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.

 

 

 

Redwood Mountain. Redwood Mountain

redwood-mountain-side-1-alt-desat-40-250x250Aside from his burgeoning career as a transatlantic bridge, linking Nashville to Leith Scots musician Dean Owens has delivered several projects over the past few years which have been more low key than his official solo albums. He’s recorded (and played live) tributes to Johnny Cash and Hank Williams with the albums available via his website and at gigs. Redwood Mountain follows this tradition but here Owens isn’t restricted to one artist, instead offering up his version of the great American songbook, not the one written by Gershwin et al but the songs that were first sung and handed on before they were written down. Songs that crossed the ocean with settlers and grew into the New World landscape, played on porches and at barn dances before they were eventually transcribed and then etched into shellac.

The catalyst for the recording was the gift to Owens of a book, Alan Lomax’s The Book Of American Folk Songs. First published in 1968 the book was a collection of 111 folk songs, ballads, sea shanties, work songs, cowboy songs and spirituals with Lomax adding chord charts and explaining the history and provenance of the songs. Intrigued by this wealth of traditional songs Owens set about rearranging some of them and in keeping with the sometime stark delivery of the earliest recorded versions decided to record them in a stripped down fashion. Thus was born Redwood Mountain, a duo of Owens and fiddle player Amy Geddes (with occasional double bass and piano from Kevin McGuire), the pair delving into the backwoods. Geddes of course is the fiddle player in Owens’ band The Whisky Hearts but here she’s riding point with Owens, her fiddle playing not only the second voice on the album but an essential connection to the Celtic roots of much of these Appalachian and high plains songs. This is evident on her rendition of the traditional Scots tune Amang The Braes O Gallowa, one of two numbers here not taken from the Lomax book but acutely delivered with an aching pull and which would not sound out of place on Nick Cave’s soundtrack for The Proposition.

They open with the devastating Katy Cruel, a song with strong Scottish roots and perhaps best known these days for Karen Dalton’s haunted version. Owens and Geddes are just stunning here, their delivery sending a chill up the spine and they capture this spectral aspect again on Fair Thee Well O Honey (also known sometimes as Dink’s song) with Geddes’ fiddle wraithlike at times. Owens’ lone voice on East Virginia (with Geddes adding an intermittent resonant fiddle) is another dark tale but that’s as murky as it gets as the remainder of the album, while still at times dwelling on misery, is somewhat more upbeat. Thus we get the waltz like Get Along Home Cindy and the slave runaway song Run Boys Run which finds Owens in fine voice and Geddes’ fiddle flying like Scarlet Rivera on Desire. Cowboys get a look in on the narrative of On The Range Of The Buffalo with Owens lowering into Cash territory with his vocals and there’s space for a railroad song (Railroad Man which roams into Woody Guthrie and big Bill Broonzy territory) while Rye Whiskey could be sung as easily in a Scots tavern as a hobo camp back in the thirties. Owens winds up the album with his own song, Take It Easy, But Take It which again is reminiscent of Guthrie as Owens adds some modern  commentary as he sings, “The homeless should always have shelter, the hungry should always have food, the sick should be helped to get better and the misunderstood understood.”

Dylan was scrabbling around the Lomax collections on his albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong while more recently Ags Connolly offered his selection of Cowboy songs and Redwood Mountain continue in this tradition. But the album that most comes to mind when listening to this is Billy Bragg and Joe Henry’s Shine A Light, another collection of Americana folklore and I’d certainly recommend to anyone who enjoyed that disc to give a listen to Redwood Mountain.

You can buy Redwood mountain here

 

Dean Owens & The Whisky Hearts. Drygate Glasgow. Friday 25th November

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A welcome return to Glasgow for the Leith man with his fine band in tow, tonight’s show was an intimate affair despite the airy (and cool, temperature wise) bare girder barn like room in Tenants’ Drygate brewery. Set out cabaret style the tables were all taken by what seemed to be diehard supporters (as evidenced by requests for some deep cuts from Owens’ recording history); his own fault as he announced early on that they weren’t playing from a set list as such tonight. As such this was a show that was dramatically different from the last time Blabber’n’Smoke encountered The Whisky Hearts when they turned in a performance that leaned heavily on a country rock sound.

