The first time I heard the name Townes Van Zandt my Uncle Tony mentioned playing a gig with him at a private party on the Tohajiilee Indian Reservationa in New Mexico. He described how he would watch him from the side of the stage and captivate them with his lyricism and picking style cribbed from fellow Texas Lightin’ Hopkins and charm them with his wit. he also described drinking so many Bloody Mary’s with Townes at an airport bar that they missed their flight out of there.
in many ways Townes Van Zadnt and Gram Parsons were brothers of the faith. Both men where born to families of means and walked away from an easy life of leisure to forge an uneasy path toward their musical vision. Greatness was attained but, like Icarus, the beckoning sun of substance abuse and the open road took them both too soon leaving a legacy felt to this day.
One of my favorite Townes stories is when he met Bob Dylan. Dylan was reportedly a “big fan” of Townes and claimed to have all of his records; Van Zandt admired Dylan’s songs, but didn’t care for his celebrity. The two first met during a chance encounter outside a costume shop in the South Congress district of Austin, Texas, on June 21, 1986. According to Johnny Guess, Dylan later arranged another meeting with the songwriter. 6th street in Austin was shut down due to Dylan being in town; Van Zandt drove his motor home to the cordoned-off area, after which Dylan boarded the vehicle and requested to hear him play several songs. During this time Townes reportedly turned down a songwriting invitation by Dylan.
I’m sure Townes is looking down and wondering what all the damn fuss is about. Bless him.
Hurray For The Riff Raff are a young band enjoying a good deal of buzz, but don’t let that mislead you into thinking they are the flavor of the week. They balance the hype by deftly exploring and evolution of roots and folk, namely Americans music. At 25 years old the band’s front woman, creative and spiritual guide Alynda Lee Segarra, is already an accomplished singer-songwriter having been a solo performer before joining in with the loose collective that is Hurray For The Riff Raff.
After seeing HFTRR captivate a capacity crowd at San Francisco’s Amnesia bar I realized this might be the last time I was able to see them in such an intimate space. They are about to become one of those bands that will break big but, I believe , will still embody a authenticity of artistry and spirit that drew me to them in the first place.
The following is a brief email interview I conducted with Segarra. I hope you enjoy it.
Baron Lane for Twang Nation: First off, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for my readers. I saw you and the band at Amesia in San Francisco last week and the place was packed. I believe you could have filled a place twice it’s size. Has this been the typical reception to your current tour.
Alynda Lee Segarra from Hurray For The Riff Raff: We always have a great response in SF. The west coast is definitely more foreign to us as a band because we don’t get out there as much as we’d like to. But there are certain cities that treat us like we’re at home, SF/Bay area Oakland definitely is one of those cities!
TN: Does the name ‘Hurray for The Riff Raff’ reflect a personal or band identity or creed?
ALS: I really relate to the name, it’s about cheering for the underdog. I’ve always felt like an alien, as a child I felt like I was born in the wrong era, I was obsessed with the 1950′s and I was sure there had been a mistake. It had a lot to do with the music of that time but it was something more than that, I felt like I wasn’t made for “modern times” in America. I longed for something older, for a way of life that had been basically stomped out. I felt I was born into a world where everything had been discovered, explored, bought up and sold already. As far as music to inspire me, when I was a child the radio had the Spice Girls, NSync, all this crap that I knew I was supposed to like but did nothing for my soul. It was the old music that did it for me. Doo Wop, Motown, and then Rock n Roll as I grew up.
I was in the middle of NYC, which was a blessing and a curse. I saw a long life ahead of me working, buying, and working some more, struggling to survive in such a competitive and increasingly expensive city.
It all lead me to work really hard at finding an alternative way of life, and I was lucky enough to be able to take a chance and leave. Everyone in the band is a fucking weirdo, although we may not look like it! But we are! And that’s the beauty of it. We have all had that desire to search for something…”real” I guess is the word. I don’t know what the word is.
But now that we play and write music, we get to add to this scene that we’ve wanted our whole lives. A music scene for weirdos who want to get down to some good music that sounds old and new at the same time. To create a music scene that isn’t bought up and sold yet. Anyone who wants apart of that is riff raff to me.
TN: Was music a part of your life growing up in the Bronx?
