Review: A Dead tribute album that sounds good and does good

By Brent Thompson

With its large volume of songs and improvisational possibilities, the Grateful Dead’s catalog is always up for interpretation by other artists. The latest installment, the 17-track Grateful: The Music Plays the Band, offers both a musical and charitable component. The album’s proceeds benefit The Grateful Guitars Foundation, a nonprofit organization that obtains instruments for musicians and supports music education in schools. Musically, the lineup includes artists familiar to Deadheads (Oteil Burbridge, Dark Star Orchestra, Jerry’s Middle Finger, John Kadlecik) as well as some that deserve greater exposure (Katie Skene & Andrea Whitt, Doom Flamingo, Michael James Wheeler). Burbrige’s impassioned “Stella Blue” is a highlight as are Skene & Whitt’s “Candyman” and Kadlecik’s “So Many Roads.” All in all, the Grateful compilation rises to the challenge of any tribute album – allowing artists to place their own unique stamps on some well-known songs.

The Luckiest Musician Out There: A Conversation with Dar Williams

By Brent Thompson

Photo Courtesy of the Artist

It some ways it doesn’t seem possible that Dar Williams has been releasing albums for over 30 years. But, by that same measure, it’s hard to think of a time when the singer/songwriter wasn’t around to remind us that our shared feelings are greater than our differences. In 2021, Williams released I’ll Meet You Here (Renew Records), her first outing in six years. On Saturday, May 4, Williams returns to Birmingham for a performance at WorkPlay. Recently, she spoke with us by phone from her home in New York’s Hudson Valley region.

Southern Stages: Dar, thanks for your time. We are really enjoying I’ll Meet You Here. If you will, tell us about the album.

Dar Williams: One [song] is a re-recording and there is a cover of “Sullivan Lane” by a group called The Grand Slambovians. They are a band that I really admire and they happen to live down the street from me [laughs]. It’s all about celebrating friendship – when you’re off the beaten track and you find your people. I wish I had written a song like that and they did, so that’s “Sullivan Lane.”

Southern Stages: Was the album recorded before or during Covid?

Williams: It was before, which is amazing because a lot of it seems completely relevant to the Covid crisis, so go figure.

Southern Stages: When you are on tour, do you typically perform solo or do you bring other musicians?

Williams: It’s me solo a lot and sometimes I go out with a keyboard player and sometimes keyboards and electric guitar. This time I’m solo.

Southern Stages: How do you comprise your set lists these days?

Williams: It depends on where I am in terms of if I’ve played there lately. I’ve put out three albums since I was at WorkPlay in 2009 with Josh Radin.

Southern Stages: Some artists say that this is a great time to be in your position given easy access to listeners via Spotify, iTunes, Youtube, satellite radio and other modern outlets. Other artists say – for that same reason – that this is a difficult time to be found among the crowd.  How do you view the current climate of the music industry?

Williams: I feel like the luckiest musician out there because there was that scaffolding of record companies and the hierarchy that came with it. You were climbing your way through something that had a lot of structure. You had to do certain things in order for the structure to support your career. I don’t miss the celebrity softball game of supporting some local radio station in Boston and I don’t miss feeling compared to other people. Capitalism is like a nose and the nose only smells one thing and that’s money. It pretends to have ears and eyes and will tell you – if you’re making a lot of money – that you’re beautiful and brilliant. If you’re not making money, it’ll tell you that you’re ugly and untalented. You have to roll your eyes a lot, but there was a structure. I lead a songwriting retreat and I get to see that moment of engagement and discovery in songwriting. I get to see people listening and crying and nodding their heads. Making a living in music – that’s a different thing. In 2007, 40 percent of my income went out the door because of the streaming economy. We are all one twisted ankle away – or a case of laryngitis – from a cancelled tour. Putting everything on the live performance has been okay for me and I had a highly-structured career preceding the collapse. I’m so lucky because I had all that structure and now I have all this freedom and I can still be on a record label if I want to or I can do it independently.

