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/
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