Rambling With Willie Sugarcapps
Pick up your guitar and sing us all a song about the people that you’ve seen and the places that you’ve gone. Tell us all the news from across the land. Show us all of the calluses you hide on your hands.
–“Willie Sugarcapps” by Grayson Capps
The band Willie Sugarcapps was born in front of an audience. There was no rehearsal, no warm up, and no set list. Just Grayson Capps, Corky Hughes, Will Kimbrough, and Savana and Anthony Crawford as Sugarcane Jane, and the spontaneous music made when improvising fingers flew across the strings of guitars, banjos and mandolins. Voices blended into haunting four-part harmony with a tambourine and shaker on the backbeat as they created music that unfolded from the inside.
Their debut album, Willie Sugarcapps, came out August 20, 2013.
How did the five of you come together?
Will: Cathe Steele booked us to play together at the Frog Pond at Blue Moon Farm in Silverhill, Alabama. I had never played with Grayson, Corky, Anthony, and Savana, but we all jumped in and it was an instant cohesion that felt like déjà vu. I have been a musician for 31 years and at this stage it is hard to find peers with experience and enthusiasm who enjoy playing with each other.
Grayson: We didn’t know we were forming a band. Playing together was just fun as shit.
Where did the name Willie Sugarcapps come from?
Anthony: Johnny Fisher thought of the name Willie Sugarcapps when he saw us play at the Blue Moon Farm. He is a former general manager at Lulu’s in Gulf Shores and the House of Blues in New Orleans. He now owns Fisher’s in Orange Beach. The full name of the band should be Willie C. Sugarcapps–the C is for Corky.
What are your firsts? First date to play together? First gig as Willie Sugarcapps?
Savana: Our first time to play together was at the Blue Moon Farm on February 4, 2012. Our debut as Willie Sugarcapps was at the 30A Songwriter’s Festival in Santa Rosa, Florida in January 2013. The bookings took off after that. Our first album was recorded on May 6, 2013.
Describe Willie Sugarcapps music.
Anthony: Playing with Grayson, Corky, Will and Savana is like being at a track meet with people who can anticipate the gun and take off. Rhythmically we are all in the same key so no matter where the music goes, we have the anticipation level to chime in. That first night at Blue Moon Farm we played “San Andreas Fault Line” and I called everyone in to play. Each person played his interpretation of where the lead would go right then and it was a beautiful moment. We can pick up a guitar and play anything together. Playing with them is making me a better musician.
Savana: These guys can play anything and they are bringing in instruments that they don’t get to play in their regular gigs. Anthony on the bass and Will on banjo, mandolin, and ukulele sound so good. Corky adds a layer of coolness with lap steel or electric guitar that is like the sweetest candy you’ve ever put in your mouth. Grayson is a great lyricist and so fun to watch. Then you add the harmonies. Everyone has a different tone of voice that somehow blends well together.
Grayson: We grew up listening to old blues and country, Hank Williams, and rock and roll. That is what shapes our music. The four-part harmony is new for me because I have never had that in my music but I can now add call and response to my songwriting. It is an incredible energy when the voices lock together to make a chord.
Will: Our music is timeless and universal. Our styles are different but complimentary because they come from the same place. There is chemistry and humanity in the blend of our voices that covers the range from Grayson with his deep, New Orleans blues to the Appalachian high of Sugarcane Jane. Corky adds a fifth voice with his slide guitar. Each of us has played music for a long time and we are taking all of the things we have learned and throwing it out there. Staying fresh, spontaneous, and in the moment is important to our music.
Will: It was a miracle that we pulled all of this together through email and phone calls. When we first began talking about an album, we considered cutting tracks in the studios where we live and sending them to our producer, Trina Shoemaker, to piece together. But that is not the nature of our music. The songs had to be played live and with each other. We recorded the album in eight hours on Anthony and Savana’s dogtrot porch in the middle of 2,000 acres of pinewood and farmland. We learned many of the songs as we recorded them and which gave a spontaneous, wide-eyed take on the album. My one regret is that Savana only sings lead on “Colorado.” I am going to write more songs for her on the next album.
Anthony: I didn’t have the music for one of my songs, “Energy,” nailed down in my head before we recorded it. That song is over ten years old and I have recorded it five different ways with five different chord patterns because the words allow me to use different moods, whether Pink Floyd production or Tony Rice bluegrass. While we were setting the mic levels I started playing a bluegrass pattern and realized it could be “Energy,” so I changed it right there. That is how fresh the music is on this album.
Savana: Anthony changed “Energy” on me that day but I like the harmonies and the bridge that he added. Harmony and vocals are my biggest contribution to the album, but it is hard to wing a great harmony. I wanted to be prepared and know the words to each song so I jumped into the first six songs that Will sent us, but he continued to send more and more songs so I learned to wait for the final list. He sent us fifty songs to consider for the album and they were all good enough to be included. I loved “Colorado” the first time I heard it.
What are stories behind the some of the songs on the album?
Anthony: Grayson wrote our song “Willie Sugarcapps” as a fable with a call and response to come back home. It is not about us, but it is our theme song. If you don’t learn from the past, you repeat it. The band Willie Sugarcapps presents a feeling of hope, just like Woody Guthrie who is mentioned in the song. “Energy” is about finding an opportunity and taking advantage of it. Find a diamond in the rough, but to make it shine takes a different kind of tough. Every day we try to get ahead, but life can take you under if you don’t keep up and pay the bills. The song is about redefining life and success. These are not measured by money.
Grayson: I write songs like “Poison” to make people think and learn. I am not in this just to entertain people. I want to keep learning and I want to share it people who want to listen. I want to write songs that help make things better. I like singing “Poison” live because there is an a cappella part with room to jump up and be spontaneous with the audience. It wakes people up and going out on a limb like that wakes me up too. It is fun to make a fool of myself so I can relax.
Will: I wrote “Trouble” while I was driving I-65 back to Nashville after one of our shows and I was inspired by the music that we had just played. Grayson and Sugarcane Jane sing songs that sound like they could have been written 100 years ago so I wanted to write an old school song for their voices about sickness, dying, and death. You get to the middle of life and understand that mortality is real and we are all getting older. You have to make friends with life and death. “Gypsy Train” is about life on the road. I love you, but I have to leave. I wrote that song a long time ago, but was waiting for the right place to use it. “Gypsy Train” works for this band because our families are important and it is hard to leave them to make this happen.
What do you have in common besides music?
Anthony: There is a lot going on in our lives beyond music. Most of us have children and our family is even more important to us than music. Willie Sugarcapps plays music from the heart. What does our heart represent? It represents family and the people who live in our heart.
TOP PHOTO: Willie Sugarcapps: Corky Hughes, Grayson Capps, Will Kimbrough, Savana Crawford, Anthony Crawford – Photo by Catt Sirten
BOTTOM Photo: Keith Necaise
This story was originally published in The Southern Rambler