Little Steven Finds His Destiny

  To hear Steven Van Zandt tell it, his career over five decades has been a zig-zagging journey dictated by destiny.

Take his return to releasing solo albums after a couple of decades playing a mobster in “The Sopranos” and “Lilyhammer” (which he co-wrote) and touring as Bruce Springsteen’s foil in the E Street Band. With Springsteen on a Broadway break and no nibbles on his television projects, he turned to a dusty songwriting career, opening his back catalog in 2017 to release “Soulfire,” an album of tunes he had not finished or had written for others including Southside Johnny and Gary U.S. Bonds.

“I kind of go the path of least resistance sometimes,” he says. “You play whatever cards you’re dealt.”

“I don’t really have control of my destiny,” he adds, laughing during a call from Europe, where the band was on tour. “I wish I did. I consider that a bit of a failure in my life, you know. I’ve been basically working in the TV world, and I want to keep working there. That’s where most of my interest is. But, you know, no TV deal came together. And Bruce was on Broadway. It was just like, ‘Okay, I got nothing to do, let’s do that’.”

Starting with “Men Without Women” in 1982, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul released four albums of autobiographical and increasingly political songs (“Sin City,” “I Am a Patriot,” “Trail of Broken Treaties”) over seven years. He issued the garage rock of “Born Again Savage” in 1999 before being hired by David Chase for The Sopranos although he had no acting experience. Chase originally offered Van Zandt the lead role of Tony Soprano, but HBO nixed the idea so he was cast as Silvio Dante, a hitman and the owner of the Bada Bing strip club. The character was partly inspired by a script Van Zandt had written.

Out on the road behind “Soulfire” changed his point of view. “It opened my eyes to writing for myself. I was like I can’t believe I sort of abandoned this,” he says. “This is my life’s work.”

Again, that accidental destiny.


“Summer of Sorcery” pays homage to his long and varied career with seemingly at least one song from every conceivable genre — soul, rock, funk, blues, reggae, Latin, doo-wop, you name it. Van Zandt moved beyond the autobiographical subject matter of previous efforts. “I decided I wanted to do fiction, 12 movies (in song) about a different character in each,” he says. “So that suggests a mixture of genres. You can mix it up, but can you still retain your identity? At this point, I can do that. So it was a really significant artistic breakthrough for me and a major rebirth. It really was sorcery.”

“Summer of Sorcery” is a loose concept album “experiencing the first summer of consciousness, the first time in love, the first experiences in life.” I ask him if he thinks playing characters gave him the confidence to write characters in song. “That could very well be because I’ve been writing TV scripts now for years,” he says. “I think part of it also is I had said everything I wanted to say, I mean, politically. These days, there’s nothing much to be explained anymore.  So, my usefulness now is trying to bring people together again. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like what’s going on right now. So I’m like, you know, what? Let me try and bring people together for change. See if we can use music as a common ground.”

“Communion,” the first cut on “Summer of Sorcery” establishes that message with its refrain of “harmony, unity, communion, say it out loud.” When I saw Van Zandt front his 15-piece band in Richmond earlier this summer, the tune opened the show. The crowd surged to their feet and didn’t sit down for the rest of the two and a half-hour show, one of the best I’ve seen in recent years.

More than 50 years ago, Van Zandt was performing a cover of the Turtles “Happy Together” in a New Jersey bar when he met a guy named Bruce Springsteen. They played together in bands, including Steel Mill, which featured the late Robbin Thompson of Richmond as lead vocalist. When Springsteen signed to CBS as a solo artist, he let Van Zandt and other band members go. “I just thought, well, we kind of missed it anyway,” he recalls. “I just quit.”

He worked construction for two years. “I came back due to destiny again,” he says. “I broke my finger playing football and got into a local band, playing piano just to exercise my finger.”

That led to touring with The Dovells, a doo-wop group, which led to him meeting Dion and going on the oldies circuit, playing with one rock legend after another looking for work in the wake of the British Invasion. He backed Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Lloyd Price, Gary U.S. Bonds, and Bo Diddley. “We had 15 acts on the show,” he says. Each played their few hits and made way for the next.

“They hated it,” he says.  They were the pioneers, people who in their 30s were labeled oldies, the generation that invented rock and roll. “They’re the ones that got screwed because every generation after that grew up with the bands and supported the bands making music. The Beatles and The Stones, they’re still the biggest bands.”

Playing with those legends pushed him deeper into songwriting. “I’m meeting all my heroes and I said to myself, man, you know what, I gotta go to school if I’m really going to take this songwriting seriously,” he recalls. “So where does it begin? It begins with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. I decided I’m going to write a Leiber and Stoller song for The Drifters. I met Ben E. King and I met The Drifters. I never did have the courage to give it to him. But, I gave it to Southside Johnny. “

The song was “I Don’t Want To Go Home,” the title cut to the first Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes album, which Van Zandt produced. “That was the first time I thought, that’s a real song,” he says. “It was an important breakthrough for me.”

He contributed two other cuts to Southside’s debut, while Springsteen threw in two, including “The Fever.” After Van Zandt arranged the horns on Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and helped rescue the overworked “Born to Run” cut by pointing out a key minor riff, he was invited into the E Street Band. He remained for a decade departing before the “Born in the USA” tour for a solo career. He returned in 1999.

Asked what three songs he would recommend to new listeners, Van Zandt chose “Los Desaparecidos (The Disappeared Ones),” “the most emotional song I’ve ever written in terms of turning politics into stories;” “A World of Our Own” (off “Summer of Sorcery”), and “I Am A Patriot,” covered by Jackson Browne, among others.