ALS: I have always escaped through music. I used to obsessively learn lyrics when I was a kid, I’d learn songs from old musicals like “West Side Story”, “The Wizard of OZ”, “Singing in the Rain”. I loved the way those actors sang, I liked the way they pronounced their words, their tone etc. When I got older and started getting more rebellious I was discovering the punk scene in the Lower East Side. I’d take the subway and go to a show down there, it blew up my world. I loved the live shows, and I loved the political messages a lot of the bands had. I really started connecting to feminist punk bands, it gave me this sense of pride and courage that was really important for me as a kid.
TN: You left home at 17. Being on your own must have been tough. How did you manage?
ALS: I followed my instincts, had some rough times, relied on a lot of friends. I had to go through that time period in order to be who I am today.
TN: Was the guitar your first instrument? Do you play anything else?
ALS: I played a little guitar in middle school, but nothing big. I guess I consider the washboard my first instrument. I started playing it with the Dead Man Street Orchestra, when I was traveling with them. I just loved being in charge of the rhythm, it gave me enough confidence to go on to learn the banjo and then meet up with the guitar again after that. I play a little piano at home, I wanna start jamming on the harmonica next!
TN: Who are your singer/songwriter inspirations?
ALS: Wow, I have a lot! Gillian Welch is a HUGE inspiration to me, she is brilliant at crafting a song. She is a bridge between the old world and today, and I’ve learned a lot from listening to her. Of course there’s John Lennon, I personally connect to his acoustic album that was released after his death. A lot of demos and just a raw portrait of him as a songwriter. Early Bob Dylan of course, Neil Young. But there’s so many musicians of today that I listen to that push me to work harder. Shovels and Rope, John Fullbright, The Alabama Shakes, Clear Plastic Masks, Sam Doores and Riley Downing. I feel so lucky to be able to see these guys live and be peers with them. Everyone is pushing each other to do their best.
TN: What were the events that led your from road kid to The Dead Man Street Orchestra?
ALS: We all fell into a family sort of dynamic in New Orleans. It was a really incredible time, probably one of the happiest I’ll ever be. It was the year before the storm, the winter time and we were between halloween and mardi gras. We actually played all together for the first time in Jackson Square on Lundi Gras day. I first played music with two of the members Kiowa Wells and Barnabus Jones at the railroad tracks. We sang some Johnny Cash songs and I played washboard with some seashells i found. i was hooked, I needed to play music all the time. I owe my life to all those guys, they’re all so talented and taught me so much.
TN: You self-released two albums (2008s It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You and 2010s Young Blood Blues) as a solo act under the HFTFF moniker. You then recruited the Tumbleweeds to back you. Why did you decide to take HFTFF to a fill bands instead of a solo act?
ALS: It was always a full band, just had different members. It was a really different sound for the first two records, I was inspired by a sound that was very New Orleans at that time. A lot of the young artists there were playing this dark/gypsy banjo accordion stuff, and I loved it, but I grew out of it. Sam Doores and Dan Cutler helped me grow into the sound I wanted. Yosi Perlstein had been with me since Young Blood Blues and he was so important with the change because his drumming added to my more “rocking’ songs but he could also play a mean country fiddle. I got lucky with these guys!
TN: “Look Out Mama” draws from a variety of styles to form a organic body of work. What’s your view on genres in regards to your band?
ALS: I’m not good at genres, Sam is way better at that stuff. I just say we play Americana, Folk/Country whatever. But there’s a lot of old blues in there, early Soul and R&B.
TN: I’m interested in the unexpected album cover for “Look Out Mama.” What is it depicting?
ALS: It’s my father. He’s about 19 and in Vietnam. His buddy took that picture and it’s hung up in his hallway at home. I grew up with that picture, it was burned into my subconscious. I thought a lot about it, how it must have been to be so young and thrown into that situation. What it must have been like to come home and have to get back to everyday life. It made me think a lot about people I meet, where they are coming from, what they’ve been through.
It also made me question our government from a very young age. Was it worth it? Was it worth all the lives that had to be repaired? The ones we lost? I thought it really fit the music of the album, and it had been recorded while my community in New Orleans was mourning the loss of a friend who had been murdered in his house.
It was a time that I was thinking a lot about violence, about how it’s being fed to us. How we’re killing each other, and when I think about it too much it drives me crazy. A lot of people are talking about violence in the media, which is a worthy discussion, but why don’t we think that the wars we are in overseas will come home at some point? The poverty and anger, the hatred against our neighbors. We got a lot of work to do.
I just wanted to create something positive. I write about my dad on the back of that album, about how he inspires me to be hopeful and to try to make something different for the world.
TN: You come from Puerto Rican roots. How has that shaped your music?
