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By Kevin Broughton
Hailed upon release of their 2016 debut album Weight Of The World as “the country super group we’ve been waiting for,” Western Centuries turned heads and impressed critics with their tight musicianship and honkytonk sensibilities. Two years later, the songwriting triumvirate of Cahalen Morrison, Ethan Lawton and Jim Miller – along with bassist Nokosee Fields and new pedal steel player Leo Grassl – have followed up by bending roots genres into a mosaic so eclectic it defies any simple description.
Songs From The Deluge, released today on Free Dirt Records, was recorded in Eunice, Louisiana and produced by bayou legend Joel Savoy. There’s a Cajun feel that moves in, under and through the album -- thanks to a warm, full accordion -- yet other influences permeate as well. Because while they’re without question one of the ten country acts you need to know in 2018, Rolling Stone copped out a little by bit calling Western Centuries a “bar band.”
There’s a heaping helping of old school Rhythm and Blues, evoking Otis Redding. Or even the BoDeans, if you like. Morrison’s “Warm Guns” recaptures some of the southwestern imagery from the band’s debut record, and “Our Own Private Honkey Tonk” shows the guys still like to mix it up.
But Grassl’s pedal steel – truly the understated backbone of Western Centuries – keeps a country flavor just under the surface. Whether trading licks with Miller’s lead, or subtly echoing any one of the three lead vocalists, this is the band’s steady trademark.
Still – as is the case with so much music reviewed on these pages – a definitive genre eludes classification. What’s really counterintuitive is that Morrison, Lawton and Miller share one dominant influence – bluegrass – and it’s the one flavor that’s missing from this big, swirly bowl of music.
Except for the harmonies. Each song to one degree or another showcases some wonderful blending of three quality tenor voices – the boys’ ever present if subtle salute to the high lonesome. Quality musicianship pervades throughout, too. The fact that Lawton and Morrison swap back and forth on drums might connote an ad hoc nature; it shouldn’t. Those two are skilled multi-instrumentalists, and Miller spent the better part of two decades as Donna The Buffalo’s lead guitarist. This is a band of top-flight players; an near-unplugged version of the Texas Gentlemen, if you will.
Overall, the whole thing just…fits.
We caught up with Jim Miller, PhD – noted musician, lepidopterist and museum curator -- for a brief conversation. Topics included nervousness associated with becoming a songwriter late in life; getting an undergrad degree in banjo-building; and hand-me-down butterfly nets.
The music y’all make has so many different influences, and I think even more of them emerge on this second album. Honkytonk, Western Swing, some Parsons-era Byrds flavor, and the Band of course (a big favorite of yours.) Not surprisingly there’s a Zydeco feel, too, this record having been recorded in Louisiana. You’re a New Yorker by way of Canada; Ethan and Cahalen are Seattle guys. How does this music get synthesized?
It’s hard, actually, to put a finger on that. The three of us met at a party – I was living out in Seattle for a couple years – and we met at a bluegrass jam, like a big party. Ethan and Cahalen were the first guys I met inside this house, and we’re talking about the music we like, and all three of us love Ralph Stanley. And we just started jamming, though not with the idea of doing anything with it.
But we kept realizing that we all three really liked the same kind of music, although we each had our own histories, which are extensive. So we started thinking about doing the band thing together. And you know, I’ve played all through Louisiana with some of the best players there because I was a side guy. And Ethan is a badass bluegrass mandolin player. So there’s that sensibility. Cahalen is unbelievable, playing with the fingerpicking style of Mississippi John Hurt. He’s killer at that.
So it all kind of just came together. But the dynamic centers on a bluegrass-ish style, and a love of three-part harmony vocals. And now [on the second album] we’re trying to explore more and push the limits.
And it’s kind of odd, but with all the stylistic influences, bluegrass – other than the harmonies – is the one thing you really don’t hear a ton of. That’s remarkable.
Yeah, because we’ve all been…well, I wouldn’t say “fanatics,” but I’ve been a Ralph Stanley fanatic since I was young. I would follow him anywhere to see him play; like a Dead Head, but for Ralph Stanley! (Laughs) And Ethan’s pretty close, too, man. He’s out of his mind. Knows all the old repertoires. He’s way into it, and Cahalen is too. It’s a funny thing: Somehow that represents the core or soul of what we’re trying to do.
Speaking of geography, how does the long-distance thing work out? Obviously y’all are together in the studio & on tours. Afterwards, do you just say, “See ya’ next album?”