Southern Stages: Do you have any upcoming songwriting retreats?

Williams: We do. We have three and two of them are sold out – the one in October is not sold out. They are in Connecticut and they’re about 50 people each and [Singer/songwriter/Old 97’s member] Rhett Miller is coming to the one in October. It’s a really important part of my life at this point. It’s centered on people finding the space and the respect to figure out what’s important to them so they can take it from there. There’s also a lot of humor and lightness and it’s fun.

On Saturday, May 4, Code-R Productions Presents Dar Williams at WorkPlay. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $25 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.

Wherever Inspiration Strikes: A Conversation with Ruston Kelly

By Brent Thompson

 

Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

Ruston Kelly’s self-defined musical style “Dirt Emo” is catchy and fitting at the same time. Earlier this year, Kelly released Weakness, Etc., a companion EP to his 2023 release The Weakness. On Tuesday, April 30, the singer/songwriter will return to Birmingham for a performance at Workplay. Recently, he spoke with us by phone.

Southern Stages: Ruston, thanks for your time. We are really enjoying Weakness, Etc. – if you will, talk about the creation of the album.

Ruston Kelly: Some of [the songs] were recorded six or seven months ago and some of them – like “The Watcher,” for example – was the first song that we recorded for the original Weakness album. It was the same with “Nothing Out There” and “Heaven Made The Darkness.” On “Cold Black Mile – Hotel Version,” I recorded that myself on a little battery-operated recorder in my hotel room in Pasadena. It’s kind of all over the place, but it’s still a part of the narrative of that album. The album is an epilogue, if you will, from The Weakness to Weakness, Etc. It’s supposed to be a companion – it doesn’t really tell a new story, but it just carries that story over into further context.

Southern Stages: Your Birmingham show will be a solo acoustic performance. Have you toured solo very often in your career?

Kelly: I’ve never done an “official” acoustic tour like this. I started touring just doing acoustic out of necessity – I’d drive myself and I didn’t have a band and didn’t have fans [laughs]. I did that a lot and it was because I had to and this one is in actual venues and it’s a show that fans haven’t seen before. I’m really excited about it. I’ve seen Jackson Browne do it and I’ve seen Dave Matthews do it and it’s become a big part of their touring business and this is a first step in that direction because I’d like to do both whenever I want to. I love playing with my band and being on the bus with the crew, but I also love making up the set list as I go and having a very relaxed rapport with the audience.

Southern Stages: With several albums in your catalog, how do you comprise your set lists these days?

Kelly: I’m really bad at streamlining promotion when it comes to releasing a song because I tend to do whatever feels the most creatively natural in that moment. I might play some of the songs on the EP that’s coming out and I might not. I’m going to play whatever I’m feeling like spanning across all of my recordings. That’s exciting to me because I can change it up every night depending on the vibe of the room and I’ll take requests.

Southern Stages: How do songs stay fresh to you after you’ve performed them hundreds or thousands of times?

Kelly: It has to do with the gratitude of being able to do what I do for a living. To pay my bills from expressing myself and people actually giving a fuck about that – I feel so lucky. Something like “Mockingbird” – a song I’ve played like three million times – hasn’t gotten old yet because I see the reaction on people’s faces when they’ve heard that for the first time or another song when I can tell that it’s “their” song that they really wanted to hear. Having that perspective of gratitude keeps things fresh because I stay excited that way.

Southern Stages: Some artists say this is a great time to be in your position given you can reach listeners via Spotify, iTunes, Youtube, satellite radio and other outlets. Others say, for that same reason, this is a difficult time to be found among the crowd. How do you view the current climate in the music industry?

