Delightful Discovery: A Conversation with Robert Earl Keen

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Nick Doll

Like fellow legends Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen is synonymous with Texas music and its renowned storytelling style. In a recording career spanning more than 35 years, the singer/songwriter has garnered a diehard fan base that sings along word-for-word with Keen at his live shows. He always delivers – no one leaves a Keen concert without hearing staples such as “The Road Goes On Forever” and “Merry Christmas From The Family.” On Thursday, January 23, Keen will perform at Iron City with Aubrie Sellers opening the 8 p.m. show. Recently, Keen spoke with us about songwriting, set lists and his latest project, Americana Podcast: The 51st State.

Birmingham Stages: Robert, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to having you back in Birmingham. Do you have plans to write an autobiography? It would be great to have a firsthand account of your life and career.

Robert Earl Keen: That is on the list. One day I will write a book. I can think of plenty of stories that would go in there.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, please describe your writing process. Do you do it on a set schedule or when inspiration strikes? Do you tend to write more at home or on the road?

REK: I’m very visual in my thinking when I write a song. So I start with some sort of setting that I remember or had some impact, anywhere from sitting by a pond fishing or walking down a road or what I am looking at that time. I feel like the way to construct a song with some sort of narrative value is by creating the setting. I am very visually-oriented. I think the setting is just as important as anything else. I write out on some land in Texas in a place we call the Scriptorium. Out there, it seems like you can tap into the creative energy you can’t get to when other people are around.

Birmingham Stages: Obviously, there are certain songs that fans expect to hear each night and they will always be on your set list. How do those songs stay fresh and relevant to you after you’ve performed them literally thousands of times?

REK: Touring is easy if you have a good audience. The key is the audience. We have fantastic audiences. A friend put me on the phone with a woman just this evening. She had never heard of us, was mad at her husband for dragging her to the show and then told me that it was the best show she’d ever seen. She was so happy to talk about her discovery. Delightful discovery is better than free whiskey.
There are songs I love to play – no matter how many times – and I will tell you why. I believe some songs don’t necessarily have a universal meaning but have some kind of universal appeal in that almost anyone can find their own real perspective inside the song. I have heard, “I have lived that.” It is somehow cathartic, I get a huge reaction – a bunch of people that are either really sick or really sad and they just played these songs over and over and over again. And it made all the difference to them. It has a really good message and an open this-can-be-anything-you-want.

Birmingham Stages: Outside of the staple songs I just mentioned, how do you go about comprising the remainder of your set lists these days given your large catalog of material?

REK: I write my set list each day a few hours before the show. I change the set list for every show. Sometimes I even change it minutes before we hit the stage if something just wasn’t sitting right with me.  Right before we go on stage, I gather all my picks and capo and get centered for a few minutes usually quietly on the bus or in the dressing room.

Birmingham Stages: Some musicians I interview say this it’s a great time for artists given easy access and instant reach to fans via iTunes, satellite radio, Youtube, etc. Others say – for the same reason – that the current setup makes it more difficult for artists to be found among the clutter. As an artist with a lengthy and successful career, what are your thoughts on the current climate?

REK: I believe that the connectivity of the world now — particularly in the way of music — makes a lot of things a lot easier, although the competition is really steep. There are droves of people interested in making music, doing it from home or getting a place on America’s Got Talent or The Voice or whatever. There are so many outlets, but there are so many people who are trying to get in the music business. I would say, as it’s gotten easier to produce things and get things out there with the help of these accessible streaming services, the currency now is: how can you get it out there and get it heard?

Birmingham Stages: If you will, please talk about your podcast and the decision to set it in motion. What have you learned the most in doing it?

REK: I strive to stay in the music periphery and hang in there with [what’s going on]. As a touring band, you can really become isolated. It’s the same direction I was taking when I decided to do the Stryker Brothers record [2018’s Burn Band with Randy Rogers]. It was something else, something that seemed fun, something that might actually help some people and give some people some information they don’t know.
You can get out in your own solar system, spin out into the universe and never return. I’m always trying to rope myself back in. I can feel it when it’s happening. Making records is one thing, but I’ve made a lot of records. There are so many other avenues in the music business to explore in a creative way. I thought this would really, really be good as one of those trying-to-give-back kind of things.

Code-R Productions Presents: Robert Earl Keen at Iron City on Thursday, January 23. Aubrie Sellers will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance tickets are $27.50 and can be purchased at www.ironcitybham.com.

