This morning on Music City Roots, it’s another morning of rockin’ tunes as we hear live sets from the likes of Shelf Dusters Union, A.J. Croce, Robbie Fulks, The Wood Brothers, and Poor Old Shine, with Jim Lauderdale on emcee duties.
About the artists:
Shelf Dusters Union are a collection of seasoned musicians and songwriters who love to Honky Tonk, Rock, and have all been gigging around the Midwest for more than 20 years.
From his debut as a jazz influenced blues-based artist to his evolution into a pop music iconoclast, singer-songwriter A.J. Croce has traveled a circuitous musical road. Now, with Twelve Tales, A.J. unveils his most ambitious recording project to date: A dozen new tracks recorded by legendary producers across a variety of American cities to be released one song each month, concluding with the complete full length CD release at the conclusion of 2013.
A.J.’s notable producers on Twelve Tales are Nashville’s illustrious “Cowboy” Jack Clement (Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis); New Orleans’ ambassador of funk Allen Toussaint (Dr. John, Paul McCartney); five-time Grammy winner Kevin Killen (Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel); and West Coast wunderkind Joe Henry (Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke).
The son of legendary singer-songwriter Jim Croce, A.J.’s career began with his first tour at age 18 opening up for B.B. King. In the span of a 20+-year career, A.J. has headlined festivals, concerts and major listening venues worldwide. He has been seen and heard on shows including Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Austin City Limits, Good Morning America, E!, and CNN, and he has shared the stage with an innumerable list of eclectic artists from Willie Nelson to Ray Charles, Béla Fleck to James Brown, Lyle Lovett to Morphine, and Rod Stewart to Ben Harper.
A loyal and appreciative audience and glowing press from Rolling Stone to the New York Times confirms the appeal of A.J’s genre-spanning music, with seven of his albums positioned in various radio charts including Top 40, AAA, Americana, College, and Jazz. An ivory-searing New Orleans piano style established an essential juju, but his exploratory pop gems revealed a spectrum of influences from art rock to Americana and beyond. Initially signed as a jazz artist, he subsequently charted with an Americana roots release and recorded two well-regarded releases for BMG Records that expanded his audience exponentially. His subsequent albums were released on various independent labels and his own label, Seedling Records, established in 2003 to release his own records and that of other artists.
Having spent the past three years in Nashville where a packed weekly schedule of co-writing sharpened his writing to a keen edge, A.J. says that back home in California his song craft took an instant turn. “I began writing for myself again,” he confirms. He has recently begun collaborating with the great Leon Russell (“A Song for You,” “This Masquerade”). “It’s a thrill and a little surreal to collaborate with Leon Russell. He’s been an influence and an inspiration as long as I can remember,” says A.J.
A dedicated family man, an adventurous artist and a confident creator; in this phase in his life and career, A.J. is focused less on expectations and more on instincts. “I generally want to do the stuff that makes me feel good,” he says. And like the blues greats who influenced him, A.J. Croce continues to create stellar music with longevity, authenticity and truth. Twelve Tales marks the latest milestone on his illustrious journey.
Robbie Fulks was born in York, Pennsylvania, and grew up in a half-dozen small towns in southeast Pennsylvania, the North Carolina Piedmont, and the Blue Ridge area of Virginia. He learned guitar from his dad, banjo from Earl Scruggs and John Hartford records, and fiddle (long since laid down in disgrace) on his own. He attended Columbia College in New York City in 1980 and dropped out in 1982 to focus on the Greenwich Village songwriter scene and other ill-advised pursuits.
In the mid-1980s he moved to Chicago and joined Greg Cahill’s Special Consensus Bluegrass Band, with whom he made one record (Hole in My Heart, Turquoise, 1989) and toured constantly. Since then he has gone on to create a multifarious career in music. He was a staff instructor in guitar and ensemble at Old Town School of Folk Music from 1984 to 1996. He worked on Nashville’s Music Row as a staff songwriter for Songwriters Ink (Joe Diffie, Tim McGraw, Ty Herndon) from 1993 to 1998. He has released 10 solo records on the Bloodshot, Geffen, Boondoggle (self), and Yep Roc labels, including the influential early alt-country records Country Love Songs (1996) and South Mouth (1997), and the widely acclaimed Georgia Hard (2005).
