You started out as a drummer didn't you? How did you get started playing honkytonk music? And when did you make the transition to front your own band.
DQ: Yeah, I started drumming around 10 or 11 years old. I always had a lot of energy, so drums seemed like the right thing to start with. My dad and brother played guitar, so I was always messing around with that too, but I started out in blues and rock and roll bands as a drummer. I heard John Prine from my dad for the first time when I was pretty young, and it changed everything for me and started me on a long journey into old country and roots music. I was always writing and journaling, so I decided to try and turn that stuff into songs. As my taste continued to grow, I could not find people who needed a drummer and were playing the type of music I wanted to play, so I figured I would just start playing my own songs, and I made the switch.
Talk about the evolution of your sound from your earlier 2017 release of Low Down to the soon to be released Wanderin' Fool. Low Down tacked between both alt and traditional country, and Wanderin' Fool contains significant ambient experimentation as well as the traditional honkytonk two-steppers.
DQ: You have a good ear. I think the most significant part of the evolution is the backing band on both. Low Down was done with some great musicians and good friends of mine, but they are not necessarily “country” players, so I think that helped shape the style. My backing band for Wanderin’ Fool was done with some country music heroes of mine. The sound of this new one was really dictated by these guys. They did what was natural for them, and it came out the way it did.
Have you always written your own music? Who has inspired you, guided you, or are you completely self-taught? And what things do you really relish writing about?
DQ: Yes, writing is my favorite part of all of this. I play guitar and sing as a vehicle to share the songs I write. A few songwriters that have really inspired me are Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and John Prine. For me, those are the heavyweights when it comes to songwriting. When I heard Townes for the first time, I couldn't write a song for six months, because I knew I would never be that good. I have always been really into writing and the process of it. For me, it is a very personal thing, and I always write alone. There is no better feeling then creating something that wasn't there just a few hours ago. It is also very cathartic.
How did the production of Wanderin' Fool come about? What was it like recording in Nashville at Bomb Shelter Studios with Andrija Tokic? That's been a hot studio of late. First, Alabama Shakes, Luke Bell, and now David Quinn!
DQ: It sure was a lot of fun. I was bugging Andrija for a while sending him some demos I had made asking him to help make this record with me. We finally connected on a call and talked over a few months while getting to know each other and eventually we made it happen. My favorite part about working with Andrija is that he does everything analog and straight to tape. He likes to capture as much as possible live and works pretty fast which helped create a certain energy that I think shows. We made the whole record in five days.
The album includes some standout keyboard and steel guitar flourishes on songs like "In my dreams." Some notable musicians appear on your album including Nashville Bassist, David Roe who was Johnny Cash's bassist from 1992 until 2003. Tell us a little bit about the backing players on your album and how you met these people.
DQ: One day Andrija called and said “Hey, I think I have the perfect band for you.” and I was blown away by the names he said. Growing up, Jimmy Lester was one of my favorite drummers, and then I was in a room with him making a record. Dave Roe has played on some of my favorite records of all time. Hearing Dave and Jimmy trade old stories was one of the best parts of it all. Micah Huslscher who plays keys for Margo Price is one of the most talented people that I have ever worked with. That's John Estes on steel, and he ended up playing a few different instruments on the record. Then we brought in Alexis Saski for some harmonies, and she really killed it. it was a humbling and inspiring experience, and we all had a great time doing it.
From the atmospheric prairie anthem, "Where the Buffalo Roam" to the cowboy two-steppin' "Cryin' Shame," there's plenty of variety to choose from on the new album. If we haven't listened to a David Quinn song before, which song on the album should we start with to understand what you are all about? Also, how do you, yourself, categorize your own music?
DQ: I think lyrically the song “Wanderin’ Fool” sums up who I am, but “Where the Buffalo Roam” might be a better representation of where I am going musically. I really struggle with the “category” thing. I have always called what I do Country Music but I have had plenty of folks disagree. As Harlan Howard puts it “it's 3 chords and the truth.”
How do you know if you've made a good song and what current honkytonk performers out there right now do you think make good music?
DQ: I just try to go by intuition, and I always try to write from the heart and make something I would want to listen to. I have a pretty strong world view and point of view, so I just try to express what is true to me. If it ever feels forced, I just stop. Most of the time a song just sort of shows up, and I feel as If I am just transcribing what's already there. Those are always the best ones.
As for some current artists I really like -- Tyler Childers, Luke Bell, Sam Outlaw and Charley Crockett to name a few. There has been some great stuff coming out recently.
Chicago isn't normally thought of as a hotbed for honkytonk music. From your perspective, what are the benefits and pitfalls of being a honkytonker in Chicago?
DQ: Yeah, it can be tough at times especially because the word “country” can turn some Chicagoans off who might otherwise like the songs I play. There is a tight knit group of honkytonk/country groups around and most of them have been pretty welcoming. Also the folks over at Chicago Honky Tonk have created a community of like-minded musicians and honkytonk fans, and they have been very kind to me.
Tell us a little about your live band that includes Shane Allen, Andy Holcomb, and Tommy Veronesi. How did you guys meet and decide to start playing music together?
DQ: We actually met on Craigslist right before I went to make my record in Nashville. Shane (guitar) and Tommy (drums) had just moved back to Chicago, Shane coming from South Carolina and Tommy from a stint in Colorado. I think I met with Andy first who plays bass. The first time we all met each other as a band was when I got back from Nashville to play the mixes for them. We all hung out and listened through the record and they have been playing with me ever since. I'm lucky and thankful to have those guys back me up. Tommy is the funkiest country drummer I have ever heard. Shane plays a mean slide guitar, and Andy can tear it up on upright and electric.
What are you plans for 2019? We see you are playing in the Chicagoland area at numerous venues. Are you planning to expand your reach and hit the national scene? Give us a little idea about what you have in store for this year.
DQ: Yeah, so I have my record release show on April 5th at the Empty Bottle, which I am really looking forward to but after that I have a few short tours being planned. I will be doing some stuff out on the West coast and probably a few trips back to Nashville and south. I definitely want to expand beyond Chicago. I have been lucky enough to get some press and write-ups building up to the record as well, so I hope it all helps expand the audience.
(Above) Chicago singer/songwriter David Quinn's new album Wanderin' Fool comes out April 5, 2019. Check out his record release show also on April 5th at the Empty Bottle, in Chicago.
David is backed on this album by Nashville session luminaries, Jimmy Lester and Dave Roe. Alexis Saski lends her beautiful voice to harmonies.
David is known for his smooth, sincere vocals, his ability to transport his audience to places and inspire feelings born straight from the heartland, and his rousing sonic, prairie anthem, "Where The Buffalo Roam."
The sound of a southbound train.
Getting caught in the middle of the rain.
Pretty woman calling my name.
Those old Midwestern things.
The smell of an early fall night.
Few drinks when you are feeling alright.
Playing under the cold moonlight.
and old boots that fit just right.
I'm simple living, day dreaming,
Out of my mind Wandrin' Fool.
Simple living, day dreaming,
Out of my mind Wandrin' Fool.
David Quinn, Wanderin' Fool
For more information on Dave, check out his web site at:
Look for the new album April 5th on Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon.
Most people don't know you have a background and interest in jazz and classical guitar and that you went to school for it. How did you make the jump to Honky Tonk?
DM: I do have a background in jazz and classical guitar. After high school I attended Northern Kentucky University on a jazz and classical guitar scholarship. I love all kinds of music and going to NKU gave me the opportunity to learn my instrument as well as music theory and history better. It was the one time in my life that I got to play guitar in a jazz big band with all the horns and everything. It was really cool to play all those old jazz and blues standards with that band, and I realized that what Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys were doing wasn't too far of a stretch and had a lot of like-minded influences. Also, with Willie Nelson being one of my favorite guitarists, I made the connection to Django Rheinhardt, and how his gypsy jazz style of playing influenced Willie. It's easy to connect the dots between all kinds of good music. I would be playing the jazz and classical stuff in the day and hitting the honky tonks at night. All of those influences along with heavy doses of bluegrass, blues and southern rock just got mixed up into a big pot of gumbo and that's what helped me develop my own style.
You just finished up recording your new album, Tryin’ To Be A Blessing, from the OMNIsound Studios in Nashville. What was this experience like? What can we expect from this album? Who produced it, and who played on it? When is it going to be released?
DM: We went into the legendary OmniSound Studio's in Nashville, Tennessee on March 4th and 5th and recorded my entire new album Tryin' To Be A Blessing in two days of marathon recording sessions. Dean Miller, son of Roger Miller, returned as producer for the follow-up to last year's Mr. Honky Tonk album, which was the first time we had worked together. These sessions proved to be the absolute best recording experience of my career. We tracked nine songs on the first session with the band, which was composed of my brothers from The Dallas Moore Band, Lucky Chucky, aka Chuck Morpurgo, on guitar and Mike Owens on harmonica along with my murderer's row dream team, which featured Guthrie Trapp on electric guitar, Steve Hinson on pedal steel, Gordon Mote on piano and B3 organ, Jenee Fleenor on fiddle, Mark Beckett on drums, Michael Spriggs on acoustic guitar, and Lex Price on bass. Most every track was done in one or two takes and the atmosphere and camaraderie in the studio that day was electric and downright magical. It felt like we were catching lightnin' in a bottle, and we shared a whole lot of laughs along the way. It was definitely the most FUN I've ever had recording! On day two, we came in, and I cut all of my vocals and we were joined by the most awesome Ms. Tommy Ash who lends her vocal talents to our version of the old Mel Street Classic "Lovin' On Back Streets." We are looking to release the album on SOL Records this summer and will be announcing our pre-order and release date (along with album release parties in several cities) very soon. Stay tuned!
How important was Sirius XM satellite radio’s Outlaw Country channel to your career as a hardcore country performer?
DM: Sirius XM Satellite Radio has been without a doubt our biggest supporter at radio going all the way back to the Tales From A Road King album in 2008.They helped get our music heard by so many people all across the land who would have never discovered us and that led to us being able to tour way more extensively than we previously had. Our family and friends at Sirius XM Outlaw Country are just flat out the best of the best!
What's it like to tour with greats such as Dean Dillon, Billy Joe Shaver, and Ray Wylie Hubbard? Any notable stories from the times you shared the stage with these legendary performers?
DM: It's a really cool thing that happens when your heroes become your friends. I've been blessed with that many times over in my life. To do shows with guys like Dean Dillon, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Billie Joe Shaver, and so many more is always a blessing and an inspiration. It's more of an education than any high school or college ever could be. Cats like that inspire me to take their influences and create my own thing and try to kick the can a little farther down the road!
You, along with your band, won the Ameripolitan Best Outlaw Group in 2017. What did this acknowledgement mean to you?
DM: We did indeed take home the hardware for Best Outlaw Group in 2017 at The Ameripolitan Music Awards in Austin, Texas! It was great to take home a win that year, but we truly have been honored and humbled to be nominated in every year since Ameripolitan began. I was contacted by Dale Watson back when the whole thing was getting started, and I was excited to be there from the beginning. Ameripolitan is like one big crazy family of like-minded artists across several genres that get overlooked by the main stream but are thriving in their own right. There are tons of great NEW music being made that comes from such a prominent roots influence whether it be categorized as Western Swing, Rockabilly, Honky Tonk or Outlaw. It's like a big umbrella over a lot of us crazy folks who meet up and swap songs, and everyone has the freedom and independence to make their own brand of music and do what they want to do. It really is a family!
Part of your success seems to be that you tour constantly and then tour some more. Some years you do over 250 shows. One of my favorite songs you do is "Killing Me Nice and Slow." Does touring this much worry you at all? How can you keep up a pace like you do? Does touring still excite you?
DM: In 2018, I played 337 shows. Some were solo, some were duo, some were with The Dallas Moore Band. We played all across America from New York to Los Angeles, Texas to Tennessee and all points in between. We're building our audience one Honky Tonk at a time and it's exciting to see how fast it's growing. Touring at this pace isn’t for everybody, but it works for me. It's what I love to do and where I'm the most comfortable. To take our music to the people and make life-time family and friends out here on the road is what we do best. I always say "Ya Gotta Roll The Wheels To Pay The Bills" and Keep The Roads HOT!
We love the two-step shufflin' dance possibilities of songs like "Mr. Honky Tonk" from your Mr. Honky Tonk album. Tell us about how you came up with that song. Is there a Mr. Honky Tonk in every bar, or do you actually have a friend like him?
DM: "Mr. Honky Tonk" was a song I had written over 20 years ago. When I got the call from Dean Miller that he wanted to produce an album for me, I thought back to that old song and realized I could probably get a better version of it recorded than previously before, and it would be more of what I had in mind. Without a doubt, we meet Mr. Honky Tonk most every night. I always say, "I Know That Guy," and "Sometimes I Am That Guy!"
Talk about your guitar, which caught our attention during your show in Memphis. It clearly has a storied history. The wood grain is very interesting, as well. How many names do you have on it, and who is the most famous name on there?
DM: My guitar is named "Ol' Mossy" after my Dad's trusty 12-gauge shotgun.
It's an Alvarez Silver Anniversary model that I bought for $400 years ago at a Bluegrass Jam Session. Ol' Dean Roy was selling it so cheap, because it wasn't a Martin and that's what he really wanted. I borrowed the money and took her home that night and Ol' Mossy has been my main squeeze ever since! The wood grain is well worn from years on the road and weathering. I'm not sure how many names are on it at this point. Some are famous, some are infamous and some are just important to me. The first signature on it, however, was my Godfather, the late great Jody Payne of Willie Nelson and Family!
We are definitely coming to see you in Chicago in May at Reggies. What else do you have in store for 2019. How do you plan to support your upcoming album?
DM: Looking forward to the show at Reggie's in Chicago. It's been awhile since we played The Windy City and that's my guitar player Lucky Chucky's hometown!
It's gonna be another year of 300 plus shows supporting the new album and doin' what we do best, which is takin' the Country to the people!
(Above) The Road King, Dallas Moore.
Dallas is known for his well-honed outlaw lyrics, his high-RPM live performances, his relentless 300+ shows-a-year touring schedule, and his classic Alvarez Silver Anniversary guitar he calls "Ol' Mossy."
We caught up with him after his stage-blasting performance for the 2019 Ameripolitan Awards Showcase at Minglewood Hall in Memphis.
Look out for the release of Dallas's new album Tryin’ To Be A Blessing, this summer.
Out there on the dance floor
he's got the girls lined up.
He don't know how to two-step
but he sure can cut a rug.
He's got a whiskey chaser
and she's chasing him around.
Tonight it looks like Mr. Honky Tonk ain't slowing down.
Here comes Mr. Honky Tonk
He's all wound up tonight.
He'll drink, dance, shoot some pool,
probably start a fight.
He'll rub some folks the wrong way
but he's my ol' best friend.
Here comes Mr. Honky Tonk again.
Dallas Moore, Mr. Honky Tonk
You can find all you need to know about Dallas at http://www.dallasmoore.com/.
When I listened to your eponymous Western Swing Authority album, my initial reaction was an immediate acknowledgement of the high level of musicianship on that record from the vocals on down through each instrument. Please tell us about the genesis of The Western Swing Authority as a group, and how this "swing supergroup" came together.
WSA: Well, first of all thank you for the kind words. We are so proud of this latest album and all of the work that went into it. Of course, we are proud of all of them, but this album really hit a special place for us.
The Western Swing Authority came to be out of pure love of the genre and happenstance. Shane (my husband and our fiddle-slaying band leader) had been chatting with a friend at a gig at The Commercial Tavern. The friend was Charlie St Denis (who happened to become our first drummer) and the Commercial Tavern is the bar we wrote about in the final track of Big Deal, “This Old Bar.” Charlie knew that Shane loved Western Swing music and had since he was a kid. He would sit at the top of the basement stairs when his parents would have a party and listen to the music instead of going to sleep. Charlie had this DVD of The Time Jumpers PBS special done at the Station Inn, and he told Shane he HAD to check it out. We took the DVD home that night and watched it, and I remember the moment vividly when Shane looked over at me and said, “I have ALWAYS wanted to have a band like this…” I looked back and said, “Well, why don’t you then?” That night he sent a message to a bunch of musician friends who were all at the top of their game in studio and touring alike. Those musicians became the band and the rest is history. Our first gig was the first time we all got together (ever!), and we haven’t looked back. We spent the first year or two playing all cover songs and really just enjoying the traditional sounds that none of us got to play anymore in our other musical lives. WSA was born out of the desire to keep this kind of music alive. 10 years later, we are still loving it, but it has become so much more.
What does it mean to you to sing "new vintage" originals? How do you take a classic sound like Western Swing, put your stamp on it, and make it sound vital and fresh today? Do modern production techniques account for some of the immediacy of the sound? Are your arrangements slightly different? How does your sound all come together?