Van Zandt started the performers’ boycott of South Africa, Artists United Against Apartheid, and recorded the protest song, “Sun City” with more than 50 artists. He plays “I Am a Patriot” on the current tour, but feels the need to make an explaining introduction. “You can be a patriot and a globalist at the same time,” he says. “There’s not a contradiction. You can still love your own country. It’s important that the word patriot does not get co-opted by any political party. That’s what’s been happening. That’s just not a word for sale. “

Van Zandt and Springsteen shepherded the comeback of Norfolk legend, Gary U.S. Bonds, with two albums, “Dedication” and “On the Line,” in the early 1980s. Van Zandt had his doubts when Springsteen brought him the project. “Out of all the singers of the ’50s and ’60s, frankly, he (Bonds) would not have been high on my list,” he admits. “Great party records, but not one of the greats of all time until I got into the studio. Then it was like, ‘Holy shit.’ I don’t know how Bruce knew that, but I’m glad that he did.”

“On the Line,” with the marvelous “Club Soul City,” has never gotten the recognition it deserves partly because the first was a hit, Van Zandt says. “The second album was one of my favorite productions ever,” he says. “He’s just singing his butt off. It proves he’s one of the greatest singers of all time.”

Van Zandt is involved in numerous charities, raising money for police widows, to fight cancer, and to fund musical instruments for schools. He started the nonprofit Rock and Roll Forever Foundation years ago to back music education. He’s recently been promoting his TeachRock project (, which aims to lower the dropout rate by incorporating rock and roll as a way into history and current events (lesson plans include the Flint water crisis, dance trends since the 1920s, and blues, poetry and the Harlem Renaissance). Teachers can register online for two free tickets to Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul shows.

His tour concludes on Nov. 6 at New York’s Beacon Theater. He expects to continue with the Disciples of Soul. He is writing scripts. But he’s leaving the end of the year open in case an old buddy wants a date in the studio with Van Zandt and the E Street Band.

“Nothing’s definite yet,” he says, “but I stopped at that date to make sure we had time if Bruce wants to go out in 2020. There will be an E Street Band tour eventually, if not in 2020. And the Disciples will stay together and eventually we’ll get back on TV. I have to figure all that out.”

“I got a whole new artistic life,” adds Van Zandt, who is 68.

Thanks to destiny.


My Favorite Music of 2018

This was a fine year for music so my list is longer than usual. Please share your favorites.

The War and Treaty – Healing Tide

Rayland Baxter – Wide Awake

Boz Scaggs – Out of the Blues

Lera Lynn – Plays Well with Others

Kelly Willis – Back Being Blue

John Hiatt – The Eclipse Sessions

Kim Richey – Edgeland


Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore – Downey to Lubbuck

First Aid Kit — Ruins

Robbie Fulks & Linda Gail Lewis – Wild! Wild! Wild!

Lori McKenna – The Tree

Gretchen Peters – Dancing with the Beast

Chris Smither – Call Me Lucky

Dawn Landes – Meet Me at the River

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

The Beatles – White Album Remastered, Esher Demos

Ruby Boots – Don’t Talk About It

Iron and Wine – Beast Epic (holdover from 2017)


Freelance Writing: One Perspective

Many years ago, I was having a drink at a party with a good friend of mine, a writer with a decade-long track record at places like GQ, Rolling Stone and other major magazines. Someone sidled up, introduced herself and — as people always do in New York — asked us what we did. We told her we were magazine writers. Well, she wondered, what was the most important talent for someone in the business?

Neither of us hesitated.
Almost in unison, we answered: “Accepting rejection and moving on.” The line must have seemed scripted. It wasn’t.

To me, the most important skill a freelancer can hone is the ability to take being rejected — or being ignored — by an editor and move on, whether it’s to offer that editor a new idea or that idea to another editor. There are those wonderful exceptions. My first New York Times assignment came during an initial phone call intended merely to check an editor’s name. But I think freelancers underestimate the work necessary break into a good market and give up too easily. Remember, John McPhee suffered fifteen years of rejections before his byline appeared in The New Yorker.


I’ve long been a contributor to American Way, American Airlines inflight magazine. The good folks there have flown me all over the world — Toronto, St. Lucia, Paris, London, San Francisco, Seattle, Phoenix — on well more than 100 stories over the years. An American Way editor assigned my first magazine story when I moved from newspapering to freelancing. He then rejected my next 11 ideas.

I’ve often wondered what I’d be doing now if I hadn’t sent that twelfth idea.

The same story is true for Smithsonian magazine. My third query netted an assignment. The next 11 were rejected before I got a cover piece. Since then, I’ve written nearly 40 pieces for the print and online versions.

So how’s that for a cheery introduction to a handout about freelancing?

Now, for a few basics. First, a disclaimer: this is one writer’s view of shaping a career. There are an infinite number of other ways to do it, depending upon what you want to write and where you want your byline to appear.

There are three pillars for building a career working for magazines and online publications: writing ability, marketing ability, and identifying and framing stories that sell. You need to be good at all of them.

I’ve seen a remarkable number of writers who think getting assignments is all about marketing. Just find the right markets, get a few good contacts and you’ll have work. Well, at a certain level that may be true. There’s an endless demand for competent work. But never forget that the better a writer you become, the more editors will be calling.

Other writers are creative thinkers and beautiful stylists, but they don’t understand it’s necessary to work just as hard on the marketing end. You’ve got to keep banging on doors until they open or your head wears out from the pounding.

