When the Crescent City Calls: A Conversation with Jack Sledge

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

Like most everyone else, Jack Sledge has seen his spring plans derailed. A slate of tour dates booked across the South – including a stop in Birmingham – must now be rescheduled. But while we won’t see the New Orleans-based Sledge live in the near future, we are fortunate to have his new EP, Notes of a Drifter, available to us. Offering a timeless musical sound that has drawn comparisons to Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and The Band, the singer/songwriter’s style rings fresh and familiar at the same time. Recently, Sledge spoke with us by phone from his New Orleans home.

Birmingham Stages: Jack, thanks for your time. How are you holding up during this unbelievable situation?

Jack Sledge: It’s pretty crazy. I’m a teacher and I send the kids emails – I’ve still got a job thank God. I teach music at a small school – I’m just sitting by the computer and sending videos.

Birmingham Stages: We are enjoying Notes of a Drifter. Are the songs on the EP older compositions, newer ones or a combination of both?

Sledge: Usually, there’s about a year lag on songs. Typically, I’ll have songs ready about a year before they’re released just because the recording takes a while. Drifter is probably from 2016.

Birmingham Stages: This is the second time you have lived in New Orleans. If you will, talk about your decision to return to the gulf coast.

Sledge: As a musician, there’s a lot more work not only in New Orleans but in the South. Believe it or not, you get paid better as a musician down here. There are more bars that have live music down here for some reason. That was part of it. Also, going to college down here, I have a lot of friends that play different instruments. I just have a network down here that I didn’t have in New York even though I’m from New York.

Birmingham Stages: I know that every region of the country has musical history, but there is something special about living in the South. The fact that New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Muscle Shoals and the Mississippi Delta are all within a few hours of each other is something that you can’t take for granted.

Sledge: Oh, yeah. My favorite music comes from here and I’ve always been drawn to it because of that. As a kid, my parents were obsessed with Elvis and we went to Tupelo and to Graceland – we did the whole Elvis pilgrimage in that area. So I was always drawn to it as a child.

Birmingham Stages: There will be a full-length album coming out later this year, correct?

Sledge: Yeah, it’s finished and the COVID-19 changed a lot of plans so we’ll see. I’ll probably put it out sooner because touring is going to be put on hold for a while.

Birmingham Stages: How do you feel about the state of music in the age of iTunes, Youtube, satellite radio and Spotify? Some artists tell me that it’s a great time given the ease of reaching listeners. Other artists say that the current model makes it difficult to be found among the crowd.

Sledge: I’m on both sides. Anybody can hear your music and connect with you and I think that’s great. But at the same time, it clutters the playing field. I guess I fall on the side of the gatekeeper argument – that there should be someone [to vet artists].

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process? Do you set aside certain times to write or wait until inspiration strikes?

Sledge: I guess I’m a little bit of both. Right now I’m writing every day because I’m working less. I try to be more disciplined about it than I used to. I used to do it when inspiration would strike, but in the last couple of years I’ve been more into drafting. I’ll write five drafts of the same song and work with it and not pressure myself into having this lightning-strike of inspiration.

Jack Sledge’s Notes of a Drifter is available at www.jacksledgemusic.com and across all digital formats. We will update readers when the rescheduled Birmingham show date is announced. 

Logan Ledger introduces “Country Noir” sound on stellar debut release

By Brent Thompson

When a 13-time Grammy winner produces an artist’s debut album, you take notice. Such is the case for Logan Ledger – a Nashville-by-way-of California singer/songwriter – in pairing with T-Bone Burnett on his eponymously-titled debut release [Electro Magnetic/Rounder Records]. Performing his self-described “Country Noir,” Ledger offers up traditional country music with darkened tinges. Burnett’s production style is the proper fit for Ledger’s vision as highlighted on the album’s first two singles, “Starlight” and “Imagining Raindrops.” Across the album’s 11 tracks, Ledger is aided by a cast of musicians that have backed Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. On his debut, Logan accomplishes the difficult task of sounding reverent and relevant at the same time.