ALS: When I started growing into an adolescent I was drawn to a music and style that has a predominantly white audience. For some reason at that age I felt shame about who I was. I didn’t “belong” with ether group of white punks or your average New York Puerto Rican. It led to me to really search within myself for who I wanted to become. I didn’t have a role model who looked just like me. I had to pick and choose what inspired me from a wide variety of sources with all different faces and backgrounds. I also learned that I don’t want to be apart of any scene that doesn’t celebrate difference.
The punk scene was incredibly important to me when I was a teenager, but I also felt a lot of stress on pretending I was exactly the same as all the other kids. When in reality I grew up very different than most of the white kids who were around. My family was different, we dealt with different hardships, we ate different food, we talked different. But in the punk scene we were all supposed to be the same. But there are some differences that are meant to be treasured, so we can truly learn from each other.
I remember feeling like somewhere along the line I had chosen to be white. But I never would truly be, no matter what the outside world perceived me as. Poetry taught me who I was and the beautiful history of Puerto Rican poets inspired me. Poetry was where I felt at home. I remember reading Puerto Rican poetry from the LES and realizing that writing was an integral part of my path in life. I remember reading a poem that read “Puerto rico is a beautiful place, Puerto ricqueno is a beautiful race” and that just rung out forever in me like a bell. I wanted to start combining my worlds. It lead me to folk music, which lead me to traveling and Woody Guthrie and political musical figures who believed in the soul and the struggle of the people.
Being Puerto Rican is at the core of my existence, it is the landscape of my family’s experience and so it is mine. It also changes my feminist experience. It is a gift to me, that I get to see the world I see through Puerto Rican eyes, I can bring a little something different to the table. It’s also meant that I have a lot of anger inside me because I want all people of color to be free. I want to break down the traps that are set up before them to keep them in their place.
Now I play folk music. I’m not letting anything stop me from being wholly who I am anymore. I’m going to create a space for myself to be entirely who I am. Folk music encourages that, the Queer scene around the world encourages it, New Orleans encourages it as well.
TN: What is your process for creating songs? Slow incubation or flash of inspiration?
ALS: I have to catch the tunes as they fall on me. They come fast and not always complete, i’ve learned to keep a recorder handy. I’ve learned to honor the song when it comes. Sometimes you have to be late, sometimes you have to turn off your phone. Townes Van Zandt said he never gave up on a song. That’s quite a thing to say because a lot of songs come to us writers. To give each and every one a solid try is really doing good work. That’s what I strive for.
TN: and last, what’s next for HFTRR?
ALS: This summer we’re gonna be doing a lot of touring that I’m super excited about, and hopefully putting the finishing touches on our new album. I want to play a lot of festivals, make some new friends and keep writing. I got a feeling 2013 is gonna be a good year for the ole’ riff raff.
According to a post at The Grateful Web unheard Townes Van Zandt releases, that have been locked away as a result of multiple label acquisitions of the initial Poppy Records recordings, will finally see the light of day with support from Zandt’s estate on February 5, 2013.
Omnivore Recordings will release Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972, a two-CD set of previously unavailable music from Towns’ spanning the studio albums High, Low & In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. One disc features outtakes and alternate takes/mixes of tracks like To Live Is To Fly, presented in both alternate take and demo form, and the classic Pancho & Lefty, a mix made alongside the known version, but without the strings and horns of the commercial version. There will also be songs included that have never released until now.
If the music wasn’t enough (and it is!) the release will offer unseen photos and comprehensive liner notes by musicologist Colin Escott (Hank Williams: The Biography.) Escott writes “alternate versions add an entirely new dimension, like seeing someone you thought you knew so well in a new light. The new songs are simply good to have when it seemed the barrel was empty. And so here are more than two hours of Townes Van Zandt — music unheard since the engineer peeled off a little splicing tape to seal the box 40 years ago.”
