A Conversation with Kinky Friedman
Mike Ragogna: Kinky, apparently, Texas still is resisting the legalization of marijuana while you're a pretty strong proponent. How are you feeling after the election results?
Kinky Friedman: I think it's something. Had I been elected, I probably could've really expedited. We certainly should, I mean, having arguably the best cancer hospital in the world, M.D. Anderson in Houston but no medicinal marijuana program is really not common sense. Also we've been spending a lot of time making criminals out of people who aren't really criminals. And Texas is doing a lot of other things that don't make sense, like not having gambling when all the heathen States around us do. [laughs] We're just hemorrhaging money every day and we're building roads and schools in Louisiana and Oklahoma and New Mexico.
MR: Is the resistance purely political?
KF: On pot? Yeah, it's just ignorance. Colorado is a shining example with whatever mistakes they may make it's a financial pleasure for the state, and it's a spiritual pleasure. They've become sort of a healing place. If you're a family with an autistic child you appreciate a place like Colorado. Not only that but I was talking about Colorado being a financial pleasure, if Texas were to legalize you could multiply their huge windfall by about seven hundred and ninety times. You'd see the revenue that Texas could have. That's actually a way to fund education, and that's exactly what Colorado does, they fund healthcare and education. The whole thing makes sense, not to mention the fact that it would effectively castrate the Mexican drug cartels and the people of Texas would become the new cartel.
MR: What do you think the fear is from?
KF: If I knew that I probably would've been elected. It's also possible that I'm such a visionary that I'm unelectable.
MR: [laughs] Might be!
KF: And sadly, the democrats of Texas have been losing for so long and so badly and so completely, so comprehensively, I like to say for about twenty-two or twenty-four years now at every level of state government that they don't even have a voice there. So the Democratic party did me in. A handful of people forced this. I campaigned in a concerted way, complete with emails and robocalls and that's the party that I was running with. I've never heard of the State Chairman of the party and one of the candidates running ganging up on another candidate. I thought that's what a primary was for. In fact, I'm sure I was right that the purpose of a primary is for the people to decide who they want to represent them against the other party.
MR: Maybe they just had a poor strategy.
KF: But wait, Mike, if you and I are fellow Democrats and you're running for sheriff and I'm running for mayor, I should not be emailing people not to vote for Mike in his race. I'm not running against you, we're on the same ticket. I understand their message, which is, "Kinky's not serious, don't vote for him." Now they've got a serious slate of candidates that are walking right into the apocalypse.
MR: But isn't it also because democrats are basically unelectable in Texas at this point?
KF: Well, yeah, most of them are unelectable. I would not have been. In November I would've been a real threat because I'd say I have a very strong base amongst independents and libertarians, and about an equal number of republicans as democrats. But anyway, politics' loss has been literature's gain, and I'm back to writing again for the first time in about eight years. I'm doing The Victory Tour on the East Coast. This is an interesting thing, Mike, it's a solo type of thing. I started doing it with this Bipolar Tour business that I did in Europe last year. A Bipolar Tour is an idea that Willie Nelson gave me, which is very practical. You never take a night off. You push yourself until you're running on pure adrenaline. I did thirty-four shows consecutively in seven different countries.
MR: Kinky, I get the sarcasm, but with The Victory Tour, what are you feeling victorious about?
KF: That's a very good question. I did not want to call this The Victory Tour. We're feeling liberated. Liberated from politics. The people have spoken, the bastards. Texas will have to deal with their situation, this would've been a win for the Texas Democrats. They could've had a win and now they're not going to.
MR: Well, Texas and democrats don't seem to get along right now. Ann Richards seems to be the last great Texas Democrat on the national scene.
KF: Nope, Ann Richards represents a kind of Democrat that was prominent in Texas, very influential. Ann is one of the last ones, yeah, but Barbara Jordan was one, Molly Ivins was certainly one, Sam Rayburn was another incorruptible guy, Speaker of the House for thirty-nine years. A jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one. That's what I told the Democrats and they did not respond to therapy. Actually, this was not the Democrats, this was the primary. In the primary, Rick Perry always beats Jesus Christ.
MR: Why is that?
