A Conversation with Stuart Duncan of The Goat Rodeo
Mike Ragogna: Hey, Stuart Duncan of The Goat Rodeo, how are you?
Stuart Duncan: Doing great, Mike. How are you?
MR: Doing very well, sir. OK, getting right into The Goat Rodeo Sessions album, can you tell give us a little insight into one of its songs, perhaps, "Where's My Bow?"
SD: That song started as a little mandolin riff that I came up with a couple of years ago. I had been working on a solo project, which I'm still working on, and I was leaning toward making a tune out of it for myself. During the first day of writing for Goat Rodeo, before Chris arrived, I was at Edgar Meyer's home, and he started out by asking me what music I already had. I had kind of hoped he'd start off with his stuff and then ask me, but he didn't (laughs). I had to have something for him, and that was the only thing bouncing around in my head. I, of course, didn't have my mandolin with me, so I just played the riff on the fiddle, and that's the "A" part that you hear after the intro. When it gets into the tempo, that's the riff that I'm referring to. Later, we turned the song inside out and started the second part on the offbeat, then wrote three sections after that. It was an ongoing writing process that took a couple of weeks. It turns out the song lent itself well to trades, and we needed a song to feature Chris' fiddling on -- not a lot of people know that Chris Thile plays fiddle as well as he does. At all, for that matter. So, anyway, the song wound up having no mandolin whatsoever even though that's the way it started.
MR: Yo-Yo Ma told me in a previous interview that he took to the group very much. He said he was the "Old Goat," so he named all of you "Kids."
SD: (laughs) Well, our age differences aren't quite that dramatic, but he's very kind.
MR: Now, you'll soon be going on tour as well as doing a special presentation in movie theaters all over the country, right?
SD: It is very uncharted territory for me to be broadcast on a huge movie screen nationwide. Usually, if I'm doing any sort of national performance, it's on little tiny screens in people's homes. (laughs) So, this is new. It's a cinecast from the House of Blues in Boston, Massachusetts. It airs on the 31st of January at 7:30pm ET in theaters all over the country. I believe that there are at least three or four theaters participating in larger cities all over the nation. This coming week, I'm going to fly up there to do some rehearsing so that we can make sure that all of our goats are in a row, as it were.
MR: (laughs) Nicely put. You'll also have Aoife O'Donovan as a featured vocalist, won't you?
SD: Yeah, that's very exciting. What are female goats called, anyway? Nannies?
MR: You've "goat" me (laughs). Are you ready to be this famous this fast?
SD: I'm pretty comfortable with my current level of fame (laughs). I can still walk through a public place without turning heads.
MR: So, let's get into your musician side. You've been recording for quite some time and worked with people like Mark Knopfler, Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss...
SD: ... I have been fortunate to have been surrounded by some very high caliber vocalists because that's what I love to do best -- to play behind singers and other musicians. I think of myself as a reactive player more than a soloist. So, this is kind of new ground for me, to be featured on a lot of these tunes as the lead and melody player. And, of course, having been involved in a lot of the writing process for this stuff with writers of Edgar and Chris' caliber is, at the same time, the most ambitious and wonderful thing I've ever been a part of.
MR: Do you imagine you all will continue working with each other on individual projects that you've got beyond this one?
SD: Well, the only thing I know for sure now is that Chris has my phone number (laughs). Although, oddly enough, one of the most ironic things about all this is when Chris originally called me to be a part of this project, it took me almost a week to call him back. I noticed that I had a missed call, then my voicemails filled up so I deleted all of them and kind of forgot about it. So he called me again. If I had known what he was calling about in the first place, I would have been all over that. It just happened to be one of those days when I had really bad phone etiquette.
MR: Stuart, there'll also be an EP or album that will come from the live cinecast?
SD: That's the plan. We're actually doing two shows there, even though they're only broadcasting one. Our hope is to edit the two shows together into a DVD. I mean, if one show goes well, great, but we'll have them both should we need to edit them together.
MR: The Goat Rodeo Sessions, to me, is an eclectic mix of a little bluegrass, country and I guess mainly classical music. How did you react when you heard the finished product of some of these songs?
SD: My sense was that it achieved what we had hoped to achieve -- make music that ploughs so many different lines that it's hard to define in any one category. For me, it's as far from bluegrass as I could possibly imagine with the exception of the two songs that are written to sound that way -- "Hill Justice" and "Where's My Bow?" I did notice the other day as I was listening to some Flatt & Scruggs that some of the riffs in "Where's My Bow?" sound similar to some of the things that Jim Shumate or Benny Sims or Paul Warren played in those songs. I have known some of their solos for most of my life.