Disc One: Studio Sessions
1. T for Texas
2. Who Do you Love
3. Sunshine Boy
4. Where I Lead Me
5. Blue Ridge Mountains
6. No Deal
7. Pancho & Lefty (Alternate 1972 mix without strings and horns)
8. To Live is to Fly
9. You Are Not Needed Now
10. Don’t Take it Too Bad
11. Sad Cinderella
12. Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold
13. White Freight Liner Blues
14. Two Hands
16. Dead Flowers
Disc Two: Demos
1. Heavenly Houseboat Blues
2, Diamond Heel Blues
3 To Live is to Fly
4. Tower Song
5. You Are Not Needed Now
6. Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold
7. Highway Kind
8. Greensboro Woman
9. When He Offers His Hand
10. Dead Flowers
11. Old Paint
You’d think the addition of her third child, a beautiful daughter Poet, would afford Australian trad-country artist Kasey Chambers some time off. But no, she’s just finished Wreck and Ruin, a follow up to 2008′s excellent Rattlin’ Bones, created with her singer/songwriter husband Shane Nicholson. She’s now preparing to tour the United States behind her just-release her covers project, Storybook. The release features her unique interpretations of Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams and Texas legend Townes Van Zandt. The last whose music legacy she, along with The Avett Brothers’ Scott Avett, Grace Potter, and others, reflected on in the recent book “I’ll Be Here In The Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt.” In the midst of packing for her tour she was gracious enough to answer some questions.
Baron Lane (Twang Nation) – How has being a mother influenced your songwriting not just in practice but in point if view?
Kasey Chambers – Well I have to write all my songs quicker ‘cos i don’t have much time now with 3 children – ha. Actually I guess I have taught myself to write in and around the chaos otherwise I’d have to go out and get a day-job (and I really don’t have any other skills so that is not really an option). Being a mother has thrown my whole world upside down – in a good way. I feel like it forced me to get to know my “real” self more than ever and what better fuel for songwriting is there than honesty?
TN – In 1999 you won the ARIA Award for “Best Country Album” for The Captain and I would classify much of your sound on “Storybook” as old-school honky-tonk. With the current state of country music in America your sound would fall under the Americana label. What’s your opinion of mainstream Australian and American country music?
KC – To be honest I am just so happy than anyone wants to listen to my music that I really don’t care what label they want to put on it. I consider myself a country artist but I think my idea of country is probably very different than what the “mainstream world” calls country . A lot of the stuff known as country these days is hard for me to identify with having come from the music grounding of Hank Williams, Louvin Bros and Gram and Emmylou. But it’s hard to argue when you’re in the minority and who am I to say what it should or shouldn’t be. I find and listen to the music I love and share it with as many as I can. I honestly feel so lucky and constantly surprised at how many people I have managed to share my music with over the years. I never imagined any of that to happen.
TN – Do you identify yourself as a country singer, a folk singer, both? Something else?
KC – Someone called us “Country Goth” the other day – ha. i am definitely just a little old country singer.
TN -What is your approach to songwriting? Do you work it all out beforehand or is it a band/studio process?
KC – I don’t think I really have a set process with writing. Sometimes a lyric will come to me, sometimes a melody, sometimes I sit there for a while and nothing comes at all. I wish I had more control over it but I guess it may not be as creative then. I often go six months to a year without writing one thing and that’s ok. They will come when they are meant to.
TN – You will soon embark on a tour with a fellow countryman of mine (Texan) Sarah Joaroz, are there any other young female singer/songwriters you like?
KC – I have a young female singer/songwriter on the road with me at the moment. Her name is Ashleigh Dallas and she plays fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and sings harmonies in my band and she is just beautiful. She’s 19, writes her own stuff as well and she is a big Sarah Joaroz fan so she is super excited about doing some shows with her. We are all gonna have a lot of fun together.
TN – Your new release, Storybook, showcases your take on personally influential songs handpicked from the iconic songbooks of Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and more. How did you pick the artists and songs to include?
KC -All these artists have inspired me in some way or another over the years and I can honestly say I would not be the singer/songwriter that I am without their influence. So many of these songs helped get me through some really hard times in my life.
TN – Was there any cuts that didn’t make it?
KC -I really wanted to include about 20 other Lucinda Wiliams songs…..
TN – You have another collaboration with your husband, Shane Nicholson “Wreck And Ruin,” coming out in September. How is writing and performing with him different for you?
KC – I argue with him a lot more than other musicians! We are like any other normal married couple – sometimes we just need time apart ‘cos we drive each other crazy but I must admit it really is pretty awesome to stand on stage and sing with him. Especially a song we have written together – I absolutely love the sound we create together and at the end of the day I am his biggest fan. (Don’t tell him though or he’ll get a big head.)
TN – What role did music play in your childhood?
KC – I grew up in such a remote area in Australia and had hardly had any contact with civilisation so music was really the only form of entertainment that we had. No TV, no radio, so my dad would get out his guitar and play us old country songs around the campfire. At the time I thought all kids lived like that.
