Country Music has spawned so many sub genres that there surely cannot be any left. Not true, here’s a new one, “Country and West Yorkshire”. This is how Tony Wright and Ryan Hamilton describe their collaboration. To make the point their album is called Grand Ole Otley. Wright is a Yorkshireman with a long pedigree as an indie rocker in his band Terrorvision. He lives, records and runs a coffee/print shop in Otley, a lovely town in that fine county of England. Texan Ryan Hamilton also rocks, though with more than a hint of Americana, has also had a successful band career, latterly with his Ryan Hamilton and the Traitors.
The record’s producer, Dave Draper, brought these two together, from which they developed a strong friendship. Grand Ole Otley was released on June 8 midway through a short tour of the UK. I caught up with this highly entertaining duo before their London show. The obvious starter was how did two accomplished musicians and writers come to make a record of mainly country classics?
Wright took up the story. “Ryan and his band were playing in Leeds, not far from where I lived. Dave Draper said come along and why not join him for a song or two? I’d just bought a Johnny Horton album which I played over and over so I said let’s do ‘Everytime I’m Kissing You’. We did a dirty, gritty version and we gelled. It wasn’t a cover though, it was our slant on Johnny Horton. After that we thought why not do others in that same way?”
Though Wright had spent years rocking decibels at his audiences he had always been into country. “I grew up listening to rock but I loved TV shows like The Fall Guy and the Dukes of Hazzard. They had lots of good time, playing music. You could just play that stuff on a guitar, no need for the full set-up”.
That Johnny Horton song is on the new record, how did you choose the others? Hamilton said it was simple, “we each proposed five songs. There’s a couple of very old traditional ones and others that aren’t country. What they all have in common is that each one is our own version. We want to get to where the song was born. We can feel the lyric, that’s how we create our version”. Wright elaborated, “Take Wayfaring Stranger. First time I heard that it was Johnny Cash’s version. And that’s what I mean, it wasn’t a cover but his take, he got right inside that song. Or ‘In the Pines’. How many versions are there of that? It’s an open book, people have added bits, moved them around and taken out lines. There are no rules, doesn’t matter if it’s Leadbelly, Kurt Cobain or my mate Phil Snell. We step into someone’s shoes and walk a mile. I sing ‘Jolene’. I’d sound foolish if I tried to emulate Dolly Parton but that doesn’t mean a lad from Bradford can’t connect and feel the song’s heartbreak.”
Ok, that’s the selection and interpretation covered, how did you manage to record the record given everything g else you do? Hamilton admitted they spent a single day in a studio together. Otherwise each did his bit then sent it to Draper for mixing. Wright admits it was a different experience, “I’ve always been at the mixing desk at this stage. Dave took our moonshine and turned it into champagne. A bit too much as it happens. We had to ask him to bring the studio sound back to a more natural level. Which he did”.
So what next, would you write your own songs together? Both said yes although their respective other commitments will make that hard. Hamilton, “we’ve agreed to send each other enough ideas to have something to work on by the end of the year”. “A Christmas hit” quipped Wright!
If Wright’s idea does come to pass then we must hope they return to tonight’s venue. St Pancras Old Church is both a vibrant worshipping community and one of London’s most intimate music venues.
Ryan Hamilton opened with a brief acoustic set. His ‘Records and Needles’ and ‘Medicine’ stripped of the Traitors’ energy were a taster of tonight’s main theme, new takes on old songs. The night’s other theme, their knockabout humour, also got going with Wright pinging peanuts at him from a nearby alcove.
Sporting a large white stetson with a shirt adorned with some rhinestone Wright joined the party. Together they started with ‘Whiskey River’ off the new album. Though there were shades of Willie Nelson in their rendition, Wright and Hamilton’s duet gave the song a completely new feel. To emphasise the seriousness of their project Wright’s preamble to ‘Oh, Lonesome Me’ was all about respect to Don Gibson and Neil Young. His gravelly rasp added a new dimension as did their slightly livelier pace.
What was certainly lively was their continuous joking, largely around the difference between American and British definitions of words. They are both amusing guys, Wright was a very witty TV presenter some years ago and with Hamilton he could return to that though it would probably have to be a late-night show.
As the church darkened so the corresponding atmosphere suited their songs. They sat on opposite sides of the tiny stage, Wright slouched as if on his porch, they cut a ghostly image. Their only accompaniment was a mate from Yorkshire, Roger Poulter, whose E flat bass only added to that haunting feeling on ‘Wayfaring Stranger’. The sense of unease deepened next on ‘In the Pines’. “In the pines, I’ll shiver the whole night through”. Is there anyone there?
As their set progressed Wright and Hamilton rammed home their points that these are not covers. Hank Jr’s ‘Family Tradition’ lifted the sombre feeling as they stamped their own sprightly barrelhouse slant on this classic. That gave the context for songs that perhaps looked out of place on the record; ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’. They said they didn’t just like these a lot, but they got to the lyric of two quite different songs expressed in their own style. Hamilton weaved around Wright’s languid but heartfelt delivery. ‘Jolene’ was the biggest test of these being versions not covers. In the semi-darkness Wright howled out the emotion in a much slower, almost bluesy way.
They finished the show with a couple of their own songs around the new album’s highlight. From Hamilton’s ‘OMG’, to Wright’s ‘Self Portrait’ then ‘Every Time I’m Kissing You’ you couldn’t see the joins. Listening to the record a couple of times might suggest a collection covers but that would be a wrong impression. They most certainly are not but all the same, let’s hope they do write some new songs together as well.