Marc Ford’s Southern Harmony
by James Calemine
“It’s too soon to tell the difference
Read that page another day
It’s not clear the lines you’re crossing
Just wake up and walk away.”
"Wake Up And Walk Away”
Marc Ford’s musical legend continues gaining momentum. Best known for his guitar virtuosity in the Black Crowes—where he helped develop the band’s sound—Ford just released his second solo CD, Weary And Wired. Born in Los Angeles, California, in 1966, Ford’s love for southern roots and blues music resonates through his own unmistakable tone. His old band, Burning Tree, now serves as Ford’s back-up band on the diverse Weary And Wired.
Ford joined the Black Crowes in the winter of 1991. He played on three vital studio albums with the group and performed hundreds of shows during their musical peak before departing in the summer of 1997. From there, Ford played and collaborated with Federale, The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, Gov’t Mule, Blue Floyd and Ben Harper. In 2002, Ford released his first solo record, It’s About Time, which highlighted his skilled song writing ability.
Around this time I met Marc for the first time. We hung out on several occasions and I interviewed him for Hittin’ The Note magazine. Ford joined Ben Harper’s band in 2003. Ford played on Harper’s GRAMMY-winning album, There Will Be A Light, which featured the Blind Boys of Alabama. Ford eventually won a NAACP award for this record—an honor bestowed on few Caucasians. The great songwriter Johnny Neel once told me, “Marc Ford is a genius. He has the best guitar sound I’ve ever heard.” Ford’s soulful guitar mastery transcends all barriers…musical or social…
In February of 2005, Ford re-joined the Black Crowes. The “All Join Hands” tour proved a formidable affirmation of the Black Crowes’ majestic power with Ford in the band. Ford’s performances with the Crowes can be heard on a plethora of Instant Live recordings. The Crowes were back on top with Ford. However, two days before the Crowes were to hit the road for the fall leg of their 2006 tour Ford faxed the band indicating he quit over concerns for his sobriety. Sometimes the volitility of greatness wears on everyone's nerves, and one can only hope one day Marc will play with the band again. However, due to contractual obligations, Marc cannot discuss personal matters concerning the Crowes. A month after he left the Crowes, Ford began recording Weary and Wired, which comprises Muddy Dutton and Doni Gray-Ford’s old Burning Tree cohorts--as the backing band.
In this interview—which Marc arranged on April 13, his 41st birthday—he discusses his early musical aptitudes, Weary And Wired, old romps, his son Elijah-another guitar wizard in his band, southern music and a few hilarious surprises. This timeless conversation provides insight into one of the world’s greatest guitar players.
Well happy birthday man. I appreciate you doing this interview on your birthday.
Thanks very much, James.
Remember our last interview was down here in Atlanta at that practice space? It’s About Time was out. I stood alone in that little room with the band blaring that night...
Yeah, yeah-I do remember that…
That’s where you were telling me about getting your first guitar at the swap meet at 10…you’ve come a long way since then. How many guitars do you have?
Right. I don’t know. There’s probably five or six here at home. Always a dozen around…but someone is holding them for me…I just got one the other day, a Trussart-a James Trussart. I had a few in the shop that were here in town. There’s a peripheral Spanish guitar…an acoustic here or there…I picked up a couple of Reverend Guitars recently. Reverend’s a company that the guy who started it-what he had in mind was he was gonna make the modern Silvertone-a cheapie, but quirky enough to use. They’re really cool guitars.
What’s the main acoustic you always resort to?
Well, that’s not here. It’s a Martin D-18. Don’t have that here.
Let’s break Q&A tradition and skip around a bit. The other night you told me you were going to record some songs, so even with a new CD, perhaps another brewing? That’s the spirit…
Well, I’ve just been writing so much lately. I’m trying to get it down. I-what I was trying to do, maybe-a friend of mine, John, has got this old four-track in the back of his house-like reel to reel. He’s done his garage up real cool and it sounds great in there. So I wanted to demo some songs real quick-just roll it. I did a couple and he said ‘Man you gotta do a record by yourself’. He said we’ll do it here, but we haven’t been able to get our schedules together. Even if I just peddled it over the Internet…
You’ve got some tour dates coming up, right?
May is filling up. We had plans to go to Europe for six weeks or so at the end of May all through June and into July, but there was too many American dates and offers coming in so we told the guy in Europe ‘Look, you’re not filling in the dates…dates are coming in here…we’re gonna take these’, I think what we’re gonna hit a couple of important festivals in Europe and then come back and to the states real hard and then in the fall go back to Europe properly-with a better set up after having done the festivals.
