Showing posts with label Lucinda Williams. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lucinda Williams. Show all posts

Apr 16, 2021

Back Around: A Conversation With Zach Schmidt



By Kevin Broughton


You don’t know Zach Schmidt. 


“Who in the world is this guy, and why have I never heard of him?” was my initial reaction after a run through his second full-length album, Raise A Banner, out today. The explanation? Well, it’s complicated. 


Through no fault of his own, Raise A Banner sat on a shelf for more than a year. Despite the delay – perhaps in a silver-lining moment – the album’s themes are now more apropos than ever: fighting through hardship, finding truth in a world of lies, enduring personal loss. Produced by 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden (on a mini hot streak behind the glass himself) and backed by Vaden’s bandmates, it’s a record whose overdue time has come. 


The thoughtful and humble Schmidt has been waiting for this moment; he’s made a record without a weak cut on it, and it’s borderline criminal that he remains unsigned. Smart money says that’s about to change.


Nah. You don’t know Zach Schmidt.*  But a whole lot of folks are fixin’ to. 


It was a real pleasure to catch up with Schmidt and discuss fence-building, finding inspiration in lawnmower boys, and the secret to finding the best harmony vocalist.


Let’s do a little level-setting. This record – and you, for that matter – seemingly came out of nowhere. You’re from Pittsburgh, and you self-released albums in 2013 and 2016. Beyond that, could you fill in some biographical details, personal and professional? 


I’d be glad to. So yeah, the EP I put out in 2013, I released that right before I moved to Nashville. I was living in Pittsburgh, working at a sh*tty job and playing music every night. I was extremely emotionally exhausted. I grew up in Pittsburgh. I love the town and love to go back, but it wasn’t the right place for me; things in my life just weren’t in a great spot. 


So I moved to Nashville at the end of 2013, and throughout that time I was putting tours together and doing my own solo thing…driving around the country. A couple of years later, we put out my The Day We Lost The War album. I didn’t know anything about releasing a record, so I just put it out there to see what would happen. And with this one, I’m trying hard to get some press and radio; seeing if people will dig it. 


There’s a real heartland feel to the whole album, and several of the ballads – like “Go My Way” and “I Can’t Dance” – give off a Steve Earle vibe. Who are your songwriting influences? 


Steve Earle is a huge influence of mine. I love all those Texas songwriters: Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, James McMurtry. All those guys are huge to me. When I was writing this record I took a deep dive into John Hiatt’s catalog. I had never listened to John Hiatt before; I don’t know why, but he was one of those guys who had always eluded me. My wife’s family loved the record Walk On. After that one, I just dug really deeply into all his stuff, trying to soak all that up while I was writing. 



Kathleen Edwards, I’m a huge fan of hers. Lucinda Williams. Just too many people to really put my finger on one. All those folks have had a deep impact on me. I’m really glad to hear the Steve Earle comparison, though. I’ve loved his songwriting as long as I can remember.  


You’ve said that the album was “written from a place of uncertainty.” It was in the can and ready for release last year, only to be derailed by the pandemic, which certainly rings of uncertainty. A pretty good example of life imitating art, huh? 


Yeah, it really does. And in fact, we had the record done a year before the pandemic and tried to put it out. But we had two failed record deals that fell through for one reason or another, and a couple other labels that basically wanted to own me and everything I did for the rest of my life. And it just wasn’t worth it. 


And really, we wanted the record deal for the money, because it’s hard to put out an album as an independent musician and get people to hear it. We wanted a little bit of support behind us, and it just wasn’t working. I kept waiting, hoping that something was going to sort itself out, but at the same time getting ready for a self-release at the end of 2019. And then…here’s 2020, coming in hot. 


We were all set to go to South By [Southwest] in March, and that was the first thing on my calendar that got canceled. 


What a kick in the nuts. 


Yeah. 


I’m gonna skip ahead a little here, because I had a two-part question, the first sounded rhetorical, but wasn’t: “How in the world are you not on a label…”


Ha!


 “…and how did you come to the attention of Sadler Vaden?” You can take the second part, since you’ve covered the first. 