We just say, “See you next tour,” and usually schedule a day toward the beginning of the next one. I dunno. We’re good players. Not tooting our own horn, but we can get on it pretty quick, you know? And actually when you look at the level of bands we’re talking about, nobody lives together. I mean, there are a few where everybody lives in Nashville, but there are only a few of those, even. So it’s not that out of the ordinary these days to have people living in different places.
And for the record what we tried to do was play a lot of the songs beforehand, so we had a pretty good idea [before we went into the studio.] Some of them though, we’d never tried before.
On Weight of the World, y’all each came in with your own respective songs you’d written, and that was the first time you’d ever written for a band before. Was it a similar approach this time, or was there any co-writing?
It was mostly the same thing, where we each brought pretty close to finished songs to the studio. And what always happens – I’m a big historian of The Band, you know, my favorite band – and what happens is the band itself always creates the song. So you come and you think, “I’ve got this finished song,” but it isn’t finished. The song is re-worked and evolved by the band as a unit. And it’s the contribution of the band that makes the song come to life, right?
I’m a songwriter, Ethan’s a songwriter, Cahallan’s a songwriter, right? But Nokosee and Leo are totally kicking in, know what I mean? Getting into who gets the songwriter credit…Oh, Robbie Robertson gets every songwriter credit? That’s what freaking tore up The Band. So, no thank you. The song is created as a living, breathing thing by these players.
Did you happen to see the documentary – I think it was on Netflix – about Levon Helm that came out a few years ago?
I did, yeah.
Man, he was bitter. He was so pissed off.
He was so pissed off. I live in upstate New York in the Hudson Valley, and I come into contact with people who kinda peripherally knew him or were around him some. And you couldn’t say Robbie Robertson’s name to him. I had friends who accidentally did, and it didn’t go well. The depth of the bad feelings, man. That’s a wild story.
But that’s not us. (Laughs.) We’re far from that.
Oh, I know. The way you’re talking about your steel and bass players, Leo and Nokosee…I’m a big Led Zeppelin fan and a big fan of The Who. Those bands would have been nothing without their respective rhythm sections…
I know, I know…
…those guys were the backbones of those bands, and it seems like y’all have that same unselfish vibe going on here. And along those lines, one of the striking characteristics of this three-headed songwriting approach is that there are some really snug harmonies on every cut. I’m curious, when you’re writing a song for Western Centuries, do you take the other guys’ voices into account when you’re working out a melody? Is it, Ethan will sing a third here, or does that just work itself out in the studio? Or is that just a luxury of having three really solid tenors in one band?
Absolutely. Yeah. And another thing that happens, and it just happened to me last week: You know, we’ve already got a bunch of songs ready for the next album. That’s one of the luxuries of having three songwriters; I don’t have to write 14 songs, I only have to write three or four. So I was working on a song last week, and I said, “Wait a second, this one doesn’t have a strong enough chorus.” Because I really want the song to show off all three voices, you know? And I went back and re-worked the song so that we could get to do what we love to do.
But you do. You think about making it…well, chorus-y. And I’m actually trying to write a song right now where we sing the whole thing…Well, there’s a song on the new record Ethan wrote that’s a three-part the whole way through. It’s called, um…
Do you have the titles in front of you?
Track four, what’s track four?
“Wild You Run.”
“Wild You Run.” Ethan wrote that with – in the back of his mind – The Wailers. In the very beginning of The Wailers, they always sang three-part through the whole song. And that’s such a cool idea, you know?
Yeah! It does have kind of a reggae flavor to it, now that you mention it.
So that got me thinking that I want to write one that’s three-part all the way through, where we get back to that bluegrass thing a little bit.
It was pretty ham-fisted of me to drop a moth joke on a lepidopterist.
Haha, I had already forgotten about it.
Let’s call it a rookie mistake, and you tell me how Canadian country boy gets to curate in a New York museum.
My dad was a biologist. The reason we moved to Canada was that he had a professorship at the University of Saskatchewan. So I grew up playing outside on the prairies. And my dad expected my brother and me to become biologists; it was kinda like, “This is what you’re gonna be.” So, I got my “toolkit” handed to me pretty early on. (Laughs.) A butterfly net, etcetera, because he was an outdoor field biologist.
After that he got a job at Yale, so we moved to New Haven, and that was a tough transition. But I kind of found my footing in the little entomology world, and got my own thing going there. And I lived around the New York City area from High School on.
And where did you do your schoolin’?
I did my undergraduate at a little hippie college called Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. It’s no grades, you design your own things…
It kind of is. You better want to do it, because nobody’s gonna push anything into you. I built banjos.
Building and playing banjos was my major. (Both laugh heartily.) But I took an undergraduate class my last year in butterflies and moths, and that got me really charged up. So I went to Cornell to get my PhD, and I worked at the Smithsonian and the museum in New York.
Where were you born?
Boston, actually. If you’re born into academia, it’s like being in the military. You just move all over the place. We went from Boston to Ft. Collins, Colorado to Saskatoon to New York. I guess I’m an academic brat.
If the scientific day job is in the rearview mirror, how do you occupy your time when not doing Western Centuries stuff?
I still do the scientific stuff. I got good at it because I did it for a long time, so I still do it to support myself. We all have…well, Ethan is actually a badass electrician, so he can make some money when he’s home. We all have things we can do to stay alive, because where we’re at band-wise, it’s kind of tough.
The in-studio y’all did at KEXP will be enlightening for a lot of folks new to the band. Seems the steel and bass players are the only ones married to their instruments. How many do you feel comfortable playing? I don’t think I saw you take a turn on drums, but I bet you can.
No, I’m not. I always kinda wanted to be a drummer but I never did. I played fiddle for a very long time and can actually play banjo pretty darned well. And acoustic and electric guitar, obviously. Cahalen can play banjo mandolin…he’s getting pretty good on the fiddle. Ethan plays mandolin, piano; he can play a lot of stuff. Nokosee, our bass player, is one of the country’s top, I mean top, fiddle players. He’s becoming a little bit of a “thing.” Ha.
“Wild Birds” is layered with imagery, with Canada geese right out of the gate. It’s a great road song on the surface, but there’s more to it than that. The structure is a tad unconventional;
Ha ha! Man, I like that. (Laughing) I’m laughing because it’s a compliment and that’s the way I see it!
Well, I decided I had to learn how to play this song, so I got my guitar out…
Oh, this is so cool…
…and I like the way you resolve each verse with what might be called a mini-bridge before the chorus, in a song that doesn’t have a typical bridge.
So tell me about where this song comes from, and how it came about.
Each verse is kind of a page of my life story. The first verse –“Heading North” -- is when we moved from Colorado to Saskatchewan, then kinda living up there with the moths and everything. We were so outdoors, my brother and me; we were just always outdoors. So that was the first section.
The next section is moving to Connecticut, trying to “make friends with the tide,” and the whole scene there. And then the last part is kinda sad, I dunno. I dunno, [dealing with dying parents.]
(Pauses) I don’t have really good explanations for my songs –
I’m new to it, as you probably picked up on. I haven’t been writing, except for this band. So even though I’ve played music since I was nine, I’d never written a damned song. For about 20 years I was in a band (Donna The Buffalo) and was the backup guy. It was all original music and I didn’t contribute a single song. This is pretty new to me, so you have to bear with me a little bit.*
[Is a bit stunned]
I don’t have exact explanations. Sometimes when you write, you choose the words because they make rhythmic sense. You don’t even know what they are sometimes.
Well, for what it’s worth, I took the time to learn to play it and I think you’ve summed it up very well.
You know the hardest part – for me, when I first started writing songs – is believing in your own songs, and defending your songs to other people. That is a freaking challenge. You can write a song and not know whether it’s any good, but you still have to perform it in front of someone and go, “this is what I’ve got to say.”
(Laughs). And it’s tough, man. It’s super tough. I can’t claim to have mastered it, I tell you.”
It all comes out very naturally. The whole record’s pretty remarkable.
Well, thanks, I appreciate it. Let me ask you, does it sound like one…thing? We’re wondering whether it sounds like three cagey dudes, or does it sound like a thing?
Aw, yeah, it’s a thing. I’ll say this, too: there’s a theme, I’m just not sure what it is.
Yeah. Yeah, we’re not either.
It all just fits together so well, and you know we talked about the disparate influences stylistically –
--but the backbone of the whole thing is the steel guitar, and the lead instrument a lot of the time.
Exactly. Which is a funny thing because then people go, “Oh, it’s a country record!”
Well, yeah, but…you know, a couple of my songs [e.g. “Time Does the Rest” – KB] I’m trying to be Otis Redding; (laughs) but then you hear the steel and it’s a “country” record. It’s such a signature, that instrument.
*In between the time we talked & FTM premiered “Wild Birds,” Jim opened up about the third verse:
“The last verse and the choruses talk about frequent trips back home to Connecticut as an adult, from wherever I was living at the time - New York, Seattle, Chicago - to visit my dying parents. It's a sad song, but singing it in front of audiences has taught me how to dissociate myself from personal emotions, which seems to be an important aspect of performing.”
Songs From The Deluge is out today on Free Dirt records.
Spring and summer tour dates are up at the band’s site, and we have it on good authority Western Centuries will head Southeast in September.