Jan 8, 2020
Oct 15, 2019
Mar 12, 2019
Jan 3, 2019
Aug 10, 2018
By Kevin Broughton
Jason Eady is a country artist with a bluegrass soul. He cut his teeth with his stepfather in central Mississippi, going to picking parties and bluegrass jams, but his six solo albums to date have all been in a traditional country vein. But on the heels of his critically acclaimed self-titled 2017 record, Eady has gone fully unplugged and put his own unique, rocking stamp on the bluegrass ethos. With help from an A-list duo from the genre, he’s made his best album to date, I Travel On, released today on Old Guitar Records.
It’s a good-time record made by a man at peace with himself and the world. We chatted about being positive while staying authentic, clearing out a Croatian bar in Paris, and jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. And other stuff.
I Travel On is a distinct departure – in several ways -- from your self-titled 2017 album. That one made our top 10, but it was pretty understated and a little somber in places. Musically and thematically this record may be its polar opposite. What were your mindset and/or goals with regard to the musical approach this time?
Well, this record and the last one seem pretty different, but I think of the last record as a bridge to this one. Before the self-titled album, I’d been very electric, with lots of steel guitar – country music. Sonically, they were bigger productions – not huge, though – than the last album. On the last one we kind of pulled it back; it was more of an acoustic album. I Travel On is fully acoustic. So I think there’s a sonic thread running through to it. And I had been wanting to move that direction.
About three years ago we played a show in Bozeman, Montana. And this room is fantastic; it’s one of those places everyone plays when they go to Montana. But it is small. I don’t know the actual capacity, but I would guess 30-40 people, and it’s wider than it is deep, so there are only about four rows of chairs. And we started bringing in all our gear, but the thought of cramming all those amps in just seemed weird to me. So we grabbed all our acoustic guitars, stripped down the drum kit and played the whole set that way. And it just sounded great. So I went into the last album with that idea, and toured that way as well.
The first thing I noticed on the opening cut, “I Lost My Mind in Carolina,” was that you brought in a stud on acoustic guitar. Got a ringer on Dobro, too. Who are these guys, and what was the recording process like?
Rob Ickes (dobro) and Trey Hensley (guitar) are the two guys. And my favorite thing about this record is that it’s real and organic. Our developed the sound by touring around and playing that way, where everybody did their own natural thing. And we came up with a sound that’s sort of bluegrass on the top end and a real groove on the bottom. While we were driving around the country we listened to these guys – they’re a duo, and they are absolute studs in the bluegrass world; their very first album got nominated for a Grammy in the bluegrass category. They’re just phenomenal.
So as it came time to make this record, I wanted it to be our live band, but I didn’t want there to be overdubs. I wanted the record to sound like we’re all sitting in a room. Our lead player can do all those things, but I didn’t want overdubs. So since we had been listening to them, and I just called Trey and said, “Would you guys want to do this?” He said yes. It came from a very real place; we didn’t just say, “Who are some studio badasses we can call?” We tracked 100 percent live from top to bottom, no overdubs. Our band would work them up the night before, but we had never played them with Rob and Trey before we recorded. Everything you hear on this record is what you would have heard if you had been standing in the room while we recorded.
Yeah, I know!
There’s a real blues/bluegrass feel to the whole thing.
I would never in the world set out and try to make a pure bluegrass record, because I have way too much respect for the genre. To be in that world, you really have to live it your whole life. You can’t dabble in bluegrass. But yeah, it was a conscious thing we were going for; we’re calling it “groove grass.” We wanted to hint at bluegrass, and people will definitely hear that aspect of it, but with pure bluegrass you don’t have drums or a bass guitar. “Groove grass” sums it up, really.
I want to get into several specific songs in a minute, but something stands out on the album as a whole and I’d like to get your take on it. Brent Cobb told me a couple of years ago that it’s possible to write country or roots songs with authenticity and depth without their all being sad and depressing. I think that’s rare, but it certainly holds true for this album of yours – and to a large degree the last one. What do you think of that premise? You seem to be a pretty happy guy.
I am. And I love Brent, by the way, I think he’s one of the best artists around today. Just incredible. But he’s right. And there’s that temptation when you’re writing songs that you want to be authentic or real; they can turn out depressing. But I wanted this album to feel good. There are some points on the record where if you want to listen to words and dig into meanings – and I worked hard on the words – there’s some depth to latch onto if you want to listen to it that way. But I also wanted this to be a record that you could just put on and play and enjoy. I get that there’s a need for feel-good music, where you don’t have to just think all the time. There are plenty of examples of people – like John Prine and Paul Simon – who write great songs, but I don’t know what they mean half the time. They just feel really good. Just put it on. Move your feet. Move your head.