MR: Let's talk a bit about your personal career as an artist. You won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in both 1994 and 1996.
SD: That sounds right (laughs).
MR: I would say that that, and the sheer amount of records and tours you've been on, makes you an authority on bluegrass music as a genre. How do you feel about the state of bluegrass these days?
SD: I'm what some people call a moldy fig. I really enjoy the vintage recordings of bluegrass music more than modern recordings. What I do enjoy is playing it. I seem to enjoy playing a progressive style of bluegrass more than I enjoy listening to it afterwards. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe I just like playing more than I like listening, period. Bluegrass has taken many turns as the decades go by -- much like country music. I even prefer listening to jazz from the '30s, '40s and '50s more than I like listening to modern jazz. Some of it has to do with how it's recorded, and some of it has to do with the commercial and pop influence that has affected a lot of modern music. It seems as though it's become more about selling records than it has about making music.
MR: Interesting. And do you have any thoughts on the state of country music?
SD: I think country goes in and out of being what people go to when they're tired of pop music. It's way more than that for me, but I think that's the consumer's perspective. Personally I think about 75 percent of what I hear on country radio just sounds like commercial noise. But the other 25 percent is the most fun, honest and some of my favorite music. It's bittersweet for me.
MR: You've played with some very iconic artists earlier in your career, artists like George Strait, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire and even Barbra Streisand. Wait... Barbra Streisand?
SD: It's true. It was only one song, but oddly enough, she recorded a song that I had already recorded with George Strait a few years before. It was kind of a country, jazz, lounge ballad, enough of a departure for George that it almost entered Barbra's musical world. I think it was her husband who found the song and suggested it for her record. So she called George's producer Tony Brown to produce it and asked if some of the musicians who recorded George's version could come out and help record this new album. That's how that all came about.
MR: Do you have any advice you'd like to share with newer artists?
SD: I'm still collecting advice of my own. What can I say? Don't do what I did, stay in school (laughs). Make sure there's enough rosin on your bow. Change your mandolin strings.
MR: Anything else?
SD: You know, they asked Kenny Baker if he could read music and he said, "It would hurt my fiddlin'" (laughs). Finding a balance between those two worlds has always been something that I've been seeking to maintain. Some people would say I've found it. I'm not gonna say that.
MR: Have you been working on any other project recently that we should be looking out for?
SD: Well, I recently did a project with Lauren Alaina, the recent runner-up of American Idol. I'm also currently working on a project that Vince Gill is doing for Ashley Monroe. She's a new artist that's worked in a couple of different genres in the last few years.
MR: What's your immediate future beyond Goat Rodeo?
SD: Goat Rodeo might be more of an ongoing thing than we originally anticipated, simply because the classical world tends to book up to two years in advance. That's opposed to the pop world that only books about six months in advance. So, the upcoming tour that we're looking at doing is not this summer, but next summer. It's hard to say what's going to happen between those two things. We may even do more recording.
MR: So I hear. In my recent interview with Yo-Yo Ma, he mentioned that he was really happy with this group and very much looking forward to hopping into the Winnebago.
SD: We've been trying to get him into a tour bus mentality, which apparently he's never done. We told him all of the great things and all of the horrible things about it.
MR: Is there anything else we should know about what's coming up with Goat Rodeo? Perhaps where can we get our posters and t-shirts? (Laughs.)
SD: I'm not sure about t-shirts, but I'm pretty sure you can get a "Goat Tote" with the purchase of the album from Sony. I'm not sure if they're still offering them or not. It also came to my attention that a lot of people don't know that the Barnes & Noble copy of the album has two bonus tracks on it. We'll be doing one of the songs entitled "Parallax" at the live concert. The other is called "Mostly Six Eight."
MR: Any last words of wisdom?
SD: My grandfather shared some wisdom that keeps holding true for me. He was a second chair French horn player in the '30s and '40s for Paramount. He said, "If you can't hear the fella next to you, you're playing too loud." That really rang true in this project for me, especially since we recorded this particular project live in a circle.
MR: What else you got?
SD: I once heard Tom Hartman quote from Edwin Meese: "Don't say anything unless it improves the silence."
MR: Stuart, thank you so much for joining us today. It was a great pleasure talking with you.
