Showing posts with label Kevin Broughton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kevin Broughton. Show all posts

May 21, 2020

A Conversation With Caleb Caudle

Photo by Laura Partain

By Kevin Broughton

Caleb Caudle wanted an earthy, funky sound for his new album. He assembled several Grammy-winning musicians to chase it down in the Cash Cabin, a small place with a big history. “It feels like you’re in the shadow of giants,” Caudle says.
He emerged from the shadows with Better Hurry Up, his eighth studio album. Its 11 songs showcase Caudle’s vivid lyrics and foreboding vocals, as well as the work of an A-list cast of musicians. John Jackson of the Jayhawks produced, and guest vocalists include Courtney Marie Andrews, Elizabeth Cook, Gary Louris, and John Paul White.
A large sound emerged from the little cabin, which Johnny Cash built in 1979 as a private sanctuary near his home outside Nashville. It evolved into a recording studio more than a decade later. Since then the rustic structure has hosted sessions by everyone from Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris to Jamey Johnson and Todd Snider, as well as Cash’s own work on his acclaimed series of American Recordings. Caudle and Jackson used the space to create a dramatic, compelling record.
We caught up with Caudle a few weeks back and talked about recording in such an iconic venue, how the band came together, and some unintentional irony in song titles.
I thought Crushed Coins was one of the great albums of 2018. There’s stark contrast between it and Better Hurry Up. Could you describe your thought process or approach …maybe your goals for a new/different sound as you set out to make this album?

I think the main difference was that this time I wanted to do as much live as I could: sing it live, play it live. Because that’s what I do every night. The approach was so raw that if you don’t like this record, you probably don’t like what I do every night. I came to terms with that and was fine with it, so…yeah. We just did it live. It felt good.

John Jackson of the Jayhawks produced the album, and his bandmate Gary Louris is one of several outstanding artists singing harmony vocals. What’s the connection with Jackson, and was your choosing him to produce based on his penchant for a particular sound?

He came to see me at a show in New York. He came up to the merch table afterwards and introduced himself, saying he had played with the Jayhawks. I had always loved the Jayhawks, so that was really cool. And we got to be friends, sharing music back and forth whether it was mine or whatever each of us was listening to at the time.

At some point he said, “Hey, would you mind sending me some demos, because I know you’re always writing?” So I just started sending him song after song, and we’d talk about each one: what he thought of it, what should be the focus of a particular song. One thing led to another and I was back in New York and at dinner he asked if he could produce the record. It just felt right; I liked his vibe and how he was really in tune with the songwriting. We pitched around some different studios, and he mentioned that he had worked at Cash’s Cabin – I think on a Loretta Lynn album. He suggested that, and I thought it felt perfect.

Y’all made liberal use of keyboards and pedal steel, which gives the whole album an ethereal, spacy feel. Was that something you set out to do ahead of time, or was it more of an organic thing during the arrangement process?

It was pretty spontaneous. Because what we did this time was hire all these people that I really trusted. I wasn’t given a ton of direction. Because you’re not gonna tell, for example, Mickey Raphael [harmonica] what to do; because he’s just gonna do his thing and be himself, and that’s what you’re looking for in the first place. Know what I mean? Because he’s gonna give it back to you better than you could ever ask for it.

Everything was just organic. I just told people to be themselves and do what they thought was right. They were all such high-caliber musicians that it all fell together really nicely.

Who put the band together for recording?

John and I had equal say when it came to the band. I had met Dennis Crouch [bass] – we had done a few demos together a few months before recording. And he just knows everyone in Nashville; he put me in touch with Fred Eltringham [drums] and Russ Pahl, who plays pedal steel. John knew Pat Sansone [keyboards] from Wilco and brought him in. And all the singers who were on the record, I had toured with the previous year. You know how it goes in this business; you meet everybody if you tour long enough.

It just came together naturally, and the record was really an easy one to make. By far the easiest record I’ve ever made.

Speaking of harmony vocals, one could do worse than Elizabeth Cook…

[Laughs] Yeah, she’s the best!

She makes three appearances I believe. Had y’all worked together before, and how likely are future collaborations?

She had taken me out on tour a couple times last year, so we were on stage singing together a lot. So, yeah, it came together really easily. She lives around the corner from us here in Nashville. She was great, of course.

There’s a line in “Feeling Free:” “It’s true I really ever only wanted to be a slave to things that’ll set me free.” Is that an allusion to anything particular?

Probably the road, you know? Touring. I’m really feeling it right now, you know, because of all the shows getting swiped. I’m so used to being on the road. Being on tour is second nature for me. Most of that song, though, is about being outdoors and trying to get away from it all. But I feel like I’m always on the chase; always trying to get to the next situation.

The first cut on the album is called “Better Hurry Up.” The next-to-last song is “Wait a Minute,” with a line in the chorus that says, “We get there when we get there.” Mixed messages? Irony? Tongue in cheek?

Ha! I didn’t even really know I did that until we were mixing the record. I said, “Oh, I wrote one called ‘Wait a Minute’ and one called ‘Better Hurry Up. I wonder if patience had anything to do with that?” It wasn’t really intentional, but it is kind of funny. Our whole routine on tour is a bunch of hurry up and wait. You just have to figure out when to take your shots, I guess.

The official release date for Better Hurry Up was April 3, not long after this virus changed everyone’s life. Obviously, tours are off the table indefinitely; what are some of the things you’re doing to adapt? And is there any reason for optimism going forward, in your view?

Aw, man. There’s always a reason for optimism, you know? If I lost hope, this would all be for nothing. I can’t go there; I don’t want to do that.

I’ve been going on long walks each day that the weather allows. There’s a nice park not far from our house…I’ve been doing some guitar work, learning some old traditional stuff. I’m just trying to learn. And I’ve been writing a bunch, too. Working on some clawhammer banjo here and there. Cooking. Eating a lot. [Laughs]

A lot of artists are streaming shows; have you dipped your toe in that at all?

Yeah, I did one for NPR last week and I did one for Wide Open Country yesterday. I’m trying not to do more than one a week. I just feel like everyone is going live all the time. And it’s how everyone’s getting by, so I totally get it. I just don’t want to take up too much space, so about once a week is all I’ll do.

What led you to record at the Cash Cabin? Is that a bucket-list thing for Nashville artists?

It was amazing. I got to sit in Johnny’s rocking chair while playing his guitar. The guys all gathered around me in a semi-circle with their pens and paper. I’d play them a song and they’d take their notes and we’d go in and run it once. Then we’d hit “record” on the second one and that’s usually the take we did.

Wow. What an experience.

Yeah. I knew we were going to Cash Cabin but had no idea I was going to get to do that. They handed me his guitar on the first day and I was blown away by that. It was a pre-War Martin for one thing; whether it belonged to someone famous or not, it’s an incredible guitar. But when it belonged to such a character as Johnny…and sitting in his rocking chair where he’d carved his initials in the right arm? Yeah, it was pretty special.

Better Hurry Up is available from Caleb’s site, Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify, etc.

Apr 14, 2020

Life Blood Sold: A conversation with Dr. Jim Miller of Western Centuries

By Kevin Broughton

In an age when independence is idolized and every person seems to be seeking his own lone wolf career path, Seattle-based roots band Western Centuries believes that the way forward is better together. Collaboration, inspiration and mutual admiration are what Cahalen Morrison, Ethan Lawton, and Jim Miller cite as the heart of their newest project, Call The Captain, the band’s third album, out on Free Dirt records and available wherever you purchase fine music. You can also find it at the Western Centuries store.

Western Centuries continue to evolve and mature. After two critically acclaimed albums – 2016’s Weight of the World and 2018’s Songs From The Deluge – the band’s follow-up features a new sound, a slightly tweaked lineup and a new level of songwriting prowess. Morrison and Lawton still take turns on drums and acoustic guitar. Thomas Bryan Eaton joins the band on pedal steel. But the core of the band is still the troika of writers/singers, each member of which brings his own distinctive skill set.

Morrison’s tracks have a Western feel and flavor. Lawton’s sweet, near falsetto vocals provide a soulful undercurrent. Miller spent 20 years with roots/jam band Donna The Buffalo and never wrote or sang a song. His growth as a writer and ongoing vocal confidence continue to impress.

Western Centuries tackle several complex and controversial issues on the new album – pipelines through Indian reservations and land-grant battles in New Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s to name a couple – but do so without preachy condescension. The topical issues don’t overshadow what the band has come to be known for: elite writing, poignant three-part harmonies and excellent musicianship and production.

It was great to catch up with Jim Miller, PhD – FTM’s official lepidopterist* -- right after his much-needed vacation in mid-March. He was quite expansive on that subject, as well as those of meeting Jim Lauderdale at the place Dylan went electric, and the non-need for a captain on a ship of titans.

So, how was your vacation?

It was…good. We went to a Wilco show.




There’s an egalitarian feel to this album, a real sense of balance. Twelve songs, four each by you, Ethan and Cahalen. In fact, they go in that order throughout the record: one from you, one from Ethan, one from Cahalen. Tell me about the mechanism of selecting tracks; I assume each of you comes into the recording process with his own batch of songs?

We do. And for this batch, we had toured with [playing] a lot of them; some of we had played on tour just a little. And some we had never played live, we just had a pretty good idea of how they’d go and worked it out in the studio. We do come [into the studio] with a pretty good feel, yet are open to any suggestions the other guys have when it’s time to record.

When you write a song you never know how it will sound with a band, unless you’ve played it with a band already. So you need to have some flexibility: “It might sound better with a chorus there,” or “a bridge might work here.” Or you add an intro that you just hadn’t thought of. That stuff just kind of evolves; you know what I mean?

Yeah. Is “Call The Captain” an ironic nod to the collaborative nature of y’all’s dynamic?

It is, because we feel we’re a ship without a captain; we’re out at sea with three guys and the rest of the band as well. We don’t have a real front man, so there’s no one guy in charge. It’s also a line in one of Ethan’s songs [“Every Time It’s Raining”].

