Cliff Westfall Interview

"Hot damn. I don’t know who the hell Cliff Westfall is or where he’s been hiding out for so many years, but he just released a hot shit country record that will whip the pants off of most others released this year and many from years prior, and get you making room on your list of favourite artists’’. I’m borrowing that quote from Kyle “The Triggerman” Coroneos, creator and head writer for Saving Country, guardian of ‘real’ country music and slayer of the commercial garbage currently impersonating country music. The quote precisely reflects Lonesome Highway’s opinion of Westfall and his debut solo album Baby You Win, which made an equally lofty impact on us when it came across our radar earlier in the year.  There’s a lot more to Westfall than great songs, hillbilly boogie, honky tonk rockin’ and keeping essential traditional music alive and kicking. Behind all these admirable virtues is also a musical philosopher and enthusiast. 

How would you best describe your music?

I sometimes call it electrified honky tonk. I like to play with a five- or even six-piece band, and keep the music pretty raucous at live shows, with a lot of high country harmonies, twangy guitars and pedal steel, turned up to 10 at least if not 11. 

To come at it from what it’s not: People often describe my music as retro, but I really don’t see it that way. It doesn’t offend me or anything – in fact, I think it’s intended as a compliment, but I’m not trying to recreate what Lefty or Hank or Merle did (not that I could anyway). I’m trying to write and perform songs for right now, not create a museum-quality replica of something from another era. At the same time, classic honky tonk is very much my inspiration, so if people are comparing my songs to the classics that I love, I’m honoured. 

One other thought on the tension between tradition and newness: I think tradition is at the core of what country music is about, both from the standpoint of stylistic continuity on a musical level, as well as being concerned with the role of tradition in people’s lives. I think that I’m a traditionalist on both of those levels, or at least I try to be. If you’re doing it right, you’re writing in your own world but having kind of an ongoing conversation with the past too. And if you’re doing it wrong – I’m thinking here of a lot of contemporary Nashville “product” – you end up with stuff that doesn’t seem related at all to what came before.

I have to ask you about the striking album cover. A throwback to previous decades?

Ha, yes – thank you, I would say that the cover IS pretty retro! I don’t think I’ve said this in an interview before, but the image was inspired by the cover of the Louvin Brothers album Tragic Songs of Life. I showed it to my friend Billy Woodward, a New York-based artist, as an example of something that I thought would fit the vibe, and what you see was his response. I thought he hit a home run with it. 

A couple of things I love about it: 1) I’m a huge fan of early film noir – films like The Asphalt Jungleand Out of the Past– and it looks like it could have been a movie poster from the era; and 2) That image of the dejected guy in the chair is obviously me, but I never posed for it; Billy just kind of put me in there. I thought that was cool. 

Fortunately, the album itself is of an equally high standard musically. Tell me about its conception and how long you’ve been working on it?

The big picture is that I had a bunch of songs that I knew I wanted to record, and I had fallen in with a bunch of really amazing players, so it seemed like the time to go for it.

The songs range in age. I had been part of a honky tonk band called The Steamboat Disasters in New York in the early 2010s, and a few of the songs on Baby You Windate back that far (e.g., “It Hurt Her to Hurt Me,” “I’ll Play the Fool”). After that band broke up, I formed an acoustic duo called The Needmore Brothers that played mostly in the Catskills, a couple of hours north of New York City. Some of the songs came from that period too (“The Man I Used to Be,” “Sweet Tooth,” plus the cover we did of “Hanging On” – in fact, my Needmores partner Matthew Horn (a/k/a “Short Fuse Needmore”) sings harmonies on the record a couple of songs that we used to do together (“Sweet Tooth,” “Hanging On”). And then, there were some that I never really played until I started going out under my own name around 2016 – for example, “More and More,” “Baby You Win,” “The Odds Were Good.”

I have to give a lot of credit to Graham Norwood, who started playing with me as a guitarist and harmony singer around that time. He helped me put the band together, he’s one of the two producers of the album, he and I together chose the songs to put on Baby You Winas well as what to leave back for the next one. And also to producer Bryce Goggin of Trout Recording in Brooklyn. He’s better known as a rock producer (The Ramones, Phish, Antony & The Johnsons, Evan Dando), but he understood exactly what we were going for, and created a great working vibe for the band too.

You have certainly poured your heart into it. Beautifully packaged with an impressive lyric book, were you determined to tick every box in terms of its presentation, regardless of the financially outlay involved?

Thank you. I wanted to put out something that I’d want if I was buying it. And for me, especially as a kid, the package was always such a huge part of the experience of listening to a record. Put the album on, pore over the cover art, read the lyric insert (if any) for the millionth time… repeat.

It pays homage to the early sound of Dwight Yoakam, an artist very close to your own heart?

I’m really glad to hear that, because Dwight Yoakam is foundational for me. What I love about Dwight is the way that he brought in elements of rock and roll and still managed to stay very much a country traditionalist in terms of his songwriting. I think actually that you could say the same thing about Dwight’s own hero (and one of mine too), Buck Owens. Both of those guys managed to do the seemingly contradictory thing of pushing the envelope while writing songs that felt like old standards.

You’ve mixed the standard country fall backs of booze, heartache and regret with no end of humour on tracks like Till The Right One Comes Along and the title track. Listeners to your style of country often are taken in by the melody without actually exploring the lyrics. Your lyrics appear to be every bit as critical as your melodies? 

Again, thank you. As a fan, I have always been attracted to good lyrics. I love songs that tell a story, or make me laugh, or make me think. At the same time, good lyrics gain part of their power by the way they drive the rhythm and melody. I think that when somebody really does it right, the words and music seem nearly inseparable, so that you can hardly imagine one without the other.

I’m also glad that you noticed that “Till the Right One Comes Along,” which is kind of a dark weepy ballad, has elements of humour too. I think that’s true in life generally, that you can say serious things with some degree of humour. It’s also part of the way I was brought up –Southerners and the Irish probably have that in common!

What writers switched the lights on for you and in particular which ones encouraged you to incorporate humour in your writing?

In no particular order: Roger Miller, Don Gibson, Shel Silverstein, Jerry Chesnut (who wrote “A Dime at a Time” and “Looking at the World Through a Windshield” for Del Reeves, in addition to stone classic weepers like “Another Place, Another Time” and “A Good Year for the Roses”), Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Mel Tillis, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant (who wrote hits for The Everly Brothers and Little Jimmy Dickens). Among contemporary writers who inspire me in that way, Robbie Fulks and Mike Stinson are both great. 

Tell me about growing up in Owensboro Kentucky and the music that you were exposed to as a child?

I’m glad you asked that. The music and culture that I was exposed to there as a kid really shaped what I’m trying to do as an artist. For one thing, my family was full of talkers. Family stories, often laugh-till-you-cried hilarious even if the underlying events might have been kind of dark, got told and re-told, and that was just part of how we related to each other. I thought that was completely the norm until I moved away from home and realized that it wasn’t. 

On the musical front, I thought that adults everywhere listened to country music, and that kids listened to rock and roll, and that that was the way of the world. 

My folks absolutely loved country music – they honeymooned in Nashville and talked for years about meeting Hee Haw comedian Archie Campbell in a bar, to give you a sense of how deeply they loved it. They were pretty old school as parents: If there was a choice between what I wanted to hear and what they did, it wasn’t a choice at all. So that classic honky tonk sound was all around me, even if as a kid, I preferred the AM rock and roll stations. 

My dad – technically my stepdad but he’s the one who raised me – was a police officer, and he was a big, tough guy. My mom worked in a liquor distillery. My neighbourhood was pretty tough in its own way, too. I recall being introduced to other kids as “This is Cliff, his dad’s a cop but he’s cool,” which may give you a sense of the general vibe in the neighbourhood.

Owensboro was a great place to grow up. It’s on the Ohio River, kind of industrial (liquor production, steel, coal, etc.), but it was surrounded by rural areas – including musically famous places like Rosine (homeplace of Bill Monroe, which is also where my  great-grandfather was from), Muhlenberg County, which produced Merle Travis, the Everlys, and others. But a lot of those rural areas were dry, and Owensboro was kind of a Sin City where people would come to drink and party. So, there was just kind of a honky tonk vibe, and my folks definitely partook of it pretty liberally. As a 10- or 12-year-old, I would sometimes mix the drinks at their parties – everybody drank bourbon and Coke, so it wasn’t exactly advanced mixology. The only real challenge for me was to see how stiff I could make them without getting them sent back. And country music blaring the whole time: Jones, Haggard, Waylon and Willie, Conway Twitty, Loretta, Dolly, Charley Pride, etc.