Kelly: I think we’ve opened Pandora’s Box with the Internet. Anyone who wants to imagine themselves as an artist will then have the tools to do so whether or not they’re really meant to do it and whether or not it’s in their DNA to be a performer, to write and give themselves to the craft. I think it’s wonderful we have that wide open door – there’s a lot of inclusivity that comes with that. The biggest takeaway is how it will affect art’s place in culture and the way that we consume art. Some of these artists that are blowing up overnight are skipping the developmental phase and skipping the cutting-your-teeth phase of playing in clubs for people that don’t give a shit. There’s a sacrifice involved in giving yourself to the craft and something to be said for how important it is for someone to develop their craft. In most cases, we’re seeing that step being completely skipped so it concerns me. It’ll change inevitably – we just have to keep doing the things that are good for us and for art and culture.

Southern Stages: How would you describe your writing process? Do you schedule times to write or do you do it when inspiration strikes?

Kelly: Wherever inspiration strikes. The song “Belly Of The Beast” that’s on Weakness, Etc. was a lucky one. I was doing the dishes and the entire verse, chorus and second verse just popped into my head. I dropped the dishes into the sink recklessly and I literally ran to my piano and edited it from there – that’s how I would like for it work all the time [laughs]. If you want to get good at it, like anything it’s 80% perspiration. There are times when I sit down and beat my head against the wall, so my process is all over the place and I tend to write more on the road. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because you’re really in your element and you aren’t trying to repaint your kitchen – you’re just out there doing it.

On Tuesday, April 30, Code-R Productions presents Ruston Kelly at Workplay. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $27.50 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.

A Fascinating Process: A Conversation with David Wilcox

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Lynne Harty

Known for his easygoing, storytelling style, stalwart singer/songwriter David Wilcox has built a large and loyal fan base. In a recording career spanning more than 30 years, Wilcox has amassed a catalog of songs that listeners find relatable to their own lives. Currently, he is touring in support of his latest release, My Good Friends (Fresh Baked Records). On Friday, April 12, Wilcox will perform at the Woodlawn Theatre. Recently, he spoke with us by phone from a tour stop in Denver, CO.

Southern Stages: David, thanks for your time today. We are really enjoying My Good Friends. Are the songs on the album newer compositions, older ones or a mixture of both?

David Wilcox: During the pandemic, I wrote so many songs – more than ever. It was like two or three a week – it was ridiculous, so I have a huge backlog now [laughs]. I’m working with this producer and he said, “Send in songs that are at the top of your list.” I sent them and he writes me back, “David, what the hell? This is 50 songs.”

Southern Stages: Given the volume of songs you had written, how did you decide which ones would appear on the album?

Wilcox: Yeah, it’s a fascinating process. I think a lot of it has to do with how the songs work together and how they complement each other. Whenever there’s a new record, there’s always a fascinating process of looking back on what this year has meant to me and the changes I’ve been through. This time was no different and when I get the songs all in one list, it’s pretty interesting to see how certain ideas show up that I might not have been aware of at first.

Southern Stages: In the live setting, do you play some of the new songs don’t appear on the album?

Wilcox: I still play them live. If I’m playing a gig and it feels like the right songs at the right time, yeah I’ll play them. Sometimes there are songs that work well live that maybe are a little too simple to be on a record. Once you’ve heard them two or three times, you’ve heard them. I like to put more complex songs on a record.

Southern Stages: How would you describe your writing process?

Wilcox: I tend to get a lot of ideas when I travel and I tend to finish those songs when I get home. It’s a pretty steady process.

Southern Stages: With a large catalog of songs under your belt, how do you construct your set lists these days?

Wilcox: I’m really quirky about it. I just play the songs that I want to hear. To me, it doesn’t matter when they were written. I would say maybe at least half of them are really new and that’s a luxury that not many musicians get to do. A lot of musicians – if you have hits – you have to play the hits. But luckily – in this realm that I’m in – people are curious about what I’ve been thinking about. So I tend to get away with playing more current songs than most musicians get to.

Southern Stages: How do songs stay fresh to you after you you’ve performed them hundreds of times?

Wilcox: It’s fascinating to me. Sometimes it feels like songs are evolving as I change, but it’s just that I’m hearing different aspects of them. Last night, I played a song and I heard a meaning in it that I’d never heard before and I’ve been playing it for 30 years [laughs]. It was pretty fun.

