Partners In Crime

Eric Heywood, Pedal Steel Master

IMG_3067I had the immense good fortune Friday night of catching Tift Merritt at The Mucky Duck in Houston, where she played two full sets.  Merritt resides pretty high on my list of singer-songwriters alongside folks like Joe Henry (there's a stunning live bootleg floating around out there of Tift singing Dylan's "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" with JH accompanying her on acoustic guitar, part of a NYC I'm Not There celebration).

Anyway, the shows were phenomenal, and I sat about two feet from pedal steel and guitar player Eric Heywood, who has toured and recorded with Merritt for a couple of years now.  He is on a very short list of in-demand steel players who has played on many fantastic records.  Since most of the music I love today sprung from that mid-1990's No Depression explosion, I must owe Heywood a cosmic debt because he played on some of my favorite records of that period (Richard Buckner's Since being chief among them).  He more recently lavished some gorgeous pedal steel upon John Doe & The Sadies' Country Club, which has become an enduring favorite of mine over the past few years.

IMG_3090After the show, Eric was kind enough to chat with me for a while, and I mentioned the blog.  He is fairly deeply connected with the same circle of musicians as JH, most recently due to his recording and touring with Ray LaMontagne and The Pariah Dogs, which also includes Jay Bellerose, Jennifer Condos and Greg Leisz (though Leisz did not tour with them, to my recollection).  But even I didn't realize he toured with JH during the Short Man's Room/Kindness Of The World period and recorded with him on Fireman's Wedding and Trampoline.  Most recently, Heywood added pedal steel to Lisa Hannigan's Passenger, appearing on the track "Safe Travels".

IMG_3070I just wanted to give some recognition to yet another talented musician who can be counted among Joe Henry's trusted confederates.  Check out this 2008 interview with Heywood from No Depression, and marvel at the sheer number of great recordings he has contributed to over the years, here and here.

And be sure to catch Tift Merritt if she heads your way so you can check out her wonderful band for yourself.

UPDATE 2/18/13:  And just in case you've seen Tift Merritt with Mr. Heywood recently, and you were wondering what that beautiful Tele he plays is ("Why, yes, DK – I was wondering that."), check out the website for Creston Guitars where his guitar has its own page.  I was in Burlington, VT, last year for Grace Potter's Grand Point North music festival, and several of the local acts were outfitted with Creston guitars.  Turns out Creston has followers well beyond the borders of Vermont!  Please excuse the guitar geekery.

UPDATE:  Here's a really nice video of Ms. Merritt and Mr. Heywood performing "Small Talk Relations" together on a recent episode of Last Call with Carson Daly (taped at The Troubadour in LA):

Joe Henry & Lisa Hannigan – The Portland Sessions

This has been linked at JH's website for a couple of weeks, but if you have not watched it yet, do so immediately.  Having recently wrapped up their brief North American tour together, this performance bottles a bit of the magic of the two artists' recent performances.

Considering how lovely JH and Hannigan are together, here's hoping there are many more collaborations on the horizon.

Joe Henry and Lisa Hannigan from The Portland Sessions on Vimeo.

Joe Henry interview on WHYY

WHYY's (Philadelphia) Marty Moss-Coane recently interviewed JH, covering a host of topics including Reverie, his solo work and his producing career.  It's a fantastic interview – one of the best I've heard – and you'll get to hear "Room At Arles" and "Tomorrow Is October" from the new album.

Visit WHYY's website or download the podcast interview from iTunes.

Lisa Hannigan recording diaries

UPDATE:  You can stream Passenger in its entirety over at KCRW.

Director Myles O'Reilly has released a series of "recording diaries," filmed during the making of Lisa Hannigan's new record Passenger in Ireland.  Producer Joe Henry and engineer Ryan Freeland were, of course, along for the ride.

Here's a sample from what appears to be the awesomest recording location on the planet…

Passenger will be released in the U.S. on September 20.  You can see more diary entries over at O'Reilly's YouTube channel.

The Milk Carton Kids

Here's something just a bit different…

The Milk Carton Kids are the duo of singer-songwriters Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan.  Joe Henry guested on Pattengale's last solo record so it might come as little surprise that he's a fan of The Milk Carton Kids.

In fact, he's such a fan that he's penned a rather impressive "foreward to prologue" on the Kids' website, where you can download both of their records for FREE.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I encourage you to check these guys out.

Also, they kick off an extensive tour next week in Phoenix, where I'll just happen to be.  With any luck, I'll be there.

Solomon Burke has passed away

SolomonBurke I awoke to the sad news that the great soul legend, Solomon Burke, has passed away at the age of 70.  He was on his way to a show in Amsterdam when he died of natural causes, according to local authorities.