Something Real: A Conversation with Juliana Hatfield

By Brent Thompson

                            Photo Credit: David Doobinin

Juliana Hatfield’s recording career spans more than 30 years, but that doesn’t come close to telling the story of her restless creative spirit. In addition to a prolific solo output, the singer/songwriter has been a member of The Lemonheads, Blake Babies, Some Girls and The I Don’t Cares (a collaboration with Paul Westerberg). Most recently, she has released an album of original material and two cover albums showcasing songs by The Police and Olivia Newton-John. On Sunday, January 19, Hatfield will perform at WorkPlay. Recently, she spoke with us by phone from her Cambridge, Mass. home.

Birmingham Stages: Juliana, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to having you back to Birmingham.

Juliana Hatfield: I’m looking forward to being there – I don’t get there very often.

Birmingham Stages: Has the tour started yet?

Hatfield: No, I’m home and we’re going to start rehearsing this weekend and then we leave next week.

Birmingham Stages: We are really enjoying [2019 release] Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police. I always assume that everyone is familiar with the songs, but you are probably introducing the band’s music to a whole new generation of listeners.

Hatfield: Yeah, when I was recording the album a couple of the interns at the studio were 20 years old and they were hearing the songs for the first time. My versions of the songs were their first exposures to the songs and then that made them go and look up The Police and they were digging The Police.

Birmingham Stages: I found it especially interesting that you covered Olivia Newton-John [on 2018 release Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John]. She’s an artist that doesn’t get mentioned much these days though she has an incredible string of hits.

Hatfield: People are maybe finding out about these artists, but I think some people also are revisiting them – people who had maybe not appreciated Olivia in the beginning are taking a second listen now to see if they missed something the first time around.

Birmingham Stages: And you released an album of original material [2019’s Weird]. You stay busy!

Hatfield: Actually, I feel like I’ve been slacking off lately because after I finished The Police album I took a break. I took a few months off to try and write prose – not music – so I have to get my ass in gear as soon as the tour ends and get in the studio to start making music.

Birmingham Stages: How does your writing process work? is there a pattern that has developed for you over the years?

Hatfield: I usually have to wait until I feel ripe – I don’t make myself sit down and write music every day. I wait until I feel there’s something that’s bursting to get out, even if it’s just a really vague feeling. I start to feel like the melodies are building up inside of me and then I sit down and try to get it out and then it becomes a process. I do like to have little periods of time where I’m not making any music because I think those times are like recharging my batteries.

Birmingham Stages: Do unfinished songs and ideas sometimes re-emerge and come back into the fold?

Hatfield: Oh, yeah – [the song] “It’s So Weird.” I have tons of cassettes full of snippets of music and melodies and sometimes I give them away. Somehow, one of these cassettes that I’d given to someone made its way back to me and I listened to the cassette and there was an idea on it, which was the chords and melody which became the song “It’s So Weird.”

Birmingham Stages: In approaching covers, how do you retain the integrity of the original songs while placing your own stamp on the material?

Hatfield: I like to respect the original recording of the song. I don’t want to tear apart a song just for the sake of novelty. If I’m going to really re-imagine a song, there has to be an instinct or feeling that I have that it makes sense. I’m not going to try to make something stand out just for the sake of being shocking. I’m very intuitive about it. When I’m learning someone else’s song, I’ll start playing it on the guitar and I just have these instincts for songs and what to do with them and I think that it’s a very organic and natural process. I don’t sweat over it too much – if it starts to feel like I can make it my own, I’ll go with it. But if it doesn’t feel like it’s becoming my own, I won’t do it.

Birmingham Stages: You have a large catalog of music at this point in your career. With that said, how do you comprise your set lists these days?

Hatfield: It can be really random. I made an album of covers called Juliana Hatfield – it was self-titled and kind of an obnoxious name for an album of covers [laughs] and I made it seven or eight years ago. Someone reminded me of the song I recorded by Teenage Fanclub called “Cells” which I hadn’t thought of for a long time. And I thought, “Oh, maybe I’ll play that one in the set” because I remember how much I liked it. There’s no real system. I’m trying to pull things from lots of of different years – doing a bunch from the last few albums and then going back to the first and second albums.

Birmingham Stages: How do songs stay fresh and relevant to you after you’ve performed some of them hundreds – or even thousands – of times?

