I'm kicking off the 2019 Out of the Chute with a little something different. We have a trio that does not sport a 'group' name but their individuality comes together beautifully on their Sophmore album I'll be reviewing tomorrow. Interviewing these guys was a lot of fun.
Let's open the gate!
The detail sheet states this was a suspect idea. Where did the idea originate?
Eric and Thomm were hanging out in Natchez, Mississippi, thinking about history and soul, and they arrived at the notion of doing an album of songs that deal with life along the river. That’s the short answer, though it’s also true that we’re pretty well obsessed with John Hartford, the great songwriter and performer and riverboat pilot. And Mark Twain is a huge influence on us. All these things seemed to point to something muddy and watery and soulful.
You each have a strong footing in the music industry. What made this album different from your first one… to each of you?
This was the first time as a trio that we delved fully into history for a themed album, though I think it’s clear in these songs that history informs the present. I think the subject matter sets it apart, both from our past works (plays?) and from much of what’s going on out there in singer-songwriter world. The liner notes and photos included in the booklet make for our most interesting packaging and, hopefully, give folks a reason not just to download or stream. Though we’re cool with people listening any way they prefer to listen.
There have been some great reviews of this album but Charlie Worsham gave a deep, heartfelt review of the album. What was your first reaction to reading those words?
Charlie Worsham has devoted his life to helping people — particularly young people in rural Mississippi — understand the ways that music and history can be transformative. So to get his approval was heartening, and maybe necessary. Had he called bullshit on us — three people who are not from the Magnolia State — making an album like this, I would have wanted to re-think our motivations and our execution. He’s younger than we are, but he’s also an example and an inspiration and a hell of a musician. Through his charitable foundation and through the wood and wire of his guitar, he’s doing special things. If you don’t believe me, ask Vince Gill or Marty Stuart. But why wouldn’t you believe me? I’m a totally honest fellow.
The contents of this album are thought-provoking, a bit of a history lesson with a dash of editorial. You’ve blended everything seamlessly. Were there any specific techniques you used to get where you were going?
Eric and I both leaned on Thomm for songwriting and production direction. Thomm is a remarkable guy, with his incredible knowledge of history and music and what I recognize (he’ll argue) as an absolute mastery of the acoustic guitar. For the most part, we’d get together with Thomm and he’d often have melodic and thematic ideas, and then we’d help flesh those out. Then we’d blend voices and see who should be singing what and how things could best work. I’d say Thomm is the most underrated force in American music, except that might technically mean that he is the least rated force, which would mean he’s not a force at all. But, damn, he’s a force.
Riverland isn’t just an album, but a documentary of both lyrics and the stories. What was your thought behind adding the booklet?
If it were up to me and I lived in a better and more convenient world, all our music would be on vinyl and would contain voluminous liner notes. But albums are heavy and hard to carry around, and these things get expensive. I believe it was Eric’s idea to go forward with an extended booklet for the CD, and I was thrilled about that. If we’re going to have folks download albums for $10 on iTunes and stream things at no cost, it seems imperative to give people a reason to purchase physical copies of the compact disc. I feel like sound quality should be enough of a reason, but it’s usually not these days (sigh). Most of all, context informs the musical listening experience. The more context we can give, the better. That’s why liner notes, and interviews, are meaningful.
Was there anything you wish you’d done differently or incorporated?
Unlike most every other thing that I do every day of my life, I’d have done nothing different with this album. Wait, I’d have slept more the night before our photo shoot, so my eyes wouldn’t be baggy and I could appeal to young people.
What do you hope people carry with them after hearing this album?
I hope people enjoy the melodies and the harmonies and the musicianship. But I also hope they’ll want to learn more about characters like Will D. Campbell and Mike Fink. These are people who did things differently, with good and sometimes frustrating reason. I hope people listen to Will Campbell’s “Mississippi Magic,” which is a summation of what a friend of mine called Will’s “scandalous gospel.” He believed that everyone, even people whose routines involve hate and violence and bigotry, is worthy of love and concern. I don't live out that scandalous gospel, but I think about it a lot, arm-wrestling with Will’s ghost on sleepless nights.
Riverland is going to be a tough act to follow. Can you give a hint as to what direction you want to go with the next album?
I haven’t thought for a moment about the next album. I’ve been too busy trying to learn the chords to this one. And that’s the truth. Many of my songs seem to be about baseball, but Thomm doesn’t understand or appreciate baseball, so that’ll be a hard sell. Maybe we’ll do a Kickstarter campaign to send Thomm to some kind of baseball school, then do a really swell album of baseball songs.
To give you a sample of what happens when three outstanding talents come together, here's a cut from YouTube: