Mark Erelli – Country & Western Massachusetts
Ensconced at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, Erelli began dividing his time between writing songs, playing small clubs and coffeehouses, and studying for a degree in biology. Although he was encouraged by the enthusiasm that greeted his performances, his love of science was genuine, to the point where he was publishing articles, so he never considered dropping out of college to pursue music full-time.
As the months passed, however, the tug-of-war between art and science escalated, and by the time he entered graduate school, Erelli was weighing nearly all his decisions in light of the impact they would have on his music. Hence, instead of continuing his graduate studies in Maine, where the music scene was thin, or in Boston, where the competition was fierce, Erelli decided to move to the relatively small town of Northampton. Not lost on him was the fact that Signature Sounds was based nearby.
“I didn’t want to go to a big city,” he says. “I’d rather be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. So I settled on Northampton, and ended up going to graduate school out there. The science people weren’t ready to let go of me yet; I think they were still thinking I was going to come to my senses. But the more I got into science, the more I realized that, for at least my brand of science — which isn’t medically or molecularly related — it was going to be just as hard a row to hoe as music was. I would be traveling, and doing research, and spending time away from home, and working really hard at teaching.
“So I thought, ‘Well, this is going to be six of one and half-dozen of the other.’ And I knew I would be really unhappy if I had to look back when I’m 80 years old and think, ‘What would have happened if I had done music?’ Anyway, I loved the music scene in Northampton, and Signature Sounds was on my radar because they were the quintessential Pioneer Valley, western Massachusetts record label.”
As it turned out, when Erelli did attract the attention of Signature, it wasn’t in Northampton, but rather at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference held in the Catskills. Encouraged by former Dar Williams tour manager Kris Bergbom, he performed an original song titled “River Road” and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up” at a Signature-sponsored open jam.
Mark Thayer, owner of the label’s recording studio, was there, and was sufficiently impressed to invite Erelli to record some demos. Thayer passed the recordings on to label president Jim Olsen, who, after attending several Erelli performances, signed the singer-songwriter to a record deal. One month before Erelli defended his master’s thesis, his self-titled debut hit the record stores.
“Mark hooked me up with [drummer] Lorne Entress, who’s produced all my records and is a really good friend,” Erelli says, when asked how the backing players were recruited. “Lorne had been more of a blues and jazz player most of his life, but he had always loved country music and folk music and singer-songwriter stuff, and he was looking to get into production. Mark told me I should call him, but Lorne ended up calling me out of the blue, and I think we talked for two and a half or three hours.
“He had all these ideas about my songs, and he was friends with [guitarists] Duke Levine and Kevin Barry. Those guys were two of my favorite guitar players in the world. I used to put on records that Kevin had played on — and Duke, too, to a lesser extent — and try to learn their guitar licks. So when Lorne said, ‘Hey, we can produce the record, and I can get Duke and Kevin to come in and play,’ that was huge. Through Lorne I was able to meet all these great Boston music-scene guys, and things kind of snowballed from there.”
Entress, Levine, Barry and bassist Jim Lemond figured heavily on Erelli’s first three albums. For Hillbilly Pilgrim, however, Erelli felt the songs would be better served by bringing in different players — not because he was dissatisfied with his longtime bandmates, but because he wanted to emphasize the difference between the new album and its predecessors. Entress remained as producer and drummer, but to fill the other slots, Erelli went in search of new blood.
“The Memorial Hall Recordings was such a near-to-my-heart kind of record, I had no idea how I was going to follow that up,” he says. “I thought, ‘I really need to do something different here.’ And if I was going to do a totally new style of music, I thought maybe I should use a few new guys in the band as well, to kind of expand my horizons in that way.”
As fate would have it, Entress again knew just the right players to help bring Erelli’s vision to life. Though little-known outside their native New England, a group of Boston musicians who call themselves the Spurs are, in Erelli’s words, the cats when it comes to country music in the region.
As much a musical collective as a band proper, the group has, in recent years, become something of a cottage industry, its members forming various band permutations centered on any number of country sub-genres. Subsets of the Spurs include a rockabilly band, a bluegrass band, and even a surf band, but far and away the group’s strong suit is western swing. The sole Spurs album, 2000’s Go, Boy, Go!, is an underground party classic that features such titles as “Stop And Let Me Drink About It”.
“With these guys, it was like importing chemistry,” says Erelli. “The bass player, Johnny Sciascia, had never played with Lorne before, but they got along great. And the guys playing fiddle, guitar and steel were already used to working out triple harmonies, and weaving in and out of each other’s way. They had this wonderful chemistry to begin with, so we didn’t have to spend time and money trying to manufacture it.
“The other thing is, the guys in the Spurs are like teenagers who’ve never stopped collecting records. Every day in the studio, one of them would come in with a new set of stuff he’d bought on the way home the previous day. They’re voracious music fans, so we spent a lot of time talking about music. They would be playing stuff — just fooling around between takes — and I would say, ‘How the hell did you learn to do that?’ And that would lead to a story about Merle Travis, or Jimmy Bryant, or someone else who the guys had studied, or had grown up liking.”