Friday, December 26, 2008

The List...

Does this ever happen to you? You're driving in you car, listening to the radio, your iPod, a mixtape- whatever, and you hear a song from an album that you absolutely love. I mean LOVE. An album that you can THINK your way through the entire running order, start-to-finish. An album that's as warm to you as a pair of faded jeans straight out of the dryer. An album that, for some ridiculous reason, if you ended up stranded on a desert island, you would want to have with you. An album you would NEED to have with you if you were going to survive. Whenever this happens to me, I always unconsciously blurt out to whoever is riding alongside, "THIS album... is on THE LIST".

Now, I don't want to get too heavy into the logistics of why the desert island scenario is flawed from the get go. If you just consider it for a moment, with the lack of electricity, the limited life of batteries, the destructive effects of salt water on electronics, or, for that matter, the reality of any audio player actually working for more than a few years anyway, the idea is doomed. But I guess if you are like me, and you watched a lot of Gilligan's Island reruns as a kid, you can at least muster up the possibility that perpetual music, albeit limited to a carefully chosen list of 10 albums, might be possible. So, if you were lucky enough to be stranded on a desert island with a smart professor, who could design and build a bamboo bicycle that could generate electricity, AND you had a bomb-proof playback device for cd's, vinyl, whatever, you would want to be prepared wouldn't you?
Thus, the list.

I've been working on my list since early adolescence. I vividly remember my first 8-track tape. It was "Elvis's Golden Records" and I bought it with my own allowance money at K-Mart. I couldn't have been more than 6 or 7 years old, but I completely remember rushing home, ripping it out of it's big over-sized box, then gently pushing it into the stereo 8-track deck. Over the next few weeks I literally memorized that music. Coincidentally, I have only one Elvis cd in my collection now, and it's "Elvis's Golden Records"... As the years passed, other 8-tracks entered and retreated from my life, followed by piles of vinyl records, 45's and 33's, mountains of cassette tapes, and then, much later, compact discs. When I was just a kid, my dad used to take me to swap meets at the long-ago-demolished Twin Drive-INN in Riverside, MO . I developed a behavior pattern then, which has remained in me to this very day. Whenever I see an old box of records, cassettes, cd's, or whatever lying underneath a table at a flea market or a garage sale, I MUST go through the entire box. Its an obsession that has yielded me some real treasures over the years. One of them was an 8-track of The Beatles "White Album". Actually, it was only the first half of the 2-album set, and the running order was different, due to the time constraints of the 8-track format. But I memorized it nonetheless- track breaks and all. It took me years to get used the new order when I finally bought it on vinyl. But the music contained on that 8-track destroyed me, and it still destroys me today (although in a completely different way). That's why "The White Album" is on the list. I assure you that I'll need a copy if I end up on that lonely desert island... I WILL.

My 10-album list is constant, yet ever-changing. There are albums on my list that have been on it for most of my life, and albums that are are much more recent additions. After 30 or so some-odd years of collecting, I've grown pretty skeptical. For this reason, I am, by nature, suspicious when I hear something that really knocks me out. New albums that hit me this way generally get put on a probationary sub-list and remain there for quite some time. Then, if they truly have staying power, I will move them up to the actual list. Of course, when this happens, another worthy list occupant must be demoted. I'm not sure why the list must be limited to 10 albums, but it has always has been this way, and I don't dare shake up the rules at this point.

The following is my current list (in no particular order) with supporting evidence:

1. "The White Album" - The Beatles - As a huge Beatles fan, its really hard to choose which album goes on my list. Generally, as one becomes my favorite, it will replace another. With only 10 songs, I can't really afford to have more than one Beatles album on there. But my love for this one dates way back to that original 8-track. I just love the raggedness of the whole thing. Individually, the four Beatles were never more creative. But at the same time, they were in the process of destroying each other. Its a big, overwrought, fleshy thing full of attitude and ego-mania.

2. "Ram" - Paul McCartney - Sir Paul's 2nd post-Beatle solo record has been on the list since my childhood. I used to sit for hours looking at the gatefold cover on the floor of my sister's room. It was her copy and she wouldn't loan it to me. If I wanted to hear it, I had to come into her room. The music was both friendly and, at the same time, sort of edgy. I had no idea that the lyrics were nonsensical and that Linda McCartney's voice was horrifyingly bad. Upon repeated listens as an adult, I cannot divorce these childhood experiences from the music. It has always been on the list and it always will be. I just absolutely love it and can't musically justify why. To paraphrase Descartes, "Its on the list, therefore the list is.

3. "#1 Record/Radio City" - Big Star - I can't believe that I spent nearly 35 years of my life before hearing Big Star. Although I had always "heard about" Alex Chilton's seminal Memphis, TN attempt to pitch some good old USA into the british invasion, I had never had the inclination, or determination to actually seek out a record by them. Ike Sheldon brought this amazing, near perfect, rock and roll nugget into my life several years ago. I can't remember what it bumped off when it crashed onto the list, but whatever it was, good riddance...

4. "King of the Delta Blues Singers" - Robert Johnson - When I was 13 and just starting to play the guitar, I checked this out from our local library. I had read interviews with Keith Richards and Eric Clapton and they talked about what a huge influence Robert Johnson had been on their playing. I got it home and put the record on my turntable and thought it must be on the wrong speed. The guitar was sort of harsh and metallic. and the Johnson's voice sounded like he was singing through a tin can. Needless to say, I was way too young to appreciate the unbelievably haunting songs, the amazing guitar rhythm and his vocal control. These 16 songs would later have a profound influence on me as a musician. It will always be a reference point for how good you can get if you just keep at it.

5. "The Basement Tapes" - Bob Dylan and The Band- Just like The Beatles, picking a single Dylan record is nearly impossible. I choose this one because I just love how loose it is. The boys were just screwing around in the basement. Sometimes, it is amazing what you can create when you don't think anyone is listening. Dylan sneers and croons his way through a thicket of material here. And you get the more bang-for-your-buck with the additional tunes The Band were working up by themselves. I personally think The Band never recorded anything in the studio even close to as good as the stuff in the basement of Big Pink.

6. "Jazz Impressions of New York" - Dave Brubeck Quartet
- I discovered this record my sophomore year in college at the University of Missouri. I used to be what they called a "suitcaser"- meaning, I packed my dirty laundry and books into my car and headed home to the comfort of mom and dad's house every weekend. This album made that lonesome 2-hour drive from Columbia bearable weekend after weekend. Many a jazz purist will discount the Brubeck Quartet as a product of the pure commercial saccharin-jazz rampant in the naive 1950's . But I defy anyone to listen to Paul Desmond's aching saxophone on "Autumn on Washington Square" and not feel a cold chill of melancholy settling into their bones.

7. "In an Aeroplane Over the Sea" - Neutral Milk Hotel
- This was one that came to me in the 90's while I was still working at the Kansas City Art Institute. Oftentimes my student workers would come into my office, heralding the latest "coolest band EVER" to me. Most of what they played me is now forgotten, but I heard this record and loved it from the first listen. Regardless of my skepticism, it only remained on my sub-list for a short time. I moved it up to full residency on the permanent list before Y2K and never looked back... By the way, I LOVE the sound of a 7th grade brass band playing Sousa marches they've only rehearsed a few times. I guess its just the chaos of it all.

