Danny Flowers – Vine ripened
Despite coming of age in the late-’60s/early-’70s — when seemingly every other lead guitar player with a few months of spotlighted solos under his belt would split off to front his own band — exemplary guitarist and first-rate songwriter Danny Flowers has waited until the ripe young age of 52 to bust out with his first recording under his own name, Forbidden Fruits And Vegetables (released last September on Groovetone Records).
While never lacking in confidence or ability, Flowers was blessed with one of those rare, housebroken egos that allowed him to find fulfillment in being useful and needed for the advancement of a larger musical picture. That attitude, combined with Flowers’ enviable array of chops, has kept his dance card chock-full over the years with the likes of Don Williams, Nanci Griffith and Dobie Gray.
Born in Henderson, North Carolina, Flowers first picked up the guitar at age 14. “I just started getting into writing songs because it seemed like the cool thing to do, with Dylan and the Beatles and all that happening,” he said. “When I was 18, I went to Greensboro, North Carolina, and studied commercial art for about six months. There, I met Emmylou Harris, who was also in school as well as playing in some little club just about every night.
“She was the first person that I ever saw who was, like, really, really, really good, ya know?” he continued, “and she was just as good then as she is now. Once I saw and heard her, that’s all I wanted to do; anything else just couldn’t compare to playing music.”
Flowers dropped out of school and moved to Virginia Beach in 1968, working the folk/blues circuit primarily as a harmonica player. A friend, Gove Scrivenor, landed a recording deal in Nashville and invited Danny to play on his record. Suddenly, Flowers found himself “playing music with these names I had only read on records.”
While in Nashville, he was signed by Wesley Rose to a publishing deal with Acuff-Rose. “I got paid $1,500 for a five-year contract. I promptly spent the money as fast as I could,” he recalls, laughing, “and it was the best three months of my life. I was just horsing around Nashville.”
Flowers’ first professional road experience came as a guitarist in Dobie Gray’s band at the time of Gray’s smash hit “Drift Away”. Shortly thereafter, he began hanging out with songwriters Bob McDill, Don Williams and Allen Reynolds, who were all working for Jack Clement’s budding JMI label.
“Jack was trying to start a rock label here in Nashville,” Flowers recounts, “until this writer of his [Williams] started cutting all this incredible country music, and so he went with that. I’d played on Don’s demos, and I’d told him, ‘Man, if you ever need a guitar player to go on the road, call me.’ And he did, and I ended up playing lead guitar for him for thirteen years.
“It was a wonderful experience. For five years, it was just a three-piece band. Don played guitar, we had a bass player, and I played electric guitar. We all three sang harmonies. We’d kind of steal shows from bigger bands in those days, because the sound guy could easily make us sound real good; there just wasn’t much there to go wrong. Gosh, it was just really easy.”
With Williams’ increasing commercial success, the band eventually expanded, even as a number of high-profile musicians were drawn to the Texan mystic’s laid-back approach. “Eric Clapton was a big Don Williams fan,” Flowers said, “and he would come to see us and play with us.”
Flowers, who continued to write songs throughout his career as a sideman (his tunes have been covered by heavyweights such as Williams, Harris, Griffith and Clapton, as well as many lesser-known artists), scored his defining hit around this time.
“I wrote ‘Tulsa Time’ in about a half an hour,” he recalls, “in a motel in Tulsa. There was a big snowstorm, and we had the night off because we couldn’t work. I wrote it while watching The Rockford Files.
“So, I played it for Don and, a few months later, played it for Eric,” Flowers said. “I never even made a demo of it or put it on tape or anything; they both just went and recorded it, ‘cuz it’s so simple.”
In 1982, Williams brought his backing band front-and-center, co-producing (with Garth Fundis) The Scratch Band Featuring Danny Flowers for MCA. Flowers sang lead vocals and wrote or co-wrote all the tracks. “It was okay for the time and place,” he allowed, “but I listen to it now, and it sounds real dated. It doesn’t do me any good to hear that now.”
The Scratch Band reverted to its backing role, but Williams temporarily retired in 1986 to attend to chronic back problems. Flowers decided to move on, helping put together Nanci Griffith’s Blue Moon Orchestra. “I toured with Nanci for awhile. It was just about the total opposite of working with Don,” he said. “She has a real high voice, for one thing, and she gave me the freedom to be me, to do my thing. Don is very meticulous, but after my first gig with Nanci, she came backstage and said, ‘I really like what you’re doin’, but I think you need to have a couple of beers and turn up a bit.'”
Eventually, having spent the better part of two decades on the road, Flowers stepped off the treadmill. “I just needed to come home for awhile,” he admitted. “I was tired of traveling. So I just kinda hung out and raised kids, wrote songs, played the guitar and horsed around. Then I got to playing the Bluebird Cafe quite a bit, and wanted to make an album to sell there.”
Co-produced by Flowers and James Pennebaker, Forbidden Fruits And Vegetables began as a traditional singer-songwriter presentation of fourteen of Flowers’ accumulated gems (plus a Clapton cover). But Flowers was having so much fun during his band outings with pals Pennebaker (guitar), Kevin McKendree (keyboards), Stephen Mackey (bass) and Lynn Williams (drums) that they went back to the studio to kick it up a few notches.
Further aided by high-voltage cameos from Bonnie Bramlett, Delbert McClinton, Lee Roy Parnell, Jim Horn and John Cowan, Forbidden Fruits And Vegetables is an expansive, spirited collection of country, rock ‘n’ roll, hard-driving blues-rock, and swinging R&B, played by a loose-limbed ensemble with a veteran master musician finally taking his turn in the driver’s seat.
“I’m real proud of this record,” Flowers admits. “I don’t think I’d change a thing on it. I’m a little concerned that I put too many kinds of music on it, but the only thing I know how to do is just what my heart tells me is the right thing, and the heck with the rest of it.”