Thursday, February 9, 2017

A "blow by blow" of recording our album, Rain

I thought it might be fun to, before I forgot, write down all I could remember about recording our 2016 album, Rain.  As with every album, it's a learning experience, and for this project, I had not recorded in 10 years, so LOTS of things had changed technology wise.  I took my time.  Did some experimenting with different guitar/amp combinations and gave the engineer, Heath Glisson the freedom to do some experimenting too.  The end result, was a pretty doggone good album which is STILL hanging around on the charts.  I'll go song by song, but begin by saying I played rhythm guitar on every track (except "It's Raining") and played more lead guitar than I have in the past.  On every song, I tried different combinations of guitars and amps until I finally got the sound where I wanted! I don't use a whole lot of effects and most I use are battle worn standard stuff. OK!  Lets go song by song!  Here is the finished project on iTunes.

1. "Who's Texting You":  I wrote this song a year or two earlier.  Just a basic play off the cheating woman or man story, with the implementation of modern technology of texting.  Part of this was because I see so many couples fussing over one or both of them constantly being on the cellphone, even if cheating is never involved.  My late wife, Bridget, even used to get on me for staying on the iPhone too much.  As usual, she was right!  I tried to curtail my use, especially around her.  On this one, I'm playing a Phil Jones Lower Broadcaster on the rhythm guitar, through a 1980 "red knob" twin reverb amp.  On the lead parts, I do the intro lead with an Eric Clapton "Blackie" through a Fulltone OCD into the same red knob Alonzo Pennington plays, using his custom made Harper guitar through my OCD and red knob twin. 

Danny Bell plays keyboards, and also the harmony guitar parts which walk up and down.  James Sullivan plays bass, and Erik Eicholtz plays drums on this, and all of the tracks.
twin. On the lead break, I play the first part with the same setup, then

2. "Move On Yvonne": This is a cajun feel song I wrote a couple years earlier too.  I hit on the phrase, Move on Yvonne, and then  built around it.  I was surprised no one had ever hit on the phrase before because it was so rhythmic and told a story within itself.  I debated on whether to use a more cajun drum roll, but in the end decided on more of a traditional beat. The harmonica of course is Colonel JD Wilkes from the Legendary Shack Shakers, who was an original member of 61 South back in the 90s! The cool thing about his harmonica on this CD was the amp he used was  an old Western Auto  store solid-state Truetone amp about the size of a lunchbox. So there is no manipulation at all to the sound on the recording. It
really is that ratty sounding!  The piano is Solon Smith,  A former multi instrumentalist with the Johnny Hiland band.  The part of Yvonne is sung by Miranda Louise, a great singer out of Nashville and a former back up singer for the great Lonnie Mack.   Miranda is a little peck of dynamite with a powerful voice that will blow the doors off. I'm playing the Phil Jones strat through the red knob twin and James is on bass.

3. "Mississippi Rain":   This was a very strange song in that I did not have any idea of how or if it would come together. In fact for the longest time I actually thought this song would stink!  I wanted to do something that would connect the Delta blues with the Choctaw Native American heritage in Mississippi.  That's the reason for the different drum cadences. I played rhythm guitar on the Phil Jones straight through the red knob twin reverb, and that's the same combination I used on the lead as well. On the rhythm I played through a Fulltone OCD  and for the lead I ran that same set up through a Boss tremolo.  I use several boss petals, which is something I found out later that I have in common with Prince!  They are very solid, very rugged, and cannot be torn up! Plus they sound good.   For the longest time the lead on this song never did sound good and then one night I was practicing along to the basic track to try to figure out what I was going to do for the lead break, and when I turned my practice amp on it just happened to have the tremolo already on. Then the lightbulb went off in my head and I thought that's it!  JD plays harmonica, Danny Bell plays keyboards and James plays bass on this one.

4. "Lay Me Down":  this is probably the most personal song on the album. This has to do with my dealing with my grief since the passing of my late wife, Bridget, and how with that situation I got to the point to where I did not fear death and in some ways almost look forward to it so that I will be at rest and will see her again.  She had beautiful blue eyes, and really loved summertime, so that's the reason for those references.  She also had a very distinctive voice, which as you can imagine I can close my eyes and hear all the time. The other part of the song, "Lay Me Down," comes from the first prayer my grandmother ever taught me as a little child. "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep."  For the rhythm I used the Phil Jones strat through the red knob twin and Sam Moore played lead on this track with a Gibson 59 reissue through a Marshall.  Sam has a very unique playing style which is very percussive and unconventional. It fit this song perfectly!

5. "Glory Train":  I wanted this song to reflect a  Sister Rosetta Tharpe type feel  as I talked about my re-connection with the Lord during my grieving process.   The beginning of the song is an actual clip from the radio show of the Reverend JoAnn Green, who had a long time show on WDXR-AM in Paducah, Kentucky.  Sometimes I like to layer songs, by adding a new layer during every verse or turn, and that's kind of what we did here. It started out with my guitar, then brought in the vocal, then the drums, then Alonzo on guitar and finally, Miranda. I played the 79 anniversary strat through the twin while Alonzo played his Harper through my twin.