So playing with Burning Tree again is almost like coming full circle. Now, we’ll travel back in time…you got your first guitar when you were ten. The neck was screwed up, right? You couldn’t play past a certain fret…
Yeah, this old guy was selling a bunch of crap guitars. The neck was so warped you couldn’t get past the third fret…every note was the same after that because it was actually bent backwards. There was a big lump in the middle of it. I didn’t have any business being up there anyway.
The deed was done. So you hit the LA music scene, what 16-17?
15. I was getting rides from Mom to clubs. I’d get a ride home.
When did you meet up with the Burning Tree guys?
Oh gosh, around 17-18…y’know, you start playing all the same clubs and everyone is keeping an eye on the competition. They’re competition until you get to know them then, of course, you want to play together. You know what? I know Doni first because that was through a friend in high school. He was through a friend in high school. He was three years above me-we got together through someone-and they were already in a band together. I went to go sit in with that band. I didn’t realize it was this big audition. So I just brought a guitar and an amp a couple of pedals and went nuts on ‘em. There were like wow!
What did you lock on to early as a guitar player? Y’know writers have their Hemingways, Faulkners…
Well, the early, early stuff I heard was Mom and Dad’s 45s of Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson…
…nice Chuck riff on “Bye Bye Susie” by the way…
Ah yes…thank you…Ah, an old Otis Redding 45.
Eventually rock and roll infected you…
Yeah, I didn’t really get that until I was in High School. I had a big Elton John phase before that. The first thing I wanted to have-I told my Mom-I saw Yellow Brick Road, and I’m thinking to myself…now after hearing it again recently…that is not what a nine year old should be listening to. I begged my Mom for it she got it for me. It’s a heavy record.
I thought the same thing years later when I realized I bought Aerosmith’s Draw the Line when it came out…strange record for a fifth grader…
You know, that’s good you owned that James, because they scared me back then actually. They scared me. It took me a long time to get to Aerosmith. I was kinda clueless, sorta secretly listening to Elton John records, and hanging out with guys listening to Judas Priest, Deep Purple-who I loved for a minute. Then a friend of mine-we ran together-the whole time it was like, I gotta get this one record. To be honest with you, where I grew up I didn’t have a whole lot of exposure to music…or different types. It was very bland-white-suburb. The Beatles were about as far as it got. I had Sgt. Peppers…Mom had Sgt. Pepper's…
Magical Mystery Tour…
Yeah, I think she might’ve had that which was about as bizarre as it got. Until this friend of mine pulled me aside and we have a little smoke out session-just particularly for this thing he’s gonna turn me onto…
Holy Hell…here we go…
(laughs) Yeah…yeah…(laughs) so I didn’t know that, but he’s like I gotta play you something. His Mom’s boyfriend-this was the guy in the ‘70s who had the latest super stereo for high fidelity-massive speakers. So he sits me down between these two giant speakers-‘Just lay back’ he says-and, we’re blowed…and he says, ‘Listen to this…’I can hear this hiss and I know it’s gonna be so loud and on comes “Machine Gun.” I was blown outta my head, and from there I took a hard left.
Did you have a Stratocaster at that point?
Oh yeah. I always loved Stratocasters, but I never heard no sound like that coming out of one (laughs)…I went immediately back to the house, pulled the amp out and turned it loud as it would go, and stood in front of it…what it did…that was my direct line to the blues. Ever since then I was drawn to roots music. Whatever it be gospel, country, blues-Delta or Chicago…the birth of rock and roll happened in the south.
Music is the south’s greatest contribution…
So you met “Muddy” Dutton from Burning Tree soon after that?
Yeah, couple years later. I was in the ninth grade when my friend hit me with Jimi Hendrix. High School was when I started slinging dime bags out of the back of my car, working in pizza joints…then I got into Jeff Beck…I had younger brothers that were much younger than me-so I was kinda on my own…
The Roving Gambler…
That’s right. And the guitar just meant trouble for everybody (laughs).
Listening to those Burning Tree releases…your sound and tone were already defined at 23…
Yeah, 23. I just had my first kid…
…Who is now in your band…but we’ll get to that later…
Well, yeah…your sound is in you. If you’re playing from an emotional place and you’re willing to open yourself up enough to be like this channel, really, then your sound is there already. As I sat there doing my damndest to play what these guys do that I wish…ah, ‘I just can’t get it-why doesn’t it sound like that?’ I’m struggling, but little did I know, the whole time it was there. It just hadn’t developed. I was obsessive. I hated my life. So I stayed in my room and played my guitar for a very long time. I just felt completely crazy and it was very difficult to be social so I went and sat with my guitar for hours and hours every day.
That’s what it takes…
Yeah, I was in a very sort of fantastical dream world with my guitar and my records.
Didn’t Booker T. Jones play on that first Burning Tree record?
Yeah, man. Are you kidding me? STAX records? Damn.
