With a long career that has seen him travel the roads of the US and Europe playing his music solo or as a member of a number of varied combos during which time he has released 7 albums under his own name. The latest of which is a double album Crooked Road. He has also recorded with and is touring with Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy.
Can you tell us something about the genesis of Crooked Road your new double album which has been described as a reflection on your personal journey?
It's very specifically about being a guy and my relationship with women. I first got married at 20 and also I turned 50 while making the record and it was something about that coming of age that made me want to do something significant, what felt like a personal significance. I'm not necessarily industry orientated. I mean who puts out a double record these days. Especially in these iPod times of downloading one track. The other part of it was I wanted to play and sing everything on it. That goes back to when I was 16 and I got a four track reel-to-reel. I spent nights and night and nights, days, weeks months just throwing things on different tracks. I'd play bass on one track, the sign on another.
So it was a combination of that 50 year old guy going back to an idea I had when I was 15 when I wanted to play and sing everything. It's not like I want to do that the rest of my life but It's something I wanted to do.
When your recording on your own do you have a set template that you work to?
What I do is, well I wanted to have a click (a guide rhythm track) but I never did. The engineer didn't have one and neither did I but I still wanted to record so I didn't bother going around looking for one. So what I did was to start with the principle instruments and the vocal. So if it was a piano vocal that's what I did. If it was a banjo vocal I did that and if it was a guitar I started with that. I figured if I got that and it was right in it's essence, not so much in its production, and got the song across I thought that was a good place to start. So I added to that and if anything took away from that essence I knew it wasn't the right overdub or not the right instrument. That was my criteria.
Was that a lengthy process?
You know, I had thought that it would be, but the truth is it was the quickest album turnaround I've ever had. Which seems ridiculous for a double album and something that I played and sang everything on. The only reasoning was it was important that I got the record done so whenever I was home from the road I would schedule with the engineer that I had four days home and I'd spend three of them in the studio. I was really diligent. There's something about turning 50 that spurred me on. It's something - it's not everything. It's just a number but I'm still alive and I wanted to keep going and the songs are still passing through me and I do play all these instruments ... so go sue me if you want to. It's what I do.
Had you accumulated songs over a period of time for the project?
I kinda make records based on themes. So some of these songs I've had for eight or nine years and I love them as songs but they never fitted with the theme of the album I was working on. So there songs about relationships there since I was 20 years old. So I realized that I has these songs that I had floating with that subject. In another way it was chronological starting from that first marriage at 20 where I had a song or two. So then in the end I narrowed it down to songs related to three major relationships from that start. Then I divided them by instrumentals that I included on the record. I write instrumentals by just noodling on the guitar or dobro or something. That can turn then into a song sometimes and I'll add lyrics. That became the way of dividing the album into chapters or the next relationship or something. Before I knew it I had enough material that wouldn't fit on to a single disc. So I had to make the decision to trim it down onto one CD or do I find a mid point and divide it into two. Which is what I did.
Was that a decision that was in anyway effected by the way some people now receive music?
I sell my records through gigs and at Amazon and through the website and believe it or not there are actually some stores that have it in the US and in Europe. You through them in a suitcase or in the back of the rental car and see if anybody wants to buy them.
Is there a lot of difference between doing it on your own and paying with a group like The Band Of Joy?
No, it's all music to me. Playing with Buddy and Patty and Robert is great. The singing is fantastic and they take great care of us of course. We walk in and everything is set up and when we walk away the take everything down, so it's all posh compared to what I usually do but what I usually do is actually pretty easy too. I walk in with an acoustic guitar and if they have a piano, great, I'll play that. I just see it all as music and the truth is I love doing my own stuff and I find it really refreshing to do my own thing I wouldn't want to lay back and just be doing all the Robert stuff.
Will you be playing with The Band Of Joy beyond this immediate tour?
Yes, were back in Europe in a little while to do Italy, France some TV and stuff, Jools Holland as well. In January we'll be doing some regular dates in the States which will carry on through Spring.
Your songwriting has brought you some high profile covers how do you get the songs out there, is it through a publisher or from your recordings?
It tends to be from my own albums, which has always been to me the reason that there should be our own albums as writers because though my songs do get pitched in the regular publishing way but if you consider that the Dixie Chicks, whoever - fill in the blank name, are making a record how many pitches will they get per day? It would blow your brain. So when you one of dozens to hundreds of pitches you don't really stand a chance but if the artist or producer, or someone in the camp is a fan of my music then it bubbles up from there. A way better presentation, so to speak. When I look at the songs of mine that have been covered there's absolutely a pattern that they were on my records first. So I'm led to believe that that's where they are hearing them rather than through the giant pitch machine.
