The working man’s blues – a chat with Nathan Bell

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Nathan Bell’s album I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love, released midway through 2016, featured heavily in many year end top ten lists, for a virtual unknown this side of the water an impressive task. Bell has a firm grasp on a folk roots sound with hints of country folded in as he sings of the dignity (and the plight) of the modern day USA working man. Following in a line from Woody Guthrie to Dylan, Steve Earle, Guy Clark and Springsteen, Bell’s songs burn with a smouldering sense of injustice and hurt, the American Dream laid bare, factories closing with folk having a hard scrapple existence. Despite the tribulations however there’s still a sense of dignity and pride, the victims as heroes.

I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love is the third album from the 56 year old Tennessee resident. Along with its predecessors, Blood like A River and Black Crow Blue it constitutes what he has called The Family Man Trilogy examining life today as a 50 something man, a family man and a working man. While the first two featured primarily Bell and his guitar on I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love he is accompanied by Missy Raines & the New Hip adding new dimensions to his sound. At its heart however is the voice and experience of a man who had a shot at Nashville back in the 80’s recording albums with his first wife before hanging out with the likes of Earle and Townes Van Zandt. It didn’t work out and Bell moved into white collar work forsaking music, remarrying and raising a family until the tectonic plates of capitalism shifted him into the ranks of the unemployed once more, the shifting ground finally settling when he once again picked up his guitar after almost two decades of silence.

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With such an intriguing story topped by the excellence of I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love, Blabber’n’Smoke was delighted when it was announced that Bell would be making his UK debut at Celtic Connections. An opportunity to speak with the man came up and we grabbed it with both hands so here is a conversation with Nathan Bell.

Hi there and congratulations on your album, it’s been really well received over here.

It’s done better across the pond than in the US and I appreciate that. Done well in the UK and also in Europe where they’re very keen on lyrics based music. Most of them speak English in the financially well off countries but it still surprises me that my albums seem to do best in countries where English is a second language.

You’ve played in Europe before so do you try to reciprocate and learn any of the languages over there?

Well, Dutch and German are so close together, when I was over there I was trying to speak in Dutch but I was pronouncing it like a German. My family line is Ukrainian and Dutch-German with something else in there somewhere.

But the Celtic Connections show is the first time you’ve played in the UK?

Yes. I’ve been to Edinburgh before but on a holiday. I had a tour in Holland and then my family came to meet me in Amsterdam and we got over to the UK. I have a friend who directs for the BBC in London so we came over and hung out and other than the fact that you can’t set foot in London without giving them all your money we had a great time!  We then came up to Edinburgh. Where I come from on the East coast of the States a lot of the people come from Scotland.

 I don’t do a lot of touring. I made a decision early on that I wasn’t going to do a lot of small shows and be away for several weeks. Partly it’s because I’m too old to do that, I mean put me on the road for  20 days and I’m dead, after two weeks I need a day off. And my music, it’s wordy, dense and there’s only a certain kind of audience who will come to that so if I can find that audience then I’ll book a short tour around them so I get to play really high quality places. But the life of a 19 year old in a band, that’s not me. I’m up there on stage on my own and I’m not bragging when I say I’m quite an accomplished guitar player and I know what will do well in front of an audience that’s paying attention.

I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love is said to be the third part of a trilogy of albums.

It is a trilogy of sorts. Record companies and PR folk tend to shy away from the use of that word because we’ve become such a short-term society that people are only interested in what is current but I started these records as a trilogy and if there was an over arching title for it would be the Family Man Trilogy. It starts out with Black Crow Blue which is about the single man in America, Blood Like a River is about the family and this new one is about working and it’s been about a four or five year process.

Much of the new album seems to be about people working or not working in what I suppose we call the rustbelt, the steel industry and such, people who have been having such a rough time of it recently.

Yes, these are jobs which will never come back. People say they will but they won’t other than in a boutique sort of way. There’s a company called Nucor Steel which recycles steel but the big plants are gone, we’re never going to make the level of steel that they do in China. We’re in a funny position in that the money moved up and it didn’t get replaced by anything. I’ve worked since I was eleven years old and I’ve experienced that first hand.

I know that you were in Nashville in the 80’s but that didn’t work out and you eventually ended up working in the telecommunications business.

In 1991 I came to Nashville. It didn’t work out but I kind of knew that from the moment I got there. I had a publishing contract and I was working with the producer Richard Bennet who worked with Steve Earle on Guitar Town. Richard became a good friend. But even in the process of getting all these things together, contacts and such that for some some people takes years of work to get hold of,  as soon as I got to Nashville I realised that this wasn’t necessarily what I was wanting and that they had a business model that wasn’t for me. It wasn’t their fault that I couldn’t be in their business model and you can only blame them if you did exactly what they told you to do and it didn’t work out. I never did that. So after about six months I was treading water and after two years I was out.

I accidentally ended up in telecommunications working with cell phones right at the point when everybody was starting to buy them. Then the company downsized as they always do so I was out for about a year. I got back then into the same business doing a different job but the parameters had changed so much and there were some ethical compromises I wasn’t willing to make. I tried to hold on to the job for as long as I could as I had a family growing up. If you have to make a living you make a living.  I mean they weren’t asking me to do anything that was evil or illegal it was just getting harder and harder to be successful without going into some gray areas which I wasn’t willing to do.

And all this time you were away from music, not playing or performing. I read some story about your wife one day setting up a guitar in your garage.

I didn’t play from around 1994 until 2008 and then a friend of mine, a songwriter called Don Henry invited me to a show he was doing and called me up on stage to do two songs. I could barely dredge them up, I was terrible; you know people always tell you it wasn’t that bad but it was that bad. And then after that I had to go on a business trip and when I got back my wife had a set up for me in this closet under the stairs, a tape player and a guitar and I’ve made most of these albums in that closet. It’s like a half closet with an angled roof but it’s got the sort of sound you would get in a $50,000 studio, I mean I couldn’t recreate this set up and sound for less than 50,000 bucks. And you know it’s like an aging football player, you put him in an over 50’s league and he starts thinking his glory days are going to come back and that was me.

Well according to a lot of folk over here those glory days are happening right now for you.

Yeah, I like that but I’m not as quick as these young guys anymore.

OK, but young guys, unless they are very gifted don’t have a lot to sing about. You’ve got a lifetime of experiences.

Well, the young ones are probably going to sing about girls or boys. For me, I come from a literary background and I would have liked to have written long fiction or long journalism if I wasn’t so bad at it. So I ended up writing short. I wanted to be Steinbeck or Jack London but you could only be those guys if you have experience. It was probably good for me to be out of it and doing everything else. Plus I love my life; I’ve always said that if the business had stayed relatively the same and I was able to do what I wanted to do then I wouldn’t be doing this because those years were wonderful, just wonderful. This just happens to be the next step.

The next step perhaps but folk are comparing you to the likes of Van Zandt and Earle and I thought that many of your songs inhabit the same territory as the likes of Rod Picott.

Wonderful compliments. Anytime anyone wants to compare me to writers like that or to some literary figures then I can handle that. As for Rod I know him, I bump into him from time to time. He’s the genuine deal, he comes from a real working man’s background so him and Slaid (Cleaves) know what they’re talking about. I respect what he does a great deal.

In terms of that your working career was in selling cell phones and working in middle management. So what gives you the insight or the ability to write about steel mill workers living in a rusty shack with their lives falling apart?

Well I didn’t have very much money most of my younger years. I mean I wasn’t poor, I had enough to eat but I wasn’t able to spend money like someone who was middle class. I spent about 19 years with the phone company and that’s about half of my adult life. The rest of that time I was doing jobs in the docks and in construction and in hotels and then later with the phone company  I have always been around people doing different jobs so all those conversations alone have been helpful in what I’m writing about now. I’ve been there working 80 hours a week picking up heavy stuff but I’m too old for that now, it’s cost me a shoulder and a knee.

You mentioned wanting to write like Steinbeck or Jack London. What draws you to writers?

My father is Marvin Bell and he’s at least a relatively well-known poet, he’s 79 now and he just drove off from here a few minutes before we started to speak. So I grew up around the writing department at the University of Iowa, it was my school so to speak and I guess that’s one of the reasons I didn’t go to University as  it had been such a big part of my childhood. My father and all his friends were writers and most of my friends outside the music business are writers.

I believe that you knew Studs Terkel.

Yeah. When I met him he was older of course and we weren’t what I would call close but he was in the Chicago folk circle which was very vibrant back in the eighties. I would run into him and talk to him. There aren’t that many people that I think of as being larger than life but  his book (Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, 1974) changed the way that everbody looked at the study of work. It was a real pleasure just to have known him and to have talked to him.

Terkel worked very much in an oral tradition, is that what you’re trying to do?

Well, I’m trying to tell my stories honestly. If you look at them then you’ll see that almost none of them take the arc of promising something, well, ethereal. I’m actually a really happy optimistic guy but I see the life we’re living, the jobs we do, the reality of it.  Part of what we’ve lost in the world and with social media especially is that we’ve lost the way the oral tradition protected us, the way the folk world told stories that fostered a sense of community. If you listen to an Irish band, a Scottish band, a Cape Breton band or a blues band they’re playing music that you can understand in a form that’s fairly similar and their stories are just their own stories and I think that the folk tradition of songwriting is critical. My next album will be the first one that talks expressly about love but it won’t talk about love like say, Gerry and The Pacemakers (who I quite like), it’ll be my own weird dark version of it.

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On I Don’t Do This For Love you’ve got Missy Raines and her band playing with you. How did that come about?

I’ve known Missy for a long time, since 1986 or so, and she and her band came through our town and I heard them play and I thought this was one shot at getting a band like this on a record. These days bands don’t stick together, they have to be off earning somewhere all the time so now Ethan Ballinger, the guitar player is playing with Lee Ann Womack and Jarrod Walker is playing with Claire Lynch. But I got to have them for a couple of days in the studio and we recorded everything but the harmony vocals so for the most part it’s the five of us playing live in the studio. They’re wonderful musicians so all I had to do was stand there and get my part right.

As you said earlier, the songs are honest tales about working men. I was particularly taken by Jesus Of Gary, Indiana. Just reading the lyrics is impressive.

Thanks, I appreciate that compliment, it’s one of my favourites. I do work very hard to make the lyrics stand up without the music. They’re not poems but I think if you read them the cadence is there, the rhythm is there, the story is there and if it’s not then I won’t record it.

Speaking of poetry what are your thoughts on Dylan’s Nobel Prize?

Dylan is so important to what happened to song writing and the oral tradition. The only reason people are mad at him is because writers get mad when they don’t win awards so they’re all pissing ad moaning because it wasn’t one of them that got the award. The truth is that what Dylan did was exceptional, extraordinary. Some of his lyrics, if you go in and listen to them and read them it is literature.

America’s about to enter the Trump age. Are you still optimistic about the future?

Always. You know half of my family is Jewish so even us being here means that I’m optimistic. It’s only been 60 to 70 years since they stopped chasing us out of every country in the world. Optimism isn’t about everything’s going to be great. It’s if you do the work and you fight the fight and you’re honest and don’t pretend that things aren’t what they are that you can advance the cause of humanity.

I get that in your songs. The characters, despite the hardships, they are survivors.

Well, the way I see it, here’s an example. Leicester City wins the premiership and they won it with a bunch of guys everyone else had given up on. The secret is, if you’re here, you got a chance, if you show up you got a chance. If you hide in the corner and complain all the time then you got no chance.

Nathan Bell makes his UK debut at Celtic Connections on Thursday 2nd February at Oran Mor. He’s also performing on these dates.

Mon 6: Woodend Gallery Scarborough
Tues 7: The Green Note, London
Thurs 9: Drovers Arms, Puncheston, Haverfordwest
Fri 10: The Forge, Anvil Arts, Basingstoke

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Chatting with Erin Rae

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Erin Rae’s album debut album Soon Enough, released on Clubhouse Records earlier this year was a reminder (as if we needed one) that Nashville is not only an inexhaustible well of talent but it also has the ability to surprise us. I don’t think that anyone would categorise Ms. Rae as typically Nashville, a song like the excellent Clean Slate seeming to cling more to the era of LA troubadours.

With some excellent reviews for the album under her belt Rae is embarking on a major tour of the UK over the next four weeks (all dates here) which will include some shows with her label mate Cale Tyson. On the eve of embarking for the tour she took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke.

Hi there,
Can I ask you about the opening and closing tracks on the album? They bookend it really well but there’s a different feel, I think, to them than the rest of the album, the vocals more elaborate. Was that deliberate?

Hi! Yes, Light Parts 1 & 2 I think came from a different side of my writing from several years ago. My friend John Furr initially created this beautiful arrangement of the song on his own and surprised me with it. So when we started planning a record I knew I wanted to use that song to tie the whole thing together. The sentiment of the song is empathy for another person’s experience, which is a lot of the basis of the entire record. Cori Bechler, one of the first people I collaborated with creatively, wrote the vocal parts for Part 2. There is also a nod to the first EP Crazy talk. 

You seem to mix an “introspective” type of song writing with a sweet, countrified rhythm, a sound that really comes to the fore on the title song to Soon Enough. I was reminded of Janis Ian and The McGarrigles at times. Are these artists you’ve listened to?

I have not heard The McGarrigles as yet though since the release of our album in the UK I have heard a few folks say there is a similar feeling. I’ll have to listen to them now before we arrive. Janis Ian was not someone I was super familiar with until I was 20 or so. My voice teacher and mentor Phoebe Binkley was a friend of hers and I actually have a signed copy of Janis’s autobiography on my shelf that she gave to Phoebe. The more I’ve learned about her, the greater the compliment of a comparison is. What a brave artist. I hope I can channel some of that. 

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The album was apparently recorded “live” over just two days. Had you and the band been playing the songs for a while?

We had! Most of the songs we had played for at least a year, some of them a little longer but on a couple of them we hadn’t played them before. However, we had been playing together for about 5 years at that point, so even on the newer tunes they felt good pretty quick.