Finally, I’ve come to realize that identifying and framing a story in a way that’s appealing to an editor is a skill we often ignore. Too often, writers mistake subjects for stories. Too often, they don’t do the work on a query to find the details and the angle that entices an editor.

Before I talk about writing, I want to mention reading. Read good work. Pretty basic, right? But sometimes I think writers get so engrossed in selling that they forget the best way to become a better writer is to read stylish prose. So check out Charles Pierce in Esquire or Tom Junod in ESPN (and, before that, Esquire). Sample Kathryn Schulz, James Stewart, Elizabeth Kolbert or David Remnick in The New Yorker. Or Robert Draper, John Branch, and Dan Barry in The New York Times. Sample or Aeon or The Atlantic online or Longreads. Check out Jim Robbins on Yale 360. Dive into books by Michael Lewis, Robert Moor, Katherine Boo, and Lauren Hillenbrand. Whatever your tastes.

Beth Kephart, who wrote “A Slant of Sun,” an achingly beautiful book about rearing a challenging child as well as numerous others, likes to say that a good writing day usually follows a good reading day.

Ideas are currency. Some magazines will assign you stories generated in-house, but if you’re a freelancer part of the fun is controlling what you write. So organize a system for collecting ideas. I use a database program called Evernote, both to organize notes for stories and ideas for queries.

Research your markets with the same zeal you would an in-depth story. There are more markets out there than you can imagine and a lot of them pay more than you can imagine.

Understand, too, that much of your research will end up being discarded because the magazine isn’t right for your writing or the idea. I can’t emphasize this enough: reading a magazine as a writer intending to market ideas or clips is different from reading it for pleasure. Look hard at the kinds of stories a magazine runs. Be honest about whether your style fits. For instance, not all women’s magazines are created equal. Each one appeals to a slightly different demographic. If you’re targeting a major magazine like Discover or Smithsonian or Esquire, subscribe and consider reading back issues online.

When I moved from being a newspaper staff writer to a magazine freelancer, this was the biggest and hardest lesson I had to learn. It’s not enough that something is newsworthy for a magazine. It has to right for the readership at the time.

So you’ve got an idea. Now what?

Establish a realistic pecking order to queries. Aim high, but also shoot a few at more likely markets so you have work. A few years ago, a writer friend and I decided to separate our markets into what I’ll call 76 Truck Stop markets and Holy Grail markets. The truck stop markets are easy to pull into, let us do stories we like for little hassle, pay well and don’t grab all rights so we can resell. The Holy Grail markets (Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, New York Times Magazine) are long shots that require a lot of effort to reach. Rather than pitch many of them, we decided it was wiser to concentrate on one (or maybe two) at a time in an attempt to establish a relationship with editors.

Spend time crafting a good first query to a new market. There is a remarkable amount of information at your fingertips. Use it. Don’t stop at the first Google page. Go deep. Think creatively about how to approach a story.

Remember, this is your introduction. The truth is first ideas rarely hit the mark, but consider them an audition. Make the writing sing.

Send a reminder email a couple of weeks after you’ve sent a query to make sure the editor received it. Remind the editor of the query and tease with a one or two sentence description. This may seem depressing, but with new markets I’ve often found the editor never saw the query so always check in with the editor.

If you get an assignment from a magazine you like, work to become a regular. Securing even one regular gig will keep you sane, provide clips to help sell yourself to other magazines and, oh yes, pay a few bills. Work towards having three of four regular markets. Clips are credibility. Along with a well-written query letter, they are your best marketing tools.

So that’s the first part of being a freelancer: persistence. Pedigree is the second part.

It matters who you know and who you’ve written for. Build a pedigree. Having a clip from markets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, Smithsonian or a hot new online publication makes editors take your query seriously.

Getting an introduction from another writer also helps. So add people to persistence and pedigree. Network with writers. There are dozens of places online to do this as well as any number of organizations. I belong to the American Society of Journalists and Authors ( and have found the contacts as well as the professional advice from other members to be invaluable. I also subscribe to Freelance Success, a newsletter for freelancers with a wealth of market information (

Don’t undervalue yourself. Ask an editor if he can do better than the offered pay. Often, he can.

Do tell editors you’re looking for a steady gig once you’ve completed an assignment or two. Even before that, ask editors what they’re looking for now. Simple advice, but it often leads to assignments — or an informal brainstorming session that helps focus future queries.

If you’re interested in doing serious “issues” stories as well as features, consider pitching to some of the low-end markets so you have clips. I wish I’d done this because it seems to me the markets for these kinds of stories are either very low-end or very high-end (and hard to crack). By doing some low-end work you may build a reputation that will interest the big boys.

Market yourself. Create a Contently page with your clips. Explore online markets for writers, if necessary, like Skyword. Creating “content” – essentially doing sponsored journalism – for corporations and organizations has become huge business in recent years.

Understand the business. If you don’t know what work made for hire means, learn. The same goes for terms like “all rights,” “electronic rights,” “indemnification,” “exclusive,” “First North American Serial Rights,” and others. Most publications offer contracts. Only begin work when you have one in hand. Beware of shaky startups with vague funding.

If you’re a beginner and don’t understand the basic rules of journalism including ethics then please take a course somewhere or go to the Society of Professional Journalists web site and download their ethical guidelines. I run into too many freelancers, usually people who have never been on staff, who are clueless about the basic rules of the game.

Finally, have fun. Freelancing means you get paid to learn. What could be better?