I’ve known Sadler for a little while through friends around town. Nashville’s a small town, so you run into everybody one way or another. And I met Sadler through my buddy Aaron Lee Tasjan; I met him right after I moved to town. A couple of years later – I think it was on my wife’s birthday – we were out and I was talking to my buddy Paul, who manages the band Shovels And Rope. I was basically talking his ear off, complaining how hard it is to get a record made – this huge, daunting task. 


It was the first time that I really wanted to work with a producer specifically. You know, I wanted to take these songs out of my head and get them into the ears of somebody who cares about them. Paul told me that Sadler had started producing and wanted to work on more and more stuff, so he passed my number along to him. A few days later I got a call from him at 8:00 in the morning. They (Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit) were in Australia, and I think he was sitting by the pool or something.


He said, “Send me the songs you’re working on. I’ll take a listen and see if we can figure something out.” I think I sent him 18 songs.  A couple days later, he called me back and said he’d booked the studio for two weeks, we’d meet for a couple days beforehand and then just go do it. 


Wow.


Yeah, after complaining about it for so long, it all fell together really quickly. 


For the last year, I’ve asked every artist I’ve interviewed, “How have you made things work, or ends meet, during the pandemic?” Indulge me, and maybe you’re the last one I have to ask.


Yeah, that would be nice, right? 


When the pandemic first hit in March, my wife and I took off for Pennsylvania and stayed in a cabin for two months. We packed for two weeks, hoping for the best – everyone was hoping it wasn’t gonna last for long. We quickly realized that was not going to be the case and came back to Nashville.


I started building fences with a friend, another guitar player in town. He and I had both done construction over the years, so we just put ourselves out on Facebook: “We’re gonna build some fences. Who needs one?” Word spread, and we started doing that. I also worked at a warehouse for a denim brand here in town. Between those two things I was able to totally shift my life from anything music-related, to having more jobs than I cared to.  


A guy (or gal, in Morgan Wade’s case) could do worse than having The 400 Unit as a studio band. How much confidence did that give you, recording with such a top-flight lineup?


(Pauses) Well, when we first got into the studio and started to work on the first track, I got out my guitar and we were sitting in the control room. I laid it down for the guys, and the first song we recorded, we took the very first take from it. So that alone speaks to their level of professionalism and how great they are together as a band – and individually. And honestly, there couldn’t be nicer guys out there. It was an honor to work with those guys; they really are the best around, in so many ways. 


I didn’t know them beforehand and they didn’t know me so at first, we were trying to figure each other out. But after that first take, everything felt great. And we had to do everything pretty quickly, because [drummer] Chad [Gamble] lives in Alabama. He was coming up every day to play drums, so we only had him for a few days. We had to work efficiently, and those guys knew how to do it. 


What was the studio dynamic like, in terms of the arranging?


Sadler and I put a lot of that together beforehand. A lot of the songs I wrote just on the acoustic guitar, and he didn’t change too much other than on a couple of songs. I would go in, play them for all the guys, and Sadler would tell everybody what to do. And because they’ve played together for so long and he knows all their styles, he was able to communicate what he wanted quickly. And so we’d just go in and give it a shot and see what happened. 


I’m a sucker for great harmony vocals. Tell us a little about Jackie Berkley. 


Jackie Berkley is my wife. 


So that’s the connection! 


Ha, yeah. We were married last October, but we’ve been together seven years. We met at this amazing little bar in town called Santa’s Pub, on a Sunday night where I’d been playing with a country band. Sunday nights before the pandemic, we were Santa’s Ice Cold Pickers, doing good old country music from 7:00 to 9:00. 


We’ve been together ever since. She’s been a singer all her life. She’s a great singer and performer. And cheap labor, you know? 


(Laughing) Yeah!


She has a choice, but she chooses to grace me with her talent every day. 


The title cut has a swampy feel that reminds me a little of Brent Cobb. What’s the story of that song? 


That song…long story short:


The first house I lived in here in Nashville, we had a next-door neighbor with two sons, and we used to pay them to cut our grass. Super nice kids, and one day when they were finishing up, I asked them, “So what did you buy with the money?” And they said they had given the money to their dad, “for his medicine.” 