KF: There was one percent of the people voting in this runoff and we lost the thing, which is just fine. That does not give the Independents, Libertarians and Republicans the chance to have crossed over, which they would have done in November, which is fine. That's God telling me, "All right, stay out of politics." And remember, there was a guy in the State Department in Pakistan that contacted me when I lost the race for governor in 2006 and he said, "Don't feel bad, the crowd always picks Barabas." That's a biblical reference, the crowd always says, "Free Barabas, kill Jesus." I think Willie Nelson is probably correct again when he says, "If you fail at something long enough, you become a legend."
MR: But beyond politics, you have a lot of victories, Kinky.
KF: Well, I am hard at work on this book, Mike. I'm on page one hundred and thirteen using the last typewriter in Texas. It's a mystery, and I think the Kinkster was killed in the last one, which was ten years ago, Ten Little New Yorkers. This is kind of bringing him back, and it's working out really well. It's called The Hardboiled Computer. As you may know, I don't have a computer, I don't have internet or email, I can't text or any of that stuff. People that I look up to for wisdom and advice who are older than me, like Willie Nelson and Don Imus and, well, everybody is telling me it's not cool not to have it, it's not a thing that I should be proud of, that I should learn this s**t. Actually, there's one other person I know that does not have any of these technological things and that's Billy Bob Thornton. But I don't know, is Willie right?
MR: Kinky, I'll get you a computer, dude.
KF: Yeah, but I'm a very good typist, and The Hardboiled Computer is really coming along very well. I think it's got it. I'm writing in a fever. It feels very good. I don't have any other obligations, I don't have a wife and kids, I don't have a job, really.
MR: That's not what I hear. You're also protecting animals.
KF: Yeah, I've got that, I am a defender of the strays. The Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch is doing really well. That's doing great.
MR: You have four dogs and two feral cats, but do you have any others living on your property?
KF: Yeah, three donkeys. Mine is Little Jewford, he's a small Bethlehem donkey, he's got a cross on his back. He's named after my friend Little Jewford who played in the band for many, many years. As I point out to the audience he's a jew and he drives a Ford. Little Jewford.
MR: [laughs] The band member or the donkey?
KF: That's both of them. Jewford also runs a cigar company. The cigar company is doing well. I think KinkyFriedman.com has his stuff on cigars and the tequila, which is doing very well in Texas. We've just got to meet somebody with a billion dollars who wants to expand it nationally, I guess. But it's doing so well in Texas that we could probably just keep doing that. That's Man In Black Tequila. It's the best Mexican mouthwash you ever gargled. It is great. We like to say that Man In Black Tequila is not your father's tequila, it's your grandfather's gardener's tequila. We salute Johnny Cash and Zorro and Paladin.
MR: That's awesome. What's going on in the musical front?
KF: I was going to tell you guy, as well as The Victory tour, which there's no point in not having--what are you going to do, sit here and grouse about losing? Big deal. It tests a man more to lose than to win. Anybody can be a gladhead poiltician. So we're doing this victory tour beginning at the end of this month, but in mid January I'm doing a tour of Australia in a way that I haven't done before, it's three shows in Sidney at the same venue, the Vanguard, and two shows the following weekend in Melbourne at the Caravan club. That one is called the Kinky Friedman, The Misunderstood Genius Tour. I think that is the kind of person that reads Churchill, for one thing. I've been reading Churchill excessively over the past few years. I think everyone who really gets into Churchill considers themself to be a misunderstood genius. Churchill certainly did.
MR: But he was a genius. I think everybody knew it, no?
KF: Oh, I don't think everybody knew it. I think everybody threw him out on his ass. The man who saved their country at the time had every right to feel totally rejected by the people. To this day, Mike, find yourself a British intellectual and he won't hesitate to twist the knife into Churchill even though he is the man who saved their country. There's no question about it.
MR: He's also probably the most revered Brit in America.