With drummer Jim McDermott absent tonight there was less rock but a whole lot more roll with Brian McAlpine’s accordion featured heavily throughout the show along with Amy Geddes’ fiddle playing. As a result guitarist Craig Ross only had a couple of opportunities to let loose on the strings instead adding some delicate touches and a steady rhythmic flow to a set that had a very folky touch.

They slid gently into their set with a gently swinging Valentine’s Day In New York with accordion and fiddle lending the song a sweet rambling vibe which, and not for the first time, reminded us of Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance. This was the first of a brace of songs from Owens’s latest album Into The Sea with Virginia Street, Dora and Kids all following, the last allowing Ross a chance to solo as the song gradually built up from its sombre opening into a classic rock sound. 10 Miles From Saturday Night was a new song which was classic Owens with its mix of Celtic Americana and memorable chorus and it was followed by a rare live outing for the title song from his album Whisky Hearts which was given a rollicking folky delivery which transported the audience into the taverns of Leith. Another blast from the past was a pair of songs from his My Town album, Northern Lights which again was given a fine folk lilt with Geddes’ fiddle well to the fore and Strangers Again with Giddes duetting with Owens.

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A grand host for the night, Owens was in fine form explaining the stories behind the songs and cracking some puntastic jokes while admitting that on the older songs the band were somewhat busking it, a task they performed with an admiral aplomb. There was gravitas however as he talked about the loss of his sister to cancer, a shadow that stalked the recording of Into The Sea and he paid tribute to her with an affecting delivery of Evergreen before unveiling a new song dedicated to her memory, Julie’s Moon. There was a similar sense of loss when they played, for the first time live, Sally’s Song (I Dreamed of Michael Marra), a lament for past times and lost Dundonian friends with a kick in its tail with the band conjuring up a couthy accordion led slow time waltz which brought a lump to the throat. A solo rendition at the start of the second set of The Only One was another reminder of Owens’ ability to render heartache clothed in a healing song, a gift he shrugged off as he talked of his reputation as only singing miserable songs. Cottonsnow, inspired by a visit to civil war battlefields in the US was offered as an example of his miserabilism but again here he grabs inspiration from desperation with the song a powerful declaration. While he detoured into Johnny Cash territory with a tongue in cheek rendition of Cash’s Delia’s Gone and a rousing The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin which had a fine Cajun belt to it there was no doubting the power behind the stirring version of Up On The Hill  they laid on us while with the fan’s favourite The Man From Leith had the audience singing along. Of course being in the dear green place there was no escaping Owens’ signature tune, the umbilical cord that ties him to his twin city and Raining In Glasgow closed the show proper, the audience on board for a song that is approaching legendary status.

It didn’t end there however as the band came back on for the first unveiling of Owens’ foray into the Christmas market with Home For Christmas, the audience happily joining in (and do have a look at the video here replete with kiddie chorus and jungle bells and a cracking good tune). Thereafter there was only the simple notion of satisfying a song request flung from the front row throughout the night as Owens came back on for a solo flight through Sand In My Shoes, another oldie that again had the audience joining in.

On stage for nearly two hours with every song perfectly crafted and delivered this was an excellent night. There are a couple of opportunities to catch Dean and The Whisky Hearts before they draw 2016 to a close as they play in Stirling and Edinburgh with Dean also playing Dundee and Aberfeldy. All dates here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Men From Leith: Blue Rose Code, Dick Gaughan, Dean Owens. Queens Halls Edinburgh, May 6th 2016

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First off an explanation of sorts regarding this show for those who might not be familiar with Leith. Until 1920, Leith was a separate borough from the neighbouring Edinburgh and even today some Leithers will consider Edinburgh to be a separate entity. This sense of pride in what was a fiercely working class area ( home to the docklands, infamous as the main location of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and still possessing a distinct character from the net curtains of Morningside despite two decades of attempted regentrification), was the thread that ran throughout the show. All three artists have their roots in Leith and tonight they offered up a tribute of sorts to the area in song and words be it the reminiscences of Gaughan, the regrets of ill spent times from Blue Rose Code or the celebration of the working class spirit from Owens. It was a slender thread perhaps but there was a palpable sense of celebration and memory throughout, reinforced by the MC, John Paul McGroarty, Artistic Director at Leith Theatre.

