Tom Rafferty talks about his solo album and his guitar heroes. “Hit that long lunar note…and let it float.”

P1040776 copyWe’re sure that the name, Tom Rafferty, will be familiar to many readers of Blabber’n’Smoke, especially those who appreciate the rockier elements of Americana as opposed to the country element. Since the early 1980’s Rafferty has championed guitar based music on the local scene gaining an international profile via his work with seminal Glasgow garage rockers, The Primevals. Contemporaries of The Cramps and The Gun Club, The Primevals shared influences and stages with both of these bands and continue to perform and record with a ferocity which matches their more youthful efforts. Rafferty was also a founding member of Glasgow’s only “instrumental sixties surf-beat combo,The Beat Poets, who were infamous for a while for appearing in tartan jackets and bow ties as they plied their Dick Dale influenced  raunch. Legend has it that when Link Wray was presented with a copy of their single, Rebel Surf, which featured their natty dress sense on the cover, he was baffled, asking, “These guys are, like, right now?”

The Beat Poets and The Primevals both continue to tread the boards even sharing a bill at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival a while back, a busy weekend indeed for Rafferty. Now, he has announced the release of his first solo album, More Guitars, a selection of guitar instrumentals that was unleashed digitally a few weeks back and is now available on CD. It’s a cracking collection of tunes which obviously showcase his guitar playing skills but it’s not what one might have expected, that is, an album packed with either twangy surf beats or grungy garage rock. There are aspects of both in the mix but overall it’s a much more mixed bag taking in atmospheric mood music and aspects of Mondo Hollywood psychedelia. Intrigued, Blabber’n’Smoke reached out to ask Tom some questions about the album and to ask about some his favourite guitar instrumentals.

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First off, you’ve been recording for around 40 years with your bands so why record an album of guitar instrumentals now? Have you been planning this for a while or did you just take a notion?

I’ve been playing and recording instrumentals for many years, so this was initially a way to collect my favourite home recordings of the last couple of years. Once I started that process, listening back and tidying up mixes, I wrote some more tunes and then thought it would be fun to do this as an album. Finally, another set of tunes flowed from that – Ward 9 and High Roller were both written after the first sequence I put together for this album.

I think a lot of folk would expect the album to be all turbo charged high-energy rumbles, sounding like Link Wray meets Dick Dale but that’s not the case. You do open with some weird “slide guitar from Mars” sounds on Glendale while Lumio has some fine twangy guitar and there’s a Stones’ like touch to Crystals, but thereafter it’s a much nuanced affair. What would you say influenced your writing on the tunes here?

That’s a reasonable expectation, for sure! It’s a long story. I’ve been listening to instrumental rock and roll for a long time and playing it in the Beat Poets since ’86. When the Beat Poets started, I was listening almost entirely to instrumental music, finding lost paths of rock and roll history. Dick Dale and Link Wray, of course, but also the Raybeats, Booker T & The MGs, Davie Allan and the Arrows, Jon & The Nightriders, the Strumming Mental series of compilations. That shaped my writing for many years, exploring surf music especially. It’s not easy for me to think of specific influences on this set of tunes- it’s mostly been following the sounds to see where they want to go, then adding some other instruments on top – some Hammond organ, some other guitars.

The writing process is pretty simple – I think of it as taking a guitar sound for a walk. I’ll play for a while, tweaking the vibrato or selecting different pickups, adjusting the drive and then settling on a sound that seems interesting. Then I’ll play guitar with that, looking for some changes that suit the sound. Sometimes a new tune falls off the end of that. Other times, I just make a din for a while. Then, with whatever comes out of that process, some are naturals for The Beat Poets, others are naturals for The Primevals. However, that left me with a bunch of tunes that didn’t have a destination, although when I started collecting them together there was some kind of common thread. It made sense to gather the pick of the bunch

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Mata Hari is a great number, really evocative and reminiscent of some great TV theme songs. Do you give much store to non rock’n’roll writers such as Henry Mancini and Ron Grainger who wrote some great ones and do you have a favourite. I’m very partial to John Barry’s The Human Jungle.

Thanks! I love a twangy tune – Joe 90 and all those great TV themes. It’s a great attribute of many TV themes that they are packed with hooks – whether it is a regular piece of melody, a guitar shimmer, or a triangle figure, or a peculiar drum sound. The Beat Poets still play Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) in our live set. I’d probably pick The Munsters as a favourite (and tomorrow it could be Captain Scarlet)

Staying with music to accompany visuals there are some psychedelic flourishes on Easterly while Ward 9 is pretty trippy, sounding like a song from a 60’s Roger Corman soundtrack. What would be your favourite mondo like soundtrack?

Good question! I’d pick Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – partly because I listened to it again after The Wards did a great version of Find It on their new EP. Get Carter is a great soundtrack too – not mondo, but full of singular sounds and great moods.

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I presume you played all the guitars, who else can we hear? There’s bass, drums and, I think, keyboards on one number. And how many guitars were deployed in the process?

I played everything – not because I’m a megalomaniac, it was just easier to do it that way.  In most cases I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the tunes until I had done it. So I laid down all the guitars, the bass, sequenced the drums, picked some loops. I am a fairly limited keyboard player, but home recording allows me plenty of time to get a take. There’s a bit of Fender Rhodes on Jazzbo and on Easterly, and some Hammond on Blessings and In The Shadows. As for guitars, it was mainly the two pictured on the back sleeve. My 1986 Moon Guitars Strat, “Big Black”, which is a great workhorse, and a DeArmond Starfire (a reissue, not an original 60s model). And, since you asked, I counted it up – I used another nine guitars through the recording process (three of them have since moved on to other homes, you can’t keep them all!)

On One Flew South you manage to get your guitar to sound like a Theremin with a bad cold, how did you manage that?

That particular one was a combination of slow vibrato, delay, fuzz, and adjusting how hard I played until the weird noise coming out of the speakers was the noise I was after. The process overall involved a lot of trial and error, and some lucky mistakes, I remember thinking, “That’s not what I’m looking for now, but I’ll have to take a photo of the pedals and the settings so I can come back to it”

A couple of the numbers, High Roller and Gone Tomorrow in particular, remind me of a band called A Small Good Thing of whom I know very little apart from a tune they had on a compilation album called Guitars On Mars. They kind of summoned up a parched desert feeling so what kinds of mood (if any) were you going for here?

There’s a couple of moods I was aiming for with some of the tunes written as post-sundown surf music, music for chilling out in a beach hut. But Ward 9 and High Roller were both put together with desert thoughts so I’ll have to check out that band A Small Good Thing, thanks for the tip.

The album’s a download at present but I believe you are going to have some hard copies available soon.

Yes, physical copies are now in two of my favourite Glasgow record shops – Monorail and Love Music. Which is sweet, because Sandy who runs Love Music and Stephen who runs Monorail were the guys who ran 53rd & 3rd, the label which put out the first records by The Beat Poets all those years ago. The CD is also available by email direct from me – twrsurf@gmail.com, £6 plus postage.

Finally, aside from anyone we’ve mentioned above who are your favourite guitarists and, if it’s possible, what would be your favourite guitar instrumental album?

Here’s 10 guitarists who I have lifted me up –

Marc Ribot is always surprising, always a left turn, a singular hand.

James Williamson – slamming raw power.

Tom Verlaine – liquidity

Ry Cooder – floating, yet gritty.

Sonny Sharrock (especially Ask The Angels) – rage.

Jimmy Reed – swinging sincerity, great heart.

Hubert Sumlin – righteous blues.

Pops Staples – The Shimmering King, with the deftest touch.

Robert Quine – skronk and fury.

Earl Hooker – astonishing twang and slide.