And he was a nice enough guy, but he didn’t take super good care of those kids. He typically was just drinking all day long. So that’s a very unfortunate story, but those kids are what inspired that song: Just feeling kinda hopeless for those kids and their future. And wanting to do the best you can for them, as a relative stranger; not being able to help in a significant way. And the dad played it off as “not the Christian thing to do,” judging him for the way he lives his life. I wasn’t trying to judge, I was trying to look out for the kids; I didn’t think it was right to take their money from them, no matter how he ended up using it.  


One other cut I have to ask you about: “Concrete Dreams,” with its strong Mark Knopfler groove. What’s up with it?

Honestly, it just kind of came naturally to the song. I have always played that song in a very percussive way with the acoustic guitar. When we recorded it, Sadler went with the Strat and it just kind of had that feel to it.


After the fits and starts you’ve experienced in getting this album released, have you allowed yourself to set expectations about what will happen next? What’s your best-case scenario?


Best-case scenario? I would love to get back out on the road and play some shows. I expect…I guess the best way to put it is, I hold great expectations over myself, I know what I’m capable of, and I know what I want to do. But I think as far as the record goes, I’m trying to curb any expectations so as to avoid disappointment, and just be grateful for the fact that this record is coming out. It’s not just going to sit on a shelf somewhere; people are gonna be able to hear it. 


And you know, with anything like this, it’s hard to do that, especially now that people are starting to get back out there. Stuff’s still getting canceled. But I really just want to play music for people, whatever that may look like in the future. 


So y’all haven’t mapped out a tour just yet? 


No. I have two shows right now, one in July and one in August. That’s the only thing on the books as of now. Our booking agent was the first person laid off when the pandemic hit. Seems like once South By was canceled, all the booking agents got laid off, so we don’t have anybody in that corner for us right now. Hopefully that’s one of the things we’ll be able to line up. I’d love to be able to hop on somebody else’s tour and open some shows; I think that would be the best thing for me right now. 


I’m hoping it all comes back soon. I’ve got my two shots and I’m ready to go. 


What else would you like people to know about Raise A Banner? 


(Long pause) I think I would like people to know, as the person who wrote the record, that I really put everything I had into these tunes. I’m really proud of the record we made, and I hope that people will just give it a chance. I think that’s all I can really add. 


I think you’re about to be ridin’ a rocket ship. This thing is top-flight.


Well, thanks, Kevin. And you know what? I keep telling people this, too: The silver lining of having this record take so long to get out is that I’m ready to go back in the studio any time. I don’t think it will be five years before we put another album out. 


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No, it surely won’t. Don’t bet against this guy. 


Meantime, buy this thing at at Apple Music, Amazon or wherever you purchase fine music. 


*Integrity compels me to admit that I cannot claim credit for the clever opening line of this piece. I found it on a tee shirt in Zach’s store, where you can also buy the album on vinyl, or download it for a mere ten bucks. 






Mar 18, 2021

Album Review / Morgan Wade / Reckless


Review by Trailer

Buzzing, passionate, vibrant. That’s what Reckless sounds like to me. There’s an indefinable quality to Morgan Wade’s music that goes beyond those three descriptors. Just a certain something going on between her voice and my mind…an electricity…an “it” factor. She’s got it in spades. 


The opening song “Wilder Days” kicks off the album with a yearning. It’s a really early song-of-the-year contender that finds Morgan intrigued by her man’s past. While she doesn’t necessarily want to find out every detail, just knowing he used to be a wild one invigorates the present relationship. The song falls somewhere between Americana and late-90s alt-rock to these ears, and that’s an ‘in the wheelhouse’ space for me.



“Other Side” is almost literally the other side of that song’s coin. She sings of a friend or lover who’s seen the crazy days with her in tow. It’s reassuring knowing someone has seen you at your lowest, knows all your flaws, and still has your back. 


The closing track “Met You” strips back the electric buzz and it’s just Morgan and little else. It finds her in one of those dark moments, alone and regretting someone left behind, and considering what that’s driven her to. “I’m well aware that I might not ever find glory, but like Hemingway and Hadley, it’s not the end of our story” she sings, keeping hope alive. 


There are notes of Lucinda and Elizabeth Cook …and Garbage and Matchbox 20, oddly enough, in Morgan Wade’s presentation, and I can’t get enough of it. There’s a knowing tone of confidence mixed with a questioning undercurrent of sadness all through the album. She’s enough of the way through the journey of finding herself to have an air of comfort taming the tension. The balance of those two feelings makes Reckless a real winner.


