by: Thomas D. Mooney
We recently caught up with Tony Kamel of Austin-based Wood & Wire. They’ve recently released their self-titled debut record, a collection of songs that Kamel and mandolinist Matt Slusher trade off back and forth lead singing over traditionalist Texas-twanged bluegrass. “Wood & Wire” is an eclectic group of songs that swing to and fro between Depression-era sad songs to crisp, modern ballads.
“Fool Out of Me,” a Kamel-penned song, finds the band surrounding one microphone where three-piece harmonies round out the edges of the chorus and Kamel doing his best Hank Williams, so lonesome I could cry impression.
“Nowhere & Gone” is a traveling-down-the-road slow roller where Slusher shines through and through. His vocals are in many ways, like the late Arthur Russell (during his “Love Is Overtaking Me” days). They’re fragile, yet piercing at times while singing about going cross country and hearing Kris Kristofferson singing a Beatles song or Willie Nelson singing some Tom Petty.
As you see in our interview with Kamel, Wood & Wire are able to play traditional bluegrass without being stuck in time. There are times in which they tell stories from yesteryear, but aren’t consumed by it. More often than not, Kamel and Slusher write about every day things that anyone can relate to.
Wood & Wire are playing this Thursday (Feb. 21) at The Blue Light as part of an extended CD Release string of dates.
New Slang: So this record, it was recorded up in Nashville. I guess you guys went up there this past fall. How long were you guys up there and how was working on the record up there?
Tony Kamel: Well, we went up to Nashville in October last year. We went up there initially to go to the International Bluegrass Music Association conference for one night and then we went to record. We recorded with a guy by the name of Erick Jaskowiak. He’s a well-known sound engineer. He has produced some albums. I know he wanted to get into producing more and we really liked the sounds that he got out of the records he worked on. So went with him and he has a studio at his house that he calls J Studio. It’s a small studio, but it’s constructed perfectly for what we were wanting to do. We were there recording for eight days essentially. It was a blast. We probably worked between 10 and 12 hours a day. Erick’s a very cool guy. Very laid back and made the process really smooth.
NS: Another thing you guys have going on along with this debut record is getting the opportunity to open up some shows with Yonder Mountain String Band. How exciting is that?
TK: Yeah. We’re very excited. We’ve actually played three shows with them already. We played in Knoxville at the Tennessee Theatre, in Nashville at Marathon Music Works, and in New Orleans at the House of Blues. All three places sold out. Well, the Tennessee Theatre is so big, it wasn’t sold out, but there were a couple thousand people. All three places had huge, very enthusiastic crowds. It couldn’t have gone any better. They were really cool guys. Very encouraging of what we were doing. Very good time even though the scheduling was extremely grueling. There were some real late night drives and stuff. But to play at those types of venues and to play with a band like Yonder Mountain, it’s a dream come true for us. And we’re hooked [laughs]. We want to play shows like that all the time.
NS: Something I wanted to ask you about was about songwriting. I think an overwhelming majority of people would say, “oh, bluegrass? You guys are playing old timey music.” The masses think that bluegrass is something that sounds old and would expect you guys to sing songs that were just as old. But you guys aren’t singing about the Civil War or about the Depression or something. The majority of your songs are contemporary and are about present day things. I think that’s a cool kind of deal. It has this interesting balance. What are your thoughts on it?
TK: Yeah. I think, at least for me, when I’m writing songs, I like to tell stories. I like to go into historical stuff sometimes too, like “Coal Mining One.” You know? That’s sort of a historical, old school song. But as a songwriter, I like to think about what happening now. And I obviously love this kind of music. I think that kind of gives us a little bit of an edge in the genre in a way. Our sound leans towards traditional. It leans farther toward traditional than a lot of these folk bands who have acoustic instruments–they have bluegrass looking instruments. I think it gives us an edge with us sounding more traditional. As far as songwriting goes, I don’t have a specific process or anything. I don’t want to be pigeonholed with what bluegrass songs “should” be about. I’m influenced by songwriters who I love. Some of them are old and some are new. I want to be able to write about whatever I want. I want to have that old bluegrass sound but lyrically, I’m going to write about what I feel. I want people to be able to relate to it as well. It can be hard to relate–well, I shouldn’t say that–I love a lot of those old school songs. But we definitely wanted a modern take on those old hillbilly songs. On those old mountain songs.
NS: Yeah. I mean, in my opinion, I’d tend to think that of the “genres” out there, bluegrass would easily be in the top five easiest to be pigeonholed by the masses as being strictly one thing or one sound. I think it’s cool that you can be much more than that though. It can be like this sound where you’re singing songs that are kind of updated to present day.
TK: Yeah. I like that word to describe it: updated.
NS: Something else you guys did on the record was you brought in some fiddle.
TK: Yeah, we did. We brought in a girl by the name of Brittany Haas. She was in a band that’s no longer touring together called Crooked Still. They were just incredible. She’s just an all-around badass fiddle player and musician. One of the things that we loved about her and why we wanted her was because she loves old-time music–which is a little different from bluegrass. You know, the oldest players around, they didn’t use the word bluegrass or old-time. It was just like traditional country picking or something like that. But old-time has kind of become, in a modern description, is playing in a specific way that’s not bluegrass. It’s a specific style of playing. We love that old-time music. We liked the idea of having an old-time fiddle player on the record. And not just an old-time, but just a badass fiddle player in general. And she was that. And she was super easy to work with. Just super quick in the studio. We really enjoyed having her.
NS: Yeah. There were some moments on the record where the fiddle playing really stands out.
TK: Yeah. The one thing about fiddle and what’s nice about being a four-piece without a fiddle, the fiddle players we know, they’re so good, if we wanted to do a tour with a fiddle or one night or something, we could literally have one practice an hour or two before the show for an hour or so, and it’d sound like they’d been playing with us for years. That’s how fiddle players are. It’s also something where we could have a dobro sit in as well. It’s a small possibility that we could have a permanent fiddle player one day, but we kind of like having that opening in the band.
NS: Yeah. I can see that. It kind of helps not being over-saturated with sound.
TK: Yeah. Not only that, but it also helps with that whole being pigeonholed thing we’ve been talking about. It keeps songs open.
NS: I’m going to get you out with this last question. The album opens up with a song you wrote called “Mexico.” Where’d that song come from?
TK: Yeah. So that song, even though I have the sole credit on the back of the album, it’s more of a collaborate song. I wish it’d have said that. I may get it changed whenever we reprint the album to say that. I kind of had this idea for a chord progression and I took it to Dom and we went over and tweaked it. He had a lot to do with what the chord progression is now. So we needed lyrics so I sat down and started writing. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. I like writing stories, so I sort of made it attached to the past with it being a prison break song about a guy escaping from Huntsville. I’m from Houston, so Huntsville it’s always kind of been this figure in my mind. It came out pretty quickly. Sometimes it’ll take a while for me to get a song out. This one came out really quickly. Then when I took it to practice, Slush had some good insight on it. Trevor really, that banjo part Trevor wrote, that really makes the song. So it was more of a collaborative piece.