As for a favourite guitar instrumental album it’s almost impossible – not least because some of my favourite Link Wray and Earl Hooker albums have some tracks with vocals! But here’s a few:

Raybeats – It’s Only A Movie

Link Wray & The Wraymen – Rock’n Roll Rumble (the one with the blue cover, on Charly)

David Torn – What Means Solid, Traveller?

Jon & the Nightriders – Live At The Whisky A Go Go

Earl Hooker – The Genius of Earl Hooker

More Guitars is available on CD from Love Music and Monorail or directly from Tom Rafferty (twrsurf@gmail.com). It’s also available as a digital download here.

From charity shop chords to AMAUK awards. A chat with Steve Grozier.

a1336805552_16Glasgow based singer/songwriter Steve Grozier  released his latest songs on a double A side digital single last Friday. This Saturday he has a launch party to celebrate the release at The Old Hairdressers , a funky and wonderfully distressed venue in the city centre which is high on the list of the hippest places to play in these days. The release follows on from two well received EPs, Take My Leave, released in 2016, and A Place We Call Home which came out a year later. The discs were instrumental in getting Grozier prized slots at festivals in the UK and some regular rotation on roots based radio shows. The new release maintains Grozier’s reputation as a winsome and somewhat melancholic artist, his mellow voice supported by some very sympathetic players including his buddy, Roscoe Wilson, a Glasgow guitarist who has mastered the art of country rock licks and doleful lap steel.

Goodbye Rose is a lachrymose affair with some fine chunky and curling guitar licks over a sluggish rhythm, a thick as molasses southern affair. Jason Molina’s Blues is leaner with keening lap steel adding a valedictory sense as Grozier salutes one of his musical heroes. We’ve heard Grozier perform this live on a few occasions and it’s always been quite chilling to hear. Suffice to say that here he has captured that chill perfectly in the studio on what is a remarkable song. Both songs indicate that Grozier continues to grow in confidence as he plows on despite the difficulties encountered by a truly independent artist these days. In the run up to this weekend’s show Steve was kind enough to have a quick chat with Blabber’n’Smoke.

First off, congratulations on the new release. What can you tell us about the songs and why a double A side release?

Well, the first one is Goodbye Rose, which details the disintegration of a marriage following the loss of a child. The second, Jason Molina’s Blues, is inspired by and dedicated to the memory of the American singer-songwriter Jason Molina. I wrote the latter after reading Erin Osmon’s book Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost. I don’t know if the term ‘double A side’ still has meaning with a digital only release, but I liked the way The Hold Steady recently released a series of singles (two tracks) over the course of about a year. I thought it was an interesting way to release music. The costs involved in delivering hard copies such as CDs are so prohibitive these days, particularly for independent artists, and I lost money on both of the EPs I released. I do want to continue to release music, but I need to work out how to do that in a sustainable way.  I did look into a small run of 7” vinyl for these two tracks. Unfortunately, without a tour to support the release I definitely wouldn’t make my money back. I would love to have something on vinyl in the future, finances and audience permitting.

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One of the reviews of your first release, Take My Leave,  stated, “Part Townes Van Zandt, part Jason Isbell, Grozier’s vocal style is a classic blend of old and new Americana,” which is fine praise. Which artists have influenced you and who do you rate today?

Fine praise indeed. I admire both of those artists. Personally, I’m not sure I sound like either of them, but no complaints here. I’ve always been drawn to songwriters that have something interesting to say about heartbreak and the darker aspects of life and death. Equally, I like something with twangy guitars. The alt-country scene was emerging at the time I really started exploring music, buying my own records and going to shows. I was interested in the way that bands like The Jayhawks, Wilco, Son Volt, Old 97’s, Drive by Truckers and Richmond Fontaine took that punk/DIY ethos and applied it to country songs. A few of the contemporary artists I admire include Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Jenny Lewis and Big Thief and loads other that I can’t think of right now.

So was that when you started to write your own songs?

Like a lot of songwriters and musicians, I grew up in a house filled with music. I have my dad to thank for that. I don’t know if he ever played an instrument, but he was a singer in a band, briefly, and he loves music. I remember when I was growing up and he had this Pioneer record deck and he’d always have on a blues or rock ‘n’ roll record. I grew up listening to Springsteen and Dylan or The Stones and Rory Gallagher. I didn’t get into country music until later, when I heard The Flying Burrito Brothers. I started writing when I was in high school, probably when I was 15 or 16. It was just poetry at first. Then, I found my dad’s acoustic guitar. I’d never heard him play it. I started setting this awful poetry to the few chords I’d learned from a charity shop chord book. The first song I ever learned to play was Blowing in the Wind by Bob Dylan.

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Going back to the EPs, they got some fine press and on the back of that you were selected to appear in the showcase events for last years’ AMAUK awards festival down in London. You’ve also played a couple of festival shows over the past two years so what have been the highlights?

It was great to have the opportunity to play the AMAUK showcase. Roscoe (Wilson) and I went down to London and we played completely unplugged in this little room above a pub and you could have heard a pin drop. It was a rad couple of days and it was also cool to have had our pals from James Edywn and The Borrowed Band there too. Other highlights from last year have to include Maverick Festival. I got to play in a barn and then record a couple of songs for Richard Leader’s radio show. Closer to home I did a rare full band show at King Tut’s with Blitzen Trapper back in April ’18 and it was fun too. The guys in that band are sweet people. 

OK, it’s on to the launch show for the new release this weekend at The Old Hairdressers. What can we expect?

This show is going to be special. It’s an intimate (50 covers) all seated affair with cabaret tables, candles and fairy lights all those things. It’s with my band, the Wildcats – Roscoe Wilson on electric guitar and vocals, John Dunlop on bass and it will be our first show with Graham McDonald on drums. No spinal tap jokes please, but he’ll be our fourth drummer in just over two years! I’m also delighted to have Scottish Alternative Music Award winner Megan Airlie joining us on the bill.

Tickets for Steve’s launch show are going fast but you might be able to snag one here, a steal at only £6.

Goodbye Rose/Jason Molina’s Blues is available here.


Thanks to Ryan Buchanan  and Graham McCusker for the pictures.

Talking about show business, baby, with Tom Heyman

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A founding member of Philadelphia rockers Go To Blazes, Tom Heyman built up a solid reputation as a sideman after the band broke up in 1997. Moving to San Francisco, his guitar and pedal steel skills graced albums and tours by the likes of Chuck Prophet, The Court and Spark, Russ Tolman, John Doe and Alejandro Escovedo. In between this extensive touring Heyman also dipped his toes into a solo career releasing two well received albums in 2000 and 2005 but it wasn’t until the release of a third album, That Cool Blue Feeling,  in 2014  that he recommenced his solo career in earnest hanging up his guitar slinger for hire sign for the time being. His current release, Show Business, Baby, is an album which he says is, “a straight-up love letter/homage to my late ’70s/early ’80s pub rock heroes Rockpile, Mink Deville, The Leroi Brothers and all of their many offshoots.”

Heyman this week embarks on a lengthy tour of Europe and the UK in the company of Dan Stuart, the pair of them playing a gruelling 33 shows over 33 days in nine countries but he was kind enough to take some time out on the eve of flying to Italy to speak to Blabber’n’Smoke. And mighty entertaining it was too as he spoke about his love of records and how Dan Stuart is bad luck for any liberal minded folk heading into an election among other things.

Hi Tom, how are you?

I’m good, just sitting here in my kitchen in San Francisco where it’s 70 degrees out, just getting my stuff together for the tour, the usual pre tour anxiety making sure I’ve got the right amount of picks and strings and stuff, covering my bar shifts and stuff.

The calm before the storm perhaps as it looks as if you and Dan are going to be barnstorming through Europe for the next month.

