January 30, 2017

The Deep End of Pete Townshend's Genius

Pete Townshend was always too ambitious for rock ‘n’ roll. 

Not so much with the early hits he wrote for The Who, songs like “Can’t Explain” and “Substitute,” which were in essence point-and-click snapshots of the lives Townshend observed around him—songs that in turn gave the band’s youthful audience a collective voice and culture of its own. More so, rather, with the emergence of Tommy in 1969, when Townshend broadened his creative sweep into the realm of a rock opera, crafting songs with narrative themes and psychologically complex characters that when presented together achieved even more prescient significance. 

Evolving from a singles-oriented band to one which makes long-form albums was not a particularly innovative shift in and of itself, of course. By the same year as Tommy’s soundtrack release, the Rolling Stones had likewise moved on from casting such succinct aspersions of British society as “Mother’s Little Helper” and “Get Off My Cloud” to pursue grander (and darker) subject matter on such LPs as Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed

What Townshend as the prime songwriting conduit in The Who was doing by this point, however, signified more than a mere intention to broaden a musical idea or even to render an album as some sort of cohesive piece of work. Townshend composed character sketches and thematic motifs, implemented plot devices and narrative constructions like a novelist or playwright, his lyrics laying the foundation that he and his bandmates—bassist John Entwistle, drummer Keith Moon, and vocalist Roger Daltrey—would then galvanize into song. 

Townshend could be obsessive about his art, but who could blame him? The expectations he unwittingly created—the benchmarks he and the band set in the studio, the mythologized behemoth The Who became on the concert stage—became a lot to live up to, with Townshend’s reputation as a songwriter dictating ever more genius with each new piece of music.  

In the throes of composing his most aspirational project yet, Lifehouse, Townshend grew increasingly overwhelmed and disillusioned, his intended magnum opus crumbling under his own madcap perfectionism. Scrapping all but the script, so to speak, the band’s producer Glyn Johns salvaged what he deemed the project’s strongest songs, culminating with the 1971 LP Who’s Next. An unmitigated classic, the album—which included a veritable haul of ageless warhorses like “Baba O’Riley,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”—offered perhaps the most ironic affirmation of Townshend’s artistic prowess. 

Only two years later Townshend redeemed himself with Quadrophenia, yet the specter of the Lifehouse debacle loomed over his head for decades to come. In fact, he didn’t put Lifehouse to bed for good until 1999 with the sprawling, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink box set, Lifehouse Chronicles—which, conspicuously, was credited not to The Who but to Pete Townshend.

And therein lies the crux of Townshend’s songcraft. For all the democratization that often makes a band better than the sum of its individual parts, Townshend’s best ideas came out of working alone. Sure, his initial ideas were then retooled and rearranged and implemented by one of the most ferocious rock bands on the planet. But the most crucial atoms of those classic Who anthems originated out of Townshend’s imagination.

Without the concerted collaboration of his band to shape his musical ideas, Townshend’s solo work (which he experimented with in the ‘70s before taking far more seriously in the ‘80s with albums like 1980’s Empty Glass and 1982’s All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes) seemed to be an endeavor wholly distinct from The Who.

Which is why, when on January 29, 1986, Townshend and a big-band ensemble dubbed the Deep End rolled into Cannes for a performance for the popular German television series Rockpalast in support of his solo album from the year before, White City: A Novel, the overriding impression—as witnessed on the Blu-ray and CD  Pete Townshend’s Deep End: Face The Face—is one of liberation. 

Boasting a five-piece brass cotillion and five backing vocalists, along with The Who’s stalwart keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour on lead guitar, the fast-paced set is chock full of raw R&B energy, yielding solo highlights like “Slit Skirts” and “Second Hand Love” alongside a few Who favorites (“Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Behind Blue Eyes”) for good measure. Oddly, Gilmour assumes more challenging and audience-thrilling passages on the axe than does Townshend, who seems to revel more in his role as entertainer—some rather awkward dance steps prove that point to a fault—than as a guitar god.

But perhaps that was the fundamental object of the exercise. Townshend had already, even by this point 31 years ago, composed one of the most enduring and imposing catalogs in all of rock history—he would return to The Who in periods of both ambivalence and urgency in the three decades to come—and he knew full well that the benchmark he helped set could never be eclipsed, much less by his own effort.

Townshend would never make a solo album without it garnering comparison to his most definitive work with The Who—take 1993’s Psychoderelict, for instance—but as a solo artist he has carved out a space wherein his genius can thrive with abandon. 