In some cases songwriters will use a demo singer who may use a vocal style similar to that of the artists they're pitching the song to. Have you ever tried that?
I always sing my own demos, but I'd try anything, however my publisher will always say "you sell this better than anyone". I'm not the usual cut anyway. So either the artist wants to say what this song is saying or they don't. It's that simple. There's no middle ground you want to say what my songs are saying as an artist or you don't. I don't mind that, to me that's perfect.
You made an album with your Dad Wayne a while back. Do you have any plans to follow it up?
Yeah, I have another whole album in the can. I need to get off my butt and put it out. When I did that first record I had made enough recordings for two. I'd figured out some songs that would make a good album and released that and there's enough for another good one that I just need to do. He wants it done too. He got enough of a taste of whatever he got from the first one. There was no great shakes in sales but it's out in the ether now. He's a guy who was a labourer, who worked all his life. He's dreamed of making records and having his songs out there but so do a lot of other workers. But the gigs I got him on, and I only do one or two a year, are one's I picked on purpose where I knew they were going to like him as opposed to dragging him around all over the planet. So he got enough of a taste so that he wants that next record out.
Do you have a favourite place that you love to play yourself?
You know really it's anyplace where people are listening. In some places like North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia for some reason I've noticed that areas around mountains are good and I don't know why. There must be some anthropological reason for it. The same with the Rocky Mountains. Maybe the people are a touch closer to the earth. Maybe then they like more earthy kind of stuff. There people seem to know the songs and they want the new record.
Do you play these gigs as a solo artist for the most part?
It's almost always solo. Sometimes a festival
will want a three or four piece band. Sometimes it's a bluegrass festival so they'll want it leaning towards that. But to me, I love it all, so there's no giant leap from playing with Robert to playing solo. That was that and this is this.
I've wanted to come back to Ireland for a long time. I travelled here with Tim O'Brien and we'd come over to Ireland once or twice a year. I guess I haven't been back since I played in Belfast a year and a half ago. I love it over here. But sometimes it's just a money thing. A case in point is I'm here on Robert Plant's flight. So I'm just able to extend it and do some of my own shows. I thought that maybe I could do Dublin while I was here.
How did you get to play with Robert, was that through Buddy?
Yes, through Buddy. Basically it started as a two week recording session with no promise of anything. It may not have gone the whole two weeks if it didn't work out. It may not have worked in the first two days. I didn't have any giant notion. First I knew it was Buddy which is always good. Then it was with Robert - so that's a good way to start.
Robert is one of the biggest music lovers I've ever known. He knows steel guitar styles. He will talk about this player and that player and he knows their strengths and what their thing was. He knows old mountain songs as well as all the rock and blues stuff as well as rockabilly. He's like an encyclopedia.
Ronnie: Who have you played with over the years who stand out for you as a defining moment?
I started playing when I was thirteen in a family band. When I left the family band that would probably be one. It was like one door closing and another one opening. Moving to Boston, Massachusetts was another. Moving to Nashville was another. Another would have been working with Guy Clark on three or four records because of the great writer that he is. He's respected and he's the real deal. I don't have any giant strategy I walk through any door that seems like it's open. It's been fairly organic.
When I was 17/18 I played in a house band so on a Friday and a Saturday night we'd have guests that could range from people like Roy Clark to Dorsey Burnette. So you had to back them up so there were a bunch of names from that time. Guys who hadn't had a record out in 30 years but still had an audience. So I was doing that at that age. But there was a point where I thought I'm either going to keep doing this or try something else and basically I quit music for about 5 years and went to school in Boston. I was tired of music as I had know it. I'd thought "if this is all there is too it well I might quit".
Did the mechanics of the music business put you off?
Oh yeah, but the music must proceed and it did. If I don't do it and put out my songs who will? Either we're going to do it or were not as the songs are passing through. You have to get off your ass and take them out there to a little club or where ever. Otherwise those songs go to the grave and what's the point. People like a new Dylan or Springsteen have to do it in the way that they can. They don't have the industry on their side so they have to do it by the means available to them. A case in point for me would be Loudon Wainwright, he's as good as anybody but if were waiting for home to fill an arena like a Springsteen we'll never see him so we have to make sure we go to him wherever he plays.