Southern Stages: Some artists tell me that this is a great time to be in your position given you can reach listeners via outlets such as Spotify, iTunes, Youtube and satellite radio. Others say – for the same reason – that this is a difficult time to be found among the crowd. How do you feel about the current climate of the music industry?

Wilcox: I know that I got really lucky and had a fun ride on a great label in the heyday. I think that I’ve always considered the recordings to be the invitation to the concert. Now, when music is basically free, it works better for me because there are more people who can hear my stuff and they come out to the shows. That’s really the thing I love most – playing live. I’m very grateful that I get to do that. It’s more fun now than ever – I feel like I’m doing it for better reasons now.

Southern Stages: As a guitarist, are you continually experimenting with new gear or do you tend to stick with what you have?

Wilcox: I tend to do a major upgrade to all the tech on the guitar about once a year or maybe every two years. It has evolved so much and I love the process of getting the most interesting guitar sound that I can. It’s a very complex arrangement – there are a lot of pickups on my guitar that I put through a sub-mixer with a lot of digital EQ. It sounds very natural, but to make an acoustic guitar sound natural it’s a lot of work and I love the work.

Southern Stages: You’ve been an Asheville, N.C. resident for a long time. If you will, talk about your decision to build your career there instead of an industry hub such as Nashville, New York or Los Angeles.

Wilcox: When I first decided to live in Asheville, I was confused by the people who wanted to live in New York or Nashville. I didn’t understand why it was so important to them to chase the industry. I wanted this practice of music to be my teacher and I wanted it to surprise me and I wanted it to last a lifetime. I was trying to use music as a way to bring me more alive and to be able to really enjoy my life. That is what I wanted and that’s what I got – it’s been really nice.

On Friday, April 12, David Wilcox will perform at the Woodlawn Theatre. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $30 and can be purchased at www.woodlawntheatrebham.com.

 

Reflecting Life in Creation: A Conversation with Daniel Donato

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Jason Stoltzfus

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Daniel Donato plays a unique blend of country, rock and Americana that he calls Cosmic Country. This self-described genre offers a sound that is familiar yet fresh and reverent yet relevant. Currently, Donato is on tour in support of his latest release, Reflector [Retrace Music]. On Sunday, April 7, Donato will perform at Saturn. Recently, he spoke with us by phone from his cabin outside of Nashville.

Southern Stages: Daniel, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to your upcoming show in Birmingham.

Daniel Donato: Me too! One of the first bands that I ever toured with played its first show at Saturn, so that venue has always held a very dear place in my heart.

Southern Stages: We are really enjoying Reflector. If you will, talk about the process of creating the album.

Donato: It took about three years to write all the songs. To really write a song and record it, the barriers of completion are not well-defined – the borders are very blurry. You can have a song and sit on it and decide to play it live and realize that once you play it live, it has to go in a different direction. The song “Weathervane” was like that – we had to play it for months. “Dance In The Desert” took two years of playing it live. But other songs like “Rose In A Garden,” “‘Til The Daylight” and “Half Moon Night” – those songs are just straight honky-tonk, Robert’s Western World and Don Kelly Band-style, so it’s very easy for those to come to life. It’s like children – songs grow at their own rate and their own personalities.

Southern Stages: How would you describe your writing process? Are you continually laying down new ideas or do you shelve writing while on tour?

Donato: As long as I’m living, I’m reflecting that life in creation. It’s a deal I made with myself – if God gives me another day to live on Earth, I’m doing work. I’m going to work every day, whether it’s for an hour or 16 to 18 hours like some days on the road. I’ve been given a gracious opportunity to do what I feel like I was born to do with my life. I’m truly grateful every day.

Southern Stages: Your songs sound both familiar and fresh at the same time. How do you sum up your self-described Cosmic Country style?