KF: He should be, and he should be a shining example of what the American politician is not today. The American politician and elected official is zero when it comes to inspirational value. I can think of a few living politicians I respect, but one that inspires? No. Those are all dead. Also the idea that humor can sometimes be profound and has a place in politics, that is gone. Will Rogers wouldn't make it today. They would just see one dimension of him. There's no question about it, there's no place for a guy like Will Rogers. Of course a lot of these people like Winston Churchill were extremely funny. Ann Richards was funny, JFK had a great sense of humor. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton does and Dubya do. You're talking to the guy who slept at the White House under two presidents, I like to say. Those guys are both very funny and kind of edgy. You might suspect that Bill would be that way, but George is, too. Most people have only seen him on television which is just a deadly medium for most of us. It's like having to defend yourself in a courtroom. If you're a totally inexperienced person who hasn't been in there and you're innocent, you're going to look very awkward and you're going to look guilty.
MR: That's an interesting way to put that.
KF: You've never met Dubya, you haven't been with him in humorous times, but he's a jokester. Not to mention he's a pretty damn good artist. I've seen some of his work, have you seen any of that stuff?
MR: I've seen a little on talk shows. Not a fan of the artwork or the man though, sorry.
KF: He's not without talent, as much as Democrats may hate to give him that.
MR: Yeah, including this Democrat. And there are a lot of Republicans who are not too thrilled with his eight years.
KF: Oh, time is going his way, believe me. I think Dubya's only guilty of one thing, and it's not even clear at this point, whether the whole Iraq thing was a mistake or not. It certainly can't be laid at his feet, that's an Obama problem right there.
MR: Well, no, Obama has to take care of it now, cleaning up Dubya and his cronies' mess. Don't get me started, but okay, he didn't create the situation we're in right now.
KF: None of us create a f**king thing in this world. The only ones who create anything are the ones who are completely miserable, and that's what I strive for. I know what I'm talking about here. The artist's friend is misery, and if you don't have it, you are never going to do anything great, Mike. If you tell me you're going to sit down and paint your masterpiece, or you're going to go and write the great American novel, you'll never accomplish that. You can't, because you have to do it accidentally. It has to be done by a guy like Van Gogh who was just trying to pay the rent for his prostitute girlfriend and her three year-old kid, who was starving to death and disowned by his own family and couldn't sell any of his work. There must have been a Justin Bieber back then, don't you think, who was successful and selling his work for a lot of money, and we don't even know the name! We don't even know the name of that successful person but we do know Van Gogh.
MR: I definitely agree with that, and I also agree with you that they don't make Brits like Churchill anymore.
KF: I've suggested limiting elected officials to two terms: One in office and one in prison. I think that would go a way toward helping out the problem. But the problem is that the people who really have the decency and the talent and the concern, the people like JFK are gone. I know this because I was in the Peace Corps, I wasn't in the earliest group of ragtag volunteers standing out there on the White House lawn and JFK pointed at them and he said, "You are important people." We all know exactly what he meant. There are guys who are the governors of state who are doctors or lawyers or whatever the hell they are who think they're important. Yeah, it is important to be Barry Manilow or to be Justin Bieber, it's important to a record company or to a publisher or to the fan base or whatever the hell, but it's not significant. That is not the same as being Barabara Jordan. And "significant" I would also extend to people like Gram Parsons or Warren Zevon or Levon Helm in the field of music, people that I think are significant. There's a difference there.
MR: Kinky, here's a non-sequitur for you. What advice do you have for new artists?
KF: Well, for one thing I'm going totally f**king deaf, which is a good thing. I only care about two things, and they are Libya and Charlie Sheen. Also, if you're going deaf and you're imaginative, you can think of more interesting things for people to say rather than what they're really saying. But what I mean to say is I missed last part of what you said. Giving young people advice?
MR: [laughs] Yes, Kinky. What advice do you have for new artists?
KF: Oh, find what you like and let it kill you. That's excellent advice for any young person today. There's not a lot of people like me who can wander in the raw poetry of time and do these concerts in Australia and this thing I'm doing on the east coast this month. On my birthday, November first, I'm playing at the Jewish community center in Denver, that's going to be great. This is all fun. Enjoy yourself. As Frank Sinatra said, "Live a little."
MR: What are some other things you want to do or work on?
KF: I think without wasting my time in the fucking vineyards of politics I'm freed up to do a lot of other things. Let us see, I wanted to tell you one little story, Mike. This is something that I've incorporated into the show that I do. It's something that happened in 1996, the year I published God Bless John Wayne. The following year, I went to South Africa. I haven't talked about this until fairly recently, although it's really well documented. I don't know if you're familiar with my oeuvre, musically.