(added on edit) TN – Your sound is very reminiscent of American classic country from the 50′s through the 70s. Did your sound shape from that location and era or was there Australian artists with that that sound that influenced you? How similar / different was American country to Australian country of the same era?
KC – My dad brought me up listening to some Slim Dusty and Tex Morton who are Australian bush balladeers from the early days but apart from that it was pretty much mostly American music that I grew up with. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to discover the music of Australian singer/songwriter Paul Kelly who is and was at the time hugely successful in the mainstream world of rock/pop music but I soon realised he had this sound that (even though I didn’t understand why or how) somehow reminded me of the music I had grown up listening to. Turns out his influences were a lot closer to mine than I would have expected.
TN – What was your first concert?
KC – Does my dad’s gig count? I would go and watch my mum and dad play when I was a kid and one day he asked me to get up and sing. He never got rid of me……
TN – What legend (living or dead) would you like to write a song with?
KC – I don’t really do co-writing much. I only really do it with my husband and most of the time that is enjoyable but the thought of writing with a legend freaks me out so luckily I probably won’t ever get asked…….
Here’s Elizabeth Cook, with husband Tim Carroll on guitar and Bones Hillman (Midnight Oil) on bass, performing a great rendition of “Hear Jerusalem Calling: from her recent Gospel =Plow EP (review here) on the David Letterman Show 6/14/12.
She even makes Dave a believer! (in great music!)
You can also see a CBS web only performance of Cook and Jason Isbell covering two songs by the late, great Townes Van Zandt, “Tecumsah Valley” and “Pancho and Lefty. As I always say, covering Townes is a brave and futile endeavor. But they pull it off more brilliantly as many I’ve heard.
If you do live in a place with at least one independent record store, and love music, then you need to know about the upcoming Record Store Day. This internationally celebrated day is observed on the the third Saturday in April of each year. The event was originally conceived by Chris Brown, VP of Portsmouth, NH’s Bull Moose music store, and founded in 2007 by Eric Levin, Michael Kurtz, Carrie Colliton, Amy Dorfman, Don Van Cleave and Brian Poehner. Exclusive and limited vinyl and CD releases made just for the day by hundreds of artists in hundreds of US and international stores to draw attention the the disappearing mom and pop music stores being affected by a tough economic climate the dwindling customer base that are flocking to buy music online.
This is the fifth year for the event and will offer special releases from Ryan Adams,The Civil Wars, Townes Van Zandt, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Patterson Hood and many more. There many great one offs and creative packaging (where else are you going to find a Buck Owens Coloring Book with a flexi disc?!)
I put together a quick list below of Americana and country artists participating in the event. There’s a good chance that I overlooked something so check the official list of goodies and also check the official participating stores list to make sure yours is on the list. And remember to call ahead for items as not all store will be carrying all releases.
The Black Twig Pickers – Yellow Cat
Format: 7″ 45
Label: Thrill Jockey Records
Blitzen Trapper – Hey Joe b/w Skirts on Fire
Format: 7″ 45
Label: Sub Pop
Bonnie Prince Billy- Hummingbird
Format: 10″ LP
Label: Spiritual Pajamas
Buck Owens Coloring Book w/flexi disc w/ download card
Richard Buckner – “Willow” “Candy-O.”w/ download card.
Caitlin Rose – ‘Love Is a Laserquest’ & ‘Piledriver Waltz’ (Arctic Monkeys covers)
Label: Domino Records
Our friends at Domino Records commissioned Caitlin to cover two songs by the Arctic Monkeys as a very limited edition 7 inch release for Record Store Day this Saturday, April 21st.
Carolina Chocolate Drops/Run DMC
You Be Illin
Format: 7″ 45
Label: Warner Bros.
Freakwater – Feels Like The Third Time (reissue)
Label: Thrill Jockey Records
Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, Yim Yames – New Multitudes
Format: 10″ LP
Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
Format: 7″ 45
Lee Hazlewood – The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes, & Backsides (1968-71)
Label: Light In The Attic
Patterson Hood & the Downtown 13 (featuring Mike Mills) After It’s Gone
Format: 7″ 45
Richard Thomspon – Haul Me Up
Format: 7″ 45
Label: Beeswing Records
Ricky Skaggs & Tony Rice
Label: Sugar Hill
Ryan Adams – Heartbreak A Stranger / Black Sheets Of Rain (Bob Mould cover)
Format: 7″ 45 colored vinyl
Sara Watkins featuring Fiona Apple/The Everly Brothers – You’re The One I Love
Format: 7″ olive green and black splatter
Label: Warner Bros
The Civil Wars – Billie Jean (Live)” Micheal Jackson / Sour Times (Live)” Portishead
Format: 7″ 45
Label: Columbia Records U.K.