I just got the new STAX box set…
How is it? I bet it’s great…
Incredible, so is that STAXWATTS stuff…
Oh yeah, that stuff is heavy. Booker T showed up with a little sack lunch. He had a hearing-aid in. I’m thinking, ‘Damn, that’s Booker T-he looks like a regular dude!’ He sits down; he didn’t say too much-very pleasant. He said ‘Let me hear the track once.’ Literally, he made one pass and said ‘Okay, next song.’ He did two songs and he was gone. I was sitting behind the board just watching. I was still trying to get over Booker T was playing on my songs. You know, I played with Steve Cropper at a festival in Copenhagen with Blue Floyd. They met us there-and Blue Floyd was backing the band. I sat there and watched Cropper and my jaw was on the floor because I didn’t really appreciate what he did as a guitar player. Forget the writing for a minute, which was phenomenal. But his rhythm is just driving the whole thing-just pumping. So bad. I’d been listening to a lot of Ann Peebles, Al Green and The Hodges Brothers. You know Cropper’s over there-there’s nobody else that can make that sound.
James Burton told me Ricky Nelson didn’t want him to play on other people’s records because people identified Ricky Nelson’s music with James Burton’s sound…
Right. Yeah, I know some other people that did that…
Yes, you would know something about that…but the Burning Tree was a great first record. Y’all hit the road hard behind that release.
We thought so. Yeah, we went straight to England behind that just because the record company didn’t know what to do with it in the States. ‘We love it,’ they said, ‘But we don’t know what to do with it.’
Well, 1989 was not a good year for bluesy, rock bands…
Yeah, groups like Poison were the thing. We didn’t fit. So what do we do? Send us overseas! It kinda worked out. Just the part that you’re from another country, people are curious.
Europeans are very appreciative of American blues…
They really are-I’m already getting so many emails through the website from Europeans saying thank you for that record. Now that it’s out here people are starting to dig it. It’s like they’ve been waiting for this one.
I heard a live show of yours from last April-the 26th, I think--that version of “Smoke Signals” was interstellar space…great stuff…
Yeah, someone mentioned something about that show to me the other day. This person was comparing it to something though. Now with the Internet you are under relentless scrutiny-you can’t just try something out because people just start scandalizing.
Before the Internet, you didn’t really know what the band looked like until you got there…all you had was the albums…
And eight out of ten shows most likely sounded horrible because they were so high. By the time I get home from the gig it’s already out and people are downloading it. You can’t really create any kind of mystique or mystery, it’s what’s its come to…but if I was a kid, I’d be on there too…he did what? (laughs)
So, of course, I’m hesitant to ask you anything about The Black Crowes considering the latest developments…but your history with the band remains intertwined. I saw your first show with the Crowes at the 40 Watt in Athens (Georgia)in March of 92…under the name of the Roach Clips. But it wasn’t until the April 92 NORMAL show in Piedmont Park did I realize the band really transformed into something else…
At that point they’d been on the road touring for 18 months and they were in the zone. I’d been keeping busy touring, and it was a very exciting time with the Crowes. A lot of excitement going on. It’s unfortunate, I’m under a contract…
How long will all this last?
Y’know, I don’t now…perpetuity… (pause)
You mean forever?
Forever in the universe (laughs)
In 2005-2006 the Crowes hit the road hard…criss-crossing the States, Canada, Europe…a lot of miles on buses and planes.
Yeah, well y’know that’s like our old days. We ran hard. We were in that bus a long time together through blizzards, storms-we attacked it pretty good. We were all fresh and excited and ready to go. 2005 was easy. It was great for me. I had a great time. It was a good atmosphere and I was enjoying playing again with them. Things change. I can talk about my own experience, but I can’t tell stories about what anyone else did or the business side of things. No one can tell me I can’t talk about things I did. I got a message from a lawyer saying ‘Heard you did an interview…we just want to remind you about this gag order’ (laughs)…
Great bands contain a certain intensity that becomes hard to maintain.
People get real. People have to keep in mind this is all a big smoke and mirrors trip. Even though you may be pouring out your heart in a song or something, you’re still onstage entertaining. What happens in the psyche and the ego when you’re in front of so many people all the time just telling you, you’re wonderful and you don’t get ‘You’re an asshole, take the trash out,’ people get weird. It’s hard to keep a check on yourself sometimes unless you have some perspective on it.
Living in a tube for eight months doesn’t help…
Yeah, you don’t have any perspective at all that’s sane. It’s a lot of moving. You’re moving constantly. You’re moving when you’re sleeping on the bus-it’s rocking. When you’re sitting still-you’re moving-it’s constant flow. I tell people-the only way I can describe it-coming off the road-it’s first three days for me is bewildering. It’s like being on a boat all day. When you get back on land, you still feel like you’re on the boat. It takes a minute to stop twirling. You think you have to be somewhere. It’s routine at one point and then it's bewildering-non-stop. (Laughs)
Did you really not know how to play slide guitar until you joined the Crowes?