MR: I am!
KF: Then you would know that Joseph Heller's favorite song of all songs was "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore." Bill Clinton's favorite Kinky song was always "Waitress, Please, Waitress, Come Sit On My Facebook." I've changed it to Facebook. I'm tweaking things like Bob Dylan does with "Maggie's Farm," he changes slightly the same f**king song for fifty-five years. But here is a story, and I'll make this brief, I'll bring it in in one and a half minutes. Nineteen-ninety-six was when that came out. The following year, I did a tour of South Africa. I was doing a national talk show with a guy named Dali Tambo. Dali Tambo's father was Oliver Tambo who was Mandela's mentor. Oliver Tambo died while Mandela was in prison on Robben Island. Anyway, I'm on this show and there's another guy on the show called Tokyo Sexwale. Tokyo says, "Kinky, I want to talk to you during the next break." I already knew who he was because the host Dali Tambo was talking about him, saying that Tokyo Sexwale was Mandela's right hand man and has been or like forty years, and also spent seventeen years on Robben Island with Mandela.
So I talk to him during the break and Tokyo says, "You know, Mandela is a big fan of yours." I said, "You're kidding, man, which book?" He said, "It's not the books at all, it's the music. I was in the sell next to Mandela the whole seventeen years, so I know what I'm talking about. We could not get current music, so we had to have stuff smuggled in." I also have met Helen Suzman, and she was the only woman in the South African parliament during the entire apartheid movement. She was also the only jew. She was also the only person from the government who ever visited Mandela in prison, and she visited him on a fairly regular basis. I believe she smuggled my first tape casette from 1973, Sold American, in to Mandela. Now, Tokyo says, further that just about every night for months and months and months Mandela would play this one song, "Ride 'Em Jew Boy." I'm telling you something, Mike, there is no fucking way Tokyo would know this unless it's true, and Helen Suzman later came to a book signing of mine in San Antonio, Texas. She's a charmer, she wrote me a little note saying, "From a little South African Jewgirl." She's quite famous--not just famous, she's very revered in South Africa, as she should be.
I read Mandela's book Long Walk To Freedom some time ago, when I was over there. Remember, he was a lawyer but he could not get into a law firm because he was black. No white law firm would take him. Finally the Jewish law firm took him. These Jewish guys were radicals. They were just about communists, might have been, very left. But they loved Mandela and they told him, "All you've got to do, Nelson, is stay out of politics, don't be a troublemaker, and you'll be the most famous and successful black lawyer in the entire nation. You'll be a huge success. That's all you need to do," and of course he couldn't do it. His little five year old girl hugged him one night and said, "Daddy, why are you always gone?" and Mandela told her, "Because there's millions of little boys and girls just like you all over this country and I've got to look out for them, too." That was his answer, which is not what a yuppie would tell his kid, probably. What struck me is when you look at the song Heller liked, which I think is an important song, and of course Clinton picked a predictable one, I think Mandela missed his last group of friends and peers, the lawyers in that Jewish law firm, and I think that's part of why he liked that song, beyond its obvious universal appeal. I would just say that this story sounds fantastical, and I've never really talked about it until this year. I don't know why, but now I've realized what it means. It means that in 1973 when I made this record in Nashville I was wondering, "Will the disc jockeys play this? What cuts will they play? What could be a hit here?" I had no idea then that Nelson Mandla would be listening to this song in a prison sell on Robben Island. That's about as far into the firmament as you can go. That's like Anne Frank having pictures of American cowboy stars on the walls of the secret annex.
MR: Wow. So it still effects you deeply.
KF: Oh, no question. And he picked the right song. A lot of people laugh about if they don't know it. Willie has recorded the song, I guess you can get it on Amazon on the Pearls In The Snow album, he's got a great version of it, and we have one out too now, on a CD called Lost And Found, a tape from 1971 that has a recording of "Ride Em Jewboy." Anyway, I've got to tell you, it's just remarkable. it's as far fetched as you can possible get. And Tokyo told me something else which I know is true, Helen Suzman and Dali Tambo would back it up, Tokyo said I was not Mandela's number one favorite artist, though, he said I was probably in second place and that his favorite was always Dolly Parton. Do you realize, I bet Dolly Parton doesn't even know that?
