Talking Outlaws and Freedom with Mark Chesnutt
Since landing on the national country music scene in 1990 with the top five hit “Too Cold At Home,” Mark Chesnutt has gone on to garner four platinum albums, five gold albums, 14 number one singles and 23 Top 10 singles. His neo-traditionalist style of country music, along with others such as Randy Travis, Tracy Lawrence, Clint Black and Alan Jackson, brought a classic sound back to the radio for over a decade.
Now, 20 years after he hit it big, Chesnutt is back with this 14th album entitled Outlaw. On Time Life’s Saguaro Road Record label, the album features re-recordings of some of Chesnutt’s personal heroes and life-long friends such as Billy Joe Shaver, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. At the producer’s help, steeped in this music and production style having worked with the likes of Dwight Yoakum and Tanya Tucker, is Pete Anderson.
“When I was first approached to record this CD, my reaction wasn’t just ‘yes,’ but ‘hell, yeah,’” Chesnutt said. “I cut my teeth on this kind of music and it’s an opportunity for me to pay tribute to some of my biggest heroes in country music.”
Pete Anderson is on record saying, “Mark Chesnutt put on a vocal display like I’ve never before seen in the studio. He stood in front of the mic and sang the whole record, from beginning to end, flawlessly–and in less than three hours. We are all amazed at the results. There may be singers out there as good as Mark, but there are none better and, at this point in my career, I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with this caliber of talent.”
Chesnutt was kind enough to give The 9513 some time for an interview just before his recent spot at the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium.
How did Outlaw come about?
Well, I got a phone call about a year ago from my manager and asked me if I’d be interested in doing an album with Pete Anderson for the Time Life label of outlaw music. I didn’t even have to think about it. I said, “That sounds cool!” So we got to talking about it and I went out to L.A. and met with Pete. Everybody put their lists together. I had my list, my managers had theirs, Pete had his, the label guys had theirs. So we just put our lists together and picked 12 songs. Otherwise, we would have created a six-disc set. (Laughter).
How did you guys manage to cull that list down? Was it your decision at the end of the day or more of a group decision?
Everybody ended up leaving it up to me and Pete at the end because it was going to be me and him actually making the music. I thought that was cool to get that type of creative freedom. So Pete and I sat down with guitars in his office and went through the songs we thought we wanted to record and since I was the guy singing them, everybody–Pete included–kind of left it up to me. We ended up sitting around and arranging these songs that Pete and I thought I could sing and that were best suited for my voice. They were all songs that we had both wanted to do in the past.
Were they more of your favorites or were there some surprises in there?
Some of the real obvious songs that I’ve been singing in the clubs for years–ever since I started singing–like “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” and “Country State of Mind” were pretty obvious choices. But there were a couple choices that I had never sung before in my life. They were songs that I had heard many times growing up, like “Loving Her Was Easier” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” But I had never even tried those songs. I had always loved them, but I had never tried them until this project came along. What you hear on this CD are my first attempts at them. I didn’t even sit down long and work on them except for the time Pete and I sat down with guitars in the studio just to get a tease.
You elected for a pretty straight-forward interpretation of each song. Was that a conscious decision or more a matter of there wasn’t any other way to do it in your mind?
There are several different versions of some of these songs such as with “Loving Her Was Easier” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” A couple of those songs have been recorded by a lot of people. I had to basically stop listening to all the versions that I was familiar with and broke it down to the original Kris Kristofferson version. That was the kind of direction I wanted to take it–the way Kris intended for it to be done. And I’m glad we did it that way. I thought that was one of the best cuts on the album.
The production is a long ways off from what they’re playing currently on modern country radio. What’s your take on that and how important is that to you at this stage of your career?
I didn’t want the album to sound like a modern country record. I didn’t want it to sound like what was going on in Nashville right now. Anytime you work with Pete Anderson, you’re going to get Pete Anderson sounds. He’s such a unique guitar player and music guy. We didn’t want it to sound like Nashville because we weren’t in Nashville. We recorded this out in Burbank in Pete’s studio out in California. It was a big thrill for me because in all my career I had never cut anything other than in Texas or Nashville. I started out recording in Texas, but everything else was in Nashville. This was a big thrill to go somewhere else and cut some music.
What’s your definition of the outlaw movement; what does outlaw mean to you?
To me it means freedom. What really happened was Waylon Jennings going into the studio with his music and saying that he wasn’t going to do things the way they’d been doing them for years. Because in Nashville, if you were with a record company, you were just an employee. You were hired labor. You went in and sang the songs that the label wanted to do them. You went in and did them with the arrangements they wanted to do them with–even if it was with your own song. It had to be the way they wanted it to be. You didn’t have any freedom over the studio or the musicians they hired. You just went in there and sang. And if you didn’t like it, you had to sing the song they had for you whether you liked it or not.
And Waylon said, “I’m not going to do it that way anymore. These are my songs. These are my musicians and I’m going to do it my way. I don’t want all these strings and background vocals. I’m going to do them my way.”
So he was the first to fight the system on that. And he was successful at it. And the press started calling him an outlaw since he started growing out his hair and he had developed that freedom of breaking out of the mold. He grew his hair out and grew his beard and that’s where the term outlaw came from. The press named him an outlaw and Willie started calling him that and it took off. And it’s still in effect today. Artists can go in have their own look and do music their own way.
To me, it means freedom. They finally got freedom to be who they were.
Are there some analogies or symbolism to producing an album like this in today’s country marketplace?
Yes, because we could do that. We didn’t have a record label breathing down my neck. They weren’t saying this is how we want to record it and this is how we want it to sound. The label told Pete to go in with Mark and make an album. “We trust you.” That’s the way music should be made. The business should be left to the executives and the music should be left to the singers and musicians.
I know you’re knee-deep promoting Outlaw, but how has it been working with Saguaro Road Records? Can you envision additional records with them down the road?
I don’t know. I don’t know what the future holds for that. If they wanted to, I’d certainly consider it.
Do you have any other immediate future music goals?
I would love to record some more music. This deal with Saguaro Road is just for this one project. I would love to go back in the studio–either in California or Nashville–and record another album. It would be an album of new material of brand new songs. I’m pretty sure I’ll be in the studio somehow someway recording something in the near future. For the last 20 years, I’ve always found a way to get back into the studio for recording.
I’ve got one last question for you. What is country music to Mark Chesnutt?
That’s my life. That’s been my life since I was about 14 years old. It’s more than just a way to make a living, it’s a lifestyle. My lifestyle.
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