But Brent’s right; you have to pull yourself out of that box, because it seems like there are two extremes in country music right now. It’s either said and depressing, or it’s so fluffy, about drinking beer on the river on the weekend.
Speaking of being a “Happy Man,” there’s a song with that very title. Were you making a statement for the record with that one?
I definitely was. I just wanted to get that out there. God forbid if anything happened to me, anyone could listen to that song and know that I’m a happy person and have lived a good life, and these are the reasons why. Because when you boil it down, there’s really only a few things that make you happy: There’s friends, there’s family, there’s doing what you love and the experiences you have. Here, there are two verses with three things each that make me happy. And at the end of it, I couldn’t think of anything else. The simplicity of it was very intentional.
And the origin of it – I don’t want to drag this out but this is a funny story – was overseas last year. We went to Paris, France to play a festival and wound up in a Croatian bar right across from the Notre Dame Cathedral. We could hear music playing inside that was lively, so we went in. This was like a Tuesday night but there was a party going on, so we wandered in. The bartender asks Courtney and me what we were doing there and we told him we were musicians. He asks my name, and dials me up on Spotify, and just started playing my music randomly, however that works. And it was just like three of my most depressing songs, one after another.
Yeah, man. Cleared out the bar. Everyone went outside to smoke all at once. Killed the whole vibe of the room. I started getting depressed! And I thought, “Good gosh, if I heard this for the first time I’d think this fellow is depressed, too. This guy’s got problems.” So I wanted to get it out there, that it’s not the case. I’ve written plenty of sad songs, but that’s just something I like to do sometimes. And ironically, “Happy Man” is one of the slowest songs on the record.
About the only thing that comes close to a downer on this album is “She Had to Run,” about a woman getting out of a dangerous domestic situation. Is there a story behind that song?
Yeah, I won’t go into the details of it because it’s a very personal song, but one I needed to write. And I knew when I got ready to make this album that this song would be the outlier, but it was too important to me. I had to get that one on there. I just hope that maybe there’s one person who hears it and thinks about getting out of a situation like that.
I won’t pry into specifics, but let me ask: Does the person who inspired it know about the song?
She does. We haven’t talked about it a lot because it’s still too close, too fresh. She got out, but it was frighteningly close. It was so close that the next person who was with that guy didn’t get out.
“Always a Woman” is intriguing. Tonally, it’s dark and in a minor key – by the way, is there another chord, or just C minor?
That’s it, the whole way through.
Lyrically, it’s kind of an ironic Valentine. “There’s only one thing between the devil and a good man” is really clever, because it can mean two very different things.
Unpack that song for me.
That’s the first song I wrote for this album, and the only one where I had a title set beforehand. Courtney and I were hanging out with a friend who was having a bad time and she asked what was the matter. He kind of shrugged it off and she said, “Is it a woman?” He said, “It’s always a woman.” I wrote that down, and I sat down with my guitar and just started droning on that C minor chord. And it’s a very specific fingerpicking pattern that never stops for four minutes; if you watch me play it my fingers [on the neck] never move.
And like we were just talking about, I didn’t want to write another sad song. So I had the first verse and thought, “This song has to turn. ‘Always a woman’ doesn’t have to mean good or bad.” So musically we used some dynamics to change things up, and I tried to change that phrase from a positive to a negative as well. And I think the whole theme of the record is finding the positive in things and moving forward. And that’s why we called the album “I Travel On.” It’s about moving forward. A lot of the songs are about physically traveling; this one does it in a mental space.
And the feedback/distortion thing is a nice backbone. Nothing electric there?
No! That’s the dobro player raking across the strings, and the fiddle player doing it in some spots, muting his strings. Everybody thinks there are electric instruments on that song and there aren’t. We had a videographer come in and shoot while we were recording that song; you’ll see it when it comes out.
And I guess you had to include at least a couple waltzes to preserve domestic bliss. I take it that’s your bride singing harmony on “Below The Waterline?”
Ha. Yeah, if you hear harmonies on this album there Courtney’s. I’ve always wanted to write a bluegrass power waltz. I love those, because they make the harmonies just scream. Courtney and I wrote that one together.
I was gonna ask if she got a co-write on that one.
She got two. We wrote that one, and “Now or Never,” the second track on the album.
This is kinda random but the key of C minor on “Always a Woman” made me wonder: Do you have a favorite key, or one that you end up doing the bulk of your songs in?
I write most of my songs in D and I don’t know why. And I had originally written that song in D minor, but when we got into the studio to record we got to that point in the chorus where you go up, and I couldn’t quite hit it. And when we lowered it, it kind of came alive, got darker.
Staying with random: You recently went skydiving with your mom and daughter. What possessed y’all, and would you do it again?