MR: She might now.
KF: She should. You know the old bulls**t about, "You never know who you're going to reach if you're an artist," this is about as far as you can take it. What a cosmic compliment the thing really was. Would I rather have about four hundred millskies in the bank? Probably, but this is a beautiful thying. I never met Mandela but I know about this guy and I am humbled by this experience. I visited Robben Island, before I knew this story. Mandela belongs to that rare fraternity; without Ghandi I don't think there would've been Nelson Mandela or a Martin Luther King. Most of us can't attain that ethereal fraternity of Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Mandela. Those are what civil rights leaders really are. Those are leaders.
MR: Beautiful. What an achievement for you as well. You could ask a lot of artists, would they trade in their fame and fortune for the moment you just described, and I bet a lot of them would.
KF: Yeah, honest to God, these prison guards were Nazis. They pissed on Mandela, they tried to kill him in the quarries there working him to death and he turned them. Just like Jesus. By the time he was released, the night of the election the prison guards are all watching this at the little pub they go to, cheering, "Viva Mandela." He had them. It cost him his life, I think he was in prison for thirty one of his ninety years. I think there is something to the fact that Mozart was buried in a pauper's grave. A guy who was that famous, it tell us something. F**k. But you're quite right, I should embrace this and I do. I've heard of this many times. Johnny Gimble, the fiddle player, told his mother, "Mommy, when I grow up I want to be a musician," and his mother said, "Make up your mind, son, because you can't do both."
MR: The classic line. So I don't want to take too much more of your time...
KF: ...that oughta be a wrap, huh? I recommend everybody go to https://www.KinkyFriedman.com and that'll tell them the tour dates. How is the Misunderstood Genius Tour wearing with you? It's good, right?
MR: Absolutely! I'll now have to refresh myself on Churchill. His one-liners are terrific.
KF: Here's a line of Churchill's: "History, with it's flickering lamp, stumbles down the trail to the past." That's something he told parliament one day. And one piece of wisdom I really got out Churchill that has nothing to do with this piece itself, but young people and old people ought to know this: Somewhere in the thousands of pages I've read by and about him, he was talking about the battle of El Alamein in World War II, which he called "The Hinge Of Fate." He says it was the first battle that the Brits really won. They beat Rommel, who was the best general in the war, with Monty--Montgomery. This happened halfway through the war and they had lost every other battle, from France to Singapore to Dunkirk to Africa, they had lost them all. Churchill was reflecting on that and said, "I wasn't a dictator, parliament could've given me a vote of no confidence at any time, or the voters could have voted me out," he was reflecting on what would have happened if he had been thrown out before El Alamein. "If it had happened a few months or a few weeks before El Alamein, then the new guy, whoever he was, would've been considered a genius." After El Alamein the Brits never lost again. Churchill was the guy who architected the war, and he would've gone down in history as a complete loser who couldn't win anything and the new guy would've been the genius who won everything. He says, "All of this shows how much luck there is in human affairs and how little we should worry about doing anything except for our best."
MR: That's a beautiful story.
KF: Mike, do you ever make it down to Texas?
MR: For Austin City Limits and SXSW every once in a while.
KF: We call Austin "Dallas with Guitars." If you get a chance, come out to the Rescue Ranch. How many dogs do you want?
MR: Uh... [laughs]
KF: Go to https://www.UtopiaRescue.com if any animal lovers out there are interested.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Billy Joe Shaver
Mike Ragogna: You've got a brand new album titled Long In The Tooth. Billy Joe, is that how you think of yourself?
Billy Joe Shaver: [laughs] Well, approaching it, yeah.
MR: How about with regards to your storytelling style of songwriting?
BJS: Oh, no, I don't get that way. It's just a thing about horses and people, too, their gums recede as they get older. They get long in the tooth. I use it as a symbol that I'm a little bit wiser now, but as for horses, it don't help them much. A Smooth Mouse is a horse over eight years old, their teeth indentations smooth out. So any horse you check his mouth out and he's got smooth teeth he could either be eight or over, or even twenty years old, you never know. Sometimes you can't tell by looking at a horse.