The Civil Wars – Live at Amoeba
Label: Sensibility Music LLC
Lydia Loveless – Bad Way To Go / Alison (Elvis Costello cover)
Format: 7″ 45
Ralph Stanley – Single Girl / Little Birdie
Label: Tompkins Square
Townes Van Zandt – At My Window
Label: Sugar Hill
Uncle Tupelo – The Seven Inch Singles
Format: 7″ Vinyl Box Set
3×7″ box set
It’s only been 6 years since the release of his Bloodshot Records debut, Yuma, but in the brief time Justin Townes Earle has stepped outside the formidable, shadows of his Father , Steve Earle, and his namesake, Townes Van Zandt, to carve out his own path as a torchbearer for the Americana movement.
Earle’s new release for Bloodshot Records Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, his follow-up to 2010′s Harlem River Blues, will be released on March 27th.
The video below by Joshua Black Wilkins was filmed during the recording process at the converted church studio of Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville NC. The video shows a live feel of the recording (with Justin making changes on the fly) and features Amanda Shires. The 10-track album was recorded with no overdubs over the course of just 4 days
Describing the the new album Justin describes the sounds as “1960s-era Muscle Shoals sound accompanied by lots of brass.” and that it’s “completely different” than last year’s Harlem River Blues. “This time I’ve gone in a Memphis-soul direction.”
Download the title track in trade for your email address from the song title link below.
Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now track list
01. “Am I That Lonely Tonight?”
02. “Look the Other Way”
03. “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now”
04. “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea”
06. “Down on the Lower East Side”
07. “Won’t Be the Last Time”
08. “Memphis in the Rain”
09. “Unfortunately, Anna”
10. “Movin’ On”
I received an email invitation from the local GRAMMY Foundation representatives to cover the Civil Wars as they participated in a GRAMMY Camp event to have college and high school students sit in on a sound check and a Q&A afterward. I waited on the rest of “the press” and hoped that I would get an opportunity to squeeze in my one or two questions when the band too time to meet with us, I was then told by Christen , the GRAMMY rep, that I was the press. As I stab at my Droid smart phone to pad out my questions and topics they were brought in by their road manager and, in contrast the Southern-Gothic image conjured by their music, they immediately start ribbing me about my name and dashing all pretense. We then spent the next 15 minutes (I was promised 5) in a fun and engaging conversation that I hope is reflected below.
People, like myself, who obsess about music often too reflexively shun anything stained with mainstream success. Like Jack Black’s character, Barry, from the film adaptation Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity berating a father entering Championship Vinyl looking to buy Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You” for his daughter’s birthday, we often miss the joy that music brings people and degrade it into our own personal cultural caste system.
Perhaps it was the inclusion of The Civil Wars’ song Poison & Wine in an episode of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy in 2009. Perhaps it was the Taylor Swift tweeting to her legion of followers that she she was a fan of the band (and then included them in her iTunes playlist). Perhaps it was being hand-selected by Adele to open her United States shows which led her to rave on her blog – “If you’re coming to any of the shows on this trip make sure you get there early to see them. I’ve never been so blown away.” Whatever it is, it seemed that for some the Civil Wars, Joy Williams and John Paul White, were destined to wear the dreaded scarlet M (mainstream.)
It’s interesting to me that one of the shining lights of Americana refuses to be corralled by the label and part of their success may be a result of this refusal to be pigeonholed. It was a unique opportunity for me to meet with Joy and John Paul, and hear their beautiful harmonies soar within a nearly empty Fillmore hall. The hall where legendary promoter, Bill Graham, made his mark by following his love of music. Boundaries be damned. I hope you like the interview.
Twang Nation: I read that you’ve recently spent some time in the company of Rick Rubin and T Bone Burnett.
Joy Williams: Ah, word on the street.
John Paul White: It feels really weird to have that conversation. We were hanging out with Rick Rubin….
TN: Does your popularity help you get an audience with star producers like these where many others would be sent packing if they were to ask?