– Jim Morrison



Jae Sinnett Rearranges the Christmas Classics

When Jae Sinnett first was asked if he’d be interested in playing a Christmas show, he said sure. A day later, he thought, “What did I get myself into?”

He realized that if the straightforward jazz quartet from his latest disc, “Zero to 60,” was going to do songs “that have been played a bazillion times,” he would need to rethink those classics.

“I said, ‘Ok, if I’m going to do this I can’t go on stage and go bah, bah, bah,” he says humming the first notes of “Little Drummer Boy.” “I got really involved in reconceptualizing those classic songs in the style of the Zero to 60 Quartet. People think, oh, he’s a drummer so, of course he’s going to do “Little Drummer Boy,” but it’s not going to be like (what) they think.”

For his show at the Attucks Theatre on Dec. 9, he chose holiday favorites that were malleable. “I wasn’t’ just thinking about songs I like, but I was thinking about songs we can manipulate and make conceptually fit how we play,” he says. “In my head, I’m thinking how do these songs feel?”

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” offers a drummer a bounty of choices. A section of “Little Drummer Boy” will be played in a different time signature. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a jazz favorite because there’s so much harmonic variation to it, he says. “Things like that. I just tried to break things up and make it interesting, “he adds.

To make it more interesting, he decided to bring in Grammy-nominated singer Denise Donatelli from the West Coast. She will join saxophonist Ralph Bowen and pianist Allen Farnham, who played on his latest album, and bassist Terry Burrell (bassist Hans Glawischnig played on the CD). 

“I’ve worked with Denise a few times,” he says. “The most recent time was the San Jose Jazz Festival with her. She is an amazing singer. When I first worked with her, she was doing these arrangements by pianist Geoffrey Keezer. They were some of most challenging arrangements I ever played and I’ve played a lot of complicated music. Those arrangements were flat-out crazy and here she was singing over that stuff.”

“She’s a classy, beautiful singer,” he adds. “One of the greats singing this music today.”

Sinnett, who has hosted WHRV’s “Sinnett in Session” for nearly 28 years, prepared for the Christmas show with a rehearsal in August in New York with the quartet. That they were together rehearsing winter songs in the hot summer is another story. Sinnett says he never intended to record and release the music that became “Zero to 60,” his 14th album.

He writes all the time so the tunes were there when he decided to look for some new players to do a few gigs. Then one thing led to another and an album was born.

But, first, exactly how does a drummer write songs? Sinnett says it’s a common question.

“I write from the piano,” he explains. “I play a level of piano. I understand the harmony and theory behind it and I understand composition. Then I start to conceptualize all the instruments in my head.”

When he first started writing, he would sit at the piano for hours and hours working on songs. But later when he was sitting at his drum kit to rehearse, he’d have no idea what to play.

He was at a rehearsal one day with sax player Steve Wilson and pianist Cyrus Chestnut just destroying the music on the drums, making one mistake after another. “Steve Wilson stopped and said sarcastically ‘Are you sure you wrote this music,’ “Sinnett recalls. “That was a revelatory moment for me.”

He realized he needed to think about the bigger picture when he composed. “Now, the way I write, I will have a specific rhythmic foundation in mind, a rhythmic idea, a certain feel, tempo and I will develop the harmonic structure around that rhythmic foundation,” he says. “A lot of times I hear the melody first.

“There’s writing from top to bottom or bottom to top. Top down is melody to rhythm. Bottom is rhythm to melody. Lately, I’m mostly writing from the bottom to the top.”

He feels like with his newest disc, he finally got beyond his insecurities about developing melodies, “I really wanted to write melodies, themes, memorable themes,” he explains. “That’s one aspect I think I’ve developed over the past couple of years.”

Before “Zero to 60,” he’d done a series of albums highlighting different genres. But jazz beckoned.

“I wanted to play some straight-up jazz with a really good tenor saxophone player. I was thinking about the tenor players I’ve worked with like Branford Marsalis,” he says. “Ralph Bowen had always been at the top of that list. Since OTB, I’ve been a big fan of his. You kind of roll the dice and see what happens. I sent him the music and he got back with me, ‘Man, I love this. Let’s do it. Let’s play. The connection with Ralph Bowen was really the spark that got this going.”

The idea was to get together and play, not to record. “But the guys kept asking me are you planning to record this music? I was like, no. They said, ‘You should. “


For their sessions, he wrote out the music, but left room for improvisation. “With this level of players, you’ve got to give them room,” he says. “What they bring to the table is incredible. A lot of times they will play something I’d never have thought of.”

It also helps that the four guys genuinely like each other. “There’s an inter-activeness that is necessary on my bandstand and it starts with the personal relationships,” he adds. “These guys are like brothers to me.”

They recorded the album in two days at Bias Studios in Springfield. “I never thought they would record with me,” he adds. “I thought they would come down and do a couple of gigs and that would be it. But one thing led to another and we ended up in the studio,” he adds. “I’m glad we did. I think it’s my best jazz record by far.”

Now that he’s returned to his jazz roots, he’s not looking back. “Sometimes you feel like you need to do that and get it out,” he says, “but now that I’ve done it, I have no desire to go back and do it anytime soon. I’ve written some new music and it’s not jazz. It’s rock and funk and soul, blues and R&B, light jazz fusion. It’s a mixed bag of things, man.”

For now, though, he’s looking forward to playing his take on Christmas standards with Donatelli and the quartet, a group that’s locked, not just local musicians backing the headliner. “I just love playing with these guys and playing live with the band,” he says. “It’s such a good band. We have really good arrangements. And it’s a real band, which is rare in jazz these days.”


