Showing posts with label Western Centuries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Western Centuries. Show all posts

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.

Yeah?

Yeah.

Cool.

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.

Correct.

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.

Yeah.

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.

Yeah.

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.

Uh-huh.

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.”

Yeah!

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.

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

Dec 13, 2018

Farce the Music's Top Albums of 2018 (11-25)


Our Top 25 Albums of 2018 were voted on by all contributors (including 2 new ones) again this year:  Kelcy Salisbury, Robert Dean, Kevin Broughton, Jeremy Harris, Trailer (me), and Matthew Martin 
(with friend Chad as a tiebreaker). We welcomed Kasey Anderson and Scott Colvin as first time voters. Today, we reveal numbers 11-25 of our favorites and tomorrow will count down the top 10!
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24. Handsome Jack - Everything's Gonna Be Alright
The best rock ‘n’ roll album of 2018, from a power trio in Buffalo, N.Y. The Robinson bros. might have killed The Black Crowes, but the spirit of the band breathes through these guys. ~Kevin Broughton

23. (tie) Larkin Poe - Venom and Faith
Rebecca and Megan Lovell (formerly of the bluegrass band The Lovell Sisters with older sister Jessica) are mostly “known” as touring musicians for the likes of Kristian Bush and Elvis Costello…among others. On their fourth full-length album, the sisters absolutely hit the sublime with their powerful brand of roots rock and blues. Rebecca’s sultry and soulful vocals blend perfectly with Megan’s hot bluesy slide guitar licks for one of the finest albums in recent memory. ~Scott Colvin

23. (tie) Western Centuries - Songs From the Deluge
Great musicianship from the closest thing to a country super-group 2018 has seen. These guys are all heavily grounded in bluegrass, yet this album synthesizes all the best parts of American roots music. Come for the three-headed monster of vocals and songwriting, stay for the pedal steel. ~KB

22. Amanda Shires - To the Sunset
More than a decade into her solo career, Shires has established herself as one of the truly great songwriters and instrumentalists of her generation. With To the Sunset - an album that is by turns plaintive, unbridled, and fragile - Shires made what is, at least to this point, the album of her career. Calling it a "Rock" record or an "Americana" record is reductive; To the Sunset is an Amanda Shires record and, at this point, she's good enough to be her own genre.  ~Kasey Anderson

21. Lincoln Durham - And Into Heaven Came the Night

20. High on Fire - Electric Messiah
Is there any project Matt Pike is involved with that sucks? Pretty sure that’s impossible. Check out "Sanctioned Annihilation" & "Drowning Dog."  ~Kelcy Salisbury

19. Sleep - The Sciences
The Sciences is one of the year’s best records and moves beyond, “good follow up to Dopesmoker,” and places Sleep as the undisputed heirs to the throne of Black Sabbath. The Sciences is not only a neck breaking, sludgy love song to the universe, it’s a poem to the mysteries of faith, but it’s also a masterpiece. ~Robert Dean

18. Blackberry Smoke - Find a Light
These guys are working hard. Consecutive years with top-flight albums, they retain their Southern rock identity without being chained to it. This is an all-American band. ~KB

17. Great Peacock - Gran Pavo Real
I've been a fan of Great Peacock for a few years now and after their last album, I was excited to see where they would go.  As I would go to shows over the next few years, it became clear they were going to go in a more electric direction.  And, they absolutely did.  This album is a rocker full of the harmonies and introspective lyrics you've come to expect.  This is the one you reach for on Saturday night around midnight. ~Matthew Martin

16. John Prine - The Tree of Forgiveness
People are always naming "greatest living songwriters" like John Prine isn't still teaching a masterclass every time he drops new music. Admittedly, that isn't as frequent as in the past, but on The Tree of Forgiveness, Prine reminds us why he's the undisputed. Tuneful, insightful, and bright, this isn't a late-life woe-is-me dirge-fest like many elder statesmen and women give us; this is prime Prine. ~Trailer

15. Caleb Caudle - Crushed Coins
Caudle has been pumping out perfect country songs for a while now.  On Crushed Coins, Caudle hits his full stride.  These songs are the best set of songs he's put out.  The music and production are absolutely suited for his voice and his songs.  "NYC In The Rain" is a perfect song and a perfect Caleb Caudle song.  I don't think there's anyone else I can imagine singing this song other than Caudle.  If you haven't checked out his work, this album is the one to start with.  It's Caudle at his best. ~MM

