Outlaw Music Festival w/ Willie Nelson, Sturgill Simpson, The Head and the Heart, Old Crow Medicine Show, JD McPherson
About Willie Nelson:
American country singer-songwriter, born April 30, 1933 in Fort Worth, Texas, USA. Father of Lukas Nelson and Micah Nelson.
Established Pendernales Recording Studio
About Sturgill Simpson:
Nashville sounds like Nashville again on High Top Mountain, the debut release from singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson. From furious honky-tonk and pre-outlaw country-rocking to spellbinding bluegrass pickin’ and emotional balladry, the album serves as a one-stop guide to everything that made real country music such a force to be reckoned with. Pure and uncompromising, devoid of gloss and fakery, High Top Mountain’s dozen instant classics evoke the sound of timeless country in its many guises and brings back the lyrical forthrightness and depth that permeated the music Simpson absorbed during his Kentucky childhood.
About The Head and the Heart:
It wasn’t that long ago that the members of Seattle’s The Head and the Heart were busking on street corners, strumming their acoustic guitars, stomping their feet and singing in harmony as they attempted to attract the attention of passersby. That unbridled energy informed their earliest original material, which was honed in local clubs before eventually being captured on the band’s 2011 debut album for hometown label Sub Pop.
Then, something unexpected happened. That music began to reach audiences all over the United States and the rest of the world, and The Head and the Heart went from playing open mic nights to selling out headlining shows in prestigious venues. The album became one of Sub Pop’s best-selling debut releases in years. And slowly but surely, ideas began to form for the band’s second album, imbued with the experiences of traveling the world and cultivating a listenership with a deep connection to the music.
“There is a certain level of confidence gained from having such an amazing fan base,” says group member Jonathan Russell. “You start to trust yourself more. When we were busking, we were filling so much space to keep the listener from walking away. Now we are in a very different situation.” Adds group member Josiah Johnson, “We wanted to write songs that felt bigger, and didn’t need to be so frantic. I think for the most part we wanted to record an album that sounds like the way we play now.”
Indeed, The Head and the Heart’s new release, Let’s Be Still, is a snapshot of a band that didn’t exist just four short years ago. Virginia native Russell and California transplant Johnson formed the core songwriting partnership, which was rounded out by drummer Tyler Williams, keyboardist Kenny Hensley, vocalist/violinist Charity Rose Thielen and bassist Chris Zasche, who’d met Russell and Johnson while tending bar at an open mic they frequented. The nascent group dove headfirst into writing, recording and performing, and even moved into the same house to ensure that inspiration could strike at any moment.
“The first record was very thematic. It just had to do with all of us being together and writing songs, and leaving home to come to Seattle,” says Thielen. “I honestly don’t know if there is a theme this time around. There are things that stick out, like the idea of going from busking to becoming a full-on band and touring like crazy.” Adds Williams, “Before we started recording, I wondered, ‘What if this doesn’t work? What if the momentum dies down?’ But once we got in there, we realized that we felt so good together doing it. The weight was lifted. It was like, ‘Right! This is what we do.'”
Let’s Be Still was recorded at Seattle’s Studio Litho with assistance from prior production collaborator Shawn Simmons. Later, the band traversed the country to mix the album in Bridgeport, Conn., with Peter Katis, revered for his work with bands such as the National, Interpol and the Swell Season. The 13 tracks here build naturally on both the sounds and themes of the debut, from the piano and violin-dappled opener “Homecoming Heroes” and the heartfelt “Josh McBride” to vibrant, bouncy future concert staples “Shake” and “My Friends.”
“The first record was written and recorded with a lot of limitations. It’s almost easier that way,” says Zasche. “This time around, with more time and resources, there were few limitations, so we had to be in charge of keeping a focus and not getting distracted but at the same time exploring the options available. It wasn’t easy, but from this I think a clearer, more focused record has been made.”
Band members point to “Another Story” as a moment that embodies their collective creative spirit. Russell wrote the song shortly after the elementary school shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn., but hadn’t showed it to anyone in the band except Johnson. “One day everyone was taking a break from tracking and I was sitting in my booth and started to play this song,” Russell recalls. “You could hear what I was doing in the control room and then one by one, a bandmate would walk in, grab their instrument and start playing along. We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t have to go back and rearrange anything. It was all there.” Adds Williams, “Jon is so smart about waiting to introduce new ideas. He knows when the mood will be right.” Says Johnson, “The song was undeniable, and the vibe didn’t change from when he was playing it acoustically. Everybody just lifted it up, in the way that this band does.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum was “Gone,” which dated back to sessions for the debut album but didn’t make the cut the first time around. The band wrestled with the arrangement while performing it live for several years, and finally cracked the code after adding a laid-back bass-and-drum groove to the beginning. Described by Thielen as “striking” in its solo acoustic form, Johnson’s “Fire / Fear” underwent similar revisions until the rest of the band settled on a new progression to link the verses together. “There is a lot more patience in the music,” says Russell. “I think that has a lot to do with feeling more comfortable as a songwriter and a performer.”