JPW: I think that everything we’ve done up until now has been done to this point with the music in mind. We don’t pitch ourselves or push ourselves on producers, labels or even listeners. Everything we’ve done has been let’s just make the best music we can and perform it as well as we possibly can, and let the chips fall where they may. The beauty of technology is that word of mouth can spread so easily and so much faster that this entire year we’ve had many great opportunities come to us just from making music we dearly love and performing it as well as we possibly can. When that happened it was just another thing we never expected. If we had reaching out to them and said “We’re the Civil Wars. Like us.” that would have changed things. We like to find things and i’m sure they like to find things. We were extremely flattered when they bring us up.
TN: You guys are great at what you do, but there’s a lot of great music out there. Americana isn’t known for having superstars but you’re the closest it’s come. How did you rise above the fray to get the profile your enjoying? Was it the team around you I saw at the Artist Development panel at the Americana Music Association conference? was it the inclusion of your song (Poison & Wine) onGrey’s Anatomy? You had a high-profile fan (Taylor Swift) that tweeted her affection for your music.
JW: I feel like there have been a lot of small hinge moments on a really big door. I don’t think you can go back and attribute it to just two or three things. We’re very fortunate that the music has connected with people the way that it has. We’ve also worked really hard to do things in a different way. We’ve hand-selected every single person that is now a part of our team and they give a damn because they aren’t forced to work on this. I think people coming to our shows and tweeting, whether they are a celebrity or not, that word of mouth, is one of the biggest gifts you can give an independent artist. it’s exciting to come back to cities where we played to maybe a quarter of the people that we get to play to the next time we’re there. We’re excited that sales are growing , but more than that we we get to play music. We genuinely love what we do and hopefully that connects with people as well. No one is more surprised than we are that this is working out. (laughs)
JPW: I think people tend to gloss over how hard we work. This is the third time we’ve played San francisco this year. There are a lot of cities around this nation that are the same way. at the beginning of the year we were playing to maybe an hundred people and now we get to play this place tonight (the capacity I found on google for the Fillmore that is 1199) , it’s like the old sports adage the more we practice the luckier we get.
TN: I was surprised to see your name as a nominee for the Country Music Awards Vocal Duo of the Year. You were beat out by Sugarland, but the CMAs aren’t known for being unpredictable.
JPW: I would assume a lot of that has to do with CMT (Country Music Television) because we got no country radio play. CMT played the hell out of the Barton Hollow video, and now the poison & Wine video. That got us in front of a lot of people.
JW: It’s interesting to see us played on CMT and the VH1. We don’t know where we fit within a genre, but that doesn’t bother us.
TN: So you don’t think you fit within a genre?
JPW: No, but that was never the idea. We didn’t set out to be this and not that. we just wrote music some things were natural – we liked this, and we liked that. We never set out like this is what we want to be and this is what we don’t want to be. When we went out to play it would be she and I went and a guitar. So things starting tailoring themselves to that set-up. By the time we got into the studio we has an idea of what we do, and don’t do. What we like and what we don’t. The record (Barton Hollow) ended up stripped-down and simple because we had spent so much time on the road with the songs, that when we would add instruments they just got in the way. It ended up being a minimalist record but it was never set out to be that way. we never said at any point “If we turn t this way just enough country radio will play this.” or “If we put a banjo on there we’re screwing ourselves.” We just wanted to make the album exactly the way we wanted to and be completely selfish about it.
JW: We just followed our noses.
JPW: And by doing that way we really don’t fit anywhere.
JW: But no complaints about that. We don’t feel ostracized by any group. We’ve had everything from pop to folk to Americana, country..we’re happy with all those titles.
JPW: If you’re not playing the radio game it’s probably in your best interest. because then the Americana fans, the country fans, the folk fans, the bluegrass fans…we even have rock fans, which kind of makes sense since I am such a huge rock and metal fan and maybe hints of that show up in our work. We appeal to all types because we are doing what we love and people pick up on that.
TN: With the Country Music Awards nomination,and the Americana Conference Awards nomination for New/Emerging Artist and Duo/Group of the Year and all the other awards you’ve won, you figure you’ll be up for a GRAMMY?
JW: Well, who knows?
JPW: I have plenty of doubt abut that.
TN: Do you?
JPW: I do.
TN: I’ll place a wager that you’re going to get a GRAMMY.
JPW: You’re asking us to bet against ourselves? I’ll do it, what do we bet?
TN: What do you drink?
JPW: Oh yes, let’s do that. bourbon…whiskey…the older the better.
TN: How about bottle of Bulleit?
JPW: A bottle of Bulleit it is. I hope I lose.