No, I’d pick up the odd beer bottle or lighter once in a while; but no, not until then. I wasn’t exposed to a lot of music when I was young out here in L.A. Chris and Rich had a great record collection. I spent a lot of time in Atlanta working there. I really got to like the place. I love the south…it does get a little hot (laughs) but it just suited my personality and my pace. The music is so indigenous to where it’s played. I think that’s why my connection with southern music is so powerful…like it’s been inside of me forever.
Why didn’t Tom Petty ever invite the Crowes to play when y’all opened for them on the tour? I love Mike Campbell’s playing.
Umm…well, because they have their show worked out pretty well. They’re not as free and loose as they like to appear. It was the same gig every night. They’re all great guys-the band is superb, I enjoyed watching them, but there’s no interaction or variety. They’re not out there to jam. He’s a songwriter and they’re his band, and that’s it. It’s old school-got a gig to do-were going to do the gig, and jam for the rest of the day after sound check.
You’ve played with some real heavies. When you were with the Crowes—who were opening for the Stones--you hung out and played guitars with Ronnie and Keith. I remember you saying Ronnie’s room was the place to be, but the only rule was you had to be out by 8AM…
Yeah, that was his wife Jo-‘Okay boys, its 8AM’-she’d come out from the bedroom-its 8AM, see you tomorrow!’ (laughs) We’d have to stagger back to our rooms. ‘Oh, alright…’ Ironically, sitting with The Stones in a hotel room with them that first night I had a moment where I kinda left the room and was talking with myself-I was there-but in my head I was like ‘Look at these shrivelled up old, teenagers-you know what I mean? And they’re goofin’ around and being dumbasses just like we do on the bus playing, and its all fun and Yuks. Then I start thinking, so this is it…there it is…it’s what you dreamed of-are you getting what you want? I was like ‘Holy shit; you’re kidding me-what a drag.’ It was unbelievable, but then again I thought-I don’t know if perpetual adolescence is really what I want now. I just realized that where I was--was at the top, and I’m peakin’ over the mountain. And I thought this isn’t really what I’m looking for, I don’t think. I think that was the moment I started to deflate. Now what? Rock and Roll wasn’t the answer, but I guess I wasn’t asking the right questions. Or I was looking in the wrong places because cause rock and roll can produce some great fun and release, but you’re not gonna get the meaning of the universe in a rock and roll song.
You should slip a few lines of lyrics from Weary And Wired on your website. Some of them are obscured quite well…
People say that a lot to me, but I just say pay more attention. Put it on again. Listen harder. I thought about it actually. I thought about it for a minute-should I put it on there, but it sorta takes away from it…
Spoken like a true guitar player.
And plus, for me I think there’s a deep down insecurity about words-I don’t read very well, and I wasn’t good in school-I could pull it off and razzle dazzle you and get by. I don’t think I have a grasp of language really that well to demand people pay attention.
Tell the story about hanging out with Neil Young.
Yeah, yeah. I got to hang out at his ranch one day when we did the Bridge School thing. When I went to soundcheck-Jay the keyboard player is Elliot Roberts’ (Neil Young’s manager) stepson since he was two, so he was used to Steven Stills stopping by the house. He tells a great story of Steve Stills coming in his room one day goin’ ‘Whatcha listenin’ to?’ He was listening to a Neil Young record, and Stills was like ‘Ah, man…lemme show ya’. He takes the record off and begins to give a guitar lesson in his bedroom, Anyway, he takes me over to Neil’s ranch for sound check and we just spend the day trippin’ around, coming up on these guest houses and walking in and sittin’ down, grab a coke…
We were walking. Neil sits on top on these rolling hills in northern California. It’s a working cow ranch so you see these Black Angus running around. We’re walking along and we come up on another house, and it’s his soundman that lives there. You walk a little farther and Ben Keith’s house is there. Neil has all these people living on his property. It’s so bizarre. You walk a little father and you’re in these big Redwoods. There are people all over the place working. The guy that’s in Neil’s car barn-that’s his gig. His job is to keep Neil’s old Lincolns in shape.
Did you get to play any?
No, we didn’t get to play. On Friday night he threw a barbeque at his house and invited the band and the crews over to have ‘hot meat’ over at his house. So, I was sitting with Jay and he comes down and we have dinner with Neil. Of course, I saw Neil earlier in the barn playing with his train, which I think I walked into his own personal space. He’s like ‘Who’s there!?’ I said, ‘I’m sorry. Whoa. (Laughs) I shouldn’t be here-I’m gonna leave now.’(Laughs)
I’ve heard it, but I cannot decipher who’s playing the guitars that night in Florida when the Crowes and the Allman Brothers were in the studio together?