Reckless is available everywhere you buy or stream music tomorrow.

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

Nov 2, 2018

New Blood: Senora May

by Robert Dean

Seriously, while Texas and Tennessee get the love for being hotbeds of country music, what the hell dances in the water down in Kentucky? 

Senora May is yet another artist who’s redefining what it sounds like to rise up from the bluegrass state and does so with such a charismatic, unique flair. 

On Lainhart, May doesn’t channel the requisite names we’re all used to hearing from everyone’s favorite slice of Appalachia, but instead, May is an impressive mixture that’s a little bit of Lucinda Williams, but a metric ton of John Prine. I’d also be remiss to say given the razor-sharp observations to the record’s lyrics on songs like "California King," I sense a non-linear influence by Kathleen Hannah at some point. 

The songs on Lainhart aren’t straight ahead country bangers, but instead this collection feels like an off-kilter exorcism that’s not as dark as expected down in the bible belt, but instead, feels like a calling back to something missing, a moment in a time, or maybe a feeling that’s imprinted on her bones. 

Being her first record, Lainhart is an impressive effort, with many nods to May’s rural upbringing, and without the cheese, many country singers rely on for some dopey sense of “authenticity” but instead, tracks like “Elusive” or “Gone From The Mountain” feel genuine. 

May’s music doesn’t feel like it was written by a hardened road dog, but instead like we’re getting a sheltered peak behind the pine curtain off into the hollers, which makes it feel like an old ghost. And that's a damn fine way to be. 




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Lainhart is available on Bandcamp, Amazon, Spotify, etc.



Oct 15, 2018

New Blood: Chelsea Nolan & Dan Conn


by Robert Dean

If you’re looking to fill that emotionally charged void left by waiting for new stuff by Tyler Childers, Chelsea Nolan’s debut e.p. Chelsea is an excellent place to start. On Chelsea, Nolan taps into a slow and steady dive bar tempo that’s the soundtrack down here in my fair city of Austin, Texas. The tunes are in the same vein of Childer’s Purgatory, and I’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t appreciate how Nolan channels an electric mix of Lucinda Williams’ growl, but also some Janis Joplin heartache and howls, too.


“Rock Bottom” doesn’t feel trite, or without its moments of chaos, instead, it’s raw and powerful. The song is country, but it’s got a rock and roll heart. There’s something about eastern Kentucky, these folks have a sense of rhythm that’s different than the rest of the country, the sound is becoming instantly recognizable, and on tracks like “Green Bridges” and “Sugar Holler”, Nolan is almost textbook in how to do the sound correctly. 

Chelsea is available on Bandcamp, Spotify, Amazon, etc. 





Dan Conn is another Kentuckian, but unlike Chelsea Nolan, Conn’s sound is a little more subdued, less “Kentucky.” The vibe on his new record, Shine On, Conn’s approach is decidedly less honky-tonk and more bar room bummer. 

If you’re looking for a driving record or something to throw on while you throw a few back, Shine On hits the mark. The standout tracks on the album are “The Pistol”, “Southern Accent”, and “Green Eyed Gal”, all which are 100% pure no bullshit country music, the exact stuff you shove in someone’s face when they ask you about pop country vs. the good stuff; that’s what Dan Conn is for. Give em’ Shine On to suck on.

There are a few clear indicators of artists like Wilco, The Jayhawks, and Tom Petty threaded throughout Shine On, and the more spins I give it, the more it proves to be something that could find its way into your favorite dive bar jukebox. 

I dunno about you, but dive bar jukeboxes are the holy grail of cool, so that’s some pretty good damn company. Dan Conn can write a sad bastard song for the ages.

You can pre-order Shine On (due Nov. 30) here: https://www.danconnmusic.com/store


Feb 15, 2018

Ruby Boots: The Farce the Music Interview

Photo by Cal Quinn


By Kevin Broughton

The stage name – Ruby Boots – is quite ironic, given the varied and calloused life thus far lived by the gal who thought of it (though she can’t recall exactly why.) On her own by 14, Bex Chilcott has been around. I mean, the world. Several times. As in, learned to play guitar working the high seas of the South Pacific.