January 27, 2017

Concert Review: Don Henley with JD & The Straight Shot, Clearwater, FL

JD & The Straight Shot (photo: Donald Gibson)

The headliner is who they all came to see, of course. In this case, it was Don Henley, fresh off his recent Kennedy Center Honors accolade as a founding member of The Eagles, touring in support of his most recent solo album Cass County. For over two hours on Tuesday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Henley crisscrossed the four decades and various signposts of his storied career, dusting off a few surprises along the way like a brass-enhanced “Shangri-La” (from 1989’s The End of the Innocence) and, late in the set, a timely cover of the 1985 Tears For Fears anthem “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” that roused the punters out of their plush theatre seats for the first time since he’d walked on stage. More often than not, though, Henley stuck to the fundamentals—the solo hits (“Dirty Laundry,” “New York Minute,” “The Boys of Summer”) and The Eagles classics (“One of These Nights,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Desperado”)—which he and his 15-piece band performed with veteran precision and vitality.

Openers JD & The Straight Shot served up something uniquely different and altogether dynamic, complementing the familiarity mostly inherent to Henley’s set with a batch of songs illuminating scenes of mortal sin and gospel salvation, conjuring malevolent spirits along with the feistiness of a gothic folk revival. Led by vocalist/guitarist Jim Dolan, guitarist Marc Copely, bassist Byron House, and violinist Erin Slaver (whilst featuring an assortment of other side men and women depending on what each song suggested), the group betrayed influences as earthy as The Band and Johnny Cash and as eclectic as Tom Waits and Lyle Lovett. Mr. Dolan’s gruff inflections added a storyteller’s authority to standout performances of “Perdition” and “Better Find a Church,” while Ms. Slaver’s lithesome touch on the strings showcased “Ballyhoo” in noirish focus. Previewing their as-yet-untitled forthcoming album, the group offered “I Know, You Know, I Know” as a snapshot of love and lust’s most clandestine impulses. By the end of their all-too-brief appearance, JD & The Straight Shot had worked their own brand of magic to charm an audience that was originally not their own.

October 14, 2016

Interview: Kenny Rogers Reflects on Career, Crossover Success

Kenny Rogers

At the dawn of the ‘80s, as outlaws and urban cowboys staked their turf on either side of the country and pop fence, Kenny Rogers bridged the divide.

A mere four years since he first attained mainstream solo stardom with “Lucille”—and after a string of subsequent smashes like “The Gambler” and “She Believes in Me” continued his good fortune—the former First Edition singer achieved the highest pinnacle of his career, topping not only the country charts but, for the first time, the pop charts as well with “Lady.”

While he’d flirted with the pop charts before, with “Lady”—composed and produced by another proven hitmaker of the era, Lionel Richie—Rogers assumed the sort of stature otherwise reserved for music’s unmitigated superstars. Indeed, the rhapsodic ballad broadened his audience to an unprecedented degree, while at the same time heralding even more crossover collaborations to come, not only with Richie but also with likes of Barry Gibb (“Islands in the Stream”), James Ingram (“What About Me?”), and Richard Marx (“Crazy”), among others.

photo: Piper Ferguson
Now on the road for the final time, on a tour billed as The Gambler’s Last Deal, the 78-year-old music legend recently reflected on how his mainstream appeal—particularly how such crossover success hasn’t compromised his homegrown country music credentials—bears its roots in his earliest, most foundational experiences. In doing so, he reminisced on how his adolescent musical passion ultimately inspired one of the most celebrated careers in all of popular music.

“When I was in high school I played guitar,” Rogers explained during a conference call with select music journalists, “and I met this guy [Bobby Doyle] doing commercials in Houston who was blind and he was about my age and he said he wanted me to come play bass with his jazz group. I said, ‘Well, Bobby, I don’t play bass and I don’t play jazz … I’m a country singer and a country player.’ He said, ‘I’ll teach you how to play bass and trust me, there’s more demand for bad bass players than there are bad guitar players.’ I thought about every group I’d seen. They’d all had a bass player; they didn’t all have guitar players.”

Rogers was convinced, and the tutelage he received as a bassist began to serve him well in short order, manifesting in both practical and often surrealistically impractical moments. “We used to work across the street from the Shamrock Hotel in Houston,” Rogers recalled, “and people would come in—big names would come in to work there—and we had an after-hours job. They would come over after hours just to have a place to go. Tony Bennett used to come in and sing with us all the time. Every time he was in town he’d come across the street and sing with us and it was really something special.”

Beyond reaping the benefits that often come with knowing how to play a musical instrument, Rogers said the experience of performing live with Bennett and various other artists of the day in turn facilitated the eclectic—and successful—career that lay ahead. “When people came in you had to learn to play their type of music,” he said, “and we would do that. We had all kinds of people come in, and each one of them was kind of different. Al Hirt used to come in and play with us. So that was another direction we had to go. It was just a wonderful life.”