Donato: I bring 50% to the table and whatever higher powers are at play – they bring 50%. I’ve always followed what has inspired me and moves me and I try to not get distracted by what’s external. I have taken an individual journey to pursuing what I love and it’s formed itself into Cosmic Country, which everybody calls its own genre. I think it makes sense that every artist has their own genre. Nature itself reflects that – you have your own DNA, you have your own thumbprint and your own personality that no one else has, so why wouldn’t you have your own music? But it’s hard because people will tell you that you have to look a certain way or do a certain thing onstage and you have to diminish the value of the external noise when it comes to creating.

Southern Stages: Some artists say that this is a great time to be in your position thanks to outlets including iTunes, Spotify, Youtube and satellite radio. Others say – for the same reason – that this is a difficult time to be found among the crowd. How do you view the current state of the music industry?

Donato: There are a lot of potential negatives with globalization of society and those are very obvious. But with music, there is a large benefit that our society is inheriting which is that you can listen to anything and everything from any period of time that’s ever been recorded pretty much for free, which is insane. If you were to give an iPhone to a native settler in 1776, you’d probably be burned you at the cross for this crazy piece of technology. I think it’s a beautiful luxury that people have and it allows artists and bands to not be dependent on too many third parties that influence on a sovereign level what we do artistically and commercially. We can sew the seeds and do whatever we want to do and if people want to listen, then they do. It provides the artists and bands with an immense responsibility to have something to say. It needs to be honest and it’s hard and it’s scary. It’s a very strange time to be alive and to be making music, but I feel like Cosmic Country has it’s own Eden in the forest that is the music business. We are with a small, independent label and we haven’t sold our souls to any devils that I know of yet. Growing up in Nashville and being a hired gun for 10 years, I saw a lot of artists fall into a sausage machine that at one point was really necessary, but now it’s not.

Southern Stages: As a guitarist, are you a “gear head”? When on tour, are you searching out new gear in guitar stores?

Donato: Right now is probably the most stressful time in my life calendar-wise. I really have no time to do anything except get to the venue and prepare for the show. We are playing four to six nights a week, so we pretty much have enough time to get to the venue, set up, rehearse some songs, play a show, break down the stage and head to the hotel to sleep and head to the next show. But I’m still a gear head and I’m still trying out new things all the time. I just got a new stereo rig for my amps. Yeah, I’m totally interested in all that stuff and it’s really just a matter of time.

On Sunday, April 7, Daniel Donato will perform at Saturn. Showtime is 8 p.m. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $22.50 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.

Craig Legg Unveils “Alabama Roots Music” Exhibit

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Andi Rice

On Saturday, January 20, Birmingham artist Craig Legg will open his “Alabama Roots Music” exhibit, the follow-up to his 2023 exhibit “History of Birmingham Rock & Roll.” The exhibit can be seen at East Village Arts in Downtown East Lake. Raised on the sounds of Birmingham’s AM radio stations, Legg is documenting Alabama’s musical heritage through his colorful and playful artistic vision. Described as a “trading card series,” the exhibit features 300+ portraits and paintings. In addition to paintings of musicians, Legg also features venues, festivals and record producers that were vital to the state’s musical legacy. The January 20 grand opening reception will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the exhibit will be open to the public every Saturday through March 2024.

East Village Arts is located at 7611 1st Avenue North in Downtown East Lake.

 

Step Outside of Yourself: A Conversation with Samantha Fish

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Daniel Sanda

Thanks to artists including Samantha Fish, Jesse Dayton, Joe Bonamassa and “Kingfish” Ingram, guitar-based blues music is alive and well these days. Earlier this year, Fish and Dayton released Death Wish Blues [Rounder Records], a collaborative effort that has received a Grammy nomination in the “Best Contemporary Blues Album” category. On Sunday, December 10, The duo will perform at Iron City. Recently, Fish spoke with us by phone from her New Orleans home.

Southern Stages: Samantha, thanks for your time today. Congrats on your Grammy nomination!

Samantha Fish: Thank you very much – I’m pretty freaked out [laughs].

Southern Stages: How did the collaboration with Jesse come about? Had the idea been brewing for some time?

