Rusty Truck – Who’s zoomin’ who
We all have skilled friends willing to lend a hand — to fix a computer glitch or check under the hood, that sort of thing. But what if you write songs, and you happen to know some of the biggest names in rock and country music? That’s the case with Mark Seliger, renowned entertainment photographer and now, thanks in part to such friends as Jakob Dylan, Lenny Kravitz, Willie Nelson and Gillian Welch, recording artist.
Feeling cynical? Understood. Indeed, all of these pals figured prominently in the making of Broken Promises, Seliger’s Coda Terra Entertainment debut under the band name Rusty Truck. But the thing is, Seliger’s no charity case; Broken Promises introduces a songwriter and vocalist of considerable presence. His is a wordy, cinematic trip rooted in ’70s-era country pop, perhaps somewhere between Neil Young’s earthy Harvest, Harry Nilsson’s swooning “Everybody’s Talkin'”, and the troubadour tradition rooted in Seliger’s home state of Texas. Call it a fortunate, and welcome, twist of fate.
It was Dylan who first nudged Seliger down the musical path. Seliger calls it “a fluke.” The two became fast friends after a photo session (as was the case with many of the photographer’s musical accomplices). The Wallflowers frontman sought photography tips and later reciprocated by offering the use of a recording studio in Los Angeles. “He said, ‘It would be really fun. I’ll just call the guys over and we’ll just do it,'” Seliger says, taking a break from a Liz Phair photo session in Los Angeles. “And I thought, what a fucking generous gesture.”
That was 1999. By then the lanky, 40-year-old Manhattan resident and Rolling Stone staffer was already a six-string dreamer with a love for classic country and, specifically, Willie’s Stardust. (The liner notes to Broken Promises thank a college dorm RA who inadvertently turned Seliger on to the album by loaning him a car with a cassette copy in the stereo.)
Seliger had performed some in New York clubs and had taken to writing lyrics during his countless flights between the coasts. But the collaboration with Dylan on Seliger’s first composition ever, “Never Going Back”, later to be featured on the 2002 various-artist collection Trampoline Records Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, sparked a years-long musical journey that finally culminated with the September release of Broken Promises.
Next came Kravitz, who, impressed by a Rusty Truck gig in Los Angeles, invited Seliger to Miami to work on multiple tracks. Over the next few years, others joined in: Welch and David Rawlings in Nashville; Nelson and Mickey Raphael in Austin; T Bone Burnett and Sheryl Crow in New Jersey; Me’shell N’degeocello, Rob Thomas, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Marc Ribot and Latin producer Andres Levin in New York; and back in Los Angeles again for tracks with Dylan and his Wallflowers mates Rami Jaffee and Greg Richling.
“The organic way that it landed into the people around me was just as natural as them showing me one of their photographs,” Seliger says. “It’s just sharing…and I have no doubt that if they didn’t feel this was something they wanted to be involved with, they wouldn’t have done it. I never set out for this thing to be anything more than something for me to learn and something for me to express.”
And learn he did. When Seliger made a suggestion to Kravitz for the album’s title track, Kravitz replied, “‘Yeah, that sounds good, but this is making records. It’s a very different process,'” Seliger recalls, laughing. “And then he just took me to school,” he adds. N’degeocello, meanwhile, was among the many who made him “step up and sing,” he says. Envisioning the song “TKO” as a cross between David Lynch and Johnny Cash, she instructed Seliger to sing like he was the “biggest motherfucking pimp.”
Other artists provided some much-needed validation. Welch had no qualms with Seliger’s hope to make a “perfect” record: “She said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s the way you make records.'” And for “1000 Kisses”, he told Willie, “‘If there’s anything you want to think about differently, let me know. This is just verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus.’ And he goes, ‘Well, that’s exactly how you write a song, son. The simpler the better.'”
Rusty Truck is not a hobby nor a vanity project, Seliger insist; rather, it’s “integrated into the seven-day week.” It’s one man’s often-stirring country tales, further shaped by a band that usually includes drummer Joey Peters (Grant Lee Buffalo), guitarist Michael Duff (Chalk Farm), bassist Sheldon Gomberg (Ryan Adams, Warren Zevon), multi-instrumentalist Ben Peeler (Wallflowers), dobro/lap steel player Andy Gibson (Hank III), and backing vocalist Kristin Mooney (Peter Himmelman).
“I like to create, whether it’s taking a picture, trying to plant a garden, cook a great meal, or writing songs,” he says. “This is the journey of life. If you don’t do out and do the things you love to do, what’s the point of getting up in the morning?”