August 09, 2016

Interview: Onward and Upward with The Temperance Movement

The Temperance Movement (credit: Rob Blackham)

When Write on Music caught up with the Temperance Movement last summer, the nascent British rock band was trudging through the States and Canada on what seemed like an interminable tour. A coveted opening slot for the Rolling Stones in Orlando only weeks before had offered a unique challenge to turn a massive (and arguably impervious) audience onto the band’s long-in-the-works, self-titled debut album. In headlining its own gigs, however, the band found a North American slog of one-nighters far more conducive to its cause. 

Now with a new LP, White Bear (Fantasy/Concord Records), the Temperance Movement build upon the swaggering musical foundation of that first album, sublimating its edgiest blues/rock distinctions with more eclectic dimensions, recalling the crunchy riffs of early AC/DC along with moments of streamlined late ‘70s arena rock as well as some headier ‘90s grunge.

“The whole point of us making music is to try new things and develop as a band,” guitarist Paul Sayer said recently from yet another tour stop in Denver, “and represent our different influences as much as we can within the framework of the Temperance Movement. We absolutely wanted to make something that was a bit different sounding but still us at the core of it.”

Changers have certainly been afoot, and not only with the music but with the musicians—guitarist Luke Potashnick has since left the fray, leaving with Sayer with drummer Damon Wilson, bassist Nick Fyffe and frontman Phil Campbell—and some newly provocative themes that certain songs on the album address. 

“I think we just wanted it to open out a bit,” Sayer said of White Bear, “to develop the sound a bit.”

How has being on the road affected the chemistry of the band, especially when it came to making the second album?

Well, when we made the first album we weren’t really a band. We were kind of five guys who’d gotten together to make the music. By the second album we were a band. We’d done hundreds of shows together. So we kind of knew how our audience reacted to certain things. We knew when we were recording the second album what things about the new album would be challenging the audience, what bits about it would be very comfortable and accepted of our audience. And then as far as within the band, I think we wrote the second record in quite a different way to how we wrote the first one. It was really much more on the road and in sound checks while we were away. And we knew who we were making it for and what kind of venues it was going to be played in. So, that’s quite informing. As a band we kind of just feel like it’s all about just the five of us. People often get very hung up on which recording studio they’re working in, that kind of thing. It doesn’t matter to us. We just sound like us no matter where we record.

When you say, “We sound like us,” when you guys wrote and recorded some of these new songs which don’t necessarily sound like the “us” that emerged on the first album was it a surprise to you guys that you could stretch out that far?

It wasn’t a surprise to us at all, but I guess the thing is when people hear a record that a band has made I think often people could be tempted to assume that that kind of perfectly embodies what each member of that band is all about musically. The thing is, that’s just not true. When a band makes a record, it’s just a snapshot of that moment in time of where those people are at and what they’ve decided to do. Actually, the opposite is true, really. It’s impossible in one record to lay down all your influences and everything you want to say and everything that you want to do in your career. You can’t do it in one record. So, as we make more albums … to me it’s kind of like we’re slowly revealing a picture. Each album that you make removes kind of like a square that’s been blacked out, of really trying to find out what those people are all about. I know what I’m about, and I know what the other guys are about because we spend hours every day in a van together listening to music and talking about music. 

So, it wasn’t a surprise to me at all that we made that kind of record, but I understand that for the listener all they have to go on is the outfit of the band for that day. You listen to the first record and it’s quite clear what some of our influences are. That’s easy to get your head around, but what’s impossible for the listener to know about is all the other music that we listen to and love and has inspired us. The only way that they will learn about that is us making more records and covering more of those influences and going in different directions. It’s definitely about a long-term career and creating a body of work. It’s impossible to say, “This is what the Temperance Movement are all about,” by listening to one or two records because everything is constantly changing for us in terms of what we love. There’s so much already as well that we haven’t even touched on yet. Plus we’re discovering new music all the time that we like. It’s just a constantly moving thing. When we make our next record, again it will just be a moment in time of wherever we’re at at that time when we make that record. 

Think of how different and distinct each of the first three Led Zeppelin albums sounded, for example.

Exactly. They’re listening to different music all the time. The way that they feel about music is constantly changing. The way that they feel about their audience is constantly changing. [There are] so many variables going on that it would be much stranger to make an album which sounds exactly like the one before than to make something different-sounding because, if you’ve got a year or two between records, by the time you come to that next one you’re in a totally different place. So, it’d actually be very weird for it to come out sounding the same. 

A lot of bands do take that route, though, especially if they have a particularly successful first album—because record companies of course like to repeat that kind of success.

I get that, but that’s not why we started this band. We started the band to be creative and to enjoy making music and throughout that a lot of that enjoyment comes from experimenting and exploring different things. The classic example—and the opposite of what you’re talking about—would be someone like Neil Young, who just doesn’t care. He will make, like, an electronic album, and then his next one will be a country album. He’s just into lots of different music and he feels differently one album to the next, and that’s why he makes different music. 

