by: Thomas D. Mooney
I often speak about the concept of records being Saturday night or Sunday morning records. They’re either something you want to listen to on a binge of whiskey, cigarettes, cheap beer, and good times or they’re a relaxing coffee fueled morning. The properties that make up such records are typically distinct, sharp contrasts. They’re either/or.
Born to Run, Saturday night.
Nebraska, Sunday morning.
Sticky Fingers, Saturday night.
Grievous Angel, Sunday morning.
You get the point.
Ever so often, you’ll come across something that will casually walk the line between the two parties. They fit the bill for either. Cannery Row, the fifth studio album from Nashville-via-Detroit country-folk-rockers, has those uncanny substances infused throughout. You’d listen to it Sunday morning coming down after the previous night’s night hawking enterprise.
I’ve felt for a while that instruments like the steel guitar, harmonica, piano, and fiddle are almost like southern comfort foods. They just make songs better. They’re the parts that can establish the warmth or chill in a song. Founding member and chief songwriter Kurt Marschke and company didn’t miss on what should and shouldn’t ascent the songs on Cannery Row.
The pedal steel in “Like a California Wildfire” supplies the glow that complements Marschke’s Bandesque tune–much like “This Wheel’s on Fire on The Basement Tapes. Other times, there’s the jangling piano that supply the honky-tonk. Other times, it comes in cleaner and more reserved. The Neil Youngish harmonica on “The Mansion” is hauntingly pleasant.
Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” when James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt come in with the backup vocals, is just pure magic. One of the greatest moments to ever be recorded. It’s chillsworthy; you get goosebumps. Much in the same vein, Kim Collins’ (Smoking Flowers) backup vocals throughout, but specifically on “The Mansion,” are simply put, amazing. It’s just one of those perfect moments.
Cannery Row isn’t just a modern album longing for nostalgic glory days of the ’60s and ’70s though. There’s plenty of times in which they’re sound like current contemporaries. Marschke at times sounds more like Jeff Tweedy than Mick Jagger. It was about fifteen years ago that Tweedy and Billy Bragg recorded a handful of old Woody Guthrie songs for the amazing Mermaid Avenue (and the follow-up, Mermaid Avenue II). The lyrics to those songs were at the very least 50 years old, but Tweedy and Bragg wrote the majority of the actual music.
In many ways, Cannery Row feels much the same. The lyrical content has no elements that date them. Marschke could easily say they were songs he found dated 1967 or that they were written yesterday. They’re timeless in that respect. It’s the acoustic arrangements that the songs are built around that give them a home right alongside the folkies, the countrymen and women of East Nashville, and the country rockers throughout.
We caught up with Marschke as he was coming down through Missouri on into Texas earlier this week. The Deadstring Brothers are playing The Blue Light tonight (Wednesday). Check out the first song on Cannery Row, “Like a California Wildfire” below.
New Slang: Your last record, Cannery Row, I think most people would automatically think of it being this reference to John Steinbeck’s novel by the name, but it’s actually in reference to Nashville’s Cannery Row. You moved down to Nashville a few years back and I guess you wouldn’t name a record that unless you were influenced by the move.
Kurt Marschke: Yeah. Well, I moved down there. I moved to Cannery Row and been living there for three and a half years or so. Just the change, being in Nashville, obviously is gonna change any musicians’ perspective on what they do since it’s done more frequently there. That’s kind of the main industry in Nashville. So being there kind of heightens your senses and maybe makes you a little more conscious of what you’re doing since that’s basically what everyone does there. And the loft that I was living in [On Cannery Row], it was all just pretty inspiring. It’s this old district in Nashville. It’s a cool little neighborhood.
NS: What was the best thing about moving to Nashville that’s non-music related?
KM: Non-music related? I don’t know if there is one. You know, I left my family and everyone I knew at the time for the most part. It was all because of music. It’s been a nice experience, but basically, that’s what goes on there. And for me, that’s been the focus as well. I don’t have much time to do much else. I’ve not really done much else–other than a couple of canoe trips and a little hiking–I’ve not really done much else while down there.
NS: Everyone has been saying this record is the most country record you’ve recorded. I’ve read where you don’t necessarily agree with that, but feel it’s different because you primarily wrote the record on acoustic instruments. Regardless of if it’s more country or whatever, it does sound different. Do you think that shift in sound was a self-aware or conscious move or was it something you just realized later on in the process?
KM: No, I knew going it was going to be. When they say it’s more country, I don’t really think that at all, I just think it’s less rock. It’s less written around the electric guitar. The previous records, the sound kind of got built up by being on the road a lot and going, “Well, this is the kind of stuff that can penetrate a room sonically when you’re in a room full of people drinking.” Sort of the louder you are, the more attention you’ll get kind of thing. With the last record, I thought that I didn’t want to do that because we have enough of those songs to play sets. I can write new music for music’s sake. I wasn’t really thinking about the need to write electric music. I knew it was going to be more acoustic. Those were a lot of the ideas I had been collecting the last few years. I wasn’t going to make something that I’d have to consciously make material for. That was kind of the material I was writing since the last record and I thought it would work.
NS: To me, the record really has this fresh, organic and laid-back presence.
KM: Yeah. It probably has to do with how I was writing and living on Cannery Row. You know? It was just me writing songs when I had down time. I was writing in the loft where I was living. Not very uptight stuff.
