Grayson Capps: Minstrels and Moonshine
Dig into Grayson Capps’ catalogue of five studio albums, listen to his tales of drunks, crazies, bigger-than-Goddamn-life characters, and places that are both scary and beautiful at the same time and you’ll say to yourself, “Oh, man – this guy knows how to tell a story.”
Realize that Capps has lived most of this stuff – and what he’s told you about so far is only the tip of the iceberg – and you’ll say to yourself, “Oh, man – how is this guy even alive?”
For someone who’s only in his mid-40s, Capps has lived the lives of a half-dozen midnight black cats and knows how to draw from his experiences. He offers up tunes like mason jars full of blues, grit, laughter, tears, darkness, light, and characters (plenty of characters). It’s a cocktail you don’t even want to stick your finger into and swirl around because it’ll burn the skin – just bang the thing back and hang on.
As we will discover, Capps’ talent with words was in no small way inspired by his father, author Ronald Everett Capps (his novel Off Magazine Street was made into the film A Love Song For Bobby Long in 2005). But it’s still a long ways from great descriptive passages on paper to the kind of music found on Capps’ latest album, The Lost Cause Minstrels: Big Easy-flavored, butt-grinding, swamp swagger that knows when to rock, when to moan, and when to whisper. Co-produced by Capps’ partner Trina Shoemaker (the couple have a son together named Waylon) The Lost Cause Minstrels is not only a showcase for his talents, but those of his band, as well (the Minstrels themselves).
To quote our own review of the album here on Jambands.com, it’s “an amazing team effort among the man out front, his band behind him, and a veteran producer/engineer who knows how to handle them all. And to top it all off are a cluster of hellacious half-shitfaced stories and absolute truths.”
On the afternoon of our phone interview, we do a little bit of a shuffle – my initial call bounces to voice mail, but at least I know I’m calling the right number: “Hey; this is Grayson – leave a message.” I do, and it isn’t but a minute or two later that my phone rings, with an apologetic Grayson Capps on the other end.
I get Grayson to hang up, call him back, and then we’re rolling. After some preliminary discussion of our respective accents (according to Grayson, folks here in Maine talk the way we do because of the cold weather: “your mouths don’t work so well”; and Southern folk like him talk slow “because it’s hot and if we talk fast, we sweat”), we get down to the business of being Grayson Capps.
GC: Anyway, yeah – I was tied up when you called the first time. My mom was just leaving the house here and I was, you know, dealing with that.
BR: Well, yeah – your mom should always come first.
GC: Oh, yeah! (laughter) That’s right, man.
BR: Well, this all works nicely, because one of the first things I wanted to ask about was your parents and your childhood. A lot of people can’t wait to leave home and get out and experience the world – but from what I’ve read, it sounds like you had some pretty good exposure to different characters and such right there in your parents’ house.
GC: Oh, God – yeah. (laughs) It was damn near like a circus around the house growing up – especially on the weekends. My parents were both schoolteachers and they maintained a, uh, “culturally acceptable” profile during the week, but then on the weekends … (long pause, then laughs)
It was funny, too, because when I was a kid in high school, I preferred to stay home on the weekends rather than go out and party. I’d bring my friends by to my house, because that was actually more fun.
BR: You grew up in Alabama, right?
BR: And I know of your dad as a writer, of course. Is he a musician, as well?
GC: Oh, God – just barely. (laughter) Everything I’ve done has been an extreme challenge, ’cause my dad cannot even clap to those damn rap songs – he’s got no rhythm, man. He used to play a little bit of ukulele now and then, but … anything I can do musically’s been hard work. (laughter)
BR: Well … you’re faking it pretty damn good. (laughter)
GC: But, yeah – we’d have people come around the house that could actually play instruments. The thing is, my dad’s a great social instigator who can corral a bunch of people into having a good time and steer conversation along … that’s kinda his instrument.
BR: Cool. So what came first for you: stories and writing or music? What got ahold of you first?
GC: Hmm … the stories, I guess. The concise stuff – short stories and poetry – was what I got involved with early on. Cool poetry, though; some stuff drives me crazy, but I always liked Walt Whitman’s style and the way Charles Bukowski wrote.
When it came to music, I was listening to stuff like Tom T. Hall – “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” – and my dad was always listening to Bob Dylan, early Tom Waits.
I liked Dylan and that led me to Woody Guthrie – and I really liked Woody Guthrie even more. That led me to people like Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, and Son House … and when I got to the bottom of it all, there was Robert Johnson. I dug into his music and came out the other side with Jimmie Rodgers and Charlie Patton – you had your blues and country mixed together. And then I got into Hank Williams, who was one of the greatest songwriters of all time – like they say, three chords and the truth, man. Woody Guthrie used to say: “Mostly I play two chords, but sometimes I play three to impress the ladies.” (laughter)
That’s where I came at music – I came at it with the simplicity of the story. The older I get, I’m learning how to play my instrument better, but mostly it’s just learning how to frame the lyrics – that’s the focus of what I do.
BR: So it began with guitar for you?
GC: Yeah, well, I played the trumpet in 8th and 9th grade, but I hated the damn spit valve. (laughter) I liked the idea of the guitar better – you could just pull it out of the case and didn’t have to deal with the spit, you know? (laughter) So I got out of the band.
BR: And I’ve got to ask you – your first guitar?
GC: It was an acoustic guitar – one that my second grade teacher had played little songs for us on. She realized that I wanted to play music and she gave it to me. I don’t even know what it was; it didn’t have a name on it or anything. It was probably something you’d get at Sears.
The next guitar was one my dad got for me: an Alvarez that was decent. I ended up getting a Martin after that and since then it’s been pretty much Gibson and National as far as acoustic guitars go. I love Gibson electric guitars; I’ve got a Firebird … man, there’s guitars all over the place. (laughs)
BR: There are worse things. (laughter)
GC: Oh, yeah … (laughter)
BR: You mentioned the National – so that’s you playing slide on the album?
GC: Yeah, I play a little bit of slide. I just love the way it sounds. I mean, I’m no Warren Haynes or nothing … (laughs) Sometimes people ask me to sit in and jam at shows and I’m like, “Oh God, no – don’t do that.” (laughter) “No!” (laughter)