When you guys get together to come up with songs, is it more of a conventional songwriting exercise or is it more of a jamming kind of thing where you perhaps discover songs from a riff? How structured is that process when you guys write the songs?

They come about in all sorts of different ways. Just a key thing is having a good idea. It might be a riff and it might be something that comes out of a jam in a sound check; or it might be a context for what the song may be about or it might be literally just a song title. The initial idea comes from all different places. It could come from anywhere. Then once we have that idea nailed down—or we know which idea we’re holding onto—then it falls into a bit more of a pattern of sitting down and taking that idea and turning it into a song and Phil writing the lyrics and then us getting back together and maybe editing things a bit in terms of the music or the structure of the song and then going into the studio. The recording process from one song to the next is normally quite similar. We’re all in the room tracking together…. Then it kind of fits into the mold of the way that we work, which would generally be the five of us in a rehearsal room nailing everything down or maybe three of us at someone’s house with a couple of guitars nailing everything down and taking these kind of ideas that might be a bit all over the place and actually structuring them into a song. 

It must be emboldening not to be constrained by any preconceived notions of what the band is or does, because you guys could theoretically create anything.

Totally. The thing is, as well, there’s a good understanding between us in the band of where we’re at at a given time without us having to really discuss it too much. If I sit down with Phil to write a song, we won’t say to each other, “Right. Let’s write a song in this style,” or, “Let’s write a song [drawing on] these influences.” I would’ve known because I practically live on the road with Phil. I will know where he’s at musically at that time because in the months leading up to sitting down [to write] I know what he’s been listening to and what he’s been getting excited about musically. We’ll talk about music. Although, when we’re writing these things aren’t discussed. I know where he’s at and he knows where I’m at musically. 

So, there’s kind of like an unsaid foundation for what we’re trying to do at that time. Also, it will go one way or another depending on what the idea is and where it comes from. There will be a lot of influences floating around … and we’ll draw on the ones that we see as relevant to what we’re doing at the time or maybe even the ones that aren’t very relevant to the original idea. We’re purposely trying to take it away from one musical space and into another one, which happens quite a lot as well. The last thing that we want to do is sound exactly like anybody else. If there’s an initial idea that’s been influenced by something or if we just feel like something is starting to sound a bit too familiar we’ll purposely derail it and take it somewhere else, which happened much more with the second record. We’re still a rock ‘n’ roll band but we didn’t want to sound like anybody else. 

On the album the band addresses themes of conflict and violence.

Totally. The lyrics are mostly Phil’s, but I know like—

A song like “Modern Massacre”…

Yeah, that’s like the prime example of frustration at a situation and kind of just trying to show it’s all so serious, but it’s also all so ridiculous. It’s just kind of the frustration at a situation. I don’t know if I would go as far as to call it a protest song. It’s just a reaction to things that happen with maybe the frustration with feeling like maybe there’s so much going on that it’s hard to do anything about it. It’s kind of a protest song without maybe the optimism of Janis Joplin or whoever thinking that she could actually do something about it. 

That doesn’t preclude you from being frustrated, though.

It doesn’t stop us from being frustrated and it also doesn’t stop us from wanting it to change or wanting things to get better or wanting these things not to happen. That song particularly is kind of a scream in frustration at the problem, which you kind of feel like, especially at first glance, is completely out of your hands. You can’t get close to changing these various situations that are causing all these problems especially with today’s media. They’re kind of screaming “Modern Massacre” at you but at the same time you can’t do anything about it. It’s in your face. It’s just a reaction to all of that, really. 

Do you know if that song in particular—or other songs on the album that incorporate similar themes—was in any way inspired by the band’s extensive touring in America? Obviously, the level of violence in the States is far beyond what happens in the UK.

“Modern Massacre” isn’t talking about any one event in particular. We don’t have the police violence that you have over here [in the US], but from our location on the planet we’re geographically much closer to the stuff that is going on in Syria and stuff like that. It all kind of rolls into one thing, and it’s all reported by the media in the same style. Although the subject of the story might be very different, the kind of reporting style is always very similar—the kind of sensationalism around it and all that kind of stuff. They’re all kind of, “Look at how awful this is,” but at the same time there’s this morbid fascination with it. Everyone wants to tune in and see what’s going on. If the news station happens to have some footage of a body lying on the ground that’s even better and more people will tune in and more people will share it on Facebook. 

