Dazzling Elizabeth Cook had no sooner come off an incredible run with her Don Was-produced album Welder that she turned around and gave country fans another jolt with her latest album Gospel Plow, which offers southern gospel tunes with a folk-bluegrass flair. Once again, the much loved and lauded singer-songwriter has served fans a power-packed album full of vibrant, soulful songs wrapped around Cook’s lush southern vocals. As Cook prepares to again take center stage at the annual Americana Music Festival, held each September in Nashville, she took time out to talk about her latest album, her future music plans, and just what might change the whole trajectory.
OS: A lot of fans were surprised that after Welder you did Gospel Plow. What does Gospel Plow represent in your career?
EC: This is a little slice of what I do. It’s not all that I do and all that I appreciate. There are many, many layers to my connection to music.
OS: When did you first get into gospel music?
EC: It way very, very early on in my life that I began to appreciate that music. My parents send me to a Pentacostal church in my neighborhood. They didn’t go too much but they would send me. They believed in all ages in the same room at the same time and there was all kinds of great music around. That always stuck with me. I recognize it as a musical genre that I love. Elvis Presley, so many other artists that came up through the charts, loved it too.
OS: Do you see yourself doing more of this music?
EC: I may never make another album of this kind again and I may do another at some time. I don’t know.
What we think of today as “classic rock” would probably still have existed in a world without Mitch Ryder, but it most likely would have sounded quite different. Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels ruled the radio and monopolized the singles charts between 1965 and ’67, taking the R&B sounds emanating from their native Motor City and elsewhere and amping them up into a sweaty, ecstatic explosion of rock ‘n’ soul abandon. Query any major American rock act to emerge between the late ’60s and the late ’70s”odds are the influences they’ll cite include plenty of classic Motown and Stax artists, but their adaptation of those soulful sounds into their own music will be most immediately informed by the mid-’60s Mitch Ryder hit parade. “I think it’s true when they say that we crossed that bridge from Motown into white-boy rock & roll,” says Ryder. “We had enough R&B influence in our music, but we also had that teenage angst and energy and drive that comes with being a rock & roller, and we somehow magically stumbled onto a hybrid mixture of those two. And that created not only our sound, but it allowed for young rock & rollers to cross over [into R&B].”
In fact, the first half of “Devil With a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly,” the 1966 medley that became Ryder’s biggest hit, came straight from Berry Gordy‘s R&B empire. The original version was cut by soul man Shorty Long for Motown two years earlier, at about half the speed of Ryder’s fervid reinvention. “We doubled it, maybe tripled it,” Ryder says of the original song’s tempo. “If the average band was playing 100 beats a minute, we were playing 160 beats a minute, it’s just adrenaline.” That adrenaline helped to make stars of Ryder and his Motor City mates in an era dominated by British groups whose own interpretation of American R&B was watered-down by comparison. Listen, for instance, to the Rolling Stones‘ early attempts at blues and soul back to back with Ryder’s contemporaneous output for verification. In fact, Keith Richards and Brian Jones were guests at the recording session for Ryder’s momentous ’65 single “Jenny Take a Ride,” and the latter artist’s intensity was not lost on them. “There was a little bit of arrogance,” Ryder recalls of the Stones’ demeanor on the date in question, “but there was a genuine interest because of what they were listening to. And they had the ability to acknowledge the fact that the music was exciting, and made predictions that it was going to be a hit. I had mingled with them on and off and seen them in London,” remembers Ryder. “Keith and I actually would go out and party together a little bit in New York.”
Unfortunately, Ryder’s commercial success was nowhere near as long-lasting as that of his British drinking buddy. The Wheels didn’t survive past the ’60s, and Ryder’s last real moment in the spotlight in America came in the early ’70s with his short-lived band Detroit. Though he has maintained an active recording career in Europe from the ’70s to the present, Ryder spent decades as an unknown soldier in the US. His last domestic release was 1983’s John Mellencamp-produced Never Kick a Sleeping Dog, and his next dozen or so albums never came near American ears. That trend is about to undergo a long-overdue reversal with the American release of The Promise. Produced by Don Was, Ryder’s first American album in almost thirty years dovetails nicely with the publication of his new autobiography, Devils & Blue Dresses.
