By Thomas D. Mooney
West Texas has made it a habit of churning out grizzled voiced storytellers (Well..Jimmie Dale Gilmore is pretty smooth, but you get the point). It has to be the years of breathing in dust storms, drinking hard water, even harder whiskey and tequila, blinding sunrises and sunsets, and just the overall perception of living in the middle of no where.
Charlie Stout may not be originally from Texas, but the years he’s spent here have definitely soaked in. He’s spent the better part of a year playing every Saturday night on the outdoor stage at The Blue Light singing his “acoustic sketches” to who ever was within hearing distance, typically while well-established bands played the main stage inside. And while that gets plenty of exposure to people who came for the main stage talent, it can’t exactly be called too thrilling or instant gratification either. Naturally, Stout’s been working for what most singer-songwriters want: a full band and some main stage action.
Enter The Highgraders.
Stout and company (some fine musicians) have been working for a few months now, transforming Stout’s songs into some full-force alternative-country bluesy ramblers. They definitely have an element of heaviness breathing in them. Darkness–a natural complement for Stout’s gritty growl.
Now I could go off into a cliche-filled list of gravel pit dipping baritone howlers (Tom Waits, Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, Ryan Bingham, etc), but I won’t. I’ll dig a bit deeper. I think Stout’s voice and overall feel and texture is a bit more like a mix of David Berman of the great (and currently disbanded) alternative-country band, The Silver Jews (who? I know that’s what you’re asking yourself. Look them up, they’re a great band) and Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood.
A heavier Silver Jews. A stripped down Drive-By Truckers.
The Highgraders will be opening for The Dirty River Boys tonight at The Blue Light (Friday, January 20th)
New Slang: You’ve spent most of your time playing acoustic at The Blue Light. Now you’re going full band. How’s that transition been for you? How long have you been working as a band, going from “Charlie Stout” to “The Highgraders?”
Charlie Stout: We worked our first rehearsal as a rhythm section in mid-November. We created basic arrangements for 24 of my songs in two days, and we played our first gig on the outdoor stage at The Blue Light the very next day. I called guitarist Jeff James a couple of hours before showtime and invited him to sit in. He came out and played every song with us and stayed right there with it the whole time.
The transition from a solo acoustic act to a four-piece electric outfit has been an exercise in deferred gratification. To date, we’ve spent more hours practicing than playing shows. I believe however, that any band who starts out that way has an advantage over bands who do the opposite, because anything that pays off in the long-term requires sacrifice and investment in the short-term.
I walked away from our first few rehearsals a bit stressed, thinking “this was a bad idea,” but I walked away from our first few performances thinking “this was a great idea,” because when we exercised what we worked on in practice, the crowds responded favorably.
NS: You’ve said that the band has really helped you break down arrangements and “give the right musical colors into [my] acoustic sketches.” Has that always been your intentions; transforming these into full-band songs or are there some that you’re wanting to stay simpler and bare bones?
CS: It has definitely been my intention to develop these songs with musicians; I usually have an idea of what I want a song to sound like with players on it. I’ve been dead wrong about some of those ideas too. “Black Mercedes” is a good example of that–I used to play that song as a big, loud four-on-the-floor stomp. They like to start it out quiet and ominous and build the intensity up through the verses to peak during the solo section and then bring it back down to a slow, dark finish. It’s about a farmer who’s losing his health, his farm, and his faith. And that’s a slow, dark train to ride. So it works.
Drummer Kris Killingsworth has a well-developed sense of how an audience perceives music and he’s not afraid to tell me when I’ve come up with something that’s going to be favored poorly. He and bassist Kevin Long are both inventive enough to propose solutions instead of just pointing at the problems, so if I send them down the wrong road with a tune, they help me make a quick course-correction and we make it work.
That’s part of the sacrifice you make in the short-term–changing the way you play a song in order to make it groove with three other players, and to make what’s happening on stage work with what’s happening in the crowd. We didn’t do a whole lot of highly detailed arranging during those first two cram sessions in the practice room, but the first night we played, I had people coming out of the crowd saying, “I’ve been listening to you play these songs all year, but now I totally get where you were going with it.”
NS: You’ve been a photographer for years. Songwriting and photography have many parallels, the main being that you’re trying to capture something that the audience can relate to. How do you think that’s helped you write songs, if any? And what made you want to become a singer-songwriter?