8. "Odyssey and Oracle" - The Zombies
- This is one that could drop off the list at any time in favor of a more worthy record. Yet, for the last 3 years or so, every time I hear it, I mutter to myself, "this is still, really...on the list". Its a crazy melange of a record- the Zombies last, that speaks so much to what could have happened if they could have just got past their petty differences and made more beautiful music together...I love the drama of "Butchers Tale (Western Front 1914) and the sweet loneliness of "A Rose for Emily". I don't see it on very many other top 10 lists. So I'll hang on to it for now, in hopes that others may discover it's beauty.

9. "Tattoo You" - The Rolling Stones
- Ok, I'm sure I'm going to get a lot of negative response to this one. But here's the deal: I got "Tattoo You" as a Christmas present from my high school buddy, Mark McNally, after we played touch football with about 22 other half drunk dudes in the December Missouri mud, on some Christmas vacation Saturday afternoon. We went to my Chevy Vega during half time, to sample a room temperature 12 pack of Old Milwaukee Light, when he just busted it out from behind his back. He told me, "dude, I know you don't really like The Stones, but just listen to side two. It's the sexiest album side EVER." I went home and listened. Its been on the list ever since.

10. "Final Fade" - Howard Iceberg
- The newest addition to the list, but maybe the most worthy ever. I've been a fan of Howard's since the early 90's. He's a Kansas City institution. Hell, I even played slide guitar on his "Hindu Equations" cd. But I'll never forget when Howard gave me a copy of "Final Fade" at one of our local KC shows. He handed it to me and had a funny look on his face. I read the liner notes, and realized that this might be the last Howard Iceberg record. It appeared that he was intending to retire from the music game once and for all. I took it home and realized immediately, the loss this retirement would bring. Luckily, Howard has decided to forgo his retirement a little longer. That's a bonus for everyone who can get their hands on one of his records, or, better yet. see him perform his amazing songs live.

So that's my top 10 desert island disks as of 12/26/08. As is the nature of the list, it might change somewhat tomorrow, or next week. Its my list and I make no bones about it. What I choose is a deeply personal list based on my own particular criteria. You might think I'm crazy, but I'm the one who has to live with my choices on that lonely island right?

So what are your choices? I'd like to see the lists of some others out there. Who knows...Maybe one of your top 10's will eventually creep onto my own? Of course, as a musician, I think that I know EVERYTHING about music. But there's always the possibility of something interesting creeping on to my list at any time. I'll be waiting for your own lists in the comments section of this blog entry. Feel free to expand upon your reasoning, or just provide your basic top 10. I think we will all benefit from the experience...

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Random Photo Moment 8...

"Strength does not come from winning.
Your struggles develop your strengths.
When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender,
that is strength."

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Random Photo Moment 7...

"I know that you believe you understand what you think I said,
but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."

Robert McCloskey

Monday, December 22, 2008

Random Photo Moment 6...

"A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words."


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Friday, December 19, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Random Photo Moment 2...

"A fight is not won by one punch or kick.
Either learn to endure or hire a bodyguard."

Bruce Lee

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Random Photo Moment

"Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it."

Buckminster Fuller

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Ritual of Airports

The Brown Clown pulls up to the curb outside the Kansas City International Airport terminal and everybody scrambles. Suitcases, instrument cases, cowboy hats, carry-ons, neck pillows, and other Wilder necessities spill out onto the sidewalk as we take shifts, carrying everything inside to the check-in kiosk. Once everything is safe, I head back out and drive the van to the economy parking lot. I look for an open spot near to one of the glassed-in waiting areas. I make a mental note of the location using some stupid mnemonic- "I can't wait to retune my steel guitar to C6 tuning", or "If I run into a robot, I hope it is C3-pio". I know that no matter how creative the mental picture, I'll still forget where I parked.

I turn off the engine, put the sun-visor in the window and quickly look around to make sure nobody forgot anything. Then I lock up and go to wait for the shuttle by the glassed-in waiting area. If we have arrived in plenty of time for our flight, the parking lot is literally teeming with shuttles, and one comes to pick me up almost immediately. However, if we are running late (which we often are), its more like downtown Tombstone out there. There are no other cars coming in to park, no other people waiting, and no shuttles- no shuttles anywhere. I begin to make frantic phone calls to Betse, telling her that I'm stranded, that I'm screwed, that I'm going to have to walk to the terminal...that I just got hit by a tumbleweed. She speaks to me in a calm reassuring voice- she's incredulous because she's heard it all before. I hang up when a shuttle finally comes. I arrive at the airport and find Betse and Nate waiting next to my pile of luggage. Betse hands me my boarding pass and then they both scatter.

I grab my stuff, hit the restroom and gulp down some water at the fountain before heading into the security line. Unlike most larger airports, Kansas City International has a separate security line for each gate. Our airport was built in the early 70's, prior to today's daily terrorist threat. Although they have been retrofitting some of the busier gates with new bathrooms, once you are past security, there isn't any guarantee that there will be any services whatsoever (unless, I guess you want to call chairs a service). Regardless of this minor inconvenience, I love our sweet little airport. There never seems to be very many people flying, the lines are mercifully short, and the security staff are, for the most part friendly and free of the burnout level you see at busier airports.

I smile at the first security guard as I hand her my boarding pass and passport. She waves a weird blue flashlight over my picture, compares the info, then returns my smile along with my stuff. I move past her and pull off my boots, unbuckle and unthread my belt, take off my coat and hat, and dump the lot into a plastic bin, Then I unzip my carry-on suitcase and remove my 1 quart plastic bag containing all my important gels and liquids. I remove my laptop from the suitcase too, and put it and the gels into their own plastic tub, Finally, I pull off the tennis bag off my back (which contains my mandolin case) and lay it on the belt behind the plastic tubs. I've just organized my entire life into little train of plastic tubs. I double-check my pockets for any change, scrap metal, razor blades, or anything else that is going to get me busted, then wait for the x-ray attendant to look at me. He motions me forward. Just before I pass through the machine, I grab a quick breath and hold it... I don't hear an alarm. I'm clean- thank God. I exhale, then wait for my train of tubs to come out of the x-ray machine. I quickly put back on my belt and boots, coat and hat, and then unzip my carry-on to return my laptop and important gels and liquids. Then I go grab a seat near the gate. Even though I just went to the bathroom, I now have the urge to pee. But, of course there is no bathroom inside this gate.

I look around and see Betse sitting 10 yards across from me in another row of seats checking email on her laptop. Nate is sitting about 20 yards behind me reading the sports page. Today Ike is meeting us in Newark, and is flying out of Allentown, Pennsylvania, so who knows what he is doing? But even if he was here, he wouldn't willingly sit with any of us. For whatever reason, we don't hang out together in airports. Given the opportunity, we will change our seat assignments in order to NOT sit near each other. Of course, we DO spend a lot of time together on the road. But another part of this avoidance behavior is due to the fact that each of us has our own preference as to where we like to sit. I am claustrophobic by nature and require not only an aisle seat, but, if possible, an aisle seat at the very front of the plane. This preference allows me to get the hell off the plane as soon as possible. Ike likes the front too, but because he is sensitive to the engine noise and prefers the quieter ride up front. But, unlike me, he has no problem sitting on a plane, and will sometimes dawdle just to be the last one off. Both Betse and Nate like window seats- not because of the view, but because they have developed a technique where by they can actually go to sleep by cramming their heads up against the closed window shade NOTE: This technique requires the use of a neck pillow. Misuse of this technique can result in spinal injury).

