Jackie Greene – Untangled up in songs
Journalists writing about Jackie Greene generally fixate on three main topics: his youth, his uncanny similarities to Bob Dylan, and the perceived bluesiness of his music. While it’s true that Greene released his first three albums before turning 25, and that he doesn’t deny Dylan’s influence (though he’s currently shying away from playing harmonica to minimize those chafing comparisons), he can’t abide being labeled a blues act.
That’s why Greene is so elated when I mention how few blues songs he’s actually recorded.
“Thank you very much!” he says, obviously validated. “That’s the one I get tired of the most, because I don’t consider myself a blues guy at all. I have much respect for real blues guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins, but I’m not nearly that good. When I started playing in bars, I’d throw in a bunch of blues standards. That’s not really what I wanted to do, but it kept the show going if I had to play for three hours, because I didn’t have enough songs.”
Greene is phoning from Kansas City, Missouri, the second stop on his tour with long-running jam band Big Head Todd & the Monsters. He admits the pairing makes little stylistic sense, but it nonetheless holds the lure of larger venues and new audiences. He has a new, more rock-oriented band in tow to help him present the songs on American Myth, his fourth album and first for major-label affiliate Verve Forecast (due out March 14).
The Sacramento, California, singer-songwriter has mainly handled the recording of previous albums himself. But his latest disc — originally titled The Radio Myth, but renamed when his label expressed an aversion to the word “radio” — features the production work of Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin as well as contributions from drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher (both members of Elvis Costello’s band the Imposters).
As it turns out, Greene’s second choice for an album title is a good fit.
“A lot of these songs were written on the road and in different parts of America,” he explains. “There are a lot of characters in these songs that everybody knows about, but nobody knows personally. I’ve always liked the idea that there’s no definitive way to be an American. It’s a myth, really.”
Greene began his self-propelled musical journey in Cameron Park, California, a small burg just east of Sacramento that offered little in the way of radio stations or record stores. He finally discovered pre-Nirvana-era songwriting with the fortuitous unearthing of his parents’ record collection; the foreign sounds of Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell, Hank Williams, Leonard Cohen and Mississippi John Hurt stood in stark contrast to anything he’d heard before.
After high school, Greene landed a gig at an unpretentious suburban-Sacramento biker bar called the Time Out Tavern, playing every Hank Williams and Johnny Cash song he could muster. “They loved me there,” he recalls. “I got paid 50 bucks and played four hours a night, but I had to go outside on break because I wasn’t 21.”
Greene eventually set his sights on California’s capital city. “Sacramento isn’t exactly New York,” he offers by way of qualification. “Even the best clubs there are still pretty crappy.” He adopted a strategy of ubiquity, playing everywhere he could as often as possible. “That paid off eventually, because there were all these opportunities to see me. Even if people really didn’t want to, they said, ‘What the hell, there’s nothing else to do. Let’s go see this kid.'”
Between 2002 and 2004, Greene released a trio of well-received albums on Sacramento-based imprint Dig Music: Gone Wanderin’, Rusty Nails, and Sweet Somewhere Bound, The last of those was relaunched with wider distribution by Verve Forecast last year, but American Myth is the first album he’s recorded specifically for the label.
Sonically, it veers away from the loose, dusty simplicity of its predecessors. Punchy horn lines surface in the breezy rhythm & blues romp “So Hard To Find My Way” — a touch that Berlin added to offset the monotony of the song’s unwavering two-chord pattern — and in the straight-ahead heartland boogie of “Farewell, So Long Goodbye”. The snaky, sumptuous album opener “Hollywood” mounts sung-spoken jabs at the absurd self-absorption of Sunset Boulevard, though Greene actually wrote it during a stay in Nashville.
Though he is a capable multi-instrumentalist and still performs solo shows, these days Greene enjoys the luxury of surrounding himself with skilled players. More than his singing or his musicianship, though, he stands behind his songwriting.
“That’s the only thing I’ve ever been really serious about,” he says. “I’ve been around a lot of great musicians, and they’re all better than me, way better. I don’t feel any competition with them, because that’s not what I want to do. I just want to write songs. When I was young I wanted to be Jimmy Page, but at some point I realized I’d rather just be a songwriter.”