As the songs for my album "Road Tested" were falling into shape, it was clear that this record was going to lean more heavily on my deep love affair with country music - real country music – the music that was my obsession through the first decade or so of my years as a full-time musician. Friend, Drummer, Producer Marco Giovino and I began to think about what players we might try to enlist to for the recordings. More often than not he’d name his first pick for guitar or pedal steel or piano and then say, “But he lives in Nashville.”
After the fourth or fifth time around this track I came up with an inspired idea, “then why don’t we do this in Nashville?” We both knew that would add some complexity to schedule the right musicians and it would dig into the budget a bit more than doing it here in Boston, but I got quite excited about the idea. Marco got on the phone to see if he could line up our "team". A month or so later, Marco and I were holed up in a cottage down the road from Middletree Studios in East Nashville, ready to fire things up.
I can’t say enough about how professional, intuitive, expressive and fun this crew was. By way of a quick intro, the core unit was Doug Lancio on guitar (Bob Dylan, John Hiatt, Patty Griffin, Steve Earle), Russ Pahl on pedal steel and guitar (Vince Gill, Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood), Ron Eoff on bass (Levon Helm, Tracy Nelson, Cate Brothers Jo-El Sonnier) and John Deaderick on keyboards (Buddy Miller, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Michael McDonald). We also got some special performances out of Big Al Anderson (former founder of NRBQ) on guitar and great duet vocals from Jim Lauderdale and Elizabeth Cook. And my dear friend of over 40 years, Buffy Ford Stewart, chimed in from afar with a vocal on her late husband John’s anthem “A Little Road and a Stone to Roll”.
I’ve touched on this before when describing the recording process for my two prior releases, “Gin & Rosewater” and “38 Degrees and Raining”, but I’ll give you this record’s version. The version is, these recordings come together by magic. As with my prior two records (which each produced a great sounding result), this core band came into the studio having heard only the most stripped down, voice and guitar demos of the tunes. Consider that to be close to a blank canvas.
As we would start running through each song, an arrangement would begin to emerge. It’s not as though we’d stop half way through and someone would say, “Let’s throw in a key change here”. Everyone was listening to each other. And as highly seasoned session musicians, they knew when to leave space in their playing. Their musical vocabularies are so vast that they can instantly handle the stylistic shifts (think going from “One Heart Acre” to “Stick Shift”). Several of the songs are what I would describe as playful. Neither Marco or I ever had to say, “Men, play playfully”! But their contributions on those songs came off as playful! They knew what to do and when to do it.
We also recorded the songs essentially “live”, meaning the core band – Marco, Doug, Ron, Russ and John – and I were performing at the same time. Like in most studios, as the singer I had my own booth but I could see and respond to everyone else. Most of the time the other musicians were all together in the same, large room. We could see, hear and feel each other. That shows up in the final recording. So in that setting, each song would take shape.
And every tune was built on Marco’s drumming. Marco set the tempo (harder than it sounds), created the foundational groove and led the dynamic shifts within each tune. He was the cake and the rest of us provided the icing.
Listen for how Doug Lancio and Russ Pahl weave around each other on guitars and pedal steel.
Catch how Ron Eoff moves from upright bass to electric bass and at just the right moments goes funky on us.
Notice how tastefully John Deadrick adds color and nuance as he moves from grand piano, to Hammond organ to synth.
And all of this was done with good humor, absolute professionalism and speed (11 songs in 3 days). I must also give a shout out the expertise and great vibes of studio owner and recording engineer Joe Pisapia. He made the recording process fun and frictionless.
And yeah, it was magic.