A voice comes over the intercom telling us that they are now going to begin pre-boarding for our flight. A line quickly develops at the gate. Betse gets up and joins the line too. She will need to board as soon as possible so that she can find a safe space for her double fiddle case before all the overhead bins are full. Thus, she has a very good reason to get in line, but I look at the other people jockeying for position, and I wonder what it is they are in such a damned hurry for. I remain seated. Due to my claustrophobia, I would never willingly hurry to get ON an airplane. And besides, once you are past the gate attendant, you only get to walk a few steps before you hit a secondary line on the jetway, where everyone who got up before you is now stuck waiting. Inside the aircraft, all the people who first jumped into line are now cramming their oversize carry-ons into all of the available overhead spaces. They will have to wait, though, until the rest of us stragglers come aboard.

I wait until there most of the people are on the plane, then move toward the gate. I don't want to be the last one on the plane because I usually have slightly more luggage than is really "allowed". When my carry-on bag is fully packed, containing all of my clothes, at least two western suits, my 1 quart bag of liquids and gels, my computer and whatever else was needed depending on the tour, it is about an inch or so over the maximum size allowed on an aircraft. Technically, you are allowed to carry-on this bag as well as one nebulous "personal item". This is where it gets sticky. My personal item is the tennis bag containing my mandolin case. I need it because it has backpack straps that allow me to carry all three of my instruments at once. If I only had the mandolin case inside, it wouldn't be a problem. However, lately I've been pushing the envelope by cramming in my cowboy boots, some magazines, snacks, a neck pillow, and so on and so on... Today, my "personal item" is actually LARGER than my carry-on bag! As I move up to the gate attendant, I keep my carry-on suitcase on the opposite side of my body in an attempt to block it from her view- and I sort of stand sideways,. hoping she won't look too closely at the monstrosity hanging on my back. I'm lucky, and she doesn't even look up at me when I hand her my boarding pass. I move quickly down the jet way and run into the tail end of the line waiting to get on the plane.

After a few minutes I finally reach the door and I see the flight attendant staring at my luggage and shaking her head. I'm busted. She tells me the overheads are all full and I'll need to gate check my bags along with the strollers and wheelchairs. Defeated, I quickly open my suitcase and remove my computer, grab some gum, a magazine, re-zip everything, then say a silent prayer for the continued good health of my luggage before handing both bags off to the disinterested, overworked and underpaid baggage handler standing in the door of the jetway. Powerlessly, I watch him drop my carry-on bag from the stairway landing to the truck bed, located 4 feet below. I cringe, quickly turn away, and then move through the door of the suffocatingly small aircraft. I smile at the flight attendant and take my aisle seat in the first row. I was the last one on, and with any luck, I'll be one of the first off. Thank God.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Random Stop...

Thursday, 8/28/08 @ 9:13pm

Interstate 70, East of Hays, Kansas:

I was jolted awake when Ike hit the brakes-HARD. The van lurched to the right, crossing the rumble strip, and stopped roughly on the shoulder. Semi-trucks, lugging their heavy loads roared by as I sat up with a "hrumph." I had drifted off into sleep long enough for the sun to have gone down without my awareness. I had no idea where we were.

Ike was already out of the van by the time I raised the blinds. I looked out the window and spotted him-up to his chest in grass, climbing up a small hill toward a ridge of trees. Towering above him, about 100 feet beyond, was a solitary wind turbine turning fast in the Kansas wind.

Betse yelled out, "oh no, I bet there are chiggers."
"You can brush them off!" he yelled back as he disappeared through the tree line.

Nate turned around from the seat in front of me, laughing, and said, "Hey Phil, did you think we would be stopping for THIS?". I grumbled a non-answer, and looked back outside at the turbine, scanning the trees for Ike.

"Wow, you can hear it," Betse said, "LISTEN..." I slid my window open, but for several moments, all I could hear was the traffic whooshing past. Then I heard it, the steady, "whump, whump, whump" of the turbine.

Spurred on by this new auditory impulse, Betse too was now off into the grass, She moved with greater care than Ike- perhaps hoping to limit her parasite exposure. Nate turned to me again and said, "He was just talking about wanting to climb something." Chuckling, he added, "He's going to be on top of that thing in a few minutes."

I collapsed back into my seat with a grumble-feigning disinterest. The part of me that knew this was going to make us late, had taken momentary control of my vocal chords. But there was another part of me that secretly wanted to see Ike's shadowy silhouette moving up the side of the tower- no matter how late it made us.

I sat back up and said, "Do they even HAVE chiggers in central Kansas?"
"I don't know," Nate replied as he stepped outside to water the roadside flowers, "but I'm not feeling adventurous enough tonight to find out." Then he said, "Hey, they're coming back, there must have been a fence"

Ike an Betse returned to their respective front seats, obsessively brushing and rubbing their wrists and ankles. They spoke to each other emphatically-not about wind turbines, but about feeding habits and human defense strategies against Trombiculidae, the common chigger. It was obvious that they now imagined their bodies teeming with microscopic mites. Innumerable chiggers were slipping into a sock here, a waistband there, or worse yet, crawling under a warm, moist fold of skin where there would be protection from the incessant brushing and rubbing- the sort of place a chigger can relax, a safe place where he can linger long enough to begin to feed...

For those who don't believe in the existence of the much-reviled midwestern chigger, please visit:

Or, for you adventurous disbelievers, I invite you to visit any picturesque backyard, pasture, or meadow of Missouri grass between June and August. Go ahead, have a seat, relax and see for yourself if chiggers are real.

By the way, you can't see them, they are invisible...

Saturday, August 09, 2008


Saturday August 9th 12:10am
Location: The Marquis De Sideshow Tent- Spiegel Gardens

"This is sideshow, not magic," the shirtless tattooed performer explained as he pushed a galvanized 10 penny nail through each of his nipple piercings. "Real people doing real things..." He reached behind a curtain, and roughly pulled out an automotive battery wrapped in heavy steel chains, then dropped it violently to the floor in front of the anxious crowd. He bent forward at the waist, unraveled one of the chains, and slipped the end link over one of the nails- locking it snugly around his right nipple. "This is sideshow, it is not meant to trick," he said as he attached the other chain in like fashion. "It is meant to shock, and AMAZE..." He then arched his back, pulling the chains taught against the nails with his arms straightened behind him like an olympic swimmer ready for the race. He paused briefly for some of the audience to take pictures of his now downward-stretching nipples. The battery was still firmly planted to the floor.

"Now I'm going to see if I can lift this battery off the ground using only my chest- but first, we're going to make it more interesting!" Again, he reached behind the curtain, now producing a set of heavy automotive jumper cables. Nervous laughter filtered throughout the audience. "How many of you understand the laws of electricity?" he asked. "Well, I will tell you that there is enough electricity contained within this battery, that if I were to attach these jumper cables to these chains, there would be enough sustained amps to kill me..." He clipped the negative cable to the negative terminal, and then, likewise, clipped the positive end to the positive terminal. Grasping up the opposite ends of the cables in each hand, he quickly touched the two ends together, producing a shower of sparks. The audience gasped.

"Now for me to be able to lift this battery, there needs to be an exchange of energy..." Again, he touched the cable ends together, producing a secondary shower of sparks. "If I rub the ends of these cables against the chains, it will still produce an electrical current, but only about 5 to 6 amps, which will NOT be enough to kill me." He went on, "So I'll be getting energy from the battery, but I also need energy from you, the audience." The tension in room was palpable- everyone focused completely on the performer. "When I begin rubbing these chains, they are going to get very hot- especially here and here," he motioned to each nail. "On the count of three, I need for you, the audience, to scream as loudly and as wildly as you can. If I can pick the battery up just a few inches, I've done my job, and I've done it well..."