Of course, Joe Henry fans will remember him not only for his many classic recordings but also for Don't Give Up On Me, which was produced by JH and won the two of them a Grammy.  That album marked the beginning of a comeback for Burke and also made JH a name of note in the producing world.  It's probably safe to say that many of the JH projects that happened subsequently would not have been possible without the success of Don't Give Up On Me.

Among Burke's many recent recordings, my favorite probably still remains his Buddy Miller-produced country record Nashville, which I noted as my favorite album of 2006.  His most recent album, Nothing's Impossible, was produced by the legendary Willie Mitchell, which was Mitchell's last project before passing away.  It will now be Burke's last record as well, but that excellent album will is a fitting lasting tribute to the talents of both men.

On a personal note, I once had the great thrill of bumping into Burke as I was leaving my hotel room at the Beverly Hilton.  He was surrounded by three young women – yes, in sequin dresses – and headed down to the lobby.  He endured an elevator ride of my fanboy gushing and was friendly and chatty.  I later learned that he was being given an ASCAP award that evening, presented by Elvis Costello.  He would also perform with Costello and Joe Henry that night.

It's a terrible loss for the music world, and Burke will be remembered not only for his classic recordings but also for his late-era albums, which are every bit as vital and important as his early work.

JH regulars to appear on new Ray Lamontagne

Ray Lamontagne has smartly tapped a number of JH's partners in crime to appear on his upcoming album, God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise (due August 17).  Under the moniker of The Pariah Dogs, Jay Bellerose, Patrick Warren, Greg Leisz, Jennifer Condos and Eric Heywood back Lamontagne on this self-produced new album.

I'm presuming that The Pariah Dogs will also be appearing on Ray's upcoming tour with David Gray.  Incidentally, Tift Merritt (!) will be opening for them on many of the dates.

My visit with Joe Henry

I suppose there's a fine line between blogger and stalker, and I might not argue if you claim that I've crossed it.  However, I will claim in no uncertain terms that the original purpose of my trip to Los Angeles was to see the Drive-By Truckers at the Avalon in Hollywood.  I had originally scheduled a trip to Nashville last weekend to see them, but they postponed the show until June (as it turned out, Nashville suffered a terrible 1000-year flood last weekend, and I can only imagine how badly that trip might have turned out).  So I transferred my Southwest reward ticket to Nashville for a trip to LA this weekend instead.  (BTW, these little solo concert trips are a tradition that my loving wife tolerates a couple of times per year.)

At some point, the wild thought occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I could somehow finagle an interview with Joe Henry, assuming he would be at home and not otherwise busy with projects.  I sent his manager a rather lengthy (rambling?) proposal for such an interview, with really no particular expectations.  I assure you it's not generally my habit to impose myself on creative professionals.  I'm neither a journalist nor a writer, and on the few occasions I've had to meet one of my heroes, you can probably rest assured I said something really dorky.  I once stood in the lobby after a hometown Tift Merritt show in North Carolina talking at length with her dad, but I couldn't muster the courage to say a word to her.

So imagine my excitement – with slight overtones of terror – when word came from Joe's manager that yes, he'd be happy to meet with me – at his house.  Let's be clear – my fanatical mind has pretty much turned Garfield House into a mythical location, the site of not only two of my favorite records of all time (Civilians and Blood From Stars) but a handful of albums that also land squarely in my Top 100.  Basically, think of it as interviewing Steve Cropper and Booker T. at Stax Studio in 1965, and you get some idea of what actually visiting Joe Henry's studio means to me.

Let me say that Joe Henry and his family have a lovely home.  If you've read the liner notes for Civilians, you know that they live in the former home of Lucretia Garfield (President Garfield's widow) in the not-so-terribly-rock-and-roll town of South Pasadena, just north of Los Angeles.  If Joe ever has the inclination to become an eccentric, Faulknerian character, he has a great front lawn for it (though I might recommend something like a working cannon to really complete the package).

The house is in great shape but was not so when they first bought it.  In Joe's words, he didn't think there were still houses like that still available, which is to say turn-of-the-century houses that hadn't been touched in over 50 years.  Needless to say, four months of renovations were required.  The studio that now resides in the basement (where a kitchen previously existed) was not at the time envisioned as the fully-functioning recording studio it is today.  However, through much vision, hard work and input from his wife and his engineer Ryan Freeland, nearly every inch of the basement – including several standalone rooms acting as isolation booths – is utilized during the recording process.  One room is large enough to house a Steinway, which was pulled in for the Mose Allison sessions last year.  Jay Bellerose has a comfortable corner, though he is sometimes pulled into one of the booths (Joe assured me in a follow-up message that they had "fenced him in like a pony" just last week).  If you've seen pictures or clips from the studio, you might imagine it would seem perhaps much smaller in person, but actually the opposite is true.  I don't have much to compare it to, but from my perspective it positively exudes warmth and comfort, and I can imagine it's a rather wonderful space in which to create records (there's even a bathroom).

