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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.
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…”
“…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.
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?
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.
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.
Jan 22, 2021
Americana Bands Suddenly Back Singing About Farm Implements and Black Lung
Almost as quickly as they’d flipped the ideological switches 4 years ago, Americana artists this week returned to familiar pastures, turning their attentions from Donald Trump to subjects more native to the genre. Just like that, well-meaning but sometimes overwrought protest anthems were replaced by the sweet sounds of murder ballads and odes to ghost cowboys.
Some 35 new singles showed up in this writer’s Spotify Release Radar this morning from roots and folk artists, nary a one of them mentioning a “Cheeto” or border walls. Almost as if some dark cloud lifted from their minds, the lyrics of their songs suddenly saw tractors plowing the earth, drunks lamenting their lost loves, and coal miners praying for salvation on their death beds.
Jason Isbell began work on his promised album of Georgia artist cover songs, even finding himself jovial enough to cover Charlie Daniels’ “A Few More Rednecks.” BJ Barham of American Aquarium announced that his band was working on a new EP completely themed around North Carolina State’s signature wins in football (may have to be reduced to a single IMO). Even Will Hoge cracked a smile, vowing to release an album of songs about old pickup trucks and moonshining this March.
For his part, country and Americana legend Steve Earle was way ahead of the curve. “Oh I knew the emperor’s end was coming and it was time to get back to what we do best - and that’s singing about things from the 1950s as if they’re still relevant.” Indeed, Earle’s last 4 albums have been either covers or songs about trains, mining, and medicine show barkers.
At press time, producer Dave Cobb was booked from now until Labor Day 2023. Americana is healing.
Dec 30, 2020
Megan's Favorite Albums of 2020
As someone who has never really been a Sturgill apologist, this album made me a believer. It is something special to be able to reimagine an entire album’s worth of one’s work at all, let alone with such fresh, engaging results. It takes something even more special to deliver a bluegrass album with nuance and restraint, and Simpson does just that, proving that bluegrass is not always about instrumental prowess, but sometimes about simplicity and emotion.
This record is not just about the title track and its important message; rather, it’s about the eight fiddle tunes leading up to the climax of the album. Childers listed several ways to cling to Southern roots in the accompanying video for the title track, ways to preserve the culture without embracing the South’s racist history. But that speech is not as important as his example itself; this album is Childers cherishing his Southern heritage the right way, by learning old-time fiddle songs and sharing them with an audience who might never have heard them otherwise. It is in this context that the title track and the album itself shine, and this is one of the most important records of the year.
Caitlin Cannon made one of the most interesting country debuts in recent years with her self-reflective album. As the title states, she leaves no secret hidden, airing all her dirty laundry and that of her family for the sake of the song. But for all its darkness and scandal, everything is good-natured and fun, and this is certainly one of the most entertaining albums of the year.
When people say the state of mainstream country is beyond repair, introduce them to Ashley McBryde. When they say that women only sing about happy endings and heartbreak, introduce them to Ashley McBryde. When they say that you can only make it big in Nashville if you sell out, introduce them to Ashley McBryde. And don’t give McBryde or this record any qualifiers; she is not the best mainstream country artist in 2020, and this is not the best mainstream country album; rather, she is one of the best artists and this is one of the best albums in all of country music this year.
In one of the most politically charged eras of our country’s history, Steve Earle showed tremendous leadership by purposely writing a record for those who don’t share his political beliefs. But that would matter little if the resulting project weren’t stellar. Earle’s love letter to West Virginia and tribute to those who died in the Upper Big Branch mine is thoughtful and timeless, evoking the beauty of Appalachia and the spirit of its people, simultaneously highlighting the hardship and hope that runs through these dark mountains. This record has been criminally overlooked, and this is your chance to rectify that injustice.