by: Thomas D. Mooney
We recently caught up with Rex Emerson, guitarist/mandolinist for the Denton-based Boxcar Bandits to discuss their upcoming show (Tonight, June 27) at The Blue Light.
The North Texas skunkgrass connoisseurs are currently at work on their third album, A Tribute to Doc Watson.
New Slang: You guys have a third record coming out called A Tribute to Doc Watson. Where are you guys currently on the record as far as recording goes?
Rex Emerson: We’re still putting the finishing touches on recording. We got a couple more tunes we still are hashing out in the studio. I think we’ll be putting this out in the fall. Our percussionist, Grady, has a studio in his house so we’re recording it there.
NS: Yeah. I know Grady. He’s a great guy. So is this record going to be filled up with songs that you guys wrote that were inspired by Doc Watson or are they Doc Watson songs that you guys are doing?
RE: Yeah. You know, most of Doc’s stuff were traditional songs or covers of other people’s songs. I only know of a handful of songs that he wrote. I think they were instrumental guitar type tunes. So what we’re doing is a bunch of traditional songs that we learned from his records. There’s some traditional tunes. We’re working on this Bob Dylan cover, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Watson did a great cover that we heard. And we’re toying with the idea of putting one tune on there that’s an original tune that I wrote called “Curling Gnarlers,” which like you were saying, is inspired by him. Not sure if we’re going to throw that on there or not, but we’re toying with it.
NS: Yeah. Obviously Doc Watson is this giant, important figure in American music. He was such a key figure in bluegrass and old-time. I think it’d be a little absurd to ask if you remember the first time you heard Doc Watson. But do you remember the first time you realized his brilliance as a musician? Was there ever an “oh shit” moment for you?
RE: Yeah, you know I think when I first started playing. I play mandolin, but I started out picking bluegrass guitar when I was in middle school. That’s when I first heard him. But I think the real epiphany moment was later on, maybe when I was 19 or 20, I had got this Merlefest DVD. It was this festival that he put on, named after his son. It’s out in North Carolina. Anyways, he does some solo stuff and then he plays some stuff with every artist that comes on stage. I had never seen him live. Grady’s seen him live. But watching that video, I think that’s when I really realized. After that, I had gotten a hold of some instructional videos of his. Listening to him was great, but seeing him was just amazing.
NS: I was also going to mention that “Curling Gnarlers” tune. I saw you guys record it on a Violinist session about a year back or so. For you personally, do you enjoy instrumental tunes or songs with lyrics more? What’s more fun to play and write?
RE: Well for me–and I know this doesn’t hold true for all of the guys–but I, I write a bunch of the instrumentals, so I have a stronger feeling towards those. I have some tunes with lyrics, but I think I have more tunes with lyrics that haven’t quite made the cut. The instrumental stuff I write generally makes it through the filter though. “Curling Gnarlers,” it’s actually inspired by this song that Watson plays on, but it’s not on one of his records. It’s on this record by this banjo player named Roger Sprung. It’s called Progressive Bluegrass and it came out in the early ’60s. It has some more unusual chord changes than the usual stuff you might hear.
NS: So the second record, Live at Dan’s Silverleaf, is a live record. What ultimately made you guys decide to record the whole thing live?
RE: I’d say for us, that’s kind of our forte. When we did that, we were doing a residency at Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton. We were playing every Monday night a free show. We recorded all those Mondays in like the April of 2011 and then took the best of that stuff. We currently have a residency at a different place in Denton called Hailey’s. So we’re playing all the time. And I think it’s always important to have new records coming out–even if we are on the slow end of things about it. Our first one came out in 2008, our second in 2011, and this one hopefully in the fall of this year. But in the mean time, we’re playing 150+ shows a year.
NS: So what led you to acoustic instruments rather than electric?
RE: I think we wanted to keep it pure in that sense. But it’s funny that you mention that because we all have the electric counterparts to our instruments. Like Ryan has one of those stick basses. Andy has electric banjo. I have electric mandolin. So this Thursday is our first show of the tour starting at The Blue Light, but this Monday at our residency, we’re going to do an all-electric show because, well, it’s seems like a fun thing [laughs]. Hank Early, our old guitar player, he’s on Live at Dan’s. He wrote and sings that song “Cell Phone” and some other stuff. He hasn’t been playing with us the last couple years because he’s been playing pedal steel for various country bands here. But he’s going to be joining us on Monday with this all-electric with pedal steel. And I think Grady’s going to instead of playing just snare drum, he’s going to play a drum set. We haven’t rehearsed this thing or anything. We’re just going to get up there and do it.