Ah, the guitars-I think it was me and Warren. Dickey or Rich weren’t there. It was me, Chris (Robinson), Johnny Colt, Gregg, and Allen Woody…I just saw a picture from that night the other day. Duane Betts was there. That night Gregg was…
I remember on the tape he said, you upstarts play too loud…
Yeah, he was drunk as hell and all sassy and he ran the band out of rehearsal earlier, so they all split. We were jammin’ and I was playing through Dickey’s amp loud as hell, and he was like ‘Turn that down. I can’t stand you guitar players playing so loud.’ By the end of the night-he was like ‘You’re my brother. I dig you.’ (laughs). It was hilarious. There were a few hangers-on, probably the dope man was around somewhere. The fire department came at one point and we had to shut it down because there was so much smoke being blowed in the place that the fire department came. (laughs)
Listening to that stuff with Duane in Muscle Shoals sounds incandescent…
Yeah, that stuff with Aretha. Ronnie Hawkins. Muscle Shoals, man-Eddie Hinton, are you kidding me? I’m a huge Eddie Hinton fan.
Eddie Hinton seems to personify the underdog. All the heavies know he’s a star, but he remains obscure.
It’s a blues story. The blues is still around. Its face changes, but it’s still running deep in people. Also, people kinda buy into it--your singing and, you’re trying to get people to listen. It’s a down and out place to begin with and people buy into that and they stay there because they think they deserve it…
Or they have to…
Yeah, exactly. Like if I don’t stay here, miserable, I won’t be singing to truth. But your truth doesn’t have to be miserable.
It was great you won that NAACP award with Ben Harper.
Yeah, they had a problem with giving me one. I was like, ‘Shit, I’m playin’ y’all's music for 20 years-‘It’s about time I get something for it’ (laughs). It’s in a box somewhere. We’re moving. So I haven’t seen it around. I wanted to weld it on the front of my car like a hood ornament (laughs). Its huge-it’s holding up a globe-NAACP. That’s right-That’s right. I feel good about that-it’s very validating.
There Will Be A Light was a fine record…
We did it so quickly. We sat down and arranged the tunes and recorded the tracks in two separate sessions sitting there face to face. It was me, Jay, Juan and Ben pretty much working out the arrangements. Then other people would come and go. It was five songs each day. That’s the way I love making music. If you gotta think about it too much, it’s not gonna come out right.
So your son Elijah is in your band. That must be an interesting and fun situation. Did he pick up the guitar early?
Well, it wasn’t too early. He was probably 13. He was kinda showing interest in it--picking it up around the house. I was about to leave on tour. I remember the day I was leaving. I had my bags packed. So, I go, ‘Here, let me show you something.’ So, I wrote out a little guitar neck-put the frets-these are the string names. You tune the guitar this way’. I put a couple of dots in them. ‘Here’s a D. Here’s an A’. I get back a couple of months later and he’s playing Eric Clapton! It’s so easy for him. It was pretty easy for me too. It didn’t take me much effort to get going. He just picked it up so quickly and he has such an amazing sense of time and sense of melody. I’m just blown way with the parts he comes up with.
He’s going out on the road, right?
He’s already out of school?
He took the test to get out of school a long time ago. When I left for rehearsals with the Crowes (February 2005) he’d been in a little trouble. I had to get him from school when he was suspended, so I was leaving for rehearsal and I said, ‘You wanna go?’ So he came with me for six weeks and watched that whole thing come together because it wasn’t too long before that I started hearing Black Crowes records coming out of his bedroom. He comes out and he goes, ‘Dad, the Black Crowes were cool!’ (laughs) I go ‘Yeah man, we were pretty cool.’ In my mind, I just got done with that-not thinking that was 10 years ago. For him to come with me and see the Crowes’ first rehearsal, to the warm up gigs, to the big opening, I think at that moment he was hooked. Now he comes back and tries to play with his little band and tells me that he’s so frustrated, and I say, ‘Elijah you are on a completely different level. You’re not gonna get those guys to do what’s gonna happen when you sit in with me.’ I said ‘You had it, tasted it, you’ve done it. Leave those guys alone’. I said, ‘You got a problem. Just come with me, learn the ropes of the road a little bit, when you get back you can find a band or something. I’m kinda blown away at his talent. I can give him a record-the JBs--check this record out and he’ll come back and point out the juiciest nugget. I’m like, ‘Yeah, you got it.’ (laughs)
Talk about producing records. You’ve been getting into that some.