Hatfield: Some of them don’t last. If a song starts to feel boring or worn out, I’ll just toss it. It’s a mystery why some of them still feel fresh and vibrant to me and some of them don’t. When I play “My Sister,” it still feels natural and like it’s saying something real and true.

Code-R Productions presents Juliana Hatfield at WorkPlay on Sunday, January 19. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $15 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.

Moving Forward: A Conversation with Trigger Hippy’s Steve Gorman

By Brent Thompson

   Photo Credit: Scott Wills

Steve Gorman chuckles when I suggest that he is quickly catching up to Warren Haynes as the busiest man in show business. After all, the Trigger Hippy drummer/radio talk show host/author doesn’t have much white space on his calendar these days. Gorman, formerly of The Black Crowes, has recently written a tell-all book about his days in the band titled Hard To Handle: The Life and Death of The Black Crowes [Da Capo Press]. In October, Trigger Hippy – Gorman, Nick Govrik, Amber Woodhouse and Ed Jurdi – released Full Circle & Then Some [Turkey Grass Records], the delayed follow-up to the band’s 2014 debut release. The album’s title is fitting as Gorman and Govrik reformed Trigger Hippy after an extended hiatus, revamped its lineup and moved it from side-project status to full-time band. On Saturday, December 14, Trigger Hippy will perform at WorkPlay. Ice Station Zebra will open the 8 p.m. show. Recently, Gorman spoke with us by phone from his Nashville home.

Birmingham Stages: Steve, thanks for your time. I know we are here to discuss Trigger Hippy, but I did want to mention that I’m currently reading Hard To Handle. Your candor in telling the warts-and-all story of The Black Crowes makes it a great read.

Steve Gorman: Thank you, man. I didn’t see the point in writing something that didn’t approach it with that mindset. People come up to me and want to argue with some of the things I wrote and I want to say, “I’m not campaigning here – I’m not trying to get your vote. I’m just trying to give my perspective.” The sacrifices I made and the stupid decisions I made and the times I was part of something great – I’m not trying to convince anybody that I’m right about anything, but I can just tell you what happened.

Birmingham Stages: As the book was about to be released, did you have any feelings of anxiousness about getting those stories out to the public?

Gorman: I had some of that once we agreed to do it. By the time it comes out, you don’t even care if people like it  – you just think, “Put the thing out – let’s go already.”

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about revamping and reforming Trigger Hippy.

Gorman: We put a record out in 2014 and, almost immediately, it became apparent that the band was not built to last and that’s not an indictment of anybody; it’s just a statement of fact. None of it was personal animosity and, trust me, that’s rare in a band. We didn’t have any drama. Nick and I always wanted this to be a full-time band and a working band – playing shows, recording and moving forward at all times. It was pretty obvious early on that we had a different definition than everybody else and that’s okay. I respect chemistry above anything else and that band was a lot of fun and a sea change from life in The Black Crowes. If I was guilty of anything, it was trying to put a square peg in a round hole where that band was concerned. About six months later, we put a band together at my kid’s school for a fundraiser. That night, Nick and I said, “Let’s find some people” and that little one-off gig really got us thinking. I saw Ed Jurdi and he said, “I’d love to put my hat in the ring” and I said, “Okay, cool, let’s do it” because I love Ed and I wouldn’t have thought to even ask him because he’s really busy. He and Nick clicked right away and we were all on the same page.

Birmingham Stages: Over the course of your career, you’ve played some songs literally thousands of times. How do older songs stay fresh to you?

Gorman: in the case of The Black Crowes, in both good and bad ways, there were nights we played “Jealous Again” nothing like the night before and nothing like the recorded version. You go see Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – that’s as great a rock band as you can see. But if you see them three nights in a row, the songs are going to sound a lot alike. The Black Crowes were never going to be that kind of a band and at times we went too far off the grid for my personal taste. A lot of bands do it in rehearsal – we did it live. For Trigger Hippy, we’re just not even close to a point where I’m thinking about that. By design, it’s a band where there’s a lot of improvisation, too. We have the basic arrangements but the versions allow for longer solos. You can only figure it out once you’ve been playing it for a live audience.

Birmingham Stages: How is the basic set list comprised for a Trigger Hippy show?

Gorman: We’re doing three or four songs from the first album and pretty much everything on this album.

Birmingham Stages: As a drummer, are you a gearhead? Do you comb music stores or websites looking for equipment?

Gorman: No, I see stuff occasionally but I play a four-piece kit and I keep it very simple. Give me some cardboard boxes and I’ll make them sound good.