Y’all recorded Songs From The Deluge in Lafayette, and there was a discernable Zydeco feel on certain tracks. For Call The Captain, you chose a studio in Nashville. There’s a distinctive sonic difference, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it the “Nashville sound.” There’s a soulful vibe to a lot of it. What were y’all going for in terms of sound, or feel?

I’m…I’m not…(pause) I’m the wrong person to ask that.

When I’m in the studio – and I’ve been in lots of settings, all kinds of settings – it depends on what you’re going for. Do you want an acoustic record or a rocking record? I’ve done all those things over the years. But I really don’t go into a studio setting with a firm idea about “the sound I’m looking for.”

Cahalen and Ethan, I’d say, have more of a set idea in mind. I’d say it’s like I have the least, Cahalen’s in the middle, and Ethan the most idea – pre-studio – of what we have in mind. Each person has a different approach when it comes to the recording process. And I’m the loosest of the three. I’m maybe…not as perceptive sometimes. I don’t always hear subtle differences. I just know what I like and what I don’t. But again, you’re talking to one of three writers. And each person has his different way of perceiving that. Which makes it fun, actually. It’s the fun part of this experiment we have, and in the studio it becomes very apparent, these differences in personality at play.

I just want the groove to sound good and the vocals to sound good. That’s what I’m going for.

You know in terms of and overall sound, though, this is Nokosee’s first time playing electric bass in studio. The first two records he played standup bass. So this opened up all kinds of tonality options for him and us. It makes the songs – for me – well, you have a broader base to work from, a broader pallet. Because a lot of people don’t hear the bass, but it’s the grounding of the whole sound.

So that was a big thing, I guess. Bill Reynolds, one of our producers, is a bass player.  He had a vision for the bass parts. So that’s probably a lot of what you’re hearing in terms of a tonal difference. And that’s something that gave us all some confidence along the way.

Makes sense.

“Heartbroke Syndrome” was the first single released from the new record, a song about someone who’s been through a crushing personal loss. You dealt with the loss of your parents in the final stanzas of “Wild Birds” on the last album.


I wonder if you’d elaborate a little on the story behind “Heartbroke.”

Ah…it’s a little…a little hard. It’s a friend of mine whom I’ve known…40 years?  Anyway, she’s my age-ish. And she had a granddaughter die at 2 ½. Just overnight.

Oh, man.

Literally overnight, one of those things, and there was just no reason. I still think they don’t know the reason. This little girl just died in her sleep. It was one of those losses that was so huge for my friend…her body didn’t respond for a while and she ended up in the hospital. She was so shattered. And that’s how that song came about. 

It’s a song that’s hard to write. And I tried…I tried to end with an uplifting feeling.


Sort of, we’ve got each other, we’ll get through this together.

“But everything will flow right, we’ll gather back home. Lay down the dirt, our bodies renewed.”

Yeah. A semi-uplifting note, anyway.

There are several songs about heartbreak and loss, and some tragic – but not necessarily well-known – events. Would you say there’s a theme, or a common thread that ties the record together?

Hmm. It’s hard to find a common “theme” for the way we write our music, because we do so much of it in isolation. Those guys live in Seattle. I live in New York. So we only see each other when we’re going out on tour, or recording, or other special events or whatever.

There’s no intention, I’d say, in creating a thread. If there is one, I’d say it’s the times we’re living in. That’s such an overwhelming part; you can’t really get away from it. And I think that’s partly what you’re sensing. I have these “topical” songs. I don’t know if you’ve picked up on it…

Oh, we’re gonna get to that, in just a second, I promise.

Ha ha. But Cahalen did, too and Ethan did, too. We all did. But I attribute that to the crazy f*cking times we’re living in.

Y’all touch on some heady issues in your songs this time around: social/cultural, religious and political. I know this because of the detailed liner notes. What’s cool about it, in my opinion – and as someone who probably doesn’t share a lot of the same views – is that…I had to read the liner notes to get the full depth of it. There’s a level of nuance and subtlety that a lot of artists forsake these days, in favor of a skillet-to-the-face approach. (Other than “Space Force.” You don’t really hide the ball on that one.)

Well, the three of us really like that. Because the subtlety of the songs makes you have to listen to them a few more times. You’re not necessarily going to get it the first time around. And I think that’s cool.

It’s very cool. I’m just wondering if the nuance is a byproduct of the quality of the songwriting, or if there’s ever an intra-band discussion about the need for subtlety. You know, “Maybe we don’t need to hit people over the head with this?” Or is it more of an organic thing?

I guess it’s more organic. It’s more organic. And I think the music we all listen to has more of a subtle message. And our music comes out that way because that’s what we listen to. The stuff that smacks you in the face, it doesn’t last very long. Some songs, you may have a heck of an impact in the short term, but those songs don’t hang around very long. And all of us have quite an appreciation for music that’s been around for quite a long time. So that’s the hope.

Except for “Space Force.” I like that one because I hope it will be gone soon. Hopefully, we’ll never have to play it again, you know?