CS: When I publish an image like “Children Of The Desert,” I want to reach a very large audience. I want everyone who sees this image to start asking the important questions like “who are these kids,” and “where are their parents,” and “do they need food or warm clothes,” and even deeper questions like “will these kids turn out okay,” and “will their kids turn out okay,” and “will MY kids turn out okay,” and so forth.
When I publish an image like “Josh Abbott,” I’m doing something else entirely. I’m not inviting a large audience to ask important questions. There exists only a small audience who may derive any significance from this photograph (The actual subject of the shot is not the songwriter in the center, but rather the surrounding evidence pointing to the years of his relentless work; every one of those people in that crowd paid that guy to be there and sing his songs to them).
While these photographs serve purposes of varying social significance, i faced the same technical challenges in shooting them both: low light at night, multiple people in the frame, a very short window of time available to take the shot, distracting elements that needed to be positioned out of the frame, etc. In this way, studying photography has helped my songwriting immensely: subject, composition, lighting, focus–these essentials of photography all have literary counterparts. That’s where I begin to draw the greatest parallel between photography and songwriting: I am telling stories and I’m prompting questions with both. Some of these stories are just more important than others.
I became a songwriter for as many reasons as I have songs. Sometimes I write a song like “Slow Fade” as a barometer by which one might gauge their alcohol intake. Sometimes I write a song like “Without a Prayer” to point to God and sometimes I wrote a song like “Adultery” to catch the devil in my headlights. Sometimes I write monkey songs like “Can’t Stand Up” because I need a gateway to get folks to listen to the good ones. As a general rule, I try to write lyrics that are going to challenge my listeners to ask the important questions.
NS: You always been the first to say that you’re a songwriter, not a song-singer. Now obviously, you’re the one singing them currently, but when you’re writing a song, are you thinking, “I’m writing this song to sing,” or are you thinking “I’m writing this song for someone else to sing?”
CS: Most of the time, I write for my own voice, and that’s just because I’m trying to write within my limitations. I don’t like hearing good singers try to pull off something that they can’t really sell, and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hear me try it either. On the other hand, when I hear a good voice, it inspires me to either write for it or try to sing like it.
I wrote “Last Time Again” for an incredibly talented teenage female vocalist. She was singing all these songs that other people had written about drinking and cheating and topics that in an ideal world no seventeen-year-old girl should be able to relate to, and I wanted to write her a song that sewed a broken heart back together with a thread of innocence. Same thing with “Songbird.” I wrote that for a singer who was leaving her love in the fall of the year, same as when the birds fly away: before hearts grow cold enough to freeze. Both girls had beautiful voices and I wanted to hear them sing beautiful songs.
On the other hand, I wrote “Pistol Full of Bullets” one day while I was pretending to be James Hetfield. I could say that I wanted to write a character at the frayed end of sanity, fueled by jealousy and rage, but it’s more accurate to say that I just wanted to write a banger in drop D. Some days the inkwell runs deeper than others.
NS: The songs I’ve heard, they’re in that storyteller style and are very authentic and believable. You’re walking away and thinking that the songs are rooted in facts. What are you’re main influences as a songwriter?
CS: I grew up in the Baptist church. People always say that right before they make an excuse for something, so if I’m to ask pardon for anything, it would be for writing so much dark material. The Bible is full of cautionary tales–individuals or families or entire nations under the wrath of an angry God–and it’s hard not to be influenced by that. There’s a lot of “what not to do” in there and if there’s one thing you can learn from my songs, it’s what not to do. Brandon Adams sings the line, “to you all I leave my songs, as a record of all my wrongs,” and I think he nailed it.
You can’t grow up in Appalachia and not eventually hear about what went down years ago in some dark hollow next to yours. “Front Porch Swing” is about a lady my grandparents knew–her husband cheated on her and so she hung herself. I introduced her character happily perched in the front porch swing–“her eyes were blue, her pretty feet were bare.” They get married, years go by, he cheats on her, and I hit a low E at the point when the chair tilts. Then I leave her hanging at the end of the song to pay the wages of sin: “her eyes were closed, her pretty feet were bare.” I imagine she kicked the shoes off her feet in the violent throes of strangulation.
Insofar as authenticity is concerned, I can’t say that I live out the songs I’ve written any more than I’d recommend that anyone else try to. But what girl wouldn’t peer over the edge of the abyss after a heartbreak? Who wouldn’t want to shoot the man he finds his wife in bed with? Who really wants to drink themselves to a slow death? What I hope is that if people see a bit of themselves in my songs, is that they would be prompted to start asking the important questions.