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Published: 2015/03/08
by Matt Inman

Gill Landry: Old Crow Medicine Show and Beyond

Gill Landry, the singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and member of Old Crow Medicine Show, has just released his third solo album, a self-titled LP via ATO Records.

The New Orleans native came up busking on the streets of his hometown and around the country, even getting as far as Paris, before eventually joining up with OCMS in 2004. He is currently on tour with fellow country/folk solo artist Justin Townes Earle and then he will head over to Europe to open shows for Laura Marling. spoke with Landry from his current base of operations in Nashville, TN, where he recorded most of the new album. The songwriter humbly discusses the development of his craft, the differences between playing solo versus in a band, and why he may have stretched the truth a bit when applying for the Old Crow position.

How did you first start playing music?

I had an uncle that played guitar with his wife, and they sang. That definitely interested me. I got my first guitar when I was like five, learned “Camptown Ladies” and things like that from a little folk book or something. Then it just followed me through my life. The pursuits just came naturally. Just like any kid, you have dreams of being onstage and whatnot when you’re playing music, but the evolution of my life in music was very much just that, an evolution—a series of circumstances that followed. And here I am now, doing this. This is a little more of a conscious effort, because I know well what I’m up for now and I’m still doing it. [Laughs]

So was guitar your first instrument?

Probably voice was my first, but I guess everybody sings. So guitar was my first. I think drums were second. Then everything after. I’m a little “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none.” I really love writing songs—that’s my favorite thing to do. I’ve always been into the song and stories in songs and in the telling of tales in that way. So for years, all I could do was just strum chords and sing, and that was enough for me because that’s what I wanted to do—I wanted to sing. I wanted to sing about [Woody Guthrie’s] “Pretty Boy Floyd” or I wanted to sing “Bad Mouth” by Fugazi, whatever. I just wanted to sing something. When I learned to pick—I learned to pick from my friend Felix—it was this country-blues picking, this type of folk picking with ragtime and country-blues. You’d thumb the bass and play the melody with the rest of your fingers. And it sort of opened up the guitar—because I was never a shredder. I never wanted to play hot-licking solos, but that was a way, then, to even add more complexity to being able to sing—to play either harmonies or melodies along with yourself and keep it full with just a guitar.

With Old Crow Medicine Show, your instrumental arsenal is a little more varied. How did that all come about with those guys?

I was in Seattle at the time. It was summer and we were busking, I think, and had some gigs. Then I got a call. My friend Sam Parton, she was in a band called The Be Good Tanyas, and they had toured together [with OCMS]. She wrote me a letter—when Critter [Fuqua] had left [OCMS]—and said “You should go and do this.” And she had said it to me, actually, months earlier, and I didn’t even listen to her—this was 2004, so I didn’t really know anything and I was busy with my own stuff. So she wrote me again, and at the time I was just kind of miserable doing what I was doing, or I wasn’t finding inspiration at the moment. So I wrote them and said “Hey man, I heard you were looking for someone.” That easy.

You know, I did a bit of lying to get the gig, but it wasn’t out of any kind of hot desperation—it was just to do something else. I just took on the task. I remember they called me, and what they needed was a banjo player and a dobro [player]. I played a bit of slide, mostly studying blues stuff. I hadn’t played much banjo that wasn’t just picking—like just finger picking banjo—and they wanted clawhammer. But then I learned that sort of in the process. My growth within that band, instrumentally, was just as things were needed, or as things were interesting to try. Like the pedal steel, recently, which I pretty much learned on the road. And I mean, it’s a vast ocean of learning that I’m just a small cup into. [Laughs]

I feel like I’ve just dipped my toe in. So it’s sort of just been like that. I’m all about the song, ultimately, although that may change. As I’ve now—not intentionally—become a better musician, it is fun to just play, you know, without the story— just moments in time passing, music heading in no particular direction, generally, just moving through time. It’s quite nice. And we really had like minds. I’d say me and the guys—certainly me and Ketch [Secor]—have done a lot of deep study into old music. I mean, you could drill me about pre-war music. We’re not schooled, but we’re self-schooled, you know, we know a good bit. So we came from the same mind. And at that time, there were people into it, but certainly not as many—and certainly not our age—that were steeped in the study of the roots of where Old Crow was at at the time. But that’s how it just ended up being right for the bill. And us both coming up out of busking—that whole perspective.

What can people expect from the new album?

If you’re familiar with my previous solo work, I think I’ve taken a great step forward in the production of it. It’s a very cohesive body of work, but each song is definitely its own entity—but they’re not so far from each other that it’s like eating an apple and then drinking gasoline or anything. Each song has its own view. The label picked “Just Like You” [as the single], and people around me seemed to agree, but I don’t really see a single on the record. I don’t think of records in terms of singles, but you do have to put something out. I feel very strongly about every song on the record. And I don’t aim to write singles, I just aim to write my human experience in song and just have it be a good song, you know?

You look at the wealth of any great songwriter’s catalogue, and what’s in popular culture is generally a very small bit—and the most understandable bit, the most easily accessible bit. And I took such a long time about [the album]. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but there’s a lot in it. There’s a lot of work in it, so there’s a lot of subtlety. I’m by no means a genius—at all [laughs], at all—but there’s a lot of thought and care that went into this album. There’s things that are accessible on the top, but there’s also a lot of slow burners. Because the poetry is what I really love in songs, and the language can, hopefully, unfold with time.

My best friend Felix Hatfield, who I wrote quite a few of the songs with—and he’s been very aware of the process because we’re really great pals—every now and again he’ll say he found something new at the end of a song that he’s already heard. And it’s very intentional to craft a song like that, that can mean something at different times and different emotions. That’s always an intent, and I hope I achieved something close to that. I certainly feel like I did for myself, because even in singing, even just performing last night, I found new feelings within these songs that I know quite well. Anyway, I think it’s a good body of work. I put my stamp of approval on it. [Laughs]

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