Grayson Capps Introduces Willie Sugarcapps
I feel like your songwriting has more of a literary and storytelling approach than most. Do you have any literary influences?
Oh god yeah. My father was a writer. In high school, I’d edit his books and people would come over on the weekends and in high school, I’d bring friends over to the house instead of going out to parties. We’d hang out, play records, and people would read short stories and bullshit. I really became fond of a lot of the southern writers, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, William Price Fox…
I like the songs. There’s a shortness of songs but a beauty of the song where you can almost create an entire novel, if you do it right. Like John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” you’ve got three verses. It’s short but it tells a whole story. I’m just fascinated by that. I came into playing music mostly for the lyrics. As I’m getting older I’m getting better as a musician but primarily just a songwriter like Tom T. Hall or something simple.
I find your songs to have those same storytelling traits you just described. Some of these characters in your songs – “Bobby Long,” “John The Dagger,” “Washboard Lisa” – are these based off of real people?
Oh yeah, all of them. Oh god, yeah. I did a show in New Orleans recently and “John The Dagger,” his real name is John Dawson, came out to the show. He’s just a hell of a character (laughs)… “Washboard Lisa” was down there in New Orleans and was probably my first love. I was falling in love with what I thought was a girl but ended up falling in love with New Orleans the way it was.
I remember seeing you in a live performance telling a fantastic story before “Washboard Lisa” about the first time you saw her playing music in your early days living in New Orleans, while you were struggling to make ends meet as a young, broke musician. Do you still draw songwriting inspiration from those experiences?
(Laughs) Oh yeah. Like I’m working on a song now just about some guy who I grew up with… seems like most of the formative, really magical things that I write about happened early on in my life and continues to be magical. I guess when you’re young, you’re more malleable and things are more magical.
Have you gained any new songwriting influence because of moving from New Orleans back to Alabama?
Mostly reflective. I’m out writing stuff about being on the road and stuff, which is trite, like everybody writes about being on the road, but now it’s all I know, whereas before I was living hand to mouth, playing on the streets. It was a more interesting time, but it was not a good way to raise kids (laughs).
You seem to get to play a good amount of local shows around Alabama and the Southeast. Do you get a lot of the same faces in the crowd?
Yeah, I have some strange diehard fans (laughs). This one woman who came to 87 shows last year… There’s a whole group of people who have gone through hellacious experiences, people who’ve lost loved ones, who all of a sudden latch onto what I’m doing and pretty much, one thing my father told me about being an artist, “You have one responsibility as an artist and that is to provide hope. If you can’t provide hope, don’t do it.”
I think because I go out of my way to provide hope, I hope, these people will come to shows because now, around here, it’s become more like a family. People come to shows partially about the music and partially about the whole social event.
Going back to the Alabama music scene, do you think it’s fair to call Willie Sugarcapps a product of that local scene? Does your ability to play shows for a lot of the same fans in the same area help balance playing a night with Willie Sugarcapps, a night solo and a night with the Lost Cause Minstrels all in the same week?
Well Willie Sugarcapps is definitely an Alabama all-star band. Will is from Mobile, Anthony is from Birmingham originally but lives in Fairhope. I’m from Brewton, we’re all from Alabama. It’s definitely an all-star band because everyone has a big fan base down here.
Playing locally, for the most part, I love it. I love the communication. Also half of me is kind of like an athlete, you can’t just come home and stop for a week or two because then you just get rusty. And I’m not gonna practice my songs at home. You gotta keep writin’, you gotta keep playin’. You gotta keep doing it or you lose momentum. So I play a lot of shows by myself, with The Lost Cause Minstrels, with Willie Sugarcapps. It keeps it interesting and keeps it fresh.
Is it a challenge to play those same songs in different bands? Or is it something you find fun?
I love it. Every night is different. There’s so much chaos involved in putting on a show anyways that there’s a lot of solace to be found in songs you really know. Because if your amp is fucked up or if the sound guy sucks, you still put on a good show, it’s not like going out on a limb. But then I do put myself out on a limb by doing new songs, strange covers and we do things with Willie Sugarcapps where I don’t know what song is coming next. We don’t make a setlist. Lately we’ve been playing our record and then taking off into our own territory. Through the record, we’re comfortable. But then, after that, I don’t know what’s coming up. Will will come up with some song and I’ll play along and just try to figure out what key it’s in (laughs). It’s all fun.
Even with all the local shows you still spend a lot of time traveling out on the road, having just finished up a West Coast solo tour. Are there any plans to bring Willie Sugarcapps on the road to a broader audience?
We’ve all done the $50 and sleep on someone’s floor. We all continue to individually continue to have ups and downs. You might play a place with a restaurant where people are eating in front of you who want to watch football. With Willie Sugarcapps, we’re sticking with a price, and because of that, we’re sticking to festivals and theaters. We’re not going to go to western Pennsylvania, we’re not going to subject ourselves to that. Either people want it or they don’t, nobody needs it in the band because we all make a living with our own projects. If we we’re gonna go out on the road, we need a certain amount of money. It’s not like we’re gonna go to SXSW and play for free to promote ourselves. Granted we did just go to Nashville to do the Americana Music Association concert. But that was in between two shows that paid very well (laughs).
Reminds me of that line from “Yes You Are.” “$35 hotel room, $75 for gas/Made $100 last night baby, you can do the math.”
We all agreed not to subject ourselves to torture with this band (laughs).
Does that enthusiastic audience in the Southeast make it easier to deal with the rigors of playing so many shows in a year?
I’ve been playing around 170 shows a year. But yeah, because I can go home! Sleep in my own bed, be with my kids, makes it a lot easier. But if I’m home for more than 2-3 weeks I start to get antsy and have to go somewhere like California, Europe once a year. This April I went to Europe with Corky, and we did a whole month, 23, 24 shows.
It’s fun to get out and see a new place every once in awhile but if you can play within a few hours of home, sleep in your own bed and perform for happy fans every night, you can’t ask for much more than that.
Yeah, it’s great. It’s one of the most plentiful musical regions in the whole country between New Orleans and Pensacola and the whole Gulf Coast, especially the Gulf Shores. I mean every bar, almost every restaurant has live music just about every night, at least Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If I really wanted to, I could just stay here and make a living. But that gets boring too.
At this point, I’ve got this thing at the Frog Pond happening every Sunday, so I’m pretty much trying to not to play any other places on Sunday. We’ll play Magfest for a couple days in Florida, little outings like that.
You must have a really special community of musicians, fans and venues down there for bands like Willie Sugarcapps to just blossom on the fly. That album turned out really spectacular, thank you for taking the time to speak with us about it and everything else you’ve been working on.
Likewise, thank you for taking the time to do it. In February or March we’ll do the Mountain Stage, we’ll probably do Music City roots and there are some places, Purple Fiddle in West Virginia, that would be perfect for this band. I would love to get it where we can play Pennsylvania, New York, we’ll just have to see how this thing works out. If it gets caught in the whole Americana charge and is movin’ up and getting more notoriety… we actually thought about doing a Kickstarter campaign just to get a bus for a couple of weeks (laughs)… Thanks for taking the time to do this.
Thanks for your time. One more question for you – what’s next on the horizon? More Willie Sugarcapps, more solo?
Mostly I’m trying to write. You know those little cabins you see on the side of the road? I have one of those in my backyard and have a desk and guitar and chair. I’ve got my routine in my little woodshed right now so I’m trying to get an album together of new material for me. And I’m working on Willie Sugarcapps stuff. Mostly right now I’m doing shows and I’m writing a lot.