Radio: multiple appearances on WSM’s “Grand Ole Opry”; PRI’s “Whadd’ya Know”; NPR’s “Fresh Air,” “Mountain Stage,” and “World Cafe”; and the syndicated “Acoustic Cafe” and “Laura Ingraham Show.” TV: PBS’s Austin City Limits; NBC’s Today, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and 30 Rock. TV/film use of his music includes True Blood, My Name Is Earl, Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, Very Bad Things, and Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, and he has voiced or sung campaigns for Budweiser, McDonalds, Nickelodeon, and Applebees. From 2004 to 2008 he hosted an hourlong performance/ interview program for XM satellite radio, “Robbie’s Secret Country.” His compositions have been covered by Sam Bush, Kelly Hogan, Sally Timms, Rosie Flores, John Cowan, and Old 97s.
Robbie’s writing on music and life have appeared in GQ, Blender, the Chicago Reader, DaCapo Press’s Best Music Writing anthologies for 2001 and 2004, Amplified: Fiction from Leading Alt-Country, Indie Rock, Blues and Folk Musicians, and A Guitar and A Pen: Stories by Country Music’s Greatest Songwriters. As an instrumentalist, he has accompanied the Irish fiddle master Liz Carroll, the distinguished jazz violinist Jenny Scheinman, and the New Orleans pianist Dr. John. As a producer his credits include Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck (Sugar Hill, 2004) and Big Thinkin’ by Dallas Wayne (Hightone, 2000). Theatrical credits include “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” and Harry Chapin’s “Cottonpatch Gospel.” He served twice as judge for the Winfield National Flatpicking Guitar competition. He tours yearlong with various configurations and plays a weekly residency at the Hideout in Chicago.
His 11th record, Gone Away Backward, returns him to his bluegrass days and extends the boundaries of that tradition with old-time rambles and sparely orchestrated, acoustic reflections on love, the country life, the slings of time, and the struggles of common people.
Chris Wood had a scrap of a song — seemed like a chorus — scribbled in a notebook. He played it for his older brother, Oliver, who’d had a verse lying around he didn’t know what to do with. The two pieces, composed months apart, one in urban Atlanta and the other deep in the Catskills, dovetailed musically and lyrically: the verse about a man regretting chasing unattainable women, the high-lonesome, harmony-driven refrain of “When I die, I wanna be sent back to try, try again.”
“Neon Tombstone” wasn’t the first song that Chris, a founding member of jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, and Oliver, formerly Tinsley Ellis’s guitarist, had written — since 2006, they’d released three studio albums of Americana as The Wood Brothers. But it was the first one they’d written like this. “This is how a song is supposed to come together,” Oliver remembers thinking. “There was some chance, some randomness, to it.”
The experience marked a deeper level of collaboration for The Wood Brothers, a newfound fraternal synchronicity that’s captured on their latest album, The Muse. Within the first few bars of opener “Wastin’ My Mind,” which could pass for a lost cut from “The Last Waltz,” it’s clear the brothers are operating on a different plane than when we last heard them, on 2011’s Smoke Ring Halo. The components are similar: the dialed-in vocal harmonies, Oliver’s gritty acoustic guitar, Chris’s virtuosic upright bass, the warrior poet lyrics. But here there’s a glue — a yellowy carpenter’s glue, one imagines — holding it all together. The cohesion comes from the brothers having spent the last two years on the road with new full-time member Jano Rix, a drummer and ace-in-the-hole multi-instrumentalist, whereas they relied on session musician-friends to fill out previous albums. Jano’s additional harmonies give credence to the old trope that while two family members often harmonize preternaturally, it takes a third, non-related singer for the sound to really shine. And then there’s Jano’s work on his literally patented percussion instrument, the “shuitar,” a sh**ty acoustic guitar rigged up with tuna cans and other noisemakers, which, in his hands, becomes a veritable drum kit.
Starting with debut Ways Not To Lose, which NPR described as a collection of “gracious little songs [that] sound like they were born on a front porch during a beautiful sunset,” The Wood Brothers have made albums like you’re not supposed to anymore — recording mostly live, warts and all. But on The Muse, they double down on the production values of a purer time. Whereas Smoke Ring Halo was tracked with the musicians playing in separate rooms, here Chris, Oliver and Jano often circled around a tree of microphones, a couple feet apart from one another, and simply played the songs, with even the lead vocals being recorded on the spot. The arrangement is a producer’s nightmare — the different sounds bleed into the various mics, limiting mixing options and ruling out the possibility of fixing mistakes — but the band had two willing accomplices: legendary country musician Buddy Miller, who produced the album, and Nashville studio vet Mike Poole, who engineered.
“I just love how Mike and Buddy really embraced that idea,” Oliver says. Miller, an award-winning producer, guitarist and solo artist, has performed and recorded with icons such as Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Oliver continues, “I hear little things that are out of tune or imperfect, and I love it. That’s what I like about old recordings – they just did it, and that’s what happened.”