SD: Thanks for having me, Mike.
2. Quarter Chicken Dark
3. Helping Hand
4. Where's My Bow?
5. Here and Heaven
6. Franz And The Eagle
7. Less is Moi
8. Hill Justice
9. No One But You
11. Goat Rodeo
Transcribed by Evan Martin
A Conversation with Chuck Prophet
Mike Ragogna: Hi Chuck. What was your plan approaching your new album Temple Beautiful?
Chuck Prophet: I knew I wanted to make a rock 'n' roll record, a guitar record, and then somehow, I got the idea of digging into the local lore of San Francisco, which is endless. I was writing with my friend Kurt, aka, Klipschutz, and when we tapped into that, the ideas began to flow. On a good day, an idea might actually grow up into a song. Ultimately, we leaned on the more mythical side of the street.
MR: San Francisco must mean a lot to you.
CP: San Francisco means a lot to a lot of people, and yeah, I am one of them. I mean, everybody comes here from everywhere for all the obvious reasons, and some maybe not so obvious. There are so many different cities packed into seven square miles, and they intersect and overlap. I guess you could say I wasn't very culturally aware when I was growing up in Richard Nixon's hometown. Then I moved around. Ended up in San Francisco going to school. Joined a band. Started to travel, saw some things. Fast forward a little and here I am. What I mean to say is that San Francisco is an education. It's an education on different kinds of buildings, food, people, races, colors, sexes and the like. It opens your eyes.
MR: How did you assemble the cast of characters that appear with you?
CP: Once the songs were there, it fell together. I played guitar on a session where the drummer was Prairie Prince. He had that feel, you know? So I reached out to him. He's got experience to burn and he still plays like a teenager. So that was the groove. Very teenage. James DePrato plays guitar in my band and together, we know how to make it sound like one big guitar. Rusty Miller played bass. And Stephanie Finch, my wife and long time partner in crime, brought her thing -- singing and playing some keyboards here and there. Brad Jones produced and engineered. It's a much less layered record. The guitars are pretty graphic. Even the cover art is just black and white. Honestly, I was pretty confident with the songs and just didn't feel the nagging need to add more than that.
MR: This is your twelfth album, and many of your contemporaries haven't made it past half of that. What's your secret?
CP: No secrets. I guess I'm lucky that I've been able to stay interested in the whole thing. Writing songs and making records and kicking the songs around on the bandstand. There have been times where I wasn't that excited and it showed. There are other things to do. I'm trying to get some hobbies in fact. Yeah, anyway, to wake up excited about what you're doing is a gift, I suppose.
MR: Q Magazine said you are "... a sparky songwriter worthy of greater attention." Mojo said, "Prophet delivers with quixotic swagger and declamatory sneer."
CP: Yeah, that sounds pretty good. I'll take it. I've been known to write my own blurbs, but that one is cool. Thanks for not choosing some of the others, by the way. I need the love. Every time I'm done making a record, I suggest that the promotional department gather in a circle, join hands and pray. Then we dig up some old quotes for the bio, book gigs anywhere anyone will have us, and hope for the best. My records have never really sold that much. I guess I should feel bad about that? I'm sorry I brought it up.
MR: (laughs) In your opinion, how does your music these days compare to your Green on Red days?
CP: Not that much different. Dan Stuart and I were always looking for trouble. And I guess I'm still out there standing over steaming manholes.
MR: What are your thoughts about the old Paisley Underground versus these days?
CP: A lot of great music came out of that time. If you look at what was on MTV or the radio, it's amazing that we got record deals. I think The Bangles really ran with it, and I hear they're still making great music and have a really great live show these days. I wanted to go see them play at The Fillmore recently, but I missed them when they were in town. But the scene... I don't know. I think it was pretty short-lived if you think about it. But those years in a van with Green On Red were wild. No one knew where they're next big chunk of hash was coming from. Now, I'm into lunch. Speaking of which, mind if I give a shout out to Split Pea Seduction on 6th Street? There might be a free crostata in it for both of us!
MR: (laughs) Thanks. Okay, "Willie Mays Is Up At Bat" must speak to the baseball fan in you? What's the story behind that song?
CP: I'm all for the Giants. No matter what, actually, I always root for the home team. For the album, though, we knew we needed a hero. Any myth needs a hero. And you can't beat Willie Mays. Talk about larger than life. I mean, at the downtown stadium, there's a bronze statue of him 10 feet tall. The greatest center fielder that ever lived. Of course we had to go and mix him up with a bunch of characters he wouldn't be caught dead with.