6. "Feels Like Rain":   Originally I wasn't going to put any cover songs on this album, but so many fans have requested we play this one. It is a cover of John Hiatt's "Feels Like Rain."  I was very hesitant to include it because it has been recorded by several different artist. In the end I'm glad we did. Many of our fans absolutely loved it and  I was really humbled by how many of the critics really loved our version of the song. In fact some said they liked our version better than John Hiatt's  and that is the highest compliment of all.  I played the Phil Jones Lower Broadcaster, through a Boss Tremolo and into a Fender Hot Rod Junior. Sam played lead as only he can, with a 59 LP reissue through a Marshall.
Greg Walker was his usual solid self on bass and Dan Bell always does a perfect job on organ on this one. One interesting thing about the Phil Jones custom built guitar is its great sound with DiMarzio single coils on the neck and middle and a Motor City Humbucker on the bridge.  Inside, the guitar it is signed by Jones, and also the other guy who worked on it, Steve Uncapher, who is actually the guitar tech for Taylor Swift!

7. "Done Done It":  The inspiration for this song actually came from several years ago when I was working for the transit authority in Paducah Kentucky. Several of the girls who work there, when asked if they had completed a certain task at work,  would always say " I done done it" and that stuck with me and of course one day it ended up in a song! The other thing I was going for here was a Rolling Stones meets Fabulous Thunderbirds type thing, so one rhythm guitar is standard while the other is in Open G. I like how it turned out! I think it is Greg on bass on this one.

8. "Sandy Lee":  Very unusual story behind this one. It began a couple of years earlier when the office manager where I worked said that I should write a song about her. And I told her jokingly that I would. And then one day of course I was messing around and came up with the story behind this one about how she was responsible for getting my money to me.   I played a 1970 Gibson J 50. Solon Smith is on piano. Greg Walker on bass.  The last line about the gun was kind of funny. The engineer, Heath Glisson had misunderstood me and thought I said that in the demo recording, and then thought about it and said why don't you really say that in the song, so I did .

 9. "Keeping Me Awake": Age old man problem.  Man wants to sleep. Woman wants to talk... I actually used the Phil Jones guitar through a Bugera head and cabinet.  Alonzo played on the lead, and played through the Harper through the red knob twin.

James played bass and as on all tracks on the album, Erik Eicholtz was on drums!

10. "It's Raining":  The other cover on the CD was Allen Toussaint's "It's Raining."  It's a song that I have always loved. I think the first time I heard it it was actually Lou Ann Barton doing a cover of the song. Later I heard Irma Thomas, and finally I heard Allen playing and singing the song himself. I thought that was the most powerful so I wanted to do it that way with just me and a piano.  Solon Smith  plays the piano. The only thing that I struggled with on this song was to try to get it as slow as I wanted.  In fact even now sometimes I listen to it and think to myself I really wish I had slow that down  a bit more.  In the end I thought we got it pretty close to what I envisioned.  The picture is of Solon, who is a killer guitar player in addition to piano player.

Prior to Rain, I did not like the actual recording process much, but I really enjoyed this project. I guess because I thought we had strong songs and I was in no hurry.  I got the entire album as close to what I envisioned as possible.  Alot of the credit for that goes to my engineer, Heath Glisson, who did a great job and made it into a labor of love for himself and shared my vision!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The International Blues Challenge in Memphis

Took a little road trip last week to the Blues Foundation's  International Blues Challenge in Memphis.  Always wanted to go, but always had conflicts or other reasons I couldn't make it.  Not this time!  Pulled into town on Tuesday night and spent the rest of the week on Beale Street checking out the bands, workshops, showcases and of course the food!

 Food seems like a great place to start.  Found myself eating at Blues City Cafe the most.  Although Rendezvous Ribs are the most famous in Memphis, and I do like them a lot, I actually favor the ribs at Blues City Cafe.  They are "wet" ribs and are more "falling off the bone" then Rendezvous.  I love raw oysters but prefer them on the Gulf or ocean, however, Memphis is the northern border of where I will get them, and usually at Silky O'Sullivan's.  For some reason, until this past week, I had never tried the tamales at Blues City Cafe.  I won't put them off again.  They were delicious!

 Saw some people I hadn't seen in a while, and met some nice new people.  I last met Kenny Neal at the Hot August Blues Festival in Aurora, KY in the mid 90s.  As the festival wound down, we sat on a picnic table, had a couple of cold ones and played harmonicas. Such fun.  He's still one of the nicest people I ever met in the blues and has come through his health problems strong. I was asking him how he stayed so young looking and he shared his secret with me.
 Frank Roszak is my publicist.  In my mind, he's the best in the biz.  He won the Foundation's Keeping The Blues Alive Award in 2014 for his work, and he did an outstanding job with our latest album, Rain, which as of this past Monday, recorded it's 28th straight week on the Roots Music Report's Contemporary Blues Chart!  More than 6 months and still going strong.  Thanks Frank!  You're the best and really enjoyed lunch with you!