From early in their childhood in Boulder, CO., Chris and Oliver were steeped in American roots music. Their father, a molecular biologist, would perform classic songs at campfires and family gatherings, while their mother, a poet, instilled a passion for storytelling and turn of phrase. The brothers bonded over bluesmen like Jimmy Reed and Lightnin’ Hopkins, but their paths, musical and otherwise, would diverge. Oliver moved to Atlanta, where he played guitar in cover bands before earning a spot in Tinsley Ellis’s touring act. At Ellis’s behest, Oliver began to sing and then founded King Johnson, a hard-touring group that would release six albums of blues-inflected R&B, funk and country over the next 12 years. Chris, meanwhile, studied jazz bass at the New England Conservatory of Music, moved to New York City and, in the early ‘90s, formed Medeski Martin & Wood, which over the next two decades would become a cornerstone of contemporary jazz and abstract music.
After pursuing separate musical careers for some 15 years, the brothers performed together at a show in North Carolina: Oliver sat in with MM&W following King Johnson’s opening set. “I realized we should be playing music together,” Chris recalls. Soon after, the pair recorded a batch of Oliver’s songs, channeling the shared musical heroes of their youth while seizing on their own individual strengths — Oliver’s classic songwriting, Chris’s forward-thinking musicianship. A demo landed them a record deal with Blue Note, who released Ways Not To Lose in 2006. Follow-up Loaded came in 2008; after covers EP Up Above My Head the next year, the band moved to Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Artists for Smoke Ring Halo and then 2012’s Live, Volume One: Sky High and Live, Volume Two: Nail and Tooth.
On The Muse, following the opening one-two of “Wastin’ My Mind” and “Neon Tombstone,” the album shuffles between bluesy, classic country and swampy funk, mining the brothers’ timeless influences (Robert Johnson, Willie Nelson, Charles Mingus) while sounding fresh enough to win over fans of today’s mainstream roots-music acts (The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons). The title track shows Oliver’s songwriting at its most tender and autobiographical to date, as he sings of his “finest work yet” — his newborn child — in his endearingly offbeat voice, which The New York Times calls “gripping.” Chris takes the vocal lead on “Sweet Maria” and “Losin’,” and capably so, while on his standup bass, he’s often playful, even rascally, imbuing the songs with humor with his warm, unpredictable notes. Jano, when not banging on his shuitar, adds refreshing flourishes of piano and melodica.
The Muse marks another milestone for The Wood Brothers: it’s the first full-length they’ve recorded at Southern Ground Studios in Nashville. In the way that Manhattan becomes its own character in an old Woody Allen movie, the live room at Southern Ground plays a key role on the album, making its warm presence felt throughout. (There’s even a little hiss from the analog tape machine.) The choice of location was practical, given Nashville’s rich history and network of musicians, but also symbolic: The Wood Brothers are now officially a Nashville-based band, with Oliver having relocated in 2012, and Chris recently following. It’s the first time the brothers have lived in the same city since they left their parents’ nest; both are eager, along with Nashville local Jano, to plumb the sense of collaboration they tapped into during the fateful “Neon Tombstone” writing session. As Oliver says of The Muse, “This is the first record that really feels like a band record. It’s taken years for us to really feel like we can collaborate, and I think this is the pinnacle of it so far.”
From their handpainted CD cases wrought from cereal boxes to their thoughtful arrangements, Poor Old Shine, an alt-Americana band from rural Connecticut, is about honesty and handcrafted creativity. They travel with an assortment of instruments including guitars, banjos, pump organ, mandolin, string bass, musical saw, washboard, and a yard-sale-scrap-metal drum set. It’s old songs with a new feel, banjos with paint peeled, shoes with holes and treadless soles, and music that is real.
Poor Old Shine features Chris Freeman (banjo), Max Shakun (guitar, pump organ), Antonio Alcorn (mandolin, banjo), and Harrison Goodale (bass). The band grew out of late night jam sessions at the University of Connecticut’s Folk Music Society. On December 13, 2010, through a series of misunderstandings, a group of folk music club participants was accidentally booked for a show at Toad’s Place (New Haven, CT), before any of them was aware they were in a band. And thus Poor Old Shine was born. Since then, they have played to sellout crowds at some of the best venues in New England, including Infinity Music Hall (Norfolk, CT), The Iron Horse (Northampton, MA), Club Passim (Boston, MA), Rockwood Music Hall (New York, NY), and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (Washington, DC). In the summer of 2012 Poor Old Shine appeared at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival (Hillsdale, NY), and in September traveled to California to perform at the National Heirloom Festival in Santa Rosa, CA.