In the book, Ryder chronicles his rise and fall with a candor that spares neither himself nor those who screwed him over in the music biz. Producer Bob Crewe, for example, helped make Ryder’s early hits possible, but also hastened the downward slide of the Detroit dynamo’s fortunes. Asked about Crewe’s current whereabouts, Ryder references the producer’s work with The Four Seasons, mordantly remarking, “The latest quote I heard from him is when [Four Seasons musical] Jersey Boys came out, and he said, ‘That’s like hitting the lottery twice.’ Had I been eating chicken, I’d probably be choking on the bones.'” Ryder nevertheless remains evenhanded in his estimation of Crewe. “He had no lack of confidence, and no morals or ethics either, for that matter. But I give him his proper credit in the book, and state quite clearly that those songs, no matter how talented our band was, couldn’t have become as powerful as they were had he not been present to cause that excitement in the minds and hearts of the young teenagers [Ryder and The Wheels] he was surrounded with.”
Ryder’s book is a fascinating rock & roll memoir along the lines of Tommy James‘s cautionary tale, Me, The Mob & The Music, even featuring some of the same mendacious moguls. Ryder states simply, “If you’re gonna write an autobiography, why glitz it up and try to hide things? Most of my life I’ve lived in Detroit, and Detroit’s a funny place”we can live with omissions but we will not tolerate a lie. So I decided when I started writing that it was gonna be as truthful as it could possibly be. It was so truthful that the [publisher’s] legal department pulled many, many pages from the book. They were afraid of lawsuits. All I did was lay out the facts and told the truth.” Ryder doesn’t let himself off the hook for anything either, casting an unblinking eye on his own personal and professional missteps throughout, but the sixty-six-year-old singer remains philosophical about it all. “If it happened, it happened,” he says, “Why take on any bad feelings about it? We all make mistakes. Why regret something, why torture yourself so late in life with things you can’t change? For me it’s just a documentation of what the trip was about.”
Ryder’s accounts also include intriguing close encounters with legends like Bob Dylan. A twenty-year-old Ryder was a fly on the wall for one of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited sessions. “That was thrilling,” remembers Ryder. “I was focused like a hawk on a mouse on Dylan, and he was so active in the studio, he would stop a song and take out a notebook and write something down¦suddenly they’d be playing a song and he’d stop and go over to the piano and play something¦it was a long process for him. There was a lot of guesswork on the part of the musicians¦he would do maybe sixteen bars here and the next verse would be ten, and that was all just at his discretion. I remember [Dylan guitarist Mike] Bloomfield just looked at me once with these weird eyes, like ‘This is crazy.’ His music made you think, whereas the music that we had been turning into hits was pretty much party music.”
Nevertheless, the ’70s found Ryder beginning the long process of establishing himself as an incisive songwriter as well as a powerful performer. At least as far as America goes, most of this artistic evolution has taken place under the radar, so many might be surprised at the intensity of the artist’s own compositions on The Promise. “I’m an oldies act here,” he says, “People have no reference point, for all they know I’ve just been real lazy, and just trying to milk that cow until it runs dry, when the fact of the matter is that I’ve been working my ass off and I haven’t stopped.”
With the help of Don Was and a core team of crack players, The Promise melds hard-hitting R&B and rock & roll grooves with uncompromising lyrics that mine the personal and the political with equal aplomb. “Don and I know each other from quite a few years back,” explains Ryder. “I simply called him one day and said ‘Don, what would it take for us to make an album together?’ Because my career in America was really taking a tailspin, and I had to do something to at least let people in America know I was alive so I could work. When I go to Europe it essentially pays my bills for maybe four or five months, the rest of the year depends on the work I get in America. So to survive I had to do something to get myself back into the public eye, and the album was one piece of it. The book became a second piece.”