14. Ashley McBryde - Girl Going Nowhere
The truth: Ashley McBryde doesn't fit the boring sonic pastiche that is mainstream country radio. Her songs are too good, her voice too unique. She deserves airplay and stardom though, and I hope she's one of the new leaders to push the door down. Girl Going Nowhere is a statement of being, filled with catchy and well-crafted songs. "Tired of Being Happy" is an absolute gem. ~Trailer

13. Brent Cobb - Providence Canyon
A great follow-up to 2016’s “Shine On Rainy Day.” The last three songs of that record were swampy and a little menacing, a thread woven through this album, particularly on “If I Don’t See Ya’” and “.30-06,” with their bad-boy Skynyrd feel. But when I hear “King of Alabama,” I’ll always remember the one time I got to see a then-fledgling musician, Wayne Mills. It was in Tuscaloosa in 2002, the night before heavy underdog Auburn beat Alabama 17-7. I was blown away then by the guy’s talent, and to this day I regret I never saw him again. No one that night or any other would ever dream of his fate: “It was a friend who took him from his family.” Cobb has done Mills fitting memorial, and made another great album. ~KB

12. Sarah Shook & The Disarmers - Years
It’s not often I can look to my hometown for musical pride. Let’s be honest, until Sarah Shook came around, Foreigner’s Lou Gramm might be Rochester, NY’s most notable artist (C’Mon, admit it, “Jukebox Hero” and “Urgent” were freaking awesome). Shook is a total badass and this album proves it. ~SC

11. Shooter Jennings - Shooter
Shooter is a portrait of a man who’s come to terms with his abilities, goals, and what he’s after. You can’t write a bunch of feel-good tunes that go hard with the beers, without a sense of purpose and humility …otherwise it comes off contrived and douchey, AKA most of the garbage pop country radio peddles. ~RD

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Albums beyond the top 25 that appeared on multiple ballots: 
Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer
Hawks and Doves - From a White Hotel
Colter Wall - Songs of the Plains
Vince Staples - FM!
Eric Church - Desperate Man
JP Harris - Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing
Mike & the Moonpies - Steak Night at the Prairie Rose
Buffalo Gospel - On the First Bell
Pusha T - Daytona



Apr 12, 2018

The No Sleep Round-up w/Lucero, Western Centuries, and ...Cardi B?



by Robert Dean

Well, howdy folks. I had one of them weeks last week that would test a lesser man’s mettle and sent them spiraling down the road toward their local dive without so much as a breath of fresh air. I ain’t gonna say I didn’t need a night to get loaded up on the Lone Star beers and some kush that’ll blow the doors off, but I’m back in fighting shape after a few kicks in the teeth. 

I’m gonna write some longer stuff for the site, so if you’re waiting on anything long form from me, it’s gonna happen soon. 

This brings us back to the rodeo and what’s popping off this week and last week: a combo of musical stuff that’s crossed my desk. 

Cardi B dropped a new record, “Invasion of Privacy” last week. I gotta say, for as much shit as she gets, I like her. We’re beaten over the head with manufactured idiots that have nothing to say, and for once we’ve got someone in popular culture that’s being honest about her experience and what she expects of the world in return. 

Sure, you don’t have to enjoy the music, but when we’re overloaded with constant trash, I can respect someone’s nerve to tell the story of being a stripper, what men in the business expect of her, along with building a career with no one’s help. As someone’s who’s never been handed a damn thing, career-wise if you make it without daddy’s money or a cousin in “the business” props to her. 

Read the new GQ interview with her. You’ll come out of it not hating her, I promise.  Also, reading the bit about how she got a fake ass is fascinating. 

Side note related to Cardi B – I’ve recently discovered Migos Stir Fry and I love the beat. Not a new cut by any means, but for someone who doesn’t dig Trap, I like that one. Takashi 69 is still straight garbage, tho. But this Gary Owen takedown is straight up amazing. 


Back to country stuff, Western Centuries has recently dropped Songs From The Deluge, and it’s pretty damn solid. If you’re looking for a good honky tonk record that feels a little Dale Watson meets Dwight Yoakam, Western Centuries play in that cerebral ballpark. The vocals even offer a little John Popper vibe, but without the wailing harmonica theatrics. 

Sometimes, when bands try to pull off that joint beer funk, most of the time, they screw it way, way up. Western Centuries doesn’t do that whatsoever; in fact, they sell it with precision and flair. Upon first listen, I was flabbergasted the band was from Seattle and not my backyard of Austin. Give these dudes a listen ASAP. You won’t be disappointed. 

In news that warms my heart, Lucero was recently awarded the honor of Lucero Day in Memphis. How dope is that? Resident good dudes getting rewarded for being a great band full of humans that deserve the world. Nothing but respect. 

