

What songs on Love have special meaning to you?

“Flesh and Blood” is a nice memory for me. I wrote that in 1970 when I was way back in the country somewhere, way back in the sticks, sitting beside a creek. I wrote it for June. And “The One Rose (That’s Left in My Heart),” from the American Recordings album, is maybe my favorite in that whole bunch of love songs. It’s a Jimmie Rodgers song. I’d sung it all my life, but never recorded it.

Overall, do you enjoy going back through your past to compile collections like this one? Or are you more comfortable looking forward?

Well, making new music and new records [is] what I always want to do. We can always put together interesting and good compilation albums from my repertoire, going back to 1955. I have no doubt we’ll continue to do that. But meanwhile, back at the ranch, I’m going to be doing my thing out there in the studio with Rick Rubin for American.

How far along are you on the new album?

We’ve recorded 28 songs. And I’m going to California now and hopefully in the next three weeks I’ll do my vocals, and hopefully we’ll finish it. So far it’s acoustic — it’s only one or two guitars. We started recording it in my cabin over in the woods from my house, and we just didn’t bring in a bass when we started recording, and it felt good again to do it that way. Some of the songs are just me and a guitar; sometimes there are two guitars. Sometimes Norman Blake, sometimes Randy Scruggs. And now in California, Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers is doing a couple of guitar tracks for me.

How many of those 28 songs did you write?

Only three or four, actually. A song of mine I wrote called “Before My Time” is maybe one of my favorites. But it’s got a real variety. There’s a Bono/U2 song called “One.” I just finished that the day before yesterday with just two guitars, Mike Campbell and Randy Scruggs. It’s a fabulous song. Also did a Nick Cave song called “Mercy Seat.” And there’s some country and some folky things, a Jimmie Rodgers song, a Hank Williams song …

Which Hank Williams song?

Well, I had never heard it before. He wrote it for a singer named Molly O’Day in 1949. It’s called “On the Evening Train.” It’s a tragedy song. There’s also a Stephen Foster song called “Hard Times” on there.

Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin has got to be one of the must unlikely and successful partnerships in the last 10 years.

You know, it’s amazing to me too. He and I work together so well, and we get so creative and so excited when we’re in the studio. I’m really looking forward to spending two or three weeks with him in the studio in California. We really got off to a good start on this album.

So will this album and the new gospel album be coming out at the same time?

No. The gospel album will be next year some time. I hope this one will be ready for this fall.

Do you see yourself performing again?

No. Not concerts — not touring. I’ll never do that again. I’ve had 43 years of that. That’s enough. I can direct my energies more to recording now. I intend to keep recording as long as I’m able. It’s what I do, it’s what I feel.

You’re bound to know that thousands of your fans around the world have had you in their prayers over the last couple of years because of the illnesses you’ve faced. Is that a daily challenge you face, or do you feel like you’ve survived the battle?

Yeah. Yeah I do. Last year, I had pneumonia twice. And when I got over it, when I thought I was over it in November last year, June and I went to Jamaica for the winter so I would be out of Nashville during the flu season. But as it turned out, I had what they call walking pneumonia, until about six weeks ago. I had an antibiotic IV to kill it again, because it was still there, in my lung. But it’s gone now.

I know that the fans have really been concerned that I’ve been really sick — as a matter of fact I was almost dead — but God willed that I live, and here I am, enjoying myself and looking forward to finishing this album. I’d like to thank everybody for their prayers and say that I hope I won’t let you down on producing some good work.

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Amanda Shires (from LoneStarMusic Magazine July/Aug 2013)

Amanda Shires LoneStarMusic

Drop and Lift

Amanda Shires, the Girl with the Dragon Phoenix Tattoo

By Richard Skanse

On Feb. 23, 10 days before her 31st birthday, Amanda Shires married fellow singer-songwriter Jason Isbell in a Nashville ceremony officiated by their friend, Todd Snider. On Aug. 6, Lightning Rods Records will release Down Fell the Doves, the follow-up to Carrying Lightning — Shires’ strikingly confident, self-released 2011 album that staked her claim on the Americana map as one of the genre’s most critically adored and buzzed-about young artists in recent memory (culminating with Texas Music magazine crowning her as its 2011 Artist of the Year.) So how did Shires spend the bulk of the long, hot summer of what’s sure to be one of the most monumental years of both her personal life and career?