All these years later, Ryder is still living in the Detroit area, and even as he returns to remind the public of his status as a true rock & roll original, he remains a cheerleader for the Motor City sound. Asked how he looks at the Detroit rock legacy he helped create, as carried through the decades by everyone from The MC5 to the White Stripes, he enthuses, “I’m very happy with it. We just keep trendsetting, and we keep sticking it out there. It still comes out of the city and it’s still being recognized. We have people coming out of here all the time, and it’s been that way since I can remember, so it’s a good breeding ground for artistic abilities. We’re probably more highly educated than the rest of the country would like to think.”
Lucinda Williams was backstage at the Los Angeles Convention Center last fall when something happened that likely changed her life.
She was killing a bit of time while preparing to sing “Comes a Time” with Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin at the tribute to Neil Young as MusiCaresPerson of the Year when she met legendary producer Don Was.
“We were hanging out back stage and Don came over,” said Williams noting that though she and Was had each followed the other’s work through the years, they had never formally met. “Tom [Overby, her manager and husband] was watching and noticed Don and I had a chemistry.”
Talk about timing. Williams had just written the songs for the follow up to her 2008 album Little Honey and was just starting to think about recording. Call it fate or karma or whatever, but it seemed natural that when she and Overby later began to discuss the new record, Overby suggested Was be invited to co-produce.
“We love Don’s past production work,” said Williams. “Part of it, too, was getting that extra set of ears. Also, we didn’t want to make the same album twice.”
Not that anyone would think duplicating Little Honey would be a misstep. The album was widely hailed by critics, especially for the love songs to Overby who Williams wed in 2009 during a concert (and after the ceremony, she went back and played an encore!).
With those album goals in mind, Williams and Overby sent Was the songs and then went to dinner with him where they extended the invitation for him to co-produce. Was readily agreed.
What no one knew at the time was that the Was, Williams, Overby teaming was a true aligning of artistic stars. Not only did the Was Overby production work well but the players Williams and Was handpicked for the album brought an undeniable freshness to the sound.
Keyboard player Rami Jaffee and guitarist Val McCallum were tapped by Was to join Butch Norton on drums, David Sutton on bass and Greg Leisz on guitar including pedal steel. As if that team wasn’t powerful enough, Elvis Costello”who also played and sang with Lucinda on her song “Jailhouse Tears””was brought in to add some no-holds-barred guitar work.
But the heart of the album is, of course, Williams superb songwriting. Once again, she has done what many feared would be the impossible”reinvent herself. The brilliant multiple GRAMMY Award winning singer/songwriter”who has penned an array of classic songs including “Passionate Kisses” and “Change the Locks””was well known for her songs about unrequited love and broken hearts such as “He Never Got Enough Love” and “Steal Your Love” when she made Little Honey. That album shifted her direction when it let the world in on the secret that she and Overby had found love.
Now she’s shifted gears again and made an album that has won critical praise after critical praise while tackling subjects far away from her unrequited love comfort zone of writing. Although the songs about broken hearts are easy to write, she said she was more than ready to cast a wider net creatively thanks to her rock-solid relationship with Overby.
“Tom is the big difference. I have a security I never had before,” she said. “It’s hard to talk about the process as a writer. Especially now with this album more than ever I’m being asked how I came up with the songs. So much of it was almost a stream of consciousness thing. I can’t detail that”it just flowed.”
It’s also taken fans along for the ride. A quick look at Williams’ Web site, Facebook page and other social media outlets shows that many fans are talking about the song” and word””Blessed”. They detail what the word means to them in their lives. A full-length documentary made up of many of those stories is in the works and HBO is interested in the project, said Williams.
“I’m very excited about it,” said Williams of how her song has impacted so many and turned into a way for others to express themselves. “Times are tough right now. People need this.”