We’re getting to “Space Force” here directly.

Ha. But you know what I mean? Your favorite music, it doesn’t matter when it was written or what it’s about! You just know that there’s some emotion in it that you’re drawn to. And it could have been written in 1963 or 2013. It doesn’t matter. And that kind of approach, I’d say we emulate.

Topical, but not exactly temporal?

Exactly. I like it.

Let’s talk about “Space Force,” my favorite track. Jim Lauderdale sings harmony, then lead on the final verse – in addition to singing harmony on “Heartbroke Syndrome.” What’s the connection between you and Jim?

Many years ago when I was in Donna The Buffalo, we had played the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. He was on tour with Lucinda [Williams] for the Car Wheels record. And we were there just drinking vodka from the bottle and throwing a Frisbee, and Jim walked over and said, “Who are you people?” [Laughs] And somehow or another he just latched onto us. Out of that grew a friendship, and I’ve been friends with him throughout.

That song is funny because after I’d written it I thought, “This sounds like a song Jim Lauderdale could have written.


And so as we were recording it I got the idea of calling him up and saying, “What do you think about maybe singing on it?”

He had never heard it before. But Jim is like super-pro studio guy. He’s unbelievable. He shows up, hears it three times, you hand him the lyrics, and he does his part. You’re like, “That’s very convincing!” [Laughs]

Surely he and Mr. Miller will have you on the Buddy and Jim Show.

Well, we’re trying. We need to do that. You know, those shows are harder to get on than you would imagine. Even though we know them, it’s weird. I think that show is done out of Buddy’s home studio.


And Buddy Miller, he doesn’t know us; he’s probably never heard of us. And Jim is doing so much stuff it’s unbelievable. So getting in to focus for something like that, as much as we’d love to do it, is difficult.

The concept of a “Space Force” is low-hanging fruit for a timely, satirical song, but it works like a charm. It’s cartoonish – I kept thinking of “Space Ghost.”


There are references to 2001’s Hal and Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Did this song write itself? It sounds like it just poured out of you.

Yeah, it sort of did. If any of my songs on this album wrote itself, it was this one. And I don’t have songs like that. I wrote it in – what are we in, 2020? – yeah, I wrote it in 2019. And the concept of a Space Force – it’s such a joke. I’m like, “This isn’t even real.”

And I’ve become such a news junkie that when I read about it I say, “Space Force? What is the freaking job description for that?” So I started writing this thing down – and the other part about it is…Well, I was in Donna The Buffalo for a long time, and I liked the way that they wrote songs based on a chord progression that just keeps rolling. You know what I mean?

Oh, yeah.

So that was the other part of it. I wanted to write a song based on a chord progression that just keeps going and going and going, which is super- Donna The Buffalo-ish. So, those are the two things that came together. And the words just popped out. But it’s not a song, I think, that’s timeless or anything. But hopefully there won’t be an actual Space Force, and the song will just freaking go away!

But at least it jams.

It does jam, yes.

And it does sound like a Donna song, now that I think about it.

It does, and that’s cool. We’re not Donna, we’re Western Centuries, but we succeeded in turning a live song that jammed into a studio song that jams. The thing about Western Centuries is, we want to be a really good live band. And we’ve got a lot of room to grow in that regard. I think it’s a lot of fun to go see a band and not really know what’s going to happen. When I go see a band, I don’t want to see them play it like the record; I already have the record! That’s what’s fun about being risky.

*So, yeah, Dr. Miller is the only lepidopterist we know. Bet your blog doesn’t have one.


Call the Captain is available now on Bandcamp, Amazon, Apple Music, etc.

Apr 2, 2020

Breaking Down Steve Earle's Discography (Pre-Woke)

By Kevin Broughton

They say Gram Parsons was the Godfather of alt country, and I believe them. Evidence abounds. If that’s the case, Steve Earle was the Michael to Parsons’ Vito. I don’t know – though I doubt it – that they ever met. If they had, I’m sure Steve would have told us. Funny thing: Neither knew they were part of a musical movement. At least Steve didn’t in 1986, when Guitar Town came out, and I was a sophomore in college and about to ship out for Army basic training. (I have Auburn University’s WEGL to thank for even knowing who he was at the time.)

It was a record that transformed my musical life. Suddenly it was okay -- cool, even --  for a kid raised on rock ‘n’ roll to dig country music. He was part of the “new traditionalist” movement that included Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. But there was something extra-edgy about this guy. A few years later I’d learn to play guitar, inspired by the songs on Guitar Town and Exit 0. I’d write to him in prison, after I’d wondered, pre-Internet, where the hell he’d gone.

There was always a populist, working-class ethos to his music. But it stayed mostly below the surface, never predominating his work. Well, for a while, anyway. His dad was an air traffic controller who got bounced when Ronaldus Maximus fired him and the rest of his brethren in the PATCO strike of 1981. I don’t think Steve ever got over that. Politics sprinkled his musical world for a while, but eventually covered it. Early on, he was clever and nuanced about it; later, he decided you needed to be punched in the mouth with his Che Guevara chic. Steve Earle, you see, was “woke” before “woke” was a thing…you little savage capitalists.