"Are you ready?" he yelled. The crowd, united in their response, screamed, "YEAAAAHHH! He scraped the cables against the chains. Sparks fell down his chest as he winced in pain, "AAAAAHHHHHHHGGGGG!" There was a small cloud of smoke wafting into the front row. "Can you SMELL IT?" he asked. "That's the smell of burning flesh!" The woman seated closest to him waved a hand in front of her face. "Remember, this is sideshow, NOT magic," he repeated. "It is meant to shock...and AMAZE." He paused to let his words settle in for dramatic effect. "Remember, you must scream as loudly as you can! NOW, on the count of three...ONE......TWO.............THREE!

The performer began rubbing the chains up and down against the battery cables. Sparks flew. Smoke filled the air. The crowd screamed loudly, forcefully, wildly. The performer screamed too, but they were screams of anguish. He arched his back against the weight of the battery. From my vantage point, I could not see the battery rise off the floor, but from the change in the crowd's screams, I knew that it had. The performer screamed- and we screamed louder, as he quickly rocked his body from side to side, making the battery swing like a pendulum. Then, he relaxed, and the battery tumbled back to wooden floor with a heavy thud.

He slumped forward, clearly exhausted and dazed from the effort. The crowd cheered. He detached the chains, straightened himself, and took a deep bow.

"SIDESHOW!" he exclaimed, "Real people doing REAL THINGS!"

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Ike Rips and Tall Ships-Scotland: Part Two

I've just returned to the peace and quiet of our flat. We spent the morning hucking ourselves on a local Edinburgh radio program. At this point, everything we can do to get some "butts in seats" (as we so elegantly say in Missouri), the better. I had hoped that our previous attendance problems would be strictly a United States phenomena. However, with half our Spiegeltent performances nearly finished, we have yet to draw more than half a house. This is frustrating because out of the 5 shows we did during last year's run, we sold out two, then had a nearly full house on two more. It was only on the final day of the festival (a Monday no less), that we finally had a low show attendance. Like the US, the economy in the UK is sluggish, gas prices are sky high, and people are getting depressed. And like the US, many people are apparently opting to stay home and save their hard-earned money.

Regardless, it feels really good to be back in Scotland. We played our first show in a beautifully refurbished old theater in Perth. The audience attendance for our show at the "Southern Fried Festival" was quite good. I think this might have been to due, at least in part, to Ike's participation in a multi-artist Hank Williams tribute concert up the street earlier in the evening. Betse and I walked into the back of the completely new, state-of-the-art theater to check it out, just as Ike was finishing the first verse to Hank Williams' heart-wrenching "Someday You'll Call My Name (and I Won't Answer)". The stage was beautifully lit. The house band was spread across the center and stage left side behind Ike. And on stage right, there were several small round tables. Seated at the tables were the other tribute performers and their friends. I smiled when I looked and saw Nate, Carrie and Gerald sitting up there onstage watching the show. This brilliant theatrical choice allowed the audience in the theater to watch an audience on the stage while they both watched the show. But it was clear to me that everyone's eyes were squarely on Ike at center stage when he sang Hank's words. He wore the close-fitting, dark plum western suit I bought for him a few years ago on eBay. He had on his black felt cowboy hat, a pair of black shoes (with white socks of course), and sunglasses. He looked like a cross between Marty Robbins and Hank Williams Jr, and when he sang into the mic, he looked like a damned star- and he sounded like one too. Now, it may seem that I am waxing poetic, but I rarely get to see our singer from the audience's vantage point- especially in such a perfect setting. In short, he blew me (and everybody else) away.

A few hours later, our own show was an energetic, albeit chaotic triumph. We hadn't played together in nearly two weeks, and it took a little effort to keep all four wheels on the ground. But the audience loved it, and the 90 minute set seemed to go by in a blink. The next morning, I was startled awake by Gerald at the early hour of 11:30am. My watch alarm had been set to go off at 9. But I quickly realized that I had set it for pm instead of am. Gerald said, in his infinite patience and sing-songy accent, "no wearies Phillip, tek yor tyme...havacuppatea". He grabbed up my instrument cases and shuffled up the hallway, stopping briefly to wake up Betse (who had forgotten to set her alarm), and Nate (who didn't even have an alarm). A half hour later, we were headed toward Glasgow. This van was much more spacious than Gerald's airport shuttle loaner. There was a locked storage area in the back where we securely stowed all our gear. And in the center, there were three bucket seats facing forward, and three bucket seats facing backward. On all sides, thick black drapes hung which served to divide us from Gerald, as well as obscuring any light or view that might be coming into the windows. Stepping inside felt like stepping inside a gothic stagecoach.

Soon we arrived in Glasgow, and Gerald mercifully dropped us off at our hotel to allow us plenty of time to rest up and eat something before our show that evening. Our gig location was "The Tall Ship", docked in the Glasgow harbor. Gerald picked us up from the hotel and it was just a short drive until we could see the three-story masts peeking over some harbor buildings. This 19th-century fully masted steel-hulled cargo ship apparently spent years carrying loads of bat guano from South America to the western United States, the UK and other places where the potent fertilizer was in demand. For many years, The ship was operated by a Scottish company, but was sold to the Spanish navy after WWII. She then fell into serious disrepair, before a contingency of Scottish seafaring enthusiasts got together, raised enough money to buy her back and spent countless more hours and money to make her seaworthy again. They then had her towed back to Glasgow, where she now resides as a tourist attraction, permanently chained to the dock. We parked and loaded our gear up the ramp and then down into the hold. As I walked around, I realized that this would be one of the most unusual places we would ever play. Gerald had been setting up the sound gear while we were at the hotel, so we had only to open our cases, tune up, make a few microphone adjustments, and were ready to play. We had about an hour to kill, so Nate went with Gerald to go pick up some pizzas, while Betse, Carrie, Ike and I all played a sailor's ring toss game outside on the dock.

For the second night of our tour, the crowd attendance was really good. In fact, they began lining up (or queuing, as the they say here), before our sound check, and by the time we returned to change into our suits, nearly every seat was full. Our UK booking agent, Loudon Temple introduced us and we were off to the races. The crowd gave us a lot of encouragement as we played a tight, well-paced two sets of Wilders goodies. After the show, Loudon took us down another flight of stairs into the vast cargo hold of the ship. Looking up from the very bottom into the enormous space, I could imagine myself as a turn-of-the-century sailor, sent down to inspect the integrity of the hold when suddenly I'm buried alive by 1000 tons of bat shit.

stay tuned...

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Scotland: Part One

I'm sitting in our dressing room behind the Infamous Spiegeltent in Edinburgh, Scotland listening to the soothing sounds of someone playing an accordion nearby. It is noon here, and the Spiegeltent staff are just now coming to work after a long and late opening night. I am taking advantage of a free wifi connection on sight, while my band mates catch up on some sleep back at our flat.

We are now 5 days into our third tour of Scotland. So much has happened already. Ike, accompanied by his wife, Carrie, flew over to Edinburgh over a week ago to take a vacation in the northern highlands. Betse, Nate and I flew to Newark, NJ on Thursday morning, then prepared ourselves for an 8 hour layover that quickly turned into 11 grueling hours once Continental Airlines got through with us. We boarded the cramped aircraft around 1am, then settled in for the six-hour flight to the UK.

The Wilders airport/flying experience really deserves a blog of it's own. But I will sum up this particular flight by saying that we all looked like cadavers when we spilled out into the airport. It was now after 1pm in Edinburgh, and we had been in airports or flying for over 24 hours.