Based in Nashville, Tennessee, the Americana Music Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating and cultivating the community of Americana artists across the country. The AMA works around the clock to host events, participate in conferences, conduct research and keep fans in the know. They also know how to put on some incredible concerts, which have featured such influential artists as Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and Buddy Miller. We had the chance to catch up with Executive Director Jed Hilly to hear all about the exciting events and initiatives that the AMA has done in the past, as well as their plans for 2011.
OS: As Executive Director, what is your role in the AMA?
JH: My job was designed to shed light on those artists who otherwise would not be heard. The association was created in 1999 and the group of 30 some-odd folks who became our founding council created the organization pretty much in response to the commercialization of radio in the ’90s and how artists like Steve Earle and Roseanne Cash, these great artists of integrity, were pretty much shut out from airplay. So that’s where it started from. We’re a trade association, but I feel like I work for the artist. The beautiful and wonderful thing that seems to be happening in the last couple years is that there’s a tremendous momentum in the Americana world. Some of these artists that have embraced the Americana community and style and genre of music, they don’t need me to shed any light on them at all…artists like Elvis Costello and John Mellencamp and Robert Plant, and yet, I’m thrilled that they’ve embraced this style of music because my job is to raise the tide for all ships. The participation and support of artists like that really helps.
OS: What are the advantages to joining the AMA?
JH: Well, I tell people that we are a non-profit with a very small staff…there’s actually only 2 full-time employees. I wish we were larger…people think we’re a much bigger organization. Because of the passion of the volunteer efforts that we receive, we put on a festival and conference each year. It’s an exceptional event and an amazing volunteer effort. About 150 people join forces with me and Dana Strong, our Director of Operations, and make it this wonderful community gathering. The benefits [of becoming a member]…you get a discount on our community gathering, we keep you updated, we’ve joined forces with an independent insurance plan, which is really helpful for artists who are always on the go. I would encourage people to support what we’re doing because I truly believe that we’re changing the landscape of the music business and it’s long overdue.
OS: The AMA recently announced the Top 100 Americana albums of the year. How is this list compiled?
JH: We have about 75 radio stations that are sanctioned certified reports, what they call a “radio panel.” When somebody says to me, “How do you define Americana?” This is our tool. Through these stations, they report spin counts”the number of times they play a particular song from a particular record. When you add them all up across 75 stations, your Top 40 chart is going to look different from every station, unlike mainstream stations, where it’s 10-20 songs played over the course of a week in every city in the country. This is unique, it’s a cross-section of 75 stations and specialty shows and the like, where we’re getting their definition of what Americana is. As spin counts accumulate, they bubble up. When you look at that over the course of a year, there could be a debate about some of the artists that could be at 700 or 800, but when you get to the Top 100, there’s your definition. There’s your landscape of the Americana world. Our radio stations are our heatseeker chart, if you will.
OS: Every year, you have a showcase at the Americana Music Festival & Conference. What do you look for in acts that submit applications for this opportunity?
JH: Similar to the way you’ve got 75 stations who are putting forth what they perceive to be the songs most worthy of airplay on their stations, so too do we have a committee that both surveys online and physical product that is submitted to us. They go through it, and I love what they do. Last year we had over 800 acts submit to play our event. The worst month of my year is when the 700 letters of regret, as we call them, go out, because we’re a small organization. We can only invite between 85 and 100 artists to be a part of this and it’s not necessarily the best of the best. Sometimes artists’ schedules change and they can’t come, or vice versa. But the bottom line, musically, is that Americana music” as we define it”is contemporary music that honors or derives from American roots music. And after that, a number of factors come into it. We’re grateful because the venues extend to us their homes, for free. This is our annual fundraiser. One of our venues, for example, is the world famous Station Inn in Nashville, which is the mecca of bluegrass. What you’ll find in that particular venue are more singer-songwriter, bluegrass-oriented performances. The room holds about 200. By contrast, we use the Cannery Ballroom, which holds over a thousand. That’s where we put people like Dirks Bentley, who played our event last year. So in the case of some of these artists who we’ll put in the Cannery, it’s because they can put a thousand people in there, and that’s how we make some money to survive.