Code-R Productions Presents: Trigger Hippy at WorkPlay on Saturday, December 14. Ice Station Zebra will open the 8 p.m. show. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.

When Inspiration Hits: A Conversation with Pete Yorn

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Jim Wright

It doesn’t seem possible that Pete Yorn released his acclaimed debut album, musicforthemorningafter, some 18 years ago. Exploding onto the scene in 2001 with songs including “Life On A Chain,” “Murray,” “Closet” and “Strange Condition,” the singer/songwriter has never looked back. Over the course of his career, Yorn’s restless creative spirit has seen him involved in soundtrack contributions and side projects (Scarlett Johansson, J.D. King) in addition to his solo output. In August of this year, he released Caretakers [Shelly Music] with the aid of producer/musician Jackson Phillips. On Thursday, December 5, Yorn will headline Birmingham Mountain Radio’s Holiday Soiree at Iron City. Recently, Yorn spoke with us by phone from Santa Monica, Calif.

Birmingham Stages: Pete, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to your return to Birmingham.

Pete Yorn: We love coming to Birmingham – always great shows, great town and great friends. Love it.

Birmingham Stages: Will the Iron City show be a full-band or solo acoustic show?

Yorn:  This is a full band – first time in years and I’m psyched to bring these guys through.

Birmingham Stages: We are really enjoying Caretakers. How did the album take shape? Are these newer songs, older ones or a mixture of both?

Yorn: Mostly new – there were a couple of older songs. One song called “Friends” has been around since maybe 2007 or 2008 and a song called “Do You Want To Love Again?” has been around since 2012. I had been working on it and trying to nail the right version of it. There are a few other songs I’d written close to when I started recording with Jackson. After we got a few under our belt, we started writing songs together in the studio. So a lot of it is brand new.

Birmingham Stages: You mentioned that “Friends” had been around for over a decade. How does a song like that find its way to an album so many years later?

Yorn: I had written it and done a demo of it. A French singer recorded it for her record and she did a beautiful version of it. I was messing around with it one day and it just resonated with me – the lyrics were hitting hard so we did it and I liked the way it turned out.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about your working relationship with producer Jackson Phillips on Caretakers.

Yorn: It was the first time that we had worked together. We met at a birthday party and four months later we finally got together and decided to try and record a song. It quickly blossomed into this thing where we were recording like a song a day – we just had a good studio flow together. He was really an amazing partner for what I was trying to say and the sound I was trying to bring alive. He just got it.

Birmingham Stages: How would describe your writing process? Is there a typical pattern that works best for you?

Yorn: There’s no one way. Sometimes it’s lyrics first, sometimes it’s music first. But I will say that some people are business-like about it and they get up every day and go write and I’m not like that at all. I’m really more about when inspiration hits. A lot of times things will be bubbling up in my head and I’m not even realizing it and all of the sudden I’ll have all these songs start to pour out. I just address it as they come up.

Birmingham Stages: Some artists I interview are positive about the music industry in the age of Youtube, iTunes and satellite radio. Other artists tell me that multiple outlets have created an oversaturated mess. How do you view the current musical climate?

Yorn: Yeah, it’s a little bit of a knife’s edge. You have to find the right balance to cut through. There’s so much music and you’re getting hit with Spotify playlists with 100 songs. I don’t mean to sound old-fashioned, but I’m human and I can’t process it – nor do I want to – and I don’t listen to any of it. But then there’s the side of it where you can get your stuff out there easily and globally and put your resources to other things like marketing and making visual content. At the end of the day, I make music and it starts with me. It’s not selfish, but I do it for myself. It helps me make sense of my world and hopefully helps other people make sense of their world. I focus on doing that the best that I can and I have faith that the rest falls into place. It’s the world that we’re in now.

Birmingham Stages: With several albums in your catalog, how do you comprise your set lists these days?

Yorn: I’ve been super excited to play a bunch of songs off the new record and my live band is kind of special right now. Jackson – my recording partner – has a band called Day Wave. He basically just grabbed those guys and said, “We’ll back you up on this tour.” So it’s cool to have a guy that played a lot of the parts on the record also playing them live on tour. I let [the band] pick some old songs that seemed fun for them and they came back with some songs and we learned those. I really like what this band is bringing to the old material – it kind of freshens everything up.

On Thursday, December 5, 107.3 Birmingham Mountain Radio presents: Holiday Soiree featuring Pete Yorn, John Paul White, Devon Gilfillian and Wilderado. Tickets to the 7 p.m. show can be purchased at www.ironcitybham.com.