Damon Johnson Returns to WorkPlay on March 13

By Brent Thompson 

 

Though he has traveled the globe with the likes of Alice Cooper, Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders, we still consider Damon Johnson to be one of Birmingham’s own. The Alabama native – and current Nashville resident – first put his name in the national spotlight as Brother Cane’s frontman. Since then, he has been active as a sideman, songwriter and solo artist among numerous other projects. On Friday, March 13, the vocalist/guitarist will return to WorkPlay. Currently, Johnson is touring in support of his 2019 release Memoirs of an Uprising [Double Dragon Records]. The Ladies Of… (featuring James Hall) will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance show tickets are $20 – Meet & Greet/VIP tickets are $50 – and may be purchased at www.workplay.com.

When Five Arrives: A Conversation with John Moreland

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Crackerfarm

Five full-length albums into his recording career, John Moreland remains a consummate “songwriter’s songwriter,” possessing the ability to craft indelible lyrics in plainspoken fashion. His latest release, LP5 [Thirty Tigers/Old Omens], is an 11-track collection that finds Moreland enlisting the help of an outside producer (Matt Pence) for the first time. Pence’s previous credits include projects with Jason Isbell, Nikki Lane and Paul Cauthen. Later this month, Moreland embarks on a nationwide tour in support of LP5. On Tuesday, March 17, he will perform at Saturn. Recently, Moreland spoke with us by phone from his Tulsa, Okla. home.

Birmingham Stages: John, thanks for your time. If you will, tell us about the creation of LP5.

John Moreland: Most of [the songs] were pretty new when we started recording. “When My Fever Breaks” and I think maybe one or two others were older – or had parts from older songs that I kind of reworked – but I’d say 70% or so of the album was written in the last few months prior to recording it.

Birmingham Stages: Do songs still evolve even after you take them into the studio?

Moreland: It depends. On this album, we were recording at a really nice studio down in Denton, Texas working with a really good producer named Matt Pence. As far as how we are going to do everything, I don’t know and I want to leave that open. But as far as lyrics and the chord progressions and the structure of the songs, that stuff is pretty much done by the time I go in there.

Birmingham Stages: For the first time in your recording career, you brought in an outside producer for this album. How did you choose to work with Matt?

Moreland: I was just a really big fan of his and of his old band, Centro-Matic, and I really liked his drumming and the records that he had engineered – they always sounded really great. We didn’t know each other before we worked together. I knew we had mutual friends and I just thought that, musically, it would be a really good fit. When we got down there, it all kind of clicked and fell into place and he ended up producing the album.

Birmingham Stages: With several albums now in your catalog, how are you constructing your set lists for the current tour?

Moreland: That’s what we’re doing right now. We are having rehearsals and figuring out what we’re going to play and how we are going to play the new songs. Most of the time we can only play 20 of my songs, so it’s just picking out which 20 of those are going to be for this tour. I see bands and people request songs from 10 years ago and they’ll just bust it out and play the song, but I get wigged out if I don’t know exactly what’s going on in the set [laughs]. I like to feel like I have it planned out and know what’s going to happen.

Birmingham Stages: How does your writing process work? Do you typically write at home, on the road or wherever inspiration strikes?

Moreland: I definitely write a lot more at home. I don’t think I really write at all on the road, other than I’ll maybe think of a line or two and write it down. But as far as sitting down, working on music and putting it all together, I always do that at home. I used to be the kind of songwriter that didn’t really make myself do it that much – I just did it when I felt like it, but back then I felt like it all the time. Nowadays, it’s a little more like work. I have to show up for work every day, but it’s work that I really love. When I start making myself do it on a regular basis, inspiration starts to come a lot more frequently so it kind of fuels itself.

Birmingham Stages: When you are writing, do you typically start with a lyrical or musical idea first?

Moreland: There really isn’t a pattern – it can be anything. I never really sit down and write a whole song’s worth of lyrics without any music – I don’t really do that. Sometimes two or four lines come first and that starts the music from there and I’ll build from those lyrics. Sometimes I’ll have a whole musical composition with no lyrics and I’ll just write words to it.

Birmingham Stages: You are still based in your hometown of Tulsa. It seems that a lot of artists I interview have chosen – like you – to stay home in lieu of relocating to music industry hubs such as Nashville or Austin.

Moreland: It’s where I’m from and it’s where I can afford to live. It’s nice to come home from a tour and be in a place that really has nothing to do with the music industry at all. If I had to come home from tour and be in Nashville, I don’t think that would be good for me.

Birmingham Stages: Some artists applaud the musical climate in the era of iTunes, Youtube, satellite radio and other outlets that provide instant and worldwide access to listeners. Others say the current model makes it difficult for artists to be heard among the crowd. How do you feel about the current climate?

