Song After Song
Q- Since you produce all of your own albums, I assume that you are the one who makes all of the decisions re: what songs to include and what order to put them in… how do you determine the order? Is it just a gut feeling about what flows best? Do you get input from the folks in the studio with you/ others? Does song order seem less relevant / important now that so many people buy single tracks digitally and make mixes rather than purchase or listen to full albums?
A- There are a few different elements that are involved with picking song order. Mostly it’s an instinctive thing. We’re looking for a flow that feels like life feels. That sounds a little gauzy but it’s how I think of it. We also look at simple elements like the key the songs are in. You don’t want to have 4 songs in the key of G all stacked up beside each other if you can help it. We try to make sure there is movement in terms of tempo and key but also there is a matter of how one song finishes and the next song begins. We might find that while we want one song to follow another thematically it doesn’t work because the transition is jarring.
I’ve produced all the records along side David Henry over at True Tone Nashville and David has been indispensable with these kinds of things. I couldn’t have made the recordings we’ve made without him.
Producer is an amorphous term. In a way everyone who works on the recording produces it. When Paul Slivka comes up with a great and surprising bass line he’s helping to produce the recording. When Will Kimbrough wrote the intro slide guitar part for “Welding Burns” he’s producing for the record. I always feel a little uncomfortable about putting “producer” next to my name when everyone else involved is more skilled and knowledgeable than I am but, in the end, someone has to be the guy saying yes and no and that most often falls on my shoulders. So, by default, in a way, I’m the producer.
Also, I always pay for the sandwiches.
I make the call on what songs to include but it’s not based solely on my instincts. A lot of folks were stunned when I didn’t put “Angels and Acrobats” on the first cd. It was by far my most poplar song at the live show but it just didn’t fit the feel of Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues. It fits much better on Stray Dogs which has a wider scope that extends into country music than it would have on Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues which had a slightly more contemporary feel at the time.
Song order doesn’t seem less relevant at the moment because we are still recording “albums” but it’s a good question.
Slaid Cleaves and I had a conversation a couple years back where we were talking about this very thing. Will artists start releasing single songs? Will artists start approaching writing and songs the way Hank Williams did? We forget that for a long time records were released as singles only. Hank went in and cut a few sides at a time and they released them as singles not as an album. It’s conceivable that we’ll all be releasing single songs at some point. I suppose we would all adjust but I love the format of an album. There is room for a story to unfold in ten or twelve songs that just wouldn’t be the same a song at a time. What would Abby Road sound like if the 16 minute medley was broken up into separate songs?
I’m not a luddite. Things change. I change. I simply love the format of a 45 minute album of ten or twelve songs. It just feels right to me. I want to hear the beauty and subtlety of Steve Earle’s “Valentine’s Day” rub against the defiance of “The Unrepentant”. A great album tells a story, and I love a good story.