Gerald W Haslam’s book Workin’ Man Blues covers the rich heritage of California country music from the singing cowboys up to Dwight Yoakam and the artists in the 90s what do you feel about that tradition and it’s legacy?
The California country music in Haslam's book is nothing short of outstanding. Miraculous in a way. California has a reputation around the country and world that is, sadly, quite disconnected from reality. What is California? An aerospace mecca? Yes. A wine mecca? Yes. An entertainment mecca? Yes. A farming mecca? Yes. A Tech mecca? Yes and on and on. I can see why people don't think of it as a folk/country/roots music mecca, but they should. It's all here.
What is the current scene in LA and California like today, is it a healthy one or does it struggle to survive?
With the very rare exception an artist's life is always a struggle. The pay is low. The indignity high. Things tend to progress in tandem. It's easier than ever to record and release music, AND there is so much music flooding the world that fans can't make heads or tails of it. Those two things are both true, and connected. It is so hard to catch someone's attention in this world, and even harder to hold it. That makes building a fan base harder than ever, BUT you have more tools to do it than ever.
From an artistic standpoint LA has a rich scene of roots music. Lots of artists, lots of perspectives, lots of recordings and live shows. Are there enough fans to support this scene? It waxes and wains, but as the means of selling records in order to make a living has withered away ... so has the opportunity to break out in a big way. There's a reason that Dwight Yoakam is the last LA country music star on most people's lists. There's very little business left here to break artists to the nation or internationally.
The last three albums show a development of your direction as a musician do you intend to continue to explore the possibilities with a traditional country music frame work or do you see your self moving beyond those parameters?
The answer to this question depends on the day of the week and my mood. Buck Owens. I love Buck and he kind of invented a style of music. But there was very little variation in what he did. If you ever sit and listen to a Buck Owens LP, you find he did one or two things and that is all. It can get boring. But he knew how to build a brand, and people knew what they were going to get from Buck Owens.
The worst thing you can do with your career when you're trying to make a name for yourself is swing from style to style. the world needs a handle for you, and you're making it hard to find the handle when one record is honky tonk and the next one is reggae and the next one is modern country. Willie Nelson can do that now. Elvis Costello can do that now. They've earned the right to play in these other genres, but lesser known people better not.
So, you have to balance the business concerns with your artistic desires. I love many style of music. It would thrill me to make each recording very different. Texas Swing! Singer-songwriter! Bluegrass! Countrypolitan! That would be a blast. But I have to do these things with some sense of the audience and who I am to them.
So, the answer is I have to be me AND I have to be aware of my public personae. It's that duality again.
What are the key sounds that have influenced your musical directions?
This would be a book that I should write someday. It is a ridiculous collection of disparate sources and sounds. Van Halen guitar is one of the most moving sounds I've ever heard. Lyle Lovett's band has had a profound affect on me. Loretta Lynn's voice. Rush is how I learned how to play the guitar. Johnny Cash's ability to be deadly...DEADLY and then funny. That music makes me wanna to jump for joy. Then there's BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, who I consider the most important solo artist in rock music, and a huge influence on me.
If I had to pick one artist that I consider my north star it would be Merle Haggard. The range of songs he can write, his voice, the way he combines a simple song with a complex rhythm that makes things more interesting, but never gets in the way. He is a master.
Do you agree with the notion that striving for authencity in country music is somewhat false in that the lifestyles of those who initially played and listened to that form of music have radically changed?
I'm not sure what "authenticity in country music" would be. For example, if The Carter Family wrote a song about a mountain stream in 1925, I could write a song about that same stream in 2015. Both could be authentic and effective. If Hank Williams wrote a song about being poor in 1950, I could write about being poor in 2015. The details should be different, if you are going to include details. But the power of the song would be unchanged.
I wrote a song called, Not That Kind of Cowboy about an experience I had that seems to touch on your question. I was in a club and a woman got in my face because she thought my cowboy hat would not be effective out on the range. She thought I was being inauthentic. I had to tell her, "I don't ride the range. I'm not pretending to ride the range. My hat is for something else." She couldn't understand that. As long as artists don't pretend to be a farmer, or a hobo, or something else they aren't I don't see that its a problem to write about the unchanging elements of the human condition.
How relevant is the music now and It would seem that it is with what you are writing, such as one song mentioning an enlarged prostrate?
My songwriting is driven by the stories I want to tell. Simple as that. If I want to tell the story of a man in 1960, I use that world as my reference point. Whatever I need to tell a particular story I use. If it's relevant to make use of the words "cell phone" in a song I'll do it, even though it may date the song eventually.
In that light country music with more traditional roots seems to have found a second home in Europe which is, in truth, very removed from an link to a specifically American environment.
This is a very sad truth. Dale Watson, who is one of the true American country artists working today, posted some time ago that he was having a hard time selling tickets to a show, in a pretty small venue, in Birmingham, Alabama. This had a tremendous affect on me. Alabama, my home state and the home of Hank Williams and others is one of the cradles of country music. Yet the people there have been so captured by the Red State Rock/Pop Country coming from Nashville that he couldn't sell 200 tickets in Birmingham.
That said, I couldn't be happier that people in Europe understand and value this music.
You look like you had fun making the video for Trouble Knows which has the band visually reflecting the changes in style in country music since the 50s. Which of these eras would you have most liked to have performed in?