Moreland: I think it’s both and I’ve definitely felt both ways. Now that things are working out well for me, it’s a lot easier to say, “What a great time – anybody can take their phone out of their pocket and hear my music.” But when I was struggling to get noticed, it felt like, “There are just so many people out there. It does feel hard to get noticed.” But I think if you write songs that people are going to notice, then they’re going to notice it. You just have to make the best music you can and you can’t control anything else.

John Moreland will perform at Saturn on Tuesday, March 17. Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $20 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com

About The Music: A Conversation with George Winston

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Todd V. Wolfson

Since 1972, George Winston’s music has provided musical solace to generations of listeners. Along the way, the Grammy-winning artist has sold 15 million albums. Though adept on guitar and harmonica, Winston is best known for landmark solo piano recordings including Autumn (1980), December (1982) and Summer (1991). His latest release, 2019’s Restless Wind [RCA/Dancing Cat Records], is an 11-track collection that blends original material with interpretations of songs by The Doors, Sam Cooke and Buffalo Springfield among others. On Wednesday, March 4, Winston will perform at The Lyric Theatre. Recently, he spoke with us by phone while en route to a performance in Austin, Texas.

Birmingham Stages: George, thanks for your time. Is it hard to believe that your recording career is closing in on 50 years.

George Winston: The albums just kind of happen from time to time. I notice that there are some songs coalescing together and feel like a certain theme. I wait for it and it gets completed when other songs emerge. I don’t push it – I just kind of observe it all.

Birmingham Stages: Restless Wind includes your interpretations of songs from a variety of artists including Gershwin, Buffalo Springfield, Sam Cooke and The Doors. How did you go about specifically selecting the material?

Winston: They just kind of seemed to work together. You go by feel and take a lot of time to do it, as much time as needed. If you rush it, it’s a recipe for “Why did I do it?” [laughs]

Birmingham Stages: When interpreting, is there a challenge to retaining the integrity of the song while placing your own stamp on the material?

Winston: There are basically three elements when you’re interpreting: The original song or wherever I heard it from, the instrument – be it guitar, piano or solo harmonica. Sometimes all the notes are there, but it sounds like a clever transcription – it doesn’t breathe or anything. The third element is what I want to do. When you’re interpreting, you become the composer. If you’re playing it, in a way it’s your song. You’re the one that has final say on everything. It’s those three things that go into it.

Birmingham Stages: With a large catalog of songs under your belt, how do you select material for your live performances these days?

Winston: I’ve got two shows – the summer show and the winter show. I just go by what I’m currently playing. Most of the songs I record are just for the record – I don’t play them live. Well, maybe 25 percent.

Birmingham Stages: You have witnessed a lot of changes in the music industry over the course of your career. How do you feel about the current climate in the era of iTunes, Youtube, streaming and satellite radio?

Winston: I never really think about the climate – I just think about the playing because things change all the time. Everything’s got advantages and disadvantages. If [I was] looking f0r a song, sometimes it used to take months. I sent letters to used record stores and now it takes 15 seconds. So, if I was going to play “Georgia On My Mind,” I can find 15 versions of it. So, it’s great to be able to get to those and study them. The music business has been fighting ever since it’s been in existence. Music and money were never meant to be married to each other – it’s not how music came out of the ground. It is what it is, but the bottom line is I always think about the music. I’m lucky because I don’t have big expenses – it’s just me and there’s no band and no crew so I’m lucky that way. I didn’t do that for economic reasons – it’s just what I do.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?

Winston: It’s a lot of trial and error. Something emerges and I’ll keep it around. I couldn’t try to compose something – it wouldn’t work. I have done soundtracks when I really liked the projects, but I already had all of the pieces. If I don’t already have the music, I refer people to folks who do that really well.

Birmingham Stages: It seems you have carved out a career on your own terms and that’s rare.

Winston: I always take a travel day between shows. I’ll make half the money and not hate my life. There’s nothing like wondering if you’re going to make the show or not. I don’t want to wonder if I’m going to make the show. I’ll do two in a row if they’re in the same town. Burning out is a long-term process. There are all these little things you can do to not burn out.

George Winston will perform at The Lyric Theatre on Wednesday, March 4. Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. show are $38 – $42 and can be purchased at www.lyricbham.com. Please bring a canned food donation to benefit Community Food Bank of Central Alabama – collection baskets will be placed at the theatre’s entrance.

