Field Reportings from Issue #73
IT’S A FRAME ABOUT RAY: Longtime Ray Charles saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman and Charles’ autobiography co-author and friend David Ritz joined Michael Gray of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum at the Hall’s “Remembering Ray” discussion on November 30 in Nashville. The event helped bring to a close the nearly two-year Country Hall residency of “I Can’t Stop Loving You: Ray Charles And Country Music”, a major exhibit that tracked the soul king’s foray into country, to the surprise of his early fans (though Charles had loved the genre since childhood). The exhibit’s run concluded December 31 after having been a centerpiece at the Museum since March 2006, attracting some 800,000 attendees with artifacts, films, and special panels that tracked the historic and consequential cross-pollination. Jazz legend Newman played sax on Charles’ 1962 Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music LPs. He also recorded solo albums that Charles produced specifically to spotlight Newman. Were Charles and company aware that the music they were making was going to change how country records were made? “Not at the time,” Newman said after the panel session. “We just thought that we were doing music that we felt and appreciated doing — but I don’t think we had any idea about the impact.” Ritz, who riveted the audience with memories of his relationship with the brilliant but often cantankerous Charles, saw Ray’s turn to country, like his earlier broaching of the R&B/gospel barrier, as a musically radical but personally conservative move. “He was determined to conserve the music of his childhood,” Ritz said, “and he’d heard the Opry, heard big-band jazz — and country music was part of that, just like the church music.”
THILE GETS PUNCHY: The final stop on Nickel Creek’s “Farewell For Now” tour consisted of two joyful late November nights at the Ryman Auditorium, a venue the band played numerous times during their rise to improbable, multimillion-selling success. Each member of the much-lauded newgrass/pop trio has his or her own reasons for going out on top, not the least of which is that Sean Watkins, Sara Watkins and Chris Thile were a band before, during and after their adolescence.
Sara is off to make an album on her own, with rock legend John Paul Jones producing. Her brother Sean is already a couple of albums into his own solo career. And Thile is stepping into a role he’s been hinting at for years — that of composer, bandleader and auteur.
The mandolin virtuoso’s first gesture in this direction will be touring nationwide and overseas all year fronting the Punch Brothers, whose debut album Punch is due out February 26 on Nonesuch Records. The band, which was pulled together by Thile from the cream of his generation’s acoustic talent pool, has changed its name a couple of times, but its personnel has been settled for two years: guitarist Chris “Critter” Eldridge, banjoist Noam Pikelny, fiddler Gabe Witcher, and bassist Greg Garrison. They backed Thile on his 2006 solo album How To Grow A Woman From The Ground (credited as How To Grow A Band), and they were the Tensions Mountain Boys when they premiered their magnum opus “The Blind Leaving The Blind” at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall last spring.
The piece, a 40-minute, four-movement string quintet with Thile says is “grounded in folk music,” is the centerpiece of Punch. Composed by Thile with substantial input from the band, it germinated gradually in Thile’s mind. He found the catalyzing motivation and working environment when he made an exploratory trip to New York in 2005, prior to moving there.
“I was working on things in a different way than I had before, not trying to finish a song but trying to come up with an idea with which I could make something bigger,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got a handle on three or four minutes.”
“The Blind Leaving The Blind” weaves improvised sections into its primarily composed structure, but its most unorthodox features are its vocal passages, in which Thile sings about the breakup of his first marriage. “I hear this music in my head that has vocals but isn’t dominated by vocals,” he says.
While Thile always seems to be the attention-magnet in his various projects, he’s taken pains to emphasize that this is an ensemble, with ideas and sounds coming from all five members. Fiddler Witcher, who has worked with the likes of Jerry Douglas and Randy Newman, calls the Punch Brothers the first band he’s been in that let him explore new territory with close friends and peers. “The first time we all got our instruments and started playing,” Witcher says, “I remember from the first few beats going, ‘Oh man, this is right. This feels great.'”