He had his (then) pet projects. Death penalty bad! Land mines bad! I guess we can let Steve in on the bad news – not that he doesn’t know.

Quadruple murderers can still get the needle.

American soldiers in the Second Infantry Division just south of the 38th Parallel in Free Korea can still count on defensive land mines to help stave off Kim Jong Un’s communist hordes, at least until the cavalry can arrive.

Western Civilization can be thankful that Steve Earle failed in his woke crusades to abolish the death penalty and land mines.

There’s a new pet project, you know. You didn’t? You didn’t know Steve Earle’s a playwright? Yeah! And he doesn’t hate Trump supporters anymore. (I’m not one, so I don’t really care, but yeah.) He talked all about how he doesn’t loathe Republicans anymore. I’m sure it’s not because he wants people to SPEND THEIR CAPITALIST DOLLARS to buy records or go see his play or anything. It’s all about the West Virginia miners. Not money. Money is evil, like capitalism.

But that’s not why we’re here.

We’re here to break down the albums of Steve Earle. Well, the ones of his pre-WOKE era, anyway. And by “pre-woke,” we mean every album up to the point he became so overcome with hatred for America that he felt compelled to write an ode to the American Taliban, John Walker Lindh. Nah. We stop just before the album Jerusalem.

I say “we.”

I mean “I.”

I quit listening, Steve, when you glorified Lindh. My fellow Auburn alum, Mike Spann, was the wrong American to die that day in Balkh Province in November of 2001.  It should have been the California POS you wrote your song about.

Oh, wait. I’m getting angry and political, aren’t I? Sort of like you and all your records after 9/11? Mike Spann’s buried in Arlington. Think you’ll ever write a song about him? Here’s a picture.

Sorry. Let’s look at the Steve Earle albums before he got so angry and political, shall we?

Okay, let’s break them down…

One more thing, sorry. Hey, Steve: I’m sure your reaching out to Trump voters has nothing to do with making money for your stupid effing play that trashes the coal industry that employs millions of people, right? Because that would make you a capitalist…and a hypocrite.

Okay, I promise. I’m done.

We’ll look at them in chronological order, highlighting the great songs, then do a rating, which will be purely subjective. Sound good? Okay.

The pre-prison albums

Guitar Town, 1986

The one that started it all. The title cut is so good and attention-grabbing. It was just SO different for the time. Kathy Mattea and Randy Travis and Michael Martin Murphy were pulling country back to its roots, but there was an anti-hero vibe from this guy who’d learned his chops from Guy Clark and Townes. This sad song is the one that hooked me. “Lovers leave and friends will let you down.” I think he might have been singing about heroin.  

Exit 0, 1987

The perfect follow-up record. If you go through the whole (pre-woke) Steve Earle catalog, I challenge you to find two back-to-back albums that pair together more seamlessly. “The keeper at the gate is blind, so you better be prepared to pay.” So much unintentional foreshadowing. “The Rain Came Down” was his answer to Mellencamp’s “Scarecrow,” and it was better. “Six Days on the Road” made it onto  the Planes, Trains and Automobiles soundtrack. “Someday” is a teenage wonder-hit.

Copperhead Road, 1988

At this point, Steve and MCA knew they were headed for a breakup, even as he had his first – and only – crossover hit. He didn’t LOOK like a country singer was supposed to, and he was basically telling Nashville to pound sand. So very many great songs… “Snake Oil” is his song of rage against Reagan, and well done. Maria Mckee of Lone Justice sings with him on the most unlikely Christmas song, “Nothing But a Child.” My favorite? The WW II ode, “Johnny Come Lately,” with the help of The Pogues.

The Hard Way, 1990

Things are really starting to fall apart for him now, though no one really knew – again, pre-Internet. Crack and heroin are in control of Steve’s life right now. There are two or three decent songs on this one. “Billy Austin” is the best, but it’s a bedwetting, anti-death penalty, pro-murderer ballad.  We’re posting the other good one:

Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator (Live), 1991

If we’re to believe the storyline of “Johnny Come Lately,” we have to believe the title of this album is from a saying of Steve’s granddaddy. He’s pretty out of his gourd during this one. But this cover got me interested in the Stones’ (Keith’s, really) country fixation.

The Post-prison albums

“Post-prison,” you say?

Yeah. Steve got 11 months, 29 days for a bunch of failure-to-appear violations on crack/heroin offenses. In fact, he did a prison gig at Cold Creek Correctional Facility as part of his community service. MTV filmed it, while he was working out some new material. This was in 1996. But first there was…

Train A Comin’, 1995

A truly unplugged album, and a new beginning. It features a Beatles cover (“I’m Lookin’ Through You”), and his first recorded cover with Emmylou, “Nothin’ Without You.” We also got a taste for Steve’s appreciation for history with a couple cuts. “Tom Ames’ Prayer” is an outlaw ballad that makes mention of Arkansas Judge “Hanging” Isaac Parker. But what’s really chilling is his point-of-view tale of a Confederate soldier:

I Feel Alright, 1996

The post-prison triumph and return to form, and maybe the best pre-woke album. “The Unrepentant” is a straight rocker. “Hardcore Troubadour” is the most Steve Earle song ever, and a duet with Lucinda Williams is the unheralded gem of a great record.