Her Bloodshot Records debut, Don’t Talk About It, out last week conjures country sensibilities with an edge: Lucinda Williams meets T Rex, with a dash of – dare we say – Lone Justice. 

We caught up with the brassy, sassy, sexy, saucy Aussie and talked pearling, the (de)merits of the metric system, and checking off a huge bucket list item in the nick of time. And some other stuff, too. 

Americans generally view Australians as fascinating and a little exotic. What really grabbed my attention from your bio is that you were working on a pearling boat at age 19. That sounds both exotic and grueling. Describe that kind of labor.

Well, I guess with any kind of out-of-the-box job, there are really cool perks to it. I was out at sea for two to five weeks at a time, and I was in the sunshine 10 hours a day. It was really beautiful, seeing whales during meal breaks. It really helped my work ethic, but it was literally back-breaking work, pulling up 300 cages a day and cleaning all the oysters. It was in the most beautiful environment, though. 

It’s a complex process, and I suppose we could do the whole interview on pearling (laughs). They have these Japanese technicians who come during harvest and put a plastic bead in the oyster’s tummy. Then they hang in these cages in ocean for two years. And we had to meticulously clean each one. It was a pretty radical thing to do, off the beaten path. But I needed to get out of my hometown.

Give us a thumbnail sketch/timeline of how you wound up in the States, and Nashville particularly.

I ended up hurting my back on the boat – it’s literally back-breaking – but I also ended up learning to play guitar and writing songs while I was out at sea, so I decided to travel around the U.K. and Europe for a couple years. And I came back to Australia and started playing open mics and gigging. That was around 2008, I believe, and I was gigging a lot and ended up developing nodules on my throat because I wasn’t singing the right way.  

So I had to take two years off from singing just to get rid of these nodules on my vocal cords. And after putting my energy into recovering from that, I started gigging and recording, and started to open my eyes to what was out there, and came over to Nashville in 2012. I fell in love with the city immediately; I’d never had that feeling with any other place in the world. And I’ve seen a lot, really: Asia, India, Europe and Australia. And I just kept coming back, because it has this incredible vibe, this small-town feel with all this creative energy that it was living off of. I was coming back a couple times a year.

And then I was awarded a government grant to write my record, so I afforded myself some time in Nashville to get it done, then finished out my last album cycle touring around the country. So in May of 2016, I settled down in Nashville again to write this record. 

This is random, but have you quit thinking in the metric system since you’ve been here? Have you embraced “miles” and “pounds?”

Hell. No! (Laughs) My Siri on my phone is still in kilometers and has an Australian accent!  I’m all about assimilation, but I still need to know where I’m going, how long it’s going to take me to get there, and how far away it is. (Laughs)

Why the stage name, Bex? Going forward will “Ruby Boots” be you & whatever band is behind you at a given time, and how did you come up with the name?

Actually it’s been so long ago, and I’m trying to remember. This came up recently when I was in Australia and on this radio program. It was live-to-air, with an audience, and I was asked about it and I just honestly couldn’t remember; I’ve used other names in the past and have just used this one for the last couple of album cycles. That name’s been with me for a while now and I’ve started to make fans with it in this area. I’ve thought about changing it to something closer to my actual name, but people have grown used to it and can relate to it. 

I do remember that my real surname was not at all stage-worthy, so that was the motivation behind finding an alter-ego name.

The Texas Gentlemen – whose album I’ve worn out since last fall – backed you on this record. How did that introduction come about? 

One of the guys who had played with them a lot who had also played with me – Chase McGillis on bass – has become a very dear friend. And he told me the Gents were passing through Nashville on their way to play the Newport Folk Festival, where they were backing Kris Kristofferson. They were doing a warm up show at the American Legion Hall in Nashville, and Chase rang me about two hours before the show and said, “Do you want to come down and sing “Me and Bobby McGee?”

So, I went down there and sang “Me and Bobby McGee!”

Nice.

Yeah! So the Gents put on my old record on the bus and listened to it on the way to Newport. And when they were on the way back to Dallas, I was living in Nashville at Nikki Lane’s at the time and they were all there. (Texas Gent and producer) Beau (Bedford) was asking me what I was doing, so I started sending him songs. The rest is kind of history, I guess. 

