by: Thomas D. Mooney
People confuse what rambling actually is. Some people speak these long-winded sentences without ever saying much, if anything. Very few can say actually say something worth reading or hearing that’s lengthy.
John Evans isn’t a rambler. He’s a storyteller.
“Sorry, if I had some long answers,” said John Evans after our 30 minute conversation last week. Which, I replied with “Don’t be sorry. Lengthy answers are great.” By all means, John Evans is the storyteller. I’m the listener. He’s the one with the songs, tales, and experiences that everyone wants to know about. Let him speak.
In saying that, Evans has that genuine, true rambler mentality. He’s here and there musically. You could say he’s built a persona that’s as big as the tall Texan that he is. Evans has a stage presence, a diverse songwriting prowess, and a rangy rock n’ roll sound that’s as tall-taled as it is sincere.
To call him a honky-tonk or rockabilly throwback actually cheapens what he does. John Evans doesn’t sound like he’s from the ’50s; he sounds like the modern take on those genres. He’s a modern songwriter and artist through and through.
Like I mentioned, we caught up with Evans last week to talk about the Houston scene, writing with Hayes Carll, producing records, and of course, his own music. Evans will be at The Blue Light tonight (Thursday, April 24).
New Slang: Your music style, it really does jump all over the place. You can hear old country, honky-tonk, some rockabilly, blues, punk, among other things. A lot of artists take influence from various genres, but for you, what was it about these different styles?
John Evans: Growing up, I was the youngest child. This goes back, my mom is from the Mississippi Delta, so I was kind of reared on all the old acoustic blues stuff. My uncle was also a huge Son House, Robert Johnson fan–all the old delta blues stuff. So that was a mainstay in our house. That was more in my bloodline than necessarily something I was listening to myself. Then my brothers and sisters were all into rock n’roll and what was popular in the ’70s. Then as a teenager in the ’80s, I heard all the punk rock stuff that was coming out of New York and the new wave movement that was happening. So I kind of grew up with a soundtrack in my head. I think that’s where the diversity comes. When I went to college, I was friends with Tracy Byrd. I went to school in Beaumont at Lamar University and was friends with all those guys who were playing the honky-tonks up there. Mark Chesnutt, Tracy Byrd, and guys like that. They kind of got me interested in country music. The more I listened to it, the more I could see the similarities between old honky-tonk music and old blues music. It wasn’t like they were different kinds of music; it’s more that they were played a little differently.
I never really saw myself as a singer and more of a melody guy and songwriter. When I started off, I’d try and only write around emotion and things I’d actually lived. I think that’s kind of where the different genres came into effect also. If I was writing something a little more angry, then maybe more of the punk side came out. Then the sad stuff just kind of lent its ear to country music. It’s been a long haul writing a bunch of songs. I try and make each record its own. Something that can live on its own feet whether it’s rock n’ roll, blues, country, or whatever. Really though, most of the stuff I’ve written, I write for my own sanity. I try to make records that are like little pictures of where I am emotionally at that stage of the game.
NS: You mentioned going to school over in Beaumont. That Houston-East Texas music scene has been a fertile place for songwriters and bands. I guess when I think of Houston, I think more of that ’70s songwriter scene–like Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Townes. What was it like when you were there? You mentioned Mark Chesnutt and Tracy Byrd, but was there anyone who you felt was real under appreciated?
JE: I started off closer to the Pasadena area and ran with a crew who were pretty hardcore into the honky-tonk and old school country. The “We Are Not What Nashville Is. We Never Will Be” kind. It’s weird, Hayes [Carll] has that line “there’s something in the water” talking about the gulf coast. And I think what it is–The Houston music scene is rich. It goes back to the beginnings of rock n’roll and all the old country stuff. George Jones and The Big Bopper. A lot of that was recorded at Sugar Hill. The thing about Houston and that area is that there isn’t the industry that dictates what you need to do to be successful. Nashville has the Nashville Sound or whatever. New York is New York. L.A. is L.A. But Houston, we have Austin, which is similar. They have a little more industry than we do, but Houston, there were no rules. It’s a lot like gumbo. You can see a lot of influences coming into one song whether it was swampy blues stuff or hard-working honky-tonk from Pasadena. Mickey Gilley and all that kind of honky-tonk music combined with ZZ Top and the bluesy rock scene.