During the mixing process, Katis was tasked with polishing what Johnson describes as “a beautiful mess” of finished tracks. Says Williams, “We have a certain energy when we play shows that didn’t translate to the first record. I was getting worried about that before we went to Peter’s. Things seemed a bit muted and dry to me. But I didn’t realize how much mixing could change a record. Peter actually went in and messed with tones, had some production suggestions and wound up really being the right guy to help us finish the record.” “His mixes turned the songs around, and breathed vibrancy into them,” says Thielen. “He added some auxiliary details that helped make things more full-bodied, but still within the realm of what we do. It was really refreshing.”
With Let’s Be Still ready for release, The Head and the Heart is eager to return to the road to further hone the musical bond its members formed in such whirlwind fashion. “When I think about the two records together, the first one feels like we all wanted to fulfill this dream we’d had about playing music, meeting people and traveling around,” says Williams. “This one feels like the consequences of doing that — what relationships did you ruin? What other things did you miss? You always think it will all be perfect once you just do ‘this.’ And that’s not always the case.”
Adds Russell, “Has there been an impact on our lives since we have become full-time musicians? Sure. No band wants to write that second record about how hard they have it. But it’s hard to get around all of it. There are a few songs on this record that express the band’s hardships for sure. On one hand, it’s everything you have ever wanted. On the other hand, you start to miss the things you’ve lost and had to give up. And that’s just life. My job is to write about it.”
About Old Crow Medicine Show:
On September 17th, 2013 Old Crow Medicine Show received the great honor of being inducted as the newest members of the historic Grand Ole Opry. Other highlights from the year included winning the Grammy Award for “Best Long Form Music Video” for the film Big Easy Express, and having their classic single, “Wagon Wheel”, receive the RIAA’s Platinum certification for selling over 1,000,000 copies.
The band got its’ start busking on street corners in New York state and up through Canada, winning audiences along the way with their boundless energy and spirit. They eventually found themselves in Boone, North Carolina where they caught the attention of folk icon Doc Watson while playing in front of a pharmacy. He immediately invited the band to play at his MerleFest, helping to launch their career. Shortly thereafter the band relocated to Nashville for a residency at the Grand Ole Opry, where they entertained the crowd between shows.
It’s been nearly fifteen years since these humble beginnings, and the band has gone on to tour the world, sell over 800,000 albums, become frequent guests on A Prairie Home Companion, and play renowned festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella, and the Newport Folk Festival.
In 2011 Old Crow found themselves embarking on the historic Railroad Revival Tour with Mumford and Sons, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. This tour had the bands riding a vintage train from California to New Orleans, playing shows along the way. The magic of this musical excursion across America’s vast landscape is captured in the Emmet Malloy directed documentary, Big Easy Express.
Old Crow Medicine Show now have four studio albums to their name, three of which were released by Nettwerk Records – O.C.M.S and Big Iron World produced by David Rawlings, and Tennessee Pusher produced by Don Was. On their newest album, Carry Me Back, Old Crow continue to craft classic American roots music while pushing themselves in new directions. Carry Me Back, released by ATO Records and produced by Ted Hutt, represents a new stretch of road in the timeless journey of a rambling string band.
About JD McPherson:
You could mistake JD McPherson for a revivalist, given how few other contemporary artists are likely to assert, as he boldly does, that “’Keep a Knockin’ by Little Richard is the best record ever made. It’s so insanely visceral, you feel like it’s going to explode your speakers. If I’m listening to that in the car, I find myself having to brake suddenly. I can listen to that and it makes me feel like I’m 20 feet tall. And the feeling of joy I get from that record is always going to be the real push behind trying to make music.”
photo credit: Jim Herrington
His first album, 2012’s Signs & Signifiers, was hailed as “an utterly irresistible, slicked-back triumph” by Mojo and “a rockin’, bluesy, forward-thinking gold mine that subtly breaks the conventions of most vintage rock projects” by All Music Guide. The Washington Post wrote that, “he and his bandmates are great musicians taking ownership of a sound, not just mimicking one.” That same review remarked upon how, “the album sounds as if the band is in the same room with the listener.” But for the follow-up, McPherson wanted to maintain that raw power while also capturing the more mysterious side of the records he loves. To that slightly spookier end, he enlisted as a collaborator Mark Neill, known for his work as a producer and engineer with versed-in-the-past acts going back to the Paladins in the 1980s, but, most recently, for recording The Black Keys and Dan Auerbach—a friend of McPherson’s who co-wrote the new album’s “Bridge Builder.”
Talking up one of the freshly minted tunes, “Bridge Builder,” McPherson describes it as being “the psychedelic Coasters.” That no such thing really existed prior to this album doesn’t deter him. “This is something I actually talked about with Mark at the beginning of the record: ‘I want to make a ‘50s psychedelic record!’”