Yeah, it looks pretty brutal. I didn’t realise until we put up the poster that there’s literally not one day off but Dan and I have done this a bunch now so we know each other pretty well and we should be able to tackle it. The worst thing was I had to learn to drive a manual car for the tour and there was no end of ribbing from Dan for that. I had to explain to him that my dad’s from Brooklyn and he didn’t have a car until he was 30 so driving wasn’t a thing for us until we moved to the suburbs and there everyone just drove an automatic, whereas Dan’s from the west where they have more manual transmissions, so I had to take some lessons before we go.

So it’s like 33 dates in nine countries, you’ll be exhausted by the time you get to Scotland towards the end of the tour.

Well you could say ten countries because I consider Scotland to be a separate country from Britain, I mean you guys didn’t vote for Brexit, did you? But we’ll be at the top of our game by then, we’ll be really tight in our show business thing. The first night of the tour is always the trickiest so in this case Rome gets to see the warts and all thing, how the sausage is made but by the time we get to you it will be seamless.

So essentially it’s a two man show, you and Dan. What will you be playing for us?

We’re going to be joined by Sid Griffin on several of the shows, some in the UK and a couple in Europe and that will be fun but for the most part it’s Dan and me. I’ve been working up a bunch of stuff, songs from my new record which is sort of like a full on rock record but I wrote the songs like they were folk songs at first so five or six of them I can do solo –  instead of sounding like Rockpile they sound like Leadbelly. And I’ve been trying to learn a bunch of other interesting things so I don’t bore Dan on the tour and he won’t be seeing the same show from me every night, I’ll be throwing something different or new in each night. I could maybe pick a set list of 10 or 12 songs that work and play them every night and the audience would be seeing it for the first time but Dan would be seeing the same show from me night after night so my primary objective, aside from putting on a good show, is to amuse Dan in some way.

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And after your set you’ll be playing guitar with Dan.

Yes, I add the colour. And again, Dan’s catalogue is pretty deep and I’ve played a lot of his stuff with him before so we probably won’t be the same every night. We’ll probably take requests as some folk will want to hear his solo stuff while others will want a Green on Red song and then he’ll sometimes throw me a curveball. But if you play with someone long enough you can kind of anticipate things a little bit and its fun as well, kind of being kept on my toes. It makes it kind of exciting. For me it’s like the best of both worlds. I started out as a guitar player and I just really thought of myself that way for a long time so with Dan I get to do two things, singing my own songs and then playing guitar with Dan.

 

Will you playing any of your older stuff.

There’s one Go To Blazes song that I usually play called Bloody Sam which I wrote about Sam Peckinpah. It’s a significant song for me because it was the first one I wrote which worked well and it seemed to really resonate with people. I mean I didn’t sing it originally, I wrote it and played guitar but back then we had this extraordinarily great singer, Edward Warren, in the band so I didn’t see any reason in singing. But I still like the song and it kind of weirdly dovetails with one of Dan’s songs, The Day William Holden Died and of course one of Holden’s last great performances was in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. But then I’ve got a bunch of new songs I’ve written so there’ll be a couple which I’ll try to put in every night. It’s a way of getting the tyres on them, seeing how people react. I’ve probably got about a record and a half of songs ready but every time I make a record it seems like an even more futile gesture in a world of a diminishing music industry so I figure I’ll try to make two more full-length records and then reassess whether doing them is still viable.

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That seems to dovetail with Dan Stuart’s declaration that his latest album is going to be his last, at least in the sense that most folk would call an album.

That’s what he’s saying and I think he’s serious about that but who knows? It’s tough in these days of streaming music, folk just making playlists.

I take it you’re a fan of a good old-fashioned record album?

I can’t seem to let go of that. When I think of music I don’t think of just a song but I go back to the way I formatively listened to music which was on vinyl, side A and side B. That sense of getting past that fourth song to get to the fifth because that’s really good and then the third one on the second side is brilliant. It would take what, 30, 35 minutes to listen to a record and I would listen to it the way people read a book, I would just disappear into it. I really like blues and I’ve got the original Stax recording of Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign and I love that record, it just works so well. Even collections of songs such as The Beatles’ Red and Blue albums, they work as albums to me, they’re really curated. Look at Neil Young’s Decades, it really works. So I still think of stuff that way, of grouping songs together, thinking we need an uptempo song here and then another in maybe a different key before we get to the ballad, that sort of thing.

It seems so much better than streaming songs, there was the cover art, the liner notes

Absolutely and I come from an age when the liner notes were really good, there was like a personality in the best ones. I remember a Thin White Rope record and I opened it up and inside there was a heavy coloured piece of paper with a single spaced typed message from the band talking about a tour they did of Russia. They toured Russia by train and, by the way, this was way before Billy Joel went to Russia, and it seemed like this insane misadventure and it just made me feel connected to the band and it made me listen to the record really differently. That experience of holding a record is just so good. I was always really disappointed when the liner notes weren’t there, I mean country records didn’t tell you who played on the disc but then you had the LA records from the seventies like Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy. There’s all the lyrics on one side of the sheet and on the flip side there’s a list of who played what, like Leeland Sklar, Russ Kunkel and Waddy Watchell and then there’s Jackson Browne on backing vocals and it’s like, WOW! That was exciting to me.

Regarding your own records there was quite a gap between Deliver Me and That Cool Blue Feeling.

Yeah, eight years really, how to explain that? Well I was really deep deep deep into the sideman thing and I was playing in some very active bands. I was with Chuck Prophet for several years and that included several European tours and multiple trips across the States. Then I was with a band called The Court and Spark who have now become hiss Golden Messenger and again we did lots of touring, I was playing pedal steel exclusively with that band. I also spent time playing with a guy called Lloyd Tripp, a rockabilly guy who had a band called The Vibes and then a later one called The Blubbery Hillbillies, you had to be over 250lbs to be in that band, and he was living in Texas when I was playing with him. I was doing some solo gigs from time to time but I was easily distracted. I was drinking a lot and I didn’t want anything to distract from my drinking. And then for a while I had a straight job, working in an office so you know, stuff got in the way and once I left Chuck’s band and left my job I went back to working in a bar and I was sort of at a loose end but I was always writing. The thing that really kicked things off again was a record I did, a collection of covers called Ballads, Blues and Union Dues, which I recorded live in the studio. I say about that record that anything you want to know about me musically you can find out on that record. So I made that and it was a very affirming thing, a real confidence builder and I was like, Oh, OK, I can do that.

At this point in the interview we were interrupted when Tom got a phone message urging him to vote in the upcoming midterm elections. Back to him…

I’ve voted already, I’ve done that. You know, it’s really scary just now. I’ve got a friend who has a silkscreen business and I was thinking of getting a T-shirt done for the tour saying “I did not vote for that motherfucker” but hopefully people can tell that I didn’t. If things don’t turn around on November 6th I don’t know what I’m going to do. This weird nationalism seems to be creeping everywhere. I followed the Brexit vote because I studied in England and I’ve got friends there and I was watching the vote and it was like, it’s close but the big cities haven’t come in yet so it will be alright, and then when the final result came in I couldn’t believe it. A funny thing is that Dan Stuart flew into the UK for a show at Glastonbury with Twin Tones on the day of the Brexit vote. And then later that year in November Dan and I were going to do a tour so he flies in from Mexico on the day of the election and I pick him up and get back to the house. We’re not watching the results because Hilary’s going to win we reckon,  so we’re playing guitars, sorting out the tour when my wife comes in and says, “Guys, turn on the TV,” and it’s like this red wave sweeping across the screens and we can’t believe it. So Dan is like some kind of bad luck charm, don’t let him come to your country if something bad is on the ballot. He caused Brexit and he caused Trump! But then here we are talking about music and Trump barges in because there’s no getting around it, there it is. I didn’t get the T-shirt but I’ve got a couple of songs that say a few things about the situation, not directly but it will be there, I’m not afraid to speak up.

Well, unless The Tories call a snap election in the next few weeks, you and Dan should be clear to land. Is there anything else you’d like to say before you head to the airport?

Not really aside from this straight commercial pitch. I’m going to have all my records on sale and I’ll have lots of vinyl, real records. Don’t make me take it home with me, buy them on the night and avoid that hefty postal fee, I’ve covered that for you. Vinyl’s great and records make a great Christmas gift so don’t make me take them back home with me. My baby needs shoes and she likes Italian shoes and they’re expensive so help me out folks.

And with that we let Tom get on with his packing. The tour with Dan Stuart meanders across Europe hitting Italy, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and France before a brace of UK dates. You can see the itinerary here.

The live pictures are from Tom Heyman and Dan Stuart’s Glasgow show in 2016.

 

 

 

Talkin’ to Mr. Jukebox : Joshua Hedley

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They call him Mr. Jukebox and apparently if you catch him playing in downtown Nashville he more than lives up to his nickname. But right now Joshua Hedley is in the international spotlight following the success of his debut album which is called, surprisingly enough, Mr. Jukebox. Hedley is the latest of what one might call a new wave of country stars – Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Austin Lucas and Jason Isbell – who are exploring country music’s roots and restating them in their own particular fashions.

Hedley’s album is a bona fide country album which is steeped in the traditions of the 1960’s Nashville sound with its strings and backing singers along with a healthy dose of honky tonk numbers. It’s music he’s been listening to and performing for years and after a lifetime of playing in local bars in Nashville along with being an in demand fiddle player, touring with Justin Townes Earle and Jonny Fritz, Hedley has stepped into the limelight with a sure grasp of what makes a true country song. Possessed of a fine lugubrious voice and able to wring out all the emotion from a broken heart on a song such as Counting All My Tears, he nails the glory days of Nashville before the country outlaws opened the doors to a more raucous scene. And while he told Rolling Stone magazine that  he writes, “sad songs for sad people,” there are some more upbeat moments on the album as on the honky tonkin’ title song while Weird Thought Thinker is a fantastic amalgam of syrupy strings and hard bitten lifestyle lyrics.

Those of us in the UK will have a chance to see and hear Hedley bring these songs to life as he sets out on his first headlining tour of Europe in September ending with a slot at The Long Road Festival. Just back from a lengthy tour of Australia last week he took some time out to speak to Blabber’n’Smoke and we kicked things off by asking him about his preparations for the upcoming tour.

Well right now I’m just chilling, taking some rest time as I’m just back from Australia and we had some travel mishaps on the way home. But I’m looking forward to the tour, the next few months are going to be crazy as we’re doing Europe and then back to the States for shows up until November but you guys will get me at my freshest as we start off with you. We’ll be working hard at putting the set together. I like to say that it’s the set which makes the show. Any Joe Shmoe can get up there and sing songs but you got to give the people a show. Anybody can listen to the record at home so I like to give them something to watch as well so we’re working on making it a really good show so it will be something to see along with a great bunch of country music.

I see you call your songs country music. You don’t like any of the labels that are thrown around these days such as Ameripolitan.

It’s just country music to me. That’s what is was called when I was growing up and when people first started to take notice of me when I was singing Ray Price songs, they all said I was singing country music. All I’m doing now is write songs that I would pitch to Ray Price if he was still alive. If he was still alive I wouldn’t be a performing artist, I’d just be writing for him.

You’ve really honed in on that Nashville sound on the album without falling into a nostalgia trap as it’s really fresh and vibrant.

Definitely. I think the sound of my record was heavily influenced by what I was listening to at the time and I was listening to a lot of mid sixties music, I’ve already mentioned Ray Price but also early Willie Nelson, Billy Sherrill, Tammy Wynette and stuff like that. As a result I had that string section sort of in my head. The next album should be interesting because I’ve been listening to all kinds of  stuff. I think it’s a product really of how long I’ve been learning all these songs all my life. When I started to write that was just what I knew how to write.

I was wanting to ask you about your reputation as a human jukebox, Mr. Jukebox in fact. Is it true you can play just about any request that’s thrown at you?

Yeah, pretty much. I’ve got my touring band but I also have a band that I’ve been playing with downtown for a long while in Nashville. We do a honky tonk thing at Robert’s Western World, basically a covers show. I love to do it and in fact I’d be doing it today if they weren’t closed for renovations. We have three singers, me, my guitar player Kevin and our bass player Bill and between the three of us on a Monday night we can pretty much sing you any pre Garth Brookes song.

Has anyone requested a song you couldn’t do?

Not at Roberts but sometimes I like to do it when I’m on tour. I’ll go on stage by myself and ask, “Who’s your favourite country singer? ” and normally I’ll get someone like George Jones or Merle Haggard shouted back but over there in Australia recently they were shouting out all kinds of crazy shit that isn’t in my repertoire. I mean stuff that really is a bit too new for me, things like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, the eighties and nineties harder edged stuff. I reckon I’m going to have to learn how to do Guitar Town.

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Up until now most folk would probably know you as the fiddle player for Justin Townes Earle and Jonny Fritz amongst others while when you’re in Nashville as you say you’re a fixture at Robert’s Western World playing for the locals and tourists in what presumably is an excellent bar band. So what set you off on writing your own songs?

It’s a weird story really, it all just kind of fell into my lap. I’d written some pretty shitty songs when I was younger and a little bit angstier. I thought of myself as some kind of Ryan Adams character and I’d a lot to say for someone who hadn’t done too much living. Later on I was pretty content being a fiddle player and touring around, that life was kind of tailor made for me to pretty much skate through as easily as possible. It’s there in the words to Weird Thought Thinker where I sing, “I’m a little bit lazy,” I mean that’s true.  I liked that life a lot but then I just had this idea for a song and I wrote Weird Thought Thinker and I played it for Jonny and he really liked it. He liked it so much he started having me sing it at his shows and so I found out that other people liked it too. So I thought, well, maybe I’ll try writing songs again and see what happens. I wrote a couple more which were alright but once I quit drinking that changed everything, it really opened up everything. It was like it opened a part of my brain which had been locked up and I just suddenly could write songs and they just kept on coming. I must have written 20 songs in two months whereas usually I would write a couple of songs in 20 months.

The album’s released on Jack White’s record label, Third Man, their second country signing after Margo Price.

I’ve been working with Jack for a long time, I’d played fiddle on a couple of their Blue Series records and then I sang harmony on Hurtin’ on a Bottle on Margo’s first album. I’ve know Margo for years and she called me and asked if I wanted to sing on her record. It took me longer to drive to the studio than it did to play the session and I didn’t think any more of it but next thing there she is playing on Saturday Night Live!

Well Margo’s done really well but I believe that you have also had some special achievements such as playing at the Grand Ole Opry.

Yeah, I’ve played it four times now. It’s been incredible. The first time I can hardly remember, it was just a blur. They say you’ll always remember your first time there but for me it was the second time. At the back of your mind you’re thinking, “Well I got to play at the Opry, they might not call me again but at least I got to play it once,” so when I got that second call it meant that they liked me and that was special getting asking again. To do it four times is just amazing. It’s just something I hadn’t ever thought would happen.

Finally I just wanted to ask, given that you said that you’d be happy just writing songs for singers such as Ray Price, is there any particular song from back then that you wish you had written?

Well if we’re talking about Ray Price there’s a song which Bill Anderson wrote for him, City Lights. Bill was like only 17 or 18 years old when he wrote that and to be able to write a song like that at that age is pretty enviable. So yeah, that’s the song I’d have liked to have written.

Here are the UK tour dates including an appearance in Glasgow courtesy of The Fallen Angels Club. All other dates are here

MON 3 SEPTEMBER  – The Old Blue Last London, UK
TUE 4 SEPTEMBER – The Crofters Rights Bristol, UK
THU 6 SEPTEMBER – Admiral Bar Glasgow, UK
FRI 7 SEPTEMBER – The Sage Gateshead, Hall 2 Gateshead, UK
SUN 9 SEPTEMBER – The Long Road Festival Lutterworth, UK

And here’s that Ray Price/Bill Anderson song…

photography by Jamie Goodsell

Rab Noakes: It all joins up in the end

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Photograph by Carole Peacock

Blabber’n’Smoke recently reviewed Rab Noakes‘ latest album, Welcome to Anniversaryville, an album which celebrates his 50 years as a performer and which was recorded with the band he assembled for his 70/500 concert at last year’s Celtic Connections. It’s a wonderful disc featuring old and new songs, originals and interpretations with many of them having some connection with landmark events in Noakes’ life while stylistically it roams around with folk and rock rubbing shoulders while there are Gaelic deliveries of traditional songs and a dash of old time tin pan alley songs.

In the midst of preparing for the official launch of the album in Lochgelly in his native Fife on the 29th August, a show which will see the concert band reconvene for the first time, Mr. Noakes was kind enough to take some time out to  speak to Blabber’n’Smoke. It was a fascinating conversation as he spoke about his career and about the new album,  displaying an encyclopaedic knowledge of folk music along with a fierce and proud sense of his working class heritage. Now well after treatment for tonsillar cancer he can look back on a career which, while never achieving chart success, nevertheless saw him at the forefront of Scottish folk music along with the likes of Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly back in the late sixties and early seventies while recording albums in Nashville and having several of his songs covered by Lindisfarne when they were hitting the charts. With around 20 albums to his name he also carved out a second career as a highly successful radio producer working with the BBC before going independent.

We started off by asking him about the album which, as its title indicates, celebrates a host of anniversaries but often in unexpected ways.

Well, it did start off with the concert I did for Celtic Connections which we called 70/50 as I was turning 70 and had been performing for 50 years. The album is a reflection of that but I don’t really like to look back in an indulgent way, I prefer to embrace the past and use it, it’s an information source but I always want to do things in the here and now. The 70/50 title just came to me, I didn’t plan it but it seemed like a good idea although of course it’s branding in its most crass sense but there you go. On the album I tried to create a narrative of sorts which made some sort of sense. I’m old enough to remember that when you made an album that you sequenced two sets of songs, about 20 minutes for each side of the album but nowadays with CDs you’re looking at maybe putting together an hour’s worth of songs and I like to think that if you want people to invest in the album and stay interested for a whole hour then it’s worthwhile spending time on the sequencing and not treating it as just a bunch of unrelated tracks. So it was a case of using what I call “landmark songs,” I never had any hits so I can’t do a greatest hits album but I can celebrate songs which have some significance to me. The inclusion of a song such as Gently Does It (written in 1985 and available on the 2004 album Standing Up) is a fine example as one of the musicians in the band, Lisbee Stainton, was someone I met back in 2014 when I did the Red Pump Special show at Celtic Connections. I was invited to do a Radio 2 show and she was there playing banjo for Seth Lakeman banjo and I quite liked her playing and thought we could do some things together. Anyway she really liked Gently Does It although she had no connection with the song or its history, she didn’t know anything about Alex Campbell for instance, but it was interesting to me as a songwriter that it could resonate with her despite her not having any specific reference point for the song. Later on Lisbee was on a Bob Harris show and was asked to pick some favourite albums and she chose an album of mine, Standing Up, so when I got the opportunity to put the band together for the show she was one of the musicians I asked along.

I was going to ask you about the band. How did you decide on whom to invite?

Once Donald Shaw gave the go ahead for the show and we agreed on a budget I was able to select the band. I consider Celtic Connections  as a patron of the arts because for an artist like me having the wherewithal to hire a large group of musicians doesn’t really happen often. I wouldn’t be able to manage that financially so when Celtic Connections gave me the go ahead it was an opportunity to put a big band together. Initially I asked people I’d worked with before such as Jill Jackson, Kathleen MacInnes, Una McGlone and Stuart Brown to join in. I’d been watching Innes Watson for some time after playing with him in the Grit Orchestra and I really wanted another female singer so I asked Lisbee who of course could also bring in her banjo along with her really interesting eight string guitar playing. Christine Hanson kind of invited herself as she was at Celtic Connections anyway and asked if she contribute and of course I jumped at that and her cello turned out to be a really nice addition to the line up. It’s a bigger band than usual but it’s not a massive or flashy sound and it worked well on stage and then in the studio an attempt to get a full band sound without me layering vocals and guitars to flesh it out and I think that we captured that. Anyone who makes records will know how elusive it can be to get that specific sound and feel that you want that but I think that we managed it. Getting a bunch of people into a room to make music together is great and although I don’t want to evangelise and say that’s the only way to make a record it’s the way I like to do it. We were squeezed into a front room with me singing live and that’s the core of the record. There were a few songs where I did do the vocal afterwards but doing it this way it gets into the groove so to say.

You recorded the majority of the album in the week after the concert.

Yes, of the 17 songs I think about 14 were almost completed in that time. There were a few I hadn’t quite got the lyrics done so I had to revisit them but although the album has taken some time to come out most of it was recorded back then. 

There’s an excellent loose limbed raggle taggle feel to many of the songs which to my mind recalls the likes of Ronnie Lane and his Slim Chance band but on Still in Town, an old Hank Cochran /Harlan Howard song you veer into a classic country rock sound from the mid sixties.

It’s interesting you mention Ronnie Lane as I opened for him many times back in the seventies and I think we plough a similar furrow at times, old timey blues and such although as I recall his starting point was Fats Waller. Still in Town however ties in with the thread in the album which pertains to me back in the sixties when I started out playing professionally with Robin McKidd. Robin was slightly older than me and really well informed and he introduced me to what you could possibly describe as the bohemian life in Dundee in the early sixties. He was a banjo player and we formed a duo and although there were a lot of those around then I always thought we were slightly different because of Robin’s knowledge. He had the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk music and he could do all those Clarence Ashley/Doc Boggs’ like things which added some depth to the music. When we went to London we stayed with a chap called Sandy James who was a big Johnny Cash fan. I was aware of Cash but I had no idea of just how wide and deep his repertoire was. Sandy had all of the themed albums which Cash had recorded about Native Americans, the old west and the working man but there was one  album in particular called Old Golden Throat which had Still on Town on it and it really resonated with me and I’ve carried that with me since then. I really like the song writing from Nashville around that time. People like Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, The Bryant’s and Cindy Walker. It’s just such a concise way of writing, simple but very effective. Just look at a line such as “I made it to the edge of town and turned around.” It’s so simple but it opens up a whole world of imagery and possibilities.

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So you arrived in London in 1968 but presumably you were listening to and playing music for some time before that.

I have always been a singer even when I was a kid, I loved songs and singing and back then it was a combination of the Scottish home service which would play things like Robert Wilson singing A Gordon For Me along with songs like Westering Home and then on the light programme you started to get some American songs such as Allentown Jail by Jo Stafford which I really loved. And then rock’n’roll and Elvis happened although with Elvis it was his late fifties songs which grabbed me in particular, when folk like Lieber and Stoller were writing for him. I also loved Dion and Cliff Richard and The Shadows but when The Beatles and The Stones came along they were like gatekeepers for the likes of me. The Stones’ first album was full of songs by the likes of Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley and Marvin Gaye so we got into that and I then read that John Lennon had said that folk should listen to Bob Dylan so I did. That that got me into going to folk clubs and crikey, it opened up this whole repertoire of Scottish songs which had been hidden from us. This was about 1964 and I was fortunate enough to see the likes of Jimmy McBeath and Jeannie Robertson who were still singing on the folk circuit back then, their songs were immensely interesting. And of course there was this other connection with Dylan who was singing Woody Guthrie songs such as The Grand Coulee Dam which we had heard from Lonnie Donegan so things all seemed to start to connect. Dylan has always retained that sort of interest for me because he refers to that European ballad tradition and he’s done so from his first album with Pretty Peggy O, which is essentially the Bonnie Lass of Fyvie, up to the present day.

There are a couple of fine examples of that ballad tradition on the album along with some elements of that cross fertilisation across the Atlantic which you just talked about. I’m thinking in particular of Tramps and Immigrants along with The Twa Corbies/An Dà Fheannaig and Long Black Veil, the first two sung in Scots and the latter more in keeping with versions such as The Band’s.

Well again I’m very interested in Dylan’s use of British and Irish folk songs and melodies. I’ve done a couple of BBC shows looking into his songs which have an identifiable origin in these islands and I Pity The Poor Immigrant, from the John Wesley Harding album, had as its basis the Scots song Tramps and Hawkers. When I started working with Kathleen MacInnes we decided to put those two songs together although we went against expectations as I sing the Scottish part and Kathleen sings the Dylan part. It was a fine creative exercise which was really satisfying to put together and it’s great to perform. When we first met up though the Gaelic initiative, Ceòl’s Craic, I sent Kathleen a bunch of songs which I liked just to give her a sense of where I was coming from and one of them was the Everley’s Down in the Willow Garden and she really liked that one. I found that interesting because it’s a murder ballad of probably Irish origin which found its way to the Blue Ridge mountains so we decided to put murder ballads at the heart of the show we conceived and two of the songs we did are on the album. Long Black Veil might sound like a traditional song but it was written in the fifties. The Twa Corbies is a really interesting one because the theme turns up in lots of cultures although our version probably comes from the borders. It has an interesting narrative which has that cycle of life element in it with the two crows using the dead knight for food and his hair to feather their nest. Kathleen knew the Gaelic version and so we wove that in also and it worked really well.

Going back to the sixties folk scene there was a strong connection to left wing politics and protest songs were all the rage.On the album you sing about the working class on TCB (Working Man and Working Woman) and about immigrants working in a car wash in The Handwash Feein’ Mairket while Jackson Greyhound salutes the civil rights movement in the States. I know you’ve always been a strong advocate for the Trade Union movement and that you sit on the executive committee of the musicians union but I wanted to ask how important is it to you that music has an awareness of politics and do you have any comments on the current state of politics?

I grew up in a political house, my dad was a trade unionist and I’m a product of the practical socialism that came in after the war, the NHS and such, and I’ve never seen why that has had to be devalued to the extent that it is these days in order to preserve a rather ugly form of capitalism. I’m of an age now where I accept that capitalism isn’t going to be overturned and I understand that in situations where it was overturned as in the Soviet Union it had too many dark aspects to it. But I utterly fail to see why we should be in thrall to this rather ugly, avaricious, driven and divisive form of capitalism that we have now. I’m not party political but I am involved with the union movement and that’s where my political activities take place. There’s a way of gently influencing decisions here and there, not in a major way perhaps but I’m still trying to uphold a set of values to do with liberty and equality which are often rubbished and devalued these days. That angers me greatly. As for the state of the western world, and I’m sure I don’t have to name names here, if you pay attention to the news you should be tearing your hair out at the self serving nature of what is going on.

As I said my politics were engendered in the home when I was growing up but when I got into the folk scene in the sixties it was very political and it’s where many of us got to know about things like the civil rights movement while many of the older folk songs themselves were about the conditions of work, both agricultural and industrial, and that was a real education to me. Jackson Greyhound came about when I went back to Nashville in 2013 forty years after recording Red Pump Special there. We toured around several places associated with the civil rights movement and we visited this old bus station where many freedom riders were arrested. It’s a museum now and several words of the song were taken from the information sign outside the building. I’m not one to stand on a soapbox so it’s wrapped up in what I hope is an attractive musical style so there are references in the finger style guitar to Gary Davis and John Hurt so that it’s a bloody good record to listen to and not dependent on its message to have value. I’ve always thought that it’s far more valuable to fling in a strong apposite line rather than having a chorus driving a point home. TCB (Working Man and Working Woman) came about after a visit to the RCA studios in Nashville where Elvis recorded and I was reminded that Taking Care of Business was one of his catchphrases. The concept of the working man is seen as something heroic but I wanted to add working women to the title to be more inclusive. The song is about the concept of being working class. Nowadays class is seen very much as a matter of economics but for me it’s more a set of values. I grew up in a working class culture where the values were that you do your best, the aspirations are of expanding your knowledge and have some meaning to your life. In terms of money I’d be considered middle class these days but I’m not a middle class person because I still adhere to the values I grew up with and in a sense the song is trying to uphold that, a defiant message that I’m not going to be put in a box I don’t fit into while I also wanted to address that gender imbalance which is becoming more apparent these days.

As for The Handwash Feein’ Mairket it was actually a commission from Hands up for Trad who are doing some great work at bringing the song back into focus in the trad world as for a long time instrumental virtuosity has been at the forefront.  There was a brief to use Scots language and to reference Robert Burns which is a difficult thing to do without the song becoming a pastiche. Anyway I was a regular visitor at a local car wash and each time I went it was different men who were working there and one time I saw the gaffer picking out the ones who would be picked for the day which reminded me of the way people were picked for work back in what was called the feein’ mairket and it seemed to me to be a pretty exploitative way of handling workers. So that was the germ of the song and I when I wrote it I tried to use Scots language in the way that I use it everyday with words like thole and thrawn and others put in rather than set it in some archaic fashion.  I even was able to use a line I recalled from a Jimmy Mcbeath song, a bothy ballad, and I was quite proud to be able to slip that in.

You’ve talked earlier about connections and cycles and I thought it was interesting that the album artwork is by Celie Byrne who is the daughter of John Byrne who did album artwork for your buddies Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly.

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I knew Celie when she was a wee girl but I became aware of her work as an artist and also a musician through work she did with The Grand Gestures. Anyway, I was thinking about the artwork for the album and I saw a portrait she had done of Emma Pollock which was really striking. Celie lives in Fife and had an exhibition in Lochgelly at the time so we went through there to see her there and that was strange because I’d played a show there years ago with Billy Connolly for the miners and of course as you say her dad had painted covers for Billy and Gerry so it is a bit of a cycle.

So the album’s out and there is an official launch gig at the Lochgelly Arts Centre on the 29th August with the full band line up. Anything else in the offing?

I’ve got some new songs kicking about. I actually did a kickstarter for the end process of the album and that was an interesting process. I just needed that wee bit of money for the pressing of the album and we got the funds but I’ve decided to add a reward to the people who backed it and I’ll send them a download of six new songs. The launch show will have all of the band together apart from Jill Jackson who can’t manage to be there and it will be a one off as we can’t all get together easily. After that I’ll be back on the road doing some more shows with Jill and later in the year with my old pal from Lindisfarne, Rod Clements.

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Chatting about the chimes of freedom with Tony Poole

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This Friday sees the release of one of the most hotly anticipated discs of the year in the shape of Bennett Wilson Poole’s debut album. Ever since news of the trio was  announced the web has been buzzing with a frisson of delight at the prospect of hearing what in effect has been dubbed a UK Americana “supergroup.” A carefully managed lead up to the release with notable video productions and a handful of live shows has only whetted the appetite. BWP, as we shall henceforth call them, consist of three very talented musicians –  Robin Bennett of The Dreaming Spires, Danny Wilson from Danny & The Champions of The World and Tony Poole, best known for his seventies star jangled band, Starry Eyed & Laughing, and a producer and arranger of note, widely acknowledged for his prowess on the Rickenbacker 12 string guitar.

Blabber’n’Smoke has been lucky enough to have encountered all three previously in term of record reviews and, like the rest of the Americana blogosphere, was somewhat giddy at the prospect of hearing their collaboration. Happily, the album more than lives up to the expectations  with the band creating some excellent music and in the meantime building up a singular image as inheritors of the precursors of Americana with their sly nods, musically and visually,  to the likes of The Byrds and Crosby Stills & Nash amongst others. The trio are uncanny in their evocation of those past times while at the same time adding their own personalities to their songs along with a topical protest touch which again reflects their predecessors’ ideals.