Studying her ass off and mainlining caffeine to get through summer school.

“Joyce research paper due in the a.m. … I’m screwed,” she groans via text message on the evening of June 27, after I ping her with a quick follow-up question to the interview we’d had three weeks prior. Her topic: “700 Allusions to Music in Ulysses.”

A couple of days later, a check up confirms that she survived the ordeal … more or less. “I bet I did well first few pages,” she speculates optimistically, “then dive into crap land.”

There are innumerable less stressful ways for a promising young artist (and newlywed!) to spend a two-month breather from constant touring in advance of launching a new record — not to mention a handful of breezier summer reading picks than James Joyces’ notoriously enigmatic doorstopper. But it’s hard to feel too sorry for Shires, because of course nobody makes a self-reliant, grown woman already well on her way to a successful independent music career carve out time to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in poetry. Shires, who’s still paying off her student loans for her undergrad degree in geography from Texas Tech, applied to the University of the South’s Sewanee School of Letters in 2011 out of her own volition.

“I just wanted to learn more about words and writing so I could hopefully get some more tools in the toolbox to write better songs,” says Shires, who started her third year of the four-summer program in June. She goes all in, too, leaving her apartment and new husband in Nashville to share a house with a fellow female student in Sewanee (an hour and a half away) for the semester and clearing her calendar of concert dates.

“I have a couple of gigs during school, but I really try to keep myself in this kind of academic setting just so I don’t have to keep leaving and coming back,” she explains. “I like to try and stay in that headspace while I’m here. Also, I just like to get away from what I do all year long, anyway. It’s nice to be in a different environment, a really quiet place where you can just have the freedom to try new things.”

Heady coursework and all-nighters aside, she practically makes her summer in academia sound like a vacation. But more than anything else, it’s just another conscious step outside of her natural comfort zone — not unlike the one Shires made back in 2008 when she first moved to Nashville from her native West Texas. She had no designs on becoming any kind of big country star; she just wanted to buckle down and concentrate full-bore on becoming a songwriter, sans the safety net/distraction of constant gigging back and forth across Texas as a fiddle player for hire.

“Moving to Nashville was like a test to myself to quit being a side person, to try and start over and re-establish myself,” says Shires. She only knew three people in town when she got there, but stuck it out waiting tables in order to put out her second album (albeit the one she insists on calling her first): 2009’s West Cross Timbers. Five years and two more solo albums down the line, she’s still getting acclimated.

“Some people still ask me when am I going to move to Nashville, because I haven’t learned my directions around town yet,” she admits. “And coming from Lubbock, Texas and Mineral Wells, Texas, it’s hard to think that your home could be a place that has trees and where it rains, you know, like every other day. So it took a while for it to feel like it was home for me. But that’s sort of changed a lot for me now.

“I’m trying not to sound cheesy,” she continues after a pause, “but home for me now is wherever my husband is. We could be living in a tent somewhere and it wouldn’t matter.”

Hallmark sentiments like that one seem to be bit outside of Shires’ comfort zone, too, but she’s woman enough to own up to it — and artist enough to embrace it. Shires has a tattoo (one of many) of a small red heart on her left wrist, inked as a permanent reminder of one of her favorite quotes by Sylvia Plath (from the short story “The Fifteen-Dollar Eagle”): “Wear your heart on your skin in this life.” She wears it openly on her new album, too, most notably with a paean to commitment and true love called “Stay” that rings as forthright and unguarded as the carnal urgency and slow-burn seduction of Carrying Lightning’s “Shake the Walls” and “Sloe Gin.” As a songwriter, Shires has never been one to shy away from full emotional disclosure, so when singing the naked truth calls for showing a little self-professed “sappy” tenderness, she’s up to the task.

But Shires being Shires, she’s also not one to leave good enough alone. Every ray of sunshine she lets into Down Fell the Doves casts a dozen shadows — some real, some imagined, but every one of them more uncomfortable than the last. Put it this way: those doves aren’t falling from the sky for their own good — and Shires really loves birds.