That was all my mom’s idea. She had originally wanted to do that thing in Vegas where you bungee-jump off of a tower on one of the tall buildings. And later we were together at Christmas and she said something about skydiving, and my daughter wanted to do it with her. So I bought it for my daughter, but every time they tried to go the weather was bad, then my daughter went off to college. She was home a few weeks ago and the weather was perfect. And on the drive over I thought, “When am I ever gonna get to do this again? All three generations are here. This is once in a lifetime.”
Tell me about the moment before you went out the door of the airplane.
It’s the most terrifying and exhilarating thing. On the way up it’s in your head what’s gonna happen, but it’s just indescribable, the way you feel standing in that door. If you’re not afraid looking out, you’re not human. There’s nothing about it that’s natural or normal. You have to try and get it out of your head, and trust the person who’s strapped to your back.
That was the worst moment, because we did a high jump. We were at 14,000 feet. I loved it. But there’s really no way in the world to use words to describe what it feels like.
Would you do it again?
You know, when I first did it I said there was no way – I was glad I did it but wouldn’t do it again. But there are times I find myself thinking about it. I don’t think I’d go out of my way to, but if somebody said, “You wanna go do this,” I think I probably would.
Y’all are doing something kinda neat, a sightseeing, musical bus tour of Switzerland with 40 fans. I’m familiar with musical cruises; is this something y’all came up with, or have others done it?
Courtney and I have gone to Switzerland five years in a row, I think. We have a promoter over there and we love it there. And you can drive from one corner of the country to the other in five hours. But we did something like this last year, with Reckless Kelly and toured Ireland. We were their guests And Courtney and I decided we had to do this in Switzerland. So it’s seven nights and five shows, and we’re personally putting it together, where we’re gonna stay and eat and the venues we’ll play. The response has been great. We’re really excited about it.
I Travel On is out today.
Apr 3, 2018
1. Brandi Carlile - By the Way, I Forgive You
2. Caitlyn Smith - Starfire
3. Ashley McBryde - Girl Going Nowhere
4. Dallas Moore - Mr. Honky Tonk
5. First Aid Kid - Ruins
6. Courtney Marie Andrews - May Your Kindness Remain
7. Caleb Caudle - Crushed Coins
8. Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour
9. Courtney Patton - What It's Like to Fly Alone
10. Buffalo Tom - Quiet and Peace
11. Ruby Boots - Don't Talk About It
12. Wade Bowen - Solid Ground
13. Mike & The Moonpies - Steak Night at the Prairie Rose
14. Trixie Mattel - One Stone
15. Whiskey Wolves of the West - Country Roots
16. Anderson East - Encore
17. Josh Grider - Good People
18. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats - Tearing at the Seams
19. Ross Cooper - I Rode the Wild Horses
20. Pedigo's Magic Pilsner - s/t
*there are a few recent and forthcoming albums I haven't listened to enough to rank yet
**This is just Trailer's top 20 - year end list will include all contributors
Mar 20, 2018
Feb 27, 2018
By Kevin Broughton
Courtney Patton was in a good place, a really good one. And she had been for a little while, having settled into a marriage with her songwriting soul mate, the kind and humble Jason Eady. Having received critical acclaim for her 2015 album So This Is Life, followed up by the husband-and-wife collection of duets Something Together, Patton was finally happy and content as she set about to write, record and produce her own record for the first time.
But happy ain’t country. Fortunately, though, like the scorpion catching a ride from the frog, Patton’s nature prevails on an album full of truth, three chords at a time on What It’s Like To Fly Alone. Collaborating with heavy-hitting songwriters like Micky Braun and Larry Hooper (who along with Eady helped pen “Barabbas” on Eady’s self-titled album), she captures heartbreak, hope and a dash of redemption throughout. Her vocals combine the boldness of Kim Richey and the sweet, quavering vulnerability of Kelly Willis, while telling stories of characters both real and familiar.
Patton, with her self-effacing, hearty laugh and genuine humility, is a woman comfortable in her own skin. Her gregarious wit stands in contrast to the darkness of her songs’ characters, but the common thread is a genuineness that pervades. This is a compelling album by a woman serious about her craft.
She’s between Dallas and Houston when we connect to talk about hawks, snakes, rats, cigarette smoke and Botox.
A few years back on Jack Ingram’s Songwriters Series, you said, “I think sad songs, the way they’re produced and written, are the fabric of real country music.” It seems like you’ve really put your money where your mouth is on this album. We’ll get into some specific tracks in a minute, but how did this album come about thematically?
If I’m being 100 percent truthful, I was in a rut. I was in a writer’s rut, because I was happy for the first time in a really long time. And it’s hard to be the kind of songwriter I am when you’re happy. Happy songs are so hard for me, because you’ve really got to know how to do it without being cheesy.