Yeah, in fact, speaking of the JBs, there’s this woman named Betty Mae form Alabama who’s out here-I was just producing six songs for this girl here in L.A. We got together and I heard her voice. She doesn’t have a deal so she’s paying for it herself. So I got hooked up with her through this studio. I mixed the record and I sat with her and the girl sings like Aretha and I was like ‘Whoa that’s a big voice or a little white girl.’ So I knew exactly what we were doing. She wanted to do “Spirit in the Dark”, she wanted to do “Losing You”. All these great things, and I said this is my bag. I said I’m going to make a tight, funky, soul record. We did “How Strong Is A Woman” by Ann Peebles. I just walked up in the studio and he has it all set up-amps in the other room isolated-I said “No, no, no-take it all down and the amps we’re listening to are the ones were recording. This room’s too live. Bring in these baffles and tighten it up. Make it dry. Yeah, I really like producing a lot. It’s like, after all these years of making records and touring-I outta be a doctor (laughs) but it can’t prove anything that I’m even worth walking into a burger shop and get a job. So, where do I put all this stuff?
Sooner or later you have to turn it into breakfast food…
Exactly. It’s such a perfect environment for me because I get to play a little and you’re right in the center of the whole thing. The concentration it takes to sustain 12 hour days hanging on to every sound. There’s a training…I was talking to my wife because there will be music playing I’ll just go, ‘Ah, that’s crap!’ Let’s get out of here. I can’t even stand to listen to it.’ She was like you’re always complaining, and I thought, ‘Why do I do that…’ it’s because I’ve trained my ear to listen so closely and zoom in on things people don’t even know are there. Tiny syncopations—words--the whole package. If it isn’t excellent I don’t want to be there. It’s insulting in a way. I’ve tuned myself to appreciate the finest. You can’t drink ripple after high-dollar wine.
Speaking of wine, Sir Paul McCartney-when I was with Ben Harper on some festivals-Sir Paul sent over a $500 bottle of wine. That was something else. We were in Europe at some festival. We were gonna do a few shows together. The first night we came over to do some stuff-he was all bouncy and silly, like he does and he sent over this wine. The way he travels it just unreal so that’s the kind of wine he drinks with dinner. The stuff was an explosion in your head when you drink this stuff-unbelievable. It’s a good Paul McCartney story, right?
What about Jason Isbell leaving the Truckers? Y’all played a show together a while back. When the Truckers opened for the Crowes last summer you guys got to hang out a bit…did either of y’all realize you’d be leaving the band?
I hung out with him a lot on tour. We weren’t sharing any of that with each other. To be honest with you, I didn’t know I was leaving the Crowes until it was two days to go back out on tour and it just dawned on me, that I don’t have a single need or want to even do it anymore. It’s time to move on. It just started to feel old. I knew what I was gonna do if I started allowing myself to be in the situations that I didn’t dig. You start getting into this victim trap-or I did. I started feeling that and I knew it was time to go-to take the reins and run.
Is it true that you recorded some of those new Crowes songs y’all played on the road in the studio?
No, just the live stuff. We didn’t go in and cut anything.
Just hittin’ the road…
Yeah, a little too long for my taste.
You and Rich always sounded great together…
Yeah. Rich is an amazing player-an amazing player. That song “Sunday Buttermilk Waltz” at the Fillmore is pretty heavy. That was the first time me and Rich actually went out and performed by ourselves together. It was pretty intense. I love the Crowes music. I love playing the music. I didn’t always appreciate what it took to play the music…
You left the Crowes in early September of ’06. Did you go straight into studio and cut Weary And Wired?
We went in-I did the record in November. We had four days booked. We cut all the music on the first three and a half days.
Who played the horns?
I started-I got called by the house band leader on the Carson Daly show-Joe Firstman. He called me up to come do the show. Those horn players were there-we got friendly. They have this Sunday night jam-this jazzier thing-and I thought I could go out and (humour-filled insinuation) ‘Get Funky’ with this jazz thing (chuckles). So I started sitting in and learning quite a lot. One of the horn players told me everybody was learning. He said you may be learning chord changes, but we’re learning the value of simplicity, and finding a riff to hang on, and running it into people’s heads. They were like ‘the only time people were dancing were when you were up there’.
Who’s talking through the song “The Big Call Back?” Is it you?
No, that’s Mike Malone.
(In a fake hick drawl) Well, what in the world is that feller saying?
(mischievous cackle) He was supposed to come do keyboards and he called way late. He goes, ‘Aw man I fell out. I’m sorry. If you still want me to come down there call me. If not, I’m good like Wednesday or Saturday I could do something if you wanted me to.’ So he leaves me this message-the way he’s sort of half asleep and the rhythm in his talk-he’s a funky white dude, but he plays the blues. It was just so musical the way he left it on my machine was hilarious. I played it for the guys, and I said put up a microphone and record this. So we recorded the message from my phone and just sort of dropped it over the track. It fit perfectly. We snipped it in spots, and let it come in and out. The way it works out if you can make out what he’s saying it sounds like there’s a guy that calls and says, ‘I’m sorry I missed the thing, but I can still come if you want. Give me a call.’ Then he hangs up, and then calls again saying ‘I can do Saturday, Wednesday…’ like the guy just won’t stop calling.