Fish: It doesn’t feel like it’s been in the works for that long. I’ve known Jesse for about 12 years. Growing up in Kansas City, Jesse would come through once or twice a year so I knew him through that and I became a fan of his. He has had his foot in so many different things artistically – he’s been into film, he wrote a book – he’s deep and he has a lot going for him. I reconnected with him in January 2022 – he was playing at this venue and me and my manager went out. Prior to that, I had been thinking about a project like this for a few years, but couldn’t really think of who the other partner should be. When I saw Jesse, it kind of clicked and he was down for it. We got together in May 2022 and we worked on songs until August and here we are now.

Southern Stages: Where is Jesse based?

Fish: He’s out of Austin, Texas.

Southern Stages: In writing for the album, was there a certain pattern that developed between the two of you?

Fish: We were open to any way we could get a song. Any time you write with somebody new, there’s a vulnerability you have to be able to achieve. We had to have this real conversation and say, “Nothing is stupid. The time frame we have is stupid, so let’s just keep working and come up with some some great songs.” We just dropped all the walls and decided to try any which way we could. For me, songs come in different ways. My most successful method is having a melody that is catchy and building off of that – having a hook. The hook is the most important part of a song in my opinion and it’s the hardest thing to come by. With Jesse, we both have our own approach, but in this setting we decided to try as many things as possible.

Southern Stages: Did either of you bring existing songs to the project or were all of the songs written for this album specifically?

Fish: We wanted something that was unique to us both, so starting from scratch was very important. We wanted to create material that fit this album and I feel like we both came to this with a clean slate.

Southern Stages: This album continues a great tradition of blues collaborations that has included Buddy Guy & Junior Wells and B.B. King & Eric Clapton.

Fish: The thing about a collaboration is that you are giving yourself an opportunity to step outside of yourself. With solo albums, you have a rigid set of boundaries, but a collaboration frees you up to try things that maybe you normally wouldn’t do on your own. I think it was a good thing for both of us and we came up with something really unique.

Southern Stages: As a guitarist, are you a big collector?

Fish: I go through little spurts, but I’m not really the person that walks into a guitar and says, “That’s it.” The way the world is now, I can just go online and find it [laughs]. I have quite an arsenal of guitars that I really like and I look at guitars like tools – it’s like screwdrivers and hammers. I’m going to use it and I’m going to abuse it, so I want something sturdy. I don’t spend a lot of money on it because I’m going to beat the hell out of it. I like fixing up cheaper guitars – I’m a renovator and I like customizing.

Southern Stages: Some artists say this is a great time given accessibility to listeners via Youtube, Spotify, satellite radio and other outlets. Others say it’s a challenging time to be found among the crowd. How do you view today’s musical climate?

Fish: I think the more you look back, the more disappointed you’re going to get about things. What you used to get paid for, people now get for free. For me, it’s part of fueling the touring machine and it’s a piece of that puzzle. Now we are in the world of creating experiences. I try not to look at it as a glass half-empty. I came to where I’m at now through Youtube – I don’t know if people would know about me if it hadn’t had been for a couple of my videos that did really well.

On Sunday, December 10, Samantha Fish & Jesse Dayton will perform at Iron City. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $32.50 and can be purchased at www.ironcitybham.com.

 

Two for the Road: A Conversation with The Watson Twins

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Elizabeth O. Baker

Whether you are talking about The Everly Brothers or Indigo Girls, you can’t deny the allure of harmony vocals. The Watson Twins – first known for their association with Jenny Lewis – are carrying on the harmony tradition that engages listeners. Earlier this year, the duo – Chandra and Leigh – released HOLLER [Bloodshot Records], a 10-track collection produced by Butch Walker. On Wednesday, December 6, the pair will perform at Iron City in support of The Wood Brothers. Recently, The Watson Sisters spoke with us by phone from Nashville.

Southern Stages: Chandra and Leigh, thanks for your time today. We are looking forward to having you back in Birmingham soon.