OS: The AMA endorses Sound Healthcare. What can you tell us about this initiative?
JH: That’s our insurance plan. Sound Healthcare is an organization that has gone to a number of nonprofits, like the AMA, or the Country Music Association or the Folk Alliance. It’s a managed healthcare plan by consolidating these non-profit groups. An organization like the CMA has anywhere between 4,000 and 6,000 members. We have 1,000…but it’s great that we are all a part of the same plan that gives us the volume and numbers to support getting reasonable rates by being part of it. I think it’s a brilliant idea that the folks over there put together and we’re thrilled to be part of it as a benefit from our membership.
OS: What is your most memorable experience from an Americana Honors and Awards Show?
JH: It’s hard for me, because I’m working that day! (laughs) I’m a ball of stress, hoping everything goes well and it always does. But I remember a few years ago when Lyle Lovett came. He showed up at rehearsal and the great Buddy Miller is our band leader. We generally ask people to tell us what song they’re going to do and Buddy puts together this incredible all-star band. Last year, the band featured Buddy on guitar, Don Was on the upright bass, Greg Leisz on steel…just an amazing array of musicianship supporting the artists who perform in our show. Lyle didn’t deliver a song to me or Buddy, and quite honestly, I’m not going to push Lyle Lovett to a decision! So Lyle shows up and Tony Brown, the great producer, happened to be in the house. So Lyle’s standing there and he says, “What should I do?” Tony says, “If I Had a Boat!” and Lyle says, “Does anybody have a copy of ‘If I Had a Boat’ for the band to hear?” And they pulled it up off iTunes and there was dead silence. One by one, Buddy and the members of the band start playing along with it, halfway through the song. The song finished and Buddy said, “Can we hear that one more time?” And they ran it through, and it was amazing. Just watching this level of artists and musicians listening, thinking, absorbing…and about 45 seconds into it, They went and did this first take, not ever having played the song together. It really was an extraordinary moment, sitting there for the next four and a half minutes, and they stopped and Lyle said, “I think you got it!” (laughs) It was truly wonderful and the essence, I think, of what the Americana community is all about. It’s about the enjoyment, the passion and the love of music and it’s about the talent level. Man, they nailed it.
OS: You’ve said that, “The typical Americana act is in the music business for the long haul.” Why do you think this is?
JH: I think they’re artists. I heard Emmylou Harris talk a couple years ago…she had been presented with one of those big platinum awards, commemorating 15 million records sold or something. She looked around at the room and said “I’m honored and privileged to be able to do this, but I’m honored and privileged to play with all of you. Whether we made money on this or not, I think we still would have done it, and I think we still would have been playing music, because that’s what we do.” Living in Nashville can be so hard. There’s that old bus station story about Nashville, where you show up with your guitar and you leave without it to get the bus ticket out. But that’s not this community. This community is about telling a story through song in the best way they know how. It’s not about selling records. To me, it’s the difference between fine art and commercial.
OS: What are some events that the AMA has coming up in 2011?
JH: We will be back at SXSW and doing our annual showcase there. We’re thrilled that the organizers of that great event give us a pretty nice venue. We get to be at historic Antone’s every year and have had some wonderful performances. I’m not at liberty to say who will be performing this year, but what I can say is that it will be a cross-section of 5 or 6 artists, among them will be some newcomers and truly legendary figures from the American music world, which will be pretty special. We do a Bluebird series, which is a pretty nice little event. It’s a benefit. We’ve had artists from Nanci Griffith to Rodney Crowell put on shows for us. About 100 people fit in the room. We don’t make a ton of money on it but it’s a pretty magical event. We’re planning a little mini festival that will be a benefit to support the AMA that will take place at Blackberry Farm, which is truly one of the country’s finest inns. It’s a magnificent inn and spa and culinary experience.
The 12th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference event dates are set for October 12th “ October 15th 2011 in Nashville, TN. For more information on the AMA and to register for the conference, visit their official website!