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Blue Rose Code (Ross Wilson) – appearing at The Men from Leith concert Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh 06 May 2016 Picture by marc marnie WORLD RIGHTS

With three headline acts on the bill the sets were necessarily somewhat shorter than one might ordinarily expect, not a bad thing as such as the audience were treated to concise, almost “greatest hits” shows from the two bands. That’s not to say this was a run of the mill exercise, the first act, Blue Rose Code choosing to open with the extended suite In the Morning, a bold move. One of the many pleasures of seeing Blue Rose Code, the vehicle for Ross Wilson‘s talent, is that it’s a fluid enterprise, he can be solo or a four, five or even 11 piece set up, his words and melodies and his emotive vocals the nucleus around which the players revolve. Tonight it was a four-piece band well able to conjure up the mists and airs of Wilson’s Celtic romanticism as on the opening number and his setting of Robert Frost’s Acquainted With The Night. Wilson’s introspective ballads, the heartbreak of Pokesdown Waltz and a new number, another paean to lost love called Nashville Blue, tore at the emotions. Ghosts Of Leith, a song of regret recalling Wilson’s time caught in the throes of drink was played with Wilson later apologising for the song and explaining that he then wrote his wonderful salute to Leith (and Edinburgh), the song Edina, as a riposte before launching into it to a hugely appreciative audience.

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Dean Owens & The Whisky Hearts – appearing at The Men from Leith concert Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh 06 May 2016 Picture by marc marnie WORLD RIGHTS

While Wilson and Blue Rose Code offer a poetic folk jazz tinged Celtic freewheeling spirit Dean Owens, tonight supported by his excellent band, The Whisky Hearts, is a more robust affair. Owens is as much rooted in the USA as he is in Leith with the result an exultant mix of Celtic Americana, the stirring opener Dora giving notice that Owens and his band are able to provide a punchy, almost Richard Thompson like clarion call. Fiddle and accordion add a “raggle taggle” folk feel to some of the proceedings while guitarist Craig Ross can bend his strings in best Clarence White fashion. While songs from Owens’ latest album Into The Sea formed the majority of the set (including his warm memories of his late sister on Evergreen) there was of course a huge response from the audience for the song that lent its title to the night, Owens’ Man From Leith. An anthem of sorts, the song transcends its familial origins (having been written by Owens for his father) as it captures the pride of the working man. Tonight’s rendition was powerful, the audience singing along with the chorus. There was a first live airing of Owens’ latest single, the Civil War tale of Cotton Snow given a fine chunky alt country feel while Up On The Hill proved that Owens has a gift for writing memorable and rousing melodies. Throughout the set one was reminded of Owens’ song writing prowess, the songs stirring and emotive and instantly memorable with the closing number, Raining In Glasgow, the proof of the pudding.

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Dick Gaughan – appearing at The Men from Leith concert Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh 06 May 2016 Picture by marc marnie WORLD RIGHTS

Sandwiched between Blue Rose Code and The Whisky Hearts was Dick Gaughan, the fulcrum for the evening. Despite being born in Glasgow Gaughan epitomises much of what folk imagine of Leith and its working class traditions. Recovering from illness Gaughan doesn’t cut the powerful figure he once did but any loss of vitality was more than made up for by his venerability and he stamped his authority with a ferocious rendition of No Gods and Precious Few Heroes, a fitting song for the day after a parliamentary election which saw a resurgence of the Scottish Tory party. His Leith tale lay in the middle of his song Why Old Men Cry, again, a call out to past generations not dissimilar to Owens’ nods to the past.  A lengthy spoken preamble to his closing song saw Gaughan recalling his early days in Edinburgh’s folk scene and his discovery that there was no shame in singing and speaking in Scots despite his teacher’s disapproval. This led to his spine chilling rendition of Freedom Come All Ye, a song written by his mentor, the late Hamish Henderson and a fine end to his brief set.

The show, part of Edinburgh’s Tradfest (yeah, another Edinburgh festival), was a tremendous success, the only murmurings heard on the night being some questions as to why it didn’t actually take part in Leith itself. A fully refurbished Leith Theatre, currently in the offing, would be an apt space for a return show.

All pictures courtesy of Marc Marnie.