Confession time first. Up to three weeks ago Texan singer songwriter Terry Klein was unknown to us at Lonesome Highway. His second recorded CD, simply titled Tex, arrived at HQ for review some weeks back and caught my immediate attention on the outstanding opening track, Sagamore Bridge. On further investigation it came as no surprise to find lavish praise being directed at Klein by both Rodney Crowell and Mary Gauthier. The album is a story book full of tales that instantly capture the imagination, with lyrics at times uplifting and joyous and on occasions as painful as an open wound.
Lonesome Highway chatted with Klein about the album, his influences and more.
You are described as a ‘recovering lawyer’. I’m reminded of a classic quote from a former Police Officer and Attorney. ‘’ I’d prefer to stand on a street corner in a short dress waving at cars than practice law again’’. Does this ring a bell with you?
It rings lots of bells. Practicing law wasn't for me. And there's some honour, at least, in standing on a street corner in a short dress!
Was the musical career always an ambition for you or how did it come about?
It was an ambition when I was very young, until I was about twenty. Then I left it behind and practiced law for fifteen years. I started falling in love with country and folk and singer-songwriter music starting around 2011. And in November of 2013 I wrote my first song. From there I wrote lots of bad songs - one or two or three a week - until about the middle of 2015. But I have to say, almost from the instant I wrote that first bad song, I was saying to myself, that's what I wanted to be spending my time doing. Thank goodness I didn't end being horrible at it.
Were you an admirer of the classic Texan songwriters growing up?
Interestingly, no. My tastes growing up were reliably boring and/or based on a surplus of adolescent testosterone: Van Halen, Hendrix, Zeppelin, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beatles, U2, Sting, the Police.
What was your musical history either as a punter or performer prior to recording your debut album Great Northern in 2017?
Well, first of all, I was in a thrash funk/heavy metal band in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. We were pretty good, too. We played at places like the Whiskey A Go Go and The Troubadour. That band fell apart and I didn't play music for people hardly at all until about five years ago. I played my first open mic in Boson in the summer of 2014 and then kept popping into open mics intermittently until the beginning of 2016, when I really jumped in with two feet. I played three to five open mics a week in Boston from January to June of 2016. Then we moved to Austin and I started getting gigs pretty quickly, which was immensely gratifying. When you start playing gigs, people ask if you have anything recorded. It's embarrassing; I didn't have some massive creative vision associated with the first record. I just wanted to be able to say "yes" when people asked me if I had an album or was on Spotify.
That album got some notice from some serious hard hitters such as Rodney Crowell and Mary Gauthier. How satisfying and confidence boosting were those acknowledgments?
Both Rodney and Mary nurture songwriters who they think have promise. To be in that category still means a lot to me.
I believe you attended one of Mary Gauthiers song writing workshops in Nashville?
I did. It was one of the most meaningful experiences I've ever had in my life. Anyone who wants to write songs that mean something needs to do a workshop with Mary. Scrimp, save, borrow, steal. Whatever it takes. Just go.
How structured and disciplined are you as a writer. Can you work nine to five or do you wait for a storyline or lyric to come from left of centre?
I'm pretty disciplined when I'm in writing mode. I take the Flannery O'Connor approach. I try to write, or revise, or stare out the window wondering why I haven't written anything good for what feels like forever, for three hours in the morning, from about 9 until about noon. Real life gets in the way of that from time to time. But when I'm in that rhythm, after about a month or so of writing things I think are good, I'll start writing things that are actually good. Writing good songs takes time. Writing good anything takes time.
Are personal experiences a springboard for your writing?
One hundred percent yes. But I borrow liberally from the experiences of people I know and love or who fascinate me.
You have the capacity to pack the maximum backcloth with the minimum amount of words. Do I detect a voracious reader or simply a vivid imagination? If you are a reader, what authors impress you?
I read a lot. I think that's an indispensable important part of being a good writer. My favourites are Dickens, Hemingway, Willa Cather, Edit Wharton, Flannery O'Connor, Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace.
Moving to your current album Tex, which is hitting the Lonesome Highway sweet spot. You have again worked with Walt Wilkins, who produced the album. How did you hook up with him and get him on board giving that he seems to be continually in motion?
I met Walt at a songwriting retreat hosted by Kevin Welch in October 2015. We connected right away and kept in close touch. Like Rodney and Mary, Walt doesn't let his insane schedule get in the way of nurturing writers and artists he believes in. When he offered to produce the record, I was shocked, flattered, excited, scared to death. Working with him and Ron Flynt, who engineered both records, felt easy. All they ask is that you come in ready to work. By the second record, it was like the three of us had one brain. I'd hear something and before I could even say anything about it, Walt would say "did you hear that?" I feel immensely fortunate that Walt and Ron are in my life, both as friends and as artistic collaborators.
