Grayson Capps says he plays "roots rock." If you push him on the genre question, he says, "Well, if Mississippi Fred McDowell sat down with Tom T. Hall and they were drinking Newcastle, listening to AC/DC, that might be an idea of what I do."
Capps opened his show at Duling Hall in Jackson, Mississippi, on January 24 with a poem instead of a song, something he does from time to time. "It’s a spoken word thing that seems to grab people. Sometimes I use it to start things off." It does grab you. That night, he recited Kissing In The Pouring Rain. By the time he finished, the audience had set aside their notions of how a guy with a guitar should look and sound and was ready to ride along with Capps for a bit, on his terms. And it was a nice ride. "I don’t usually write a set list, I kind of feel the audience, try to make sure everybody is together, on the same page." Mission accomplished.
Besides being a singer-songwriter and poet, Capps is an actor. He grew up in Brewton, Alabama, but moved to Fairhope (right across the Bay from Mobile) in high school. Fairhope was "a little more cultural," giving him the opportunity to discover theatre. His theatre work (and presumably some good grades in high school) landed him a scholarship to Tulane University. He says he had several choices for college, but chose to attend Tulane "because the drinking age was 18 there at that time." That's one of his set lines and I'm sure there's some truth to it, but when you spend a little time with Capps you know there was more to it than that.
And there's more to seeing Grayson Capps play live than your everyday singer-songwriter solo acoustic show. His acting background informs his performance. "Of course, I would hope so. There are people like Todd Snider, he’s an expert at it. He’s very theatrical. I see a lot of great musicians who don’t know anything about theatre and it just ruins the performance for me because they will be introverted and kind of disappear into themselves, not know how to communicate with the audience, and it sort of goes limp." Nothing limp about Capps, that's for sure, as this Chad Edwards photo taken at Duling Hall shows:
If you see Capps live, he may tell a story about leaving L.A. (Lower Alabama) in a button down and loafers only to find out that his home was on the street in New Orleans. A turning point was his encounter with a woman called Ragtime Mary, who had a tattoo of that picture of Johnny Cash shooting the bird, hairy legs and smelled like a goat. He dug her and the scene she was a part of enough to make New Orleans his home for years. At the Duling Hall show, he told us about living in a shotgun house in a part of the city prone to flooding even before the Katrina disaster. Here's a bit of Washboard Lisa, a song he wrote about Mary, as it appears in the film A Love Song For Bobby Long (pardon the Portuguese subtitles and the very distracting Scarlett Johansson):
What Capps doesn't say from the stage about his change from small town Alabama boy to New Orleans street musician is that he was in New Orleans four years before he even discovered the street scene. He spent four years "in a box" trying to learn acting. "I didn’t see New Orleans until I graduated from Tulane because I was so busy studying. Then [after graduating] I ventured out and realized that I had to get a whole different education. I had a contained education but I needed a real education." And quite an education, from the sound of his songs. But Capps didn't arrive in New Orleans as a blank slate. He came with a rich musical and literary history of his own that plays into how that "real education" worked out for him. His dad, Ronald Everett Capps, was a preacher, a writer and a singer of songs himself. Capps had a copy of his dad's unpublished novel, Off Magazine Street, and at some point gave it to a filmmaker friend who fell in love with the story, converting it to film in 2004 as A Love Song For Bobby Long. Grayson Capps wrote several songs for it, including the title tune.
After Capps spent "the second half of his life in New Orleans," Katrina changed things for everyone there, including him. By then, his life had progressed to the point where change was welcome. "I had two children, so I was changing, then the hurricane came and solidified a change toward reality, not in a bad way but it kinda brought me back to my roots." Capps ended up in Nashville, where he reconnected with the country music he had heard his father play as a child. But country music on top of the funk, jazz and blues of his New Orleans days made him realize that he wanted to get back to the Mobile Bay area. When we spoke on the phone a couple of weeks ago, he was in the middle of moving into a new house in Fairhope. "We just finished renovating my new house, spent nine months doing that, got a studio in the back, this is where I’m staying forever."
Capps loves the music venues on the Gulf Coast (the area from New Orleans east to Destin, Florida). "The music scene down here is one of the best in the country. People don’t realize that, but I don’t have to go anywhere else to play." He acknowledges that he will continue touring, though, probably to Europe this summer, but seems pretty happy around home for the time being. "It feels good to stay in one place for a little while, especially with kids."
During his Nashville to Fairhope transition, Capps put together quite a band. "It's a great group of musicians, like an all-star band out of the Mobile area. Really the best of the best." Drummer John Milham is a Fairhope native, but studied music at Berklee College Of Music in Boston. "John consistently wins best drummer in Mobile." Chris Spies handles keyboards. He's "a child prodigy, the best around here." Guitarist Corky Hughes, a Mobile native, has played with several national acts, including Black Oak Arkansas. "Corky is a legend in this area." Bass player Christian Grizzard is not from the Gulf Coast (he's from Georgia and lives in Nashville). The band is known as The Lost Cause Minstrels, also the name of the latest Grayson Capps record (his fifth), which came out this past summer.
So what does Capps think about recent changes in the music business? "Nothing's changed for me. Because I’m not involved with a major label. I own everything I do, I pay for all the recording. I own the masters. My [record] deals are distribution deals. I’ve created a real fan base and it’s small but consistent. So, nothing’s changed for me. If anything shows are getting better, more people coming out." This go-it-on-my-own approach to recording is becoming the norm for many artists now, but Capps was a bit ahead of the power curve, and it worked out well for him with the Bobby Long project. "And God forbid a movie comes around and wants to use your songs and then you own them all. Life is good." He has no interest in major labels or even major stardom, though. "The day of a major label is gone, unless you’re Lady Gaga, Brad Paisley. Those big huge things . . . that’s nothing I’ve even wanted to do. My heroes are Tom Waits, John Prine, Tom T. Hall, people who are consistent but remain low key."
On the subject of other musicians, Capps says that as a listener he gets "stuck on different people. I loved the last Gillian Welch record. Dylan LeBlanc, a young artist on Rough Trade, I really like his stuff. I keep going back to old stuff. Phoebe Snow. Poetry Man. People ought to listen to great records. I mean, people just throw shit out there, but God, you listen to a record that’s amazing and it just changes the whole spectrum." He digs Drive By Truckers, too. "One of my favorite songs in the past 10 years was Goddamn Lonely Love, it got me listening to the Truckers. It sounds great, great song, just sucked me into the Drive By Truckers world."
As we wound up our phone conversation, Capps turned back to the job of moving into his new home. After getting things squared away there, he planned to play that Friday night at nearby Blue Moon Farms, something they're calling The Frog Pond. "It's a poor man's version of Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble. Last week I played with Malcolm Holcomb and Truckstop Honeymoon. This week, it'll be Will Kimbrough and Sugarcane Jane." Sounded pretty good to me, made me wish I was in L.A.
Photos by Chad Edwards.
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines.