30 Years Later, Larry Jon Wilson is Still an Outlaw
You don’t schedule an interview with Larry Jon Wilson. Instead, according to the good people at Drag City Records, his new label, you just call him up at his home in Augusta, Georgia, and hope he’s around. You might even play phone tag with him, and there’s a certain thrill in getting a voice mail from the singer-songwriter, his exquisitely gravelly voice intoning into your machine.
Wilson is altogether too laidback and personable to do things the typical industry way, which means he has always been a country music outsider. He arrived in Nashville in the mid 1970s, having just taught himself to play the guitar, and proceeded to release four highly praised albums for Monument Records that made him both a songwriter’s songwriter and a singer’s singer. Fed up with a music industry that he believed prized sparkle over substance, he left Nashville in the early 1980s and stopped recording.
Fortunately, he never stopped playing, and the strength of his albums, along with his almost encyclopedic repertoire of country tunes and his rough burr of a voice, gained him a growing legion of deeply devoted fans in America and Europe, including eccentric solo artist Jeb Loy Nichols and Jerry DeCicca of the Columbus, Ohio, band the Black Swans. Together, they co-produced Wilson’s new self-titled album, his first in nearly thirty years.
STEPHEN DEUSNER: How did you hook up with Jeb Loy Nichols and Jerry DeCicca for this album?
LARRY JON WILSON: I met Jerry through Jeb. They have a longstanding relationship. Jeb is one of those friends who seems like I’ve known him forever, but I actually haven’t. I’ve known him I guess just in this millennium, that’s all. Are you familiar with the things we did before this CD, the Country Got Soul series in England? There were two of those, and then the third one was a thing called Testifying. Gosh, I don’t know who all was involved. Some interesting people. Donnie Fritts, Dan Penn, Tony Joe White, Bonnie Bramlett. They were taking cuts from our old records and compiling albums from these cuts. It was a good idea, they did quite well in Europe, and I think they did well enough that it caused them to want to come over here and get some of us into the studio live, with some of the same musicians we recorded with in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And that’s what we did. So for the third one, I was in the studio with the same musicians who did my albums in the ‘70s. We were all geezers! It was a surprisingly good-feeling session. There was Spooner Oldham and all the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. They’ve come over the years to be known as the heaviest of hitters, and it was just a pleasure to do it. And I’m pretty sure that Jeb was working with the record company principal, Ross Allen, and came over with him from Wales, and that was the first time we met. That must have been 2002 or so. Jeb’s a good soul. We’ve run together on both sides of the pond since then, and he was in my home back in ‘02. I think seeds to this project were planted then, and after the Casual Record/Ross Allen thing was over, this new thing began. And it’s now been domestically taken over by Drag City, and Jeb has been on the sidelines this the whole time. When the recording was being done, he was propped on a couch in a penthouse. We’re looking out over the water from the fifteenth floor of a high-rise overlooking the Gulf. That’s a tough life.
SD: Why did you choose that location?
LJW: Well, I had lived there. Before I came back to Augusta, that’s where I was living. I went from Tennessee to Key West to Perdido Key—the very tip of the panhandle of Florida, going west. Gosh, it might be west of Chicago. My good friend owns the fancy Jacuzzi suite that Jerry and Jeb and them were staying in. He has a famous honky-tonk or bar or whatever you call it called the Flora-Bama. You can’t call it a bar, because he has more than 100 employees. It’s a five-star honky-tonk. And it’s called Flora-Bama because the state line of Florida and Alabama is in his parking lot.
I like Perdido Key very much. It’s not like Hilton Head or Gulf Shores or anything like that. There will be no fast-food places. There’s something cool about that. It’s a wonderful place to record. It was a relaxed atmosphere. For most people in the recording business, it would be too relaxed, but we are not most people. It matters more how it feels than how it sounds, so everything on the record is the first take. Nothing’s rehearsed, nothing’s planned, no one has to have charts, I don’t even know if my instrument is in tune. I just reached over and picked it up and played a song that Jeb asked about. It felt good. And if the album feels good, then it was a success. I think there were probably little picking errors—you don’t call them errors. The picking is not as clean and pure as you would be trying to do in a big professional studio. But I don’t think it matters if a fret buzzes a little bit. If it doesn’t obscure the word or the thought that you’re trying to convey, then it’s not in the way at all. I’ve listened to it enough to know that. I know I can sing better, I know I can play better, but so what? I can’t make it feel better. I’ve got to make it a point to hunker down and listen to this album. I haven’t really done it yet. If I’m out there doing interviews on the phone and backstage, I’d better listen to the record if I’m going to talk intelligently about it.
SD: So you haven’t listened to the new album then?
LJW: Sure, I’ve listened, but I haven’t studied it. It was more like spot-checking. I think when I was listening, I knew it was going to be just me and the guitar. It was just a free-form type of thing. This album was me thinking out loud. I wasn’t sure if it was being recorded at different times. I was just hanging out with some friends and I’d pick up the guitar and sometimes it was recorded and sometimes it wasn’t. When I was listening to the album, the violin, when it came in, was a shock to me, because it was overdubbed later. It certainly wasn’t out of key or anything like that, but you could tell that it was a bit tentative because whoever was playing it was hearing the music for the first time. He was another member of the Black Swans, and he was also a violinist with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. He’s no novice. So I said to Jerry, ‘Maybe he would like to get the feel of it and try it again after he knows them better.’ Jerry said, ‘We could do that, but he passed away today.’ And I thought, My goodness. His old friend and bandmate had died of a swimming accident, and they took him off life support. So I said, ‘Leave it on there no matter what then.” Noel Sayre was his name. I felt in some strange way complimented that the last project that he had worked on was a Larry Jon Wilson CD. I felt rather honored by it. I wouldn’t exclude his part for anything.
SD: Can you tell me about the trilogy songs on the album, where you combine three songs into a themed medley? It almost sounds like you’re making them up as you’re playing them.
LJW: It was almost like that. I’ll be honest with you. It really was. When we got in that penthouse in Perdido Key, I would set up a microphone and would be in the key of A and feel comfortable, and at that time the trilogies were put together. I started doing that on stage. I never have planned a set of music in my whole life. One night it was raining, so I did twenty minutes of songs about rain, the ones that I’ve written and some that Newbury’s written, and Fred Neil. I know I’ve got a rain trilogy, and a friend trilogy I did with Steve down in Savannah. I did mutual friends of ours—“Old Friends” by Guy Clark, then I segued into “It’s My Time” by John D. Loudermilk, and then I segued into one of mine, “Thank you very much for giving me the chance to lend a hand, my friend.” I don’t even know the title of mine, but that’s what it says.
SD: It seems like you must have an enormous library of music in your head.
LJW: I really do. I’ve had other people say that recently and ask me that, and I’ll be alone walking the dog and think, ‘Hell, they’re right.’ I have a large repertoire of songs. I could probably sit and play covers for two days. When someone will ask me if I know such-and-such, I’ll say no I don’t know that. But with my guitar on, my fingers and brain together can do the whole song. It amazes me. I think I’ve been an admirer of songwriters–and such a deep and avid one–that I’ve gone farther into the catalogs of songwriters that I admire than even I realize. I think we could cover any subject and I could do a trilogy on it. Since Savannah, I did another twenty minutes on children. It was four songs—four or five. First one was Bernie Taupin. “An extremely quiet child they called you in your school report.” “Ticking” was the name of that one. He and Elton did that long ago, maybe back in the Caribou days when they were recording in Colorado. But he’s a truly heavy hitter, and I’ve been an admirer of his songwriting for a long time. And it must be some sort of cosmic blessing to everyone who likes music that Bernie Taupin and Elton John somehow found some common ground. I’m trying to remember who else was in there. There were three or four songs. Chris Rea was “Tell Me There’s a Heaven.” That’ll take your breath away. And then my song. The last line of the trilogy is, “Lord, help me make my life a better thing to see through the eyes of little children.” That’s a good way to end a trilogy.
SD: Do you find you attract a lot of younger listeners along with fans from the ‘70s?
LJW: Demographically, the audience is everything I could hope for at this point. It’s a wonderful mixture, and the wonderful part of it is how good they get along with each other. And if I’m a catalyst to that, I really like it. I guess my homeroom would be a really good venue in Atlanta called Eddie’s Attic. I’ve played there pretty regularly over the years, whatever regularly is. There will be people who have things from the 70s and will bring in vinyl for me to sign, and I like that. And there will also be people from Emory University and Agnes Scott. It’s a college city, and I like that too. To see them all standing about together before and after is gravy on the meal. The young people are there, and it’s not curiosity seeking. They know what’s going to be on the ticket and they know the price of the ticket. For a senior citizen and a college student to line up together, it’s very nice. And they have a way of planning my sets for me. There’s a kinetic energy that’s going on, and what is common to both of them is the vibe that I pick up on from the stage. Their response to what I played last makes me know what to play next. It might be better than making a setlist, because a setlist is what I think an evening of music ought to be. But a night at Eddy’s is a night of what they thought it should be. Like I said, it’s kinetic.
I’m trying to keep it down to daytripping. I’m in a great location because I can get to Atlanta, Charlotte, Charleston, Savannah, Macon—all these nice markets. They all have nice places. A lot of the college towns are close. I can daytrip without flying all over the country, which is not as easy as it used to be. I’m not going to play just anywhere, but I’ll play the places I’ve always played and feel comfortable at. And small colleges have always been one of those places.
SD: Are your audiences different in Europe than in America?
LJW: I find it different for all kinds of music. There are so few American record-buying, music-listening people who know who Reggie Young is, and Spooner Oldham, and David Hood, and these people. Reggie is the best guitar player there ever was. I think he’s Clapton’s favorite player. He’s on all my Monument albums. Audiences in Europe know these things. The people in the liner notes aren’t like credits rolling by on a movie to them. If they saw the name of one of my session players in the press there, it would jump out at them like neon, but it would pass by the American’ listener’s eye like the wind. That sounds like I am choosing them above this audience. I’m actually not. But to answer your question, audiences in Europe are more involved in the record. Once they get one, they really digest it. I don’t know that that happens here. I’m sure it does. It’s not as widespread and commonplace here.