There was a five year gap between your EP release and the album. Was this a case of trying to get a record deal or getting enough songs together for an album?

I think it was a case of early “adulthood”:) Or late childhood depending on the perspective. I was in the midst of writing songs while also living out my early 20s and learning a ton about how to be a person. It’s a messy age, so it just took a while. I think it took about that long for me to shape complete ideas and live those stories out enough to write them. And I think it was just a three year gap! Maybe four for the UK audience. 

Are many of the songs “autobiographical?” I’m thinking of Sleep Away and Minolta for example.

For sure. Most of the songs are, with the exception of Pretty Thing which is a story built from a feeling. 

You grew up in a musical family. What are your earliest memories of hearing music and can you say who your main influences are?

My earliest memories of music are my dad playing with his friend Willie X at Davis Kidd and events around Jackson, TN, and then with my mom in our kitchen. My dad used to do this song called “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke” and I got up at Davis Kidd to sing with him when I was five. “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that cigarette. Puff, puff, puff until you puff yourself to death! Tell Saint Peter at the pearly gates, that you hate to make him wait, you just gotta have another cigarette”. Hahaha! These little old ladies laughed so hard and tipped us like 20 dollars each.

I think my main influences are my parents along with Greg brown, Kate Campbell, Gillian & Dave, and all those artists that my parents sang songs by. There’s also Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Kate Wolf and Doc Watson. So many! 

You are touring the UK soon. Have you played here before and will you have a band playing with you?

I have only played a couple of shows in Scotland (with Louis of Admiral Fallow) and I played in Switzerland in years past. This will actually be my first time to England and my first official tour in Scotland and I’m so excited about it. I’ll have my trusted friends and players Dominic Billett & Jerry Bernhardt with me for all the dates. Can’t wait!

Erin Rae’s tour starts October 25th in High Wycombe and it concludes with four Scottish dates in November where she will be appearing with Cale Tyson.

Carrie Rodriguez and The Golden Era of Mexican Music.

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Texan Carrie Rodriguez first came to most folks’ attention when she teamed up with Chip Taylor back in the early noughties, the pair recording four albums together. She then carved out a successful solo career with her debut album, 2006’s Seven Angels On A Bicycle quickly followed by another six discs leading one writer to describe her as perhaps, “The hardest-working woman in American roots music.” An appellation that’s borne out when you dig around into the background of her latest (and in the opinion of many, her best) album, Lola, released earlier this year. The album is a result of Rodriguez delving into her Mexican family roots, a project she has been considering for some time, the fact that she was more than midway through a pregnancy when she recorded the album no hindrance. Happily, she and her partner Luke Jacobs are now the proud parents of their son Cruz while Lola, their sonic offspring is also thriving.

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Lola consists of Rodriguez’s settings of classic Mexican songs; rancheras and boleros, reclaimed from the past along with several of her own songs which were inspired and informed by her listening to the crackly past. The originals are sung in Spanish, her own songs in Spanish and English. The result a collection of songs, some languid, some passionate, all delivered by her crack assemblage, The Sacred Hearts who include Jacobs, Bill Frisell and Viktor Krauss. It’s a magnificent celebration of her Mexican heritage, not dissimilar from some of Ry Cooder’s recent efforts, while it’s not afraid to address current issues that have been stirred up concerning the plight and fortunes of Mexican American citizens.

Ms. Rodriguez is coming to the UK in November offering us a chance to hear these remarkable songs in a live setting and she took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke about the album and its conception. It all started when she was given a collection of songs recorded by her great aunt, Eva Garza, back in the 1940’s. So first of all we asked her about this and why it eventually led to Lola.

Eva was my grandmother’s older sister and she got her start singing on a programme in the ’40s called Voice of America. It was a radio show that was broadcast all over the world where American troops were stationed and her first gigs were at Radio City Music Hall singing in Spanish. I didn’t really get to hear her music until my grandmother gave me a bunch of her songs taken from old scratchy recordings that had been transferred onto CD. She gave me them when I was in my early twenties and I remember I was living in New York at the time and the moment I heard them I was literally brought to tears. She has this gorgeous big alto voice and the type of music she was singing was very dramatic, ballads and boleros with very melodramatic lyrics and big orchestras behind her, strings, woodwind, trumpets. I was completely blown away that this was my relative although I never met her. She was quite a bit older than my grandmother and she died very young, just in her early forties when she passed away. She was a family legend of course but I probably thought that my grandmother had exaggerated her until I actually  heard her and I was just so moved by her music and her passion so that’s what started my journey into thinking about singing in Spanish. It’s been many years, I started singing one song in Spanish as an encore in my shows and little by little I got braver, I added some more songs in and eventually I worked up to the place where I could make this record.

So the album has been in the making in your mind for a number of years then?

Yes. Maybe for the past seven or eight years I’ve been thinking about doing this, making an album of Spanish songs but I didn’t quite feel ready. I really didn’t know what it would be, I knew I wanted to record an album and I had started to dig into some old songs and I really did think that the album would all be in Spanish. In the end however I wound up writing half of the songs because it just didn’t feel quite authentic to me to make an entire album of classic songs even though they’re adorable to me, these old ranchera songs. I thought I had to introduce more of myself into the album and so I added my songs which in the end turned out to be sort of “Spanglish.”

The album opens with Perfidia, a song that’s fairly well known as its been covered by the likes of Glenn Miller and Linda Rondstadt but the other covers are much more obscure. How did you go about selecting the songs?

Well after listening to my great aunt, I started researching into these old songs and learning more about other artists of her time. I’d listen to her singing and see who wrote the song, say, Cuco Sanchez, one of the greatest Mexican writers so I’d look up Cuco Sanchez and see who else had covered his songs. Just through listening to my great aunt I discovered so many wonderful artists that I now listen to all the time, people like Chavela Vargas, Lydia Mendoza, Javier Solis and Lola Beltran. It really was a golden era of Mexican music that went all the way through to the sixties, they called it  “Época de Oro“, the golden era and it wasn’t just the music, Mexican films were being made in Hollywood, really big productions and the music was part of that. So I dug through all of that and found my favourite songs which weren’t necessarily the most popular ones. But Perfidia is definitely the most recognisable one and the version I find most inspiring is the one by Trio Los Panchos which has the most incredible harmonies all the way through. And from the moment I knew I wanted to cover Perfidia I also knew that I wanted Raul Malo to sing with me on it.  I just thought it has to be Raul and of course he did it. I was so thrilled that he said yes.

Of course the words for these songs are in Spanish and they often tell a tale, usually fuelled by love, lust or treachery. When you’re playing them live do you explain the stories to the audience?

I do because I don’t expect everyone to be fluent in Spanish. So I explain the story and one of the interesting things that came to me over the course of doing the album was how many parallels there are between Mexican ranchera music and American country music. For example I did a song called Que Manera De Perder which means What A Way To Lose. It’s a bilingual duet on the album and the first time I heard it I couldn’t believe how much it sounded like a Merle Haggard song, one of his really sad songs like Today I Started Loving You Again. You know, the kind of song that makes you want to stay up too late and drink and cry and look at old photos. So I like explaining the songs and pointing out the similarities. I think that these days it’s really important to point out the similarities between our countries because we’re just so insanely divided right now.

There are a couple of your songs that address these issues head on. Llano Estacado is about the plight of immigrants into the USA and West Side recalls a sort of schoolyard apartheid with Mexican kids shunned by the white kids. Why did you put these songs into what is essentially an album of old love songs?

Diving into the older songs and singing them in Spanish brought about some feelings, memories and such that I really wasn’t aware were in there. Thinking about how I grew up, what it was like when I was growing up, what it felt like to be half Mexican American, half Anglo American and living on the west side which was the Anglo side of the tracks. I hadn’t thought about my school since I was a kid but as I was working on the record the memory came back and I sat down and wrote the song (West Side) in like 10 minutes. It was something that had been sitting there but hadn’t been brought to the surface until I started looking back at these old songs and it kind of got mixed in with the way things are right now. So some of the songs do have that sort of political slant and even though it’s kind of strange to have them there along with these romantic ballads I think the album is a reflection of who I am, my culture, my roots. I think it’s an authentic representation of me.

And of course Chip Taylor has just released a new song with you, Who’s Gonna Build That Wall, which addresses one of these issues head on.

That’s an amazing song. Chip just wrote that recently and we were touring Canada and decided to record it because it’s so timely. We really wanted people to hear it so I know Chip’s doing everything he can to get it out there before the election.

The album is beautifully played and sung and very evocative of the images and sounds that many of us have of Mexico. Images gleaned from Hollywood of hot cantinas and Latin passion. How long did you and the band spend on working up the arrangements?

Luke and I did a lot of the work together before the band showed up so we had the basic arrangements. Luke’s background is more rock and pop so it was a nice juxtaposition for these classic Mexican songs. I wanted to have a “mariachi” sound of sorts but I also wanted it to be something modern, kind of culturally mixed up. I didn’t want to just play the songs as they originally sounded so we started off with the arrangements Luke and I did and then the band got together for about four or five days before we went and recorded the songs live in the studio. The only overdubs were a little bit of pedal steel at the end. It was so much fun and this is the first record I’ve made where I didn’t need to fix any vocals afterwards, it’s all just live takes as I was inspired by the music and the band around me. I was also seven months pregnant and I think that also inspired me having this little life in my belly dancing around as I was singing.

The album certainly reminds me of some of Ry Cooder’s recent work, Chavez Ravine and his album with the Cuban Manuel Galbán, Mambo Sinuendo.

I have’t heard those albums but I’ve got Ry Cooder’s Talking Timbuktu which he recorded with Ali Farka Touré  and of course Buena Vista. So I don’t know too much about his work but I like the comparison. The idea of getting Bill Frisell in was too make something completely new and to take these classic songs into outer space. For example, on the instrumental take of Si No Te Vas I worked up an arrangement where I was thinking of a Phillip glass type figure in it that took it somewhere else, like we were up there with no ground to stand on and when we recorded it just exceeded my expectations of it, it does sound otherworldly to me.

We’re looking forward to hearing these songs when you tour the UK in November. Who will be playing with you on stage?

It will be Luke and me. We’ve toured as a duo in the UK many times and we’ve been playing these songs as a duo over here in the States. They come across really well and of course Luke’s got his lap steel which adds a lot of atmosphere. So it’s Luke and me and we’re bring our son, Cruz and my mom who is the granny nanny, it’s a family affair

Carrie’s UK tour starts in Birmingham on 3rd November ending in Edinburgh on 17th with a Glasgow show on the 16th November. All dates are here.

Austin Lucas On Why Sad Songs Are Here To Stay

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For those in the know Between The Moon and The Midwest by Austin Lucas is one of the finest albums released this year. It’s an album that tugs in two directions. There are chunks of tough country music and then there’s a shimmering, almost psychedelic sheen to several of the songs. Sound familiar? Well when the album was released back in February, several reviewers compared it to Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, in particular with the song Turtles All The Way Down. Good company for sure but in the end it’s a shorthand way of saying that both artists are at the forefront of reclaiming country music from the plethora of truck’n’beer’n’broads crap that’s been masquerading as country over the past few years.

Based in Indiana Lucas had a punk rock background before edging into his country sound on albums such as Somebody Loves You and A New Home In The Old World. His 2013 album Stay Reckless was considered by many to be his best but it coincided with a collision of personal and business problems that almost derailed him. Amidst a failing marriage and bouts of anxiety and depression his record label dropped him saying they didn’t hear any singles on the album. Cast adrift Lucas could have sank but instead he’s back, leaner and fitter and with a new label who believe in him and in the record. Between The Moon and The Midwest, recorded with Joey Kneiser from Glossary and featuring appearances from John Moreland, Lydia Loveless and Cory Branan is a tremendous slice of modern country and Lucas is touring the UK over the next few weeks promoting the album. An opportunity then for Blabber’n’Smoke to talk to the man about the album and its torturous conception. First of all we asked him about those comparisons to Sturgill Simpson.

I think there are several comparisons that can be made considering that we’re both legitimate country artists who are trying to push the boundaries of what the genre can be. Although it may be worth mentioning that his releasing Metamodern Sounds very nearly derailed the making of Between The Moon and The Midwest. I got pretty worried when I first heard Turtles All The Way Down reckoning that he’d already done the thing that I was in the middle of working on. However, in the end I decided to allow it to hearten me. Firstly, it showed that there was interest in this style of music. Secondly, his wasn’t a concept album. Nor was it psychedelic all the way through. Merely one song and a couple of small hints at psychedelia scattered throughout. Therefore, I felt I was still innovating the genre in a way that he hadn’t exactly done with his album. 

While people have honed in on the psychedelic aspect of the album at heart there’s a lot of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings in the album. Are they big influences on you?

Of course they are. In my mind, they are two of the greatest and most innovative artists from that period in country music or any other genre. These are two guys who pushed more boundaries than anyone else and who did things their own way. In many ways, they’re role models for me and who and what I want to be and how I want to do things.

Some of the characters reappear throughout the album, is it a concept album, were you trying to tell a story?

Yeah, I actually came up with the concept for the album under the influence of a very special brownie, in the desert while on tour with Willie Nelson in 2011. It’s a love story about 3 best friends and how they miscommunicate, hurt each other and eventually ruin each other’s lives.

You open the album with Unbroken Hearts singing, ““I’ve been told to walk away nearly every time I make an album. I hear there’s no good men left, everyone in Nashville’s deaf, sad songs are a thing of the past.” I read that actually happened to you when you took the album to your previous label. The album’s been out for about eight month’s now so are there people out there wanting to hear “sad songs?”