Like the MFA candidate that she is, Shires describes the album analytically as a study in contrasts: no life without death, no good without bad, things falling apart and being rebuilt, etc. And she insists that it’s more “the juxtaposition of sounds and images and musical setting” that interests her, “rather than just ‘the dark.’” But as much as that all may hold up under critical scrutiny, she also concedes that there’s another factor at play behind the album’s not infrequent forays into bleaker corners. Call it what she does: a nagging paranoia that all good things are doomed to end.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Shires admits with a laugh. “Maybe it’s just because you remember things that have happened before that were bad, and you can’t help but revisit all those bad things in your head to try and learn more about your fear. It’s just the way I deal with things, I guess. But then sometimes when you talk to somebody else about your problem, you hear it and go, ‘That sounds so stupid when you say it loud — that’s crazy person talk!’

“So yeah, I really don’t know,” she says. “Maybe I need to see somebody?”

* * *

“I wanna look like a bird, like I was meant to sing

I wanna look like a bird, like I know my place in the world

Like I know my place in the world.”

— Amanda Shires, “Look Like a Bird”

“When I get my wings, hey I’m gonna fly.”

— Billy Joe Shaver “When I Get My Wings”

Going all the way back to her salad days with the Ranch Dance Fiddle Band, the pre-teen, chuck-wagon campfire music sensations of Lubbock, Texas, Amanda “Pearl” Shires has been performing music in public now for more than half her life. She fell in love with and acquired her first fiddle at age 10, after spying it in the window of a Mineral Wells pawn shop while visiting her dad (after her parents divorced when she was a toddler, Shires and her younger sister were raised primarily by their mother in Lubbock). Classical violin lessons and school orchestra she could take or leave, but traditional fiddle tunes and Bob Wills’ Western swing music rocked her world. By 15, she was charming crowds as the youngest-ever member of the legendary Texas Playboys (not to mention the first Playboy to play in pigtails), and by college she was crossing over into alt-countryville with a Levelland band of Panhandle hipsters called the Thrift Store Cowboys. The Playboys doted on her like a granddaughter. The Cowboys treated her like one of the guys. And the whole time, Shires never really once wanted to do anything up there on those West Texas stages of her wonder years but play her fiddle.

“I finally started singing with the Thrift Store Cowboys, after our first record (2001’s Nowhere With You) came out,” she says. “Daniel Fluitt stood a mic in front of me and said, ‘Sing harmony!’ I started out standing six feet away from the mic but slowly got used to it.”

She gradually started writing songs to sing with the band, too, though both her singing and writing still played second fiddle to her fiddle, at least as far as she was concerned. It was her fiddle playing that was starting to land her more and more gigs in the area as a side person, and her fiddle that she wanted to showcase when she decided to make a record of her own, 2005’s Being Brave. “I just wanted to have something that represented what I was doing at the time, that I could sell on the road for a little extra money when I was working for other people,” she says. The record was mostly traditional instrumentals, but she also sang the old Roy Acuff tune “Low and Lonely” for variety’s sake. Then on a lark she added a couple of her early originals and a co-write with Fluitt  — “just to fill it out, so people would know I could also sing harmony and things like that.”

Some time after finishing Being Brave (a lovely record, by the way, no matter how much she tries to downplay it now days), Shires landed a handful of shows over a few months playing fiddle for Billy Joe Shaver. They bonded over the old country albums he’d play en route to gigs, sometimes over long distances. Road trips with the legendary honky-tonk hero, Shires affirms with a fond laugh, were both “awesome” and “scary as hell”: “He’s in some kind of big town car, he’s got one of those radars for cops, and he has, you know, no care for real signage on the road or anything, even construction barrels.” He did have a high regard for old swing music, though, and upon remembering that Shires had made a record of fiddle tunes, asked to hear it. Only it wasn’t the fiddle tunes that jumped out him.

“He listened to the record and said, ‘You know, you really could be a songwriter. There’s no loyalty in side work, and you’ve got something with your writing, so you should work on that.’

“That was a really prophetic kind of moment for me,” Shires marvels, “where I was like, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’ So I sat with it a while, and then I was like, ‘Well, maybe he’s right … he’s an old guy, he knows what’s up!’ He’s a crazy dude, but also a caring spirit. So I took his advice. I took it from there and started trying to write and record.”

