So, our debut album is out! Pretty cool, eh? Well, we think it is and we hope you do, too. I’m trying to get in the habit of calling it our new album, not our new CD, since the phasing out of CDs as a medium is practically complete. The CD, er, excuse me, album, was recorded almost exclusively in my basement on my laptop. In the album’s liner notes we refer to it tongue-in-cheekily as Inn Of The Waysider Studio. In our house we call it simply the music room, but in actuality it’s just the side of the basement opposite the washing machine and furnace. I’m sure there’s a spot on the album where if you listen closely enough you’ll hear the furnace kicking on or Reggie barking at the FedEx guy.
And what a learning experience! What did we learn? Chiefly, that the performance matters far more than does the recording gear. A ho hum performance will not be magically transformed into one that gives you goosebumps, simply because you used a $4000 Telefunken microphone or the latest sexy reverb plugin.
We also learned that recording at home let us stay loose and minimize what musicians call “red light fever” – the tendency to tighten up and not play well when the recording light is on. At a legit studio you can practically hear the money being vacuumed from your wallet every time a chord is muffed or a drumstick is dropped. Fingers get stiffer and throats get tighter when you feel your mistake is costing everyone else more money.
The challenge was to avoid having the album sound homemade. Fortunately, the technology available today is incredibly good and inexpensive, so in some respects it’s like starting a marathon at Mile 20. We also sweated over the musical details like finding the right key for the lead vocals, settling on the perfect tempo, figuring out which instruments were needed and which weren’t, and knowing when to play aggressively and when not to. Those things matter! It also helps enlist someone with magic ears to master the recording. We found Bruce Gigax at Audio Recording Studio in Bentleyville, Ohio. Bruce has been supervising the Cleveland Orchestra’s audio for TV and radio broadcasts for the last 30 years. He was a champ to work with and had the expertise and patience to overcome some of my rookie engineering mistakes. Can’t wait to work with him again.
The artwork, logo, and sleeve layout were done by Bill's wife Susan. Susan is one of those people who is good at everything she does, and her design sense and creativity are on full display there. She also has a photographer's eye and every shot she takes looks like it was done by a pro. She and our friend David Fox took all the shots on the album cover and on the Photos page.
Some insider tidbits about each song on the album:
Living In The Shade
People have always responded positively to this song and because it had such a hooky intro it was the logical choice to lead off the album. The song sprang from a particularly bad day at work where the opening line -- “I have worked for fifty years, hardly can afford a beer” – came to me out of the blue. I thought it was going to become a “I hate my boss, work sucks” kind of song but that didn’t feel right to me. Ultimately the song came to be about humility and gratitude. Mike does some beautiful mandolin fills and guest Paul Kovac’s square dance-style fiddle playing adds the right amount of bluegrassy energy.
Queen Of Roanoke
I was on a songwriting session via Skype with my Houston friend, the marvelously talented Susan Haug, and we were bouncing ideas off of each other. She had a set of lyrics about a girl planning to escape her abusive life and there was a line about riding on the Queen Of Roanoke. Upon hearing her say “Queen Of Roanoke” the entire story line that became the song instantly came to me. Sue told me to run with it. This is my favorite song on the album. Is it just me or do others feel the churning of the riverboat wheel when the whole band enters at the start of the second verse? Our friend Carrie King added a wonderful accordion part that slays me every time I hear it. Its texture perfectly complements the song’s emotional core. I love Johnny’s lead vocal, and the thick sounding harmonies during the “floating…” parts. Mike’s mando fills are really sweet, too.
(My Sweet) Melissa Mae
It’s hard to describe this song as anything but fun. Bill originally wrote this as a ‘60s R&B song. He and I put together a piano-driven demo of it with an overdubbed B.B. King-style electric guitar solo. Once during a summer rehearsal the weather was so nice, the band didn’t want to be cooped up in the basement, so we went out to the driveway. Bill didn’t want to schlep his keyboard up the steps, so all of a sudden we needed a way to play the song without piano. Necessity being the mother of invention, I came up with a swing guitar chord sequence everyone seemed to like, and that became the foundation for the song. Dale does a nice walking bass line that keeps the song pulsing. Mike and Johnny’s doo-wop vocals provide the perfect foil for Bill’s soulful lead.