And I had never co-written before, so I had made a goal after So This Is Life came out in 2015 that I was going to co-write with some of my friends and really get better at it. So I’m really proud that seven out of the 12 songs on this record are co-writes.
That being said, I couldn’t go about it this time with a theme. Every other time I’ve said, “Okay, the theme for this record is this.” This album, I just wanted to write songs and have a big pot of them to choose from. But when it came down to it and I started singing these songs, I realized they all kind of centered on the idea that we have to make ourselves happy. At the end of the day, we have to choose the person we’re with; we have to choose to get over addiction. Or whatever it is. We have to decide to make the best of what we have.
What about the title track?
I was driving home from Austin, where I’d had a really bad gig. A couple of fans had gotten up and left during the first song – and asked for their money back -- because they had driven in from out of town to see someone else -- who happened to be my husband. Jason was supposed to be there but wasn't, so Josh Grider was filling in for him. It had nothing to do with me, but it threw me off. I started forgetting lyrics and doubting myself.
I was crying the whole way home. I called Jason and told him I was going to quit: “I’m gonna go back to college and get my master’s, and teach public speaking in college. That’s what I’m want to do!” He said, “Get home, go to bed and wake up tomorrow. It’ll all be okay.”
And right as I’m wiping my tears away, this hawk shoots out and flies almost into my car. It shocked me out of my stupor and forced me to say, “Okay, focus, you’re almost home.” And it was 2:00 in the morning and I got home and wrote the whole song. And the whole point of it is at the end of the day, that hawk’s out to find a snake or a rat or whatever he can to survive, and he’s gotta do it by himself. I’m out here playing songs, singing songs that come from deep inside of me, and I’ve gotta do it by myself. I have to choose; when those two couples walk out, I have to be able to say, “I’m good enough. My songs are good enough. I can do this.” I made the choice to do this; I’ve gotta play that show and not let it affect me. I’m doing what I love, and I don’t want to go back to college right now.
You’re a big fan of waltzes. Why? (And I have a follow-up question.)
So…I don’t know why, but all my life I’ve liked slow, sadder songs. I’ve listened to Counting Crows and Carole King and they’ve been huge influences on me. Willie Nelson…I love Merle Haggard. I just love slow songs. People have told me, “You’re in a waltz rut,” and I just can’t help it. The way that I write poetry it phrases itself in a waltz meter without my trying.
That was another challenge because I thought I was gonna end up with another slew of waltzes – and again, I’m not apologizing – but some people think it’s too much.
I asked Jason this last year, and I’m curious about your take. How does one go about writing a waltz? I mean, do you have lyrics ahead of time and bend them into a One-two-three cadence? Do you write the words with a ¾ time in your head? Or is it something else entirely?
Man, for me it just really comes out that way, in a waltz meter. I’ll have a phrase in mind and I’ll write the phrase out and as the words start coming, I realize that’s just the way it’s going to be. I really don’t try, “This is a melody, let’s write a song to it,” I never do that. I guess my heart beats in the rhythm of a waltz.
On the surface one would think, you know, you & Jason have been married for going on 4 years now, and y’all are perfect for each other – you should be in a really good place in life. But so many of these songs are dark and sad. How much of this album is autobiographical? I mean, obviously “Fourteen Years” is about the sister you lost…
…but, for instance, “Round Mountain,”
Oh it is? Good!
Yeah! This was one of the first challenges I gave myself. I drove between two towns -- I wanna say Johnson City and Fredericksburg – maybe just past Johnson City, and it was literally just a sign: “Round Mountain.” And I looked into the history and around 1900 there was a church there, and so people started settling there. And when the church closed they all went back to Johnson City.
So I just made up a fictional story of a character named Emily, and she had an affair. And I don’t know if that kind of stuff happened back then, but I kind of wanted to go for a Chris Knight-type of song. I saw a head stone that said something like “Fare the well, Emily Bell,” and just made up a story about her, and her not wanting anybody to know she’d had a bastard baby.” I’m sure she doesn’t appreciate that, if she can hear me. (Laughs)
And she had died young, I should mention that, probably of dysentery or smallpox or something that actually happened back then. I just made it way darker. (Laughs)
Yes. Dark. And fictional.
You know, I got a Face Book message from a fan who said, “I’m kind of concerned, are you and Jason okay? The title of your album concerns me, and I don’t see any pictures of y’all together.” And I said, “You know it’s actually nice to have a private life where we don’t have to share everything we’re doing! But we’re sitting here having dinner, laughing at the absurdity of your concern. It’s a song about the music business. Calm down.” (Laughs)
You mentioned dealing with addiction; speaking from any kind of experience there?