WSA: Being that we have been playing together for a decade now, I think we have certainly honed in on “The Western Swing Authority” sound. There is a trust among the players and a lack of ego, which makes it so fun and a safe place to experiment. I think the thing that has changed us the most is the writing that we have done. We love playing traditional tunes and keeping those old standards alive, but it’s like any living thing. If you don’t feed it with new fuel it could die. We have worked really hard to create songs that stay true to that classic sound while being fresh and new. I know our audiences appreciate having cool, new music to listen to along with the best of the past.
As for production techniques, that definitely helps our music to keep up to “radio standards” of today. I love the power that we are able to recreate in studio. The true litmus test for us, though, is that we need to be able to sell it live just as well as we do in the studio and that is where the musicianship and excellence of all our players really shines through. Some arrangements shift as we play them more live … added shots, harmonizing lines, upgraded solos. But we truly pride ourselves in being able to bring the same tight arrangements to our live show that we create when recording.
The Western Swing Authority is very well-known north of the border. Since you are based in Toronto, Canada, how did you get involved with the Ameripolitan Awards in Memphis? How did Dale Watson and Celine Lee find you?
WSA: That is a great question … one I would like to know the answer to as well! When the Ameripolitan Awards began 6 years ago, we were still doing mostly local shows and didn’t have a lot of spread, but somehow our music landed on the radar of Dale and Celine, and we were contacted during the preparations for the first event in Austin. We got an email from the coordinator back then, and he said that we had been nominated and would we want to come down to the award show. That year, back in the ballroom of the Garden Suites, we arrived and knew there was something special about this organization. We have been nominated in some facet every year since the very beginning, whether it be for Western Swing Group or Western Swing Female. We are so proud of that. We haven’t taken either award home yet, but to risk sounding cliché, it really is an honour to be nominated along with all the fabulous talent out there. Our peers are all wonderful artists and musicians, so really when something wonderful happens for them it’s good for everyone. And hey, even Susan Lucci won eventually! We plan on just keeping on with creating great new music that we love and sharing it with anyone who will listen. I love watching the Ameripolitan movement grow and find its feet.
We saw Stacey's stunning performance of "You don't Know Me" at the Cindy Walker Tribute event in Memphis for the 2019 Ameripolitan Awards. Stacey's performance was one of the highlights of a magical, musical weekend for us. What was it like singing that classic song in front of so many great musicians and an audience that included Country Music Hall-Of-Famer Rose Lee Maphis and Texas legend, Gary P. Nunn?
WSA: Aw, that is so sweet. It was truly a highlight for me too. That song is such a well-known tune, and it has been performed by some of the best in the music business, across all genres. That to me is what I love best about that song. To be able to reach a universal audience like that no matter who is singing? That is the real deal.
To be quite honest, I was absolutely shaking the whole time. Being backed and standing beside all of those strong, beautiful and talented women alone was incredibly powerful in and of itself. But that song has a life of its own, and the energy in the room was absolutely electric when I began. Perhaps it was because of the video that we had all just watched at the beginning of the show. It was like a big, beautiful wave of emotion that I didn’t come down from until I was long back at the hotel. I cried a lot afterward with gratitude just to be able to share that song, my way, in front of so many people I love and respect. It was a truly humbling experience.
How do you approach singing a standard like that? How much interpretation do you usually allow yourself? And how did you get assigned that particular song?
WSA: Ha! When they sent the email out to ask everyone to put in their votes for songs, I just snagged it!! It was between “You Don’t Know Me” or “It’s All Your Fault” (which I perform with The Western Swing Authority in regular set rotation). When I heard back that I could have it, I was nervous, because I wanted to do it justice, but I knew that my attack of the song would be less “western” and more soul oriented. My favourite version of that song has always been the Ray Charles version … and I grew up listening to Motown, R&B and soul music with my dad. Since I lost him this past year, it just seemed like the right way to go. I got so many neat little signs that he was around, and the performance that day was one of them.
Western Swing was born in the dance halls and honky tonks of yesteryear. Who is the audience for your music today?
WSA: I feel like the audience could be anyone really. Our age demographic is very wide. The very young to the very old. The music is upbeat and fun … slow and romantic at times, with intricate arrangements for the “musos.” That is what I love about the Western Swing genre. There is such a breadth of inspiration for the sound. You’ve got jazz, blues, country, swing. The same song could have a different audience depending on which sound you focus on the most during the performance. I really feel that good music can find a place in any audience. Of course, those who like traditional country music and swing music will enjoy our sound, but we just think of it as “feel good” music. Everyone wants to feel good these days.
The Western Swing Authority played a private party in Nashville in March of 2018 for Garth Brooks and his manager Bob Doyle. Could you tell us why that happened, and what was it like?
WSA: Surreal. Stressful. Amazing. Humbling. Unforgettable.
It was a whirlwind trip that almost didn’t happen. We got the call literally ten days before we were down there asking if we were available to play a surprise party for Major Bob Doyle’s 70th birthday. He had requested a Western Swing band for the party, and they had called to see if The Time Jumpers could come, but they were unavailable. Jimmy Mattingly, Garth’s longtime drummer, has been a friend of ours for a while and threw our name into the hat. It was an amazing vote of confidence for us, and we will be ever grateful that he took that chance on us and trusted us to pull it off. There was rush paperwork to figure out, we had to find a substitute drummer, figure out last minute travel arrangements and childcare. SO many reasons it could have fallen apart, but it didn’t. As well, my dad was in hospice care. I could barely imagine leaving, but he was the first to say that we HAD to go. He had been a fan of Garth Brooks for a very long time, so knowing that he would in the same room as us was really exciting for him as well as the band. We all knew it was a once in a lifetime chance, even if the timing wasn’t ideal. I never got the chance to tell Garth how much it meant to see him in the audience, really listening to us play, but I hope to someday. Being appreciated for exactly who we are and getting to play for such special guests … it made being away during a difficult time much easier. The day after, we drove home on a big high and just kept saying “Can you believe what we just did?” I will never forget that day.
WSA's 4th studio album, “BIG DEAL,” includes guest appearances by nine-time Grammy winner Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel), Grammy-nominated Jazz performer Jane Monheit, and others. If we haven't heard The Western Swing Authority before, what's a track that we should start with? Do you have a signature song or two that you would like to share with us?
WSA: OOOOOOOH. I love this question, but it is so hard to pick! As for signature songs, we have a few originals that I think really capture our sound of the last few years. “Sweet Harriet” from our album Now Playing is pretty hard not dance to and “I’ve Got a Feelin” from our album All Dolled Up is a true signature torch song that embodies the band’s playing and the way I like to sing. I love all the songs on the new record, but if you are looking for just a few I recommend “Mississippi”, “In the Middle of the Song” (written and performed with the amazing Miss Carolyn Martin) and "Extra-Ordinary." Silly to saucy to sublime. We try to make sure that every album is a great listen all the way through as a whole. It’s a musical journey, so it’s best listened to all the way through in my opinion.
Stacey has shared the stage with some legendary artists including Merle Haggard and The Nitty Gritty Dirt band. Is there a performance or show that really sticks out from these encounters?
WSA: Oh wow. That is going back to another lifetime ago! I was in a more pop-country girl trio at the time of those encounters … no kids, no husband. It was a very different time. I DO however remember opening for Merle In Georgia with my band of the time, LACE. We were three young girls and Merle’s manager came to the trailer with tee-shirts for us to wear. They weren’t very big, and I ended putting mine on my teddy bear when I got back home. It fit him better.
Tell us about your plans for 2019? Any trips planned for the US? Any large festivals we should be aware of in Ontario? Back in the studio soon? Please let us know.
WSA: World domination! OK, seriously … we are heading out for a bunch of corporate dates into spring and some soft seat theater dates in Ontario. We have some radio trips planned to small markets nearby. Beginning in June, we will head to Ottawa and Pembroke to do some backing gigs for the Country Music Association of Ontario awards, and playing for our friend Jason Blaine at his celebrity Golf Tournament and show. (featured with us on My Window Faces the South on Big Deal) Other than that, we would love to get back to the States for some more runs of shows, and someday Europe and beyond. Baby steps and big budget planning for this big band.
(Above) The Western Swing Authority playing at the Showcase for the 2019 Ameripolitan Awards in Memphis.
WSA is known for it's impeccable musicianship, it's effortless command of a wide range of musical styles and genres, and the exuberant joy that the group brings to the performance of Western Swing music.
Led by Academy of Western Artists, 2016 Best Western Swing Female, Stacey Lee Guse, and her husband, five-time Canadian Country Music Association Fiddle Player of the Year, Shane Guse, Western Swing Authority has four albums to it's credit including their latest effort, Big Deal.
Her name is Harriet LeBeau
She is the preacher's daughter
She's got three freckles on her nose
and she sips on holy water
In a Sunday morning cotton dress
Swear she's good as gold
But as the weekly hours progress
a darker tale unfolds
Well, she lets her long hair down
Shimmies into town
Swing hot, Sweet Harriet
Walking down the lane
Well, if you swing that thing with all you got
the boys all go insane
No, you won't hear them complain
Western Swing Authority, Swing Harriet
For all things that swing, check out WSA's web site at
You started playing guitar and singing at the age of 12 and playing out professionally by age 16. That era must have been an interesting time for you. What was that like? Did performing come naturally to you or do you remember any trepidation from these early performances?
JDR: I felt like an awkward kid, so I spent most of my time in my room listening, learning, and practicing music by ear. I grew up hauling record boxes for my pop’s booths at the antique shows and after we would unload, I would spend the day walking the aisles singing and playing guitar. Those were my first experiences playing live music publicly and it felt very natural to me. When we went to an antique show to set up in Wichita, Kansas, my pop met a guy named Cliff Major who was a local legend musician and who owned a guitar store called “C Major Guitars” in Wichita. Cliff was excited to work together and amazed that I had learned so much music at such a young age. We formed a band together in 1993 with me singing lead and that’s when I really learned how to hone in my trade. Cliff taught me so much about bringing a song in and out and keeping it going if the crowd is really enjoying it. He was a phenomenal musician, great mentor and friend, and I miss him.
You have quite a musical tradition in your family. Your dad, Melvin Richardson, plays with you. Your grandfather Hubert Pearce was cousins with both Webb Pierce and The Wilburn Brothers. Were you always destined to be a musician? Were you always going to play honky tonk music?
JDR: Growing up immersed in all kinds of music and a love of history/nostalgia has allowed me to live in this time period while appreciating so many aspects of the past. My parents have encouraged me and always gave me the opportunity to have these outlets.
We've seen you play boogie woogie piano and rockabilly lead guitar. Can you play any other instruments or any other genres of American music? How do you categorize your sound?
JDR: I never took lessons with the instruments that I play, it truly has been God given and natural for me. Aside from guitar, vocal, and piano, I also play drums, harmonica, mandolin, and upright bass. After my pop taught me how to play guitar, I was able to return the favor many years later by teaching him upright bass. My music is also influenced by delta and jump blues, soul, southern gospel, and jazz. My sound is a melting pot of hillbilly, western bop, honky tonk, roots rock n roll, mountain, blue grass, as well as a few blues and soul songs.
From whom do you draw inspiration as a singer? I felt the Marty Robbins in your performance of the song "Las Cruces, Live By the Gun" from your Heartaches and Honkytonks album. Who are some other vocalists that inspired you growing up? Given your connection to him, is Webb Pierce in there?
JDR: Faron Young and Marty Robbins are two of my biggest influences as well as Hank Williams Sr., Ray Price, Webb Pierce, Billie Holiday, Jackie Wilson, Chet Baker, James Brown, and of course Elvis have all had a part in my music expression.
Some of my favorites on the Heartaches and Honkytonks album include the dance floor thumpin', rockabilly number, "She's Wild," the classic honky tonker, "Women and Whiskey," and the sprawling frontier cowboy tale, "Las Cruces, Live By The Gun." What song or songs on that album give the best idea of who you are as an artist?
JDR: Those are all three songs that I actually wrote myself, so they are great examples of where my artistic outlets go. The other songs on the album that were personally written include “This Honky Tonk’s My Home,” “Memory Lane,” “Moanin Low,” and “Live By The Gun, Die By The Rope.”
What did the Ameripolitan Award mean to you for 2019 Best Rockabilly Male? What was it like to hold up that award in front of all those great musicians and friends and family in Memphis earlier this year?
JDR: The Best Rockabilly Male award was a surreal experience, and my wife was with me at the event. We were both surprised, and it was totally unexpected. It was an honor to be acknowledged with so many talented singer/songwriter/musicians. The awards event was a thrilling day for us and for our friends and family as well as our promoters. Ameripolitan is the real deal event for Americana artists, and we are so glad that Dale Watson and Celine Lee and their entire team put so much work and passion into making it successful.
Honky Tonk and Rockabilly were born in the dance halls and honky tonks of a long-past era. Who do you see as the audience for your music today?
JDR: We strive to create music that has appeal to both past and modern generations by crossing over the eras, yet remaining palatable to today’s listeners.
What's a typical day look like for you now? And how do you balance your home life with touring?
JDR: My wife and I run a dance studio and era/theme entertainment business in Oklahoma City, and I stay busy doing the daily operations as well as maintenance on the building. We make the most of the time we have at home with our kids and parents and have a large honey-do list before we leave town for shows and when we get back.
You played a set with the great James Intveld in Memphis for the Ameripolitan Showcases. Growing up in the musical tradition that you did and being a performer from an early age, who is the most famous musician you've crossed paths or shared a stage with?
JDR: Playing music with James Intveld has been one of my greatest honors. I’ve had the blessing of getting to know him and become friends with him over the last two years. Every time we make the trip to California, we make a point to catch up and spend time together.
What's coming up for Jimmy Dale Richardson? Do you have a new album in the works for 2019?
JDR: We are headed to California in May to record new material I’ve been writing to be released as soon as possible.
(Above) Jimmy Dale Richardson playing at the Minglewood Hall Showcase for the 2019 Ameripolitan Awards in Memphis.
Jimmy is a multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist who writes his own lyrics, sings, and plays a pleasing musical melting pot of hillbilly, western bop, honky tonk, roots rock and roll, mountain, blue grass, blues, and soul.
An Oklahoma native, Jimmy took home the Ameripolitan Award for Best Rockabilly Male this year at the Memphis awards show.
His latest album is Heartaches and Honkytonks .
Women and Whiskey
I went out last night,
have a little fun
Met a pretty brunette girl
who liked to call me hon
She cuddled up close
til my money was all spent
She said so long, now she's gone
I can't pay the rent.
Women and whiskey
will make a fool of you
Heartaches and hangovers
won't take away your blues
Still I keep drinking
at every joint in town
There's not damn old honky tonk
I ain't been around
Jimmy Dale Richardson, Heartaches and Honkytonks
For all news and updates on Jimmy, check him out at : https://www.facebook.com/jimmydalerichardson/
Talk about your evolution from a little boy in Italy to the international godfather of Rockabilly. How did you get started with this music? Is there a particular musician that really inspired you to play rockabilly? What's the rockabilly scene like in Italy?
DDG: “Music” was in my parents’ house all the time in my childhood. In fact, my father was a music fanatic. He played jazz, swing, blues, folk at every hour, bringing me, since I was a young boy, into the record stores he frequented, and I attended a lot of concerts with him.
I always considered the music not as a hobby but a real job, and this was considered “weird” in the Sicily of the late 80s early 90s. When I put together my first trio, it was 1994, and I was playing Texas blues. The people started dancing, and so I discovered that the music I was playing was more “rock and roll” than classic blues. A friend of mine, at this point, said to me “did you ever listen to the Stray Cats?” This was the turning point! Nothing was the same for me after I heard that amazing trio with its minimalist approach to the music and an incredible guitar player. The rockabilly scene in Italy is not bad; rockabilly music is pretty “fashionable” now, but the problem is many rockabilly musicians don’t know what’s behind the rockabilly music. I mean the components of this kinda music: the early country, the Western swing and the blues.
What's the first rockabilly song you ever recorded? Do you remember the circumstances around that recording?
DDG: My very first rockabilly recording was in early 2000 with a band called “The Blues Boppers.” I was playing with these guys mixing the rockabilly music with some jazz stuff. We recorded a rockabilly version of a Johnny Mercer’s hit of the fifties. Was fun and the final result was completely different from the original recording.
We recently saw you for three shows in Chicago, and we are naming the one at the Montrose Saloon as an early consideration for A Shot Of Honky Tonk's Show of the Year. We were around a bunch of veteran musicians who were marveling at your technique in various styles whether it was rockabilly, honky tonk, cowboy jazz, western swing, or Dick Dale surf music. Did you have a guitar guru growing up? Is it all self-taught? Where does your technique come from? We know you always cite Bill Kirchen as a major influence.
DDG: Rockabilly was the best thing ever happened in my life (talking about my career). It’s like the “outta water” part of a big iceberg. If you wanna be a good rockabilly musician, you need to learn what’s behind the language of this, apparently, simple kind of music. Rockabilly music is a melting pot of country, blues, Western swing and a lotta twang. I started practicing all these styles, and I completely fell in love with these components. I really wanna be able to play all these “shadows” that create the rockabilly authentic sound. I practice constantly, and I listen to the “godfathers” of this music every day! I often mention Bill Kirchen as one of my mentors, and I wanna explain why. I play in a trio, and I often play some songs that are supposed to be played by big combos (four or five pieces usually, with fiddles, pedal steel guitars, piano and more). Bill always plays with his trio, and he is definitely credible when he plays a honky tonk tune with just a bass and drums behind him. His way to do the rhythm, his way to do the solos, his way to draw between the spaces of the voice is something incredible. Of course, I can mention tons of other guitarists from whom I take inspiration, but Bill remains the best example for a “working class musician” like me. You asked me where my technique comes from, and I tell you that I never stop practicing, even when I’m on tour. The guys of the band literally hate me, because I’m always searching for an acoustic guitar to improve my skills on the acoustic. And when I’m not on tour, especially in the morning (my wife is out for her job and my kids are at school) I’m able to stay 5 hours with the guitar by my hands. Sometime, I sit on the couch to watch a movie and keep the guitar with me to practice in an unconscious way. I took this trick from the great Tommy Emmanuel: he told me that the guitar is the best way to spend his time!
You have a beautiful signature guitar that you take on tour wherever you play. Where did you get it? Who made it? Could you tell us a little about the-one-and-only DonCaster?
DDG: This is a guitar made by the one and only Paolo Lardera. His guitars are called “BlackBeard.” He gave me this one right before the USA tour of 2018. When I plugged in this raw telly for the first time I said to myself “wow … I’m officially a BlackBeard addict.” He is a guy you gotta know before ordering an instrument. He lives in the deep north of Italy, and he takes care of each instrument he makes. I think he really feels sad when a guitar goes away from his shop. He knows me very well; he knows my music and my approach to the music. And the instrument he made for me reflects both of my and his attitude: a road dog for a road dog! I have a lot of guitars in my house, but I really can’t imagine to go over without this piece of wood and steel. Do you wanna know the way he conquers his customers? I’ll tell you. He is present at every guitar show in Italy, and his booth is full of crazy instruments, built with passion, red wine and handmade “salami.” No expensive woods, no expensive finishes, like the food he provides for his customers!
Marco Betti just recently joined the band as your new drummer. You guys are an incredibly tight trio. Tell us a little about the other musicians in your band, Marco and Luca Chiappara, and what it takes to be in the Don Diego Trio.
DDG: When Sandro, our ex-drummer, said to me (almost crying) “guys I have to quit the band because I wanna stay with my family,” I soon thought about Marco. We played together many times during my “spare time” from the Don Diego Trio in other projects. He is a touching musician, the first drummer I have ever met in my life that really loves the MUSIC and not only the things related to his instrument. And, as important, he is such a nice guy. We stay together for weeks and weeks, sharing the same room in the hotel, the small space of a car during the journeys, the same table for lunch, dinner and breakfast. We talk a lot about everything, and we love the magic atmosphere we have together onstage. He is now bringing a new flashy swinging attitude to our show.
Luca was in the band from the first minute. He is a talented musician and also a funny little boy. He and I, onstage, are like the classic comic duos: I’m grumpy and old, he is funny and young and the audience seems to love this “acting.” Of course, our musical skills are the basic point of our show, but we love to see people happy not only for the music we play.
Is there a big difference between American audiences who might be used to rockabilly and European audiences who may not be so familiar with it? Are you received differently in your home country compared to the U.S.?
DDG: Honestly, I have to say that the American audience sometimes is more open minded. The music we play is obviously part of your DNA and when I say “Buck Owens” here in the USA you say “wow,” while in Italy people say “who?” But it’s always up to me. I have to make a reaction! You really can’t expect that people know everything about your musical process. Behind this point of view, every audience is the same, and my job is to give them a sort of happy ending of a boring day. So, USA people and European people have to be approached in a different way but always with the same respect for the music we play.
Talk about your experience with jazz? Aren't you an author of a book on jazz theory?
DDG: I’m not a “jazz guy.” I consider myself a swing fanatic. Think about the lyrics of “you don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.” That’s my motto. When I play some jazzy tune, I think about Bob Wills or Django Reinhardt, and people into the “snob” jazz scene always think about me as a weirdo. But I don’t care … I do what I wanna do and what makes me feel good. I like to mix the country music with the jazz substitutions, and also, I like to “twang” on a swing tune. No one will die if I commit these sacrileges. I’m not able to write a book. What I do is the result of 25 years onstage for almost 200 gigs a year. I can write a book about the things you have to watch out for on the road.
What does it mean to musicians who come from Europe to travel to places like Memphis, Austin, or Nashville and perform in those cities? And how did you get involved with the Ameripolitan Awards and Dale Watson.
DDG: I’m really scared every time I play in places like Memphis, Austin, Nashville, or Chicago. These are music capitals, and I come from a small town in the middle of nowhere in Sicily. But I love these kinds of challenges and, believe me, I read a lot about the story of these cities, because I don’t wanna be unprepared. I respect the sound of these cities and, if I have to play in Nashville, I wanna be sure I can play a lot of Tennessee rock and roll. And the same gotta happen in every place I go. It is an honest tribute to the culture I really love.
The first time I was nominated at the Ameripolitan Awards was like a bomb for me. I soon understood it is not only a festival, but it is a family! The 90% of the people I know in the USA come from the Ameripolitan family and all of them are giving me an incredible amount of help, both in the USA and Europe. I’m really proud to be part of this movement, and I can’t stop saying thank you to Dale for keeping us all together under his wing.
"Greetings from Austin" is your latest CD. What track should people who are not familiar with the Don Diego Trio listen to first on this CD to get a handle on what you guys are about?
DDG: OMG! I can’t answer! I really love this album. I wrote the songs in few weeks, I recorded the album in two days, and I still love to play the songs from the album every night. I don’t wanna choose a song because each song is a tribute to one of my Texan heroes. So, please take your time and listen to it from the beginning to the end.
Also, tell us a little about the documentary "Greetings from Austin." Why did you make it and who's it for? Where did you come up with the idea? Who is involved in the production of the documentary?
DDG: It’s Vittorio Bongiorno’s idea. He is a writer, a movie maker, a photographer, a good friend and a funny guy. Of course, he is crazy! Only a madman would make a documentary about a Sicilian cowboy trying to conquer the real cowboys! It was supposed to be a drama, but it is actually a fun movie. I “act naturally” during the movie (I always wanted to use this sentence).
(Above) Two-time Ameripolitan Award nominees, The Don Diego Trio ripping through a three-hour rockabilly eruption at the Montrose Saloon in Chicago.
There are so many levels along the way to musical mastery, and the godfather of Rockabillly, Italy's own Don Diego Geraci is clearly a rare talent, whether he is playing rockabilly, honkytonk, cowboy jazz, western swing, or Dick Dale surf music.
Check out Don Diego Trio's latest album, Greetings from Austin.
I Didn't Walk The Line
I didn't walk the line
for a long, long time
Flying like a bird from place to place
I didn't walk the line
for a long, long time
Living my life at night
Being drunk all the time
Too many hours in a roadhouse
Too many beers in my brain
Too many calls at the phone
Trying to explain
I didn't walk the line
for a long, long time
Since I found you
in a lonesome place.
The Don Diego Trio, Greetings From Austin
To keep up with all the news and updates from the Don Diego Trio, check them out online at :
Click below for the trailer to the documentary, Greetings From Austin, which features The Don Diego Trio.
Tell us a little about how you grew up. You are from Michigan, correct, and had a childhood steeped in gospel and folk music? How did you get from there to what you are doing now in New Orleans?
ER: My journey to New Orleans began when I graduated high school. I was stir-crazy and began traveling. When I was living in Vermont, a friend made me a mix CD that became a sort of musical compass for me; it had Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith and other early blues and jazz musicians. I connected with those songs in a major way. When I came to New Orleans and met other young people who were in to that music and singing those songs that I knew and loved... I knew I'd found a special place.
There's a depth to your lyrics and insights offered by your music that people might miss because of the arresting nature of your voice, which we love for its sincerity and intimacy. Which singers from the past or present inspire your approach to singing? Where did you come by your sound?
ER: Hank Williams Sr. is my guy. His voice carries so much in it. It makes you want to dance, or cry; whatever he is feeling he is able to express with his voice. It's an emotional intelligence that is quite vast. Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Townes Van Zandt do it. I look to songwriters who take risks and who aren't just trying to hit the note. But my songwriter friends are my main inspiration: Julia Sanders, Max Bien Kahn, Kiki Cavazos, Dean Johnson, all the boys from The Deslondes, and so many more.
Could you tell us what it was like to work with Jack White? From all accounts, his approach to recording his solo album, Boarding House Reach, was somewhat eccentric, and you are featured on the country-soul track, "What's Done is Done," with both vocals and guitar.
ER: One of the coolest things about working with Jack is that he records with analog gear. The tape machine we used in Studio B at Capitol Records is the size of a large animal, I think it was an AMPEX 200. I love recording on tape. If the whole band is playing and you're doing vocals live, you don't want to mess up! I love that focused intensity. I think that's where the magic comes from. It has less to do with the tape machine, and more to do with the way we interact with it.
What were your impressions of SXSW 2019? From a first-timer's standpoint, what did it mean for you to play there?
ER: I don't have an opinion either way. I'd be happy singing my songs to a basket of kittens if my booking agent thought it wad a good career move. Point is, I am grateful for any chance to travel and sing and play guitar.
For us, the highlights of your initial album, 2017's This Time Last Night, include the old school country sounds of "Wanton Way of Loving," the expressive, wistful longing in "Don't Blame It on the Moon," and the boogie-woogie enthusiasm of "Jump Down Baby." How has your songwriting evolved going into the second album? Or how have you evolved?
ER: People can expect more of the same: dance songs, lap steel and fiddle, more classic country. But my songwriting process has shifted. It's less spontaneous, but in a good way, because now I make time each day to think and work on music. I spend more time editing my songs and journeying into my subconscious to distill moments of truth, exploring new chord progressions, and challenging my voice to reach for new notes.
We love your new single, "Handyman," which is currently available on all streaming platforms. What inspired you to write that song? From someone who grew up in the 70s, it sounds like a modern, inverse narrative to James Taylor's "Handy Man." This time, in your version, you actually request the handyman.
ER: I hadn't heard that song until was getting ready to release mine and figured I ought to do a Google search for other songs named Handyman to see what was out there. It turns out that James Taylor covered Handy Man; it was originally written and recorded by Jimmie Jones in 1960, and it's an excellent R&B tune. My inspiration for writing Handyman is the same as my inspiration for writing most of my songs; I wanted to express my point of view to someone, and I'm not the best at talking about my feelings. Most of the time its easier for me to sing them. A line from a great song called "Try Again" by The Kernal comes to mind, "I'm so bad at words when my feelings hurt."
You just finished up recording your sophomore album, You Made It This Far. What was this experience like? What can we expect from this album? Who produced it, and who played on it? When is it going to be released?
ER: To be honest, I just finished recording my third album! My sophomore album has been finished since last summer. I was waiting to release it until I had found the right record label, and thankfully, I met these amazing people who run an indie label called Father/Daughter Records. You Made It This Far is due August 23rd.
Considering you got a relatively late start in the music business, the last couple of years have seen you really catch up to your contemporaries. It's got to be a little bit of a trip to go from composing songs in your head and taking a year off to learn guitar to fielding critically acclaimed albums, touring nationally, playing SXSW, and singing with Jack White. Can you relate a little bit what it's like to be in the heady whirlwind you've currently found yourself in?
ER: The whirlwind is fun, and I'm ready, so long as I can find the time to bust out of town every once in a while and go on an adventure and detach from emails and responsibilities. Real "downtime," time to improvise and just exist, is essential.
You've talked about the themes of "radical acceptance" that run through your work especially your first album, This Time Last Night. Are you closer to accepting yourself? Is acceptance a lifetime project? How big a part does your music play in this process?
ER: It's everything! It took me my whole life to learn to accept myself as a creative person. I think growing up in the Midwest made being an "artist" seem like a death sentence; the economy is shit, everyone is struggling, and yet I want to be an artist?? But I've been working through that, and now my direction with radical acceptance is examining moments of emotional pain. Somebody hurts you, or you hurt someone; it's essential to begin the process of acceptance. When things happen that are out of our control, the worst thing in world is to become bitter. I'm not saying we aren't responsible for our actions, because we definitely are. I'm talking about deep emotional healing and trying to better understand old pain. I'm at the beginning of this journey and it's probably gonna take more than two albums to figure out.
Where to next? Support the new album? What does the summer hold for Esther Rose?
ER: Hopefully there will be cool clear water to swim in, beautiful friends, and lots of gigs.
(Above) New Orleans gifted singer-songwriter Esther Rose performing at the Chicago Honkytonk Showcase last July.
Esther's critically acclaimed album, This Time Last Night, is available on all streaming platforms. She recently collaborated on a country-soul single with Jack White entitled, "What's Done is Done." She has a new album debuting August 23, You Made It This Far, available for pre-order, and she just released the new single below entitled, "Handyman."
It takes a little elbow grease and some spit-shine
Gonna take a little more than that
to fix this heart of mine
But you're a handy man
You got the tools
won't you make it so my heart don't ache
and I ain't nobody's fool
You measure twice before you make the cut
Sharpen up the knife, so it won't hurt too much
But you're a handy man
You learned your trade
Won't you make it so my heart don't ache
Make it strong and unafraid
And I hope you change your mind
And I hope you change my mind
Won't you try
And I hope you change your mind
And I hope you change my mind
Won't you try
Esther Rose, Handyman
To catch up with all things Esther Rose, check out her web site here.
Click below to watch the video for Esther's new single
Much of your family was involved in classical music correct? Tell us a little about the musical environment you grew up in as a child.
MM: Yes, correct! My mother’s aunt, who always lived with us, was an opera singer. My father was a lawyer, but he was also a journalist involved in music deals, and he used to listen to music at home pretty often. He loved classical music, but I remember him listening to Louis Armstrong a lot. Moreover, one of my sisters, Giovanna, is a classical piano player, but she plays guitar too, just for fun. I remember so many nights in which family friends used to come to our house for dinner and then spend some time with guitars singing songs. I was particularly attracted by that joy and fun coming out from music.
Growing up in Catania, a port city on Italy's east coast, how did you get introduced to rockabilly music? Was there any single record that was particularly important and started you down that path?
MM: Early eighties rockabilly was something “trendy” around Europe caused by the great revival brought by the Stray Cats music and other rockabilly bands coming from the UK. Catania has always been considered one of the most “rock” and “musical” Italian cities. At that time, there was a huge rockabilly movement in Catania. My sister Giovanna used to hang out with a rockabilly guy that gave her lot of tapes and records. I was ten and, especially after my father died, that guy became a kind of model to me. I remember that he gave me a tape with music recorded from a British radio show called “Radio Memphis” hosted by a DJ named Roy Williams. He played mainly Memphis music coming out of Sun Records. I used to listen that tape a hundred times per day!!! Same thing about a record that was a Sun Records compilation that I listened so many times with other two albums: Gonna Ball (Stray Cats), and Chuck Berry Greatest Hits.
When you originally started playing with him, what was your first impressions of psychedelic rocker, pioneer, photographer, performance artist, tango dancer, Tav Falco.
MM: Actually, the first time I saw Tav Falco, it was late eighties in Catania. I was maybe eighteen. I remember that I remained very impressed by his approach to rock’n’roll music, I mean, with tons of other music influences. At that age, I was still attracted to the traditional r’n’r and rockabilly, so even though I bought two albums, actually I listened to them years later – also, because I never imagined to find myself being his guitarist and producer. It happened that I’ve read about him in many music magazines, and I have to say that I’ve always been attracted by his original way of being a rocker as well as a tango dancer. I started to play with Tav in summer of 2014; we’ve been making records and touring together since then. Tav was my “Train to Memphis.”
On any given night, you are expected to play old country blues, psychedelic surf, tango drenched dance tunes, and crimestory-caberet. How do you prepare to play with Tav? He has quite a catalog of albums and over four decades of music from which to draw.
MM: Of course, after five years, we have collected new material that I produced, recorded, and played, so that’s fine. At the beginning, he sent me a very long list with at least 50 songs that he wanted me to learn. Can you imagine? Also, because the real point wasn’t to learn 50 songs, but try to catch that weird attitude that he’s able to give to his material. You never know what to expect. So, I learned more to be ready to jump into places and atmospheres I’ve never been.
You wrote or cowrote several tracks off the “Cabaret of Daggers” album, and you also produced the album. Tell us a little about those sessions. Which tracks did you write? The album jumps from a cover of Billy Holiday's Strange Fruit all the way to the rise and fall of imperial glory in Red Vienna. Is there a connecting thread to the songs on this album? Also, how did you get American opera singer Kallen Esperian to sing the beautiful closing aria on Red Vienna.
