Thad Cockrell – Steppin’ out
“Well, I write all these other songs, too,” Cockrell confesses of these not-quite-country numbers. “I don’t try to make a song ‘more country’ or less; they come to me, and I try to respect that….The idea of those first three songs is that you meet this amazing girl, and you leave town, and you’re by yourself in your car — with the radio up as loud as it can be. It’s not that I went for a story sequence. I could sequence it a different way, and the record would be really different.”
Since Stack Of Dreams was frequently heralded as a return to “the twang of hurt” — indeed, Cockrell and his Starlite Country Band adopted the phrase “putting the hurt back into country” as a motto on their T-shirts — the prominence of the upbeat sounds this time out, even when applied to less-than-upbeat circumstances in the lyrics (it’s not like he gets the girl or anything), is both a surprise and suggestive of a deliberate change. Such a thing is not unheard of, even in modern honky-tonk, of course; it’s worked for Dwight Yoakam, for instance, more than once.
But Cockrell is hesitant to accept the characterization of sad yet upbeat as strategic. “It’s just something I do. I don’t know; I’m not just saying this to skirt the issue,” he insists. “It’s how the songs came to me — lyrics and melody.”
Whatever the inspiration, the downbeat-lyrics/upbeat-sounds juxtaposition reaches its climax in a bonus, hidden track, “Misery”, which turns the slings and arrows of love gone awry into a rousing sort of bar sing-along. “Well, if you’re going to be miserable, you might as well make a party out of it, huh?” he offers, then explains: “Look, my thing is, there’s always hope.”
Co-producer Stamey adds further perspective. “There was a lot of talk about ‘Taking The View’; everybody seemed to like that one, but you take it out and it would be a different record. You can paint a different picture of any record by shuffling the cards differently….To me, Warmth & Beauty is pretty much a country record — but everybody lives in their time.”
The prolific Cockrell originally had nearly twenty new numbers of varying styles ready for recording. He suggests that the final choices of what made it onto the disc, or even the relative percentage of the styles, were not really his call.
“No, it wasn’t; it was the songs’ call!” he avows. “The songs that are on the record are the songs that turned out to sound the way I wanted them to sound.
“I could easily say that the best song that I’ve written in the last year didn’t make it onto the record, because we didn’t get a good version of it. Broke my heart; just killed me. It’s called “So Sad”. I would never have thought that it wouldn’t be on there, but it just didn’t work. We do it live, though.”
And, interestingly enough, as Stamey points out, despite the title and its attendant downer lyrics, “So Sad” is about the happiest-sounding song of Cockrell’s set.
Live and in the studio, the anchors of Cockrell’s evolving backup group, the Starlite Country Band, are guitarist John Teer and bassist Aaron Oliva.
When, a year ago, Cockrell tapped Teer to become his electric lead guitarist for their shared musical sensibilities and general compatibility, he was actually much better-known and practiced as a fiddle and mandolin player. (Teer is also a member of the bluegrass band Chatham County Line, which recently released an album on Yep Roc affiliate Bonfire.)
But Teer has become increasingly adept at Bakersfield-tinged honky-tonk (and economical in his leads, Stamey notes), and he sings Louvins-to-Everlys country harmonies with Cockrell so close that at times, onstage, it sounds like Cockrell is pulling off a voice-doubling trick.
Oliva has been the bassist for two years now. Cockrell points to his playing on the infectious “I’d Rather Have You” opener as a good example of his contributions. Stamey, who used Oliva on records he produced for Caitlin Cary and Alejandro Escovedo, refers to his solid work as the “base” of the whole disc. (Oliva also recently recorded and toured with Superchunk leader Mac McCaughan’s side-project band Portastatic.)
Other musicians that Stamey brought in for the project include keyboardist Jen Gunderman (formerly with the Jayhawks and currently an anchor in Cary’s band), and three members of Tift Merritt’s band — Greg Readling on pedal steel, Zeke Hutchins on drums and Brandon Bush on Hammond organ. Both Cary — who included songs co-written with Cockrell on both of her solo albums — and Merritt contribute harmony vocals as well.