I Do What I Want
Rebellion has long been a popular theme in works of art. Marlon Brando and Paul Newman were archetypes of rebellion and made careers out of it. I couldn’t resist exploring that and dreamt up the ultimate rebel who, even in the face of the ultimate doom, is defiant and unrepentant. This song has become our de facto show closer. Audiences usually sing along with gusto. The spoken word part at the end of the song was inspired by The Godz 1978 hit “Gotta Keep A Running” and you can hear a nod to it just as the song fades out.
As the album’s recording progressed Bill was becoming increasingly hooked on songwriting. He would always come up with compelling melodies and chord sequences with great rhythmic élan on piano, but his lyrics weren’t the strongest. Then one day he brought “Demington Lane” to rehearsal, and we were knocked out. I consider this to be Bill’s breakout song and everything he’s written since then has been dynamite. The arrangement with just piano and voice was so effective, we resisted the urge -- other than the Beatle-esque instrumental break – to beef it up. BTW, that’s a real flute you hear played by our friend Kristin Egan. Just a great song.
People tend to refer to this as the “new tattoo” song rather than by its title. Dale had to buy a new upright bass when his old one fell apart like the Bluesmobile at the end of “The Blues Brothers” movie. It had brand new strings on it and, until they broke in, sounded more like an acoustic bass guitar. It was a cool sound and the timing of his purchase coincided exactly with when we were recording the song. A perfect storm! Mike did some nice New Orleans-style four to the bar banjo in this one. It’s only a rumor that he wore white slacks, a candy striped vest and porkpie hat when recording his part. Johnny’s vocal is killer, of course. The guitar solo is almost verbatim of a solo I improvised on an earlier demo. I liked it so much I had to go back and relearn my own playing, which was a weird feeling. Also, note the knuckle busting EmMaj9 (the “James Bond” chord) at the end of the song.
I had a demo of a chord sequence with a drum track, that Johnny took home with him, to see if he could do something with it. Practically overnight he came back with the melody and lyrics. However, when the band tried to play the demo’s arrangement, it just wasn’t coming together. We did some experimentation with tempos and styles, getting nowhere. We decided to have another go at it, and on the spur of the moment I came up with the opening guitar phrase that is heard on the album. The band fell in and the song instantly felt right. I actually have a scratch recording of the first time we tried it like that. That will probably be on some Alligator Records box set retrospective 20 years from now.
Never Will Be The Same
I was playing my guitar in front of Bryson Gym at the Swannanoa Gathering and needed a breather. I looked upward through the trees toward the night sky. At that moment the song’s opening line “There’s a tall tree…” was born. As many songs do, this one was written pretty quickly once the spark was found. Finding the spark is usually the biggest challenge and all it took was a stiff neck. Who knew? Moms of a certain age tend to fight back tears on this one. I don’t like to see anybody cry, but as a songwriter you say to yourself, “Boo yah!” The three part harmonies Johnny, Mike, and Bill laid down are really nice.
I started writing this one minutes before our guests arrived for a New Year’s Eve party. Believe it or not, it’s a true story in every detail, I swear. Like many other songs, we went through a lengthy trial and error period to find the right feel for the song. We even tried a reggae version that was, uh, not very good. The fratboy backing vocals makes this song extra fun.
Pain Of Losing You
We have this inside joke that, pound for pound, we have more diminished chords than any other acoustic band in the world. This song is Exhibit A, your honor, and demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt, that we learned the Mel Bay Jazz Guitar Chord Chart well. Mike’s banjo underpins the rhythm and Bill does a really cool vibraphone part (with heavy tremolo!). The rhythm track inspired me to channel Django Reinhardt on the guitar fills. The co-lead vocals from Bill and Johnny blend together so well, and make palpable the pain described by the song’s narrator.