The trio have spoken at some length on the genesis of their partnership in two fine interviews with Lonesome Highway and Say It With garage Flowers so when Tony Poole agreed to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke we thought that, rather than regurgitate the same old questions, we’d concentrate on the live shows the band played in London two weeks ago and try to figure out why BWP are currently the bees knees. So we started off by asking Tony why he thought that the album had whipped up so much excitement and anticipation.

I think it’s a couple of things. The three of us have our own backgrounds and people who know us through them so there’s a fan base already there. When we had finished recording the album I sent out CDRs to folk we knew like Nick West of Bucketfull of Brains and Pete Frame of ZigZag magazine and the reaction we were getting back was really positive. Danny knows this guy Phillip Mills who manages Emily Barker and others and he’s been amazing. We hired him to coordinate the project back in November and again the feedback was so positive and so we built up quite a lot of advance anticipation. It was quite a surprise because I’ve been working away for ages chucking stuff out and never got that sort of feedback. We were all excited as well and Danny’s reaction in particular was so good. He was texting me every day saying he hadn’t had as much fun ever listening to a record he had made and that sort of reaction seems to have followed through with other folk. It’s hit some sort of spot which I couldn’t begin to explain and it’s even carried over to the live shows although we’ve only done five, they’ve all hit that spot also. It’s been a joy so far and, OK, all of this has been happening in a kind of an echo chamber that the three of us live in comprised of people we all know and who like our kind of stuff so I don’t know if when the record comes out it will get much further beyond that but it’s been wonderfully rewarding so far.

Part of the build up has been the three videos you’ve released.

Robin has been the mainstay here. It was his idea to do a Two Ronnie’s’ type thing on the first video, Welcome To The Wilson General Store, while he conceived the train video as a direct homage to The Wilburys’ End Of The Line. We’ve been really lucky to have Martyn Chalk and his brother Barrie of Chalkstar films on board and it was Martyn who came up with the spy video idea for Ask Me Anything and the Ice Cold In Alex ending. As for Danny and myself, we just do what we’re told to do. 

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There’s been a great response to the three shows you played in London at The Betsy Trotwood the other week.

Well they were the first shows we did with a full band with Joe Bennett, Robin’s brother from The Dreaming Spires and Fin Kenny who has drummed with the Spires and who is just the most amazing drummer. We only had two days to rehearse but I’d sent them the songs beforehand and they were amazing. I don’t know if you know the Betsy Trotwood? I’ve got a journalist friend who remembers it when it was kind of like an old man and his dog type of pub but this guy Raz has turned it into a great venue. It’s got an upstairs room which I’ve played solo in a couple of times and a basement which I hadn’t appeared in before but that’s where the band played. It’s a great venue, when you come in it looks a bit like The Cavern, all old arches and such and I couldn’t resist singing Some Other Guy once we were in there. It only holds about 60 people so there’s a great atmosphere. The place was rammed and the shows went fantastically well, there was a great sound guy so that really helped.  We played the album from start to finish. I sequenced the album and I think it holds up really well when you’re listening to it but live it really worked. The last song (Lifeboat (Take a Picture of Yourself)) is a kind of wig out jam sort of thing and on the first night we played it about the same length as the album version but by Friday it was about 15 minutes long.

The response has been wonderful. You’re always unsure as to how well a live show will go down and I haven’t played three nights in a row for a long time so by Friday morning I could hardly talk but a little bit of medicinal whisky got me back singing that night. Along with the album we decided to add on a couple of songs each from our back catalogues including what was Starry Eyed’s “hit,” One Foot in The Boat, a couple of Danny’s including Old Soul and one from Robin’s old band Goldrush along with The Dreaming Spires’ Searching For The Supertruth which was really great because I played on the original. When we were rehearing we had so much fun trying out songs like The Wilburys’ Handle With Care, Find The Cost of Freedom and 100 Years From Now so we did them as well. And then Danny’s such a musical person, he’s always got a guitar in his hand, always playing some music, in fact I think he wrote a couple of new songs while we were rehearsing but he just started off playing Michael Nesmith’s Different Drum and we all joined in and I’d forgotten what a great song it is so we threw that in as well.

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People have of course compared BWP with Crosby, Stills & Nash (and Young). How do you feel about that?

I’m easy with it.  I mean I’m too old to be bothered by that sort of thing. But even things like the album cover, well that was an accident. We were taking some photos at Truck Festival last year with John Morgan and we saw this temporary saloon bar they had put up for some of the smaller bands to play in and we took about six pictures there. When we were planning the album cover Danny was a bit concerned about the similarity however and he had another idea which led to us doing another photo shoot where we were on the surface of the moon but it looked like we were Kraftwerk or something. Anyway, we went with the saloon shot and I’m totally happy with it. One of the things that’s been good about the reviews that have come in is that people have said that we’re not pastiche and that we’re not coming across like a tribute band. There is a sixties feel to some of the album and when I was doing the arrangements I consciously put in some quotes that kind of reinforce that. At the end of Hide Behind a smile I put in a lick from The Beatles’ In My Life while one of my guitar solos on the album is actually just the start of the melody of the middle eight of I Am The Walrus. There’s lots of little pointers in there but hopefully I won’t get sued for plagiarism!

One of the things that struck me is the sense of how much fun the three of you are having playing together; it really comes across in both the album and the videos.

I’ve known Danny for about 10 years and Robin just a little less and we really get on well together. Somebody said that you had to have some conflict in order to produce greatness but I’ve never believed that, I think you need some harmony. The making of the record was just so easy, they had their songs and when they came to me I had a few bits and pieces, mainly finished songs, and they just slotted in. I’ve always thought, even back in the day, that it’s the intention of what you are doing when you are recording something rather than the perfection of it that matters. Music is such a powerful thing and I think it connects on a subliminal level and it’s great if you can pick that up when listening to the album. When we were recording it was just so smooth. We were in my little room with three mics set up, Robin and Danny were playing acoustics and I was laying down an electric kind of guide guitar and we spent just three weekends laying down the songs and then I had the time to think about the arrangements. I’d never aspire to compare myself to him but I felt a little like Jeff Lynne.

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With all this publicity do you think that it will rekindle folks’ interest in Starry eyed & Laughing?

That’s funny you ask because I’ve just spent a few days with Iain Whitmore (Starry Eyed’s bass player) and we were talking about that. We’ve always kept in touch, Iain and I, and we actually started recording some songs back in 2013 for a new Starry Eyed album but then I developed this thing called polymyalgia and it floored me for some time and we had to put the project on ice. But I’m hoping that the awareness due to this will help us, it’s a bit like when the internet started up and I began to get emails from some fans and that started a bit of resurgence then.  I mean we’ve beaten David Crosby’s record for the longest gap between albums, our last one came out in 1975!

So Iain and I have been working on a new Starry Eyed project over the past six months or so but when Bennett Wilson Poole played the Union Chapel Ross McGeeney, our guitar player came along to see us. I’d last seen Ross at the funeral of our drummer Michael Wackford, we hadn’t kept in touch but we spoke after the show and I’ve met up with him since then. It adds another possible dimension to a new Starry Eyed & Laughing album, I did get in touch with our original drummer but he doesn’t play anymore. Anyway we’ve been working on it and one of the things we wanted to do was revive the tradition of having other musicians come in to play with us. Our producer in the 70s, Dan Loggins, brought in Russ Ballard, he was quite a character, and B. J. Cole. I saw B. J. last summer at a festival in Woodstock in Oxfordshire and he’s agreed to be on the new record and I’d like Danny and Robin to be on it. Obviously there are people who are fans of Danny and Robin who haven’t heard of Starry Eyed & Laughing, I’ve met a few at the gigs who had no idea of us so getting the name back out there is a great thing. We were only together for about three years but we did play a lot of gigs and we were on a major label so we did make a few waves. But then again when we were on CBS their biggest act was The Wombles.