There are absolutely people who want to hear sad songs and I am glad to say that I think there will always be people of quality who are interested in real songs. Truthfully though, since we’re on the subject, the song isn’t an indictment of the world at large, or even music row. It’s simply something that I wrote because I find the large scale music industry overall to be sort of unnecessary. There are many artists who court mainstream success but I’m not one of them. I exist in a world where that’s never been a desire or even an option. I’ve always existed on the fringes of the music world. Even within the scenes that I play in I’ve generally been an outsider. As a result I’m no stranger to the fact that, there has always been and always will be a place for independent artists, people who make extensive bodies of work for nothing more than the need to do so. My records or career may not ever have big money behind them. But quality music always finds fans and since I’m not interested in being a pop star music row is something that exists outside of my career equation. To be direct in a way that I haven’t been before, the words to that song in particular were only meant to shine a small amount of light on exactly that. The idea that these traditions of great song writing and storytelling would die after all these years is ludicrous. I think most of us know that, at least my friends and I know that. So I wrote it as a tongue in cheek battle cry of sorts. Nothing more, nothing less. 

You’re on a new record label, Last Chance, who have a deal with At The Helm in the UK. Are you able to say anything about them in terms of releasing albums that some major labels don’t see as hit material. After all, there is something of a resurgence in a more traditional country and songwriter form at present.

There is no question that they release a lot of stuff which would not be considered to be viable from a commercial standpoint. Certainly they are benefactors of the arts and in that way, I’m very proud to be a part of their team. 

The album and its predecessor Stay Reckless were recorded when you were going through a rocky patch, your marriage ending and such. I hope it’s not glib of me to ask if you subscribe to the notion that “break up” albums bring out the best in an artist?

I have no idea. I think that turmoil is well documented as being extremely fertile artistic soil though I’d rather not hypothesize on whether one must be in an aggravated or depressed state of being in order to make great art. To me, I think it’s simply a matter of staying hungry and being interested in getting better at your craft that should propel one to ever greater musical endeavours. 

You’re touring here with The Dreaming Spires who will be your backing band as well as playing their own support slot. It’s an interesting prospect and I was wondering what your thoughts are on what they’ll add to your sound.

I met them last year in the States during Americana fest through our shared UK label At The Helm. We got along very well and I quickly grew to respect them musically as well as personally. I have no question that they’ll have an effect on my sound and that’s exciting to me. The beauty of playing with new and different people is that freshness that you can get on old songs. Every new set of ears hears things in a different way and therefore, you can quickly find yourself in new musical territory. I’m excited to explore what those talented guys are going to show me about of my own songs. 

Before we go can you tell us anything about any future plans?

Just gotta get back into the studio and work on another album. Hopefully that will happen in the next half a year or so. 

Well, thanks and the best of luck with the tour. austinlucas_euro2016-800x565

Austin Lucas with The Dreaming Spires tour the UK and Ireland starting in Oxford on the 15th October with a Glasgow date at Broadcast on the 18th October. All dates are here.

A renaissance man? AJ Meadows talks about art, music and the colour of feeling.

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Back in June Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed an EP,  Got Me Singing The Blues,  from a band called Starship Nicola and we were able to catch them live at the release show a few weeks later. Information about the band was fairly limited, a collaborative effort between Glasgow band Harry & The Hendersons and a chap called AJ Meadows, an American apparently. We were impressed enough to pursue the enigmatic Meadows in order to find out some more about the man who wrote the startling Ella, a song we likened to Dave Crosby singing with The Incredible String Band. Turns out he’s a polymath; an artist, sculptor, musician and writer and he is from The States and is a bit of a globetrotter. Back in Glasgow for a few weeks Meadows took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke about his work, the band and his future plans. We started off by asking him to tell us about his background, his art training and how he got involved in making music.

I was born in Michigan, USA but grew up in the south, travelling back and forth between Mississippi and North Carolina completing a course of study at Mississippi State University, graduating with a BFA in sculpture in 2009.  I first came to Glasgow in 2011 after just finishing a year of study at the University of North Carolina in order to study on the Masters of Fine Art course at the Glasgow School of Art.  Since completing the Masters course at GSA I have been quite lucky to be able to continue making my work.  I’ve recently been in several exhibitions across Italy and currently have a large-scale sculpture on display at Franconia Sculpture Park back in the States.  When did I first get involved with music? I remember I was 12 years old, and I was getting ready for school and just heading out the door to catch the bus, when my father stopped me….told me I wasn’t going to school that day.  In a mixed state of confusion and sheer pleasure, we hopped in his red Chevy pick-up and drove an hour into the nearest town. We pulled into the parking lot of an old pawnshop, and before we went in he said that I could pick any guitar I wanted. We came home that day with an old Yamaha 6 string.

Can I ask where or why you got the name Starship Nicola for the band?

There is a bit of a back-story to its origin.  I forget offhand the events that led up to that day, but on the 19th of November 2014 I flew into Dublin to meet an amazing woman who had a 50 ft long wooden vessel that was in need of repair.  The boat was docked in West Cork and in exchange for lodging on board and several hot meals a day it was agreed that I would utilise what carpentry skills I had and provide four hours maintenance every day.  She and her partner also had a house in Dublin that I agreed to paint.  So I would visit on the weekends and the train into town would announce the stops in Irish, one of them sounding like “Starship Nicola”.  I couldn’t shake it. Anyway, Anne, the woman with the boat, had a sister who was romantically involved with a producer, by the name of Billy who had a little recording studio above his garage up in Donegal.  Anne mentioned Billy in passing, and her willingness to put me in contact with him to say thank you for the work I was doing.  I didn’t hesitate, something felt very right.  I phoned him and he agreed to have me in the studio for 3 days.

And is that where the EP was recorded?

Yes. I think it’s important to say that at this point I was already planning to record some material that I had been sitting on.  The Starship Nicola EP itself wasn’t entirely pre-meditated, my original plan was to visit Billy on my own and record a very simple album with a similar to feel to Nebraska. One song I knew I wanted to record was Ella, but I was listening back to recorded versions and something was missing and that’s when I contacted Harry (of the Hendersons).  I asked him if he and the guys would be interested in coming over to Donegal in 2 weeks time to perform on the album.   I had first met Harry &The Hendersons at Stereo sometime back in 2013.  I was in a three piece folk outfit and we were their support act.  I actually met Vincent, one the singers for H&TH’s, at the Art School just weeks before that gig.  I was just finishing the Masters course and he was just coming in as an undergraduate and I was assisting a course that was intended to help prepare the student portfolios for review.  We talked about all kinds of whatnots, music came up, he mentioned the gig and not having support and I cheekily said I would do it. Anyway, they were onboard for coming to Donegal and then I phoned my friend Mark Gilbert who I had busked and played several shows with in the previous year, and he also agreed.  I then phoned Billy to tell him that seven more members were coming to his studio garage.  He laughed and said ok.

It all seems like a fortunate example of happenstance. The line up really gels on the EP and at the live show there was a great sense of camaraderie but I get the sense that this is but one phase of the Starship’s evolution, that you and The Hendersons are not the only incarnation you envisage.

Whether or not the line up is finalised? I think the answer lies somewhere in the unknown, tucked somewhere between a no and a resounding yes. I don’t think we ever really meant to become a band.  It was something very special and spontaneous, and perhaps it is best to continue to approach it as such.

On the EP you do a version of Wildwood Flower, do you listen to much old time Americana? What artists/music do you listen to and what have been your influences?