 Elam McKnight is a great friend in the blues.  For one thing, he lives in my hometown of Trenton, TN. Over the years, we've appeared together on several festival bills.  Love his music, his dedication to the art and his enthusiasm. 
No doubt many of you have seen the youtube videos of the amazing young guitarist known as Christone "Kingfish" Ingram.  I actually saw him live last spring when we played  at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, MS. I believe he's 20 years old now and he keeps getting better! In person he's really a nice young man.  He said he hopes to play more events soon, and I told him I hoped someday I can play as good as him!

Before the competition began, I got to have a little fun playing with some of my friends on Beale Street, Little Boys Blue.  They're a great band out of Jackson, TN.  I've known JD Taylor more than 20 years, and I've known the drummer, Mark Brooks for more than (gulp) 35 years!  They always kill it, and I can't believe I'd never played with them before.  It was a really good time!

I'll be honest.  The bands I saw on the first night of competition were underwhelming.  The most unique band I saw was this one, a German trio of guitar, harmonica and "beat box."  It was refreshing and it was really good! Most of the other bands all had a major flaw.  Either the guitar player was weak, or the singer was weak, or the harp player was weak.  You get it.  The original songs for the most part were also pretty weak. Lot's of cliches, cliches, cliches...

No doubt the most inspirational band I saw was the United By Music North America band.  Kenny Neal helped out.  Kingfish Ingram added some guitar too, and Marlana Vanhoose sang and played.  lf you don't know Marlana's story, read  it here, and listen to her sing here, but I will warn you, you might want to have a tissue ready!

Went to a showing of the movie "Sidemen" Thursday afternoon.  It's the story of Pinetop Perkins, Big Eyes Smith and Hubert Sumlin backing up Blues greats Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf.  Great movie.  I'm so fortunate to have met all three before their passing. More than anything I remember those smiles.  The movie needs donations for the rights to be shown nationwide.  Please consider contributing to their Kickstarter fund to help!

Thursday night was the second night of quarterfinal competition and we moved over to Jerry Lee Lewis'.  The bands were MUCH BETTER.  In fact, I thought almost all of them I saw here should have been in the semifinals.  I really enjoyed hearing Laurie Jane and the 45s from the Kentuckiana Blues Society. I appeared on the same bill as them a year or two ago, so I already knew how good they were.  They did a great job.   I thought they should have made the semifinals.

One of the events I went to was a session about Blues Music as a healer and it was really inspirational.  I always thought Walter Trout was a great guitar player, but came away with a newfound respect for him after hearing his story of overcoming not the best of childhoods, years of drug and alcohol abuse and hepatitis C, which almost took his life.  He got a transplant, just in time to save his life, then had to "re learn" now to speak and play the guitar.

The semifinals on Friday night were good music wise, but horrible comfort wise.  It was elbow it was tighter than that.  It was so uncomfortable, I will probably skip the band semifinals in favor of the solo/duo semifinals if I return.  Of course, the whole situation of overcrowding was NOT helped by Garth Brooks 4 night stand at the Fed Ex Forum that week.  That meant a long wait for a table and for food if you dared to eat near Beale between 4:30 and 7pm. Maybe they should look into something to ease the overcrowding on Friday night.  Like so many, I offer NO solutions, just complain about the problem!  Among my favorites on Friday night were Amanda Fish, Polly O'Keary and Akeem Kemp.

After the semis, headed to Rum Boogie for the Vizztone label group showcase.  Great fun. Lot's of talent. I met Rosey Rosenblatt earlier in the week.  Nice man. To be fair, I've also met Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records and he's also very nice and wrote me a very nice note about my music once!

On to the finals on Saturday, which started at 12 and went to about 6:30 for the acts, the presentations around 8pm.  I have to say, I was in complete agreement with the judges!  I thought the winner of the solo/duo, Al Hill, of the Nashville Blues Society was phenomenal, killing it on guitar and especially piano.

In the band competition, I only heard one band which I thought had no business in the finals, and from what I heard, they killed it the previous 2 nights and just picked the wrong night to have a bad night.  I really enjoyed the 3rd place band, The Souliz Band featuring Sugar and Spice from the Suncoast Blues Society.

There was no doubt about the winner though.  Dawn Tyler Watson from the Montreal Blues Society was head shoulders above everyone.  One of the judging criteria is whether the act could headline a blues festival and this band was better than 90% of the headliners I've seen at MAJOR blues festivals.  Unbelieveable.

All in all I had a great week!  Lots of fun, lots of good food, lots of friends.  To be honest, most of the time, I like to stand in the back and kinda watch and listen.  I am rather shy unless I am playing.  This week it was nice to stand in the back and listen to some really good bands!