Uh, not necessarily, but I have a grandfather who struggled with alcoholism and a brother who just celebrated two years of sobriety. But it’s hard for all of us, watching him struggle with that and not knowing what to do to help. But it’s not me; there’s nothing in me that says “I’ve gotta have that,” and then I’ve gotta have it more. I can have a drink, and I can not have a drink for three months and not think about it. Luckily it wasn’t something that was passed on to me. I just think everybody struggles with their own thing.
You’re on your way to a house show to help finance this record, and as best I can tell, your albums have all been self-released. Was this a business decision on your part to forsake getting a label and do it all on your own?
I’ve never looked for one, and I’ve never had anybody approach me. So I guess it’s mutual. I enjoy having creative control over my material and I think I’d be very disheartened if anyone told me I couldn’t do it the way I wanted to. I just think we’re very fortunate to live in Texas where you can make a living touring and driving around playing guitar. I don’t even play with a band. And I make more money doing this than I did at my day job…which wasn’t much, you know, but it’s a pride thing. At the end of the day I look at my guitar and say, “Me and you: we did that.”
And nobody told me, you know, that I had to shoot Botox in my lips…
…or lose 40 pounds. I mean, I think of all the things – I hear horror stories from my friends in Nashville…these girls in their twenties who are gorgeous, but with these ridiculously plump lips and no wrinkles on their foreheads. And that’s just not country music! Country music is supposed to have wrinkles. And cigarette smoke and beer.
And that’s just not – I would not want anything put on me that way, because it’s frightening to me. I think they’d take one look at me – I’m a curvy girl – and say, “You don’t belong here.” So it’s never anything that’s come into the realm of the possible with me. And I’m okay with that.
Drew Kennedy produced the last album, and you did this one yourself. What was the recording process like? Did y’all lay everything down live?
I was nervous about it. But I’ve been missing a lot over the last few years. I’m a mom – going to basketball games and soccer games. But I had the opportunity to make and album in my hometown and I’ve never done that before, so I jumped on it. So two of the guys who tour with Jason – Jerry Abrams on bass and Giovanni Carnuccio on drums – we went in the studio and tracked it live. I was in the control room and they were in the main room, and what you hear is what we did. There are no overdubs on that part.
Now when you hear Lloyd Maines, he did that from home. But the basic tracks – guitar, bass drums and vocals – we did that live, in about two and a half days. But I’m just so fortunate to have Lloyd and a bunch of other friends and people I trust who helped out. I just sent them my songs. And the thing is, they – and especially Lloyd – they listen to words, and they play things that match. A lot of musicians don’t do that. But Lloyd can hear me take a deep breath, and you can hear it correspond on the steel – inhaling.
It’s just cool things like that; I don’t think I could have asked for better people to play on it. But I was very excited to try and do it myself, and it’s been a very proud moment for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, but I loved it.
Feb 20, 2018
Some would imagine that the fan-friendly, honest Americana music scene would not be as likely to contain divas and d-bags as the more mainstream genres of music. However, thanks to critic and hipster love for the buzzworthy genre, things have changed of late. This groundswell has slowly created a context wherein all manner of unlikely aspirants are more apt to let their jerk flag fly. Here are some of the genre's most egregious offenders.
10. Brent Cobb
"Forgets" to invite cousin Dave to family functions
Band members only allowed to speak to him by text message
9. Rhiannon Giddens
Borrows band members' phones and logs out of everything
Once put a fan who accidentally called her 'Rihanna' in a triangle choke submission hold
8. Amanda Shires
Wouldn't speak to husband, Jason, for a month when he opposed the name "Taco Lucinda" for their daughter
Performed an entire show of Rob Thomas covers when one crowd was smaller than anticipated
7. Rob Baird
Always eats the middle cinnamon roll out of the pan first
Spends hours a day leaving 1 star iTunes reviews on other Americana artists
Will only autograph thongs
6. Shooter Jennings
Puffs, doesn't pass
Got a secret tip and sold all his Bitcoin to Marilyn Manson just before Bitcoin crashed
Plans to do an all-EDM tour later this year
5. Ward Davis
Secretly bullies Cody Jinks
Still says "Dilly Dilly!"