That's a hard question to answer honestly. It's easy for me to say, "I'd love to be playing country music in 1950." But of course, I don't know anything about what it was like. I can imagine riding around the south in a car, selling records out of the trunk, eating road food, and being ripped off by promoters...and it sounds pretty similar to making music in 2015. I can tell you I love the country music of 1950, and 1965 and 1978. After that, things get less interesting from a mainstream stand point until the early 2000's when Americana music become an important force.
How hard is it to keep a consistent band from tour to tour and album to album. Does it need blood to bring new opportunities?
I have not found it hard to keep a band together. That probably has something to do with the music and with how I treat the people in my band. I try to write the best, most honest music I can every time I'm at bat. I don't coast. I don't say, "Well, this one is shite and doesn't matter." I take it seriously and I think players want to work with someone who loves the music and treats it with respect. I also love musicians. I know some bandleaders that loath the people in their band. They see them like dogs or horses to whip and discard. That's bullshit to me. We're a team and you're not on my team unless I like the way you think about music, the way to talk to our fans, and the way you treat your band mates.
I'm also have a deep respect for them creatively. Yes, I write the songs. but we sit in the studio together and arrange everything. I may have veto power, but I want every drop of creative juice these people have to give me. You don't get that by ruling with an iron first. We've got to jive together.
It can be fun to bring in a new person. That's fresh and exciting. But I want deep rich relationships with the people in my band. I want to raise my eyebrow and have them know what I'm saying. That only comes with years of brotherhood.
Was punk a part of your musical upbringing as it seems to be a factor in a lot of people playing country now?
I always liked the attitude of punk more than punk music. Check that. I loved original punk. British Punk. First generation American Punk. I couldn't follow where punk went in the 1980's. It stopped being about change and started being nilistic. That doesn't make any sense to me. I played in bands that were rooted in punk rhythms and sneering lyrics, but compared to the punks of their day we were light weight.
The reason so many country people embrace punk is because the sense of being an outsider with nothing to lose is common to both worlds. When I see Hank Williams III swinging between honky tonk and punk it makes sense. It's the music of the downtrodden.
Your blog about not streaming your current album Hope Your Happy Now makes some very valid points. What has been the reaction?
Tremendous reaction. Clearly it struck a nerve with musicians and fans. I've had some people follow me in the direction of no-streaming, and some fellow musicians say they just can't take the chance. Daniel Lanois' company touched base with me and asked if I had an interest in participating with their company which streams and pay artists 50% of the revenue. It's a good opportunity to clarify my thoughts on the issue. I'm not against streaming, per se. I'm against artists not being compensated for their work. They can be cheated out of this compensation in two ways. One, a company could refuse to charge listeners a fair amount for the stream of music. Two, a company could charge a fair amount and then keep most/all of the money. Either way the creator of the music has no incentive to participate.
Then there is a third issue that complicates this streaming business. The market will bear very little cost. In other words, if a company wanted to do the right thing and charge listeners a reasonable price, there's a good chance that the business would fail because people have been conditioned to believe that music should all be free or almost free. Given all these facts, I think it's best to just walk away from the whole mess.
Do you feel that the mainstream push for an ever expanding audience by adding pop, rap and hair metal will eventually, if it hasn’t already, make the name country music irrelevant?
It will be interesting to see how Pop Country finally explodes. In the USA, country music could hardly be more relevant. It's the dominant CD sales format. It's the dominant radio format. It's got 4 or 5 yearly "award TV shows" which are just promotional platforms for the artists. The business side of it has been a phenominal success. It is largely indistiguishable from pop or rock music. Is Taylor Swift a country artist or a pop artist? Who knows? There's no difference. Yet it has succeeded in ways that pop or rock have not. There are large and successful country music labels, for example. In the rock world labels have largely died.
Typically things only fail when they are compared to something else. Hair Metal died the day Nirvana hit the radio because in comparison Hair metal seemed fake and ridiculous. Is there a Nirvana of country music out there? Could be, but the business is now much better at shunting off threatening acts into sub channels they own. You're never going to hear me or Justin Townes Earl on mainstream country radio, whereas Nirvana was all over rock radio and MTV. They've got CMT Edge for real country and that's where they stash things that don't help them sell records but lend credibility to their effort. It's a ghetto and they own it.
If I was forced to predict where the whole modern country thing will be in 10 years, I suspect that smart people that run that business will let enough real country in to maintain their credibility and keep enough beefcake and hot young chicks to sell to the mainstream. So, there will be a few lucky winner from the California Country and Texas Country scenes...a few.
What are your hopes for the future of your music and the genre in general?
I think Americana/Roots music has a bright future, especially here in the states. The more people become tired and jaded with fake, silly music the more their hearts will ache for something authentic. They will want a music made by real people, talking about real human issues. They will pay more for it because it will be handmade and not mass produced. It would be great if we could build a system to serve this music to people in a measured way, instead of the insane music firehouse of content we have now. There must be some gatekeeper that helps us maintain quality, but I think we'll figure that out. I know this much. If people listen to the music I make, they tend to like it. So, that makes the challenges pretty clear.
You founded California Roots Union with fellow musician David Serby what are the aims for it?
We want to make California Country Music as well known as the Nashville and Texas varieties. It's that simple. When you start from zero, which is where the awareness of this branch of the genre is at right now, it's easy to make a big impact. We want to promote the acts that live, write and perform in California. We want to make this style a brand that exports to Europe as well as to other parts of this country.
Interview by Stephen Rapid