Bennett Wilson Poole is released on Friday and can be purchased (on vinyl even) at The Wilson General Store. They play at this weekend’s Ramblin’ Roots Revue in High Wycombe and are appearing at Kilkenny Roots Festival in May while further festival appearances over summer are in the offing.

You can read more about the adventures of Starry Eyed & Laughing and buy their records here

Thanks to John Morgan for his excellent BWP photographs

The Man From Leith Finds Himself in Muddy Waters – Dean Owens & Southern Wind

railway-pic-crop-3Dean Owens unveils his latest album, Southern Wind, at a showcase concert this Friday as part of Celtic Connections. Recorded in Nashville with a crack team of American musicians (including Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough, both part of The Orphan Brigade) the album is a bit of a departure for Owens. Many of the songs were co-written with Kimbrough and there’s a definite whiff of the deep South woven throughout. We spoke to Dean about its making and asked about several of the songs on it.

You’ve recorded several of your albums in Nashville but Southern Wind seems to be more rooted in an American sound as opposed to the Celtic Americana that characterised Into The Sea. While the opening number, The Last Song, sounds like it could have fitted easily into the last record with that freewheeling roustabout swing which is reminiscent of Ronnie Lane’s last Chance, the rest is quite different.

It was hard to follow up an album like into The Sea, a lot of folk really liked that and I think the best thing to do is to go down a different road and try not to repeat yourself. I’ve done that with all my albums I think. If you go back to my first album and follow them thorough I think they are all quite different. Last Song is probably a bit of a connection to the last album, when we sequenced the album we decided to kick off with that one and then head into a slightly different world.

The main difference from Into The Sea is that I wrote most of the songs with Will Kimbrough and he’s from the South and that brought a strong flavour into the album. I was talking to a friend the other night about this and he thought that Into The Sea, although I recorded it with some of the same musicians in Nashville, was much more about my background, looking at me growing up and with lots of family and friends references whereas on this one there are different characters and a different feeling. That has come about through writing with Will and also through spending more time over there. Since I recorded Into The Sea I’ve spent a lot of time over in Nashville and travelling about. Aside from Southern Wind I’ve also been recording this other project, Buffalo Blood  down in New Mexico and I think that, as an artist, you kind of soak up all that stuff.

The instrumental break on When The Whisky’s Not Enough and the opening slide guitar and bluesy moans of No Way Around It are particularly evocative of Southern music.

I’m really pleased with the way No Way Around It worked out. I wanted it to be a big sounding song and that take was the one and only time we played it in the studio. I think we really captured the vibe I was going for, the real spirit of the song and in bringing in Kira Small for the backing vocals, I really wanted to have a good soulful voice in there and she nailed it. I’d said to Neilson Hubbard, the producer, “I really want to make a swampy sounding record,” and that’s what he does really well. He’s from Mississippi and Will’s from Alabama as is Evan the drummer so they have that sound in their veins.

I really wanted  especially to feature Will’s guitar playing on the album and on The Last Song he’s actually playing guitar, bass and piano. He just had that Ronnie Lane type of bass sound on the demo so rather than have the regular bass player Dean Marold play, Will did it and he also played piano on it as he has that rollicking Faces’ like loose way of playing.

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You mentioned Kira Small and her voice on No Way Around It is spectacular. It reminds me of Merry Clayton’s singing on The Stones’ Gimme Shelter.

That’s exactly what I was thinking of when we were recording that, that Gimme Shelter type sound. I’d said to Neilson that I wanted a big soulful voice in there and right away he said that he knew exactly the woman who could that and it was Kira. That’s one of the great things about Nashville, I mean people ask me, “Why go to Nashville? There’s loads of great musicians here.” Well of course there are but in Nashville everything’s on your doorstep. You can say I want that voice or I want that instrument and you’re surrounded by some of the best players and singers who can just come in, almost at a minute’s notice for a session. Kira came in and nailed that on the first take. That’s one of the reasons I love working with Neilson, I trust him and he knows what I want and he knows how to get it.

Earlier you said that much of Into The Sea was informed by family memories but there are a couple of songs here that are also  about your family.

When Into The Sea was being recorded my sister was gravely ill and her passing was obviously a huge blow and although I don’t want to dwell on it, in a way I wanted to, as it were, put that part of me to rest. My sister will always be with me and that song, Madeira Street, is a memory but it’s also a way of moving on. It’s a situation that affects more and more people as we go along. I’ve realised that in the past few years that so many people I know have had similar situations so although the song is about me and my sister I hope that people can relate to it.

You also have a song about your mother.

Well, my parents try to come along to my shows whenever they can and one of my most popular songs is The Man From Leith which is of course about my father and my mum’s always been giving me a hard time about not writing a song for her. So I had started this song (Mother) a while back but I really didn’t know where it was going. I sang it to Will when we were doing a wee song writing session way before we started on the album and he helped me out with some of it. I still felt it needed something else however and when I was touring with Danny & The Champs I was playing it in the dressing room, just as a way of warming up, and Danny asked me what it was as he quite liked it. Anyway, I was staying with Danny the next day and we were messing about with it and I was telling him about my mum and some of the things she was always saying and he said, “That’s it, there’s your lyrics there,” and he helped me to piece it together and encouraged me to put it on the album. Fortunately she loves it, I sang it to her on Christmas Eve and by the time I was finished we all had a bit of a tear in our eyes.

There’s a great rockabilly punch on Elvis Was My Brother.

That’s the song that people seem to be picking up on so far. It was pretty much based on a letter a friend sent me and I asked him if I could use it and he said yes and he’s really happy with the way it turned out. Of course it’s about a huge Southern character, Elvis, so it fitted on the album along with my other song about another Southern hero, Louisville Lip, about Muhammad Ali. Aside from musicians one of my greatest heroes was Ali and although we’ve lost a great many musicians in the past couple of years his death was the one that really hit me. I’ve got some memories of sitting with my dad watching Ali fight Foreman when I was really young and although I’m not sure if it’s what really happened as I was so young, I think that I was mesmerised by this guy dancing around with these really cool white shorts on and I said to my dad that I wanted a pair of those. He said I could only get them if I became a boxer and so later I joined a boxing club and that was a huge part of my growing up.

I remember exactly where we were when we heard that Ali had died; we were in Amarillo, Texas, one of those names that certainly conjures up one particular song. We were in the van coming back from New Mexico when one of the guys read the news on his phone. And when we got back to Nashville I sat down and wrote the song and played it to Will and we decided it had to go on the album. Ali was just my hero and aside from his boxing prowess he was a huge figure in the South in the civil rights era so he deserved to be on the album.

The album launch is on Friday and you’ll be appearing with your own band, The Whisky Hearts. Given that the album was recorded with these American Southerners, how will The Whisky Hearts play the songs?

The songs will sound different when we play them. The Whisky Hearts are all brilliant Scottish musicians and while they’re not steeped in the South like Will and Neilson are, they’ll play the songs with their own passionate take on it. For example, there’s no fiddle on the album but we’ve got Amy Geddes on fiddle so it will sound different.  We did it with Into The Sea, we took the songs I had recorded in Nashville and brought them home and we’ll do the same here, the spirit of the record will shine through.

Dean Owens & The Whisky Hearts are appearing as part of Celtic Connections at the Drygate, Glasgow on Friday 2nd February. Southern Wind is officially released on 16th February with advance copies on sale at Friday’s concert. Dean will also be a guest of Celtic Music Radio‘s Mike Ritchie on Friday afternoon, 1-2pm, talking about the album and playing some songs in session.