MR: You seem pretty familiar with horses, do you have a few of your own?
BJS: Oh yeah, yeah, I used to rodeo around. Well, I wasn't all that good at rodeo-ing, but I was a real cowboy for sure. Still a cowboy, even if I don't have any cattle or horses or anything.
MR: Billy Joe, you're respected by a lot of artists. Look at some of the guests you have on this album, you have Willie Nelson, Tony Joe White, and others. When you started out this album, was it kind of like "I'm gonna have some fun with my friends?"
BJS: No, that wasn't it, Ray Kennedy and Gary Nicholson did this album and as they went along they needed something additional. Leon Russel's an old, good friend of mine and so's Tony Joe, so they seemed obvious. Tony Joe really helped a lot on Long In The Tooth because he's got that swamp thing going. Everybody helped.
MR: Did you take any different approaches on this album from previous ones?
BJS: I'd been waiting on Ray and Gary to come clear because they do a lot of work. Gary was kind of loose but Ray wasn't. I've done albums with him before and I really wanted him because he's the best, I think, in Nashville. Anyway I waited and waited and waited, and this wasn't a high-budget album so we'd have to go in there when Ray would have a little time or Gary would have a little time. We did a lot of stuff outside the studio to prep for it so we wouldn't pick up so much time. At the same time we made sure it was high quality, just real high quality everything. I think we nailed it.
MR: Beyond the recording, I think there's always a high expectation of Billy Joe Shaver, especially in the songwriting.
BJS: Yeah, there is. I'm that way, too. I'm my worst critic. I always try to make a record better than the last one, and I found myself always trying to make mine better than the first one. Tramp On Your Street was great, I try to beat that. We'll just keep on hammering it. My writing is up there because it always stays the same. I don't know if you've heard any of my songs but they always stay the same.
MR: How did the original material come together for this one?
BJS: I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. A lot of it was written there in the studio. We needed a certain kind of song, we knew what it was, I already had something written. I wrote just about every word in most of the songs. They had to be finished at a certain time because we had to get in there and record them. I had a little help from Gary and Ray, a whole lot of help to tell you the truth. It all came together quickly because it had to. I had other songs, I had nearly five hundred songs. It was a labor of love and it was for the sake of the song, really.
MR: The song comes first for you, right?
BJS: Of course, that's where it all begins, really. For me, I'm a songwriter of course. I think I sang real good on this one, though.
MR: You sound great! When you sing songs you write, do things change, like maybe the words, because the performance element enters the mix?
BJS: No, I don't do that. I just keep hacking at it. There were some on there that I insisted on singing over and over and over. I believe in taking just one take. A lot of people don't, but Elvis did it that way. Sometimes he'd do twenty-six, twenty-seven passes at one. I don't do that many, but we did as much as I could stand. I think we got it as good as we could get it.
MR: Which musicians or artists interest you these days?
BJS: Well I've always listened to Bob Dylan, and I've always listened to Todd Snider, I like him real well. Jackson Taylor, this guy from down here in Texas, he's really great. He's a rough guy, he reminds me of me when I was young. You've probably never heard of him. My guitar player now, he's real good, his name's Jeremy Woodall. He hasn't done anything but be my guitar player, but he's great, he'll probably break loose pretty quick. They usually do. He's been with me about five years.
MR: Do you ever mentor these guys when they come and play with you? Teach them a little thing here or there?
BJS: I stay out of the way of the musicians, though. I don't play that much. Right now I need a new shoulder and I just got a new knee April 22nd and it ain't quite well yet. I've got stints, I had a heart attack, I've got screws in my shoulders. You could junk me and get more than what I'm worth. I don't play much, it's more like a three-piece band with me singing. I can concentrate on my singing real hard and make sure that I've got all my words correct and that way people can hear me. They come to hear the words anyway, and the music's really great. I've got a great band.
MR: Billy Joe, what advice do you have for new artists?
BJS: The main thing is to make up your mind. If you're going to do it, do it, and if you're just going to halfway do it don't even try. This is a very demanding thing. I stay simple, I didn't get a whole lot of education, so most of it's just coming from what I gathered up. If you stay honest we've all got in common that we're all different. If you stay real deadly honest and write about some very interesting things then you'll be a good one. A lot of people just don't like to get honest but it's the cheapest psychiatrist there is. I think that's the way to look at it.
