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Published: 2011/09/30
by Brian Robbins

Grayson Capps: Minstrels and Moonshine

BR: You mentioned that “John The Dagger” was one of your older songs. Is that your guitar riff in the beginning?

GC: I was doing this thing on the guitar and Corky was noodling on his own version and we just melded them together. Initially, I was starting the song with the riff that’s in the middle – a real Mississippi Fred McDowell kind of thing – and the riff that starts it now was in the solo section. But we discovered how good it sounded at the beginning, playing that against the straight beat.

BR: There’s something cool about the rhythm on that song, too. My quick note I scribbled down when I first listened was that it sounded like “a lineup of skeletons clapping their bony hands.”

GC: Oh, yeah – John has these weird shells or rhinoceros toenails or some shit that he drops on the snare. That’s what’s making that sound.

BR: It’s a great, creepy sound.

GC: Cool, isn’t it? (laughter) There’s another part in “John The Dagger” – another weird sound like (makes a noise like rushing wind) – that’s John just shaking those same shells.

BR: “Jane’s Alley Blues” is a cover – that’s an old, old tune. Did you come across that recently, or have you been playing it for awhile?

GC: Oh, man – I’ve been playing that for a long, long time. I’ve really been waiting to do it on a record. It’s a cool one to do live … it kind of cleanses your palette a little bit from other songs. I just love the lyrics – Richard “Rabbit” Brown wrote it. He was one of the first street musicians that was ever recorded.

I’ve seen it listed as “James Alley Blues”, but I’ve read enough history to know it was “Jane’s Alley”, so I call it “Jane’s Alley Blues”. That’s kind of like calling Booker White “Bukka” – his name was Booker, but folks down here couldn’t pronounce the “r” … like you up there in Maine. (laughter)

BR: Yeah, well – it’s a gift. (laughter) I love that one, big, piano note that starts off “Chief Seattle”. I’m imagining an acoustic piano with an old ribbon mic about as big as my head stuffed down into it. What a great sound.

GC: Oh, yeah … Trina shoved a pair of mics into it, actually – one on either end.

BR: Well, hats off to Trina. I backed it up and replayed it the first time through just to hear that again.

GC: That’s the kind of stuff that happens when you’re recording. We did it the first thing of the day; I’d just woke up and hadn’t even had my coffee: “Here we go.” We added Corky to it later, and his solo is one of my favorite guitar solos ever.

BR: “Yes You Are” is a musician’s song, but that feeling of having someone behind you no matter what is something anyone can get into. It’s a great love song.

GC: I’m glad you like it, man. I wrote that in North Carolina. (laughs) It was just like in the song: “A $35 hotel room, $75 for gas, I made a hundred dollars last night – Goddamn! How can I keep doing this? I’m an idiot!” (laughter)

BR: And that’s a newer song?

GC: Yeah.

BR: Ah, cool – I like knowing that you wrote that since you’ve been together with Trina.

GC: Oh, yeah, man – that’s Trina’s song, all right.

BR: “Annie’s Lover” – is that the first Taj Mahal song you’ve done on a album?

GC: Yeah. I think I’ve only done one other cover on any albums before this one and that was actually an old country song that I didn’t know was a cover. (laughs) Yeah, I love Taj Mahal. I’d been singing that one to my kids and Trina just loved it. She said, “Just entertain me and do that song so we can record it.” So we just threw it down and it felt good.

BR: “Old Slac (Joe Cain)” is next – and the Lost Cause Minstrels are mentioned in the song. What’s the story there – and which came first: the band name or the lyric?

GC: After the Civil War, Mardi Gras celebrating wasn’t allowed in Alabama for years – even though New Orleans was celebrating. It was Joe Cain that finally brought Mardi Gras back to Mobile – and his musician friends were called the Lost Cause Minstrels.

I’m kind of on the fence about the name; I’ve always liked it more for philosophical reasons but I’ve come to realize that the “lost cause” was the Confederate soldiers. It has nothing to do with that for me, though; I just love the name.