Shaver’s encouraging words gave Shires her writing wings, but in order to fly she had to take a leap of faith outside of her Texas fiddle player safety nest. Her move to Nashville to “start over” was a big part of that, but so too was the fortuitous friendship and professional partnership that she struck up with singer-songwriter Rod Picott. She met the native New Englander and longtime Nashvillian (perhaps best known ’round Texas for his many co-writes with childhood buddy Slaid Cleaves, including “Broke Down”) at a Folk Alliance conference in Austin. As a duo, Picot and Shires toured both nationally and throughout the U.K. and Europe, and they even co-wrote and recorded an album together, 2008’s Sew Your Heart with Wires (voted the fourth best debut album of the year by independent radio DJs reporting to the Freeform American Roots chart.) Picot also co-produced and played on both the album Shires considers her official debut as solo singer-songwriter, 2009’s West Cross Timbers, and her 2011 breakthrough, Carrying Lightning.

“Rod was very influential in that we had lot of conversations about songwriting, and he was really encouraging and supportive when I started playing ukulele — and anytime you start learning a new instrument can be very tiring for someone else’s ears,” Shires says. “Plus he’s just a really genuine and honest person, and a rare guy in the music business in that he feels empathy and sympathy for people. I was really lucky that I got to spend so much time with him, because I wouldn’t be the person that I am right now if it hadn’t been for him.”

* * *

“A swarm of sparrows rising

over a cane field,

hearts ascend like that.

Falling is the closest to flying

I believe we’ll ever get,

we’ll ever get.”

— Amanda Shires, “The Drop and Lift”

Graced with material as strong as “Mineral Wells,” Shires’ devastatingly poignant examination of the aftershock of her parents’ divorce, West Cross Timbers went a long way towards verifying Shaver’s instincts about Shires’ songwriting potential. But Carrying Lightning was the real proof. The album was an end-to-end stunner, steeped in exquisitely crafted and richly detailed lyrical examinations of emotional friction and restless romanticism, all set against a musical backdrop of equally evocative, duskily gothic Americana. It walloped, sighed and ached like Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road sweetened with hallucinogenic honey.

Down Fell the Doves, recorded in Athens, Ga., with producer Andy LeMaster (Bright Eyes, R.E.M.), follows stylistic suit but raises the chill factor. Though lightened with moments of tenderhearted optimism, bliss, humor and playful fantasy (like the aforementioned love song “Stay,” the exuberant “Wasted and Rolling,” the sly “Bulletproof,” and the delightful “A Song for Leonard Cohen”), by and large Doves is a record full of the kind of places and questions sensible types give a wide berth. But there’s just something bewitching about the curious juxtaposition of Shires’ fetchingly folksy, West Texas lilt of a voice and the haunted undertow of her melodies and violin that lures you in, like a siren seducing sailors into rocky waters. In “Deep Dark Below,” she sings about the evils that men do under the spell of madness (“Monsters are men that the devil gets in … to entertain himself awhile”), and “Box Cutters” finds her fantasizing about the myriad ways she could shuffle off her mortal coil, all just as casually as shedding a robe before a bath. And in songs like the dangerously pretty “If I” and the aptly titled “Devastate,” she cuts deep into the heart with surgical precision to expose — or is it plant? — the seeds of doubt and fear that can undermine even the healthiest of relationships. By the time the album reaches its final destination amongst the fallen doves, wilted roses and broken silver fountain in “The Garden,” her starkly haunting post-mortem on a dead relationship, you’re ready to go back to “Box Cutters” for pointers.

But other than that, how was the honeymoon, Amanda?

“Whenever I am completely happy, I always fear the worst is inevitable,” she confesses, then muses lightly, “That must be some kind of cherophobia or something.

“But I don’t think I am getting progressively darker,” she continues. “I just think it’s like that thing Townes said — ‘you either play zippity doo dah, or the blues.’ It’s a well, and you don’t get to choose what you draw out of it.”

And in Shires’ defense — or more importantly, in her husband’s defense — all of the songs on Down Fell the Doves were conceived well before the couple’s nuptials in February. They’re still of recent vintage, with most of them written and tracked in 2012, but the well she was drawing from went deep into an emotionally trying two years of her life that predated even the very beginning of the couple’s courtship. While Carrying Lightning was collecting its glowing reviews and Shires was being swept along in its momentum, she was coming fresh out of a break up and — no less or maybe even more crushing in her eyes — mourning the loss of her favorite fiddle of 15 years in a stage accident. And then she broke her finger — specifically, the third finger on her left hand (“A good finger for playing fiddle,” she deadpans). It happened during her first semester at Sewanee in 2011, when she and some of her friends knocked off from class to go swimming in a local reservoir. Shires insists that she was “sober as a judge,” but the rope swing she took an ill-fated turn at didn’t care one way or the other. It tangled up her finger and snapped it like a twig.