Chandra Watson: We have a real soft spot for Birmingham and we actually celebrated a birthday there a couple years ago just for fun. We love going down there.

Southern Stages: We are glad you have a connection to Birmingham. Also, this must be an exciting time to live in your adopted home of Nashville.

Leigh Watson: We moved here from Los Angeles. If Nashville had stayed the way it was when we first got here, it would have been tough to continue to grow here – it was in a holding pattern. We’ve been here to see the explosion of it and there’s good and bad that comes with it.

Southern Stages: How long will you be on tour with The Wood Brothers?

Chandra: We have over a week of dates with them, so we’re in Florida, New Orleans, Birmingham, Athens and Charleston.

Southern Stages: We are really enjoying HOLLER. How did the album’s material take shape?

Chandra: We actually were in the studio with our friend Butch Walker – we were recording backup vocals on his record that came out last year. There was a song that we had been doing live for years called “Two Timin'” and it never fit on a record. We decided that we wanted to record it as a single, and it was a dream to bring our touring band into [Butch’s] studio to record “Two Timin’.” The song was recorded in three hours and we decided we should do more. During Covid, we hadn’t really been writing so Leigh and I set out to write a record where “Two Timin'” could live. Once we set out to write the record, five ideas came within one day. For three months, we wrote every day and had a lot of fun.

Southern Stages: Do the two of you have a typical writing process or pattern?

Chandra: We have a little bit of a different approach now. We used to write separately for many, many years and then we would come together and edit and produce the songs together. When we decided to make DUO in 2018, we reflected back on our career. People know us for our harmony, so we said, “What if we wrote all of our songs together and we sang all the songs together?” We took that approach on DUO and that was very intentional and we fulfilled the self-fulfilling prophecy of it being the two of us forever [laughs]. We had such a great time writing that way for DUO, so it went came time to writing HOLLER we said, “Let’s do that again.” We’ve worked together for so long and we can be honest without being hurtful.

Southern Stages: How do you view today’s musical climate? Some artists say this is a great time given accessibility to listeners via outlets such as Spotify, Youtube and satellite radio. Others say the current model makes it difficult for artists to be found among the clutter.

Leigh: We’re going to need at least another 10 minutes! [laughs]. I do feel like it is a very challenging time and you really have to re-frame why you do it. With almost 20 years of touring and making records, it’s evolved and it’s been manipulated into other shapes and firms. I think right now we are in limbo as to what music will be. When we look at the “what-ifs,” it feels very overwhelming and it’s important to create a place where you feel comfortable and can make music. We have to wrap our heads around the fact that the industry looks different. When we talk about accessibility, we also have accessibility to fans in a different way than we ever have. To hear feedback from fans that discovered our music on Spotify means something – that gets through the night and to the next town and to writing our next song.

Chandra: The accessibility is amazing and it’s really cool that people are listening in Stockholm or Brazil.

Leigh: People used to say, “We’re really big in Japan,” and now you really can be big in Japan even if you’ve never been there [laughs].

On Wednesday, December 6, Code-R Productions presents The Wood Brothers with special guests The Watson Twins at Iron City. Tickets to the 8 p.m., all-ages show can be purchased at www.ironcitybham.com.

 

 

 

Nuggets of Inspiration: A Conversation with Madeline Hawthorne

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

Raised in New England by a family steeped in classical music, it may seem unlikely that Madeline Hawthorne ended up as a singer/songwriter based in Montana. But as listeners, we are glad she took this path as evidenced by her single “Neon Wasteland.” Based on her experiences in Nashville, Hawthorne’s song encapsulates her musical style which is both familiar and refreshing at the same time.Recently, she spoke with us by phone.

Southern Stages: Madeline, thanks for your time. Are you at home right now?

Madeline Hawthorne: I’m home in Montana – it’s a beautiful fall day. We have snow coming next week – today is one of our last warmer days of fall. After our interview, my husband and I are taking our raft out on the Yellowstone River for one final float before we put it away for the winter season.

Southern Stages: You’re originally from New England – how long have you lived in Montana?