St. Paul and the Broken Bones Go Deeper

stpaul2Jesse Phillips, the bass player and one of the songwriters for St. Paul and the Broken Bones, arrived home in Birmingham, Alabama, from a show in West Virginia about 7 on this morning. A couple of years into the band’s startling run as headliners, he says he still wakes up and has to normalize a life that includes appearing on late-night shows, opening for The Rolling Stones, getting a call asking it Steve Winwood can come to a show, and playing Elton John’s Oscar party.

The band burst into stardom when barely out of its infancy with “Half the City” and the hit single, “Call Me” in 2014 then returned with a more ambitious, funkier and more socially-conscious sophomore disc, “Sea of Noise.”

The new album explores deeper, stepping back to take a look at the environment, race relations, gender identity and other political themes.  Paul Janeway, the band’s lyricist, channels Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. He cites reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption — a memoir about systemic racial inequality in the Alabama legal system — as a pivotal moment while he was working on the album. He explores issues in the songs, but doesn’t offer solutions. “I can’t tell what side I’m on / I can’t tell what’s right or wrong / We ain’t ever gonna sing one song,” Janeway sings.

 The band’s career almost didn’t happen. Phillips and Janeway, the band’s lyricist and captivating front man, had decided to make music a hobby and find adult careers. They got together in the studio for fun and those sessions quickly led to the formation of the band, including a three-piece horn section that included a couple of guys still in college.

The group comes to The NorVa on Sept. 12. Phillips swatted away the morning-after cobwebs to answer a few questions.

You guys struggled and almost quit. Tell me about that.

It was one of those things. Like a lot of people do, I’d been playing in bands since I was 15. I was around 30 by this time. Paul hadn’t been doing this for quite as long as me. But it was getting to the point where we were looking at growing up and devoting our energy to most of things do, which is usually like a career of some sort and not playing in rock and roll bands. Neither one of us was looking at quitting music. We were just sort of turning our attention to another more grown-up things. Paul was in accounting school. I’m not sure what I would have done. I have a lot of family who work in forestry up north. I would have probably done that or gone to grad school and become a librarian.

Around the end of the other band Paul and I were in together, which was called The Secret Dangers, we decided to continue working together on a for-fun basis and go into a studio here in town. We started going in once a week with an engineer playing around. The idea was just to record a few things for fun to sort of have a document of our time together, our musical friendship. That recording project ended up turning into St. Paul which turned into a real functional band which turned into a touring entity which got alarmingly serious quickly and it just seems to keep going.

I read where you met in a record store. 

Not quite. I worked in a musical instrument store here in Birmingham. The way I met Paul was through another guy who worked at the store who was a drummer. He was playing with Paul at the time.

What kind of music were you playing in the early days?

I’ve always been in rock and roll leaning bands. Some were more blues-oriented. Some were more pop oriented. But they were always certifiably rock and roll. This band is probably the furthest away from being a straight up rock and roll band I’ve ever been in. It’s fun because you have so many voices to play with in the band. A three-piece horn section. Hammond organ. All sorts of stuff.

A band out of Alabama ought to have a soulful sound. You ever think about that legacy?

We’re very aware of it. A couple of guys in the band are natives of the Muscle Shoals area. The keyboard player lives next to the Muscle Shoals in the tri-cities area. The guitar player is from Florence. They’re pretty much straight out of that legacy. They’re the next generation of guys working in that world. I came at it as an outsider, but I think because I was an outsider in some way I almost appreciated more what was happening and what had happened there than people who grew up there because they sort of took it for granted.

I’m somebody who moves to Alabama and (finds) there’s this tiny town where you can throw a rock and you can hit a legendary musician who has played on more hits than songs you know how to play. A lot of those guys still hanging out up there and they’re pretty supportive. It’s a neat thing to be graciously incorporated into that although we have a lot of proving to do before we can ever be measured on the same scale as those guys.

How was that early sound different from now?

My standard line is early on we made up for what we lacked in finesse with effort. It was always balls to the wall playing with our pants on fire kind of vibe. The band still retains some of that intensity, but it’s a more well-oiled outfit these days. There’s a little more give and take, push and pull, not everybody has to be making racket all the time.

When we made that first record we had maybe played 12-15 shows. By the time we got to the second one we had played maybe 500 shows. So a pretty substantial difference how it feels to play together.

You are a bass player in that soul tradition.

I came by being an R&B bass player accidentally. All of a sudden, you find yourself in this position and you really start listening. I like guys like David Hood and Duck Dunn from Memphis and Muscle Shoals. They made sure all the notes they played were really good notes put in just the right place. They didn’t really play too many of them. That’s a really good lesson to learn. I’m clearly still not anywhere near any of those guy’s levels, but it’s been really cool to study what they’ve’ done and try to build on that.

Tell me about the songwriting. You and Paul?

It’s more of collaborative all-the-way-around-the-band thing these days.

I think the main concern for us going into the second record was we wanted to make sure we weren’t going to be perceived as a retro soul novelty act. We kind of wanted to spread our wings and fly and explore some different territory and maybe lean on some strengths in the band we didn’t have the opportunity to explore the first time.  By doing so you establish yourself as a different kind of musical entity. After releasing our second album we can go in a lot of different directions on the third, fourth and fifth one. if we had done the first record over again with slightly more resources or fidelity or whatever I think people would have liked it, but then that would sort of been the thing we did for all time, what people expected us to so. The parameters we had to operate under would be more solidly set in stone.

I read one review that called “Sea of Noise” protest soul. I’m not sure about that, but there’s a long tradition of socially-conscious soul.