If there’s actually footage of a boat sinking off the coast of Turkey with a load of Syrian refugees in it, everyone will suddenly be interested. You have to kind of ask yourself, “Why is everyone so interested in this?” Are they genuinely concerned about this issue or are they just kind of into seeing these extreme videos posted up on social media? The cynic in me thinks a lot of it is the second, because how many people that host that video of the boat sinking will then actively try and do something about the situation of these people?

In answer to your question, we have spent a lot of time [in the States], but it’s probably more about the fact that the world media is so connected now…. When that stuff is going on, even when things are happening on a political level in your country, we very much feel like it’s having a global effect on the world and especially in the UK because our two countries are so close. It doesn’t feel like a problem that’s happening a thousand miles away, unrelated to us. It feels like a very real problem for the world in general as are the issues that we’ve got at home…. It will affect people all around the world. I don’t feel like it’s because we come and spend time in your country that we feel more connected to it. I think it’s because of just the way the world is connected now. I know of friends that don’t travel to the US on a regular basis are as concerned about things that happen in the US as I am. Maybe we slightly understand it more because we understand the issues and various people’s feelings a bit more because we spend a few months at a time here and see people and work out how people are feeling about certain things. 

Is security a pressing concern for the band?

We haven’t changed anything that we do. We’re slightly more aware of it, definitely. We’ve been touring France this year quite a lot, and the security there has gotten very tight in and out of venues with what happened with the Eagles of Death Metal last year and various terrorist attacks subsequently. But I don’t see what we can do, really. We’re not going to start employing security or anything like that. We probably couldn’t even if we wanted to. It kind of feels as if that would just add to the problem, not help it. It kind of feels like that reaction would just escalate things and almost incite more violence, in a way. If bands start showing up to shows with a few guys that are obviously there for security reasons, possibly armed even, I would just think, How is that going to make our audience feel? Is it going to make it feel safer or less safe? I’m not sure. 

We have a very different view on this and reaction to it because of gun ownership. Just the whole concept of it and the feelings around it are totally different in the UK to what they are in the US. That is something that we don’t understand at all because things are just so different at home. When I see a gun, it worries me. It doesn’t really make much difference to me who’s holding it. If there are two guys on the sides of the stage with guns strapped to them, and if I was at a show at a small venue like we play and I saw that, I think I would feel pretty uncomfortable about it regardless of the fact that they would probably be there for my safety. I don’t think I would feel more safe. 

July 25, 2016

It's a Country Tradition: An Interview with Mark Chesnutt

It’s been more than a quarter century since “Too Cold at Home” introduced country music traditionalist Mark Chesnutt to the masses, and the many hits that have followed (including “Brother Jukebox,” “Bubba Shot the Jukebox,” and “Old Flames Have New Names”) have aged as well as the veteran singer’s homegrown Texas twang. For his first album of new material in eight years, Tradition Lives (Row Entertainment), Chesnutt doesn’t deviate from his signature vintage style. In truth, he doubles down on what his fans have expected all along.  

“I wanted to come back smokin’. I didn’t want to come back with a half-assed kind of song that didn’t have any direction,” says Chesnutt. “I wanted it to be as close to perfect as I could get it. I wanted to show the world that I’m not dead. I’m not retired. I’m still out there and I have been. I never stopped touring since 1990. I’ve constantly been on the road since then—26 years.”

When you were choosing material for this new album, what kind of song typically stood out to you? What did it have to have in order for you to say, “Yeah, that’s a good song?”

There’s no certain song I’m looking for. When I start getting songs to record, it used to be back in the old days I’d get cassette tapes—and I’d get thousands of cassette tapes—and then I started getting thousands of CDs, and nowadays it’s all emails. I still get CDs. But I don’t sit down and say, “Look, I’m gonna listen to songs today and I want to hear this type of song.” I’m not like that. I’ll just push play and just listen to it, and if it’s a song that catches me it’ll be immediately. I shouldn’t have to listen to the whole damn song and then decide. I should know within the first verse. A song has to be structured right, and if it has everything—if the verse is right and not too long, and then the chorus kicks in—then I know. Usually if I listen to a song all the way through and then listen to it again, that’s going to end up being cut and recorded.  

Before we went into the studio, we had the big meeting where you get together with the record company and your producer and your management and everybody and I’d play them all the songs that I picked. Usually there’s about 25, 35, 40 or more… I think I had around 50-something songs that I wanted to record for this album, and we had to narrow that down to about 12. So that’s when everybody’s input came in. That’s when I started listening to opinions. That’s when we had to start saying, “Well, now we need a ballad. Okay, we’ve got these.” Because you can’t have an album that’s just full of the same type of song.

Have you always been able to trust your integrity insofar as knowing which songs are the best ones for you to sing?