Hawthorne: I’ve been in Montana for 16 years. I went to college here with my husband and we both stayed. We love it here.

Southern Stages: I understand that you grew up in a musical household. If you will, talk about that experience.

Hawthorne: When I was born, my mom was a classical performer in the greater Boston are and also toured the world as a solo soprano doing primarily Baroque-style music. I grew up in a classical music household and I got to see her perform at a very young age. The more of these interviews I do, the more I realize how much of an effect it had on the decisions I made and how I would up being a performer myself. She’s retired now, but music never leaves you.

Southern Stages: We are really enjoying “Neon Wasteland.” How did the song evolve?

Hawthorne: I write all of my songs on my acoustic guitar. I had the bluesy rhythm in mind and I was working on the melody and the concept of a young woman who’s struggling in her career. I think she’s a character I could have become had I made different choices at each fork in the road. It’s a tough world, the music industry, and there are good days and challenging days. The hook and the title came to me after my first trip to Nashville. It wasn’t a bad trip, but I learned a lot and it was stepping out of the comfort zone of the Mountain West which is an area I’ve toured and know very well. Nashville was exciting, but also new – I felt like a fish out of water. I came back motivated to keep writing and that phrase came out. I felt like I could tie my personal experiences to this character’s experiences and make the song feel genuine and therefore I could perform it better.

Southern Stages: How would you describe your songwriting process?

Hawthorne: I always carry a journal – usually multiple journals – so I’m constantly writing down my experiences or a phrase or a conversation. I’m always trying to keep ideas going and when I’m home I flip through the journals and look for nuggets of inspiration. Sometimes, when I’m on the road, I’ll sit down and try to write a song and finish it whether it’s an album-worthy or single-worthy tune. I have a very large collection of bad songs [laughs], but I try to write as much as possible.

Southern Stages: How do you feel about the current musical climate? Outlets including Spotify, satellite radio and Youtube make your music easily accessible to listeners, but I am sure they present certain challenges as well.

Hawthorne: It goes back and forth – like I said, there are good days and challenging days. The challenge is to manage my highs and my lows. There are some days it can feel totally overwhelming and there are victories along the way that give you the energy to keep going. Over the years, people have encouraged me to have a shtick or a gimmick, but my goal is to stay genuine to myself as a writer. Hopefully, that reaches enough people to pay the bills.

Southern Stages: Is your husband in the music industry as well?

Hawthorne: He owns a software company based in Montana called Sellout – he’s in event ticketing. Our first date – I was 17 or 18 at the time – was a Lynyrd Skynyrd and Doobie Brothers concert. I owe a lot of the musical inspiration that’s come into my songwriting to Henry. It’s really cool to be in the industry together, but working in different sides and growing together in this, like you said, new industry.

Southern Stages: How do songs stay fresh for you after you’ve performed them dozens of times?

Hawthorne: That’s a great question. I really attempt to make the songs feel genuine to me when I write them. That helps me to go into a headspace when I’m performing to act the part and sell the character and tell that story. As my career evolves and my performances improve, I get to experience the songs in a different way.

www.madelinehawthorne.com

 

Review: The Replacements give a classic the deluxe touch

By Brent Thompson

A few things in music actually live up to the hype – catching a show at Red Rocks and the Ryman, the Play It Loud museum exhibit and the deluxe reissue of Tim by The Replacements are ones that quickly come to mind. The Mats’ four CD/one LP set – titled the Let It Bleed Edition [Rhino Records] – does more than remix the quartet’s landmark 1985 album. With Ed Stasium at the knobs, Tim gets both reinvented and reinvigorated. Stasium, a friend and production partner of the album’s producer, the late Tommy Erdelyi, makes listeners feel like they are standing in the recording studio as the magic unfolds. The Let It Bleed Edition also includes a treasure trove worth of rare and unreleased tracks as well as a 1986 live show recorded in Chicago. But, even with all of the extras, you will keep coming back to the Stasium mix and you will play it loud – count on it.