El Corazon, 1997

Notable for several collaborations, and Steve’s first foray into bluegrass. Del McCoury and his band (FORESHADOWING ALERT) post up on “I Still Carry You Around.” The Fairfield Four accompany him on “Telephone Road.” Emmy makes a return on the historiography “Taneytown,” another great point-of-view song. “You’d think that they’d never seen a colored boy before.” What a line in a great murder ballad.

This next one’s so good it deserves its own

Separate Heading. Though Still Chronological, The Bluegrass Record:

The Mountain (With The Del McCoury Band), 1999

The thing about bluegrass is, you don’t just dabble in bluegrass. Yet Steve wrote a really good record in the genre. It didn’t hurt that he got a really good band to back him. Steve, being Steve, managed to offend Del not long after by using a bunch of foul language at the bluegrass festivals they played together. Still, what a bunch of keepers on this record. “Carrie Brown” was his vision of an enduring bluegrass hit. It should be.

But just to bookend things, I like the Civil War song, this time from a Yankee’s point of view. Based, incidentally, on a composite character in the Michael Shaara novel The Killer Angels.

“I am Kilrain from the 20th Maine and I fight for Chamberlain. ‘Cause he stood right with us when the Johnnies came like a banshee on the wind.”

There will never be a better couplet written about July 2, 1863. Makes this Johnny weep. It’s that good.

“…now we’re all Americans.”

Transcendental Blues, 2000

As we wrap up our tour of the pre-woke catalog, we see a transition into what might have been: that old/new Steve Earle sound without virtue-signaling pretense. There are a handful of really good songs here. The title cut is great. “Everyone’s In Love With You” is an electric rocking/stalking tune in the tradition of “More Than I Can Do” from I Feel Alright. “The Galway Girl” is a return to a Gaelic thing we’d heard hints of on a bunch of records. “All Of My Life” is a real keeper. Sucks he had to get all preachy after this record.

Maybe he’ll come back, that Steve Earle.

Ranking Them

1. Copperhead Road

2. Guitar Town

3. I Feel Alright

4. Exit 0

5. The Mountain

6. Train A Comin’

7. Transcendental Blues

8. El Corazon

9. Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator

10. The Hard Way

Mar 27, 2020

Everyone’s got their own story to tell: A conversation with Jesse Daniel

By Kevin Broughton

I work this room on Tuesday nights
It isn’t much, but it pays alright
From 9 p.m. until last call
Sometimes I’m playing to the wall.

            Jesse Daniel, “Old At Heart.”

On a rainy Tuesday night in Atlanta, Jesse Daniel isn’t “playing to the wall,” but the room at Terminal West has plenty of space, even with Jason Boland and The Stragglers for a headlining act. The Wuhan Virus isn’t really on the radar yet; a week’s worth of monsoon rains are the likely culprit. But as the Stragglers’ diehards continue to filter in during the 27-year-old’s half-hour set, there’s minimal chatter. He’s gotten their attention, and makes the most of this exposure to a new audience.

“I try my best to live with humility and thankfulness,” says Daniel as he posts up at his own merchandise table after his set. “I want to make the most of the opportunities I have.” He engages with every customer he can as the Boland crew and band set up. The lanky, square-jawed Californian is making the most of this chance. His album release date is six weeks out, and one can sense momentum building for this troubadour of the Bakersfield sound.

Halfway through the Stragglers’ set, Daniel will pack up and drive, hoping to make it to “someplace right outside Mobile, I forget the name” in time for a few hours’ sleep before doing it all over.

Rollin’ On, out today wherever you purchase music, is the culmination of Daniel’s remarkable life turnaround and one of the finest country albums of the young, crazy year. (This will be true in December – mark it down.) Poignant lyrics and a first-rate studio band and producer make it a must-have for the serious, intelligent country music fan.

About four years ago he was dope-sick with track marks up and down his arms. Today, he’s on the cusp of greatness, and too grounded to let anything go to his head. No one knows what the next few months will hold in the Age of Quarantine and Social Distancing. Daniel, no doubt, will emulate the title of this magnificent album.

It was a real treat to chat with him about his punk-rock roots, writing songs by candlelight with his best friend and partner, and an unlikely part-time rehab worker who helped him “put down the spoon and pick up the pen.”

You were a punk rocker growing up. It’s fascinating to me that some of the best roots/country acts today were heavily influenced by punk. It seems counterintuitive; what do you think the common thread is, if there is one?

You know, Kevin, I think it’s individual and varies from person to person. But I definitely know a lot of people who were in punk rock bands and in that scene, who later got into country music. I think when you’re talking about a lot of the older country music, there’s a kind of punk ethos to it, a do-it-yourself mentality. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but growing up there was always such a parallel between punk rock and country for me. Just listening to it, it kind of soothes the same part of my soul.