MM: Even in the previous album that I produced for Tav, “Command Performance,” I cowrote a song, Memphis Ramble, but Cabaret of Daggers was totally different ever since I listened to the material that Tav had sent me. He wanted to realize such a more elegant as well as bizarre album than the typical r’n’r record; something able to drive the listeners through different worlds, a sort of a bridge between the American and the European cultures. I cowrote New World Order Blues and Red Vienna. It was a big challenge for me to write that song not being a classical musician, but something came out in a proper way, and I’m glad we made it. The idea about having Kallen Esperian in that song came to my mind while we were recording the song in Rome. Kallen was my neighbor in Memphis, so it was pretty easy contact her. She was enthusiastic about this collaboration, and she did an amazing job.
You recently played on a Rebecca Jed record that will be coming up soon. You did this in Nashville correct? When you come into recording session, does the artist plan everything that you are to play? Do you develop your own lead guitar melodies or work with the artist on the song structure? How does this work? Give us an insight to the process when you play on someone else's songs.
MM: Well, there are different ways to collaborate and operate into a recording session. There are artists, arrangers, producers, or music directors that tell you exactly what they want. Others give you any indications about the attitude that they would love to catch, others they leave you totally free to play following your feeling, and so on. Working with Rebecca was cool. One-day session in Nashville. She had sent me the songs before, but I haven’t done anything but listen to them. We recorded live during the session, and she liked what I did, and we kept it. Then we made some guitar lines overdubs and got it. I like to play for other artists trying to catch their feelings and building something together, but keeping my sound as much as I can. I do the same thing with the musicians when it’s me who produces the record.
Memphis is a world apart from Italy. How has the music scene been for you in Memphis, and why did you want to move to there?
MM: I chose Memphis because I grew up with Memphis music. Memphis has a great history and a huge energy. Everybody can feel the vibes coming out from this magic place. Memphis has been treating me great so far, like I was one of its sons. I have to say that I’m a man from the South, and I can affirm that the South has always something special, more than other places. I met a lot of musicians and artists here. I play a lot here, and I’m so proud that I can define Memphis as my new home.
We saw you on stage at the Ameripolitan Awards in February. You certainly looked like you were having fun. What's it like to play in support of Dale Watson and all those other great musicians during an awards show like you did earlier this year? There seems to be a lot of moving parts up there.
MM: I met Dale in Austin in 2017 when I participated as guitarist for my old friend Don Diego Geraci who invited me to play with his trio. Then, I met Dale in Memphis after he decided to move over there part time. I’m very flattered to be a part of the Ameripolitan Awards Production, and it’s a privilege play with him as well as in the Ameripolitan Orchestra. It constantly gives me the opportunity to meet and play with great artists. So, my eternal gratitude to Mr. Watson.
Do you have any other projects that you are currently working on -- either as a producer, writer, or guitarist?
MM: I have a 45 coming out next November on Record Store Day, for Black and Wyatt records from Memphis. I can define it as my debut album here in the U.S. More details will be announced soon.
Give us an idea of where you will be this summer. Touring with Tav Falco? Any summer festivals in the US? Where can we find you?
MM: I’ll be playing in Memphis till mid July, then I will fly to Europe. I have some festivals over there: Helsinki, Switzerland, Italy. Check it out on my website www.mariomonterosso.com or Facebook page.
(Above) Primo guitarist, composer, producer, Mario Monterosso, performing at the Ameripolitan Awards in Memphis this past February.
We've seen him pick guitar for Dale Watson, Tav Falco and at the Ameripolitan Awards, Mario also plays sessions, composes, and produces out of his adopted home of Memphis.
Well, I woke up at midnight
And I heard on the late world news
That the world is in a bind
If you ain't half deaf or blind
You can't but help see
That the new world order's
Got you in bind
So I went to the window
And I looked down on the town
And I looked out at the people
Wearing a frown
And I looked out at the people
Heads bowed down
They just don't know
We're on the brink of destruction
Orchestrated by the new world order
You may receive your instruction
Dumb yourself down
Or head south of the border
I got a feeling I can't lose
We're gonna be all crying the blues
According to a roundup of the late world news
Yeah, the world is hanging by a string
Mario Monterroso, Tav Falco, New World Order Blues
For all things Mario Monterroso, check out his Facebook page here.
Tell us a little about how you grew up. You were born in Virginia but wound up in Alaska in a rural Indian village correct? How did that happen, and how did your upbringing shape your later musical career?
GJ: My mom and dad got divorced when I was eight, and we were living in Kentucky at the time. My dad got stationed in Alaska in the Air Force. So, I decided to go live with my dad up in Alaska. I lived up there from the age of 8 to 18, until I joined the Marine Corps. We moved to Galena Alaska, which is a small Indian village on the Yukon River where people survive on hunting moose and eating salmon and one of the beautiful places I've ever seen. It's a rugged life. And I think that as far as what I took away from that experience is many things. One particular is a tremendous amount of respect for Native Americans. And being a white minority most my childhood and adolescence, I learned a lot of respect for nature and beauty. A lot of my songs are inspired by places or people. I think a lot of that had to do with growing up in a rural area surrounded by rugged beauty, and then the winters were so rough, 50, 60, 70 below zero, that you just had to be a sturdy person to make it through all that stuff. A sense of community and all kinds of things made me into the person I am today. I couldn't really put my finger on exactly one thing that's influenced my music from Alaska, but it's definitely helped to mold me into the person I am today.
You spent eight years in the US Marine including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. We see a lot of veterans at your shows. How meaningful and gratifying is it to you to sing your songs to people that served with you in those places? Did you ever perform to your fellow marines while on active duty?
GJ: I joined in the Marine Corps in '96 shortly after high school. I did a couple years in Okinawa. And then, the rest of my time was in Camp Pendleton. We were the first wave to go over to Iraqi Freedom. As far as how the Marine Corps affected my music, I've got a couple things in a couple different songs about it. Not a whole lot. I'm still working on how to translate that into song. I did sneak a guitar over to Iraq and play for my buddies when we weren't in the dirt. It was a great experience. I made some lifelong friends and brothers, and I'm very proud of my military service. I have a lot of marines that come to my shows and show support, and it's a treasure.
At what point did you make the commitment to become a full-time musician? Was there any single event or moment in time that crystallized this decision for you?
GJ: You know, I made a promise to a Marine Corps brother of mine when we were in Iraq, and he told me, he said, if we make it back, promise me that you'll give music a chance. I don't know if that was the actual point I realized I was going to go after it full time. But I did a show with Billy Joe Shaver in 2013, and I had been writing some music and hitting it pretty hard with my band at the time, and I hung up the phone with the promoter for that show, and he told me I was gonna be opening up for Billy Joe. Billy Joe's a big time hero of mine. As soon as I hung up the phone, I wrote a song, in about 20 minutes, called "Honky Tonk Life." It's about what Billy Joe's done with his life, and what I'm doing with mine now. And I get to play that show with Billy Joe. He came up to me right after we got done playing, and he told me that I thought Waylon Jennings was playing and just gave me some real good, positive feedback. Then about two years later, I opened for him again, and I got to play that song for him that I wrote. He sat there and took his cowboy hat off. He listened to every word that came out of my mouth and told me he wished he had stole that one. That was a pretty good validation of songwriting and very encouraging to have your hero basically tell you that you wrote a good song. We won some awards throughout the years too, a couple substantial awards. Down in Texas, we won Outlaw Group of the Year for Ameripolitan music. And that was a big deal. Just little things like that add up. You have to hold on to that stuff, and it keeps you marching forward.
In 2018, you were named Best Outlaw Country Artist in LA Weekly’s annual Best of L.A. issue. With all the other distractions available in that part of the country, how hard was it to establish a dedicated country fan base in Southern California?
GJ: Yeah. Best Outlaw Country Band in L.A. was a big-time honor for us. We've been playing the better part of 10 years all up and down California. As far as building a fan base, well you know you constantly build a fan base. But I think maybe the reason that we're fortunate to have a good following is because we're doing stuff that not a whole lot of people are doing in California. A lot of people mistake that California doesn't like country music, and that's not the case. We've found just a really good reception and family in California. They've taken really good care of us and supported us. We're very fortunate to have people that want to come see us all the time. I think the only thing I can compare it to is Dwight Yoakam, you know, being from Kentucky and then come and getting broken out of L.A. Obviously, my situation is completely different. But, we can kind of stick out. We're doing traditional, Outlaw honkytonk music that's not like the Laurel Canyon sound or the Gram Parsons thing. It's a little bit deeper, a little bit more rooted in the south. It's just great how it's gone over the years, and we're looking forward to continually building our fan base and pushing out all over the nation and hopefully hit Europe pretty soon. So, California does love country.
Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country had you on regular rotation with your six-song EP, Where The Honkytonk Belongs, and it was one of the top-selling Outlaw Country albums on iTunes. How did that come about and how important has that outlet been to further establish your career.
GJ: That first album, the first E.P. that we came out with was something that we did collectively as a band, and we self-produced it. We saved money from shows to go to the studio and record. We saved the money to press our own CD, so it was completely independent. We did it all ourselves. And so, we had something to sell at shows and that kind of stuff. When I got picked up by Five Music Inc., they helped me get it on the Internet, on iTunes and Spotify, and all that was very helpful, because we could actually get compensation, royalties. So, we're real proud of it. It's kind of a starting point for me, and we've been continually growing since then and songs are getting better, I think. But Where The Honky Tonk Belongs is always gonna be a real near and dear to my heart. Some really good songs on there. "This Old Prison" with Gary Brandin on pedal steel is still one of my favorite works that I've done.
In 2019, you recorded an excellent cover version of Country Road by James Taylor (here). Why did you decide to introduce that standard to a traditional country audience?
GJ: I've always been a big James Taylor fan. Since I was a kid, my mom and dad would sing James Taylor songs in the house, and my mom absolutely loved James Taylor. James Taylor has written some really good country songs like Bartender Blues. I believe George Jones cut that one. James Taylor wrote that song, and I just thought it would be a good pairing of my voice and one of his songs and wanted to see what people thought of it. And it's doing really well. I think it was a good move, and I hope you all like it.
The song, "Restless Ways," is getting a lot of traction on the various streaming platforms, and that song could be a road anthem for any honkytonk band. How hard is to write new music when touring? Where and when do you find your best inspiration for writing new material?
GJ: Restless Ways is one of the most fun songs that I've written. I had the idea for it for many years actually when I had the guitar riff in my head. And I knew it was gonna be something good and just couldn't put my finger on it. I had a songwriting session with a guy named George Singleton. I told him about my idea, and we got together and wrote that song, and it really came to life in the studio when Vance Powell helped us get it together. You know it's just about being on the road and the things that you got to not think about and the things that you've got to focus on. It's hard. You never have enough money, and you're just trying to make it to the next town and trying to give everybody everything you got and leave them wanting more. And that's kind of what it's about.
You worked with Vance Powell (Jack White, Chris Stapleton, Willie Nelson) on your upcoming album, Western Gold. Who else played on the album? What was that experience like?
GJ: Working with Vance Powell was something else. He's a mad man. He definitely took the music to a whole new level and gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted. As far as who's on the album, musical director and on guitar was James Mitchell. We had Dan Dugmore on pedal steel. Michael Webb on keys. David Gilliard and Leroy Powell on bass. On drums, we had Dale Daniel and Chris Powell. Kristen Rogers was on backup vocals, which was amazing. Oh, I was on there too. It was really good experience and just blew all of our minds when we got done with the sessions. It was really cool.
Our favorites from the new album include the road anthem, "Restless Ways," the self-medicated two-stepper "Bottle In My Hand," and the hard-driving, country rocker, "Basket Case." How do you categorize your sound and who do you primarily think of as your audience when writing these songs?
GJ: I don't really categorize myself with any particular sound. Our stuff is pretty roots country, outlaw country, renegade country, whatever you want to call it. It's got a lot of traditional aspects, and then some of the songs have some progressive stuff too. The difference is we're not trying to cross any kind of particular genres and, if there's a blues influence, it's a roots-blues influence, so I guess that's what makes us a little bit different than a lot of the other folks out there. As far as categorizing what I was thinking when I was writing the songs as far as a fan base goes, I don't ever think about who I'm writing a song for or who I'm trying to reach and just write the songs that I have inside of me, and the songs will find the people. At least, that is what I believe, and that's what's happened so far.
What are your plans for the rest of 2019? Are there any shows coming up that you are particularly looking forward to in support of the new album? When will you get back to Chicago or the Midwest?
GJ: As far as 2019 goes, we're going to be on the road. We're doing a lot of travelling, and we're trying to build our fan bases in different pockets of the United States. That way we can sustain ourselves to move into the smaller markets and larger markets as well. The goal for the album tour is to get a supporting spot opening for a larger act. Someone like maybe Travis Tritt or Charlie Daniels or somebody that's in the same kind of vein that we are where we can get in front of their fan base, and their fan base will love us as well. And then from there, we'll take off on our own and spread the word. That's the plans.
I've also been doing some songwriting too to get ready for this next album. Hopefully. See if this one is gonna grow legs and move us onto our next endeavor. I'd like to get over to Australia as well in 2019 some point and play for those folks. But the main goal is just to keep building our fan base. Keep out there on the road, keep making fans, and moving on to the next town. That's what I want to do.
(Above) Born free. Ameripolitan Award winning Outlaw country music artist, Gethen Jenkins, headlining A Day In The Country festival in Chicago this past June.
Gethen grew up on the Yukon River in Alaska, served two tours of duty with the Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he's won an Ameripolitan Award for Best Outlaw Group in 2015. In 2018, he was named Best Outlaw Country Artist in LA Weekly’s annual Best of L.A. issue.
Gethen's new album, Western Gold, is out today, July 26, on all the usual streaming services including Spotify, iTunes, Amazon Music, and Apple Music.
Well, I am sitting here drinking,
Just as hard as I can,
Fighting off your memories,
With two great big old hands,
Y'all better keep your distance,
'Cause I'm a dangerous man, Lord Knows,
As long as I got that bottle in my hand.
I know what you're thinking and you ain't wrong,
You just keep on drinkin' Honey,
I'll sing you a song,
Don't you go tellin' me,
What to do with my heart,
It'll be the death of you, woman,
Tear your world apart.
Gethen Jenkins, Bottle in My Hands (click for video)
To stay up-to-date with Gethen, check out all his honkytonk comings and goings at www.gethenjenkinsmusic.com.
What are your musical backgrounds and how did you fall into the Honkytonk/Americana genre coming from North Carolina?
Steph: I am a self-taught musician for the most part, aside from some formal training on flute which was the first instrument I picked up in middle school band. My family grew up singing karaoke together when I was a kid. We’d go to this Japanese restaurant, the Dragon Palace, regularly on Wednesday nights in Hickory, NC, and that’s when I really fell in love with performing. Later on, in high school, I picked up the guitar and learned a few chords and songs from some books which eventually took me out to the local coffee shop’s open mic nights.
Like many folks living in the rural pockets of blue collar America, I grew up listening to country music; between my parents and grandparents, there was a healthy balance of the current 90’s hits and the golden classics. North Carolina has been the birthplace of many incredible musicians - from folks like Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson to John Coltrane, Nina Simone and Randy Travis. It’s never felt weird or out of place for me to be making country music here.
Mario: My parents put me in middle school band. I took up the trombone, learned to read music, and ended up playing it through college. But in high school, the guitar definitely took over. I started teaching myself with what I could find on the internet, playing a cheap acoustic guitar that was really hard to play. Then my parents got me a Peavey electric guitar and a little Fender amp for Christmas under the pretense that I would take lessons. For a few years, I learned from this guy who studied classical guitar at Oberlin and was also a Van Halen nerd. I ended up studying classical guitar in college, and I was obsessively consuming as much music as I could. I got into improvisation from jazz and jam bands. I got into studying theory and composition from a few great professors. I remember feeling the world open up when I recognized connections across different kinds of music. After college, I moved from Florida to North Carolina and got into acoustic music and bluegrass while playing with Steph. When I felt like getting back into electric guitar, it was a pretty simple sidestep to country music and all the subgenres. That’s the dirt bluegrass grew out of.
Was there a single moment when you realized you had incredible vocal chemistry with each other? What was that like to find out that your voices blended together so beautifully?
Steph: I first remember hearing Mario sing with me when we were riding in the car to a gig for the first band we played together in, Steph Stewart & the Boyfriends. He put on one of my demo recordings and started singing, and I got chills! Even now when we sing together, there are times when I can’t tell where my voice ends and his begins. He’s truly a master at harmony.
Mario: I love Steph’s voice and the way she sings. I’m just trying to meet and complement what she does with her voice. It helps that we listen to the Everly & Louvin Brothers, Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings ... you know, people who create a singular instrument with their voices. That’s something we strive for.
Similarly, at what point did you decide to go all in for the music and hit the road full-time? Did any single event or moment in time make this decision clear for you?