For those who haven't had the pleasure of travel to the United Kingdom, I'll tell you that before you get to claim your luggage, you must first go through customs. The first couple of times we did this, it was a little nerve racking. I mean, they could easily deny us entry if they wanted to- and then what? But, we've grown used to this process by now, and the Scottish customs agent was quite friendly as she looked over our paperwork. She asked where we were playing, and then double-checked the Fringe Festival guide for our name. Our listing on the Spiegeltent schedule was more than enough to corroborate our story, and she let us pass into the UK without further delay. We grabbed up our luggage (all of which arrived with no problem), and headed out into a classic Scottish midday sun shower. Scotland reminds me a lot of Juneau, Alaska in that it seems to rain constantly, but never enough to cause you to get truly wet. And after a few days, you don't even really notice it anymore.

We were greeted by our illustrious driver/tour manager Gerald Roche. I looked back into the blog archive to see if I've ever written about Gerald and, grossly, I have not. Gerald actually deserves an entire blog entry of his own too. Maybe I'll post a full description next week once I've lived with him long enough for me to describe him with the color and detail that he so richly deserves. Anyway, Gerald helped us with our bags and cases into the parking lot and then to the car (borrowed from a friend), which he brought to fetch us from the airport. All of you folks crying about the high price of gas prices in the US should know that gas in Scotland is now averaging around 3 British pounds....PER LITER! (you do the math)... This is the reason why Gerald borrowed his friend's fuel-efficient car, instead of bringing a gas-guzzling van. The only problem came when we tried to load all our crap into the tiny vehicle. It was minivan-ish, but SMALL. We tried several configurations, finally settling on the only one that allowed all four of us to actually get inside the car. Betse and I held onto a suitcase balanced on top of the bass case, and I shaped myself into a human comma, hunching forward with the top of the banjo case filling the space where my head should have been.

Luckily it was only a 40 mile drive to Perth. With the promise of serenity and rest waiting for us at our hotel, we endured the discomfort. In fact, both Betse and I slipped into a light sleep once we were on the highway. But suddenly, during an evasive maneuver that Gerald was required to make, the suitcase that neither of us were holding any longer, shifted and hit Betse squarely on the head- trapping her for a moment until she shoved it off with a groan. The phrase "rude awakening" was never more appropriately coined. More to come...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tour Report, July 2008

Originally uploaded by brotherphilwilder.
I'm sitting in a ski resort in Big Sky, Montana listening to the sound of children playing in the pool beneath my room. If it weren't for the lack of police sirens, I would guess that they are trying to strangle each other. As a result, this is a pretty weird place to sit and write, but I am seriously deficient in blogs for the year, and I've got to get some stuff down before I forget it all. Here is a big update on all Wilders developments, as well as a few thoughts I've been contemplating as of late...

Southeast US CD-Release Tour:
Our newest cd, "Someone's Got to Pay" has now been out for 3 months. We hit the road on April 15th, the day it was released, and worked dates in Iowa City, Madison, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville, VA before landing for our third play at Merlefest in Wilkesboro, N.C.. With the exception of Chicago, we were surprised at the lack of audience turning out for the shows- especially at some locations where we were returning after doing well in the past. But Merlefest was fantastic, and the crowds made us feel like we were doing it right. We got to play a set with Jim Lauderdale on Saturday morning, and Betse and I were thrilled to lend a hand to The Waybacks Saturday afternoon hillside set where we played the entire running order of Led Zeppelin II. Many folks picked up a copy of our new cd, and we injected a little Kansas City Rural Grit into their "midnight jam" on Saturday night. The following Monday afternoon found us in a North Wilkesboro, NC Laundromat separating our colors from our whites with none other than Martha Scanlan and Dirk Powell. It was a sight to behold for sure.

With our suitcases refreshed with clean clothes, we bid our friends goodbye and set out east for more sparsely attended shows in Knoxville and Nashville, then south for similarly dead shows in Greenville, SC and Chapel Hill. As the venerable manager of Nashville's Station Inn, Lin Barber put it, "The crowds have been skinny all over." We rationalized that gas prices were just starting their summer rise, and maybe it wasn't such a good time to tour the southeast since Merlefest had siphoned-off so many people. Regardless, it was hard to not become depressed. The tour ended on a higher note, with a wacked-out performance on "Song of the Mountain", a syndicated "Austin City Limits" style television show, and our final show at a coffee shop in Lewisburg, WV where people actually came to the show AND danced AND had a great time. Another bright note of this Southeast run, was that we got to tick off two more states on our "US States played" list. West Virginia, and South Carolina, we welcome you.

We were understandably pooped after driving home 16 hours straight from West Virginia, and were happy to take the next 2 weeks off to recuperate. The next leg of our cd release tour would be the US west coast, via Alaska.

Alaska, by land, by air, by sea:
Our first date on the western tour was in Juneau, Alaska, (not exactly good tour routing on our part). Thus, one of us needed to drive the van out to Seattle, so that the Brown Clown and trailer would be waiting for us when we flew back. I volunteered for driving duty, and was luckily co-piloted by my wife, Kim for the 2000 mile trip. Over four days, we saw some beautiful country and spent some serious money on gasoline. The cheapest gas on the way out was in Wyoming at $3.49 a gallon. But by the time we hit the east side of the Cascades in Washington, the price was over $4.00. We didn't see gas prices fall below the $4 mark until we reached Arizona four weeks later.

With the "land" portion of our travel complete, Kim accompanied me via Alaskan Airlines for her first visit to the great state of Alaska. We arrived in Juneau in the late afternoon and it was just spectacular. The weather was warm and sunny (conditions the locals refer to as "sucker weather"). The rest of the band arrived several hours after us, and we were all happy to be reunited with our Juneau posse of friends. The next day, a small contingency of us hiked up and onto the Mendenhall Glacier, then the band played a concert and a bar show to earn a little bit of money before undertaking the "sea" portion of our trip- the main event, The Pelican Boardwalk Boogie.

Pelican, Alaska is a close-knit fishing village perched in a protected inlet on the Pacific side of the Alaskan Coastal Range (about 6 hours by ferry northwest of Juneau)। There are no roads to or from, (or for that matter IN) Pelican. Everything that comes into the village either comes by seaplane or boat. As the terrain is quite steep and the tidal fluctuations great, all the homes and businesses are either built on the mountainside, or perched on pylons hammered into the bay. A mile-or-so long boardwalk stretches from one end of the town to the other. "The Boogie" as the locals refer to it, is an annual 3-day event featuring music, dance, competitive song performance, and wonderful and varied debauchery of all manner and sort. By the end of the weekend, we were sunburnt, a little hung over and very glad for the opportunity (yet again) to visit a place that we would never, ever have had a chance to visit if it were not for the magic of music. Alaska commercial fishermen are rare individuals that few lower 48 americans ever get a chance to meet. And because we play music, we were invited to come aboard their boats, sample their most recent catch, drink their beer, and hear their stories for 3 solid days and nights. It was an experience I won't soon forget.

Western US CD-Release Tour:
The saying, "all good things come to an end" definitely came true as I had to bid farewell to my wife, and our beloved Alaska friends, fly back to Seattle, then climb into the not-so-beloved Brown Clown and hit the road for our longest road tour in quite some time. Things started off ok, with gigs in Bellingham, WA and Vancouver, BC, but our third play at Seattle's Tractor Tavern, made me hopeful for the rest of the tour. The place was packed to the gills, and we gave them one of the best performances we've pulled off in a long time. But just as soon as things were looking up, we had mediocre attendance in Portland and, the next night, only a handful of people in Eugene. The bar manager took me back to the office after the show. "You guys are GREAT," he said as he forked over our skimpy pay. "I'm not sure why the crowd wasn't here, but the next time you guys come to town, we're going to book you on a Saturday night and I guarantee this place will be PACKED!"