Nickel Creek has left little doubt that they’ll reunite someday to do something, but the Punch Brothers’ aggressive exploration of the untapped possibilities of the acoustic string band are where Thile seems to think he’ll have the most focus over the coming years.
TOO COOL TO BE FORGOTTEN: When Walter Hyatt died in the 1996 Valujet plane crash in Florida, he left behind the usual amount of unfinished business — scores of songs in various stages of development, from embryonic fragments to nearly finished productions. More than a decade later, many of those songs will see the light of day on Some Unfinished Business, Volume One, due out Jan. 22 on King Tears Records. It’s the first of a three-volume series of Hyatt songs from the vaults.
“Honestly, it took me years before I could even really talk about Walter,” says his widow, Heidi Hyatt, who oversaw the project with producer Michael Killeen. “It was just raw for years and years, the feelings of hurt and losing him. I started working on this about five years ago and finally got comfortable with hearing him sing again. There were so many great songs, it was hard to decide which ones to include on this first one.”
Two of these songs, “Babes In The Woods” and “I’ll Come Knocking”, have been heard before via another artist: Both appeared on Lyle Lovett’s 1998 songwriter-tribute set Step Inside This House. None of the other ten have been commercially released before.
Every song, even the full-band recordings, was first stripped down to just Hyatt’s voice and guitar, and then given new backing from the likes of Jerry Douglas, Carrie Rodriguez, the Jordanaires and Allison Moorer. Some Unfinished Business also includes performances by Walter’s son Taylor and two people with ties to Hyatt’s old group, Uncle Walt’s Band — David Ball, the band’s upright bassist, and Warren Hood, son of the trio’s late fiddler/guitarist Champ Hood.
“There was a lot of clamoring to put it out as just voice and guitar,” Heidi says. “But that would not have the life of full productions. It would’ve been a nice novelty for the fans, but it wouldn’t get any radio play. I want everyone else to hear his music, too.”
Plans call for an accompanying music book of the songs, to help everyone who “struggles with his strange chords,” Heidi says with a laugh. She also hopes to get more of her late husband’s friends and associates to contribute to the next two volumes, including Lovett (who produced Hyatt’s 1990 solo album King Tears).
Even after this much time, some of this material still makes Heidi emotional. “So many songs that people brought back to me after he died, I’d never heard before,” she says. “One of them was ‘When You’re Alone’. You can be married to someone, but you don’t always know them deeply. I felt something more about Walter after he was gone, especially that song. It was hard to take at first. There’s still something about that you can feel, his pain. It’s very personal and emotional.”
RAUL READY TO WRITE: After releasing a pair of albums in 2007 (After Hours and Marshmallow World & Other Holiday Favorites), Raul Malo isn’t planning to slow down in the new year. The former lead singer of the Mavericks will begin work on his next disc in early 2008.
“I’m planning to start recording in January or February,” Malo said in an interview just before kicking off his 2007 Christmas Party Tour. “I have two albums’ worth of original material ready and hope to have an album out by summer,” he said.
After co-writing eleven of the songs on Today, his debut solo album in 2001, Malo shifted to interpreting songs by other writers and performers. His subsequent solo efforts featured just one of his own compositions. Working as interpretive vocalist “has been fun and I enjoyed it immensely, but it was time to put pen to paper and get back to songwriting,” Malo said.
Marshmallow World, which featured holiday classics done in a variety of different styles — a jazzy “White Christmas” backed by only upright bass and flute, a rendition of “Silver Bells” with a zesty Latin feel and some Louis Prima-style scat singing. Those diversions followed his recent explorations of other musical genres, including country classics (After Hours), bluegrass (The Nashville Acoustic Sessions), and Latin and Tex-Mex music (two albums with Los Super Seven).
Malo says he remains grateful for the chance to experiment, even if the artistic rewards often outweigh the commercial benefits. “We work in a rigid business that gets more rigid every day,” Malo observed. “The creative freedom I have is priceless. I’m still able to work and do what I want.”