Keeps telling everybody new music is coming "soon" but it never does
4. Holly Williams
First person to ingest a Tide Pod on video
Can only name 3 Hank Sr. songs
Drives 10 mph below speed limit in left lane
3. Drew Kennedy
Never cleans stations in the gym after using them
Doesn't wash out the sink after beard grooming
Tour rider includes "organic kale candy" and "fitted hemp Phillies cap"
2. Courtney Patton
Spreads rumors about Jamie Lin Wilson on Snapchat
Tells dirty jokes at funerals
Vapes dill pickle flavor at songwriting sessions
1. Paul Thorn
Does the old "replace the vodka with water" trick on his tour bus
Constantly reminds fans he used to be a boxer
Never plays his top 5 songs on Spotify in concert
Always has a few credit card skimmers on hand
Jan 4, 2018
Nov 29, 2017
Jul 16, 2017
Apr 21, 2017
Where He’s Been: A conversation with Jason Eady
By Kevin Broughton
The word comes up often with Jason Eady. His songwriting process, the way someone plays pedal steel, the setup in a recording studio; he tags all with this adjective that can mean anything from farming without pesticides to a really hard chemistry class focused on carbon. One gets the feeling, though, that Eady is using either the “having systematic coordination of parts” or “forming an integral element of a whole portraitures” usages.
His sixth and self-titled album is being released today on 30 Tigers. His three-year layoff from the studio (since 2014's Daylight & Dark), overlapped with his easing into a fifth decade, produced a simpler, subtler Eady sound. Unplugged. Laid back. Smart. Organic.
The album’s first single, “Barabbas,” has been widely circulated and critically praised already. Such an ancient name – that of he who received clemency while the Savior bore the sins of the world – certainly raises an eyebrow. I heard the judge ask the jury, which one’s the one to go? Then I heard them say my name, and why I’ll never know. So begins a lilting, introspective look at how fallen humans deal with guilt, forgiveness and redemption. Powerful in its humility and simplicity, it sets the tone for an album so beautifully understated that it’s the best record to date in 2017.
There’s a lot of flavor: bluegrass (“Drive”); story songs (“Black Jesus” and “Why I Left Atlanta”); and a poignant tune about the backside of cheating, “Where I’ve Been.” There’s a love letter to his daughter, and a reflection of turning the big four-oh. What’s missing? A mediocre cut. No throwaways here.
We caught up with the Mississippian-to-Texan, fresh off a jaunt to the Emerald Isle, and talked about how to write a waltz, tag-team songwriting, and re-immersing in the Arabic language.
You’re just off the road from a mini-tour in Ireland. A lot of roots/ Americana artists seem to have strong followings in Europe, Ireland and the U.K., while they might struggle to build an audience stateside. Why do you suppose that is?
Yeah, man, I’ve 100 percent noticed that. My wife, Courtney [Patton], and I have been going over there for several years. And before this time we had never taken a band, it was just these small acoustic tours.
But we noticed that exact thing, and we’ve talked about it. I think one thing is they just love roots music there; they just appreciate the authenticity of it. They like that sound coming from the States, especially from Texas and the South. So I definitely think that’s part of it.
Another thing I’ve noticed: I think – in Europe, where not everybody speaks English – harmony tends to be a big thing there. It sounds good to them even if they don’t know the language. And unlike in the United States, that’s all they can latch onto.
Help me fill in a couple holes in the bio your publicist sent me. It says you grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. But I was a resident of the 6-0-1 for 20 years, and I’m thinking Rankin County. In broad strokes, tell me about your upbringing, and where you went to high school.
That’s exactly right. I went to Florence High School. But yeah, I grew up with that Southern music, and it’s a huge asset. Because it’s not like anybody had to sit me down and say, “You have to listen to this much blues music, and this much Southern rock and this much country.” All of it was there, and none of it was compartmentalized.
Whether it was church on Sunday, or a street festival in Jackson on a Saturday afternoon, music was always around. My dad was in a bluegrass band, and on Tuesday nights he’d have a bunch of those guys over, and they’d sit around in a big song circle and play old country and bluegrass songs. They had a songbook with all the chords in them -- I’d give anything to still have that book today. But they’d sit around and play -- I was probably 12 or 13 at the time – and when they left, my dad would hang his Martin up on the wall. And I would sneak in and grab that guitar and the songbook, and sit in my room for hours trying to figure all those songs out.
So that was the beginning, and before long I was playing in a little band in Puckett (Mississippi, population 354 in the 2000 census). This guy had a gig in his garage every Friday night – he had a PA and everything – and so I’d be right there with them, playing these old songs. I was 15 maybe, just starting to drive, and before I knew it I was playing in honky tonks around Jackson. My dad had to go with me so I could get in.
I’d like to know what you did in the Air Force, how long you were in, and how you got from it to full-time Texas musician. And how old a boy are ya’?
Ha. I’m 42. I had gone to Nashville to try and do the whole singer-songwriter thing when I was 19. One day I got really frustrated with the whole thing. And I realized that I just wasn’t ready. I was always into the “songwriter” thing, wanting to be taken seriously as a songwriter. Then I got up there and realized how good those people were, and that I just wasn’t there yet. So I thought I needed to get out and see some things, get out and find some things to write about and see the world. So sort of on a whim one day, I joined the Air Force and ended up going to school to learn Arabic.