We tried not to let it get us down as we moved from the rainy northwest coast into sunny Northern California. We played to a decent crowd in an intimate listening room in Redding, but then followed it with a poop-out show in Arcata. After the show, the promoter said to me, "The NBA finals totally killed your attendance, but the next time you guys come to town, we're going to book you on a Saturday night and this place will be..." I shook my head, "yeah, uh huh..." The tour bottomed out in Sacramento. It was a nice room, cozy with a good sound system. The only problem was that the there were only about 15 people in the whole place- and 5 of them were in the opening band. Personally, I had to put it on auto-pilot for the night, but the band still played as good as we could despite the crickets chirping in the back. If only there were six more Saturdays in a week...

After the show, we had to drive a couple of hours to Grass Valley, so that we could be up early for our first performance at the annual Father's Day Festival. I can't tell you how good it felt to pull into the fairgrounds and see a literal sea of RV's. "Alright," I said to myself, "we've done THIS before!"- Grass Valley's Father's Day Fest is one of those classic bluegrass festivals, the kind that draws an audience that LOVES music. the kind where you put your lawn chair in your spot and it stays there all weekend long, the kind we cut our teeth on when we were just getting started, the kind that I knew we could absolutely KILL if we were able to get in the right frame of mind. I breathed a sigh of relief as we all unpacked our gear and got ready to do our thing. 48 hours later, our cd inventory AND our spirits were much lighter.

Next up were two major California cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles on consecutive nights. Again, the attendance at the SF show was light, but everybody there seemed to know about us, and their enthusiastic response more than made up for their lack of numbers . It was one of the most fun shows on the tour for me. Unfortunately, the promoter of the show pulled a real bonehead move at the end of the night which sullied the experience. It wouldn't be professional to name names, or describe what a jerk this guy was, I will suffice to say that we will be working with another promoter when we return to the bay area.

The next morning, we got up early and headed 8 hours down the central valley to Los Angeles. Our gig at the Santa Monica rock and roll club, "The Good Hurt" (where all the bartenders and waitresses are dressed up in nurses LA), was the least attended of the entire tour -probably less than 5, if you don't count the members of the other bands . But this was LA, a city where it is notoriously impossible to draw a crowd, EVEN ON A SATURDAY. And at least we got to see Nate's high school buddy, John's punk rock band, Lo-Fi Man. So I was happy to be there, and I think we all had a really good time enjoying LA for all its unique weirdness.

The next day we had a much-needed day off. The boys went to the beach with John, and Betse and I decided to be tourists and go to the LaBrea Tar Pits. I remember seeing the tar pits on an episode of "The Beverly Hillbillies" when I was growing up, and I've wanted to see them ever since I was little kid. I can tell you, I was not disappointed. The museum was first rate, and we had a nice walk around the grounds watching the still active pits bubbling away- It was fun to imagine that if I just took a wrong step, I might accidently fall into a pit and become entrapped, gobbled up and then fossilized with the rest of the saber-toothed tigers and mastodons.

The next morning, we picked the boys back up in Santa Monica, and then headed out on the highway straight into LA rush hour (which, of course, is ALL the freakin' time). It was a long, hot and uncomfortable drive to Phoenix, where Nate's folks had given us permission to stay at their Arizona residence. It felt so good to get out of the van and into some air conditioning after such a long day. Incidentally, at 1am, the temperature in Phoenix was 106 degrees. For whatever reason, things like this entertain me, so I sat outside in a lawn chair, drank a cold beer, and watched the sidewalks melting before I went to bed.

Our next gig wasn't until the following night in Tucson, AZ. But Ike and I had an appointment to be interviewed for NPR's "Weekend Edition" at the local Tucson NPR affiliate the next morning. So, with little sleep, we piled back into the van and made it to Tucson by 10. The NPR interview was really enjoyable. Scott Simon did his homework, asked intelligent questions and made it fun for us- and I think the resulting interview turned out very well. That night, we played for our third time at Club Congress in downtown Tucson. We got to visit with our Tucson "angels", Don and Kay Meyer (see "Desert Angels II" in the blog archive from June of 2004), had a great opening act, Canada's Rock Plaza Central, and played a super fun show guessed it, another 1/4 full room. The bar manager told me after the show, "The Indigo Girls were playing across the street, so that killed your crowd. But the next time you guys come to town, we're going to book you on a Saturday..."

Our gig at Club Congress ended late, but we were up early and back into the van for another day-long drive, this time to Albuquerque. We arrived late, but were still able to make our 7pm showtime for a free concert series in the Albuquerque Bio Park- a gig we originally did our first professional summer when we toured in The Chief see "Miles and Miles and Miles" in the blog archive from June of 2004). The park was packed with lawn chair sitters and picnic dinner spreaders who really seemed to enjoy our show. Mercifully, the bio park paid for each of us to have our own hotel room that night. I'm sure we all relished in the privacy and peace and quiet for those precious few hours.

We didn't have a show the next day, and after moving to a new motel, Betse and I spent the rest of the day making flight and vehicle reservations for the rest of the year. Nate and Ike spent the rest of the day hunting for (and finding) our infamous old friend Nappy who still lives in Belin, NM (see "We Tried: Parts 2-4 in the blog archive from March of 2005). The next day, we finished the tour off with a performance and a workshop at the Albuquerque Folk Festival. After such a long tour, we opted to get up early the next morning, and head straight home in our second 16-hour driving marathon of the spring.

So what conclusions, if any, can I come to three months after releasing our new cd? Well, first of all, people seem to like it. It was a gamble that I think won us more fans than we lost. Secondly, it had a larger impact nation-wide than anything we've previously released. We got some decent national press, and a lot of radio play throughout the country. Time will tell whether we've made any real headway, but that's sort of beside the point. Fundamentally, we are all proud of how it turned out.

And how about the tours? Well, that's another thing entirely. After 8 solid weeks of over-the-road touring in support of our new release, our band is now more in debt than ever. In short, the Brown Clown and motel rooms gobbled up any profit we might have made. And the lack of attendance at our shows really hurt us financially and emotionally. As a result, I find myself actually questioning whether we can continue. It's funny, I always thought that at some point, like most bands, we would just have a total meltdown, punch each other out and call it a day. I never really considered that factors like a tanking economy, gas prices and the general malaise of the american consumer could prove to be our downfall. Of course, my negativity is most likely the result of road fatigue.

But certainly, if things continue as they have been, we will need to look at a new model for touring- something closer to our two most recent trips: We flew into Salt Lake City, rented a van, and did 5 days, then flew into Newark, rented a van and did another 5. Of course airfares are going up proportionally as well, but minivans get twice the mileage of our old warhorse Ford. And this type of touring forces us to really evaluate our expenses BEFORE accepting any invitations to play. It seems like a much smarter way to do business than just piling in the van, driving halfway across the country, and hoping for the best. Just because we've been at this for 10 years doesn't mean we've got it all figured out. We're still learning...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wilders on "Weekend Edition" this Saturday!

Originally uploaded by brotherphilwilder.
Hey Y'all,
Wanted to let you know that our new album,"Someone's Got to Pay" is going to be featured on National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition" this Saturday, June 28th.

Ike and I were interviewed last week (via ISDN line) by "Weekend Edition" host, Scott Simon at the Tucson, AZ NPR affiliate station.