Sticking with influences for a moment: Rollin’ On just oozes that Bakersfield sound. But you’ve mentioned that you found your way to your producer (and steel player,) Tommy Detamore, by listening to the likes of Doug Sahm and Jim Lauderdale. What is it about those two artists that resonate with you?

Yeah, the way I found Tommy was listening to that last album [The Return of Wayne Douglas] he did with Doug before he passed. That album has so many good songs, and the production is so great, and so is the steel.  I was already a huge fan of that record, and also This Changes Everything by Jim Lauderdale, which was also produced by Tommy. He also played steel on it.

So I had been listening to those, and had my eye out for a producer. Tommy’s name kept coming up. There were so many times I’d hear a great song and think, “I wonder who’s playing steel?” And it would turn out to be Tommy on steel, and a lot of times he was the producer, too. So I basically just reached out; cold-emailed him. That’s what set everything in motion, but it started with my being a big fan of those two albums. It couldn’t have ended up any better, and we ended up being great friends.

There are times on this album when your voice reminds me of Gram Parsons. Have you ever heard that comparison? Are you at all influenced by his music?

Man, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard that one before, but I really appreciate it. But I love Gram Parsons, and he certainly was a big influence on me, especially early on. I loved his work with the Burrito Brothers, and I listened to that GP album over and over. Just wore it out. So I don’t doubt that some Gram influence got in there somehow.

Did Tommy put the band together for the recording sessions?

Yeah. You know, Tommy is very linked in with all the Austin players, and some of the ones in San Antonio, too. I reached out to him and told him I wanted to have some professional players on the record. Without saying too much – he was very nonchalant about it – he said, “Yeah, I’ll put together a good band for you.” He got Kevin Smith on bass, who plays with Willie Nelson; Tom Lewis from Heybale – he also played on a lot of Jim Lauderdale’s records; Michael Guerra on accordion, who plays with the Mavericks. John Carroll on guitar – he plays with a lot of people, like Corey Morrow. Tommy played steel of course. On fiddle we had Bobby Florres and Hank Singer.

That’s quite a lineup.

Yeah, he sent me that list and said, “These are the guys I have who will be on the record,” and it blew my mind. I was even more excited to get into the studio. They’re all Texas players, but at the same time realized that my sound is steeped in the Bakersfield stuff; that was the sound I was going for. They really met me in the middle. We got that “sheen” production I wanted without losing the Bakersfield grit.

Do you have a touring band?

Yeah, I do. The band I’m touring with is kind of evolving, but I have the same core group of guys (rhythm section and what not) that I stick with. They’re great. They really bring it, and we’re about to hit the road with Jason Boland after the record comes out for some full-band stuff.  

Are you on a label?

Yeah, it’s called Die True Records. Jodi Lyford – she’s my manager and partner – she started it. We put the last album out on it, too.

You’re touring with Jason Boland & The Stragglers, giants of the Red Dirt scene. What’s that been like, and what kind of exposure have you gained, being exposed to new audiences?

I joined up with them in Virginia Beach, then we did New York City, Sellersville, Pennsylvania, Richmond, and now Atlanta. I was joking around with them and said I’m calling this the “Chasin’ Jason” tour, because I’m following their tour bus in my car.

But yeah, their fans are really dedicated and devoted, and I’ve gotten to share that following with them. When bands like Jason’s tell their fans something is good, the fans tend to listen. So I’ve been very fortunate. Red Dirt is really not my sound or a demographic I’ve played for, but ultimately they’re country music fans. Any doubt I had that they would be picking up what I was putting down went away pretty quickly. It’s been a blast so far.

You won an Ameripolitan Award a couple years back, for “Best Honky Tonk Male Performer.” They have four sub-genres, I guess, honky tonk, western swing, rockabilly and outlaw. I guess you could put them all together, and you’d have something like, I dunno, “Country Music.”

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly!

If you had to slap a label on what you do, what would it be?

Ah, I really just tell people “country music.” I really respect what Dale [Watson] is trying to do with the Ameripolitan Awards, by bringing a new term and trying to generate new interest; you know, bringing some new eyes to a lot of music that might be overlooked by radio. So that’s really great. But I tell people “country music” because that’s what I play and that’s what I love. Music fans are intelligent. They’re able to tell the difference between pop country and more authentic stuff. 

The album exudes resiliency and hope, yet makes references to some of the darker times in your life. You’ve been sober for three years and have made no secret of your past troubles with addiction, and you even did some time. If you don’t mind, can you point to one event or set of circumstances that led to your getting clean?

Yeah, man, absolutely. The last record was really more about some of those things, and this one has a more “forward” feel to it, a little more hopeful.

