When you decided to do a whole album of Buddy Holly songs what did you think that you could bring to them that would make them equal parts tribute and testament to yourself?
I’m not sure I ever sat down and thought deeply about what it would mean to do an album of someone’s songs, as strange as that might sound. My reason to make Words of Love was that it seemed like a fun thing to do. And in the past, I’ve recorded Holly’s songs and always loved the mood it put me in. I do think a lot of interpretations of Holly's music are missing the drive I feel belongs there. I'm not sure I ever thought if Words of Love should or could be a sort of blend of Holly’s music and my own. It may have come up in conversation that the album might be how I imagined we would sound if Holly produced us or if we could sort of be an older version of the Crickets. Whenever I've been at my most relaxed as a musician or feeling especially rusty, I turn to musicians like Holly as a way to fire up my imagination. I think some performers might have to gird themselves to approach older music. But rock and roll is sort of like my street music—it’s the soundtrack to my childhood. Singing Holly’s songs for me is just like riffing with an old friend or a relative you only get to see once a year. You pick up where you left off and fall right in. Your personality changes, your language changes—you get transformed, in a good way. Holly's music has all the elements that I always wanted in my music--lovely words, lovely melodies, and a great beat. I'm not sure I'm moved by his music more than I am by great Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, or Benny Moré records. For me what makes Holly stand out is that he's approachable. When you get into it, there's a lot of substance to his work but from the outside he's very inviting. In some ways, Tim O'Brien is like that. Tim's singing and playing seems very effortless when you're hearing it from the outside. But once you get on stage with him, you discover that he's a champion and if you're not ready to rock, he can cut you to pieces. That's a long answer—and all true, but really this seemed like a fun idea and we went with it and before we knew it, we had a platter.
What do you think is the lasting appeal of Holly's music and do you think that the multi-artist released in tribute to Buddy Holly are they're the best way to bring a new audience to his work?
I think few Holly fans can really say what it is about his music that is so attractive. You can argue that Elvis and Bo Diddley and the Everly Brothers made better sounding records. Most Holly fans I know have confessed to falling for his music pretty hard and listening to everything he did which is a bit unusual. There are some artists - like Muddy Waters or Hank Williams or maybe Elvis -where you feel so at home with their sound that you can listen to them non-stop until it becomes a kind of meditation. Neko Case has that effect on me. We can listen to her for hours in our house and I'm just at home with it. Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker are a few others. Holly was able able to express himself with an instrument besides his voice. He also intuitively - it seems - knew that the recording medium allowed him some opportunities as a composer. If you were to list all the instruments you hear in Holly's catalog, you'd include strings, celeste, horns, organ, gospel choirs, chairs, boxes, cymbals, handclaps, and piano along with guitars, bass and drums. That's an impressive collection of sounds for what many of his generation think of as just a simple rock and roll singer. And though he didn't get to develop as a writer, the ambivalent streak in his writing voice is a dead-on picture of how it feels to be 20 and - as it turns out - how it feels to be 40 and probably 60.
You have gone into the studio and recorded the songs in spirit and style that Holly may have approached them himself. Was the intention to capture that spontaneity that was a part of the recording process in the past?
It was intentional but that’s the way we work anyway. I think the WPA as a group and myself as a composer are probably most at home with the kind of atmosphere that Holly, Elvis, and Little Richard worked in where you record live. You rehearse for a bit and when you think you're getting there, you roll tape and play it a few times. If you're there, you know it. Sometimes a song gets better with age and you have to live with it and come back to it a few weeks later. I stress to the WPA that we might have to record something a couple times under different circumstances. But you can tell if you’re getting there. Sometimes one musician can turn you left or right and make or break the arrangement you have. There's no substitute to performing in the studio when you’re playing rock and roll. I think most musicians who love that classic sound you’re talking about are not really trying to turn back the clock as much as they're connecting with that kind of method. It feels daring and exciting to record without a lot of hassle and just live with what you’ve created as it is. Every musician I've met - on the big stage and small - have tried making records in a very formal precise way. And all of them are now back in the mode of just cutting live as your studio allows you.
Did recording those songs give you any insights into your own writing?
I’m sure it did but I’m not sure I can say how yet. Sometimes I feel very inarticulate to say what it is I'm doing. I really go on feeling. I do think the frame that I put Holly in is a very flexible and dynamic one. He recorded all kinds of songs and made it work. If you were to make a mix of a couple dozen Holly songs you'd probably have "Everyday" and "Well...All Right" and "Think It Over" - maybe some solo songs from his apartment tapes he made before his last tour. And from that cross section you'd hear many different kinds of styles. I think Holly's ability to freely reach for any instrument that would keep him going forward is in my thinking too. That's how I read him - I may be completely wrong but since I’ll never know, I'm ok with living with that fantasy. I just like him. Few artists seize the day and he did. So did Sam Cooke.
After several albums of your own songs, a music journey that started out on the resurgence of Lower Broadway and a attempt to reclaim the music of the past, where do you see your music now in the overall scheme of things?
I wish I knew honestly. There's a part of me that every musician can relate to probably that feels like I've been trying to get to the Americana party I see happening just over the hill but the bridge is washed out and I can't quite get there. The business is what it is. I don't fight it. If anything, I've kind of ignored it but it keeps knocking on my door for which I'm really grateful. I'm also really pleased that the band has survived and thrived and that it can also break off into duos and trios and go in various directions. When fiddler Fats Kaplin and I play together, we can get down on some good blues like the Mississippi Shieks and Charlie Patton. When I'm with Dennis Crouch, he's a huge fan of honky tonk country and all the great heavyweight bassists like Ray Brown and Jimmy Blanton, so we can get into some very expressive melodies. With the rock and roll trio, we're a little of everything. I will say that I don't think any of the Lower Broadway performers thought about reclaiming the past. We were all fans of what we thought was a very vital form of music and that Nashville really need a kick in the arse. The motives were punk. But we all wanted record deals - there’s no hiding the ambition. But we choose the path we did because we loved the music, we felt it was important, that we had something to say through it, and that producers like Tony Brown and Mike Curb had made a private party out of country music that only the chosen few were welcome to. We found them a bit ridiculous. I still do. They couldn't care less about what Nashville had to offer outside of what might impact their legend. But we cared about the people who came to see us. And I still do. I think music can save a life. I've seen it happen.
You are going to release a new album on Bloodshot Records, a collaboration with the Waco Brothers, how did that come about?
A few years ago Jon Langford and I became good friends and he just invited me to play with the Waco's one night. I think they're wonderful and it's such a jolt of electricity to be on stage with them. I do feel a different kind of power with them and at the time I first met them, I was in need of that. I think my experience with them really helped me get my own group together in such a way where now, the WPA we can create a really powerful sound that defies description when we're so inclined. I give my experience with the Waco's full credit for that.I think it might be possible they were seeking a different kind of recording experience and they thought I might be able to help them. When you're from Nashville, you tend to be ready at a moment's notice - in tune, ready with songs, ready with arrangements - and I think that slight bit of seriousness about record making was something they thought might be good for them.In reality, I wanted to get away from that and get back to something a bit freer. We met in the middle. It's a fine record but I think live will be the way to hear it.
Your Buddy Holly album is a vinyl and download release. Do you think that the CD is now not a viable format?
I like albums and one part of my opinion thinks however albums can be delivered is ok with me. I love LP’s but digital is here to stay. I'm not that torn up about digital except when I'm in the studio. In the studio, tape still sounds pretty fantastic but once things are mixed I tend to just groove on whatever I'm listening to. It's a shame that there are so many bad sounding CDs. We're probably just on the cusp of getting them to sound quite good and now they're going to go away. What I don't understand is why we can't find a great physical form of delivery that can't be scratched. If something is going to be scratched, I just assume use a record so I can at least pickup the needle. Digital skips are total drag.
How have the changes within the music industry affected you as a working musician?
The changes have affected my ability to perform quite a bit and I think everyone is probably in the same boat. I miss the labels and most artists do. The labels miss the labels. They don’t know what to do. My writing and my music choices haven’t changed. Business wise, I'm in a constant harassed state where I'm hoping or begging to find someone with a vision to do the hard labor to get the music out. I would like to perform on a more personal level at house concerts, small theaters, schools, art centers - all of which are great places to play. If things can move away from bars, I'd be very happy. I don't really want to go on at midnight anymore. I kind of like the scrappy-ness of the modern music industry. For artists like me that never sold very much to begin with, it’s kind of nice to see some of the superstars humbled.
Country music now seems to further than ever from it's traditional roots. Has the time come again for the kind re-energising that saw yourself and performers like BR-549 and Greg Garing playing the music of Hank Williams Snr for a old and new audience or has that time past?
Perhaps. Country music sort of thrives on that ebb and flow. And it wouldn't surprise me if it might come from within. There are some real talents in the pop country field. It will be a brave artist who breaks the mold and they'll suffer for it like Hank did probably.
Have you any long term plans for your music and your studio or is now a case of taking each opportunity as it comes?
Do you have any regrets about your career path?
I do, but I don’t think I’d make them public. One funny moment I’ll share. Chet Atkins heard my first album and thought at first that I was from the 50’s. He told a mutual friend: “how did I miss this guy?” I saw him walk into the Station Inn in Nashville that very same day I heard that story and I wanted to blurt out “I’m that guy” but I just held the door open for him. I’d have that moment again but otherwise there are not too many. Hopefully I’m still getting better and the people who thought I was no good when I started might come back and be surprised.
What have been the high-points?
I’m too young to talk about high-points but I appreciate you asking. I’d say singing with Ralph Stanley and finding that so easy to do was important for me personally. We instantly had a good rapport and a good sound together. Ralph told my wife that the tone of my voice reminded him of his brother. Every time I write something I like or make an album, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m thankful I still have verve for recording and performing. A lot of people I started with have faded out.
Interview by Steve Rapid