MR: That's a great line, Billy Joe.
BJS: I still need one, too.
MR: [laughs] We all do. Sometimes a country hit sounds like pop, sometimes it sounds like mountain music, sometimes it's Americana. Doesn't it seem like the genre of country keeps getting bigger and differently defined?
BJS: Yeah, I'm glad.
MR: So considering that, what would you classify your music as?
BJS: Heinz 57, I guess.
MR: [laughs] Since you listen to Bob Dylan and Todd Snider, do you consider yourself somewhat near them creatively?
BJS: No, I'm more simple. I fit in between those two, but I'm the piece in a puzzle that you can't find. I've always been different, but the only reason I'm different is because I'm deadly honest. Everybody else is that way, Dylan and Todd and all that bunch. That's the way it comes out. It'll be different. We really worked hard on getting the right songs in that album. Each one of them, hopefully, is a little bit different than all the others. Some of them remarkably so. That's what I like, that's entertainment, I think.
MR: What was the first one you wrote for the album?
BJS: "I'll Love You As Much As I Can."
MR: Does that first song you write usually set the energy or feel for the rest of the recording process?
BJS: I try to get as far away from it as I can. I've told many, I guess I was born to be a songwriter, I'm real lucky God blessed me with his talent, and I've done the best I can with it.
MR: When you're writing a song that kicks off a project, is that what motivates you to write the other songs?
BJS: The best time to write a great song is right after you write a great song. Your energy is up, your confidence is up, your pencil is sharp. That's the time to keep writing 'til you fall out.
MR: You mentioned that you have some challenges physically right now, how is that affecting your touring?
BJS: I've been laid up for a while. I went and played this gig the other night, I was supposed to do ninety minutes but I didn't do more than an hour before I fell out. I about passed out. It was so hot, I was wringing wet with sweat, but the people were real nice, they let me up on it. It was a packed house and nobody was mad or anything. They saw that I was trying to do it a little too early, this knee's really hurting me a lot. I'm approaching seventy-five, I'll be seventy five on August sixteenth. I believe that's a lot of the reason why it's taken me a while to heal.
MR: What's next for Billy Joe Shaver?
BJS: I look to bop till I drop. That's what I want to do. I want to go out on the road. A guy like Merle Haggard said, "I'd rather rot away on the road like an old high-line pole than be sitting around the house." I love to travel and I couldn't afford to do it if it wasn't for this.
MR: I hope you heal well enough to get back out there the way you want to.
BJS: Oh, I'll make it. This last time was hard, I'm actually sending their money back. They felt right about giving it but I don't feel right about taking it, so I decided I'll just send them back the money. I paid my boys of course.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Mark Erelli
Mike Ragogna: Mark, your new album Milltowns evokes the musical spirit of your hero, Bill Morrissey. What initially drew you to his music?
Mark Erelli: I first heard Bill on the radio here in Boston when I was in high school. I liked his work, and that of a lot of the other area singer/songwriters, but like a lot of young men I thought that the real deal was waiting out West. I somehow got it in my mind that the hardcore troubadours all came from Texas, where the highways were longer and the skies were bigger. I was a big fan of a lot of those Texas guys, like Robert Earl Keen. I ordered a record of his while I was in college and in the liner notes there was a picture of him wearing a Bill Morrissey t-shirt! From that moment on, I realized that New England was valid territory for American roots music. And all things I saw everyday--old milltowns, meandering rivers, the parade of seasons, regional history--it all became material I could use in my own songs.
MR: How did you decide on what songs to record?
ME: If I had known that I was embarking on a solo tribute record to Bill Morrissey when I started this project, all the artistic choices would have been more daunting. As luck would have it, I was just trying to hone my recording skills in my home studio one day and needed a song to record. I happened to have a stack of Bill's lyrics on a nearby music stand, and I picked one out and tracked it. It felt so good that I did another, and then 10 more, plus one of my own. Once I lived with these recordings awhile and realized that I was going to make this record for Bill, I had to decide whether to do another session and record some more songs, including some of his better known material. I opted not to do that, as my initial impulses were just to sing songs I connected with for various personal reasons--some I remembered where I was the first time I'd heard them--and I thought it was best to hew closer to that very personal, smaller initial spark of inspiration.