One of the biggest events that really sticks out in my mind…there was a gentleman who was working at a rehabilitation facility that I went to. He worked there part time and he would come in and play guitar as part of the group exercises we’d do. I was a heroin addict, de-toxing off of it, and I was very sick. Finally after about a week when I was able to get out of bed and start functioning again, I went into the room where he was playing old Hank Williams songs. He also played some Billy Joe Shaver and Emmylou Harris – a lot of great country covers, and even some artists I wasn’t familiar with. So I would ask him and he would tell me all about them.
He was a really good guy. After a while I started playing some songs, and we’d go back and forth. At some point I said, “I really wish I could play country music and do what you do.” And he looked at me like I was stupid or something and said, “Why don’t you?” That shook me to my core. And I thought, “Yeah. That’s true.”

And this is the craziest story, man, that happened just the other day. The rehab facility was in Oakland, California. And I was sitting down with Jodi for some lunch in Austin, Texas, and I see this guy walking down the street who looks just like him. So I chased him down to see if he was the guy, and he was!

Oh, wow.

And I almost broke down right there. I said, “You changed my life. You’re the reason I’m doing this today. You were that pivotal moment for me.” We’ve been in contact since, and he’s actually a rippin’ harmonica player, and so I hope we’re gonna play some together.

Wow. What a blessing.

Exactly, a tremendous blessing, and it was one of those moments that was so confirming for me. It’s certainly one of the biggest events that sticks out in my memory.

This is not a slight to your songwriting or vocals – because they’re stellar – but one of my favorite cuts, and one I’ve been playing over and over, is the instrumental “Chickadee.” How did that one come about?

You know, I love the tradition of instrumentals in country music. One of the guys I really love, Marty Stuart, does a lot of them. Buck Owens had a whole lot of instrumentals – The Buckaroos had at least one on every record, I think. Instrumentals are very cinematic, I think; they tell a story without words.

But I had this one riff that was kind of a Don Rich/Bakersfield sound-type of thing that I was messing around with. And one day in the studio we just worked it out with the band, and it just came to life within 20-30 minutes.

It’s amazing you say “cinematic,” because I kept thinking to myself, “That sounds like it belongs on a movie soundtrack.”

Ha. Thanks man, that was really what I was going for. I wanted to capture that Bakersfield sound, and incorporate all those instruments. It also gets to showcase all the other players who are on the record. They all get a moment to shine.

A question about your partner/manager, Jodi. Do y’all write songs together? Give us some detail about that relationship, if you don’t mind.

We sure do. We wrote a good portion, probably half the songs on the new record, together. It’s great. Our relationship started out – about four years ago – as a friendship. She was a tattoo artist and I would go to her shop and we’d just play music. She had a lot of songs that she’d written and she’d play them for me, and vice-versa. Then we started writing together just for fun.

And when I got more serious about music, we kind of got together. We lived way up in the mountains, and sometimes the power would go out for a week at a time. At night there was nothing to do; we just had candles. A lot of the songs on this record were written in the dark. It’s a huge part of our relationship, and I’m really glad she has a bigger role on this album: probably half the songwriting and all the backup vocals that she sang.

Who’s “Sam,” besides a guy who might have acquired illicit substances for you in your youth?

Sam is a real person and he’s still around. I was friends with his younger brother, and grew up down the street from him. We hit it off, and got into trouble together. My dad called us “The Gruesome Twosome.” Sam was a mythical figure to me because he was a little bit older; I looked up to him.

He was always getting into trouble with drugs or alcohol, and he would just leave for a while, just get on a Greyhound bus and go. He’d just disappear, and I always thought that was pretty crazy. And I figured I’d write a song about it.

“Sam, where did you go?”

Exactly. And now whenever I talk to him it’s interesting to find out where he is. For a while he was in Florida living on a boat. I texted him recently, and he was in Connecticut. He’s been acting in some commercials…he’s a character, man.

Do you have a goal for where Rollin’ On might take your career, in terms of exposure or critical acclaim?

Yes, I do. The goal for me with playing is to be able to put positive music into the world. And by “positive” I don’t mean that every song has to be happy. I feel right now there’s a lot of emphasis on using recreational drugs. People are gonna do that, but I think there’s enough of that in music right now.

I just want to keep it about the music. I want to make good country music that people love. I want to take it as far as I can. Jodi and I have a motto that the sky’s the limit. We’re not putting limitations on anything.

*          *          *

“Good country music that people love,” indeed.

We’ve been smitten with Daniel’s work for the last couple months, and this will be one of the best – if not the best – country albums of the year. FTM was honored to premiere a song from it, “If You Ain’t Happy Now (You Never Will Be,)” and we gave you a taste of his live chops from his Atlanta gig last month. The best, most gripping song on the record is “Old At Heart.” (It happens to be Daniel’s favorite, too.) But to hear that one, you have to buy the record.

Now, it’s time to step up. That Feb. 18 show at Terminal West seems like a lifetime ago; nobody had a clue how crazily things would change, or how quickly. Musicians in every genre have taken a pounding in canceled gigs, and nobody knows if or when things will get back to something approaching normal.

Buy this album. In fact, go to Daniel’s store and get some more cool stuff. I got one of these awesome tee shirts.

It’s cool. And it’s true.

Now more than ever, support independent musicians. This one in particular.


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