You covered one of Ryan Bingham’s songs. Who is he?
He’s a guy from West Texas. He’s an amazing guy. He’s like 24-25…sort of Townes-Steve Earle kinda guy…he’s pure. I walked into the King King one night for no reason, it’s like 12:30-there are seven people in there-no ones paying attention. Here’s this skinny kid with a big hat and a guy behind him playing a kick-snare and a high hat and just floored me. I was looking around wondering if anybody was seeing this-thinking ‘God, I hope nobody in L.A. has got hooks in him and going to ruin this.’ So, I introduced myself and offered him some studio time. He came out with this record where this guy tried to Nashville him out-smooth out his sound-they took the story out of his voice. He hated it. They came to California on the flip of a quarter. Home or California? So they’re just driving around with a little PA system and a couple of guitars and just playing anywhere and everywhere-just to make a buck and peddlin’ these records. I go ‘You know what, I listened to it and it doesn’t represent you at all. It’s like a whole another person. He’s like, ‘I know-I hate it.’ So, I call up my buddy Anthony at the Compound, were I’ve been working when I make the Pawn Shop Kings record, and I go, ‘Look man you gotta do this favour for me. I said give me a day in the studio. You won’t regret it. I said he’s amazing and Anthony said, ‘Okay-I’ll do it.’ I told him we were going to record for a day. By the time it was done, they were like, ‘Wow, we’ve never got do record and have it sound the way we sound!’ They were blown away. I said, ‘Well let’s get those tracks and we’ll just fuck this record up. I stripped off everything-some of the tracks we just rebuilt entire tracks behind his vocals. We did it for free. A friend of his paid for a couple of days in the studio, so he puts it out saying, ‘This is a record I can live with,’ and I just heard Lost Highway wants to put it out. The deal is goin’ down now. We’re gonna go back in and record a couple more songs to sound out the record because I never really thought it was done.
It’s a nice gesture to cover his song on your CD--
Well, he’s incredible, I love the guy-he’s super amazing. He’s just got soul.
“Featherweight Dream” is a great opening track. “It’ll Be Over Soon” is another favourite of mine-great riff.
That’s my version of British pop. I used a Hofner. I found out it’s called like Club 40 or 50. It’s a Les Paul, but it’s chambered, like its hollow and it’s got wooden P90s in it. To me everything is the blues. But I did go for the British Invasion pop song on that one.
I like “Dirty Girl” off Weary And Wired a lot.
I finally wrote a three-chord song (laughs). That’s all I wanted to do.
So, your son Elijah came up with the riff on “1000 Ways”?
He was playing in the background and I heard this riff and I said, ‘Do that again.’ He’s like, ‘What, this?’ And he played it again. I said, ‘What is that?’ He’s like, ‘One of mine.’ I said, ‘I need that.’ I said, ‘You’re not old enough to be walking around with a riff like that,’ (collective laughter).
…As your father…
Yeah, as your father, I’m going to take this away from you before you hurt somebody…
…Let this be a lesson…you report all riffs to the old man…
That’s right. You finish this-you run to me or the police. What I did was, I said, 'Come with me to the studio tomorrow. I wrote another part to it, and he had a couple of lyrics-and the melody and the verses. I’m writing lyrics down in the car on the way to the studio. We get there and the guys show up to track a song with me-we started the night before, but it wasn’t happening-I said new songs guys. I told Elijah to grab a guitar and plug into any amp. So we showed them the tune and cut it immediately--fresh off the tree. First take your instincts are always poppin’.
That’s the thing about those STAX recordings; they would leave mistakes-if a horn player came in at the wrong time or something, they’d leave it…
Sure, that’s where the magic’s at-the human-ness. If you got some cats that are that bad and funky you leave the warts because that’s the only way you can have the rest of it. If you’re being precious about it you’re gonna miss out on the whole thing. My whole record was like guerrilla warfare. My engineer and I have worked together enough so he knows what I’m doing, what I like and how I want things. I’d be like, ‘Okay let’s do the next one’-switch guitars, and change amps…we’d start again. It’s like a big barn with open mikes. Here we go…and he was rollin’ all the time. It went so easy and so quick. I’m so happy.
Songs like “Running Man Blues”-that was an old Burning Tree song…
Yeah. I thought it was appropriate playing with Doni (Gray-Burning Tree drummer)…it brought the toe up in my boot. I always wanted to have that song. I wrote that song… “Just Take the Money” was an old song. I wrote that toward way back at the end of Burning Tree on a demo. Elijah kept all those demos. He found them and then Burning Tree was his favorite band. It seemed appropriate those old songs found a home. They were just hanging around all the time-getting in the way. We don’t get to make records maybe like they did back in the sixties where you’re shelling them out every six months.