We began our conversation at the kitchen table over a couple of espressos, prepared with substantial expertise by Joe (who assured me that it's a constant activity during recording sessions).  I brought a recorder; I typed several pages of questions (I even wrote several drafts).  At one point, Joe asked if I'd like to record it, but by that point we were simply talking, and I didn't even take notes.  I did manage to work in a number of my prepared questions, but we also drifted off on a number of non-musical tangents.  The gist is this: I gleaned some interesting information, I got some great stories, and I was honestly just thrilled to be having a conversation with one of my heroes.  About five minutes after I left, about a hundred questions sprang to mind that I wished I'd asked.  Joe did subsequently offer to have us do an email interview sometime, and that will hopefully be something to look for here in the future. 

So here are a few highlights of what we did discuss.  The recording and mixing for the new Aaron Neville album is complete.  That project, incidentally, was partially fueled by some sessions that Joe produced for the upcoming Mickey Rourke film Passion Play, which will feature tracks by Neville, Solomon Burke, Jimmy Scott and Allen Toussaint.  Speaking of Toussaint, it appears that the next Toussaint/Henry project is set.  I actually don't want to spoil it, but I'll refer you to Toussaint's recording of "Tipitina" on the Our New Orleans compilation for a hint.  This project will make a nice companion to last year's The Bright Mississippi, and according to Joe, Nonesuch is on board and excited about it.  He and Toussaint will begin preliminary work on it soon, and Joe is hoping to record it at Garfield House (The Bright Mississippi was recorded in a New York studio).  Toussaint's name obviously came up throughout our conversation (probably not coincidentally, I've been rather mesmerized by that album lately).

Over The Rhine will arrive in South Pasadena next week to begin their new record, and he's got high hopes for that one.  Joe produced a recent track for The Swell Season and definitely hinted that he'd like to do a full album with them.  He mentioned that he'd like to lure Lucinda Williams to his studio, thinking she'd really enjoy making a record there (she showed up to his recent LA gig at Largo).  It's quite obvious that Garfield House is Joe's favorite place to record and that he loves enticing artists into his studio.  He describes it simply as hanging out in his basement with his friends.

Speaking of whom, we discussed drummer Jay Bellerose for probably 20 minutes.  Joe is just as in awe of his talent as anyone who's heard him play.  I pore over Jay's playing on Joe Henry records with nearly the same fever as I pick apart Joe's lyrics.  He plays drums on Sam Phillips' A Boot and A Shoe, which is likely my favorite album of all time and one that I would describe as the sound of a guitar falling in love with the drums.  The first album I ever heard him play on was Joe Henry's Tiny Voices, and I found myself fumbling for the liner notes wanting immediately to know who was playing.  Joe says he hesitates to even call him a "drummer."  But he doesn't hesitate to call Jay Bellerose his best friend.

It's clear he has great affection and admiration fo
r all of his core musicians, including also bassist David Piltch, keyboardist Patrick Warren and also quite often stringmaster Greg Leisz.

I was rather stunned when I realized we had been chatting for nearly an hour-and-a-half.  We spent another half hour in the studio, and during the entire time I barely even asked him about his own records.  I subsequently sent him an email apologizing, as I hoped he didn't feel I was slighting his work as an artist.  Upon further reflection, and even in reviewing my planned questions, I can only speculate that I was subconsciously a bit daunted by the notion of really digging into Joe Henry's songs and records.  Where does one begin, after all?  I mentioned a quote from Steve Almond's new book in which he says, as an aspiring writer, he used to study Eudora Welty's "Why I Live At The P.O." like it was the Koran.  I can relate, not as an aspiring artist, but as a believer that there is so much truth to be discovered in the songs of Joe Henry.  I return to his songs and lyrics constantly, sometimes equally puzzled as I am inspired.  So much mystery and beauty nestles up closely against the undeniable wisdom of his words.  I've probably never mentioned it on this blog, and I didn't mention it to Joe when I met him yesterday.  I'm endlessly fascinated by the process of making records, but at the end of the day, it's those words of his I can't shake.

I guess that's my story of how I met Joe Henry.  Many, many thanks to Joe's manager, David Whitehead, for arranging it and, of course, to Joe for agreeing to it.  It probably comes as no surprise to any fan that he is a gracious host as well as a wonderfully interesting person.

JH producing Aaron Neville album

Joe Henry's right-hand man Ryan Freeland notes that sessions for Aaron Neville's new album are underway at Garfield House this week.  These appear to be a second round of sessions with Neville, following a stint in New York in January (same project?).

Neville apparently has a few projects on deck, another one with Allen Toussaint as producer.  Toussaint is playing piano on the JH sessions as well.