I go through exclusive stages with music.  What I mean by that…when I come across an album that affects me in some way I tend to give it my full attention, almost obsessively.  Take for instance my iTunes library, Paul Simons’  album “Graceland” has 120 listens, The Bad Seeds “Abattoir Blues” and Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief” are both in their 53rd rotation, and “24 Postcards in Full Colour” by Max Richter is on its 86th play.  There is a wonderful compilation of Ethiopian music called “The Very Best of Ethiopiques” that I am listening to at the moment. As a child I was of course introduced to the rock classics, but more importantly the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and the more playful Ricky Skaggs, Cajun Moon to this day is one of my favourite songs.  But it wasn’t until after high school that I began to appreciate and understand the importance of earlier Americana. When I was 19 I was gifted the Anthology of American Folk Music, a compilation of 80 or so folk and blues tracks from the 1920’s and 30’s. It was an easy introduction to the roots of a genre of music I loved but my knowledge of which at the time didn’t expand past The Carter Family.

Influences for writing music go far beyond the actual music I listen to though it is an integral part of the songwriting process.  I tend to document in detailed writing the happenings and goings-on of my immediate surroundings and encounters with real people.  These writings are almost always the source for the lyrical composition of my songs.  When the time is right to compose a song I don’t sit down with a pen and paper.  I sit down with the dozens of journals I have kept over the years and I read them using lines taken directly from the pages and allowing the song to develop in an intuitive manner.  I don’t try to force a meaning.  The meaning behind the song is secondary.  The colour is important.  Colour is feeling.

Can you talk us through Ella? It’s a captivating song with some tremendous harmonies but it twists and turns quite a bit before the choral ending.

Thank you Paul.  Ella is actually the first track off the EP.  Sometimes a song, an object, or even a smell can become fixed to a memory. I had Ella Fitzgerald’s “You Got Me Singing the Blues” on repeat for about a year. I would make dinner, put the record on, and it never failed.  No matter what was happening around me and in my life, she was still singing the blues. My song Ella tells a story, with the first four verses speaking of loss, and the dangers of living life to someone else’s standards.  The very end of the song, where we build the voices into a wall of sound is the manifestation of memory…a heartfelt version of Ella’s classic song.  When I showed Ella to the guys for the first time it was the night before we were meant to be recording and though we had shared the same bill, we had never actually played music together. And I think this is why the song works so well, how it is able to maintain this sort of honesty and rawness.

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Got Me Singing The Blues EP artwork

What about future plans for recording or playing live?

There are actually several recordings currently in the works.  Alongside a handful of demos we’ve started as Starship Nicola, Mark and I are going forward with a short concept album.  At its root are seven songs written during my stay in Glasgow all revolving around and questioning this idea of “home”. Mark is an incredibly talented musician and has supplemented the tracks with layered violin harmonies as well as gentle synthesizer.  Various recorded sound samples can also be heard throughout. It’s currently 22 minutes in length, and has the potential to continue to grow.  We are hoping to finish and release it in the next month or so.

At the moment I am working with Chris Blackmore of Holy Smokes Records to line up a small Scottish tour, a handful of shows that would potentially start here in Glasgow in October.  Future live shows, for now, would logistically be few and far between simply because of visa regulations but I don’t think this is going to stop us. There is already talk of playing across Europe next summer and bringing Starship Nicola to America in 2018.

You’ve got a blog called Temporary lovers which is populated with fairly gnomic thoughts and memories. Have you any thoughts about publishing any writing, short stories or such?

The blog loosely chronicles the development of Starship Nicola and highlights each of the members.  It takes its name from the idea I mentioned earlier about the accidental nature of the band and it being special and spontaneous, but goes beyond the scope of the music.  It is stark social commentary. I’m actually waiting to release the final post for Temporary Lovers.   I intend to publish the writings in small quantity just as a record of our time together.

Outwith Temporary Lovers, I am collaborating with a good friend of mine.  His illustrations are amazing, quite unsettling.  It’s my hope to put out a short illustrated novella, a playful mix of fiction and personal memoir.  It is nearly complete, so I anticipate this coming to fruition quite soon.

So there we go, a sneak peek into the world of AJ Meadows and Blabber’n’Smoke will try to keep track of those future plans. In the meantime you can catch up on Starship Nicola goings on here and read Temporary Lovers here.

Harry & The Hendersons in the meanwhile are fundraising for their debut album and are playing a show this Sunday at Broadcast in Glasgow, details here

Southern White stories. A chat with Martha Fields.

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Last October Blabber’n’Smoke was intrigued to receive a bona fide album of Texan tunes that was recorded in France. The album, Long Way From Home was billed as recorded by Texas Martha & The House of Twang and some investigating (well, reading the liner notes) revealed that while Texas Martha AKA Martha Fields was indeed from the Lone Star State the House Of Twang were all Frenchmen who appeared to have been steeped in the whys and wherefores of Americana.  Now Martha has her second album, Southern White Lies ready for release (we reviewed it here), again recorded with her expert Gallic pickers (Manu Bertrand -Dobro, banjo, mandolin, Serge Samyn -double bass, Olivier Leclerc -violin, Urbain Lambertguitar and Denis Bielsadrums). Southern White Lies reverses the urge to go West as Fields heads northeast to the Kentucky foothills of the Appalachians, her mother’s homeland. Martha’s playing all over Europe to tie in with the album release and she and her band are making their first Scottish appearance this weekend at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival. She took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke about the new album. First off however we asked her how a Texan musician comes to be living and recording in Bordeaux, France.

I’ve been coming over to Europe and to France in particular for the past four years after I was invited to play some festivals.  I have some friends who live around Bordeaux so I was invited to play here and I thought, “Wow, they like this kind of music over here” so I started to come over in the summer to escape the Texas heat and found that I really like the lifestyle. So just staying here and playing shows, I happened to meet some amazing players and eventually formed the band.

Your band are all French I believe.

They’re all French but they’ve been playing this kind of music since they were little bitty kids and they love it. They know more about the history and the trivia than I do. They live it and they are super players, they’ve played all over the world with some very well know French stars, Johnny Hallyday, Dick Rivers, stars for another generation but big names over here.

I’ve heard of Johnny Hallyday but not Dick Rivers.

Oh, he’s kind of like the French Elvis. He’s older now but he cut an album last year that I really like, he’s good.

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Was Long way From Home your first album?

It’s my first solo album but I’ve played with other bands and in various collaborations back in the States. I’ve been writing songs since I was six or seven years old but I had another career. I was a professor in Texas, teaching but I was always playing my music, weekends and such. But now I’ve taken a hiatus from that to concentrate on the music for the meantime. I can always go back to that when I’m 80 or so. In the meanwhile I’m having a great time and it’s working really well.

Long Way From Home got some fabulous reviews

I was really pleased. We got a lot of radio play all over the place. I was very happy with the album, it was Texas boogie most of the way but as you know I love folk music, that Appalachian thing as well and in my live show I do both and people seem to appreciate that variety. I was really pleased with the way Long Way From Home turned out but for this one I really wanted to show that other folkier side. Some folk might prefer the honky tonk songs, some the folkier ones but I want to express both aspects, who knows, it might help me gain a new audience because of this slightly different approach but overall this is me.

