The Long Ryders were originally formed in Los Angeles in the early 1980 and disbanded in I987. During that time they blended a mix of punk attitude with a strong roots sensibility and released several albums. A comprehensive box set of their work Final Wild Songs has just been released with the first pressing quickly selling out.The band are doing some dates to support this release before finishing the tour in Dublin at Whelans on Sunday 8th of May. Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to ask founding member Sid Griffin some questions.
The band has reformed for selected gigs and tours since parting company originally in the late 80s. How difficult is it for the four of you to schedule the time to rehearse and to tour?
Extremely difficult. I live in London as you know, our brilliant guitarist Stephen McCarthy lives in his native Richmond, Virginia, our bass player Tom Stevens lives in northern Indiana, and our drummer Greg Sowders lives in Los Angeles. No one lives anywhere near the other guy! And everyone has families but to be fair two of the band have grown children. Two of us have kids at home. So it is very difficult to organise any touring or the like.
You’re touring in support of the release of the Final Wild Songs 4 CD box set. In compiling that have you ever been inspired to consider doing an new album or are the circumstances of releasing new music now too complicated and costly unless backed by a label?
The Final Wild Songs box set was compiled primarily by Tom Stevens, our bassist. He is a master archivist, what Bill Wyman is to the Rolling Stones. He knew where everything was and is!
There is some minor discussion about doing a new album but it is soooooooo difficult to get us all in one room. And doing it via the computer and not seeing the other person…man, that is just not, not, not the Long Ryders way! This is something we will discuss on the European leg of our shows in April and May of this year. When we get to the USA in July I am sure we will either have a plan settled on or we will skip the idea entirely.
You emerged alongside a number of other bands who were all labelled the 'Paisley Underground’ yet your leanings were more towards a roots-orientated sound. This was before Americana or alt-Country were terms to try and define a sound. Would that have made any real difference to the band’s identity or career if you had started later or where you, as front runners, better as you were?
It would have made all the difference in the world, Steve, if we had started later in our career or even started earlier. As the writer Johnny Black wrote, “The Long Ryders were the perfectly right band at the perfectly wrong time”. This is the Lord’s Truth. People say we didn’t go as far as we should have but the fact is we went as far as we were allowed to.
Everyone who did like our sound played our music. There was no place left to go to. Every other DJ, especially in Europe and the UK, was playing this ghastly synth pop rubbish. I still hate that music today! And I notice it is completely, undeniably out of fashion. You might hear it on an Oldies station but it is very old hat. Americana, which the Long Ryders helped codify and define, is now the hip currency in the USA by some length and it is getting more and more of an audience in Europe every week. As Willie Dixon said, “this rock is the fruit but the blues are the roots”, and I agree.
Where do you think the Long Ryders rightful place in the history of (country) rock is?
As an important, indispensable link in the chain. We brought the music of Gram Parsons to the generation of Johnny Rotten and now look what happened. It is a shame we didn’t last longer but there you are, nothing can be done about that now.
You and Tom compiled Final Wild Songs his much of that was work and how much was fun?
It was a bit over two years work. Hard to believe but true. Getting all the songs decided upon, finding the original tapes or the best version possible to use as a source, getting all the photographs together and trying to find photos people have not seen a zillion times…man, it was very hard work and stressful at times. I cannot speak for Tom but I found myself juggling a lot of balls in the air and praying I would not drop any of them. I am a musician, not a magician, right?
Since the band’s demise you have taken a more acoustic/bluegrass direction with your music. Did you miss the amps and the drums and the Rickenbacker?
I do not miss playing electric music whatsoever. I played with a great, if you will allow me to say so, a great electric band, the Long Ryders. And I am tired of the volume and wanted to do something different. I did not even play mandolin fifteen years ago…now I play every day and in fact consider myself a mandolinist and not a guitarist.
It is true bluegrass music is not popular, audiences will always respond to the big, loud 4/4 beat but playing lightly and tightly and rockin’ along in 2/4 on a Bill Monroe song has a helluva lot to recommend it! Heck, Adele, of all people, she LOVES bluegrass music from her time in the USA and our Coal Porters’ fiddler Kerenza Peacock plays fiddle for Adele (you don’t think she makes a living playing with me, do you?).
My Rickenbacker was in the closet for months. I just got it out to rehearse for this tour.
What do you think of the current state of what passes for country music where bands are more influenced by big-hair metal and rap than by a real sense of rock and punk attitude brought by bands like yourselves and Jason & The Scorchers and Rank & File?
I have no affection at all for “bro country” or the C&W out of Nashville where you can tell the most country band the singer has ever dug is The Eagles. That stuff means nothing to me. I thought the first Rank & File album was one of the best albums I have ever heard in my life. How funny to think Alejandro Escovedo was, at best, the third most important guy in that band. Now he is Mr. Americana in the USA!
Age has its own limiting factors but is playing again with the band a shot in the arm in terms of energy and attitude?
Oh, I am playing with the Long Ryders to a) support the box set, and b) to see my dear pals, Tom, Stephen and the drummer. I forget his name. Craig? There is no real money in a Long Ryders reunion, believe me. But it will be fun, they will make me laugh like they did in the old days, we will see many old friends and old faces, so what’s not to like?
As regards it being a shot in the arm I consider it more a shot in the dark. I would love to see if we are treated like old pals, like a heritage act, like Famous Unsung People, or exactly what. I do so look forward to this European tour, yep.
I’m sure there were ups and downs in your career like not being able to take up the offer to tour with U2 but what are the more memorable aspects of being a Long Ryder for you?
U2 asked us to open The Joshua Tree tour dates, from date one till about two months into it. Our final album, Two-Fisted Tales, was delayed so we decided not to do it and to join the U2 tour later on. As you know we never did get to open for U2 at all, not even once. So this was a major opportunity blown, no question about it, and a fairly big regret of mine. We twice turned down touring Japan and Australia, that was a dumb move too. But life goes on.
Bono memorably said our song Harriet Tubman’s Going To Carry Me Home was a classic, that people would be singing it around campfires in 200 years. People sometimes make fun of him but what a cool thing to say. I owe him so much for that quote, it has been around the world.
What are your own personal plans for there future in music and with your writing?
There is a new Coal Porters album out called No. 6, yes Number six, in September, and I will tour behind that. I have a broadcasting offer in the USA I am seriously considering and so, at present, I am not sure about what I am going to write next. We shall see.
Interview by Stephen Rapid