Steph: I don’t think there was really a single moment when we decided. We just took the full-time leap this past June. Before that, I was working with young children as a Montessori teacher for eight years, and I loved that. For a while, doing both was working out fine because of the openness of the school calendar. But last year especially, I was starting to feel like I was burning the candle at both ends between the two commitments, and I hate knowing that I’m half-assing anything I do. When we got an offer to join Red Kats Artist Management, which also manages our good friends Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, we had to really think long and hard about music being a viable option for us. That certainly made it easier. Ultimately, I’d regret my whole life never knowing what could have happened, and that’s not how I like to live my life. The worst thing that could happen is I might fail. Then what? I get to do something else!
You recently did a run of shows with the legendary, Guit-Steel man, Junior Brown. Was it just you two? Did you have a backup band? Tell us about that experience on tour.
Mario: Yea, we got to warm up the stage for him in Charlotte and Durham. We did those shows as a duo, which is how we typically play an opening slot. It was the coolest to see him and his band do their thing. He plays that Guit-Steel loud, and it’s amazing! It was a nice surprise that he was very kind to us and had great things to say about our sets each night. Watching him meet his huge line of fans at the merch table after the show was really great too. Every person in that line got an autograph and a picture from him. He’s an old-school class act.
Spending time together as a couple and working as performers, how hard is it for you to leave whatever problems you may be having during the day and not bring them on stage with you when you perform? What's the trick for keeping your personal lives and professional lives separate? Is that possible at all?
Steph: We argue a lot and piss each other off on a regular basis, but we’re a team, and we know how to call each other out. We’ve both been in relationships where people bottled everything up inside and never addressed issues head on, and they didn’t last. I think at the core of everything we are to one another, is a solid foundation of trust built upon open communication. It sounds kind of weird, but when we’re on stage, we assume a new identity as Blue Cactus, and we set everything else aside during that time so we can be present with the songs, the audience and with one another.
Mario: I don’t know what she’s talking about. Juuuust kidding! But really, I think the odd sound engineer would have more to do with problems onstage than we would with each other. All of the other non-musical “stuff“ we end up doing in order to get to that stage takes away a lot of the fun music-making or writing time. So being onstage is the payoff, when we get to do what we want. We feel pretty lucky that we get to do this together. We’re also pretty good at getting “alone time” when we need it.
Your self-titled album, Blue Cactus, pays homage to the wit and insight of old-time country wordsmiths with songs like Not Alone ('Til You Come Home), So Right (You Got Left), Years Are the Minutes. Do you have any favorite songwriters from the past that you admire for these types of lyrics? How did you learn to write lyrics in that style?
Mario: That style of songwriting has always appealed to us. The parentheses in song titles really bring some heft when you see them written on the record jacket. Someone like Tom T. Hall could pull you along with a simple, profound story and a refrain that sounds good, and then you’re hearing very specific language or details that end up leading you to some universal truth or experience in the span of three minutes or less. There’s some magic that happens when you hear a lyric, process it, and then ... boom, it means so much more! Or, there are rhyming puns and jokes all over a song and that just makes you feel good.
Many of your songs depict loss and grief told from an intensely personal viewpoint. How hard is it to come up with new material given your status as a couple? Where and when do you find your best inspiration for writing new material?
Steph: We typically write alone in the beginning, and we’re always respectful of the space and time we each need to take in the creative process. Most of the songs I write are inspired by personal experiences. I think these more introspective songs are my way of processing loss and grief. Being a couple doesn’t change the past hardships we’ve endured. If anything, our personal relationship has created a new lens of self awareness and understanding, allowing me to own up to the part I played in failed relationships. And remember when I said we argue a lot? Well, that can be pretty inspirational too.
Mario: I get in my head a lot. Sometimes, I try to write a certain kind of song, try out different perspectives or characters and that works out. It can be a better, faster process if I regularly free write and/or sit with a guitar. Something real comes spilling out when I’m not thinking too hard about it. I don’t see a therapist, so I try to unload my stuff when it piles up. Sometimes, I don’t realize until I’ve written it out and it’s staring back at me, that I needed to get something off my chest.
Taken overall, you've created a beautiful, melancholic sonic painting with the Blue Cactus album. One of our favorite songs on the album is From the Bottle to the Floor. With the delicate, muted harmonies and reflective piano and guitar backing tones, we can imagine couples slow-dancing and holding each other close without realizing they were shuffling to a story of boozy, heartbreak all told in three quarter time.
How are you able to give classic Honkytonk its due like you have and still innovate within that style? How much freedom do you feel within the genre?
Steph: We are fortunate to have such a deep well of inspiration to draw from, but that’s what any genre is to us at the end of the day: Inspiration. We can’t let what other artists have done before us dictate what we do. It has to inspire what we do, not put us into a box where we just do what other people have already done. That’s boring and pointless.
“From the Bottle (to the Floor)” is a masterful song written and sung by our dear friend Nick Vandenberg. He played bass with us prior in the Boyfriends and drums when we first started Blue Cactus before moving to Boston. Nick encouraged us to pursue Blue Cactus in the beginning and invited us over to his place to make our very first demos for the project. We’re big fans of his music and love collaborating with him.
Mario: I think any creative work, especially genre-based music, is made or valued within boundaries. As artists, the choice we have is whether or not those boundaries are to be exploited. We set out for the first album to acknowledge things we love in country music that’s 50 years or older, while writing songs that felt relevant to us. Putting in an unexpected chord progression or time signature makes it feel like ours.
Radioman from your 2018 EP features the harnessed power of Steph's evocative voice and the moody reverb of Mario's guitar in a track that contains a variety of layered, atmospheric elements. What was the inspiration for that song?
Steph: “Radioman” almost wrote itself. It never felt like I was the one in charge of that song. In the summer of 2017, Mario and I were at Wildacres, which is an artist retreat in the mountains of NC, to write tunes for our new record. In our downtime, we’d been having a lot of conversations about our nostalgia for things like video stores and the radio and wanted to write a song about that. I got to thinking about everything the radio had been to me and to all of the generations before me. Such a powerful piece of history with such a story to tell! So I imagined how people used to listen to the radio. What were they hearing? What did it mean to them? How did it shape the identity of our country? And that’s what Radioman is about.
Tell us what's next for Blue Cactus. Anything we should know about coming up?
Mario: We’re wrapping up our new album right now and look forward to releasing it. We’re really proud of the songs and performances, and can’t wait for everyone to hear them.
Above. Blue Cactus playing the Montrose Saloon August 13 in Chicago.
Blue Cactus is a modern cosmic country duo that features powerful, evocative vocals, songwriting fit for old-timey wordsmiths, layered, atmospheric instrumentation, and some of the purest, honey-dripping harmonies we've heard in a long time.
Composed of Steph Stewart (rhythm guitar, vocals) and Mario Arnez (lead guitar, vocals), their latest release is the self-titled Blue Cactus album.
So Right (You Got Left)
You thought of everything,
how can there be anything
that you couldn't have guessed?
Guess there are
things you never thought about,
the one you are going to do without
babe you're just so right you got left
What gives you the right?
Always making a show
I've got the wheel, you got the mouth,
one of us had to go
downtown to the courthouse,
my lawyer's getting you gone
thought you could just write me off,
what's left of you is still wrong
You thought of everything,
how can there be anything
that you couldn't have guessed?
Guess there are
things you never thought about,
the one you are going to do without
babe you're just so right you got left
What a sorry sight,
I could see all along
Thinking you belong and you're Mr. Right,
babe, you're Mr. Got Left
Click here for the official video for Radio Man.
To stay up-to-date with Blue Cactus, check their schedule, and watch for hopeful signs of a new album, click https://www.bluecactusmusic.com/
You started playing live music out in your father's honkytonk band when you were 10. Talk about that era and what was it was like to play in the bars and dance halls at such an early age. Were you a classic family band? Did it all seem normal?
CG: Country music was kind of changing in that era it or so it seemed. It was the early 80s, but we were still playing the old school stuff, Hank, Haggard, Cash, and Jones, etc., in smoky bars watching people punch each other on the dance floor. Sometimes, they would fall into the band, because a lot of the places we played didn’t have stages.
Yeah, it seemed normal to me, but I really didn’t know any other way being raised around music like that. I was shy at first and would only play with my back to the crowd. The drummer’s mom would have to come up and turn me around to face the crown. But hey, I was like 10 or 11! I got over it pretty quick. Looking back, I guess I would call us a classic family band. We were all related with the exception of the drummer who ended up later marrying my cousin, so I guess that kind of made him related too.
As a young man, who were the first bands that you started listening to that were all your own and didn't have anything to do with your father's choices? Where did the southern rock influences that seems to inhabit some of your live performances come from?
CG: Through the country and rockabilly stuff my dad turned me onto as a kid, I found the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, The Who, Eric Clapton, Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Doors, Credence Clearwater Revival, etc., on my own. He wasn’t into that stuff. There was a kid from town that was several years older than me that was sort of a record collector, and he was a fan of southern rock. He loaned me some Lynyrd Skynyrd albums one day, and I was hooked.
I feel like your rollicking, live song "Red Neck Sonsabitches" probably sums up the four years you spent in Nashville. This song could be an anthem for a lot of folks trying to write "actual" country music in Nashville. Is the song true (to a degree)? What were your years in Nashville like?
CG: Yeah, everything about that song is true, from rolling into town in a beat up four door Plymouth car to my conversation with Billy Joe Shaver about what I was doing in Nashville and staying true to who I was. His advice and that conversation will stay with me forever. I tried to make the best of those years I was there, learning the business. What to do, what not to do, etc. I met some good people and made some great friends. Cut an album, wrote a bunch of songs, but felt it was time for me to go take my music on the road, so that’s what I did. I feel a sense of peace on the highway that I could never find in the city.
Is it worth it from a musical growth standpoint to go to places like Nashville or Austin as a young artist just for the experience, even if it's just to gig and network with people who have been doing it longer and better than you? Would you do it again if you could repeat those years?
CG: I would do things differently if I could do it over again. I always felt I could’ve been more productive at networking, etc., if my wife Janel could have been there with me, but she couldn’t with kids at home. We even considered moving our family and relocating there, but it just never worked out. I got the advice from Dwight Yoakam’s drummer to either go to New York, Nashville, Austin, or LA, and it was good advice, so I would always be willing to repeat that advice to someone if they asked.
Your current album Smokin' Drinkin' & Gamblin' contains a great version of the song "Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets." We noticed it was co-produced by and featured Jim Vest on pedal steel who played on the original in 1977. Are you a big Johnny Paycheck fan? Why did you choose to cover that classic?
CG: Jim had a small publishing firm that I was writing songs for when I was there, and we became friends. He was always a father figure to me giving me great advice, etc. I grew up listening to Paycheck and always loved his stuff. When I decided to cut Smokin’ Drinkin’ & Gamblin,’ I asked Jim if he’d play on our version of Slide Off Your Satin Sheets (one of my favorites because of the low string bends he did). He said absolutely! So, we went in and cut it, and Jim ended up playing on most of the album with the exception of the title track.
You've played with bands as big as 38 Special, and in the last year with musicians such as Aaron Lewis, Jason Boland, Paul Cauthen, The Steel Woods, and Joe Diffee. Is there a performance or moment that stands out from one these shows?
CG: Playing with all those guys was great! I’m always trying to learn, and I try to take away a little piece of something from each show, whether it’s advice, or maybe construction of a particular song, etc., or just friendship. That 38 Special show seemed extra special. I grew up listening to those guys as a kid and always loved their music. So, I think we reached back for little something extra that night we opened for them.
The song “Good Ol’ Days” draws from conversations you had with your father. Walk us through that song and what it was like to talk to your father about the "Gather-Round-The-Radio" era?
CG: I’ve always been fascinated with history. Knowing where we come from and what has made us what we are today has always been very important to me. My Dad never really talked about the past a whole lot, he was more of a “in the moment” or forward-thinking type of guy. He always seemed kind of surprised that I wanted to know about the “Old Days,” and I always made it a point to pry it off him wherever I could, I sure am glad I did.
Your latest EP features the barroom danceable "Drank My Wife Away," which should appeal to the introspective drinker and any dancers wanting a turn on the floor. When do you know you've written a song people will want to listen to and which present day songwriters, if any, do you admire?
CG: I was asked awhile back to be part of a David Alan Coe tribute album, so I picked that song. It’s a cool song, it’s relatable, and it’s straight up honky tonk. I think if you’re going to write a song that people will listen to it has to be at least some of those things, the #1 being relatable.
Speaking of modern-day writers, when I was doing some shows with Aaron Lewis, he sang this song called “The Bottom,” and I asked him one night if he wrote it? He said nope, Keith Gattis did. Then, the other day I heard another song that really caught my attention. Come to find out Keith Gattis wrote that one too. Another writer that comes to mind is Mary Gauthier. I love her stuff and also Hayes Carll.
To follow up your successful 2018 Smokin' Drinkin' & Gamblin,' you have a new album planned for early 2020. Are all the songs already written? Who is playing on it? Where do you plan to record it?
CG: Yep, the new album Tough As Nails will be out early 2020. All the songs are songs I’ve written, or co-written with the exception of one. We recorded it basically live with my road band at a studio in St. Louis. I wanted that “live” feel that you sometimes just don’t capture with studio musicians, and I think we achieved that with this album.
Because of your early start, you've already had a career that spans almost forty years. Looking back on all the miles, performances, and songs you've created, what are you most proud of?
CG: Hands down, I’m most proud of my wife being with me for 33 of those 40 years. Being married at 16 is hard enough, but then throw in raising kids and being in the music business all those years, she’s definitely “Tough As Nails!”
Above. The Craig Gerdes Band playing Reggies May 9th in Chicago.
Whether he is delivering raucous, old-barrel outlaw country or tastefully intrepreting classic honkytonk standards, Craig Gerdes is a straight-up country pro. He's opened up for acts as large as 38 Special and Aaron Lewis, his music is played on SiriusXM Outlaw Radio, and we caught up with him after his recent acoustic set at Chicago's Montrose Saloon.
His current album is Smokin’ Drinkin’ & Gamblin,’ and his new album, Tough As Nails is scheduled for early 2020.
Red Neck Sonsabitches
Well, I road into Nashville on four bald tires,
and my beatup old four door Plymouth car,
with a stack of songs I'd written,
and some old school country pickin'
I was going to be a country music star.
Yeah, and I just couldn't wait,
to hear all those people say,
son, you're just what we've been looking for.
And I could tell by just one listen,
you're what Nashville's been missing,
we couldn't wait for you to walk right through the door.
You got all the right things,
you can write, play and sing,
you got swagger and a style all your own.
Yeah, but none of that's really true
and just between me and all of you,
I want to tell you how shit really went down.
What they said was,
You Red Neck Sonsabitches,
You best pack your things up and leave.
Long hair Red Neck Sonsabitches,
You're not wanted here in Nashville Tennesee.
Cause country music don't play in Nashville Tennesee.
Craig Gerdes, Smokin’ Drinkin’ & Gamblin,’
Click here for the official video for Red Neck Sonsabitches.
Track Craig's touring schedule and album release dates by clicking, https://www.craiggerdesmusic.com/
Give us a brief biography of the band. Who is in your band and how did you all meet? What is the origin story of The Golden Roses?
GR: It all started in the parking lot of Ginny’s here in Austin during Chicken Shit Bingo Sunday. I was telling my buddy, and our original bass player Rick Watson, about songs I had been writing. I had meet Rick when he was playing for Jesse Dayton, and we would all hang out behind the Broken Spoke and tell tall Texas tales. After playing some tunes for him, he suggested we start a band, so I enlisted Shawnee my best friend of 20 years to play drums, and Rick brought Heather Rae on board from a band he was in at the time.
The first time I met Heather was on stage at Ginny’s. She showed up late, so we plugged her in and we shook hands and introduced ourselves to each other and took off. The first song we did was Mama Tried and when she kicked that fiddle off and jumped right in singing harmonies, I knew she was in the band. It’s funny because I think folks thought it was an act but we really did just meet. That’s music in Austin for ya. Rick became too busy and suggested Troy step in full time. When I heard Troy and Heather sing those harmonies, and his ability to get in the pocket with Shawnee, I knew the band had been completed.
Your current album is entitled Terlingua Graveyard. Terlingua is a well-preserved ghost town situated near Big Bend National Park in Texas that features an authentic boot hill cemetery, other decaying historical buildings fit for a horse to be tied to, and an open saloon that serves cold cervezas to its many curious visitors. Is this a spot of myth and legend for Texans? Is it just cool? Why this look and feel for your album?
GR: I think I can sum up Terlingua by quoting Jimmie Dale Gilmore: “The allure of Terlingua is that its 100% ok to be crazy.” That place is magic, it’s about as far out in the middle of nowhere as you can get it seems. There is a wild and creative vibe that keeps me coming back. If you can’t go there and feel changed and inspired by it than you just might not have a soul.
You shot the official video for the album there in the cemetery as well. Any fear of rattle snakes getting a little too involved in the production process? What was that experience like for the band?
GR: Actually, my girlfriend and I shot an impromptu promo video for the album on a whim. We were out there after the album came out to take some pictures, and I happened to bring my guitar. We walked out towards the mountains, and I sat down facing the town in the distance and she recorded me singing the title track, “Terlingua Graveyard.” No snakes were harmed in the making of the video.
How do you categorize your sound? Honkytonk? Western Swing? Ameripolitan? How do you describe the soul of your band?
GR: Toughest question! I don’t really know; I listen to country music and in my mind we are a honky tonk band. Our job changes from gig to gig, town to town though. In Texas, we play a lot for the dancers, but other places they just wanna hear good ole country songs. There is freedom in Texas, I can play whatever the hell I want as long as it’s got soul, and the folks can dance. At the end of the day, we are musical servants. If the crowd wants to hear Merle Haggard, I’m gonna give it to them, and if a fella or a lady asked me for one of my tunes about suicide or divorce or celebrating in my favorite beer joint, I’m gonna oblige them.
"First Time in My Life" is a self-reflective honkytonker on the Terlingua Graveyard album written from the perspective of someone going through a time significant change, probably a divorce, and having to the meet the eyes and truth of a young son. Is this autobiographical? How hard is it for you emotionally to write a song as personal as this?
GR: The song is in fact autobiographical, but it’s not really what it appears to be. That song has been interpreted a few different ways by people over the year since we released it (none of which is correct). So much so that I don’t tell the story behind it any more. It’s much more gratifying to watch folks apply it to their own lives. Sometimes, that is a song’s purpose; it exists to tell the listener’s story.
Your latest single, "Top Shelf Whiskey and Cold Lone Star Beer," does bands all over Texas and beyond a service by instructing bar-goers exactly how to treat a band if you appreciate what you hear. Talk about what made you record this song live from the White Horse bar in Austin Texas, and how this song came about.
GR: That song was written on the spot on stage at The White Horse, so it was only fitting that we record it live where the song was born. Someone had been passing around the tip jar and this fella didn’t have cash on him I suppose, so he asked me what we were drinking. I gave him my answer in the form of a song. Musically, it got people up and dancing right away and they got the words pretty easy so it stuck and became an essential part of the act. It also gets us some pretty good drinks!
You've recently been on a whirlwind tour and hit some classic spots around the country: Dukes in Indianapolis; Fitzgeralds in Chicago with Chicago Honkytonk; Milwaukee's Pabst Taproom with JP Cyr; Dee's Country Cocktail Lounge in Madison, TN. Your last night in Nashville had to be special. Tell us about the tour a little bit, and what it was that like to open for Jim Lauderdale as part of the great series Honkytonk Tuesday Nights at The American Legion Post 82.
GR: “Whirlwind Tour.” I see what you did there! Look, we love it here in Austin and are well aware of how good we have it, but taking what we do to other like-minded folks all over the country is an amazing feeling. I been traveling in bands my whole life, but this last tour was the best yet. I can’t believe the amazing things that people like Brendan Malone in Nashville , The whole Chicago Honky Tonk crew and Dustin at Dukes in Indianapolis (just to name a few) are doing. The word is out y’all, people love and crave steel guitars, fiddles, sad songs, waltzes and trucking songs (not songs about trucks btw)! We are more than happy to provide all of those things.
Mr. Lauderdale was so kind to us, he said such nice things and took the time to chat with us and take photos. He is such an amazing performer and writer; he wrote one of my top favorite songs of all time “All the Rage in Paris.” It was an honor to share a bill with him.
With all the growth in Austin, how hard is it to stay there as a musician? We've heard of musicians leaving to escape the rising cost of living. How does it work for the members of the Golden Roses? Because it's such a musical mecca, do you recommend young bands go there anyway if just for the experience?
GR: I’m not gonna jump on the “Austin bashing train,” so I will say this. It’s changing and fast, rent is getting higher and it’s a tougher town to be a musician in than it was 10 years ago. That said, it is still the best damn place to live in my opinion and will be home for me until they put me in the ground. Some people have left and have illusions of greener pastures, but if they think that cities that seem cool and inclusive to musicians now won’t turn their back as soon as the money rears its ugly head they gots another thing coming. To young bands I say this, follow YOUR heart. If your heart says go to Austin, well come on down. Y’all are welcome.
What do you see as the future for traditional dancehalls in Texas? Are places like the Broken Spoke and the Whitehorse in danger of extinction? Or do the young folks in Austin appreciate the heritage, culture, and way of life provided by these places?
GR: Without a crystal ball I can’t really say. There are great organizations like the Texas Dance Hall Preservation folks working really hard to keep our culture alive. I have faith that the music and the venues will persevere and survive.
What's the next year look like for you? What do you have coming up in the horizon? Will we see the band in Memphis in February at the Ameripolitan Awards?
GR: We go into Yellow Dog Studios in November to record a new single with Mike and the Moonpies producer Adam Odor, and then we will hit the road again to support that record. Hopefully, get back up to Chicago before the spring! As far as the Ameripolitan Awards go, I don’t think we got the nomination, I reckon we’d have been told by now. I’m happy for all the past and future participants, and I support Dale in his endeavor 100%. I just don’t think it’s a club that has a place for us.
Above. The Golden Roses Band playing Fitzgerald's in Berwyn, IL for the Chicago Honkytonk Saturday Special September 28, 2019.
"We play, y’all dance" sums up Austin's honkytonk heroes, The Golden Roses, and whether they are playing Western Swing, Honkytonk, or straight ahead country, they do not disappoint. Their latest album is called Terlingua Graveyard, and you can find them at classic western dancehalls like the Broken Spoke and Whitehorse in Austin TX and any place that sells top shelf whiskey and cold Lone Star beer.
I flew into the desert,
My woman by my side,
Outrunning demons, I thought were left behind,
Yeah, on that old porch
Waiting on that sun to go down,
Making new memories in that old ghost town.
Where the ground holds secrets
That I'll never tell
The ghosts of Terlingua
Cast a mighty powerful spell.
Back home life hangs so damn heavy
Like an old wet shirt,
We go where the air is dry
And them feelings don't hurt.
Out here everyone is crazy
Just a little bit insane,
Thunder and giants take away all your pain.
And the ground holds secrets
That I'll never tell,
The ghosts of Terlingua
Cast a mighty powerful spell.
Terlingua Graveyard, The Golden Roses
Click here for their video for Terlingua Graveyard.
For everything Golden Roses including touring schedule and album release dates, click:
How did come up the name Cox's Army for your band. Obviously, your last name is Cox, but that's an historical reference and classic American expression isn't it?
CA: Those things are both true, but the band name actually came from one of my trips to Kentucky to research my family roots. One group of my Cox cousins that I found were part of a large family of 23 children. Their father had 10 with his first wife, and 13 with his second. One of those cousins told me that when they were young, there were so many of them that people would make a joke of asking them, "Are you all a part of Cox's Army?"
I looked up the reference to Cox's Army in their story, and found it was to two of the first mass marches to Washington DC for redress of grievances. The first of those marches had spawned the phrase 'Enough food to feed Cox's Army,’ used whenever people saw a big spread of food at a family picnic or other gathering. One march originated in Ohio in 1894, and the other started from Pittsburgh in 1932.
At the time I heard that story, I was getting the group started, while still searching for a band name. After hearing my cousin's story, I decided that the band name had pretty much found me instead.
Why do people call you "Cousin Chuck"? Does this nickname come from the pilgrimage you went on to find your familial and musical roots?
CA: That definitely came out of the search for my family roots. In fact, that search is what eventually led me to play and write bluegrass music. The nickname is something I generally only hear in Kentucky, Ohio or Indiana ... or around my cousins who have roots there. The search for my roots initially had nothing at all to do with bluegrass music, but after a couple of years, that became the center of the story for me.
I started searching for the origins of my dad's family, and it quickly led me to a place called Drip Rock, KY, which straddles the line between Estill and Jackson Counties. I did research online in the usual ways, but also took many trips to the area to see and photograph old cemeteries and view records that are only available there in the courthouses. After a couple of years doing that, I had met and become friends with many living cousins in the area.
One summer, I decided to go to a bluegrass festival in the area where I had traced my roots, just to sleep outside and experience the area a little differently. At the time, I was pretty much retired from making music professionally and had been so for the prior nine years. I took a guitar with me, but knew little to nothing about how to play the bluegrass style. On the first night of the festival, the emcee was gathering jammers together onto the stage to close out the night, and he drafted me, pretty much ordered to go get my guitar and join him and the others. I managed not to mess up too much, and I was hooked immediately.
A couple of months later, I went to a second bluegrass festival nearby to see if it was as much fun the second time. At that second festival, I met a band called The Kirby Knob Boys, and they shared a last name with my great grandmother from the Drip Rock, KY area. After some more research, it became clear that four of them were cousins of mine who were all living in Jackson County, KY. We became fast friends, and they taught me a lot about how to play bluegrass music. They also showed me a lot of things about the Jackson County area where my Dad's family had its roots.
Over the next couple of years, my connection with The Kirby Knob Boys led me to more cousins linked to bluegrass or old-time music: Larry Sparks (who first called me Cousin Chuck), Dale Farmer (director of The Mountain Minor film), and mandolin picker/luthier David Harvey. We are all tied together by a group of siblings who lived in and around Drip Rock, KY from about 1860 – 1940. I have only been able to meet up with Dave Harvey once, but I am in fairly regular contact with all of the others I mentioned.
Your style of bluegrass is traditional and acoustic. How did you develop new material for your upcoming album and still innovate within that style. What are some of the ways Cox's Army brings bluegrass music into the year 2019?
CA: As far as the songs go, I just write what comes to mind as far as topics, chords, and melodies. As long as the song can fit a traditional sort of bluegrass rhythmic structure, then I roll with it and bring it to the band. For me, it is that rhythmic method that the instruments in a bluegrass band have of working together that keeps the music in the bluegrass format. I believe you can play all sorts of chord progressions and still sound traditional if you adhere to those 'rules of rhythm,' focus on the singing and keep the instrumental breaks short and tight like the old bands. Most of the song topics are right out of my experience of life, and that is the same as the older era songwriters too. They wrote what they knew and so do I.
The ways in which we are in 2019 have to do with the new material and some of the details of it. I'll single out one or two tunes here. "The Porcupine" has elements of bluegrass, blues, and rock and roll mixed together. To my knowledge, this is the first bluegrass song about porcupines ... if I am wrong, I would love to check out the song and see what another songwriter did with porcupines. The other one that is a stretch towards something new is "You Dug that Hole." It is definitely not a topic I have heard anyone write before, and the music is a lot of the usual chords but in a strange arrangement. It is a tricky one to play, and we have to run through it more often than the others to keep it perfomance-ready.
Talk about your preferred approach to recording. Your debut album, “Green Eyed Train,” from 2018 was recorded as if each track was a complete performance without edits or overt studio production. Can we expect the same on the upcoming album? What will be the same or different on this follow-up effort? Also, when is its scheduled release date and who is producing it?
CA: We did the main tracking for both records live in the studio, with all the instruments and lead vocal tracked live at the same time. We were all in the same room, so everyone had to have a good take (no mistakes) or we had to do it again until we finally got "the one.” Sometimes we got that take quickly, and other times it took a fair number of tries. Each of the instruments and vocals had their own microphone, so we could mix the levels later, but they were all played together live like that.
You can hear a note or two out of place here and there, but I would rather have a record that has the live feel, isn't edited to death, and sounds like human beings playing music together. Records that are tracked up one instrument at a time to a timekeeping click track just don't have that human feel to them, at least to my ears. The way we make a record is also a fair representation of the best the band could do at the time we made the recording. It also gives the listener an idea of what we sound like in a live setting.
Both albums are co-produced by Chris Walz and myself. Chris handled the production duties of running the pre-recording rehearsals where he helped us work out final arrangements, the actual recording sessions, crafting many of the harmony parts, and he pushed all of us into new territory with our individual parts. The band came to the sessions with song arrangements, but Chris definitely has made a large contribution to helping us take those arrangements further, and in some cases he recommended completely different approaches to a song. The tunes, and the sound of the band overall, are much better for having worked with Chris.
The parts of the production that I handled on both albums were engineering the actual recording sessions, overseeing the mixing sessions with Rickey Wasson in Kentucky, and the mastering sessions with Victor Sanders in Chicago.
An unusual song on your "Green Eyed Train" album, which is very indicative of how traditional bluegrass music stays modern and relevant, is "That Fog's a Growin." It deals with a serious issue that will touch all our lives at some point. Walk us through what that song is about and how it reflects your own personal experience.
CA: That song is written from the point of view of someone who has Alzheimer's Disease. The words are my attempt to imagine what it might be like for someone struck by the disease, struggling to make sense of the rest of us and the world around them. None of us will really know what that is like unless we go through it ourselves, and I do not wish that on anyone or their families. It is a very personal song, as my Mom was diagnosed with the disease in 2011. I was in charge of her caregiving from then through her death in 2018.
Each verse of the song is about a different part of the experience of the Alzheimer's patient's world, filtered through the fog of the disease. It is a combination of my imagination, and experiences I had firsthand with my mom. The chorus is about the sense of what was happening to them, as the disease made it progressively more difficult for them to function. I watched my mom handle the terrifying changes to her brain, with tremendous courage and grace.
The song was written originally as a fast and angry song, but it really started coming together when I tried slowing it down. The tune took about a year to come together as a song and basic arrangement. We tried that song on about 15 takes spread across three different recording dates until we got the one that made it on the “Green Eyed Train” album. I was really shy about playing that song live at first, as the content is difficult. To my surprise, the song connected with a wide variety of people who have experienced having a loved one taken from them by Alzheimer's. At one show in Wisconsin last year, there was a pretty large group of people who wanted to speak to me about that specific song at the end of the show, and I made sure to talk with all of them.
The first single off the your new album is called "New Richmond Town." Why does that town hold such a special place in your heart?
CA: The song is about my family's experiences in New Richmond over the years. My family never actually lived there, but my grandfather began taking my mom to New Richmond when she was a little girl in the 1940s. That started something, and through her long life, New Richmond became pretty much her favorite place to visit to be near the river, have a bite to eat, or to just get some peace of mind.
My grandfather also took me there when I was a young boy, and that carried on into my teens and 20s as a place to fish, play a little guitar, or to just sit and think a while. Many years later when my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, that brought me back to the Cincinnati area and to New Richmond on many trips to oversee her care. As the disease progressed, I would bring mom to New Richmond regularly, and it would still give her a calming experience. Even as Alzheimer's took more and more of her memory and ability to function before her death in 2018, I could always count on the town and the river helping.
Even since she has been gone, I still catch any opportunity I can to visit New Richmond for some peaceful time by the Ohio River. Sometimes, I take the long way from East Kentucky through Maysville just so I can pass through New Richmond on my way to Cincinnati or Chicago.
Tell us a little bit about your band. Who's in it? Where did you all meet? And how long did it take for your band to develop the chemistry necessary to create the close, three-part harmonies for which you guys are known?
CA: Jeff Burke plays the mandolin, sings the baritone parts, and he has been with Cox's Army since November of 2018. Jack Campbell plays bass, sings the tenor parts, and has been with the band almost since the beginning in 2016, only missing the first two shows. Laird Patten plays the banjo, and he has been with the band since its very start.
Playing Bluegrass well requires some woodshedding time alone but, to really get good at it, you have to put in the social time to meet up and jam with other pickers pretty regularly. I met Jeff, Jack, and Laird through social jamming situations. All of the other pickers who have been through the band for a short time or a long time have all been folks I have met through similar means.
As far as the development of the band's chemistry goes, it really helps to have pickers and singers like Jeff, Jack, and Laird in the group. They are genuinely good human beings too, and that definitely translates to an unselfish band approach. They have dedicated a lot of time to learning to play the songs that I write and bringing them to life. I have to credit the harmony chemistry in the current lineup to Jack and Jeff. They are both great singers and work well with each other to find parts that go well with my lead melodies.
We saw a video (here) on the internet that had you performing in front of some authentic mountain dancers. Given that home base is Chicago, tell us about that experience and the origin of this event.
CA: That was at a show we did at Meadowgreen Appalachian Music Park in Clay City, KY. It was our second season playing there and that kind of dancing is a pretty regular sight there. Many of the dancers have taps on their shoes and that night there were enough of them that they became part of the musical performance by tapping out the time. That kind of connection between musicians and an audience doesn't happen all the time and those are the kind of moments that keep you motivated to get in front of an audience.
As you might guess from that video, Meadowgreen is a really special place and playing there is a highlight of our calendar each time we go. The room holds a lot of history, going back almost 40 years as a bluegrass venue. The best performers in bluegrass have all played there over the years, from Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley to the best of today's bluegrass acts. It is currently owned by Rickey Wasson and is run as a family affair with a lot of local volunteers helping out, as well.
We are really proud to be regulars on the calendar at Meadowgreen, and our next trip to play there will be on 3/21/20 to open for The Grascals.