What about the arrangements and production? Did you go into the studio with a pretty good idea of how you wanted it to sound? How collaborative was it? 

I definitely had set about to move into this record with a fuller electric sound; that was a conscious choice as I was writing the songs. I felt like on my previous tours from other albums that I was missing that extra grit, you know? My punk heart was really missing that.

Beau came out to Nashville and we went through all the songs and talked about them, and what we heard in them. And we set out to honor all the songs, I guess, but still with that electric feel. And we definitely came together chatting about old school records like T Rex, or Tom Petty – whom I’ve just always idolized as my go-to, No. 1 songwriter – and Beau definitely has a lot of the same influences.

But once we got in the studio, all those guys just have such an encyclopedia set between them of such raw musical instincts! The boys are each such great musicians and songwriters; so we did honor the songs, but in a very collective way with such a wealth of everyone’s musicality. 

Several of the songs on this record obviously come from dark places; you left home at 14 for starters, and you named the album “Don’t Talk About It.” Ignoring that title for a moment, I’d like to know where these songs come from, and how cathartic it was to record them. Did you get any kind of closure, or was that something you were even looking for? 

There are some particularly personal elements in the record, and I’m not trying to avoid...(pauses) the listener thinking they’re all songs that I’ve written from a place within myself. But a lot of them were conversational; they started conversations within myself, you know? What was going on in my life at the time, in my friends’ lives…society, and how all of those things spoke to me and came out in songs. 

It’s not a breakup album, it’s not a love album; it’s a life album to me. The introductory track, to me, is a classical example of it. 


It’s that element where…I mean, you can be on the giving end of it or the receiving end of it, but you’ve been in a situation where information is being withheld, and all of a sudden this other person informs you that they have a significant other. And it’s too late to make a moral choice; you’re already locked and loaded in that situation. (Laughs) And I think there’s an element of relate-ability there with the audience. And that’s what I wanted to do with the record and the way listeners digest it.

The great thing about coming from a tumultuous life experience in many ways is that you can always tap into it artistically. It doesn’t leave you – it gets better as time goes by – but it’s always there to tap into. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing as a songwriter. And I think there are elements of strength and vulnerability in this record, with a woman’s voice – a good bit of defiance, but with some fragility too. 

A long-winded answer, but it’s hard to wrap up the voice of my record in a sentence, you know. 

You’ve drawn comparisons to Lucinda Williams and Nikki Lane – the latter sings harmony on one cut. I’m reminded of Kasey Chambers – but that could just be my American brain making subconscious generalities. I’m also reminded of Maria McKee from Lone Justice, but that could be way before your time…

Oh my goodness! I love Lone Justice! You are the FIRST PERSON who’s ever made that comparison! I swear I was just thinking please, please, let him say Lone Justice, let him make a Lone Justice comparison!

Honest, that was the first thing I thought of. I said, “Man, this is Lone Justice.”

No sh*t? That’s awesome, and one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said. I love her! To hear you say that about someone I admire so much is a very big compliment. So thank you very much.

Who are some of your other influences?

Off the top of my head, Lucinda, Ryan Adams and Tom Petty are probably my top three songwriters that I just adore.  Anytime I feel like I’m not getting what I want from what I’m listening to, I can just go back to those three. 

I still can’t believe Tom Petty’s gone. Can’t process it. 

You know, a lot of bad sh*t happened last year, but that was the worst. I feel really lucky because I finally got to see him in Detroit last year, on the 40th Anniversary Tour. I had just fallen in love, and our first out-of-town trip was to Detroit to see Tom Petty, and that was at the top of my bucket list. I’m so glad I acted on a hunch that I might not get a chance to see them again, you know? 

What’s next for Ruby Boots? 

After the record launch on Feb. 9, I’m gonna play some shows in Kansas City, and we’ll hit South By Southwest after that. I’ll do an in-store here in Nashville. But it just means so much – it’s taken a lot of will and might – to have made my way here to America from Australia. It means so much to be able to launch this record here in America after all the tenacity and focus. It’s a really big deal for me, you know? 

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Ruby Boots' Don't Talk About It is available on Amazon, iTunes, and all the usual outlets.



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