TN: I’ll be covering the GRAMMYS and will be in L.A. to claim my prize. just a couple more questions. you don’t want to be associated by a genre but you can be defined by your influences, who are some of yours?
JW: We couldn’t have more different backgrounds when it comes to this. I grew up listening to a lot of crooners – Ella, Etta, Frank and then it went on to Joni Mitchell, Joan Biaz, Janis Joplin, The Beach Boys and the Carpenters we always playing in my house. Then I got my license and started to drive and had total control of the radio which then turned completely to pop.
JPW: We listened to a lot of top 40 on my mom’s car radio and a lot of country music. Then i was listening to my friend’s Ozzy records, Black Sabbath and Queen and all of that. Then i came back around to listening to the stuff I grew up with and cut my teeth on. The Beatles, E.L.O., Jeff Buckley later…Elliot Smith. Elliot is my guy.He probably sums up everything I love about music.
JW: Mine would be Billie Holiday. Yours would be Elliot and mine would be Billie.
JPW: They’re not that far apart. And they;re not that far apart in temperament if you believe their biographies. We’re not that different.
TN: Who would you like to share that stage with?
JW: Anybody alive?
TN: Alive or dead.
JPW: I got one. For alive I’d say Tom Waits.
JW: Yes! Alive Tom Waits!
JPW: But I’d be terrified. We could just stand next to him and sing harmony and let him be the mad man.
JW: I’d be the happiest person in the world!
JPW: Dead would be Elliot Smith.
JW: Townes Van Zandt for me, or Billie Holiday.
TN: I would love to hear you guys cover a Townes song.
JPW: We talked about “Waiting Around to Die.” i don’t feel like we can go anywhere near “Pancho and Lefty.”
TN: I saw a video on YouTube of you covering Michael Jackson’s Billie jean (see below)
JPW: There’s certain songs, like a Townes song, that makes perfect sense for us to cover. So for whatever reason they sometimes fall flat. We do them as you would expect us to do them. So sometimes it makes more sense for us to take Billie jean or (Jackson 5′s) I Want you Back, that we feel like are great songs but you might be distracted by the production and a lot of people don’t realize how great the songs are. Plus it’s a lot of fun for us.
JW: We’re really not into navel-gazing in terms of what we perform. We take what we do seriously but we don’t take ourselves seriously. I think if you make it like a living room experience, to me, that’s more enjoyable than watching someone sing only their own songs. We always like to keep people on their toes a little bit.
JPW: It can get heavy so we like to lighten things up a bit.
This is not typically the kind of music that floats my boat. Most Americana that works the folkie singer/songwriter side of the fence leaves me cold. To me like it’s more commercially lucrative cousin pop-country; a watered down version of a powerful source who’s soul was sold long, long ago. Like corporate beer and steak chain restaurants something wonderful went terribly wrong while bringing something to the masses. And even though folk never sells in Music City numbers the brunch-folk styling of Jack Johnson and M Ward have led to a relatively wide audience and financial independence for the artists.
But sometimes a performer reminds us of what once was. Dylan did this. So did Townes Van Zandt. The Chapel Hill, NC duo of Andrew Marlin (guitar, mandolin, harmonica) and Emily Frantz (violin/fiddle, guitar, vocals), collectively known as Mandolin Orange, draw from a deeper well than those others to craft their songs and sound. Like Welch and Rawlings or Parsons and Harris there is a reverence for history while charting new sonic landscapes.
There is subtlety in the arraignments. Songs like No Weight and Runnin’ Red would make perfect living room performance faire for a polite audience. But like a trace of arsenic after a sip of fine whiskey or a Smith & Wesson hammer clicking back under a table set for a romantic dinner there something menacing just below the surface.
From the excellent Runnin’ Red “The waters runnin’ red tonight, and our bridge is burnin’ hot, we parted ways in the middle, now we gaze from each side” and the Van Zandt-like Clover “You used to live untruly, so kindly, and it left you lying here in ruin, you cut the hand of a good friend and you smiled in all your doing.”
This is not music made to be pretty, but pretty music made to be honest.
To ratchet the burden even higher Mandolin Orange has crafted 18 consistently excellent songs across two disks, individually titled Haste Make / Hard Hearted Stranger. There may be a thematic difference between the two but I can’t discern between them. The albums sweeps past you like memories of a whiskey-fueled Saturday night or the landscape from the window of a speeding 18-wheeler. They shift and blur into a singular whole that surprises you when it ends. It surprised me even more that after 18 songs I still wanted more.