Neill was up to meeting that seemingly oxymoronic challenge. “It’s still a rock & roll record, but the borders are expanding a little bit,” McPherson explains. “With some of the writing that came out this time, it became apparent the songs weren’t going to lend themselves well to our usual process. So as we sought out a producer, we took aim for a slightly wider—I guess hi-fi is the word—sound, and got more experimental. Mark Neill certainly has all the tools in his hardware shop with which to produce any range of sounds from vintage Capitol Records stuff on up to…gosh, we listened to so much David Bowie making this record. We’d play Primal Scream’s Screamadelica to listen to how they suddenly started making dance records, and then Mark would play us Marilyn McCoo singing ‘Marry Me, Bill’ over and over again, I guess trying to re-wire our brains.”
Amid this flurry of possible influences, a few production approaches stuck. “I find that the records that I like to listen to over and over again are the ones that have those strange engineering choices, or weird sounds. I was very attracted to the idea of using plate reverb. So whereas the first record was really informed by New Orleans rhythm and blues, where everything was very dry and up-front, I really was listening more this time to a ton of Link Wray, and the Allen Toussaint-produced Irma Thomas stuff, and all the early ‘60s rock & roll that is saturated in plate reverb.”
McPherson certainly doesn’t begrudge the attention that Signs & Signifiers unexpectedly brought him. “If it hadn’t been for the ‘North Side Gal’ video, this probably never would have caught on,” he says, recalling the fame he found on YouTube even before Rounder picked up his indie release. “That’s how we found our label and found our management. I was still teaching school, and here I am with got this video that’s like a million hits. I’m like, what? I had no plans to quit my job. Luckily, I lost it.” A middle school art department’s loss was Rounder’s and the rock world’s gain.
It’d been a while in coming. “I started getting obsessed with this stuff when I was in high school,” McPherson says. “There wasn’t much to do where I grew up in rural southeast Oklahoma, where I lived on a 160-acre cattle ranch.” When he discovered early rock & roll and R&B, “it was like finding a treasure no one else knew about. Nobody around me had any interest whatsoever in Little Richard except for me and my friend. Once we started listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, and to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, which was the best thing you could ever find, everything started to change. I’ve got a videotape of us playing at a pool hall in the early ‘90s in Talihina, Oklahoma, and it’s cowboys and criminals and people that are cooking meth up in the hills standing around playing pool, and here we are with our greaser uniforms on, playing Buddy Holly’s ‘Rockin’ Around with Ollie Vee’ followed by ‘Clampdown’ by the Clash, and all these people are really confused. Those were happy times.”
The covers and the grease got dropped along the way to adulthood, of course, even though he knows what he does now is likely to wind up with some inaccurate revival tags. “There’s never going to be a point where I’m not going to hear the word ‘rockabilly’,” he says with a laugh and a sigh, “even though it’s not anthropologically correct, because it’s separate from rhythm & blues and rock & roll. Not being able to be perceived as how you sort of define what you’re doing is frustrating, but you just have to understand that not everybody is a nerd about this stuff. What it comes down to is that you can’t expect for people to listen if you’re not doing something personal. I mean, you can’t just do covers of Johnny Burnette Trio songs, because that idea has already been expressed, and it was actually moved past pretty quickly. Rock & roll music changed really quickly when it started becoming ubiquitous youth music and the President’s sister started doing the Twist. Yet there’s something intrinsically valuable about a lot of those ideas that haven’t fully been explored yet. And you take everything you love about it and write personal music and hope it translates into its own thing. I always hear ‘Man, bringing this stuff back is really important,’ but I have goal to bring rock & roll back in some reactionary way to battle something else. I want it to just kind of nudge it into its own little place alongside what’s happening now.”
Since the debut album came out, McPherson has played for a lot of those aforementioned genre nerds who pick up on every single influence. But he and his band have also opened for acts ranging from Bob Seger (getting a standing ovation at an arena in Detroit, the headliner’s hometown) to the Dave Matthews Band to Nick Lowe to Eric Church (who sought him out to write some songs together). For a Halloween night 2014 show at the Forum in L.A., super-fan Josh Homme, one of McPherson’s biggest supporters, handpicked him to open for Queens of the Stone Age. These may not all seem like natural pairings, but the music is primal and melodic enough that, after a few minutes, it never fails to make sense even to audiences with the least of expectations and musical educations.
“Man, people may not even know it, but they all like that stuff,” McPherson declares. “I’ve seen it happen over and over again. You’re in a record store where they’re playing some weird underground amorphous electronic record that has no configurable beat per minute, and then they put on a Sam Cooke record, and everybody is just like ‘Ohhh’— like a weight lifted. All kinds of music are interesting, but man, there’s something about the 1/4/5, 12-bar blues form that’s just hard-wired into American brains. And I shouldn’t say just American brains, because this stuff is still really huge in Europe, too. Everybody likes rock & roll. They just either won’t admit it or don’t know it yet,” he laughs, unshakable in his faith that the whole world is or will be on a roll.