There’s a real proud tradition of making more socially conscious music, but it’s still fun. It’s still butt-shaking.

Was there a song that for you crystallized where you were going with “Sea of Noise?”

I think my personal favorite is song called “I’ll Be Your Woman.” It started out as sort of a cross between a Bill Withers vibe with a William Bell “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” sort of thing. And then it kind of took on a life of its own once Paul had the lyrics down, bending identity and changing perspectives. I feel like it came together really well. All the elements I was hoping would gel on that record did so on that song. The string arrangement adds to it and it still has this heavy rhythmic thing on the bottom end. The lyrics are excellently done. I have to give Paul props on that one.

 That William Bell record from last year (“This Is Where I Live”) is incredible. 

That guy has not lost a single step. We played the Otis Redding 75th birthday in Macon last year and we got to back him up on a tune. As soon as the guy opens his mouth, it’s a whole different ballgame. He still sounds exactly the same. This low earthy rumble comes out of his mouth. It’s rich and silky. He should be ten times more famous than he is.

 You guys opened for The Stones. You played Elton John’s Oscar party. It’s been a wild ride.

It is a funny thing. I’ll tell you why. As I said. I’m one of older guys in the band. It (success) didn’t happen until I was in my 30s. The process of resolution when you’re a bit older is different.

I definitely have had that that moment in the last couple of years where I’ve woken up and been in bed getting my brain together for the day. Ok, this is what we’re going to do. You have to go through this normalization process. We’re opening for the Stones. We’re going to play Elton John’s Oscar party. Or we’re hanging backstage with John Paul Jones. Steve Winwood’s wife called me to ask if they could see us in Nashville. I was like, of course you can.

You do have to normalize and once you get through, you’re like ‘Holy shit that was crazy’ then allow yourself to bask in the afterglow a bit. It’s been pretty surreal for me. I’d been working music retail and coffee shops for last decade.
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Randy Newman and the Great Debate

Randy_bio_s-550x360“The ‘Toy Story’ guy wrote a song about Putin.”

That popped up on social media recently about Randy Newman.

If your career in the spotlight lasts long enough, you become different things to different generations. Joe DiMaggio becomes “Mr. Coffee” not “The Yankee Clipper.” LL Cool J becomes Sam Hanna, that guy on NCIS, not a trailblazing rapper. Journey becomes a schlock rock arena act not a psychedelic jazz fusion San Francisco band of former Santana members.

It’s been nearly 50 years since Newman released his first album so it’s natural he’s different things to listeners. He’s the guy who first wrote hits for Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, The O’Jays and eventually Three Dog Night (“Mama Told Me Not to Come”) and Joe Cocker (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”).

He’s been the guy who angered everyone with songs like “Political Science” about dropping the big one, “Rednecks” that tackles both southern and northern racism and “Short People” about a disturbed guy with an extreme prejudice against the vertically-challenged with the line that “short people got no reason to live.” With songs that evoke Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin, he’s earned a chapter in the Great American Songbook, albeit the one featuring satire and the wittiest wordplay.

His first new album in nine years, “Dark Matter,” was released in early August. It was an occasion because it’s only his tenth since his debut in 1968.

The opening track, “The Great Debate,” is an eight-minute suite about science and religious faith told from different points of view. There’s “Putin,” a goof on the Russian leader he began before the campaign controversies.

“When he takes his shirt off, he drives the ladies crazy,” Newman sings. “When he takes his shirt off, makes me wanna be a lady.”

He also confesses he’s written a song about Donald Trump that focuses on a part of his anatomy, but says he doesn’t want to release it and add to the vulgarity of the national debate.


“Randy Newman is a national treasure,” Don Henley of The Eagles told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s also probably the most misunderstood and underappreciated recording artist alive.

“He’s one of the only living songwriters who can get ridicule and empathy into the same song. Sometimes, he works in the realm of irony; other times, he’s a heart-on-his-sleeve romantic,” he said. “The combination of his lyrical genius and his deep ability as an orchestrator and composer is powerful stuff. There’s nobody quite like him.

“I said when I inducted Randy into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame [in 2013], that what you hear in his music is America, in all its shame and all its glory…. He mines so many rich veins of American musical culture and synthesizes them in a way that nobody else has done.”

Newman has always written from the point of view of characters, not much about himself. But he knows his way around an interview. Here is Newman in his own words over the years. He was not available for an interview before his show on Sept. 13 at The Sandler Center for Performing Arts in Virginia Beach.

About his Putin song:

“I don’t think I set out to write a song about Putin but I’ll tell you, another thing that inspired it, there’s an old song in the ‘40s, by the Golden Gate Quartet, a gospel song called “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’ when he fought the beast of Berlin.” About Hitler and Stalin. And I love it, that song. So I think “Stalin Stallin’” is what really pointed the direction to me. “Putin putting his pants on. Stalin wasn’t stallin’.”

About the difficulty of writing:

“It’s been murderous for me in some ways. I never liked writing. If you read back in interviews there’s whining and complaining. You’d think I was threading pipe for a living, rather than working in a nice room, you know? Songwriting time when you’re not thinking of anything is really slow time. I mean it’s like school, you know, where I was going “Oh, I know it’s 10:00 but I’ll guess it’s 9:30,” and it’ll be like 9:15 (laughs). And it’s because I come to the table with nothing. I sit at the piano and I’ve got nothing in my head, not a goddamn thing.”

