Eric Brace Knows Music from Every Angle
Having just returned from Nashville and the ever-growing Americana Music Association Conference and Festival, I have to say the highlight for me is the conversations with other music industry types who share a deep love and vast knowledge of great music. Eric Brace is one of those people who not only has the passion as a fan, but also as an artist and record label owner.
Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business?
Eric Brace: I should probably blame The Seldom Scene. I grew up in Washington, DC, and starting in 1975, I’d go see them fairly regularly at the Birchmere nightclub (where they’d play every Thursday night). They looked like they were having so much fun on stage, and the music they made was so great and so inviting. They had guests drop in all the time, Emmylou Harris, Lowell George, Tony Rice, folks like that, and it was never less than inspiring.
I never felt I had a million songs in me that needed to get out – I’d listen to Dylan and Paul Simon, etc, but didn’t have that burning flame of self-expression – I just wanted to have the kind of fun the Seldom Scene were having. To me they were like what punk rock would become to so many, an inspiration along the lines of: “Hey, I could maybe do THAT! No one’s telling me I can’t.”
What have you done since then?
Let’s see: I played in a bluegrass band in college (the Mystic Valley Mountaineers); started a rock band with my brother (B-Time); formed a record label in DC in the late ’80s (Top Records); formed an acoustic duo where I played upright bass (The Thin Men); formed an alt-country band with some DC all-stars (The Beggars); wrote about music and nightlife for The Washington Post (1990-2003); played bass in Kevin Johnson & the Linemen; formed and led Last Train Home (my attempt at mixing rock and country and folk and bluegrass and Tin Pan Alley); made several albums and one DVD with Last Train Home.
I moved to Nashville and founded Red Beet Records (releasing 20 albums in ten years, including three East Nashville compilations, helping get the word out to the world that East Nashville is the most fertile musical neighborhood in the country); recorded and released an album of bluegrass material with legends Mike Auldridge and Jimmy Gaudreau (The Skylighters); toured the US and Europe with Last Train Home; formed a duo with sublime music writer and songwriter Peter Cooper, with whom I’ve toured the US and Europe several times; was nominated for a Grammy for I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow, which I produced with Peter Cooper and performed on with Last Train Home, and which features such folks as Patty Griffin, Duane Eddy, Buddy Miller, and Jim Lauderdale; wrote and released a folk-opera about the California gold rush with brilliant Washington, DC, artist Karl Straub (Hangtown Dancehall), which features Kelly Willis, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, among others; produced and released the debut solo album of legendary a cappella singer Jerry Lawson, the founding lead vocalist of The Persuasions (Just a Mortal Man); recorded an album of vintage French songs with the unbelievably talented multi-instrumentalist Rory Hoffman (Cartes Postales), to be released this fall; and just released a trio album with Peter Cooper and the spectacularly talented guitarist/songwriter/engineer Thomm Jutz, called Profiles in Courage, Frailty, and Discomfort.
What do you do now and how do you describe your business?
I still run Red Beet Records, and do all the booking for gigs with Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz, and now and then with Last Train Home.
I’m not alone when I describe the record business in general as … rocky. Given the precipitous decline in sales of actual CDs, it’s hard to sustain a business based on sales. Everyone has seen the indignant posts on Facebook about the pennies that are earned for a million streams of a song, and for Red Beet Records, you can divide that by many thousands more. The label office is filled with boxes of CDs that won’t likely ever be sold. There’s still some money to be made as a touring act, if there are enough people out there willing to pay for a ticket to see you and maybe buy a CD or vinyl album to take home. I’m lucky that there seem to be just enough folks who care about what I do – with Peter and Thomm, and with Last Train Home – to keep me working, and I play more than 50 gigs a year.
How do you describe your music and or songs to someone who’s never heard you?
The music I make with Peter and Thomm I tend to describe as modern folk music, or singer-songwriter. And with Last Train Home, I often usually say “roots rock” or “country-rock.” But all those labels are limiting, and so what I often do is just have people listen to songs, and then ask them how they’d describe it.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
You could probably go back to my childhood, where you’d likely catch me listening to Peter, Paul & Mary albums. Even then, I’d be reading liner notes, looking at the songwriters, wondering who Libba Cotten was, reading names like Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom Paxton, for the first time. Listening to Simon and Garfunkel, and tracking backwards from there to Davey Graham. Listening to The Seldom Scene or The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s first Circle album and finding out about the Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson. Early Dylan records sent me down the road to Dave Van Ronk, which led me deep into the blues. But all of that was concurrent with other passions.
My dad grew up in France and had old Hot Club records (amazingly, I got to be friends with Stephane Grappelli before he died. I saw him with David Grisman in 1979, which was one of the great shows of my life). My mom grew up in Mexico and had Trio Los Panchos records and I loved their harmonies and song structures, even if I didn’t understand the words. My best friend in high school was one of those record store guys, and he would force me to sit and listen to hours and hours of Townes Van Zandt and John Coltrane and Anthony Braxton and Tom Waits and countless others. He played me the Sex Pistols before they were released in the US and it blew my mind. There were endless streams of music of all kinds running through my head from an early age, but as I picked up guitar and began performing, it was the rootsier, more folk-based stuff that I was drawn to, maybe because I could more easily imagine myself performing it.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
I have spent more time listening to The Beatles than any other act. I still can’t believe what they were able to do in so short a time. Constant invention, consistently great, and even when a particular song isn’t great, it’s interesting and worth listening to. I learn something whenever I listen to them. And I’ll be listening to them forever.