Wow. You were military intelligence?
I was, yeah. That was my job.
I was in for six years. Went in in ’94 and got out in 2000. I moved back to Mississippi and had put the whole music thing behind me. I worked a job there for a couple of years and then the boss opened a second office over in Ft. Worth, and he sent me out there. I hadn’t played a show since before the Air Force; I had given it up and gotten married and had a kid. I thought, “Those days are gone. I didn’t do it, I missed that opportunity so I’m moving on.”
And after a while, I started to go out and play open mics just for fun. I needed a hobby. I had never quit writing songs, though, so I’d do some covers then throw in a couple of mine.
Now there’s one thing about Texas more than any other place I’ve seen: They want you to play your own songs. If you don’t, they kinda wonder what’s wrong with you.
Anybody can do covers.
Right! So it just kinda took off; it got to the point where I was starting to get gigs. I wasn’t asking for it, but I surely liked it. I was doing my own thing, and after about six months I started coming in late to work and…well, I turned 30, that’s what it was. I decided if I was gonna do it, that was the time, so I quit my job and make a go of it. Been doing it ever since, so 12 years now.
|Courtney Patton and Jason Eady|
Listening to your self-titled album – and in particular the opening cut, which we’re fixin’ to get to, I promise – I kept asking, “Who is this girl with the angelic harmonies?” Turns out her name is Courtney Patton, and y’all are married. Furthermore, y’all released an album of duets in December called Something Together.* What kind of songwriting dynamic was that, as it appears each of y’all brought some songs to the table? Mechanically and logistically, how did that work?
We met each other musically seven or eight years ago. We’d played shows together but sort of lost touch because Courtney quit music for a while; we ended up reconnecting about five years ago. Coincidentally, we were both divorced. We’d get together and play songs and write songs. We were friends for a long time before, so it worked out great.
We don’t write as much together as people might think. She still writes with a lot of other people, as do I. And I tend to write more on the road, while she writes a lot when she’s home alone. But we figured if people want to hear what we sound like together at live shows, let’s give them what they want.
We did Something Together in the studio in a day – about four hours, really, with some really good microphones. It was some of her songs and some of mine. But one day we’re gonna sit down and write a duets album together, like George and Tammy.
I can’t wait. Let’s get to your current record.
NPR took a liking to “Barabbas,” and you said the song was about reacting to guilt. I wonder, pop culture-wise, if yours is the first stab at his character since Anthony Quinn played him in a movie…
Yep, Quinn played Barabbas in 1961. But I’m curious about co-writing a song with three other guys (Larry Hooper, Adam Hood, Josh Grider.) What was that division of labor like? Did somebody have the original name, or concept, or what?
Yeah, that’s pretty much what happened. Larry Hooper – who’s a great songwriter out of Texas – had the lyrics to the first verse and the chorus written out. And he had the whole idea of doing a song about Jesus and Barabbas, from the latter’s point of view. That was 100% him. And I took it and gave it a melody and wrote the third verse.
I knew it still needed something, and just happened to be playing a show with Adam Hood. And he grabbed Josh Grider, and things just kinda went from there. So, it wasn’t one of those deals where four guys sat in a room and crafted a song together, which is really cool. Sometimes when there’s a group setting, you can tend to compromise a little. With this type of writing, everybody gets more of his contribution put cleanly into it.
So that’s where it came from. And we were very careful, very intentional about not – in the lyrics – not mentioning his name or Jesus’s name or the time period. We wanted all that to come from the title, so it could be a universal song
You’ve said that as you’ve matured as an artist and a songwriter, “The real joy comes from the process, rather than the end goal.” Expand a little bit on that, and if you can, give an example from this new album.
I guess what I mean is writing for the artistic part of it. For the art itself, and not writing with the idea that you need this many radio singles, or this many ballads or this many up-tempo songs. Because I’ve done that on previous albums; in the back of my mind, it’s been, “I’ve gotta have at least one radio song.”
Over the years, I’ve found that whenever I think or anticipate like that, I’m almost always wrong. So planning things out like that is a futile exercise, and I’ve had more success with songs that I didn’t think anyone would respond to. And I’ve learned by now that if it’s a song that I like and feels natural and it’s going down well in the studio…and if it comes from an authentic place, I just have to trust in that, because it’s usually gonna translate.
Speaking of the process…listening to Something Together, there are several songs in ¾ time, some real pretty waltzes. This is kinda random and it’s never occurred to me before, but do you (or does anyone) sit down and say, “this is gonna be in ¾,” then write accordingly? Structurally, the phrasing is gonna be different; but do you hear it in your head first, and just let the words follow?