MR: Were there any you really loved but couldn't record because they were so distinctly "Bill Morrissey"?
ME: One song I loved but always avoided covering was "Birches," which ironically now is the lead-off track of the album and I play it nearly every show. The last time I saw Bill, we did a gig together up in Maine. I asked him if I could back him up on some songs, and suggested "Birches." He told me that he couldn't really do it justice anymore but that he'd heard I had covered a few times and suggested that I should sing it in my set. I remember feeling very torn. On one hand, I was so incredibly honored. On the other hand, it felt like he was passing some mantle to me that I wasn't sure I wanted, or was ready, to assume. But having had that experience, once I realized I was making this record I didn't feel like there wasn't anything I couldn't do. It was like Bill had already given me his blessing to sing these songs.
MR: Which songs are you most connected to either from feeling a deep personal connection or because they changed you in some way?
ME: For all the reasons I explained earlier, "Birches" was always one of my favorite songs, one that showed me just how much a writer could accomplish with so few words. I lead a very different life than many of the characters in Bill's songs, but I think sad songs help impart a very valuable evolutionary lesson. Much in the way that hunting, scary movies or roller coasters help us engage with elemental fears, I think sad songs help us engage with the darkness inside us all that can sometimes drag us down, and teach us that we can survive or at least endure it. Bill's songs did that for me.
MR: How did this collection of songs come together in the studio? What was your intended approach and did it stay close to your vision or did it evolve into something different or unexpected?
ME: Each song started as a live acoustic guitar and vocal performance, performed in my basement. As I listened back to the initial tracks, sometimes I'd hear parts from the original version that I wanted to reproduce. Sometimes I heard those parts re-contextualized, like a fiddle part translated onto a different instrument. Other times, I would hear arrangement ideas that took a song in a whole different direction than the original version. I treated Bill's whole catalog with an attitude I came to regard as "reverent reinvention." I have great respect for his take on things--I love his records--but I never let that limit me if I felt moved to do something else. Regardless of the direction I took, each choice came to me organically and I never felt at a loss for ideas. I'd hear a part, an instrument or a countermelody, I'd go down and record it, listen back and it always felt right.
MR: Did recording this project give you any further insights into Bill and his music that you might not previously have had?
ME: Bill's voice, which I love, was not necessarily a thing of beauty. It was very stark and unadorned and for some it could be an acquired taste in the manner of Tom Waits or Dylan, who I also think are amazing singers with great voices. But to hear Bill sing his songs you don't always get a sense for the beautiful melodies he built into them. My voice is more conventionally melodic than his, and I had fun highlighting that aspect of the material.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
ME: I guess I would say that if you meet someone who seems certain about where the music business is going and how to conduct your business, than you just want to smile and nod at and then walk away from them as soon as possible. Nobody has any fucking clue where this is all going. The old paradigm has fallen, has been out of commission for some time. It's possible that it won't ever be replaced by another ascendant model, but rather by endless variations on a theme, each tailored to fit a specific artist's needs. This kind of a la carte diversity sounds great on the surface, but in reality, everyone is stressed out and busy and doesn't necessarily have time to figure out how to connect in 100 different ways with as many different artists. All I can say is try to do great work, not good work, but truly great work, and keep an open mind. It's going to be harder, and take longer, than you thought to succeed, and even if you do, it may not look anything like you thought it would. You have to be flexible enough to recognize that if it happens, and then run with it.
MR: Would you liked to have lived Bill Morrissey's life if the cosmos allowed?
ME: No! I certainly would have liked to have written "Birches" or "These Cold Fingers," but not if it meant I'd have to die alone in a motel room in Georgia after a gig. I don't claim to know exactly what demons Bill wrestled with--all that s**t is equivocal. What I know is that he left a lot of great songs behind, and his art is unequivocal and eternal. I'd be honored to leave the same sort of musical legacy behind when I go. But I have a beautiful wife and two healthy, handsome boys and I wouldn't trade my life for Bill's, or anyone else's.