About writing in character:

“I’ve said a number of times that songwriters ought to have the same latitude as short-story writers, where it doesn’t have to be some kind of personal or confessional thing. I was always more interested in the less-than-heroic mode. In so many songs, in one way or another, the singer is the hero of the piece … [For instance,] his heart is broken all over the place, and it’s noisy. No matter what it is, it interests me less than writing about people who are a little off in some way. And that’s not the norm.”

You can do it. When I first began writing this way, with characters in it, I always wondered why more people didn’t do it. And I think maybe it’s because it’s not a great idea for the medium [of pop music]. Maybe it’s meant to be a direct I-love-you, you-love-me kind of medium.
But you can do this other stuff and it comes off. And I have such an affection for comedy, that I like to laugh and I like to make people laugh, so I do it.”

About writing dark songs:

I have to be careful. I have to watch that my stuff doesn’t seem like I’m sneering all the time. What helps is that I’m actually not that cynical. I’ve got a song on this record, “It’s a Jungle Out There.” And I don’t think that; I don’t think it’s a jungle out there. I don’t think things are that bad. I think they’re very bad politically, but not otherwise.

About the difference between heartbreaking songs and satirical songs:

The comedy ones are harder, because you have to keep the comedy going. There are jokes in the front of it and a joke in the middle and then you have to have a funny finish. I remember once — God, I’m turning into John Prine, an old storyteller — but I remember going to hear a symphony. It was either Mahler or Shostakovich. It ended [hums quietly] bum, bum, bum-bum. I saw it with an orchestrator, and after that ending he said, “you always have to end with a ta-da!” This is a guy who named his boat Ta-Da. But that’s the thing: You have to find endings for the comedy songs in a way that you don’t for the other ones. It’s hard. I don’t know why I do it. Songwriting is not a medium that’s used much for laughter. Even fans of mine: I think they like it best when I do straight ballads like “Feels Like Home” or “She Chose Me” on the new album. But that’s not what I like best.

About writing on assignment for the movies:

“Well, “You’ve Got a Friend” is not a song that I would have written on my own, unless I were a used-car salesman or something. But I can do that. If you tell me to write a song about a monkey who falls in love with a goat, I could do it. And I’m proud that I could do it. It’s not like I’m selling out or anything. I can write to an assignment, and it’s the thing I’m most confident that I’m able to do well.”

About his long career:

“Yeah, I suppose it’s a significant kind of career I’ve had. What I’m most pleased about is that there’s no particular decline. The songs I wrote 40 years ago are no worse and no better – there’s a consistency. It’s clear they are by the same guy. I’m a little better in some aspects, but basically my style crystallized a long time ago and that’s what I’ve done.”
I was talking one time to Paul McCartney on the phone – he called me to do something for [Welsh folk singer] Mary Hopkin – and I was saying, ‘I’m trying to write… Jesus, it’s a drag.’ I was complaining as I am to you. And he says, ‘Well, you really don’t have that much to live up to anyway, do you?’ I replied, all meek and mild, ‘Oh yeah, I guess not’, but I was thinking, ‘Who’re you, shithead?’ I never forgot it.”

About what makes him optimistic:

“People as individuals. In general, I’ve found that if you sit next to somebody and start talking they’ll be pretty good. I’ve had no reason to feel differently.”

About whether he thinks about his legacy:

“No. I only know that if my obituary doesn’t start with something like “Newman broke a hip in January” it’ll start with “the composer of ‘Short People.’” That’s the way it goes.”




Jason Isbell: Stories for Listeners

jasonisbell4 I used to think that this was my town
What a stupid thing to think
I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown
I myself am on the brink

I used to want to be a real man
I don’t know what that even means
Now I just want you in my arms again
And we can search each other’s dreams

— Jason Isbell, “Hope the High Road”

On the day after the 2016 election, Jason Isbell was at home outside Nashville caring for his baby daughter, Mercy Rose, then a few months past her first birthday. His wife, Amanda Shires, was on tour in Salt Lake City that night behind her album, “My Piece of Land.”

The presidential election results, he admits, blindsided him. He knew the choices were tough, especially for the working class folks he grew up with in rural Alabama.

So he did what he does. He wrote. He wrote to unpack his feelings, to confront and explain those things that seem unexplainable or intolerable. He thought he knew America. On Nov. 8, he realized he did not.

He was thinking about family, about what the election of a bigot and a misogynist meant for his far-away wife and his so-near daughter.

“As hard as it was for me to see those results,” he says, “I could only imagine what it was like for a wife and later on a daughter to have to explain.”
Out of that came “Hope the High Road,” the first single off his forthcoming album, “The Nashville Sound.”

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in
To a world you want to live in

“After growing up in rural Alabama in a town without a red light or a post office and traveling the word for 17 years, I thought I had a pretty good handle on America,” he says. “It turned out I was not right at all.”


His father works maintenance in a hospital. His mom has an office job. “My parents still work hard every day,” he says. “I’ve not made enough money to tell them they can retire. Hopefully, we’ll have some huge hits and everybody can move on up sometime soon.”

His father, he says, stood in line to vote torn by his decision. He’s been paying way too much from health care since the Affordable Care Act was passed. But he also didn’t believe he could vote for somebody like Trump, Isbell says.


“I hear both sides of the story,” he says. “My main concern was I feel like a lot of people who have been under represented had to ignore a lot of shitty things in order to vote in what they felt might be their own best interest. That’s what really bothers me. I can see middle class or poor working class Americans wanting somebody who is not a career politician. I can see them wanting somebody who speaks plainly and in a way that’s not coded the way political language often is. But I can’t really understand overlooking the bigotry and the misogyny.”