Although, Weary And Wired was recorded and completed, from March to November and hitting the streets in March is quick.
I wish it would have gone a little slower actually because the set up time was thought out too well.
“Smoke Signals” was a Federale song, right?
Yeah, Luther and I wrote that together.
What’s he up to these days?
He just makes records. He’s got his niche. When I spent time with him in Portland, he lives a simple life and just plays music all the time-records all the time by himself. Lately, I’ve been getting everything down, so it doesn’t…leave. That’s why I like having a bunch of different guitars around because when I do pick one up-each of them has their own vibe and story-you play a little different on one than the other. They kinda all got different things to say. I used to be into those four tracks when I was a kid-maybe that’s why I understand the process. I got signed off a four track. One of those deals I did in the garage.
What’s been the hardest thing to learn through your career?
Besides keeping my eyes open and making sure bitches aren’t taking shit from me (laughs)? I would say, settle down and to shut up. Stop running around crazy trying to play all over the place and just sit back-you aint in no hurry. You know, that STAX stuff just has this groove-it’s exclusive. One day…it’s like when I saw Steve Cropper play-it was and epiphany…like wow-just driving this shit out the riff. The southern thing is-I don’t know if it’s the heat (laughs)…
It’s the barbeque…
Yeah, the heat, the barbeque-there’s just this ass to it-this swing…a nastiness you just want to be a part of. It’s slippery. It’s solid, but it’s all over the place. It’s like a Lincoln or a Cadillac. It’s gonna get you there, but you’re gonna take some wide turns. You’ll be comfortable when you get there.
“Currents” is my favorite song from Weary And Wired. It seems to fit my personal landscape at the moment. Great tone on that…
Thank you. I was really going for Richard Thompson sort of tone, but what I had available at the time, I came up with that…I wanted a really unique tone for that song.
Is that a new song?
That’s a brand new song, a very heartfelt song. People are picking up on that song a lot.
What were the newest songs on Weary And Wired?
That one, “Currents”. “Dirty Girl”.
“Featherweight Dream” was an old one, but I did it a different way. Kinda Allman Brothers in a way-that kind of feel…a bouncing swing. The Willie Dixon tune you can tell mics are open all over the place. You can hear the room. I had a PA system in there singing on some of them. We just tracked them like that because no one wants to wear headphones in the studio--immediately, you’re gone from what’s happening. Everything was open in a big A-Frame barn, like an old wooden garage. It was just capture it.
What’s the tour schedule look like?
It starts trickling in around the fifth of May. We’re coming south, but not now. The reason is-I’d go straight over to the East Coast because there’s a huge fan base there. Just start there. This European thing is still kinda up in the air. In May, we’re gonna stay three or four hundred miles of where I’m living. We’ll drive there and come back home. If we go to Europe, when we get back we’ll be solid running all over the place.
So you’re pushing the record hard, any other peripheral gigs happening?
Well, I gotta finish Ryan’s record in a couple days-or a week and a half. Then there’s a Spanish band that wants me to go to Portugal to produce them. Then there’s talk of me producing Betty Mae from Alabama--her band is the JBs, and I said I wanted to produce the shit out of the JBs! Just give it to me! She lives here. Somebody played the record she has-she’s so bad. I sure do hope I get the chance to do that. People that were there said I could probably do her next record-then they told me the JBs were the band, and I said, ‘You better let me produce it!’ She didn’t like her modern R&B record. It’s like the country music-like R&B-is so fabricated. It doesn’t sound real at all. Everything is overblown and overdone-bigger than life.
You really should record an album by yourself. Something like Chris Whitley’s Dirt Floor or an old Furry Lewis record…
Well, I’ve got the songs. Do you have Fred McDowell’s Amazing Grace? When I heard that I was like, O My Goodness. That is a spooky, sad, beautiful, wonderful record.
How old is the song “Bye Bye Susie”?
It’s an old Burning Tree song. I whipped out old ones only because we were jamming. There’s that sound again. I can get these songs that have been collecting dirt or forgotten, and the band still knows them. I write way more songs than I can find places to put them.
Pull out some of your country stuff.
I have been getting to pull out the country out with Ryan.
Can you play the pedal steel?
I’ve never even sat down at one. It’s like a B-3 or a semi-truck…you got both knees goin’…feet…hands goin’.
Well, thanks for doing this interview. Godspeed on the road…I’ll stay in touch.
We’ll get together when I come south.
Good deal. Enjoy your birthday.
Thanks. Yeah, I’m just gonna sit and do nothing for once.
We’ll talk soon.
Okay man. Take it easy James.