You can hear the results for yourselves this Saturday, June 28th. "Weekend Edition" airs (in Kansas City) from 7am-9am. Check for information on your local station.

Monday, April 14, 2008

"Someone's Got to Pay"- Now Available!

Originally uploaded by brotherphilwilder.
Tomorrow is April 15th, 2008. If you haven't filed your taxes yet, you'd better get on it!
If you've filed already, and you haven't purchased a copy of our new album, "Someone's Got to Pay" yet, then you'd better get on THAT!

Those that pre-ordered a copy should be getting them in the mail today or tomorrow. But some lucky folks got to buy the first copies at our shows this past week.

One of those people is a great old friend of ours named Hamp Henning. I received an email from Hamp this morning, and he submitted the following review of the new album after his first listen...

(After reading, please re-check my post from January, entitled "Happy 2008"- lots of similarities there...bp)

This is the smartest thing the Wilders have ever done.
This is my first listen, the ‘get the feel of the thing’ review.

First, it’s an ‘album’ not a ‘recording’. This is a big, great difference.
Previous recordings (for the most part) have been you guys playing your songs/tunes. They were good. In your line of work, people come to the shows…love it…and buy a cd. They take it home, and though it’s good, it has no chance of capturing the Wilders live show. It would be impossible.

This thing is a whole new deal. This is an ALBUM. This thing is alive on its own. It’s not an attempt to send a fan home with a piece of the live show. BUT, anybody who loved the show won’t be disappointed with this album. It is all Wilders and has an energy/intensity that you get at the live show…without being a recording of the show…if that makes any sense.

This opens you guys up to all new markets. If this hasn’t been sent to XM Radio station #12…do it now!!! This album will appeal to a much larger audience than previous recordings. You just have to figure out how to get it in front of their ears! ALSO, and I feel this is very important, just as the fan who buys a copy at a show won’t be disappointed, the person who hears this thing before seeing you live will love it when they do get around to seeing a show. This is very good.

Fans of the live show will like the cd ... and fans of the cd will love the live show! What else could you ask for? It's all different, but all Wilders.

You get a little bit of everybody on this thing:

Betse’s hot fiddling and I really like her singing on this one a lot
Phil gives us his ‘Red Headed Stranger’ – awesome. And of course sweet playing and harmonies
Nate is my favorite Honky-Tonk Poet. Period. I love his songs.
Ike is so good. You can feel his charisma and charm on the rockers. But I really like the sad sweetness of some of the songs he wrote.
Dirk and Brendan round the thing out with some amazing instrumental accents and the recording quality is amazing.

…oh yeah, and this is important, the drummer ROCKS! So often when ‘acoustic’ acts add drums to the mix it sounds like crap. Like they’re playing their songs and … oooh ….. this’ll be fun ….let’s add a drum!!! It always ends up weak and out of place. Not here. These drums aren’t an add-on. They’re part of the deal…part of the Wilders. Well-done! When you said there were drums I was very scared. After listening, I love it. The drums allow you to keep the intensity without getting too busy and cluttered. They allow for some dynamics that are hard to deliver in a drumless world. The drums help to make this an album that can be listened to over and over.

Overall, after one quick listen, I’m inspired. Don’t get me wrong, I love the old Wilders, but you guys have so much more to offer. This album gives your fans a glimpse at some of that. I think they’ll be happy. I am."

thanks Hamp!
The Wilders, "Someone's Got to Pay" is available at


Friday, March 28, 2008

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy...

The following is the opinion of the author only. It should not interpreted as a view represented in any way by The Wilders or it's members (except for me that is...)

I got an email a couple of weeks ago from the advertising department of No Depression Magazine. Seems that the flagship publication of the alternative country genre (as they said, "whatever that means"), is ceasing publication next month due to declining ad revenue. This can only mean one thing- alternative country is officially dead. And there's a part of me that says, "good riddance".

I mean, who came up with the bright idea that we NEEDED an alternative to country anyway? Wasn't COUNTRY good enough on it's own?
Well, I guess it wasn't.

As early as 1985, just as the first baby boomers moved into their forties, the sound of commercial country music started to take on a strange dissonance- it began sounding more like rock and roll. Twangy telecasters gave way to distorted Les Pauls. Outlandish sequin-studded suits and stacks of huge hairspray-solidified hair, gave way to scrubby tight-fitting stone-washed jeans, six-pack abs and the ubiquitous oversize black cowboy hat and omnipresent goatee. As the years progressed, the quaintly-old, brightly-lit stages featuring backdrops of rural simplicity, gave way to full-on rock and roll stage shows. Towers of Marshall stacks lit by dizzying laser lights and exploding smoke bombs painted a new backdrop of excess and self-indulgence. And, at the forefront, there was good old Garth Brooks swinging on a rope above the crowd with a shit-eating grin on his face and a wad of $1000 bills in his back pocket. By 1994, things had worsened to the point that the Country Music Association's Best Album of the year was "Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles". sigh...

At the time that No Depression began publishing in September of 1995, the country music industry had pretty much wrung all of the GOOD out of good old country music.

I guess it isn't that surprising that a magazine proclaiming an alternative to this, so called "new country", would find a willing audience. This alternative to country music was spearheaded by a young and resourceful contingency of disenfranchised punk rockers- kids who grew up with commercial rock forced down their throats, who were looking for something with more substance to hang their trucker hats on. Already sick to death of mainstream rock, this wayward generation looked backward for new musical inspiration. They found it in the true sounds of 1960's country icons like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. They found it in the "don't take no shit" attitudes of the 70's outlaws like Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., and Waylon Jennings. And they especially found it in" God's singer of songs", Graham Parsons, who 20 years before, had stuck his dirty hippie thumb directly into the eye of the overproduced ultra-conservative Nashville establishment of the late 60's. These artists were embraced, celebrated and imitated by hundreds of new bands- formed in garages and dorm rooms across the nation. Combat boots and flannel shirts were readily traded in for cowboy boots and fine western snap shirts; solid-body multi-pointed rock and roll guitars were swapped for simple acoustics and banjos. And new songs about drinking and fighting, fighting and loving, and loving and losing, were added to the existing mountains of old country standards- just ripe for the picking.

It was a good run. But 23 years later, alternative country is dead. No Depression is shutting it's doors for good. And WHY IS THAT A GOOD THING?

Because for 23+ years, the corporate interests in Nashville have essentially been given a free pass to promote whatever bullshit makes money the easiest. In this model, substance is the last thing in anyone's mind. Just check out CMT sometime.

I think its time for a return to a country music that actually acknowledges there is sadness and heartbreak in the world- not just sexy trucks and bloated myspace profiles.

The "alternative country" movement was a shining example that this music is still very much alive. Now that "alternative country" is dead, can we please have our country music back?

Monday, March 17, 2008

"I'll be that one..." - SXSW Austin,TX

It was back in October of 2007. I was in Nashville, hucking merch. between sets at the back of The Station Inn. Because sales were nonexistent, I had plenty of time to catch up with B.V.D., a grammy-winning bluegrass producer, and long time "deep-throat" Wilders advisor (who saw something he liked in a very-green Wilders playing in a Nashville hotel lobby 8 years ago). The conversation went something like this:

B.V.D.: What's next year look like for you guys?

Me: Well, we've got a new record coming out in April.

B.V.D.: What are you going to do to promote it?

Me: Uhm, well we're going to tour, of course, and we are going to South by Southwest.

B.V.D.: (rolling his eyes, sarcastically) What FOR?