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Southern White Lies is quite different, the music’s acoustic, it draws from the Kentucky and Virginia Appalachian traditions with the cover art reflecting your memories of family playing on the front porch. Where did you get the inspiration for the songs you wrote for the album?

I usually always take it from real life, reflecting on things that have happened to my, my friends, my family, things that are happening politically. That’s how I’ve always dealt with things that I find joy in or sometimes pain, I set them to music.

There’s a thread going though the album, a sense of social justice. You see Southerners as being used and abused over the years, especially by politicians.

It’s happened to my family! Right now, there’s a lot of conflict going on, not just in the states, politically it’s a very difficult moment. I wrote two songs, American Hologram  and Southern White Lies maybe 12 to 18 months ago but I didn’t realise things were going to get this challenging. I’ve got family on both sides of the political spectrum and it can get really difficult to talk about these things over the kitchen table. I don’t think that people realise that we are all fodder for all these games that politicians play but we’re living it. I try to stay positive and one of the ways that I’m able to address it is through my music. I wrote a line in the title song that says, “pandering politicians, we need more musicians”. We need artists to really address what’s happening. If you think back to the sixties, there were a lot more artists singing about issues but there’s less of that these days, maybe because of the way the industry is these days. We don’t have much of a voice now and I think that’s one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in.

The album isn’t all political. I redid my song about my aunt (Do As You Are Told) because when I wrote it I really had in mind more of a bluegrass feel although I suppose it is a political song in a way just because of her own life. But there are love songs, bluegrass, Gospel and there’s a good old drinking song.

The Janis Joplin cover (What Good Will Drinking Do You)?

Yes, you’ve got to have at least one drinking song. It’s life. We cry, we drink, we go to church, we do all these things so it’s really just a part of everyday life.

So are you bringing the whole band over to your appearances at Southern Fried?

Yes. The only one who’s not coming over is Oliver, the violin player. He’d already been booked for something else by the time we arranged to come over but the rest of us will be there. We are playing two shows, one on Friday evening and then late on the Saturday night. I’m really looking forward to it, it’s my first trip to Scotland and the festival line up looks amazing.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I look forward to seeing you in Perth.

As Martha says, she is playing two shows at Southern Fried with the Friday show on the free outdoor stage, an incredible opportunity to see an artist who in a short time has leapt to the forefront of rootsy American music. You can check her show times here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hackensaw Boys are back in town

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Since their formation in Charlottesville, Carolina around 19 years ago The Hackensaw Boys have gained a couple of reputations. One concerns the sheer number of musicians who have passed through their ranks over the years. Another more pertinent one is of being one of the most joyful and rambunctious live bands around, raucous and great fun, “head banging string band music” one reviewer said of their shows. This month sees the release of their latest album, Charismo (on Freedirt Records) which is named after their preferred percussion gizmo, a contraption composed of tin cans, hubcaps, car licence plates  and other “junk”. A Heath Robinson like contrivance that’s like a steam punk washboard the Charismo has been an integral part of their set up since the first one was hammered together by one time band member Justin “Salvage” Neuhardt. Coinciding with the album release the band are setting out on a lengthy European jaunt which started in The Netherlands and includes four UK shows this week including a slot at Maverick Festival.

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Charismo is their first full-length release in almost ten years and features the current line up of David Sickmen on guitar, Ferd Moyse, fiddle, Jimmy Stelling, banjo and Brian Gorby on Charismo and drums. Produced by Larry Campbell who has worked with Dylan and Levon Helm it has 11 songs (all written by Sickmen and Moyse) which can ripple and ring with an old time Appalachian swing, swerve into folk territory or just generally rip it up. Songs like Ol’ Nick and Limousin Lady are simply exhilarating while The Sweet is a folky number that could have been penned by Ewan MacColl. There are whoops and hollers aplenty but some reviewers have commented that the album is just that bit more mellow than they had come to expect from The Hackensaw Boys. Certainly C’Mon Baby Don’t Bet Against Me and Flora roll sweetly along, the former reminding me of The Nitty Gritty Dirt band in their heyday but even in mellow mood the Boys still have a fine rustic rawness.

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Blabber’n’Smoke had the opportunity to speak with original band member David Sickmen while he was in Pittsburgh in between shows. David was happy to talk about the meandering history of the band along with some discussion about the current parlous state of politics (which I’ve left out here, suffice to say we both dislike blonde buffoons peddling lies and fear) but first of all I asked him about the album and those comments on the band mellowing somewhat.

Well we had this batch of songs we took into the studio and that’s different from playing live. In the studio there’s the temptation to shine every diamond but really we just tried to make every song sound great and with Larry Campbell producing it was just a very natural and easy process. As for the songs however I’d be lying if I were to say that I’m not getting older and maybe a bit more mellow so a lot of what I think about writing about is on the softer side of things, more ballady if you like. But the live shows are definitely energetic and we want folk to come out and party and leave all the bad shit, the Donald Trump’s and that behind and come out for a couple of hours and dance and party and drink beer.

Larry Campbell’s probably best known for being Dylan’s guitarist for several years on The Never Ending Tour and for producing Levon Helm’s last albums.  How did you hook up with him?

Through mutual friends. We reached out to a friend who got some demos we had recorded in Amsterdam to Larry. He thought they were great and he agreed to produce the album.

This is your first full-length album in around ten years, why so long?

Well we’ve had EPs and such but yes, this is the first album in about ten years. Why? Well, life,  poor management, people leaving the band and then we were spending so much time on the live circuits that we just didn’t have the time. But I think it’s been worth the wait because we’re more mature now.

The band’s always been something of a shape shifter, people coming and going and then some coming back again. You were one of the original members then you left and then came back again. There’s four Hackensaw Boys right now, is that right?

Yes but we’ll have a fifth member when we get over to Europe, we’re currently looking for an accordion player. I helped start the band in 1999 and then in 2005, well, I guess the pleasant way to say it is I couldn’t think straight anymore so I had to step out for about five years and then some of the other guys had to leave and I came back in, by then I was a lot healthier.

I read that at one point you had about 12 people on stage.

Well we started off as just four guys but within a week or so a friend of ours jumped in on harmonica and then we started doing thses shows in Charlottesville, in a place called the Blue Moon Diner, another guy would come up and say, “I play banjo can I come on up” and we’d say sure and it just kept on growing. We embraced anyone who wanted to play, we just said come on.  So yeah, at one point we had 12 guys playing. We did our first tour in a 1964 GMC motor coach, an ex Greyhound bus.  12 of us on the road and we did that for about a year, then people would fall away over time. Some would act up too much, we did fire some people, one of the guys passed away, so yeah, we have a kind of wild history with the line up but I don’t shy away from that, it’s part of the beauty of it all. The thing that’s kind of risen to the top is that the spirit of what we try to do musically has always been there no matter who’s playing in the band.

That’s the spirit of the band but how would you describe the sound of the band?