Yeah, always try to. It was a little difficult to do that when I was on a major label because I had to listen to so many people’s opinions. And, I understand, again. I’m not putting down the major labels at all, but they have a business to run. They can’t take a chance. The purpose of a business is to make money—to sell a product, make money. Well, those companies are huge, man. There’s so many people that have to get a part of that album when it sells to make their paycheck, so they’ve all got a say in it—everybody on it. Now it’s a lot easier because I’m on an independent label. There’s not that many people there, and so I have complete control over the music…. I don’t have to worry about somebody saying, “That’s a piece of shit,” because first of all, I’m not going to pick a piece of shit anyway because I’ve been around long enough to know better. 

The last song on the album, “There Won’t Be Another Now”—which was added after the album proper was already completed—is a Red Lane song that Merle Haggard recorded. Sadly, we’ve not only lost Red Lane in recent years but this year we also lost Haggard. As someone who appreciates traditional country music as you do, what did Merle Haggard mean to you?

Merle Haggard was the backbone of country music. Was, hell—still is. Merle Haggard is the backbone and George Jones is the soul. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it. George is the soul. Merle is the backbone. Without those two I don’t think country music would’ve ever been the way we know it is now. Being at the risk at being called sexist or whatever, I’m gonna say it: It’s a manly thing, that type of country music. But I can’t say that in reality, I can’t agree with that because when I think about Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn. They’re not manly at all, but they were strong women. Country music was made by people you didn’t want to fool with. You couldn’t push them around. You couldn’t push those people around. You couldn’t push around Loretta and Tammy. They’d kick you in the ass. They’d shoot you. The same way with Miranda Lambert. We still have strong women in country music. So to say it’s a manly thing is kind of wrong, but you know what I’m trying to say. It’s more of a “you don’t give me any shit, and I won’t give you any shit” [thing]. I think Grandpa Jones said that one time. He was quoted as saying, “We don’t give no shit, and we won’t take no shit.” That kind of sums it up, what I’m saying. Merle Haggard and George Jones pretty much set that tone, that mood, that toughness, that individualism. They’re the ones that really made that in country music. George Jones was so soulful, and then Haggard was the poet and had that strong voice and the way he presented and carried himself. You could hear his voice and you could tell that was a real man. 

What’s striking, though, especially with Haggard in his songwriting, was that he was vulnerable and he allowed himself to be vulnerable.

Oh yeah, you’ve gotta be. He could do that. He could sell that softer side and the horrible side. So could George. George had a lot of songs where he was very vulnerable. I mean, man, he’d sing about drinking and getting his heart broken. “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” he was the narrator but at the same time you could tell he was singing about himself in a way. It takes somebody with some guts to do that. I don’t want to say “balls” because Tammy did it too. It takes people with soul and backbone to do that. 

I had the privilege of interviewing Haggard once. I was star-struck, but he was the kindest man.

I’d just assume sit and listen to him talk as listen to him sing. It didn’t matter to me. I’ll tell you the best memory I have of Merle was the time he invited us out to his house. I don’t know if you’ve heard this story or not, but I was out on tour. I was on tour with Tracy Lawrence and Joe Diffie—we were on the Rockin’ Roadhouse Tour I think in 2002 maybe, somewhere around there. Anyway, we did it for two or three summers. But we were out there during one of those summers, we were in California, up there near Redding close to where he lives, and we had a day off. Well, I got a call from our publicist that she had gotten a call from Merle’s people wanting to know if we were in town and if we wanted to come out to the ranch because he had his band there and they were rehearsing to go out on tour. Well, I mean, “Hell yeah.” We got the directions. I got to talk to one of the guys. We rented a van and we drove out there, me and Tracy Lawrence and Joe Diffie. You talk about a dream come true for us three rednecks. We were giddy. We were just like teenage kids going to a party or something. We just could not believe it. So, naturally we had to stop and get some beer. [Laughs] We drove up there, and they let us in. It wasn’t fancy or nothing at all. It was really cool, real nice, out in the country, a beautiful place. He had just a small house. I was expecting a big ol’ mansion, but of course, it’s Merle. We went up there and they were having lunch. We sat there and talked for a little while with him and he said, “Well, let’s go play some music.” 

So we walked right next door to the studio, they saddled up, him and his band, Merle called off a song and there they went. We sat there for two-and-a-half hours, Merle Haggard and his band playing for us. And he would tell us all about the song, how he wrote it [or] who wrote it, what it was about, and then tear off into it. That was the most unforgettable day I have ever had. We were sitting on the floor of the studio, drinking beer—we had a cooler of beer, and every once in awhile I’d look over at Tracy or Joe and I’d say, “Punch me right now. Make sure I’m not dreaming.” That was the best time. He talked to us for several hours. I’m the one who finally spoke up and said, “Well, we better get on out of here.” I didn’t want to overstay our welcome. That’s just one of those times you know you’ll never forget. He talked to us each for a long time. I remember looking at his boat. He had an aluminum boat sitting out there. I was checking it out, and he come over there and talked to me. We got to talking about fishing and hunting. I loved hearing that man talk. Same, really, with George. I loved to hear George talk. I spent more time with George than I did with Merle. George told a lot of stories. But they were different. They were two polar opposites. Merle was soft-spoken, but he had a lot to say. George, he liked to bullshit a lot. [Laughs]

Without either one of them, Haggard or Jones, what you do wouldn’t necessarily have been possible.

