Bill Chambers – Grandpa steps out
Music has always been a family matter for Bill Chambers. When he formed the Dead Ringer Band in the late 1980s, it was a musical expression of the close-knit love, shared faith and fierce independence that typifies the Chambers family. Those family traits have been evident since Bill and Diane took newborn Kasey and toddler Nash out to live on the remote Nullarbor Plain, and spent a decade living off the harsh outback land — shooting foxes, fishing for lobsters, and singing country and gospel songs around the campfire every night.
The Chambers family band was to become the great success story of Australian country music. Although the Dead Ringer Band split in 1998, a casualty of music business strife and the collapse of Bill and Diane’s marriage, the end result was a spectacularly successful solo career for Kasey, plus the opportunity for Bill to explore his own musical directions.
Bill’s first venture outside the Chambers family circle was with a Hank Williams cover band called Luke &the Drifters on the inner-city Sydney pub circuit, where he met Tasmanian-born singer-songwriter Audrey Auld. He produced Auld’s debut CD, and the duo went on to record an album of retro-styled country duets under the name Bill & Audrey. They also set up an independent label, Reckless Records.
In addition to continuing to play in Kasey’s band, Bill has mentored and produced young Australian country artists such as Catherine Britt, who has recently been recording in Nashville, where she signed to RCA. Now 51, Bill has finally made his solo debut, a highly personal album titled Sleeping With The Blues.
“Kasey had a baby, and I’ve become a granddad,” Bill explains, “and I figured if she was gonna take some time off the road, I’d better do something. So I sat down and started writing songs, and I thought, this is starting to sound a bit like an album! So I started recording, and finished the rest of the songs while I was recording.”
From its opening track, “Dreaming ‘Bout Texas”, Sleeping With The Blues evinces Bill Chambers’ love for Texas and its music. “What I love about Texas,” he enthuses, “is you go to see Wayne Hancock and Dale Watson one night, you’ll go the next night to see a rock band, and the same crowd will be there. That’s pretty cool. That’s how it should be.”
On frequent visits to Texas with Kasey, Bill reveled in the honky-tonk sounds on the barrooms and dancehalls, but when it came to writing his solo album, it was the influence of the Texan singer-songwriting tradition that held sway over him.
“I originally wanted to make a real hillbilly, honky-tonk album, like Wayne Hancock,” he says. “I love all that old stuff old-time steel guitars and fiddles. Then I started writing songs, and the first song I wrote was ‘Promises’, which is a real folky, John Prine type of song. There was nothing really hillbilly or honky-tonk about these songs. They’re sort of folk songs, very personal — story songs, pretty much, about broken hearts and feeling blue.
“I started to think, ‘This is more like the Texas singer-songwriters that I’ve been listening to,’ and of course, if you listen to something enough, it’s gonna pop up.”
On his first solo tour through Texas, Chambers played with Jimmy LaFave, Slaid Cleaves and Ray Wylie Hubbard — “some of my favorite people in the whole wide world, and I got to work with them,” he says with a delighted smile. “They write great songs…I think the older I’m getting, I’m getting a little mellower, and I love acoustic music.
“It’s great to hear people like Ray Wylie just sitting down with an acoustic guitar; I just think, that’s it, y’know? Fred Eaglesmith is another one that makes me feel that way. It’s gotta touch you, somehow.”
A cover of Eaglesmith’s “Big Ass Garage Sale” is included on Sleeping With The Blues, complete with ragtag vocal harmonies and raucous junkyard percussion by Audrey Auld (who, like Kasey, is an avid Fred-Head; both women have covered and sung with Eaglesmith). “Fred’s never done ‘Big Ass Garage Sale’ on an album, so we stole it off him,” Bill confesses.
The other two covers are John Sebastian’s ‘Stories We Could Tell’, a duet with Kasey, and Mary Gauthier’s ‘I Drink’, in which Chambers’ gruff, world-worn voice sounds perfect for Gauthier’s red-eyed, don’t-give-a-damn-anymore lyrics. “She’s fantastic”, he says of Gauthier. “I got a real nice e-mail from her. She said, ‘I wrote it for a man to sing, and when I heard your voice, that’s how I wanted it done.’
“I felt very humble,” says Chambers with typical modesty. “It was a really nice thing for her to say.”