The song writing on the album often deals with real life and every day issues, ones that are often swept under the carpet. The opening track Sagamore Bridge is particularly insightful, the privileged and the bare survivors living side by side in a parallel universe. Where did the story line come from?
I lived in Boston from 2000 to 2016 so I spent quite a bit of time on Cape Cod in the summers. There are three verses in the song and each verse has two parts, so six total parts. And each of those six parts is pulled from real life, real experiences I've had along the way. It sure has been interesting to me how that song has resonated with people all over the world who have never set foot on the Cape.
There’s a lifetime and more of personal experiences on Tex. Should we envisage Terry Klein in some of the landscapes?
No! The power of a good song is that when you use the first-person pronoun, the listener envisions him- or herself in the landscape. I'm boring. I want people to picture themselves.
The family, in various forms, get a lot of coverage in the songs. The wayward and drifting son returning to his mother’s funeral in Oklahoma is compelling. Daddy’s Store features the pull between emotional family attachment and the draw to let go and leave the nest. Which of the brother will be most fulfilled and will both have regrets as time marches on?
Well, to be alive is to feel regret. But goodness, I hope both of those guys experience some fulfilment after the song ends. In Oklahoma, I hope the narrator gets to his dad's house and they sit and have a beer or a glass of whiskey together and laugh a little and maybe cry a little and miss the person they've lost. I hope that's what happens. In Daddy's Store, I hope the narrator at some point perceives the fact that he's imposed this obligation upon himself, that what his dad wants more than the store staying in the family is for his son to lead a happy, fulfilled (that word again) life. I actually feel like there's less of a chance of that than there's a chance that the narrator in Oklahoma finds his way back to the living. I'm not sure why.
Too Blue To Get That Far is a difficult listen, laced with despair and regret. Was it a difficult song to compose or do you detach yourself from the subject matter?
It was one of the easiest songs to write that I've written. It just poured out of me. Sharing it with people I love, well, that was the hard part. And they don't like it when I play it. But I sure do hope that it makes folks out there who struggle with depression feel a tiny, little bit less alone. I've had a lot of people ask me "are you okay?" And I am. I have good days and bad days. We all do.
I sense a love of the blues and jazz on your part in patches of the album. The closing track Steady Rain has a jazzy crossover feel to it?
Yes! For a little while after the heavy metal band broke up, I studied jazz in New York. I practiced 7 hours a day and all of that. But you know that song really owes a debt to the Beastie Boys. There's a song on their record Check Your Head called "Something's Got To Give" that was what I heard in my head when I wrote it. What's crazy is that I didn't even have to tell that to the players on the song, Bart De Win (keys), Bill Small (bass), and John Chapman (drums). The groove was self-evident, I guess.
The haunting sound of a pedal steel guitar is the perfect accessory to semi spoken lyrics. Kim Deschamps, who has played with the best, contributes steel to five tracks on the album. Tell me what he brought to the table. I get a sense of ‘less is more’ with his input, which is most affecting?
I love Kim. I love him as a person and as a player. He played on both records and we've played shows together, too. He's a compassionate, conscientious musician. The song comes first. He's not sitting there champing at the bit waiting for a chance to play a solo. He's listening to the lyrical content and the melody and he's adding textures that draw out the song's emotional content. On "Oklahoma", it's grief. On "Straw Hat" it's jubilation. On "Daddy's Store", it's wistfulness. I love steel guitar so much. Sometimes I wonder if I write the songs I do just so I can have a steel player play along with me.
The albums out there and getting positive feedback. Is it practical for you to tour the album with a band or do you intend performing the material from it solo?
This is a tough, tough business. I love playing with a band and I do it a handful of times a year in Austin. But when I tour, I do it solo. Now, I just played a week of dates in Holland and Bart De Win lives there and he played with me. Playing with Bart is what I imagine it'd feel like to drive an extremely, extremely fast car. I'm glad we rehearse just so I'm emotionally prepared to be blown away during the show. Playing with Kim is the same way.
Are there sufficient opportunities to promote it in Texas or do you intend heading farther afield?
I just did three weeks in the UK and Europe and I get up to the Northeast (Boston, New York, DC) two to three times a year. And I try to work in one or two other regions a year. But I do love playing in Texas. The venues here, especially the dance halls and the older bars and taverns, there's just some magic in the walls. And if I could live my dream of fronting a pure, old school honky tonk band, I could make a wonderful living and never have to leave the state. But alas. That'll have to wait until I'm done writing the songs I'm meant to write.
Interview by Declan Culliton