Once again, don’t forget to donate to Caleb from Cave In’s YouCaring. It’s still such a bummer he’s gone. 

Avenged Sevenfold read mean tweets about themselves. Just like their music, it was uninteresting and pedestrian. Watch it here.

That’s about it from down here in the great state of Texas. Be back next week to talk about whatever crosses my desk or invades my inbox. If you’re in a band, go to my Facebook page www.facebook.com/robertdeansworld and drop a link. 


If it’s in my sonic wheelhouse I’ll either review it or mention it here. Depends on how dope it is. All genres will be considered. Stay frosty. 

Apr 6, 2018

Hearing the Prairie Wind: A Conversation with Jim Miller of Western Centuries


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?

Yeah.

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…

Sounds Montessori.

It kind of is. You better want to do it, because nobody’s gonna push anything into you. I built banjos.

What?

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.

Right, right.

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 –

Yeah?

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 –

Yeah.

--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.

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*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.”

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Songs From The Deluge is out today on Free Dirt records.

It's also available on Amazon and iTunes.


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.

Mar 30, 2018

Exclusive Song Premiere: Western Centuries "Wild Birds"

Photo by Joseph Vidrine
"Wild Birds," from Western Centuries' forthcoming album Songs From The Deluge, was written by Jim Miller. It's his first autobiographical song, and breaks his life into three phases. 

"It's a sad song," Miller says, "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."

Check back a week from today -- the album's release date -- for our extended conversation with Jim Miller, about the band, the record and much more. 




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Songs from the Deluge comes out next Friday, April, 6. You can preorder now at Western Centuries' site, Amazon, etc.


Jun 10, 2016

Album Review: Western Centuries - Weight of the World

A Review by Robert Dean

Western Centuries have released a country record that’s a pleasant mix of 70’s and 80’s styled country that’s light on the irony, but ladles on the thick harmonies. Being from Grunge Capital USA, Seattle Washington, Western Centuries are a nice mixture of textures, styles and sounds.

There’s a definite influence of Texas dancehall, Louisiana Zydeco, and some western swing, but wrapped in a vocal delivery that’s parts Travis Tritt, Randy Travis, and even some hints of John Mayer. Sure, there’s some of the later 70’s nods to Waylon and Willie, but it ain’t about them conjuring up sounds we’ve heard reheated for over forty years.

These country bands popping up in the north have a different take on what country, Americana or even blues can sound like, and to their credit, it’s needed because it keeps the genre honest.
Being from Seattle, Western Centuries are lucky not to fall into the trappings of pop country, but instead likely grew up with a lot of styles of music at their fingers, thus helping forge a sound that’s not contrived or boilerplate like so many country groups that poison Nashville. If anything, I’d give Western Centuries more of a nod to current groups like Hollis Brown, who is also a Yankee band doing it right, Caleb Caudle, Chris Stapleton or even slight nods to Jason Isbell’s risk taking style. 


On their record, Weight of The World, Western Centuries explore all of the harmonic territories, which is refreshing. Instead of relying on just two voices, it feels like the whole damn band is in one big singalong. Weight of The World is a good drinking record, one that you could quietly slip on in the most stringent country bar in the Middle of Nowhere, TN. And when it comes to country music, two things matter: can you two step or drink yourself silly to it? Western Centuries accomplishes both tasks with ease, and in the style of the Flying Burrito Brothers, to boot.

If you’re looking for a record to pop on a, have a few drinks to, this one won’t be tossed into the fire. It’s got its moments, and I wouldn’t mind picking it up on vinyl myself. Give a new band a chance and get out there and give Western Centuries a spin.

Stand out tracks: Sadder Day, The Old You

 Available on iTunes, Amazon, etc.

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Editor's Addendum: Not to undercut Robert's review, but I think Weight of the World is very good and has more than "its moments." It's a great mix of Burrito Bros. style goodness, country soul music, and straight up country. The three lead singers(!!!) (including Cahalen Morrison) are all excellent and bring different angles to the collection through their songwriting, guitar playing, and vocals. It does double-duty as an album you can throw on and enjoy as party music or background music... and a "headphones" album with depth opening up with every listen. There are dance songs, sad songs, drinking songs, and songs that'll make you think. "Off the Shelf" is one of my favorite songs of the year. There's something here for everybody... fans of Van Morrison, The Byrds, Otis Redding, Grateful Dead, Hank Williams, it's a diverse collection that strings together organically and cohesively. Good stuff! -Trailer

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