Travels to Cannery Row with the Deadstring Brothers
An ambulance sped by.
“It’s like writing a short story,” I said.
“Well, that’s how I approached writing that record. I realized that I could step into a character’s head and shape verses around it. And I felt that I could do that in any type of song. Four verses around a person or a place or a subject,” he said.
“You don’t think that’d get monotonous? The same technique over and over again?”
“No. I don’t,” Kurt said. “Stories are stories. Once you move into telling stories as opposed to just writing a hook people can move around to that opens up a whole other thing. Look. I kind of lost sight of the thing about songwriting after the first record. We were touring a lot and when we were playing I noticed that people in bars don’t want to sit and listen to stories. They just want to be made to feel something. After that first record then, I moved into an area of writing that would be more appropriate for playing in bars. I just didn’t have any of that material written for Cannery Row. I had to look at what I had as a songwriter, but these weren’t things that would work out on our other records. Or bars. And it didn’t matter. We had to get this done.”
“You can do anything when you have an open slate,” I said.
“Exactly. We were fearless about what we could do. We’re basically doing exactly what we want to do and what we think is right. Doing the singer-songwriter thing? We’re just not plugged into that.”
“But this is the most organized we’ve ever been. We knew Cannery Row was going to be what it was and we’re set up through 2014. We just finished up our next album, a honky tonk record. All covers. That was part of the plan, too. Do something different and interesting. We’ve been playing so many honky tonks and playing honky tonk songs and there’s always been that in our sound, that we figured it’d be fun to go out and now record an album of honky tonk covers.”
“Did that affect your songwriting?”
“It would have to. You live those songs. I think it would be a big influence,” Kurt said.
“I don’t know yet. I haven’t done much writing since we finished those sessions.”
“No?” I said.
“Not really. I can’t write on the road. I need silence and space. I don’t work well in all that chaos. There’s days when you think, ‘I’ll never get to be alone anymore.’ I write better if I can take the time out. I keep dreaming of installing a cocoon in the van so I can get that quiet,” Kurt said.
“Good luck,” I said. We laughed and I excused myself.
I went to the bar and got another round. When I came back Kurt leaned forward on the table and folded his hands on top of each other.
“This new record you’ll like,” Kurt said.
I sat down.
“Don’t see why I wouldn’t,” I said.
“It’s got the same musicians as Cannery Row but we recorded it down on Music Row. In the belly of the beast.”
I laughed and shook my head.
“We had an incredible engineer. The sound is wonderful. It’s like the engineer and the room were made for each other. It’s something. We’ve never undertook something like that before. But, thinking about your question, I would hope to continue to develop. Work on this craft. Stylistically it doesn’t matter, but the craft does. I am drawn to that freedom of music, you know, especially in popular art, of that era from the mid-sixties to the middle-seventies. That’s what the Deadstring Brothers have always been pulled toward. That was the most freeing time for art, that ten year period. It was a renaissance for music. When everything got completely wide open. That’s the reason I started this band. Think of all those guys in the sixties and seventies, all part of the same movement. When Chet Atkins had a stronghold on Nashville, you couldn’t do much else. The outlaw movement grew out of that. They left town and came back and you couldn’t touch them. They had control of their careers. Nobody could tell them who could be on the record or who couldn’t. That’s the model for this band from the start to the finish. We’re going to have complete control. The freedom to do what we want to do. I’m not going to write by the numbers. It’s going to have to be a songwriter writing the fucking song. You know? Dylan didn’t write by the numbers. Waylon, Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Prine. Many more. Beautiful songs, they wrote beautiful songs and they did it on their terms. And they did it within a form. Forms that I love. Prolific and consistent. They all were.”
“It’s an obsession. Writers have to do it,” I said.
“Yeah. As a songwriter, I’ve felt better on the last two records, especially Cannery Row. I’ve felt like I was going somewhere. Because if I wasn’t developing, I’d just stop and go do something else. But Bloodshot gave me this deal, this way of being a published writer. I have a BMI and every record I make is registered. There’s a legitimacy to that. A respect to that. I take that very seriously.”
We spoke for some time about serious art, about what it takes to make it and what good craftsmanship is. We spoke of woodworking.
“My problem with a lot of the mass produced art,” I said, “and I mean art in the general term, both music and literature, is that it doesn’t face how people live through it. What I appreciate about Cannery Row is that there is a hard confrontation with how people get through the day. But no one wants to hear how the working class makes it through. It’s almost bullheaded to make the stand and write about those truths.”
“But most people that write that way aren’t writing that way because they learned to write as a business. There’s so many talented song writers out there writing real music. So much of it. It makes it inspiring. I could go on and on about it. You know what I am talking about. You don’t need the pop marketing to have a career in music. And if you feel you need it and are successful you should question why you are successful.”
“That music won’t last,” I said.
“No. But a lot of other music won’t either. It will only last as long as people appreciate it.”
“Some songs will last. In two hundred years they’ll still be partying to Fats Domino,” I said.
“I hope. Maybe.”
“Don’t you want to write a song that will last? An immortal song? To beat the gods?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I want to write about what’s happening right now. What’s right here in front of me. I don’t decide if it lasts.”
Kurt paused and drank and looked out over Chestnut Street.
And he said, “I would worry that if I started thinking about sitting down to beat the gods I’d fuck up what I do creatively.”
“Because too much ego would get involved. Ego, especially the male ego, can make very bad art. Arrogant art. It’s semi-embarrassing to think that way. And I don’t want to beat the gods. I just want to be able to flow with it. To not push against the universe. I want to slow down and see it,” Kurt said.