I think everybody’s different, so I can’t presume to speak for anyone else. For me, whenever I write, I sit down and just start playing guitar. Someday it might be bluesy, or country, or folky, but I just start strumming. And things either start happening or they don’t; I’ll have ideas jotted down, but it’s not very rigid. I don’t say, “Today I’m gonna write a song in ¾ time.” It’s a lot more organic than that.
So that’s where it starts, and then it just becomes what it becomes. And usually – I’ve found with all my songwriting – the faster and more effortlessly a song comes out, the better. I try not to overthink it.
You’ve got some pretty heavy hitters on this record. Let me just throw a couple names out, and you tell me how you got them there. First, Lloyd Maines plays a bunch of instruments; how did that work?
Yeah. Lloyd played on my A.M. Country Heaven album, and I’ve known him for years. You can’t play in Texas and not know of Lloyd Maines; he’s so central to this thing out here. I knew I wanted him on this album because I love the way he plays Dobro. And I also knew that steel was gonna be the only electric instrument on this album. So I knew it had to be someone who came at steel from a very organic place, and didn’t use a lot of pedals and a lot of effects. And I even told him, “I don’t want much reverb; just do your Lloyd thing.”
And of course, he nailed it. He did exactly what we were hoping he’d do.
And oh by the way, Vince Gill sings harmony on “No Genie in This Bottle.” He’s no slouch. How’d you manage that one?
Most of these people on the album are on it because of Kevin Welch. Kevin’s the producer and he knows all these folks. He spent a lot of time on the road with Vince, and I don’t know if he ever recorded one of Kevin’s songs, but they were together a lot during that whole thing during the 80s and 90s. And there’s an Austin City Limits episode out there where Kevin’s in the background, playing rhythm guitar for Vince.
So they’re good buddies, and while we were putting this record together, I just brought up Vince’s name and that I loved his harmonies. Kevin said, “Well, let me call him and see if he wants to do something.” And we sent him a couple of songs to see if he was interested, and if so, to pick one. And that’s the one he picked, and of course he just nailed it.
Did y’all do it live?
We did not. Unfortunately I’ve still not met Vince; I’m hoping to. But we did it the way a lot of records are made these days: We sent him the files and he just did his vocals and sent it back. But man, I’m hoping to. I’d love to do another song with Vince someday.
This makes how many albums for you?
This is my sixth, not counting the one with Courtney.
Then I think we should say seventh. Why a self-titled record now?
Because you only get one shot at it. I always said that one day I was gonna write a really personal album. I wanted to write most of the songs on it myself, and was going to make it about my personal story, something very authentic. And that’s definitely what this album is. There’s a song about my daughter. There’s a song about turning 40.
I’ve done a lot of different things over the years: songs made for Texas radio, songs that were bluesey-er. The last one was much more traditionally country. On this one, I tried to bring all those things together. Here’s everything that I do, all put together. And once I realized that I’d done that, I knew this was the time to make it self-titled.
Before we get out of here, I want to circle back to your time in the service and what you did, if that’s okay. You were military intelligence, Arabic-trained and got out not long before 9/11. Did you “what if” for a while, and do you pay attention to the news with a special perspective?
Yes, I got out a year before 9/11. It was a strange time for me because all that was still felt very fresh, and I knew that all of my friends who were still enlisted were about to have their whole lives changed. A part of me felt pretty guilty about that. And I definitely watch the news differently now than I did before I went in. I got a world perspective during my Air Force time, and especially being in intel, got to understand a lot of background about what goes on in the world. Once you see things from that perspective it's hard to go back. I still keep up with the news daily.
Did you choose Arabic, or did the Air Force choose it for you?
I didn't choose it. I went in to be a linguist but they picked the language. ** It wasn't something that I would have ever chosen, but looking back I'm really glad that it worked out that way. I learned a lot about that culture and it opened my eyes to a lot of things in that part of the world. That never would have happened without my time in the Air Force.
I’ve read that career diplomats assigned to that part of the world tend to fall in love with the Arabic language. Apparently there are so many words that can’t be translated to English with any sort of simplicity.
I love it. It's a pretty incredible language. They say that the language you speak plays a part in the way you think. I can see that. They do have words that would take us whole sentences to translate. My daughter is studying Arabic in college right now so I'm getting to get back into it by helping her. I'm having to brush up on it, and am remembering how much I like it.
Eady and I ended up swapping book recommendations, as we’re both fascinated by history and foreign policy. One he suggested is a real keeper, if you’re into that stuff: Prisoners of Geography – Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World. I heartily endorse his endorsement.
Just in case, you know, you wondered if this guy might be a thinking man’s songwriter.
* This record was released with little fanfare in December 2016. It would have otherwise made my Top 10 list in the FTM critics’ poll.