It wouldn’t because I pride myself after them, and I threw in a little Willie and Waylon. Those guys had a lot of influence on me also. All of them did—Johnny Cash, everybody… Elvis Presley. All of them had a lot to do with who I am now. Hank Williams, Sr. and Hank Williams, Jr. a whole lot. Hank, Jr. and Hank, Sr. really were the first country singers that I ever heard. That was my daddy’s favorite. It was Hank Williams, Sr. and Elvis Presley, that was what I first remember hearing in my house when I was just a baby. 

I always liked something Johnny Cash said to Merle Haggard. “Merle,” he said, “you’re what people think I am.” Because Haggard had actually been to prison, whereas Cash had only written about it.

Johnny was in jail, but he never went to prison. But if he kept going the way he was going before June got ahold of him, he’d have ended up in prison or dead. But you know the story of how Merle ended up in prison in the first place, huh?

It was a botched robbery or something, right?

Yeah, he broke into a restaurant that was still open. [Laughs] You know, George used to tell me stories…. That’s one thing I got on other guys. I got to hang out and be friends with these dudes, especially George. 

It’s a privilege that most people don’t get to enjoy.

That’s what people like me, Tracy Lawrence, and Joe Diffie can say. We were around those legends. We actually knew them. I was around Waylon just a little bit, and he had a huge impression on my life after that. I always loved his music, but when I got to know him, he was another guy that had a whole lot to do with the way I live life and how I handle things. Guys like that, they teach you more than just about singing. It’s about life. It’s about living, how to handle problems when they come up, how to live your life and how to raise a family. Since my daddy died right at the start of my career, I didn’t have nobody to guide me. The only two people that did that were George Jones and my manager, Joe Ladd. I was only 26 when Daddy died and I was just starting out in this business. George Jones told me, he said, “If you ever have any questions, if you need to talk to somebody, you call me.” And I did. That’s why George and I were friends because he called me the day after my daddy died and told me that.

Had the Too Cold at Home album come out yet?

Yeah, it had just come out. It came out that summer. The album came out in August, I believe. I think the single was already out. And Daddy got to see me on TV do Nashville Now and he saw me do The Grand Ole Opry on TV. He wouldn’t go to Nashville because he wouldn’t fly. So, he had to watch me on TV. About the time the second single was released, that’s about when Daddy passed away. He passed away in November of ‘90, and that’s when George called. He said, “I’m not trying to take your daddy’s place. Nobody can do that. But I can help you if you need anything. If you need some advice. If you have any questions. Because he told me, “You’re getting into a business, Son, that you probably already know that [has] a lot of ups and downs.” And I said, “I know, my daddy told me all that.” He said, “You’re getting into something that’s gonna be tough on you at times, and I’ll be here when you need to talk to somebody.” And, boy, was it ever. It has not been easy. I’ve gotta be honest with you. There were some really strange, weird, trying times in this business. 

You got your first taste of that right when country music was—

When it got all screwed up?

Kind of when Garth Brooks was turning country into rock ‘n’ roll.

Garth didn’t turn it into rock ‘n’ roll. I know you’re not, but we can’t blame Garth Brooks… A lot of people blame Garth Brooks for killing country music. That’s not him that did it. Garth Brooks was just a high energy entertainer. He was a high energy entertainer and he was influenced by George Strait and George Jones, Merle Haggard—same guys I was. And he also was a KISS fan and a rock ‘n’ roll fan. Well, so am I. It’s just that I chose… I stayed real country and Garth blended all that together. He put those elements of a rock ‘n’ roll show—that energy—into country music. Which, I didn’t see anything wrong with it. But when he started recording other things that weren’t really country, which I know it was just changing times… Everybody thought they had to be rock stars then. Everybody started trying to outdo Garth Brooks. They all tried to out-Garth Garth and that’s impossible. Nobody’s ever gonna do that. To this day they’re still trying to do it. 

To an extent, before Garth Brooks was doing it, Alabama were turning their concerts into rock ‘n’ roll –feeling events. 