MR: Such as?
CP: Oh, you know, Carol Doda, Laffing Sal, Bill Graham, Jim Jones, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck -- that crowd.
MR: (laughs) Can you also go into the story behind "Castro Halloween"?
CP: The Castro District is world-famous, isn't it? And Halloween there tends to be a party and a half and lasts 'til dawn. I live four or five blocks away, leading my quiet married existence, watching reruns of The Wire when the biggest dress-up party west of Berlin is in full swing. The song triesto bottle some of that magic and then set it free. I think my guitar solo at the end is longer than all the verses put together. It was hard to fade it.
MR: How often do you feel like Jesus, you know, like the song with that title?
CP: Not often enough. That one is dedicated to the Albion, which used to be on the corner of an alleyway off 16th Street, in the Mission District. There was a backroom for music. It was a dive. It was a firetrap. It was heaven. We used to play in that backroom. Sometimes for like four nights in a row. And it was magical. It was a scene that only lasted so long. The title of the song refers to the way I felt when I met my wife and she looked at me that "special way." Stephanie used to play the upright piano back there and sing the best harmonies. I always liked the sound of our voices together. Made me feel bigger than life.
MR: Can you go into Emperor Norton, who he is and why you wrote a song in his voice. Maybe people outside of San Francisco might need a little help.
CP: Compared to overseas, this whole country is still pretty new on the block. San Francisco wasn't founded 'til the mid-1800s. Emperor Norton came to town and proclaimed himself an Emperor and never paid for another drink or meal in his life. We tried to steer clear of him as a character on the record, but he insisted. And who were we to say no?
MR: Your songs were recorded by Heart and Solomon Burke. What did you think of the recordings?
CP: I love those covers. The song Solomon Burke cut, I wrote with Dan Penn. When I got a copy, I went over to Dan's and we listened to it together. Solomon did these off the cuff ad libs at the end and I remember Dan really vibing on it. We listened to it a few times. It's hard to top hearing Solomon Burke sing a song you did with Dan Penn! Heart was great as well. That song "No Other Love," it only has about three lines of lyrics to it, and it's been maybe my most popular song. Ann Wilson really sings it. And it's pretty awesome. She is something else. Like a female Elvis or something.
MR: "No Other Love" was also included in the film P.S. I Love You. What did you think of how it was used?
CP: The film was a pretty forgettable chick flick. But people really responded to that scene, particularly young Latinas. So that's been really cool. The film really connected with young girls full of that romantic longing. I think that it was real nice.
MR: What's it like having your music on Californication and Sons Of Anarchy?
CP: It's like money in the bank! Literally. And I like all those shows. So it's about as win-win as it gets.
MR: You recorded with Warren Zevon. I imagine you were a fan. Do you miss him?
CP: I barely knew him, but yes, I did play on Life'll Kill Ya, one of his later discs. I was a fan, am a fan, and can't imagine I'll ever stop listening to his songs. I'm sorry there won't be any more of them. He was a tough character for sure. He had an incredibly quick wit. And you wouldn't want his caustic wit pointed at you. He could be a cantankerous guy, but also very charming and always funny. At the time, I worried about his Mountain Dew intake. He'd show up in the morning with a grocery bag of cans... he was drinking like a case of it a day. And when he ran out, he'd get these splitting migraines.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
CP: Heck, I don't know. Nikki Sudden once told me that Keith Richards told him that coffee is the absolute worst thing you can put in your body. Seriousness aside, I honestly don't have any advice for anyone. I suppose if anything, pay attention. Try to be on time. Honor your commitments. Don't waste other people's time, especially the audience.
MR: What does your tour schedule and future look like?
CP: We're gearing up for some quality time in the van. "Van Therapy," we call it. The year is filling up fast. As to my future, is it okay if I pretend you didn't ask that?
MR: Ask what? (Laughs.) Thanks so much for taking the time to be with us.
CP: My pleasure. Thanks
1. Play That Song Again
2. Castro Halloween
3. Temple Beautiful
4. Museum Of Broken Hearts
5. Willie Mays Is Up At Bat
6. The Left Hand And The Right Hand
7. I Felt Like Jesus
8. Who Shot John
9. He Came From So Far Away (Red Man Speaks)
10. Little Girl, Little Boy
11. White Night, Big City
12. Emperor Norton In The Last Year Of His Life (1880)