 

 

Song-Based: A Conversation with Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone

By Carey Hereford

Photo courtesy of the artist

Of all of the opportunities Railroad Earth has been afforded since forming in 2001, the band’s 2019 release, The John Denver Letters, presented a most unique project. Denver’s estate asked the quintet to record backing music to two unreleased songs, “If You Will Be My Lady” and “Through The Night.” The band’s new album, All For The Song (produced by Anders Osborne), is slated for release in 2020. Two of the album’s singles – “It’s So Good” and “The Great Divide” – are already available. On Thursday, February 27, Railroad Earth will perform at Iron City with Kyle Tuttle Band opening the 8 p.m. show. Recently, Railroad Earth violinist/vocalist Tim Carbone spoke with us by phone.

Birmingham Stages: Tim, thank you for time. What made you choose ​”It’s So Good”​ and ​”The Great Divide” ​to be the first two singles off of the new record?

Tim Carbone: Well, we felt like they were good choices.The first one was ​”The Great Divide​” – The song kinda has an uplifting, inclusive theme. It felt like a lead-off single so we decided to go with that one. “It’s So Good” is just, you know, a great feel-so-good song. It’s something I think people can identify with and it’s a fun song. We didn’t put a ton of thought into it – we just felt like those were two good openers.

Birmingham Stages: Where did the writing inspiration for the next Railroad Earth album come from?

Carbone: The songs were mostly written by our lead singer and songwriter, Todd Sheaffer. His inspiration kinda varies, but the whole sound, general concept and feel came from New Orleans. There are horns and a slightly more bluesy feel to this particular record. We are not really venturing far from what we normally do, but back in October of 2018, we lost one of our founding members, so we went down to make the record with that on our mind. We all felt his spirit with us. While some of the songs are not overly about Andy [Goessling], it was a way for us to heal and get together and work through what had just happened to us. He had worked with him for almost 20 years and I personally had been working with him for 40 years – the vast majority of my life I had played music with this fellow. So, going to New Orleans and getting away and keep driving us into the music was a good way to reconnect and make our way through the situation.

Birmingham Stages: How would you define the genre of Railroad Earth?

Carbone: Completely impossible – I’ve tried it many times. We are pretty much just rock-n-roll in a way or Americana if you really wanna put a fine point on it. We are definitely not straight bluegrass because we have drums and keyboard, but we have bluegrass elements. The band is song-based. We serve all of Sheaffer’s songs and try to add something new to each song every time we play it, so it is not always the same.

Birmingham Stages: How do you find a balance between being a producer and being a touring musician?

Carbone: That’s a really good question. There is so much involved in producing a record. First of all, I love producing records so I try to make time for them. I have a very outstanding wife, so I have stretched boundaries. For instance, when I come home from a two and half week tour and I’m home for three days and then I’m out again for a week with another band. So it takes planning and a lot of discipline. When I’m on the road and I know there is a record coming up, I’ll have the demos with me and I’ll make pre-production notes, so I’ll have a pretty good idea of where the songs should go on the record. Ultimately, it’s their record I’m making and it’s my job is to make sure their vision gets translated to the record. But, a lot of times they need help to focus that vision in a way. I love making records and it is my favorite thing in the world to do.

Birmingham Stages: When does Railroad Earth plan to release the new record?

Carbone: We are done recording.We are in the midst of doing some very simple revisits to the mastering of the record. I would probably say that the record would come out sometime this summer – I’m gonna guess like July or August. A firm date has not been given to us from management and everyone else involved. But I would think sometime at the end of the summer this year.

Birmingham Stages: How does Railroad Earth keep old music fresh after playing it night to night?

Carbone: Well, every night we try and visit how we transition from one song to another. We usually do two sets and each set we will try to do at least two or three fairly detailed segues. We will come up with ways to change from one song to another that is interesting and takes the listener on a journey into the next song. We also have a couple of brand new members of the band like, Mike Robinson is playing guitar, pedal steel, and banjo. Matt Slocum, from Jimmy Herring’s band, is now playing keyboards. There’s a much bigger sound, it really is quite exciting. We’ve really had a jolt in the arm from these two great players.

Birmingham Stages: How do you view the current climate with Spotify, Youtube, and Soundcloud making it easier to listen to and put out music?