Concert Shots: Joe Bonamassa at BJCC Concert Hall 11-20-19

By Brent Thompson

Joe Bonamassa’s musical prowess has been so well documented that it’s easy to overlook his skills as a vocalist and bandleader. On Wednesday, November 20, the guitar virtuoso – backed by a seven-piece band including Reese Wynans on keys – captivated a spellbound audience at the BJCC Concert Hall. Highlights of the two-hour set included “This Train,” “Little Girl,” “Mountain Time” and Bonamassa’s acoustic workout on “Woke Up Dreaming.”

Black Violin brings a unique musical blend to The Lyric Theatre

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

Classical and Hip-Hop aren’t musical genres that typically get mentioned in the same sentence, but Black Violin isn’t your typical band. The quartet, led by Wil B. (viola) and Kev Marcus (violin), melds the two styles in surprisingly seamless fashion. On Saturday, November 16, Black Violin brings its Impossible Tour to The Lyric Theatre. The show is a fundraiser presented by the Birmingham Chapter of The Links, Inc. Recently, the band released its latest album, Take The Stairs, featuring the single “Showoff.” Tickets to the 7 p.m. show can be purchased at www.lyricbham.com.

Review: Trigger Hippy comes “Full Circle”

By Brent Thompson

Trigger Hippy’s self-titled album appeared in 2014, offering a unique blend of rock, R&B and Gospel sounds. In October, the band released its sophomore effort, Full Circle & Then Some [Thirty Tigers]. The band’s rhythm section of Steve Gorman and Nick Govrik remains and Amber Woodhouse and Ed Jurdi have joined the fold. And though some of the names have changed, the group still mines timeless musical territory in fresh fashion. “Dandelion,” “Long Lost Friend” and the title track could have been recorded yesterday or 30 years ago, and that’s a good thing. A host of first-rate musicians – including Sadler Vaden [Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit] and Mickey Raphael [Willie Nelson] – make guest appearances on the album. We wish it hadn’t taken five years for the band to release its follow-up outing, but Full Circle & Then Some was certainly worth the wait.

Love for Leonard: A Conversation with David Stegall of The Famous Blue Raincoats

By Brent Thompson

It is fair to say that the thirst for cover bands and tribute shows has never been greater than at the present time. The Black Jacket Symphony, Yacht Rock Revue, Rumours, The Molly Ringwalds and Electric Avenue – among others – all consistently fill venues these days. But alongside bands that perform radio staples are bands that delve into artists that didn’t always inhabit the charts but still deserve our attention. The Famous Blue Raincoats are one such act and the group focuses on the catalog of Leonard Cohen, one of music’s more shadowy figures. The Birmingham-based sextet – David Stegall, Reid Brooks, Chase Arrington, Andrew Malinoski, Johnny Hicks and David Lambert – performed its inaugural show at WorkPlay earlier this year. Recently, we sat down with Stegall as the band prepared to make its debut appearance in Atlanta.

Birmingham Stages: David, thanks for your time. If you will, give us some background on yourself and the formation of The Famous Blue Raincoats.

David Stegall: I was never actually a huge Leonard Cohen fan, but I had some friends in college that had a couple of his albums. I sort of liked him, but I liked faster-paced music then. I think Judy Collins covered every song he ever wrote – so you could hear him through her – and some other singer/songwriters covered him. He does have a way about him, if you will. I just started taking up the harmonica maybe 10 years ago and I was just playing the harmonica with different guitar players. About three years ago, I met a girl named DeAnna Fields and she was very knowledgeable about all sorts of music. She was a folkie for the most part. We started playing together and then she started encouraging me to sing. I said, “I don’t think I can sing” and she said, “Sure you can” and we worked out some songs where there was always a deep male vocalist like Johnny Cash and Tom Waits.

As I started listening to more artists that had deep voices, I found that I really could sing like Leonard Cohen in his latter years. So, we started doing some songs that way and we hooked up with Reid Brooks and cooked up this idea that maybe we should do a show of just Leonard Cohen music. We had seen the [Birmingham-based tribute ensemble] Maverick Lounge Series and we were thinking it was a good idea. We started messing around with it and DeAnna and I parted ways about the same time we got serious about doing this show. So, Reid and I got serious about it but I didn’t know how to form a band. Reid had a friend named Chase Arrington – he said Chase could put together a band and we could make him musical director. He did and it’s an excellent band.

Birmingham Stages: How do you select the specific Cohen songs that are included in the band’s repertoire?

Stegall: We started getting together and working through songs. He has probably 250 songs, so I basically look at what songs he played in concert. If you ask people to name their top five Leonard Cohen songs, it isn’t going to be the same songs. He has an album called Live in London that was particularly well done and he was in his mid-sixties. Not that we follow that exactly, but we try to emulate it to a degree. Learning more about him made me like him more – it was about getting familiar with him. I read a couple of Leonard Cohen biographies and and books and poems that he wrote.

Birmingham Stages: The band’s debut performance was at WorkPlay earlier this year. If you will, tell us about the show.

Stegall: I talked to Tommy Williams and his wife, Courtney, and told them what I was thinking about and they said, “We love the idea – just tell us when you want to do it.” We had about 200 people there on a rainy, cold February night. Half the people there were probably only familiar with one Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah.”

Birmingham Stages: Your band has an upcoming performance at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta. How did that show come about?

Stegall: My old friend Dan Nolen, who owns half of The Nick and Smith’s Olde Bar, called me and had seen a video that was taken at WorkPlay on Facebook. I said, “I’ve been meaning to call you” and he said, “I sort of thought you would and I thought you’d tell me that you wanted to play.” I said, “I didn’t know it was that easy.” He said, “It’s not that easy, but I’ll let you play.” He’s come up with some really good ideas. [Cohen fans] have become an older crowd for the most part. Dan said, “Let’s do an early show with maybe more seats than we usually have, sell it out and book another one.”

Birmingham Stages: Are there any plans to take the show to different markets? You have a unique niche, so it seems other cities would be receptive to it.

Stegall: Leonard Cohen has a cult following, so you want a larger population area. The bigger the city, the more Leonard Cohen fans you’re going to have.

Birmingham Stages: The cover band and tribute show market is very healthy these days. I don’t know whether or not that factored into your decision to form the band, but your timing seems ideal.

Stegall: I’m not astute enough to have seen that in the music scene and I’ve never really been a part of the music scene, other than I’ve always really loved music. But Dan brought that up and I said, “I thought you discriminated against people that didn’t do original music.” He said, “I used to, but I’ve changed my tune.” I said, “Why’s that?” and he said, “Primarily because of my friends in Yacht Rock Revue.” They’re based in Atlanta and they’re killing it. Dan said, “Plus, people use aren’t interested anymore in hearing a bunch of songs off a band’s new album. They want to hear music that they’re familiar with – they want to sing along.” Also, a lot of the bands being covered aren’t touring anymore, so the cover band experience is as close to the original experience as you’re going to get. Cover bands are where it’s at – it’s a trend.

For more information, visit www.thefamousblueraincoats.com or @thefamousblueraincoats on Instagram.

Completely Honest: A Conversation with Allison Moorer

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Heidi Ross

The story has been told so many times that it tends to overshadow Allison Moorer’s prolific body of work. But for the uninitiated, here it is again: The mother of Moorer and her sister, Shelby Lynne, was murdered by their father who then turned the gun on himself. Though she has addressed the murder/suicide topic in both discussion and song over the years, she is now baring herself like never before via her new book and companion album, both titled Blood. On Wednesday, November 6, the Oscar and Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter will appear at Saturn. A discussion moderated by Paul Janeway (of St. Paul & The Broken Bones) will be followed by a musical performance and book signing. Recently, Moorer spoke with us by phone from her Nashville home as the release date of Blood neared.

Birmingham Stages: Allison, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to the Saturn event on November 6.

Allison Moorer: This is going to be the first one of those shows. Paul Janeway will be with me that night – he will be my moderator. We’ll do 30 to 45 minutes of talking and then I’ll play some songs from the new record. Then we’ll take some questions from the audience and sign some books and records.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about the origin of the book.

Moorer: It came from an interview I did with Maya Angelou. My son was about six weeks old and I was asked to go in and do her radio show and of course I didn’t want to say “No” to that. I went and we were talking and she asked me about my childhood and at one point she said, “OK, what are you going to tell [Moorer’s son] John Henry? When he’s old enough to ask, what are you going to tell him about this?” and I didn’t have an answer. It just got me thinking and I decided I needed to write it down. I didn’t even know what it was going to be – I didn’t know it was going to be a memoir – I just started writing. I think it was the fall of 2012 that I started in earnest what is in the readers’ hands now. I think I did four rewrites from top to bottom between 2012 and 2017 because it takes a while to figure out how to tell things. I finished the book in June 2017.