Oh yeah. You know what? Let me tell you this. I was going to see Hank Williams, Jr. back in the early ‘80s, early-to-mid ‘80s. Hank Williams, Jr. was putting on the best high energy country show I had ever seen in my life. He was really doing it up big. Boy, you talk about energy. He had a big stage set. He had it going on, that one—way before Garth or anybody else. Alabama were just getting started. So, what Garth did… He didn’t do anything wrong. Garth didn’t mess anything up. 

Radio started turning things around. When [Bill] Clinton deregulated radio, it wasn’t about going to this radio station and getting to be buddies with the program director, taking him out to dinner, taking him out to tit bars and shit like that. It wasn’t about sending him and his family on a vacation, the old-fashioned payola. It was about big business then. Then they hired the consultants, and the consultants came in. One consultant sitting up there in L.A. was consulting 200 stations. And they don’t know what in the hell we want to hear down here in Beaumont, Texas or in Lafayette, Louisiana or Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. But they’re telling the deejays down there what they can play and what they can’t play because the company that owns those radio stations hired this consultant egghead to tell them what to play and what not to play. So, it’s not Garth’s fault. He didn’t do anything wrong. He just did his own thing, which was great. I never do want people to think that I’m anti- Garth or anti- anything. I think what Garth did was great. 

Didn’t you record “Friends in Low Places” before Garth Brooks?

Yeah, I did. I cut it and it was Garth singing on it—Garth Brooks did the demo. He did most of the demos that I listened to back when I was getting ready to record my first album, when I was listening to songs. In fact, for a lot of years in the ‘90s when we got song pitches it was Garth Brooks singing them because he did a lot of demo work before he took off. I had a lot of songs with him singing on [the demos]. That’s how I got “Friends in Low Places.” I liked it immediately, and I cut it because we knew we needed to finish the album. We were running out of time. So, the song was pitched to me, I loved it, I recorded it. They already had the singles picked before the album was even finished. It was gonna be “Too Cold at Home” and “Brother Jukebox.” They weren’t gonna release “Friends in Low Places.” 

Garth Brooks heard about it and got pissed off because he had it on hold at the same time, and I didn’t know that or I wouldn’t have cut it. So, Garth got all pissed off and confronted my producer … and started cussing him out and saying, “I’ve got that song on hold. I’m cutting it tomorrow. That’s gonna be my new single.” [My producer] Mark Wright said, “I didn’t know anything about that. Chesnutt didn’t know anything about that.” So the next day he went in and cut it and they put it out real quick. I guess they thought I was a threat. I don’t know why in the world they would think I was any kind of threat to Garth Brooks because I have not been and I will never be a threat to Garth Brooks. [Laughs] 

Considering the kind of traditional country music you make, was there any difficulty in finding well-written songs for the new album, maybe because they’re not being written as much now?

No, I had no trouble. I went through a lot of songs. I had thought I would have trouble, because I didn’t think anybody would be writing these songs. I was worrying if the guys that wrote that kind of music were dead or if any of them cared about writing like that anymore. Well, it turns out, a lot of them do. It’s just like the musicians. When I went into the studio to track this album, I used guys like [guitarist] Brent Mason and [drummer] Eddie Bayers and these guys, I’ve used them on every album since the very first one. I used the same guys. They were so happy to work with me again and to see old friends and they were so happy to be playing country music. That’s what they were all telling me…. They were so happy to be able to do what they came to town to do. It was like a reunion with these guys to play this kind of music. Of course, that’s the only kind of music I’ve ever done, but this time it was all new music. It was all freshly written tunes.

All the guys that had written songs before for me, boy they were writing… They were sending me stuff that they wrote 10, 15, 20 years ago that they couldn’t get cut. They were sending me songs they’d just written within the last four or five years that nobody cut because that’s not what they’re looking for. So they sent them to me. Man, I had thousands of songs. Of course, I had some I had in the can myself that I had written with Roger Springer years ago, and of course Jimmy Ritchey being the songwriter he is, and I even have one written by Jamey Johnson and several other guys that surprised me. Randy Houser is on a song too. So they’re still being written. It’s just they haven’t been recording them or they’ve been recording them, but nobody’s been playing them. But it just so happened that I’ve been doing this at a time when I think people are really wanting to hear that kind of music again, which I never quit doing in the first place.

A lot of other artists have quit doing it.

A lot of the younger artists want to do it, but they can’t because they have to do what’s selling. They’re in the music business, man, and it is a business. I understand it. Like, I had to record “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” not because I wanted to, but because my label wanted me to do it. If I didn’t do it they weren’t going to fool with me anymore. So, I wanted to stay on the label. Well, I cut the song, it went number one for four weeks, but it’s not me. That wasn’t a Mark Chesnutt song; it wasn’t a Mark Chesnutt record. That’s not what I do. I don’t go around doing remakes of pop hits. I’ve done remakes of country hits, but it’s time for me to do my own stuff again.