Carbone: It is what’s going on now, I think financially it is hard to quantify it in a monetary way because it is sorta like the new radio in a way. Ultimately, I think that musicians are getting the short end of the stick as far as getting paid for the music. I kinda view it as you can stand along with the parade route and watch the parade go by, or you can get in the parade and march along. I think it is better to be marching along than to be watching the parade go by.

Code-R Productions presents: Railroad Earth and Kyle Tuttle Band at Iron City on Thursday, February 27. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $25 and can be purchased at www.ironcitybham.com.

One Good Sound: A Conversation with Tommy Emmanuel

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

Though undeniable, Tommy Emmanuel’s guitar virtuosity isn’t the emphasis of his recordings and performances. Instead, he places songs and arrangements over his well-documented, dizzying fretboard skills. The 64-year-old Australian who became enamored with Chet Atkins during childhood – Emmanuel eventually befriended and collaborated with his musical hero on several occasions – has released more than 20 albums while garnering several Australian music honors and two Grammy nominations. His latest release, 2019’s Heart Songs [CGP Sounds/Cooking Vinyl Records], is a collaboration with guitarist and fellow Atkins enthusiast John Knowles. Over the disc’s 14 tracks, the duo offers fresh interpretations of modern standards including “How Deep Is Your Love” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” alongside well-worn material by Hank Williams and Nat King Cole. On Saturday, March 7, Emmanuel will return to Birmingham for a performance at The Lyric Theatre. Recently, Emmanuel spoke with us by phone from Newark, N.J. while en route to Key West, Fla. for two performances.

Birmingham Stages: Tommy, thanks for your time. We are enjoying your collaboration with John Knowles, Heart Songs. How did you and John go about culling material for the album?

Tommy Emmanuel: Well, those arrangements didn’t just happen overnight – they evolved over years of getting together. John Knowles and I have known each other a long time and we were introduced by our hero, Chet Atkins. We just started working on songs each time I’d come back from being on tour. We’d get together and catch up and have coffee and we’d get our guitars out. Sometimes we’d sit in Starbucks and play and that was fun. The arrangements of these songs came together after playing them for a period of time and looking for new things all the time – we just enjoyed that process so much. Some of these songs – like “Cold, Cold Heart” and “How Deep Is Your Love” – they’ve been a big part of our lives for as long as we both can remember. Being the arrangers that we love to be, it’s a joy to have a melody that’s that good to work with.

Birmingham Stages: When you’re interpreting songs by other artists, is there a challenge in placing your own stamp on the material while retaining its original integrity?

Emmanuel: Well, exactly. It depends on the song. With songs like “How Deep Is Your Love” and “Somewhere” from West Side Story, basically I’m the singer and John is the orchestra and we kind of refer to it that way. We try to find ways of incorporating harmonies together and that’s the key part of being the arranger – making it seamless and it takes time to find and work out.

Birmingham Stages: I just wish I had been at the coffee shop when those sessions were taking place!

Emmanuel: [Laughs] There’s a coffee shop in Nashville called Sam & Zoe’s and they have a veranda area. We used to sit out there for hours on end playing and – as people are in Nashville – they’ve seen everything and didn’t take any notice.

Birmingham Stages: You lived in Nashville for many years. What prompted your relocation to San Jose, California?

Emmanuel: My wife got a job with Apple so she and our daughter, Rachel, and my mother in-law moved while I was away on tour. So when I came home to Nashville, I came home to an empty house [laughs]. We kind of knew it was coming and I had to find a way of getting everything done and selling the house on my own while the girls were all set up in California.

Birmingham Stages: How do songs stay fresh and relevant to you after you have performed them countless times?

Emmanuel: A good song is a good song and the arrangements of certain songs – like my Beatles songs or “Classical Gas” – those arrangements get changed all the time. I know that people love them and when I go into them people really light up. It’s really about that. It never gets old to me – it doesn’t matter how mama times I play it. Sometimes I do stuff with it that I never do on another night. I’m very much in the moment.

Birmingham Stages: Are you a gearhead? Do you frequent guitar stores when you’re on tour?

Emmanuel: I’ve never been a big gearhead. I have a few pedals, but they’re at home. The only gear I use onstage now is a tuner [laughs]. Other than that, I carry a preamp and an amplifier and really that’s it. I’m just looking for one good sound and that’s all I’m looking for. But when you tour as much as I do, I’ve got it down to a science. It’s three guitars, one guitar stand, the amp, the preamp and the tuner – that’s it. My biggest strength is my soundman and we know how to get a sound together. So I don’t rely on technology – I rely on him and the quality of my songs and that’s about it.