“I knew something had happened when I came off that rope and landed in the water,” she recalls. “It was painful, but it wasn’t as painful as when I was trying to swim to shore and could feel the drag of it. And then all this adrenaline comes, and I look up and my finger’s on backwards. It was completely turned around and broken in three places.”

The slow road to recovery with her hand and livelihood locked up in a cast were brutal. “I couldn’t imagine ever playing again, but the specialist I found was pretty confident,” she says. “He went, ‘I’m pretty certain you’ll be able to play again, just do what we say. But that finger’s not going to ever be just like it was.’ Which was very depressing. You have a cast and you can’t practice, and then you have surgery and you can’t practice, and then you have to have a cast again after surgery. So I didn’t play for a long time, and when I could, it took a lot of re-learning. And an emotional struggle just to fight that dark place you go, where you’re like, ‘I can’t do it, it’s not going to be the same, it’s not going to be worth it.’

“But at the same time,” she hastens to add, “it was also a really humbling experience, because even though that finger will never be what it was, well, hell — I still get to play the fiddle! So what if I’m not 100-percent and so what if I’m not going to ever be the best in the world? I can still play, and it’s the music that makes me happy. It’s not the technical skill of it that’s important — it’s the art of doing it.”

Also helping to fill that glass half-full perspective was the supportive presence of Isbell — and the blooming of their longstanding friendship into something more. They had known each other for years, first crossing paths in Georgia about a decade ago when Shires was on a tour with the Thrift Store Cowboys and Isbell was still a Drive-by Trucker.

“We became friends and stayed friends, and occasionally I’d play some shows as a fiddle player for him or play on records if he needed it,” she says. “It took a long while for our friendship to develop into what it is now, though. I always liked him, but I was just fighting my own self, because I’m kind of a person that’s unsure and I would say fearful of relationships. Either you get hurt a few times or you get tired and start guarding yourself. But he was very persistent …”

In a way, her mangled finger helped close the deal.

“This is going to sound like one of those cheesy melodramas, but he came to Sewanee, just to visit the school and stuff,” she says. “He found out I broke my finger, and I was like, ‘I have a doctor’s appointment, but I can’t drive because they put a cast the size of, I don’t know, Texas, on my left arm.’ And he said, ‘I’ll come get you and take you to your doctor’s appointment.’ Only I didn’t know they were going to reset my hand that day — they gave me a shot in the hand and then … it was not an experience that was pretty at all for anybody to watch, you know? And then you have girl crying, that’s great, too. But he still liked me. He liked me at what was one of the worst times for me, and was so supportive. And then beyond that and out of that, it just became a deeper understanding over lots of conversations.

“That’s when things started looking up,” she says. Happily, yes, but also matter of factly. Because that’s usually what “things” do, eventually. Shires’ busted-up finger healed — not perfect, but good enough for a determined Texas gal not afraid of a little discomfort for the sake of art to play fiddle again, and she does. Not the cherished one that broke two years ago, but the new one she finally settled on about a year later. “It’s got a different soul inside of it from my crushed one, but it’s a lovely beast,” she says. “We’re friends now. It took a while but I shouted and it squawked, and now that we’ve spent some time on the road together, it’s even better.” Kinda like how things panned out between her and Isbell.

In Down Fell the Doves “Drop and Lift,” Shires sings of the rise and fall of hearts in chests, each beat signifying the stirring sensation of falling “in and out and out and in and out of love again.” It’s an arresting metaphor for the balance and rhythm of life that distills all of the agony and ecstasy of the album into three and a half minutes of swirling, exhilarating beauty, and the fact that it’s sequenced two songs before the grim scene painted in “The Garden” is what ultimately ends the album on an unsung but understood note of hope. From the wreck and ruin of total devastation, there’s really only one place to go.

Well … maybe not for all of those poor gray-eyed and flightless doves. But Shires is a bird of a different feather.

“I got my first tattoo with a fake ID when I was 15 or 16 years old in Hollywood, Calif.,” says Shires, who was visiting family at the time. “It was a dragon, and of course I liked it — it was the best ever dragon tattoo you could imagine when you’re 15 or 16, with a big red sun in the background. But then at age 21 I decided that I didn’t really feel that much like a dragon anymore, so I had it reworked into a phoenix.”

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