I find myself being delighted with the audiences who come to hear me. When I see someone up front’s lips moving, that’s a very high compliment for me. When I hear the audience all snatch a breath and respond to some song that I want to cover, like a John Prine tune or a Newbury tune, these people have heard it. They know. And I can hear them. It’s not just quiet, but there’s a difference in the quiet when I cover someone else’s song. The audiences respond to that, and it’s the same here as they are in Soho in London.
For the first time ever, I sold things at a concert. I have never sold records or CDs or cassettes at a performance. I didn’t have anyone out in the lobby hawking things. I don’t know how I felt about it, I just never did. And I forgot to even mention that I had some this time. Steve’s wife has a few albums out. She’s a great artist, Allison Moorer, and she’s a good lady, and she’s been real medicine for him. I think they’ve been good medicine for each other. They have a person merchandising out in the vestibule or the lobby at this college. He has a big table set up, and t-shirts and a spread of all the music available. But I have never sold anything. I’ve never sold DVDs of the PBS thing that I’ve done. I don’t want to keep up with it. I don’t want to have to haul someone around who keeps up with it. So this time, this nice guy who worked for Allison and Steve, I handed him a box of my CDs, because I actually had some. Drag City sent me some from Chicago. And he sold them right away. And he said, ‘How much do you want to sell them for?’ And I said, ‘Hell, I don’t know. What do they cost?’ He said, ‘We’re selling Steve’s new CD for fifteen dollars,’ and I said, ‘Well then, sell mine for twenty. If someone says that seems too much, then you tell them by all means not to buy one.’ I’m not a very good merchandiser. I didn’t like the idea of having a cheaper CD for sale. That’s self-denigrating in some way [laughter].
But what a nice reunion we had. Steve is a heavy hitter himself. I was so glad to see him clean and sober and with this delightful woman, and they did two or three tunes together. It’s just him and his guitar and her, no band on this tour. It was a pleasure to do.
SD: Did you know Steve Earle in the ‘70s?
LJW: Yes I did. We were very close.
SD: Can you tell me a little about Nashville in the 70s? What was that scene like, hanging around with that group of songwriters?
LJW: When I think back, Steve has had… we have all had our demons to dance with over the years. I don’t feel free to discuss anyone else’s. My relationship with Steve and everyone else in those days was exactly what it was: a thing between the two of us, in each case. I was a beer drinker of the first order. I loved to grab a twelve pack when everybody was leaving the building and going into the building. And we would all gather… it was a freer time. The city hadn’t been conglomerated and globalized yet. Combine Music was a publishing house where Kristofferson and Tony Joe and a lot of heavy hitters hung out. I’m the only blank they ever fired, probably. But we would all hang out at our publishing house, make coffee in the morning, drink beer or our poison of choice in the evening. It was a glorious time. Shel Silverstein was there writing. Donnie Fritts. Lee “True Love” Clayton. I miss Lee Clayton. Haven’t seen him for so long. He wrote my favorite Willie Nelson ballad. Don’t even know the name of it, but the song on the jukebox goes, “One night of love don’t make up for six night alone.” That’s pure country music right there. To be sharing beer and peanuts and passing the time and passing other things with people like that is certainly memorable. And when I read about them and see myself included—I don’t think of myself as an ego much, but boy I must have one, because I enjoy seeing myself in that paragraph.
The first night I was in Nashville—period. I had never been there before. The first night, I picked up Mickey Newbury at an Exxon station, and we played nine holes of golf. Then rode on into town and went to Waylon’s, and Willie was there, and Waylon had been given… commissioned, I don’t know what you would call it. The last Roy Rogers cowboy movie had been made, it was called Macintosh and T.J., and they wanted to have some live music on it. So the four of us—Newbury, myself, Waylon, and Willie–went to the microphones in the studio. Randy Scruggs was our engineer, I remember that. We did background music for a Roy Rogers movie. I don’t have a damn copy of that, and I should have that. Waylon and Willie and Newbury and I all went down the alley to a place called Mac’s Country Kitchen. You get a meat-plus-three with cornbread. It was a hell of an interesting way to spend your first night in Nashville, I tell you.
Newbury was at that time and is in my broadest memory my favorite songwriter. There’s no question of that. There’s him there alone and then there’s all the rest of us.
SD: What makes him your favorite?
LJW: I admired him before I met him. I had all the stuff he’d recorded. I liked hearing him perform his own things. He wrote for a lot of heavy hitters and big stars, and he made a lot of mailbox money. But I liked hearing him do them himself. I have a good song on one of my albums about being down and out at a bus station. In order to write that good song, I had to be down and out at a bus station. In order for Kris to write a good song about being down and out at a bus station, he needs to ride by and have a look. Newbury doesn’t even have to see a bus station. He can stay in the mountains of Oregon and write a better song than both of us. He has his own little tripping device in his head, and it’ s a great cosmic gift. I saw from the inside the craft of songwriting clearer in my relationship with him than with all the other writers I’ve known. He made me promise myself that I would never settle for an adequate line just to finish a song. I’d throw the thing away before I’d say, That’ll fit.
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