Birmingham Stages: You’ve been releasing albums for more than 30 years and the music industry has undergone many changes during that time. How would you sum up your career approach?

Emmanuel: Everything has to come from me. It has to be about the quality and integrity of what I do. It doesn’t matter how many times you hear it, if it’s good it’s good. I’m always trying to learn ways of being smarter about what I do, so it’s really about finding the right people. Too many guitar players are into themselves and they forget they’ve got to create a demand. How do you do that? You have to have something where people will want to rush out and buy a ticket and see. You learn how to do it from people that have already done it really well. It’s supply and demand – that’s the bottom line. I do it for all the right reasons because I love it. Something happens when I play the guitar and that’s good enough for me.

Code-R Productions presents: Tommy Emmanuel at The Lyric Theatre on Saturday, March 7. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $50.50 and can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com.

A Step Above The Rest: A Conversation with flor’s Zach Grace

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

With two full-length releases under its belt, flor is crossing the nation on its current North American tour. The California-by-way-of-Oregon quartet – Zach Grace, McKinley Kitts, Dylan Bauld and Kyle Hill – released ley lines in September of last year. The 12-track collection is garnering acclaim on the strength of singles “slow motion” and “dancing around.” On Wednesday, February 12, flor will perform at Saturn with Winnetka Bowling League and Wanderwild opening the 7 p.m. show. Recently, Grace spoke with us by phone as the band was crossing through California en route to Las Vegas.

Birmingham Stages: Zach, thanks for your time. We are enjoying ley lines. If you will, talk about the creation of the album.

Zach Grace: We went into it thinking we had a backlog and then we just kept creating new stuff. Eventually, all the stuff we were sitting on from earlier years we swapped out for new stuff. We had tons of material, but when it actually came time to commit to a vision for the album we felt like we needed a fresh start.

Birmingham Stages: Was it difficult to write for the new album while you were touring and promoting come out. your hiding?

Grace: It wasn’t actually – it was a pretty easy process. Because I’m on the road, I don’t do much with lyrics or melodies. I create tracks on computer and we bring those into the studio. So I had tons of instrumentals and the lyrical content was a little bit tougher. I want to create a meaningful piece without trying to sound too preachy in the process.

Birmingham Stages: Do songs still evolve even as you’re recording them in the studio?

Grace: That was more so on the first album. I think we added a guitar line to “Heart” maybe a week before we sent it to get mastered. We like to have it all settled and discussed beforehand and we were a little better about it for ley lines. You sit with some of these songs for months at a time and the more you can figure out what you’re trying to say, the more proud you’ll be at the endpoint.

Birmingham Stages: How do songs you’ve played a number of times stay fresh and relevant to you?

Grace: That is entirely dependent on the fans. You would think it would get so old, but when you see a crowd light up when you’re playing your music, you forget that could be the 100th time you’re playing a song. It’s an infectious energy we take from the crowd as much as they get from us.

Birmingham Stages: Some artists say this is a great time to be in your position given instant accessibility to listeners via Youtube, iTunes social media and other modern outlets. Other artists say – for the same reason – that it’s a challenging time to be found among the clutter. How do you view the current climate?

Grace: I feel both sides are very valid, but I think that it’s much more cynical to look at it and say there’s clutter. Anyone and everyone should have the opportunity to create in my opinion – there shouldn’t be any barriers. The more that we break down these barriers, the better. It just means that when you’re creating you have to do a step above the rest if you want to climb out of the ocean. You have to find that thing that rises you up above the rest. I like to go into it with that mentality instead of being disgruntled about the state of it. It’s a beautiful time and it’s a time without barriers and I think that’s really special.

Birmingham Stages: Are you still writing songs and laying down ideas while you’re on tour?

Grace: I am. I feel kind of guilty because I’m more excited than ever with the stuff I’m creating, but I know we have to give the time of day to this second album. But it’s a weird place to be because I’ll be writing this stuff and I want to share it already and I want it to be done, but it’s not on the schedule quite yet.

flor will perform at Saturn on on Wednesday, February 12. Winnetka Bowling League and Wanderwild will open the 7 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 16+ show are $15 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com. 

 

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.