What type of a bluegrass guitar picker are you (flatpick, thumb and finger pick, etc.), and how did you learn this style?
CA: I am a flat-picker and this is the most common way that guitar players of all styles play lead melodies. The basics of flatpicking are common to many kinds of other music that I have played in the past (blues, rock, funk, R&B, country). There are some things that make flatpicking bluegrass different than flatpicking in those other genres. There is less string bending in bluegrass vs other styles I play, and also fewer uses of 'blue' notes in general (common in blues and jazz). However, the modern style of bluegrass flatpicking includes more of those note choices than in the past.
I work really hard at sounding like myself on the guitar, rather than learning the licks of past greats. Nothing against all of the great pickers who have come before, bluegrass flatpicking wouldn't exist without them, but I would rather be the “first me” rather than the next anyone else. I listen to many pickers, but I try to chart my own musical course with what I play.
What is your all-time favorite "breakdown" that you and your band like to feature in your live performances? Is there a definitive version on the internet we can check out to get a sense of how it sounds?
CA: I think you would get a different answer out of each of us, so I'll give you a few answers to this. "Bluegrass Breakdown" has become a favorite show opener of ours. "Red Haired Boy" is the tune you mentioned earlier with the dancers at Meadowgreen, and that is always fun to pick. I wrote a tune called "Big Spoon, Little Spoon" that is getting better and better each time we play it on stage. I'll have to call that one my personal favorite. It works as a solo piece but it just turns into a really fun burner of a tune when all four of us get going.
Above. Cox's Army playing the Chicago Honkytonk Showcase from The Empty Bottle in Chicago, September 15, 2019.
Cox's Army is known for its close, three-part harmonies, their tight, high-energy instrumental breaks, and their strict attention to authenticity, which lies at the heart of any Cox's Army live performance.
Their latest album is called New Richmond Town. Recently, the Mayor of New Richmond, Ohio presented the band with a proclamation after their performance in the town naming the day, "Cox's Army New Richmond Town Bluegrass Day," in honor of the single.
Grandpa drove us down the hill on old 132.
Crossed over highway 52 into the town we knew.
Pulled down to the landing there,
brown water into view.
That sandy bend at New Richmond Town
That sandy bend at New Richmond Town
The river boats go drifting by at night
without a sound.
The trains on that Kentucky side,
bright lights as they go round.
The whistle blows below the town,
that landing holds the sound.
That sandy bend at New Richmond Town
That sandy bend at New Richmond Town
New Richmond Town, Cox's Army
Click here to view the official video for New Richmond Town.
To follow Cox's Army including touring schedule and album release dates, click:
If there ever was a place to appreciate the "Lonesome Sounds" of country music, the grasslands of Saskatchewan seem like a fitting setting. Coming from your Saskatchewan roots, how did you both develop your love for honky tonk music given its origin as an American art form.
BB: Saskatchewan is roughly the same size of Texas with a dispersed population similar to that of Dallas. It makes for a staggering rural to urban ratio therefore themes that have always been present in American traditional country music resonate deeply with our identity. I'm from the Southeast corner of the province, which has a shine/bootleg culture very similar to that of the Appalachia -- mostly out of necessity however the area was also a prominent routing during prohibition. Southern Saskatchewan was a destination for outlaws at the turn of the century; we are riddled with tales of Billy the Kid, Jesse James, etc., as they would have somewhat of an amnesty once they crossed the border. Lastly, cowboy culture is very strong, rodeo has always been a celebrated form of entertainment. What you find is when we draw on our collective identity, you start to see themes and styles that look like a combination of Appalachia, the Midwest, Texas/Southwest, however genuinely originate in the roots of rural Saskatchewan. The artists that have been true to that identity are now finding an American population paying attention as the fabric is so similar but genuine unto itself.
When you get into the musicality of it all, we draw off our own unique origins. As bluegrass came from Irish settlers cross-pollinating jigs and reels with African instrumentation introduced by exiled slaves, we have Metis fiddle music that is a combination of European reels and jigs combined with traditional First Nations rhythms and music. I can appreciate that what became known as "American music" has most definitely had its influence on us, but it needs to be seen that Canadian "country" music has unique origins, and we are proud to be a part of that lineage.
BP: We had an AM radio in our sod house.
Rolling Stone recently featured Belle's song "Is it Cheating," which asks the important philosophical question, "Is it cheating if you don’t get laid?" in their 10 Best Country and Americana Songs of the Week section. This is a duet Belle did with Colter Wall correct? With its sing-along chorus and its pulsating, lumber camp style piano, it's certainly a catchy, endearing song that gets a lot of play from Belle's Malice, Mercy, Grief & Wrath album. How did that track all come together?
BP: That song was buried for years by my quest to be a "serious artist.” I trotted it out here and there as a joke, and the response made me realize that it’s ok to have a laugh. Except when certain crowds don’t think it’s funny, and then it’s the longest two and a half minutes of your life. As far as the production, most of the record is driven by Bryce Lewis’s guitar, or Ian Cameron’s pedal steel; I wanted turn attention to Jeremy Sauer’s piano playing as a contrast. We took a bit of from Jerry Lee Lewis’s 1956 version of “Crazy Arms.” Truthfully that song knows what it wants. You don’t have to overthink it. Bringing Colter in was part of the desire to showcase the Saskatchewan community.
Talk about the traditional country/Americana scene in Saskatchewan. You guys are from Regina; Colter Wall is from Swift Current. Anyone else from SK we should know about? Are there enough places to play around the province to showcase your music or is getting out of it a necessity? How much time do you spend on the road?
BB: We've all been lucky to have Colter shine light on his home community. The benefit to that is how small it is so a lot of light is shone on a handful of artists. More so than ever, our community carries itself as a collective, lots of collaborations and shared growth. Both Belle and I have been active in this family for over a decade, so it comes as second nature to share opportunities as they are continually shared with us. There are so many to give love to, a swath would be wide and bountiful, but I'm really excited for two specific artists right now, Kara Golemba and Ellen Froese. Both are genuine to their own stories and how they internalize. I'm a fan of their writing, and that only leads to that desire for collaboration that's in all of us. Kacy & Clayton, The Deep Dark Woods as well. Then there's a slew of mainstream acts.
Another really interesting trait among Saskatchewan artists is our sense of innovation. So, alongside many conventional music venues and grassroots promoters all over the province, there also exists an entire community of the unconventional. It's a hustle, and there is a way to make a living playing music solely within the borders of our province; however, I'm motivated by other factors that can only be achieved by living a road-devout lifestyle. My curiosity for the outside world is overpowering -- it is a physical and mental game, but once that is on lock-down, you can remain moving between cultures and people, learn from them, internalize it, incorporate into the art, tell new stories, the benefits are perpetual. Touring with your wife ... that's a whole 'nother question to answer.
BP: As a Saskatchewan born singer/songwriter, I’m obliged to say that if you don’t know Joni Mitchell or Buffy Sainte-Marie’s catalog, I’d recommend diving in there.
In regards to touring, I always enjoyed traveling and prefer having a profile as an artist that extends beyond regional. Being on the road internationally definitely suits both of those goals.
It's been several years, but what was the life altering experience Blake experienced in December 2015? How did it figure into the spiritual and musical journey he went on to create 2017's Realms, which is Blake's honkytonk concept album inspired by the work of writers such as Joseph Campbell and C.S. Lewis.
BB: I've struggled with being explicitly open in regards to this. When I'm ready within my journey I offer insight and its usually in the form of a riddle, visual cue, or puzzle in my art. I've tried to have fun with it for as real, outer-worldly and paranormal as it was. I'm also very literal about the experience throughout the lyrical content of the Realms album. There's an ever-evolving riddle and storyline that I'm adopting as an artistic road map to my career.
Campbell and Lewis fit into this as they dedicated their lives to formulate a thought. One grandiose theme they were always chipping away at in one way or another and then offering their findings to whomever was interested. I would include Stan Lee, William Blake, J.R.R. Tolkien among the minds that I draw inspiration from as well in this development. Campbell and Lewis are an interesting duo as they were each examining the divine through two totally different lenses and coming to what I find as similar conclusions. My experience in 2015 kickstarted me down that path.
The song "Moose Mountain" on Realms (video here) contains a great lyric: "I got a 13-year-old palomino mare with a need for a contact high." Does a toke, a saddlehorse, and the open pasture provide the best scenario for contemplation and self-reflection regarding human relationships? What was the inspiration for this song?
BB: Fun stuff. Um, well, since legalization in Canada, this track doesn't carry the edgy weight that it did upon its release. Then again, cannabis usage in Canada was always such a prevalent thing that it was comical that the powers that be weren't taking their cut. I use it for a handful of reasons; it becomes dangerous when one of those reasons is escapism. I've been guilty of that. Realms has a big message, so in crafting the storyline I had to attract and keep the listeners that needed that message delivered. "Moose Mountain" has always been an important piece in that mission. It's fun, and it has resonated with a certain aged, certain lifestyle male - that is whom my energy is being directed to in order to try to make change. I've been lucky to have cowboy culture around me at almost all times, and a horse is always a healthy approach to escapism. If some of these old boys saddled up, rode for an hour, lit up a joint and watched the sun go down, it would translate into an inner peace and clarity, from which their empathy and compassion would be easier to access. Traits that are in pretty serious need these days, especially in men.
Tell us about your recently completed "Denim Wedding" tour. Who thought to create your custom jumpsuits, which we liked for their Elvis-Goes-To-The-Calgary-Stampede vibe? Where did you get these made?
BP: The jumpsuits started with me. Stage wear is a fun aspect of the business, but I truly dislike shopping for clothes. Plus, they generally fall short in some regard when you wear them night after night on stage. So, I teamed up with a friend, Matthew Donnelly, who has made lots of costumes for performers both here in Saskatchewan and when he lived in New York. He and I have actually made three jumpsuits and one dress together. Blake wasn't sold on the denim jumpsuit concept until he saw it, and then it was game on.
BB: I just liked how my butt looks in them.
BP: It’s a commonly held viewpoint.
As far as the Denim Wedding tour, the concept arrived after we realized that we could not feasibly have a wedding that could include all of our many family members, as well as our music and friend community. On top of that, we were asked so frequently if we were going to wear our denim jumpsuits at the ceremony, that we decided to just make a tour out of it. For the record, we did match at the wedding, but it was a pair of coyote fur coats that we borrowed from family. It was pretty boss.
What's it like for you both now that you are married? Eight months now is it? How do you balance performing Blake's musical catalogue versus Belle Plaine's (so to speak). Do you have plans to write together? How does it all work?
BP: Oh boy … I dunno. We just make it work like anyone else. Our specific circumstances are ours, but couples work together all the time. Like, we both come from farming backgrounds. I don’t think it’s all that different, once you set aside the aspects of what the career is. You have to communicate. You have to make sure that you’re not demanding every need be met by your primary relationship. You have to have boundaries, and learn to respect one another. The big difference is that we choose to be public about our business.
BB: I think the ongoing mission is to mold a lifestyle that is rooted in truth, and, by being full time touring musicians, we are definitely kept humble. Seeing growth in each of our careers when we put our heads and abilities together has been inspiring. We also value our autonomy, so we are intentional with the flow of the show and how it is billed (truthfully). Lately, however, I've been fulfilled by putting my weight into other artists, and Belle's writing makes it easy to step away from any limelight. If we didn't like each other's writing, we probably wouldn't be married. If there's a lack in co-writing, it can only be blamed on us focusing time and energy into other areas of our relationship, but naturally everything I write is shared with, influenced by, and suggested upon by my loving wife.
Since you both came from separate musical backgrounds, how long did it take you to develop the chemistry necessary to sing the lovely, close harmony that you feature in your music. And can we credit the harmonic inspiration of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings for your marriage?
BB: It's all a big melting pot. Our personal life influences our stage banter and performance, that's the chemistry people get to see. There is also that chemistry among bandmates -- we are a close-knit little family helping each other achieve life goals, it really helps that we are all motivated by the others' successes. We have to work at that harmony, but its just like anything, as long as your constantly chasing self-betterment, who cares how strong or weak you are at something in the moment. I think we are developing a very strong ear for harmony, phrasing, cadence, etc. Sleeping together helps.
BP: It’s true. Blake’s shared a bed with everyone in the band as far as I know. Maybe not Steve...
Damn, your guitar player, Bryce Lewis, can play. With his fluid phrasing and artfully finessed tone, his sensibilities really flavour your music perfectly. Along with Bryce, who all is in your traveling band, and where did you meet?
BB: Bryce is an anomaly, again it goes back to self-betterment. He's on a continuous search to take what he does to new levels. He's also a bandit, careful what you play around him as there are no rules when it comes to stealing and reselling licks back to their original owner. Bryce's tele saves us on piano, fiddle and steel fees. Sometimes bass as well if just him and Steve and I head out on the road together.
BP: When we got married, we joked about our band becoming a blended family. Steve and Bryce are Blake’s, Jeremy and Beth are mine. I mentioned Jeremy Sauer’s playing earlier, but he was integral to the start of my career. Fast-forward to when we were mixing Malice, Mercy, Grief & Wrath: I kept saying, “TURN UP THE KEYS.” I didn’t want his importance to literally get lost in the mix. Jeremy and I have been pals and collaborators since we attended the same college. Jeremy is all over Realms too. He’s the guy you hear at the end of every song. Ha ha. But those Bryce and Jeremy are just our lead players. Steve Leidal, our drummer, has made me a better guitar player just by continuing to tolerate my best efforts. I pretty much stole him out of Blake’s band before we all started touring together. He was always willing to elaborate on what kind of feel he was playing, and I really appreciated his sincerity and musical knowledge. And, of course, my OG bassist, Elizabeth Curry. She and I toured so much together as a duo that we can anticipate every sneeze and stumble of the other. I love playing with her, because her groove is a great match to my made-up style, and she learned to sing by performing with me. We’re fiercely loyal to each other, and we make each other crazy cause we can basically read each other’s thoughts. That’s kinda how it gets with everyone at some point though.
Take us through your plans for the next few months. What do you have coming up?
BP: Who needs to write a new record?
BB: I'm going to put some energy in the backend development of things. I'm into production and recording these days, so don't be surprised if I disappear for a while.
Above. Belle Plaine and Blake Berglund from the Montrose Saloon in Chicago, September 12, 2019.
With influences such as Link Wray, the Everly Brothers, Cole Porter, and Neko Case, Belle Plaine’s current album, Malice, Mercy, Grief & Wrath, thoughtfully considers the fleeting nature of life, while simultaneously addressing themes of forgiveness, redemption, and hope and highlighting her evocative, prairie-infused vocals.
Blake Berglund’s allegorical cowboy concept album, Realms, guides the listener through a transformational journey exploring subtle patterns of spirituality, alternative beliefs, and a grounding reconnection to a lost sense of self.
Moose Mountains at sundown
Alfalfa and cloverleaf
I wade into a drink hole
Water to the bottom of my hand-cut leather-bound stir-ups
As the sun dips
A melancholy chill of Montgomery Creek
My last dip of Red Man
My first real hurt of the evening
And I twist one tighter than the cinch of my saddle
And I'll take to an evening ride
I gotta thirteen year old palomino mare
With a need for a contact high
And if the marijuana makes me miss them
Then my saddle-horse makes it right
I'll tell her tales 'bout the women of the winter
And the lost loves in my life
Moose Mountain, Blake Berglund
Click here to view the official video for Belle Plaine's "Golden Ring," from the Malice, Mercy, Grief & Wrath album.
To follow Belle Plaine and Blake Berglund's comings and goings including touring schedule and album release dates, click:
The Carolyn Sills Combo is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Marty Robbins classic, "El Paso," by releasing a new album, Return to El Paso (Nov. 1), which constructs an extended back story to all the events that led up to the song's final showdown. All characters featured in the original now have a song of their own on this album. What made you come up with this idea? How much fun was it to work through this material?
CS: It was the most challenging and fun assignment I ever gave myself. Marty Robbins’ El Paso always inspired such a visual story in my head since I was a kid. I could see Feleena whirling around the cantina, tempting lonesome cowboys, the narrator challenging the Handsome Young Stranger before running out the back door and stealing a horse … I’ve always been intrigued by character’s motivations, and the back story of those a part of a historical event, but not the main character. Like, how would Cubs pitcher Charlie Roots have recounted Babe Ruth’s famous home run? That’s a story I would love to read.
So, I thought I would create a narrative for those involved in and impacted by Marty Robbins’ telling of El Paso: Feleena, the Stranger, the horse he stole, the Ranger who shot the narrator at the end. I’m hoping listeners will enjoy our humble suggestion of the back story of the supporting characters in one of their favorite songs.
What were the sessions for Return to El Paso like with innovative producer Sylvia Massy (Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Prince). You recorded at the remote Pink Satellite studio near Joshua Tree, CA, with a vintage ribbon mic and compressor for your vocals correct? Anything else noteworthy about that experience?