It’s not truly old time music. If it’s old time at all it’s in the spirit of encouraging people to dance, to come out to the barn if you will and have some fun. It’s maybe our interpretation of what guys in the 1920s might have been like, you know, travelling around, going to different places in like a three county area doing barn dances. Obviously it’s folk music but a lot of us grew up on rock’n’roll and punk and that is filtered into it but really, even after all these years I still don’t know what to call it to be honest. Maybe just say it’s hard rock and folk music that rolls. Some songs rock hard, some are quieter and some just roll along. I mean what do you call it?

Well we talk about old time music, string bands, bluegrass and folk but with a lot of bands it’s all mixed into one. I’m trying to avoid the word Americana here.

Yeah, we get the bluegrass moniker and that’s mainly based on the instrumentation but honestly I don’t think we’re a bluegrass band, traditional bluegrass might share the same instruments but it sounds different from us. We don’t sound like the Stanley Brothers where there’s no percussion, there’s certainly no “badam badam badam!”, the drive is different. When we started out we were listening to traditional music. Our original banjo and fiddle player was into old time music, he was taught by a guy in Harrisonburg called Two Gun Terry.  Tom (Peloso) was coming from a background where he listened to Tommy Makem and The Clancy Brothers, his grandfather was an old Irish guy who listened to that stuff, he can probably to this day sing you every one of the Clancy Brothers songs. Me, I grew up around my uncle and he had a lot of records of gospel bluegrass so I heard a lot of that. In addition, my mother was from the coalfields of West Virginia and when we went there to visit family I would hear the Baptists singing in the church. Of the original four of us Robert Bullington, well, his great-great uncle played in a jug band that actually recorded back in the twenties, they were called the Roanoke Jug Band out of Roanoke Virginia and Rob still had his uncle’s original mandolin. So we all had this background but then we were all also into punk and rock’n’roll so that’s really the origins of the band. Another original member was Robert St. Ours who was good friends with Ketch Secor and Critter from the Old Crow Medicine Show, they were in a band together in Harrisonburg called the Route 11 Boys before he joined up with us. We had a guitar, a mandolin, a banjo and fiddle and an upright bass and we learned some old songs like John Hardy and that but we were also all songwriters and we wrote in that direction. It wasn’t fake or contrived, we were trying to honour our perception of Uncle Dave Macon, Doc Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb or Tommy Jarrell and of course the Blues guys, Howlin’ Wolf and such. We were into all of that and we all loved Bob Dylan and we all knew about folk music.

There’s a long list of past and present members of the band on your Facebook page, some 25 folk I think. How do you keep the essence of what it is to be a Hackensaw Boy?

Well the psyche and the story of the band are all these different souls coming in and out of it and while we used to shy away from it somewhat, I mean it was like well who’s in this band, well, the world. It’s a world band.

I sometimes think that if we discovered America today and found all these guys playing banjos and fiddles we’d find it exotic and file it under world music.

Deep down we’re all human beings, genetically we’re all the same but through time and history we’ve all developed different characteristics and I kind of see what we’re doing as similar to that, it’s all one style of music but played in so many different ways. We’re a multi dimensional band, musically, spiritually, even politically, I mean I’m more political than some of the other band members but ultimately you can get trapped by words and descriptions. In many ways we’re still trying to figure out who we are. I’ve found that in my writing sometimes.  I’ve written something and I start to think, “is this a Hackensaw Boys song?” and that’s a really stifling, limiting feeling. It’s anti music in a way because it’s all about growth and I feel that this band, 19 years and 25 members later, well, we’re still trying to see who we are. I mean we’ve played everywhere from The Ryman to the shittiest bar in America, we’ve done it all but we’re still searching and I think that’s why we’re still a good band.

The album’s named after the band’s unique percussion instrument, the Charismo which was originally built by Justin Neuhardt who hammered together some tin cans and hubcaps which he then beat with wire-brush sticks.

Yeah, again back in the early days when we were playing in the diner  Justin joined in and he was playing spoons and when we were about to go on that tour I mentioned earlier  he was like, “I don’t want to play spoons for six weeks”.  He’s an artist and sculptor so he showed up a couple of days later and said “check this out”, this contraption and so that was the first one. It’s great, it has the qualities of a washboard but so much more and so we called it the Charismo because it had so much charisma. It really fit in with our sound, pretty soon the audiences in the diner grew until there were folk queuing up outside who couldn’t get in.

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I hear that it’s been rebuilt, hammered together, taken apart over the years.

Well I believe that he’s actually built about a hundred of them by now.  A lot of them are actually on Justin’s wall back in LA where he’s a full time sculptor.

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By the time this is published you’ll be in the early stages of a lengthy European tour.

We’re doing the lot, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Italy, Switzerland, France and The UK. We’ve been over several times and I really like playing to the European audiences, they seem to get really excited about the music. Sometimes in the States we play and people just stand around but in Europe maybe we seem more… exotic, perhaps that’s the word. There’s a festival over here, Floyd Fest in Virginia, which was originally a world music type festival and I went to the first one, 10 or 12 years ago and there were these African musicians and I just stood there in awe because I’d never seen or heard anything like that, so maybe that’s how some folk in Europe see us.  We go down really well in Germany and Spain; in the UK we’re not as well known. When we play a place like the Cluny in Newcastle it’s packed but in London the crowds are smaller. We’d really like to crack the festival circuit there. We played Clonakilty in Ireland and it was crowded but in Dublin there was only a couple of dozen there. It’s hard, I mean it’s not hard like a Syrian refugee’s life is hard or how life can be hard in the real world but to keep on doing this and be creative is a struggle. Maybe the UK are still mad about the revolutionary war!

It amazes and also dismays me that bands like yourselves, unless it’s part of some big festival or there’s been some kind of hi-res publicity like a TV show, can play to audiences of less than a hundred over here.

That happens to us in the States as well but we’ll play to small crowds and then big crowds, we’re still slugging it out. We play the exact same show no matter how many people are there, if it’s a really small crowd we might just forget the mics and stage set up and just come down and play on the floor. That’s usually a part of our show anyway. We’ll come off the stage and just break it down to its rawest form and people really like that. It all boils down to making a living and we’ll have some merchandise at the shows, Tee shirts, records.  Charismo is out on vinyl and we’ve got a 7″ single we recorded in Amsterdam which is two of the demos from the album. It’s our first foray into vinyl and we’ve actually been selling as many of those as we do CDs.

Finally, can I ask a dumb question?  Where does the band name come from?

It started almost as a joke. When we started playing at the Blue Moon Diner the guy who ran it took us on as our manager for a while and we didn’t have a name and he wanted to know what to call us. And then Bobby and Tom said well we’re kind of like hacking and sawing away here, hacking on the guitar, sawing on the fiddle and I think it was Tom who said Hackensaw and then Boys was just a sort of traditional moniker for a lot of Appalachian bands. So that was that but I sometime wish we had left the Boys bit out.

UK dates.

Tuesday June 28 Boston Music Arms London
Wednesday June 29 The Moon Club Cardiff
Thursday June 30 The Cluny Newcastle
Friday Juyl 1 Maverick Festival Easton

All European dates are here

Website

Free Dirt Records

Pictures of The Charismo courtesy of Justin Neuhardt. Thanks to Free Dirt Records and Ark PR for facillitating the interview and many thanks to David Sickmen for a really enjoyable chat.