David Serby, a honky-tonk condition
1.0 – How do you think your new record Poor Man’s Poem will be received by your fans?
I think Americana fans appreciate and respect all kinds of roots music – blues, folk, honky tonk, bluegrass, outlaw country – So, although Poor Man’s Poem is much different than the last couple of records I expect folks to give it an honest listen. That’s really all I can ask. I’m very proud of it and I hope folks like it as much as we do.
2.0 – What is your favorite song on it?
It’s always hard to choose a favorite song. This morning, I can narrow it down to three: Virginia Rail, Poor Man’s Poem, and Evil Men. Virginia Rail is about the financial and emotional struggles of someone very close to me and it was the first song I wrote for the record; it’ll always mean a lot to me. Poor Man’s Poem is about the Pullman rail strike. I’m a union steward and I’m deeply concerned about the state of unions in this country – that song’s about as close as an example of my fears as I could get. And finally, Evil Men because that’s the last song I wrote for the record and it’s the one in which the little man finally gets to exact a little revenge on those who wield the power.
3.0 – Are they all new songs?
Yes, these are all new songs. Poor Man’s Poem is a song-cycle set in the 1800s. The record filters modern day economic and social issues that I’m concerned about through a landscape populated by striking rail workers, sinking gold ships, murdering outlaws, lost and broken gold miners, and drug addled civil war soldiers.
4.0 – How does it differ from your last release, Honky Tonk & Vine?
With Honky Tonk & Vine I really was taking my best shot at a California honky tonk record. It was an rocking, electric record, and it included songs that hinted at other genres like soul and pop. Also, most of the songs were written starting with a title from which I generated an idea and then the song. Poor Man’s Poem is an acoustic folk record. There’s just a little electric bass guitar on it. And every song was written starting with a specific idea or emotion. I figured out generally the type of story I wanted to tell and wrote a line. By the time I got to the chorus I still had no idea what I was actually going to say there or how it would sound. That’s about a hundred and eighty degrees different than Honky Tonk & Vine.
5.0 – You have a history of changing gears within roots music, is this part of a larger philosophy?
Being a self-funded artist has it’s downside but it definitely has an upside, too. Downside: Nobody gives you money to help you do anything; writing, recording, producing, rehearsing bands, touring – you’re all on your own. Upside: Nobody tells you what to do. I’m completely free to do whatever I feel like doing. My prior two records were electric honky tonk. I had some issues I wanted to write about on Poor Man’s Poem that I didn’t think I could address with straight honky tonk. I’m inspired by a challenge and I’m inspired by change. Also, I think stagnation really is death for any writer.
6.0 – Your sense of humor is a big part of your music, is it a challenge to remain uplifting in such a poor economy?
I appreciate that you hear the humor in my prior records. Poor Man’s Poem is a pretty dark and serious record and honestly, I had a hard time finding any humor in the people I was singing about or the stories I was telling. Maybe it’s just easier to find the humor hidden behind a broken heart than it is to find the humor behind a broken man or a broken family. If there’s anything uplifting about the record it’s that nobody quits. Every character battles his ass off until the very end, and I do believe there is something noble and uplifting in that fight.
7.0 – Do you feel that is part of your role as an entertainer?
I think finding the humor in a situation is certainly one of my roles as an entertainer, but I think exploring areas that are completely void of humor is just as important and satisfying – and possibly more challenging. Most folks are happy to smile or laugh but asking them to walk down a dark and desolate road with you…not everyone is going to want to go.
8.0 – What are your favorite songs to ‘cover’ live with your band, The Dirt Poor Folklore?
The Dirt Poor Folklore was put together to play Poor Man’s Poem. Because it’s a song-cycle, the ten tunes on the record are the only songs we’re playing. It might eventually evolve into a band that plays some covers, but right now I’m limiting it to the record. It almost feels like a book to me and playing cover tunes (or songs off my prior records) in this set would be like sticking chapters from different books into the middle of Poor Man’s Poem. Right now, that just doesn’t make sense to me.
9.0 – How would you describe the California roots music scene today?
I think the California roots scene is on the verge of a real upswing. In the last several years a lot of great singers, songwriters and performers have left town. But the folks who’ve hung around have continued to improve and grow, and new bands are cropping up every day. The influences range from straight up honky tonk and hard country, to power pop, psychedelic, R&B, Southern rock, Tex Mex and singer/songwriter folk. It’s cliché but it’s true: Los Angeles is a melting pot and you can do anything out here. Bands like Old Californio, Grant Langston and The Supermodels, The Far West, a couple of bands I play bass in (West of Texas and Haymaker), Shooter Jennings’ bass player Ted Russell Kamp, the legendary Rick Shea, Patty Booker, The Groovy Rednecks, Tremalocos, Dale Peterson, Dan Janisch, Skip Heller, a great songwriter named Bob Woodruff, The Psychedelic Cowboy – I could list dozens more – they’re playing shows like The Grand Ole Echo, Ronnie Mack’s Barn Dance, The Messaround, and Melody in The Round. And the fans (by fans I really mean friends) out here are the best. It’s a tight knit community that really supports great people and great music.
10.0 ~ Is ‘honky tonk’ a permanent condition?
I have a feeling a lot of folks hear the term honky tonk and they think of electric hillbilly or hard country music being played in bars and roadhouses. Chicken wire, cigarette smoke, broken beer bottles, clumsy lovers scooting around crowded dance floors. And they’d be right. And they’d probably listen to Poor Man’s Poem and say, “That ain’t honky tonk.” But honky tonk is also music that is both for and about the working man. And that’s Poor Man’s Poem in a peanut shell (that’s been smashed on Johnny Horton’s Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor). Honky tonk music addresses the working man’s struggle to find, provide for, and hold onto his family and loved ones; that’s the fight that inspired this record. I haven’t been able to escape it, so, yes I do think honk tonk is a permanent condition.