Birmingham Stages: As the release date quickly approaches, how do you feel? Are you relieved, anxious or a little of both?

Moorer: A little bit of both. It is so naked and it is the most bare thing I’ve ever done and it’s completely honest. It’s not shrouded by any sort of poetic license – it’s the story as I remember it and how I felt as a little girl. The whole thing to me is a psychological exploration of what happens when you grow up in an abusive household and an unstable household and how things add up and affect you for the rest of your life.

Birmingham Stages: Was the companion album that accompanies the book originally planned or did the idea come later in the process?

Moorer: I didn’t know that I would do an album until the beginning of this year. It was suggested that I make an EP as a companion piece and I thought that’s what I would do but then I just kept writing. It turned into a full-length record with the addition of “Cold Cold Earth” and “Blood” that I had previously recorded. So it was almost accidental, but I think that the record goes a long way in fleshing out the characters even more. I always say, “You tell the story until the story is told.” I have mined this territory over and over, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever done it justice and it took me a long time to gain the maturity that I needed to tell it properly.

Birmingham Stages: How did your family react to you writing the book?

Moorer: I didn’t seek their approval. My sister’s point-of-view is the one that I really care the most about because it’s really a story about our immediate family and what I’m doing is acting as a witness to that. Our extended family – they may agree, they may disagree, I don’t know. That’s their right just like it’s my right to write it as I see it.

Birmingham Stages: How many tour dates are set up at this time?

Moorer: I think I’ve got 10 on the books right now.

Birmingham Stages: In addition to performing new material, will you perform older songs on this tour?

Moorer: I’m sure I will. I haven’t really decided yet and it’ll probably change from night to night.

Birmingham Stages: You’ve amassed a large catalog of songs by this point. How do older songs stay fresh and relevant after you’ve performed them literally hundreds of times?

Moorer: The ones I don’t like I don’t do, but they aren’t too many of those. I can’t remember them all to tell you the truth, but most of them feel like old friends.

Birmingham Stages: You’ve seen a lot of changes in the music industry over the years. How do you feel about the current climate in the era of Youtube, iTunes, Spotify and satellite radio? It seems to be a give-and-take of easy access and clutter.

Moorer: I feel like there’s not a damn thing I can do about it so I better make the best of it. I’m not one to sit around and complain about the good old days being over. I can buy pretty much any record I want on vinyl and if I want it on vinyl I can go get it. I think that’s a wonderful development. If I want to go to my phone and say, “Gosh, I love that old song – let me find it” I can go to Spotify – which I do pay for – and find it. There is a lot of clutter, but there aren’t as many gatekeepers so I think it’s a plus. The ancient beast in the game is terrestrial radio, so we’ll what they do to keep their ratings up.

Birmingham Stages: I was interested in your take on that subject because your lengthy career gives you a perspective that many other artists can’t claim.

Moorer: [laughs] Yeah, and it’ll change again and it’ll change again. That’s life and that’s the world. If we’re not changing, then we’re dying. You’ve got to keep up. I miss the days of going into Tower Records every week to see what’s new and see the Top 25 releases. But we have some great independent stores and I’d say support those stores and support artists by buying records directly because that’s what’s putting money in our pockets now. No other streams of revenue can be counted on and the margins get thinner and thinner.

Birmingham Stages: After this tour ends, what are your upcoming plans?

Moorer: I have no idea. I’ve got my regular job as a songwriter and I’m actually working on my second book.

Allison Moorer will appear at Saturn on Wednesday, November 6. A book discussion (moderated by Paul Janeway) will be followed by a musical performance and book signing. Showtime is 8 p.m. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $23 ($50 for a ticket/book bundle) and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.

Flight of the Spirit: A Conversation with Jimmy Webb

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

Detailing Jimmy Webb’s hit songs, accolades and overall impact on pop music would require a separate article, but the following list will give you an idea: Grammy Award winner – Song of the Year (1967), Grammy Award winner – Best Country Song (1986), National Academy of Songwriters Lifetime Achievement Award (1993), Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1990) and Great American Songbook Hall of Fame – Songbook Award (2013). To date, he is the only artist to receive Grammy Awards for music, lyrics and orchestration. But of all of the accomplishments in his distinguished career, Webb’s partnership with singer/songwriter Glen Campbell perhaps remains his calling card. Together, the two artists collaborated on a successful run of hits including “Wichita Lineman” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” These days – in addition to recently releasing an album of covers titled Slipcover (S-Curve Records) – Webb is celebrating the life and music of his late friend with his Glen Campbell Years tour. On Saturday, November 2, Webb will perform at The Lyric Theatre. Recently, he spoke with us by phone from his New York residence. 

Birmingham Stages: Jimmy, thanks for your time. How are you doing?

Jimmy Webb: I’m doing fine. It’s a beautiful day here and I’m soaking up some rays.

Birmingham Stages: Are you home right now or on the road?

Webb: I’m temporarily – very temporarily – at home. We live on the north shore of Long Island in a place called Bayville – it’s greater Oyster Bay, New York. It’s right on the Long Island Sound and we have our little patch of rolling hills and beautiful trees. We also have a beautiful beach that we walk down to behind our house. It’s a small town. We’re about an hour from New York City, but it’s small town America. 

Birmingham Stages: We are really enjoying Slipcover. Had it been on your mind to record an album primarily of other artists’ material for some time or was this a recent inspiration?

Webb: It really came out of my association with Linda Ronstadt and the fact that we had always talked about doing a special set of songs. The first one that she really wanted to do was “Accidentally Like A Martyr” by Warren Zevon. We kicked around different ideas including Randy Newman’s “Marie” and all of these inside songs – really the creme de la creme. Misfortune struck in a big way and it appears that [Linda] will not be recording. I still had these songs rattling around in my head and I thought about Linda and Warren. Believe it or not, Warren and I were going to write some spiritual, inspirational songs together. So, you take all of that and it amounts to an album that was never made.

I was hanging with Randy Newman out in L.A. and they cooked dinner for us one night at his place. I was playing his piano and he said, “I didn’t know you were such a good piano player.” I don’t think about myself as a great piano player but he said, “You should make a piano album.” So that was added to the mix and I said to [Webb’s wife] Laura, “I think I would love to do this. I don’t have to sing and I can do piano arrangements, which I love to do.” It’s just me plunking out these tunes that I love. I’m a sucker for the classically-tinged rock/fusion thing, so that’s one of the ingredients. The other is the slip key, which is a stylistic contribution of country music. It’s kind of a bending of the notes on a keyboard. So, it’s a little classical, a little Floyd Cramer, a lot of beautiful melody and chord structure and no singing. It was a labor of love and a flight of the spirit.

Birmingham Stages: Was it a challenge to select just a few songs from the vast amount of material at your disposal?

Webb: Yes it was, and I plan to do another three or four of them. We had no label – It just all happened. One of BMG’s subsidiaries – S-Curve – said, “We’ll do it.” I think we’ve done pretty well with it. It’s the first thing I’ve ever had on Spotify – I’m sort of behind-the-times with all the techie stuff. I just got a big crate of LPs with the full size artwork and it’s almost pure vinyl. I did my own album cover – I did a self-portrait. The fans – I call them “Webb Heads” – they’ve been snatching them up. The numbered albums have been flying off the shelves at the concerts.

Birmingham Stages: You touched on Spotify which leads to my next question. Given the industry changes you’ve witnessed over your lengthy career, how do you view technology’s place in music and in your career specifically?

Webb: When I first got on the ASCAP board 20 years ago, we used to think that it was going to be nirvana because computers were going to enable us to locate a performance of any one of our songs – I’m talking about “We” as the community of songwriters. We were excited about that ability to track a performance of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” in Borneo and get paid for it and it hasn’t quite turned out like that. There were so many things that happened to us that were adverse that, to this day, one has to say that the impact of digital technology on the average songwriter was catastrophic. We’re down at least 50% on the catalog income that we depended on. 

Birmingham Stages: Your friendship and musical partnership with Glen Campbell is well-documented. If you will, please talk about the origin of The Glen Campbell Years tour.

Webb: Not long after Glen died, we did a tribute show for him. I decided that – for as long as I could play the piano – I had to keep his music alive. The show is pretty simple – it’s me and a piano and some storytelling. It’s a little self-indulgent [laughs]. But, thanks to technological advancements, we are able to do some multimedia things and Glen appears in the show a few times. 

Jimmy Webb will perform at The Lyric Theatre on Saturday, November 2. Tickets to the the 8 p.m. show are $45 and can be purchased at www.lyricbham.com.