CS: It was a whirlwind two days. Sylvia literally showed up the first morning, and we were done within what seemed like hours. Funny enough, her GPS took her a route she shouldn’t have gone, and her car got stuck in the desert sands of Joshua Tree. Gerard (guitarist) and I rode out in our trusty van to try and save her, but then we started getting stuck, so we bailed and walked down the hill to meet her as she climbed up. We were all winded and dusty, a great way to meet someone special for the first time. She was fantastic. She didn’t waste time, she asked for exactly what she wanted. She did her homework and knew what our expectations were for the project. I don’t think it would have been possible to record all that in two days without her; she kept us focused, on track and anticipated our every request. We were so impressed and grateful for her contribution. She suggested the ribbon mic and compressor for my vocals, and it was a perfect match.
Why was it so important for the production of this record that you all were playing in the same room and relating to each other? Was this to give the album some of the nuances of playing live? And did it enhance the dusty, western flavor of this material by recording in the middle of the Mojave Desert? How important is environment when you are recording an album?
CS: We decided to record in Joshua Tree so we could be inspired by our surroundings, and we definitely were. Driving to a remote studio in the morning via a dirt road, lizards and jackalopes escorting us in. It set a mood reminiscent of what we imagined Marty was seeing as he wrote El Paso while driving through Arizona in the 1950s. As far as playing in the same room, it was very important for us to all be together and have that visual connection. One of the many things I love about the combo is how well everyone listens and plays off each other. I don’t think we could make as quality a record if we were all isolated. In a live situation, we all need a good line of sight to react to each other, be it the notes we are playing, the mood we’re expressing through body language … it all plays a big part in our performance and we wanted to capture that on the recording as well.
"Feleena," the initial song off the Return to El Paso album, reveals the mindset of Robbins’ jealous cowboy and foretells the trouble ahead for Feleena at the cantina. Your soaring harmonies with Sunshine Jackson, the interplay between Gerard Egan's guitar and Charlie Joe Wallace's triple neck steel, and the pulsating tension from Jimmy Norris's percussion all recall the epic qualities of the Robbins' original. This is a very musically complicated and ambitious undertaking! Did you ever feel trepidation that you weren't going to be able to do the tribute justice?
CS: Well thank you for that, I greatly appreciate the feedback. That track was definitely challenging, and perhaps the most reminiscent to Marty’s work. But we never set out to copy his material, or to even sound like a recording from 1959. I feel like it was almost a greater challenge to write something that was a nod to Gunfighter Ballads and Trail songs, but not a regurgitation. We wanted it to sound ‘modern,’ if you will (my brother says I make Lawrence Welk sound like Metallica), so it could hopefully stand up with today’s current country recordings, but still show our appreciation for Marty, Grady Martin, the Glaser Brothers, etc. There’s no need to re-record El Paso, it is already perfect. We wanted to give folks a reason to take a deeper listen in today’s day and age, and maybe appreciate the classic recording even more.
Return to El Paso also includes references to Robbins’ 1966 sequel “Feleena (From El Paso)” and his 1976 hit “El Paso City.” Because of the overwhelming popularity of "El Paso," most people today don't even know that those songs exist. Why did you choose to reference the whole trilogy as opposed to just "El Paso?"
CS: Great question! It was very important to me that I didn’t alter any of Marty’s story in El Paso, I just wanted to propose some more layers to it. I, too, did not know about those two follow-up songs until a few years back. “Feleena from El Paso” has a wealth of history on her ... we learn of her birth, her running away from home, her days in Santa Fe … it was important to me that our album did not stray from the history that Marty had created for her, but reinforced it even more, tying the events in El Paso to her earlier days.
That’s where "The Handsome Young Stranger" came in. Now knowing where she came from, what she valued and how wicked she was, I was convinced that this was no "stranger" but a lover from her past, perhaps someone she had promised herself to back in Santa Fe. And we learn from Marty’s sequel song that she had not been in El Paso very long, so perhaps this former lover had just caught wind of her recent affair with El Paso’s narrator, and he had come to Rosa’s to end their romance. And perhaps (I can go on and on), now heartbroken and angry, she knew that if she kept him at Rosa’s long enough, her new lover would discover them and exact her revenge.
When we first heard the Carolyn Sills Combo, we were impressed by the high level of musicianship that runs through the band starting with the vocals on down through each instrument. Give us a little history on your band and how all its components came together.
CS: Thanks for that. We have been together for about six years now. Gerard (guitarist/husband) and I moved to Santa Cruz back in 2010 and started going to shows to meet musicians. We met up with Charlie Joe Wallace (steel) to do a Patsy Cline show, and he introduced us to Jimmy Norris (drums). In 2013, we released our first album and asked Sunshine Jackson (vocals/percussion) to come sing harmonies on a few songs. After that the band was complete. It’s been such a joy playing and traveling with these folks. I’m honored to say they are as good a friends as they are musicians.
You've been nominated for five Ameripolitan Awards overall, and you took home the hardware in 2018 for Best Western Swing Group. How much did this validation mean to you? How well do you remember the night you won the award?
CS: I can’t say enough good things about The Ameripolitan Awards. It was such an honor to be nominated and win, but without sounding too corny, the biggest reward was just being involved and meeting such wonderful people. Thanks to the Ameripolitans, we have hooked up with so many fantastic bands, promoters, venues, DJs and fans across the world, and we couldn’t be more grateful. Even coming to Chicago this past month was thanks to the good folks at Chicago Honky Tonk, who we met through The Ameripolitans. Dale, Celine and their crew have created such a supportive community, and we’re forever grateful. I remember that night we won quite well. Big Sandy handed me the award, and when we walked off stage, I was immediately congratulated by Rosie Flores, James Intveld and Revered Horton Heat. Talk about memorable moments.
One of our favorite songs that you do is called "Bad for You" (video here) from the Carolyn Sills Combo album. The lyrics are precision-crafted and each instrument including vocals serves to briskly move along the extremely catchy, danceable tune. How tricky is it to write thoughtful lyrics that have the same rhythmic bounce as the rest of the instrumentation in your songs? Do the lyrics always come first when you are building a tune? Take us through the process.
CS: Another great question! I prefer to write lyrics before music, as that way I feel like I have no constraints on subject matter, syllables, rhythm scheme… but sometimes a catchy melody tugs on you like the Coppertone dog for days and you just can’t shake it. Then the hard part comes, ‘what does this melody want to say?’ Gerard had written the super catchy melody of "Bad for You," and it took me some time to find a good fit. I remember exactly where I was standing, outside a now defunct antique shop on Portola Avenue in Santa Cruz (where the guy sold us a "broken" Edison machine for $60 that we got working!) and I remember lamenting on the amount of fun I had the night before. Then it just started to pour out: "why am I so good at what I shouldn’t do, what is so bad for you … when in Rome, I always did as Romans do… I did it everywhere else too." Once I had that down, the rest just fell into place. I saw images of Nero fiddling while Rome burned and within minutes, we had a song.
"Scratched and Weathered" (Carolyn Sills Combo album) is a transfixing, jazzy number that wistfully compares an old record to a broken relationship. Did any of you originally come from a traditional jazz background or did you all start within the Western Swing subgenre? Is there a set path one usually takes to become a Western Swing performer? Or is that part of its charm? You can come from anywhere.
CS: I believe you can come from anywhere. In today’s day and age, we have access to anything we want, and therefore your inspiration knows no limits. Sushi chefs are no longer only Japanese, football players are no longer only men, so why can’t a scrappy tomboy from the suburbs of Chicago play Western Swing?
I appreciate that everyone in our band is inspired by a variety of genres and performers, and that we have always wanted to simply write a good song, not write a song that has a specific sound. It actually wasn’t until we got our first Ameripolitan nomination that we called ourselves a "Western Swing" band. We had just been writing and playing songs inspired by what was turning us on at the time: Patsy Cline, Merle Travis, Bob Wills, old cowboy tunes, Sergio Leone movies… we actually prefer to call our style "Spaghetti Western Swing," as we’re just as influenced by Spaghetti Western films as we are Western Swing music.
To us, what’s nice about the Western Swing genre is that it encapsulates so many different styles of American Music -- jazz, swing, country, cowboy, crooner, polka -- it’s all included in there, and we like to think we resemble that remark, and explore a variety of styles under its wide umbrella.
A song that you do in concert, "West of West and East of Tokio," is dedicated to Texas legend James Hand, and you recently completed a tour with him. How did the tour go, and what was is like to perform ahead of an icon like James?
CS: Meeting and touring with James is another thing we owe to The Ameripolitan Awards. They paired us up with him for a show in Austin, the last year they held the awards there, and we hit it off immediately. Chris Burkhardt, of Stellar Shows and Concerts, had the idea to bring James out to California and have us back him up. We did two tours all together, and had a wonderful time with James, hearing all his jokes and stories. He’s got a million of them; that man is the real deal. One night after a show, we were having a drink and I said to James, "remind me where you live in Texas?" to which he responded, "west of West and east of Tokio." I loved it so much that I wrote it down on a little yellow piece of paper and stuffed it in my pocket. A few months later, I found that piece of paper, and thirty minutes later, we had a new song. I love when the universe winks at you like that.
Above. The Carolyn Sills Combo plays the Chicago Honkytonk Showcase at the Empty Bottle.
60 years after the release of Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, The Carolyn Sills Combo pays tribute to that monumental work with their new album, Return to El Paso.
Recorded in a remote studio in Joshua Tree California, Return to Elco Paso constructs an extended back story to the events that led up to the song's epic conclusion all in a style of music Carolyn Sills calls, "Spaghetti Western Swing."
Don't go to Rosa's tonight,
I got a feeling that cantina's due for a fight.
Those men don't care that you're mine,
They only care that you're dancing
one dime at a time.
I know we agreed,
that El Paso's our home,
there's nights that I feel
like I'm drinking alone,
And I see how they all turn their heads
when you whirl on by,
Don't go to Rosa's tonight.
Why must you romance every glance
that they're sending your way,
When given a chance they'll advance 'til you
hold them at bay,
Like wolves they prey,
Why can't you just stay away?
Feelena, The Carolyn Sills Combo (Video here)
For more information on The Carolyn Sills Combo including touring schedule and album release dates, click:
In earlier interviews, you mention influences such as Jimmy Rodgers, Charlie Poole and Lefty Frizzell. At what point in your life did you get exposed to this type of music and who from your immediate family or friends was your impetus for starting playing?
TDW: My Grandma played the piano, and I always thought that was pretty cool. My first show was watching Willie Nelson play adjacent to my Grandma's farm. He played on some random hillside at a two-lane blacktop road intersection, right in the field. They put up a big stage and hay bales and put on a big show for all the local farmers. I thought that was pretty cool for someone that famous to play for just a few local farmers. After that, I started liking him and others like him such as Merle Haggard and George Jones. Then I wanted to know who influenced them and found the stars of the 50s, Lefty Frizzell and Wynn Stewart, then before them, Floyd Tillmann, Ernest Tubb, all the Hanks, and then Jimmie Rogers and all the great string and western swing bands.
In 2009, you seem to have made the musician's equivalent of a monk's vow. You put all earthly possessions on the curb near your home in Columbia, Missouri, and started your musical odyssey that has taken you throughout North America and Europe. Many people would expect that sentence to finish "and you didn't look back." Have you ever looked back? What is the best thing about being a musical vagabond? What is the worst? And how many times did the vegetable oil-powered airport shuttle bus you owned break down in the early days?
TDW: That Veggie bus was pretty good. Took me and a lot of buddies down a lot of fun roads. I got into it not knowing anything about diesel engines nor running off vegetable oil. After several years, still didn't know much about it, but logged a lot of hours learning how to fix the things that were broken. I got a lot of veggie oil, radiator fluid, brake fluid, diesel fuel on me that's for sure.
Looking back ain't good for ya. I think you just have to go all in, half way just doesn’t cut it sometimes. Being a traveler, you get to see the best and worst of human character. I grew up watching all the westerns; I really enjoy traveling and going on to the next adventure.
Tell us about the time you met the producer for the Black Keys, Mark Neill, at a farmers market in San Diego, and how he has affected your career ever since?
TDW: That was crazy. I had a trio going and we were playing at this farmers market in the dust and sun on a Thursday or something. No big reason on the surface to stay or to go there. He came up, and we picked a few tunes and then the next few months we stayed in touch and cut a demo out there in San Diego. He set me on a good path and has been giving me advice and tightening me up ever since. In my opinion, he's the best there is right now for music. He has helped me focus and shape my music career immensely and has been really good friend ever since.
You've toured Europe every year since 2015. Does the reception there for your music differ from that of the various places you play in the US? Your 2017 album, Folk-Country-Blues, was released on the German label, Blind Lemon Records correct? How did that happen?
TDW: A lot of people overseas have been collecting 78's and other records for a while now. The cool thing about that is they really appreciate and know the music. They like to listen and dance. That's always fun for musicians and they really know a lot about American music from the 20's through the 50's. I love going overseas and playing.
What are your interests outside of music given the fact you have to create music and play it, you are your own driver, producer, booking agent, and you sit in with and support various other bands? Is it even possible to have other interests from your standpoint? Or do you need to be 100 percent all in to music to make it work?
TDW: I love fishing, listening to records, cooking with friends and just hanging with friends and family. It doesn't happen all the time, I do really enjoy it when it does though. The nice thing about traveling is you get to see all your buddies when you are passing through.
The video for your new song ,"One More Pair" (Video Here), is gaining a lot of traction online. This is a sweetly danceable track for two-steppers who thought their crying days were through, but then realize they're about to cry another set of tears for their next love. Tell us how that song and the video came together.
TDW: I have been working on that song for a few years. I always like cutting videos with the folks at GemsOnVHS. They chose that location and get some great shots out of folks. I really like what they are doing, and that they help get the word out on so many great artists. Looking forward to doing another one with them real soon.
Your music is fitting for any country dancehall, and you are obviously someone who cares about the craft of songwriting. How do you design an album from the ground up? Is it paint by number? For example, you include a couple of waltzes, some two-step numbers, a few up-tempos, a ballad? Or do you simply accumulate a number of quality songs and then distill the album to the best ones? Walk us through the process you go through to choose songs for a new album.
TDW: Fortunately, there has been a bunch of great albums put out that lay a great foundation for how it works. I like using some of those frames and then just listening too. I think it's important for things to complement each other and mainly listen. A lot of these songs, I have been working on for a while. It’s nice to have a message and to make it useful for as many people as possible.
You plan to release a new album early next year. Since your roots run through folk, blues, and country, where you do think the sound for this new album lands? Who did you make this album for? And will the album be coming out through Country Roots Records?
TDW: This album will be a bunch of songs that I have worked on over the years and some new, fresh ones. I like making music for a purpose and that purpose sometimes is unknown. Each person uses things a little different. I enjoy these songs, and I hope everyone else will too. I think this album will have some solid country hits and hopefully some things that fall between some lines.
Early songs you recorded pay tribute to the American masters of the 20s, 30s, and 40s. In songs we've heard for the new album, there's a purity, sweetness, and personal longing in the songs that seem all your own. How has your songwriting changed over the years? How do you view your own evolution musically?
TDW: It just comes and goes with things I like and listen to. Some days, I get stuck on Lefty or Wynn, some days, Jimmie and then some solid R and B from the 50s. Some days, I just work on my own stuff. It all depends on what's floating around my head. I think the more you know, different ideas come and grow. The more you learn, you can develop ideas a little better. I think songs that draw on emotions are really cool.
"Something's calling, something's call me. I hear it calling, I hear it calling me. And I know, and I know, it won't let me be." This line comes from your song "Heart Over Mind." You've lived in Missouri, New Orleans, and now Nashville, and we saw you on tour in Chicago. As a musician who performs throughout the U.S. and Europe, do you always feel the road-born restlessness so clearly expressed in this song?
TDW: It comes in waves. You know I haven't spent more than three months anywhere in the last 10 years. I like traveling, meeting people and playing music. It just seems like something gets me going somewhere. There’s always work to be done, somehow somewhere. I do enjoy getting out in the country and off the road. You can’t fish much in the city.
Above. Nashville's Todd Day Wait performs at Chicago Honkytonk's Saturday Special in September.
Music is the dominant, grounding force in Todd Day Wait's life. A true country troubadour whose roots are reflected in personal, emotionally-tinged songs drawn from years of life on the road, Todd hasn't spent more than three months in one place in the last 10 years. With Todd's music, we don't know if his songs exist to tell his story or simply to give voice to our own.
They say time it can change, Lord, everything,
A poor man rich, a good man blind,
They say fix your gaze straight ahead
and you'll be fine,
Heart over mind.
But something's calling, something's call me.
I hear it calling, I hear it calling me.
And I know, and I know,
it won't let me be.
They say time it can change, Lord, everything,
A poor man rich, a good man blind,
They say fix your gaze straight ahead
and you'll be fine,
Heart over mind.
Yes, you'll be fine,
Heart over mind.
Heart Over Mind, Todd Day Wait (Video Here)
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