“So I felt like after all that went down,” he adds, “I didn


‘t know people as well as I thought I did. That was a big awakening for me.”

Isbell, who opens the season at the Portsmouth Pavilion on April 26, understands what he calls the “Springsteen conundrum:” “How do you sing about working class people when it’s obvious what kind of money you’re making?”

He’s not near that level. He doesn’t think he’s all that far removed from his roots. He lives outside Nashville, about 80 miles from his hometown of Green Hills. “The differences between how I grew up and how I live now and the similarities between those two are of great interest to me,” he says.

Isbell famously was fired by the Southern rock band, Drive-By Truckers for his drinking. Ryan Adams, Shires and his manager got him into a rehab that likely saved his life. He’s sober — a battle he talks about freely — and out in the country now, surrounded by a few musicians and a lot of working class folks, similar to the ones of his childhood and his days in school.

“So I have a lot of concern for the issues of working class people,” he says. “I think you can empathy without living like that. To deny a successful songwriter the option of writing about people who are not having success is really to deny that empathy works as a concept.”

I ask him about the line, “I used to want to be a real man; I don’t know what that even means.”

“As I got older, I stopped using phrases like “I want to be a man” or “Man up.” Look at what you’re saying. It’s pretty insulting to women,” he says. “I just started saying, ‘Try to be grown. Try to be an adult.’ Insulting to children,” he adds, laughing.

He explores working class characters and their stories on his forthcoming album, “The Nashville Sound” that gives co-credit for the first time in years to his band, The 400 Unit. Shires adds fiddle and vocals. Dave Cobb is once again handling the knobs as producer.

It’s the third in a line of stellar albums from Isbell, after 2013’s “Southeastern,” the 2014 Grammy winner for best Americana album, and 2015’s “Something More than Free,” the 2016 Grammy winner for best Americana album.

In a suite of songs on “The Nashville Sound:” “Cumberland Gap,” a rocker, “Tupelo,” a mellow reflection, and “White Man’s World,” he explores the walls closing in on working class men.

I thought about moving away, but what would my momma say?
I’m all that she has left and I’m with her every day.
Soon as the sun goes down, find my way to the Mustang Lounge.
If you don’t sit facing the window, you could be in any town.
– “Cumberland Gap”

“Cumberland Gap” is one of Isbell’s many short stories in song. “You start building a character,” he says, “and that’s how the characters behave naturally. There are people I know who have had very similar experiences and they wound up being the primary inspiration. I take three or four people I know and try to build a character. It’s not different than going about writing a novel or a short story.”

That begs the question of what Isbell was reading while writing the album. He finished in January, writing the dark “If We Were Vampires,” days before entering Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio B, the birthplace of albums by Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison and Gillian Welch, among others.

He says he read an advance copy of George Saunders “Lincoln in the Bardo” and others. He’s been a passionate about reading since sobering up, dipping into everything from Gabriel García Márquez’s “100 Years of Solitude,” Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” to Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”

“It’s difficult,” he says. “I try not to show my influences too obviously. I don’t want to let those find their way into too much of my material.”

Isbell named the album, “The Nashville Sound,” partly as an homage to the studio, managed for so many years by Chet Atkins, and as a way to stake his claim to the type of music made there.


Our talk is on the day after The Academy of Country Music Awards. Isbell has no tolerance for the music showcased there. “It’s obvious from last night’s awards show how much out of touch the pop country music world is,” he says.

“The Nashville Sound” reflects the kind of music still made in Nashville. While there are a few more rockers on this disc, Isbell says he never sets out to make one kind of record or another.

“Really the only thing that matters to me outside of documenting a point in time is trying to get the best songs I possibly can. That’s my guiding light.”

“The way I’ve gotten through the world and made myself happy and gotten more than I could have ever asked is early on I found something I wanted to do when I didn’t have to do anything else,” he adds. “It’s still that way. I’m very lucky.”

He’s worked at Wal Mart, in a fireworks warehouse and waiting tables. But since he started performing professionally he hasn’t had to do anything else other than play and write songs.

Among those songs are “Anxiety,” a dark tune about dealing with that fear written with Shires, and “If We Were Vampires,” a serious song with a funny title about mortality. “Maybe time running out is a gift,” he sings. “I’ll work hard ‘til the end of my shift. Give you every second I can find and hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.”

“That one caught me by surprise,” he says. “I wrote that the last day before we went into the studio. I was really proud of it. It’s really heavy and it took me a while to get through and be able to sing it without emotion.”jason77

“When you’re a kid you think something’s in the closet until you work up the courage to get out of bed and look for yourself,” Isbell told me in another interview last year. “You can spend a lot of years hollering for your dad to come do it or you can get out of bed at five years old, open the door, and when there’s nothing in there, go to sleep.

“That’s really the reason I started to write songs, to confront those things,” he adds.

“Things about my upbringing or the places that I’m from. About society in general. About personal relations. Things that were very terrifying to me until I looked them in the face and explained them to myself. They don’t scare me so much anymore.”

That’s not surprising. Jason Isbell albums are therapy, time to sit and think and ponder the big questions. He understands no radio station today is going to play songs like “If We Were Vampires” or “Anxiety” and he’s just fine with that.

“I’ve just always been somebody who listened to music directly. It wasn’t’ really a background thing. That’s what my whole life has been based on. I know a lot of people who aren’t musicians who are that way. They don’t just have music playing while they’re having a party or washing dishes or something.

“I think I kind of write songs for those people, people who like to sit down and listen to songs.”
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