For the uninitiated, the South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) occurs each March in multiple locations throughout metropolitan Austin, Texas. For four days, the streets of Austin fill with music industry hustlers of all shape and size. Managers, agents, label and publishing reps, lawyers, producers, and a slew of other non-musicians converge to catch showcases by literally thousands of musicians that come to Austin each year in hopes of "making it big". From morning until late into the night, there's rockers, rappers, twangers, screamers, punkers and poppers everywhere- a dizzying array of musical styles blasting out of every nook and cranny, restaurant, bar, car wash and parking lot in downtown Austin.

So, five months after my conversation with B.V.D., I'm standing on a street corner outside the Austin Convention Center watching the stream of hipsters flowing around me. And it's like I'm standing in the middle of a military parade, except these soldier's uniforms are not olive drab. There's salon-fresh hair color in every shade of the rainbow carefully coifed to achieve that perfect "unkempt" look. Mirrored sunglasses, tattoo sleeves, Converse Hi-Tops and facial piercings are standard issue. Each soldier's social insignia is represented by carefully chosen graphics printed on their tight black t-shirt. And just like any military parade, the majority of the soldiers are impossibly young.

As the throngs move past me, I realize I'm laughing out loud. I'm remembering a comic strip by artist Daniel Clowes, (later made into a really awful movie entitled "Art School Confidential"). In the comic, an aging painting professor gives a stern "scared straight" lecture to his impressionable first-year drawing students about the reality of their career choice. He rants that only one graduate in a hundred actually makes a living as a professional artist. The other 99, having spent four years getting a degree in what is essentially a hobby, will be left to work mindless jobs at art supply stores, movie theaters and restaurants. Above the head of each student, there is a thought bubble which reads, "I'll be that one..."

And this is the tragedy of SXSW. Here, there are thousands of kids who are looking for the quick pick to stardom. And they are deadly serious about it, focusing every ounce of energy into making some kind of impact. But the reality is that most of them will zero chance of succeeding in this fickle, image-obsessed music business. The truth is that no matter how good you sound, how cool you look. or how hard you work, most success stories come down to at least 50% luck.

Based on this assumption, B.V.D. was right- what the hell business did we have going to SXSW anyway? I mean, we are already a working band with low-level success. We've all quit our day jobs, We are signed to a label that manages our recordings, and we have a booking agent that gets us work playing for money. And what about the SXSW market? Even though it takes place in the heart of Texas, there's precious little country music at SXSW. Sure, there are a lot of so-called "alternative country" bands. But, admittedly, we don't fit very neatly into that category. And bluegrass and oldtime music was nonexistent as far as I could tell. But still we chose to go and throw our hat in like everybody else.

I realize it's sort of weak, but basically my answer to B.V.D.'s question was, "why NOT?"

And, as a result, for three days, we soaked up the warm Texas sun, ate great Texas Bar-B-Que, and saw some killer bands. We also played a couple of showcases ourselves. Who knows what the impact will be? But, like the young soldiers that surrounded us the entire time we were there, we believed it was possible. You've GOT to believe right?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Happy 2008!

Happy New Year! The Brown Clown is rolling west on I-70 about 75 miles from St. Louis. We just inaugurated 2008 by dipping our touring toes into the frigid pool of the central plains. It was a quick trip, with stops in Louisville, Kentucky, then Lafayette and Danville, Indiana. Nothing notable to report. You've heard the story before: good crowds, good music, good times, blah, blah, blah. But it did feel good to get back out and play for the people after a fairly lengthy holiday break. Our winter schedule is pretty light by design. We burned the candle at both ends for most of 2007, and our middle was running out of wax. So we all agreed that it would be a good idea to snuff out the flame for awhile to recouperate. So once we get back home today, we will be off again until almost the end of February.

Our time off has allowed us to forget about the road for awhile, and focus our efforts on finishing up our new recording. The new full-length album, "Someone's Got to Pay" is scheduled for release on April 15th, 2008. The original tracks were recorded with Dirk Powell in his Louisiana studio in November of 2006. After careful listening, we decided that additional tracking was necessary, and so the entire project was moved up to Kansas City and placed in the capable hands of our old pal, Brendan Moreland. Due to our busy touring schedule, he had to wait until late October before we could begin overdubbing sessions. But ideas had been germinating all year, and it was fun to finally get them recorded. As I excitedly reported last spring, this new recording will be quite a departure from our previous recordings. Glenn Fields, from The Red Stick Ramblers, sat in on drums on many of the original Louisiana sessions. There's also electric guitars, electric piano, organ and electric bass along with button accordian, cello, viola, cajun triangle, lap steel and tambourines. Our old formula of recording as close to our live sound as possible, was thrown out the window in favor of a completely new approach.

Why the change? Honestly, we needed to be more creative this time. For one thing, all of the songs and tunes on album are original except one old fiddle tune from the Skillet Lickers. So there was really no preconcieved way of doing any of them. We were free to play around with our ideas and experiment with sounds until we got what we liked. Secondly, we were getting bored with the four instruments/ "live performance" model. Although this approach has served us well in the past, we always had to make sacrifices in sound quality in order to play all together in the same room. The bass and fiddle had a tendency to bleed into all the other microphones which really limited how much control we had over the final mixes. So this time, we recorded all of the tracks in complete isolation. For example, even though all of the fiddle tunes were played live, none of us were in the same room. Betse sat in the center of Dirk's main recording room while Ike looked on through the glass of a tiny vocal isolation booth. Nate could see Ike through another window , but was not able to see Betse at all. And since Dirk's studio only has these three rooms. I played banjo and mandolin sitting on the couch of his tiny Toyota RV parked outside the studio. It was pretty wierd, but the resulting sound was fabulous.

Finally, we wanted to make a record that people would actually WANT to listen to this time. I'm not saying that our previous recordings aren't good, but for the past 10 years, we’ve made records that attempted to accurately represent us as a live band. Although we’ve been pretty happy with the way they’ve turned out, you can’t really get that “live” experience from audio content only. There is a visual element that is missing. Because of this, I've always felt like our recordings were a pale imitation of the “real thing”. And usually when people purchased our albums, it was because they had just seen us play a live show. Then, when they listened to their new cd at home, I guess they were probably thinking, “man, I just loved seeing them live, this reminds me of that great experience”.

But for this new album, we wanted to make a record that people would want to listen to over and over- a record that would musically stand on it’s own- a record that people might even hear first, then want to come see us play live because they enjoyed the cd so much. So we set out to make each song unique- to add instrumental textures and production that would be impossible to recreate in a concert setting- to use the studio as a palette to make something richer than just four people playing together.

An "album" is actually a pretty hard thing to find in today's downloadable world. In fact, it seems like we've almost drifted back to the time when people bought 45rpm singles. Then, If you liked an artist, you'd pay a couple of bucks for their new single, take it home and put it in the stack next to your turntable. Now, if you like an artist, you pay your 99 cents to iTunes, download a song and slap it on your iPod where it appears in a playlist along with thousands of other songs. How the song relates to other songs on the same album is now meaningless. In fact, most "albums" nowadays are really just a bunch of songs slapped on a cd with no relationship to each other at all. The concept of sequencing a record- putting songs in order to tell a story with the sound is now a lost art. But this is exactly what we did on "Someone's Got to Pay". There is a beginning, a middle and an end. And hopefully, when you start it, you will WANT to keep listening until the last note. Maybe I'm full of crap for thinking we've made something a little bit better, but that's what we were trying to do. I guess you can be the judge on April 15th.