My favorite band since The Beatles is probably Los Lobos, for sheer inventiveness and the scope of their work. And the fact that they’re just so damn good.
My favorite singer is Marvin Gaye, whose Let’s Get it On and What’s Going On albums would be on my desert island list, if I were to make one. I can’t get enough of him.
As I get older, I find myself listening to more instrumental music, jazz and classical. My go-to jazz guys are Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Hank Jones, Charlie Haden, and Django Rheinhardt.
In the style of what’s now called Americana, I’d have to say Emmylou Harris. I listened to her probably more than anyone in my teens and my 20s. She exposed me to so many great musicians and songwriters, and her own artistry is unparalleled. In those days, she had a lot of overlap with The Seldom Scene, in terms of their influence on me. Both of those artists – Emmylou and the Scene – are the epitome of Americana, even though their careers began before the term existed. They both brought so many earlier artists to the attention of modern audiences, but they also chose works by their lesser known contemporaries to interpret. They understood that they were part of the great metaphorical river that all us musicians are floating down. They understood what came before them and helped shape where things are headed.
How do you define what Americana music is?
Others are trying hard to define it, so I’ll just say what it means to me: bringing all of my personal influences and inspirations together into my own sound. That might mean a Stanley Brothers-type harmony over a Beatles-inspired chord progression, or mariachi trumpet bumping up against a pedal steel pattern ripped off from Tom Brumley. My current exploration of old French songs might force me to redefine what I do as Franco-Americana. We’ll see.
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
With so much music out there, it seems that people will always be needing professional – or passionate amateur – help in finding music to listen to. The world of Americana radio has so many truly excellent DJs acting as curators, and helping us find new things to listen to, I think we’ll keep turning to them. The online streaming presence will increase, and the playlist makers on streaming services will gain in power. I hope that they can all figure out how to keep enough money coming in to maintain the broadcasts and streams.
My big hope is that radio will become ultra-local again, like it did in its first few decades. The big corporate chains that bought up thousands of stations in the ’90s are losing lots of money on them now, and I hope they’ll sell them off to local buyers, who will then play music that their communities care about. Much like the way WMOT is doing in Nashville since they started last year.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
The album I listened to more than any other the past couple of years was Paul Simon’s Stranger to Stranger. It is incredible, and I think anyone reading this should call it up, put on headphones, and sit and listen from top to bottom. His songwriting keeps evolving in mind-boggling fashion. I can’t even understand how he does what he does.
Other artists in the Americana and country world who’ve put out good stuff recently – Jason Isbell, Charlie Worsham, Elizabeth Cook, Aaron Lee Tasjan, John Fullbright, Jim Lauderdale – I can hear how they do it, so it’s less mysterious but still great. They’re writing songs that only they can write. In that regard, they’re true artists.
My friend Jon Byrd just released the excellent Dirty Ol’ River, which everyone should listen to. No one sings or writes like he does.
Thomm Jutz and Peter Cooper just made an absolutely brilliant album with the 91-year-old legend Mac Wiseman, called I Sang the Song, which is one of the best albums of any kind I’ve heard in years.
And speaking of Thomm, his new album on Mountain Fever Records, Crazy If You Let It, is spectacular. He is changing the level of songwriting in bluegrass right now. Seriously. Pay attention to what he’s doing. And in that world of acoustic music, there’s Sierra Hull, who’s changing the landscape with every record. Chris Eldridge and Julian Lage are making stunning music, as is I’m With Her, and that whole tribe that’s connected to Chris Thile.
I turn a lot to the surprisingly under-discussed Mark Knopfler, whose solo albums the past 20 years have kept me company along more highway miles than perhaps anyone. His brother-in-arms, Nashville guitarist Richard Bennett, has made a string of spectacular instrumental albums that everyone should listen to.
What are your most memorable experiences from working in the music industry?
In terms of shows I’ve played, I’d have to say that opening for both Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson in 2005 with Last Train Home are at the top of my list, along with Peter, Thomm, and myself opening for Emmylou Harris this summer.
— Recording I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow at Tom T.’s house, with folks like Duane Eddy and Patty Griffin on hand is up there. Being nominated for a Grammy for it was icing on that particular cake.
— Recording – and becoming friends – with heroes of mine, Mike Auldridge and Lloyd Green, several times. The fact that they were heroes of each other and that I brought them together to record was a bonus.
— Becoming friends with the great British DJ Bob Harris.
— Playing a songwriter round at the Bluebird with Tom T. Hall.
— Playing a songwriter round with Nanci Griffith.
— Recording an album with Jerry Lawson.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
When I hear great music, sometimes I’m just listening. But most of the time, it makes me want to try to make great music. As Peter Cooper says, “Whenever I’m feeling burnt out on music, I listen to music.” It’s a way of reminding yourself of what got you inspired way back when, and that there’s no reason it shouldn’t keep inspiring you now.
How do you want to be remembered?
As someone who shared his love for music in as many ways as he could think of.