What music and artists outside country made the strongest impression on you? 

I could go on all day about that too. I probably lean mostly towards vintage Southern music – early rock and roll, gospel, and R&B. The early rockers weren’t that far from country anyway, but I particularly love Chuck Berry, who I think was the greatest lyricist ever because he was so precise and rhythmic and at the same time so hilarious and smart. Buddy Holly and Elvis loom pretty large for me as well. I also love LOTS of R&B and soul music: Percy Mayfield, who most famously wrote “Hit the Road, Jack,” Ike and Tina, pretty much anyone who was on Memphis-based Hi Records – Al Green, Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright. And a million others probably.

I also love a lot of early garage rock, punk, and pub rock. Nick Lowe is one of the greatest songwriters ever, I think. X, the New York Dolls, the Stooges, the Sonics, etc. But I love lots of the stuff you can hear on any classic rock station, too: I’m a huge fan of Dylan, the Stones, the Kinks, the Beatles, Creedence.

How pivotal was the surgency In Cowpunk in directing you towards performing?

When I went away to college in Lexington, Kentucky, cowpunk was just beginning to be a thing there. My friends and I were especially into Jason and the Scorchers, but most of the bands doing that came through town at one time or another, and there was a thriving local scene that I was part of both as a fan and performer. It’s weird to think about, because it seems obvious now, but it came as a complete revelation to me that you could mix country with fast, hard rock and roll. Learning that my two favourite things could just be joined together like that was amazing – it was like discovering how good bananas and peanut butter taste together or something. (Something I highly recommend, by the way.) And also, the punk DIY ethos carried over into cowpunk, so we were like, why can’t we do that? 

Anyway, yes, I think it was really pivotal in getting me to go for it. At the same time, I was always someone who leaned more towards the country side of the cowpunk equation among my friends and bandmates. 

So, when did Cliff Westfall the listener become Cliff Westfall the performer and do you recall your first gig and some of the setlist?

I dabbled a bit with singing with musician friends in high school but didn’t really have any true gigs until I got to college in Lexington. I started a duo with a friend of mine, doing a mix of originals (most now mercifully forgotten), and covers of everyone from the Butthole Surfers to Hank Williams. But I don’t remember exactly what the first gig was or what we played. Later on, we added a rhythm section and got a whole lot louder, which was a blast.

The dreaded crossover pop country market is strong nationwide in The States due to the marketing machines driving it across so many Radio Stations. However, classic or traditional country appears to be making some impact outside Nashville and Austin at present with growing audiences in California and New York. Has this been your experience?

Oh, definitely. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I think there’s an increasing recognition that people doing things their own way, and playing outside of the rules of corporate country, are the true innovators. Just look at the Grammys this year, where it seems like the majority of country nominees are outside that cookie cutter mould. I think that’s cause for optimism, even if the industry machinery is still pushing pop country. I know from looking at my own Spotify numbers that I do well in places you wouldn’t necessarily expect – Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee are up there, but people are listening in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York too. 

Are there many opportunities to perform live in New York for you?

Most of the venues in New York are pretty open to diverse genres. And on top of that, there are a lot of country and country-influenced acts here too, so it’s really not that hard to get bookings. On one hand, country is not the go-to genre here the way that it is in the South, but New York is still a huge city, with a decent-sized audience for just about everything under the sun, definitely including country. And I think we’re making a few converts along the way, too. I sometimes do bills with indie rock bands and end up playing for people who say they didn’t think they liked country music, but they liked our show. It’s kind of an awkward compliment to get, because it makes me want to defend country as an art form. On the other hand, if my image of country music was coming from mainstream country radio, I’d recoil in horror too.

Have you ever been tempted to relocate to Austin or Nashville?

Funny you should ask. I’m probably not going to make a permanent move, at least in the short term, but I have plans in the works to start spending real time in each of them. I love New York and I have roots here now, but those two cities are both so important, and both are chock full of amazing players too. And Nashville for me is just a couple of hours from where I grew up, so it’d be nice to be close to home.

Last question. It’s 1986 and Cliff Westfall has just released Baby You Win on the Reprise label.  The launch of stardom?

Ha! I’d love to think so. I do think it would’ve fit in well with the stuff that was going on back then. But the truth is, I couldn’t have written this album without getting a lot more life experience first.

Interview by Declan Culliton  Photography by Rosie Cohe and Diego Britt (live)