NS: As far as the song, “Cannery Row” goes, do you feel that’s kind of like your “Desolation Row?” Because I can see some parallels between the two.
KM: Yeah. Well it’s got the refrain, you know? It’s funny, you’re actually the first person who has mentioned that. And I actually thought of that when we recorded the song. Oh, that could be a bit like “Desolation Row.” I’m a huge Dylan fan so his stuff comes out all the time. I thought of him while working on the song. There’s actually a few other references in that song. There’s stuff all over that song. There’s some stuff from Blonde on Blonde on that specific song. That’s not really conscious either; it just sort of came out. But yeah, you’re the first person to notice that. Good work.
NS: Well thank you [laughs]. That’s really one of my favorite things when listening to music. Trying to find and decipher all the references to other musicians and songs. What was the most difficult song to finish on the record?
KM: That’s a good question. We put the record together fast last fall. The whole thing was done in five days. Some of the writing was done during the sessions. It was such a mad dash to get the record done, I didn’t have time to be frustrated with a song or something. I just needed to move and get them through. I can’t think of one that was real difficult. I’m trying to go through the songs write now quickly through my head, but “Cannery Row” and “Like a California Wildfire,” those were easy writes. I mean, I didn’t write them in five minutes or anything, but those songs were the easier songs to write. They kind of just happened. You kind of get the idea of what you’re doing for the song and go. Those songs were kind of easy. I can think of the ones that were easier to write. “Oh Me Oh My” I definitely spent a good amount of time trying to figure out what to do with it. It was based on this acoustic guitar riff I had for the opening of the song. And I liked the feeling of this piece of music and then writing a song for it. I put a little bit of time into that one just figuring out something that would compliment the music.
NS: Now the band you had around you recording this record, it was a pretty great cast of experienced players (Brad Pemberton, Mike Webb, Pete Finney, Kim Collins, Mickey Raphael, and JD Mack). Was there any little musician tricks or tips you picked up on while in studio working with them?
KM: It wasn’t so much learned tricks, but just being around them, they all work so quickly. They all do a lot of work in Nashville. This is what they do every day of the year. They’re just so quick at finding out what the essence of the song is and making sure they can capitalize on that. It was really more just being impressed by how quick everyone works. They’re on the mark in regards to knowing where a song needs to go. They kind of are able to figure out a song and know where you’re wanting to go with it. You don’t have to do a lot of explaining.
NS: While getting ready for this interview, I read or at least browsed over a bunch of different interviews and reviews that have been done on records. And I think out of the 50 or so, there was only one that had no mention of The Rolling Stones [laughs].
NS: Why do you think that’s kind of stuff with you?
KM: Well I don’t know. I kind of–over the last couple of records–kind of helped people say that because they’re be [a few songs that were Stoneseque]. People said that at the beginning and on the first record, which doesn’t have Stones rock’n’roll songs, people would say, “Oh that guy sort of sounds like Jagger in the early ’70s era. I was a big fan of music from that era and a real big Stones fan of like Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St, Let It Bleed, you know all those records. So I pushed the band into that gritty country-rock kind of sound. But there was so much material on those records that wasn’t that and that came from other places. I think it’s become now an easy thing for writers to write about even if it doesn’t sound like them. Like the new record doesn’t sound like them or have any of that going on, but people still persistently write that. I don’t know if they’re not listening closely to the new record or what, but I don’t hear it, none of the musicians who worked on the record hear it. None of those references came up when we were making it. It was a different approach to making the record. A different angle. I thought we’d probably shake that Stones thing this record [laughs], because of the nature and sound of it. I’m surprised we still get it. I don’t know, it is what it is.
NS: Yeah. I mean, there’s obviously worse bands to be compared to. When I was listening to the record, I felt there was a much bigger influence of stuff like The Band, Basement Tapes (with Bob Dylan), Music From the Big Pink kind of vibe. Especially on “Like a California Wildfire.”
KM: And that’s what kind of thinking too because when we were working with everybody, that thing that you just mentioned, Big Pink, Band sounding era I thought. Even the label commented on it when we turned it in. You know, they’re not in the business of telling us how to make records, they’re really nice when it comes to being hands off. But they had mentioned, that they liked the direction we had taken and how it was more in line with The Band. No one thought The Stones comparison would be thrown at me again. You know, it’s a little surprise, but we’re just going to keep doing what we do and see what people say next time around [laughs].
NS: [Laughs] Yeah. When you’re writing a song, do you typically start on a guitar or do you switch it up and start on other instruments?
KM: Typically it is the guitar. Sometimes I’ll get a melody and record it. But more often than not, it’s guitar. I really don’t play others anyways.
NS: I’ll get you out on this last question. On your debut record, you covered “Long Black Veil.” What made you want to record that song?
KM: At the time, I was doing shows either alone or with a steel player or a piano player and it was just a song that we had done. I thought I had an interesting little arrangement and take on it. I thought putting a cover on the record would be kind of cool thing to do. I had this interesting way of doing the song and just recorded it. It was kind of an experiment, because on that record, I had been putting together my own gear in the studio in my house. Most of those songs I tracked myself in my house. It was my first experiment engineering my own music–or anyone’s music really. It was my first go at recording my own stuff.