I knew I wanted to name the band the Lost Cause Minstrels even though I didn’t finish the lyrics to the song until about a year after the band got together. I incorporated “Here come the Lost Cause Minstrels …” and all that stuff.

Mobile doesn’t have a Mardi Gras song – they’ve always had to borrow songs from New Orleans. But this year when we brought that song out, people in Mobile were going nuts – every parade was playing it. It was really cool.

BR: Oh, man – you want to be proud of that.

GC: Yeah! That song will live forever in Mobile – that’s their Mardi Gras song now. I think it makes more sense to people when they know the story. And that’s why the band’s called the Lost Cause Minstrels. (laughs)

BR: The arrangement of that song is quite involved; did you originally just have it chorded out on guitar?

GC: The structure of the thing was a bitch, man. In a way, it was so simple, but … I had two choruses, for some reason and it was driving Trina up the wall. I was saying, “I gotta do this thing (sings): ‘Ol’ Slac, Ol’ Slac, Ol’ Slac is back …’” and then there was the other part (sings): “What’s his name? Joe Cain!” And she was like, “You’re driving me crazy!” and we had this huge argument. (laughs) Then I went off and sulked for about an hour and scribbled out a different arrangement and that’s the one that stuck. (laughs) All because Trina was yelling at me. (laughter)

The other factor was having Ken Fradley’s trumpet on there. We knew we wanted horns on it, but we didn’t know exactly what we were doing. Ken was somebody we’d played with before down in Key West and he wanted to be a part of it. Ken’s a freak of his own, man – he played trumpet on U2’s War album.

I think I went on a high school field trip in 1984 to go see Cats up in New York. We figured out later that Ken would’ve been the trumpet player that night. (laughter) Just a freak.

Anyway, we got him to do a bunch of parts and then between him, Trina, and me, we kind of arranged it on the spot.

BR: And so what we hear for horns are …

GC: That’s Ken doubling himself, plus Chris Spies’ son Christopher playing some baritone sax.

BR: The lyrics of “Paris, France” speak of a hurricane, but I’m guessing there were a whole lot of things going on at the time.

GC: Yeah, man. I was still devastated by breaking up with my daughter’s mother and … all this blame and stuff … Jesus Christ – I don’t know. It’s a tiny little song, but it always feels good. I love haiku poems and stuff; open-ended things where you can get a lot out of it if you need to.

BR: Sweet song, man. It really is. That little bit of sonic weirdness at the beginning of “No Definitions” reminded me of tuning in an old shortwave radio and you can hear the station coming in … coming in … and then you nail it right on, you know?

GC: (laughs) I’d just gotten this delay pedal and when you pressed it, it made this really weird sound. (laughs) And during the live shows, we’d been having this kind of sound freak-out before that song. What you hear is the result of me trying to convey that sound to Trina and her mostly getting what I was talking about – it works. (laughs)

BR: “No Definitions” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll” are different songs, for sure, but there’s a theme there of … I don’t know … honesty. Honest and raw. They feel like they belong side by side.

GC: Yeah, it was weird doing the sequencing. Sometimes you say, “How are we gonna put this all together?” But those two just fit – I really liked that.

BR: It always tickles me to hear someone talk about the sequencing meaning something to them. Like the old days when a song was picked because it was the one to close out side one of an album or to begin side two …

GC: Me and Trina both grew up loving vinyl and that’s part of the reason I didn’t put more songs on it. Sometimes you end up with an album that has, like, 16 songs on it and you say, “Goddamn – I wish we hadn’t done that. I don’t like all of those songs.” But you go back to something like Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells A Story and that damn album’s only 35 minutes long …

BR: And there’s no fat. Every song counts.

GC: Yeah. One of my favorite records is Leon Russell’s Carney – it’s 40 minutes long with 10 songs, maybe? Nine songs? I mean, just because you got the room doesn’t mean you have to use it, man.

BR: That’s right. (laughter) Well, hey – I’ve kept you on the phone long enough, Grayson. Thank you for taking the time to talk. I knew we’d have some fun, because you couldn’t make music like this and not be fun to talk to. I appreciate it.

GC: Well, thank you, man. Hell, this was easy. (laughter)

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