All those–honky-tonk, blues, and rockabilly–they’re all very similar. Being a product of the late ’70s and the punk scene, for me, all of those work together. They all seem the same. It’s really honest. Nashville always tries to write towards an audience. We never tried to target an audience. We write with emotions on our sleeves.
My biggest influence from Houston that really made me open my eyes was a band called The Road Kings. It was Jesse Dayton’s band. They used to play at the Satellite Lounge, which I used to think was just the coolest bar. I was at this influential state of my career. My band was getting really good, but I couldn’t put a tag on what we really were. We were too rock for country and too country for rock. I saw The Road Kings play with a stand-up bass and Jesse had a Telecaster and just thought it was really cool. I wanted to harness that energy that it had and put it into country music. I think Jesse and The Road Kings were my biggest influence in Houston. They were a band I’d always really want to go see. Another band was this band called The Hollisters. Mike Barfield. Just a total disregard for commercial viability. That’s really what made them cool and really made people want to go see them. Something interesting. It’s not the same thing.
That’s like this whole scene in Texas and Oklahoma. It’s filled with really, really great music, but there’s a lot of it that will just run together. If you’ve seen three songs of a set, you’ve basically heard everything you’re gonna hear for the next 60 minutes. It’s the same stuff over and over. It just doesn’t interest me. I want to do something different. I want to put a chord progression that makes people wonder where my head was. How and why did he do that?
NS: Not to just talk about these different genres and sounds that have influenced your own, but I was wondering when you’re writing a song, are you thinking about what it’s going to sound like compared to your other songs? Will you deliberately write something that’s different from the last song you wrote? Are you thinking about how it’ll work within the setting of a live show?
JE: Yeah, I am. I think that comes from the first guy who produced a record for me–or actually, the only guy–John Saunders. He produced Biggest Fool in Town. He just slayed it. Just an awesome job. You can hear me trying to find my voice. You can hear me searching for my voice. I think my voice has changed since then. The way I project and sing. I’m not trying to sing anymore. It’s more emotion than trying to sing. But he taught me how to literally create a set list for a show where it’s filled and has dynamics. You have this song and this song. Then you need to change it up to keep their attention. He called me and told me that I had all these songs and didn’t have to fit in one certain box. If you arrange them the write way, you can always keep their attention.
So when I’m writing songs, I am conscious of that. There are certain shuffles I have that are very similar. I think what Jack taught me, I make a conscious effort to try and write something that I haven’t done before. Even if it’s step in the wrong direction, you’re still growing and learning from your mistakes. I’d rather write some music that people are thinking is crazy than write the same record over and over again. When people find success from a record, the first reaction–and this is coming from labels–if it’s something that’s selling, you need to keep writing that. You need to keep giving the people who are buying your product more of that. My mentality on that is that it has been a long journey and taken me a long time to make records that I want to make and I don’t have to answer to anyone about it. I want to constantly evolve. Right now, I’m jonesing to make a record from all these really miserable, really sad country songs that I’ve written and thought were too sad to put on a record and just make a miserable country record. I want to do that, but at the same time, I want to make honky-tonk records, rockabilly records.
NS: Yeah. Now something people either just don’t know or if they read it somewhere, they didn’t know who it was, but you co-write “KMAG YOYO” with Hayes [Carll]. How’d that come up between you and him?
JE: Yeah. Hayes and I go way back in the Houston scene. We’ve spent a lot of time together. When Hayes is working on a new album or if I am, we’ll usually bounce ideas off each other. Check the pulse of what we’re doing and see what each other’s input is. For that record, Hayes was doing something different. He had three or four songs that he had written just about everything on them. Then he had about seven songs where he had started the tune and then either had all the music for it and didn’t have all the lyrics or had half the lyrics and none of the music. So he came to me with three songs on that record. “KMAG YOYO” initially, they had it named “Scotty’s Boogie” since Scott Davis had written this guitar part. Hayes loved it and had brought me the idea of what he wanted to do, which was write a song about our armed forces overseas and the war and kind of going outside the box where one particular soldier might be and imagine what his life might be. He said he pictured these guys putting their headphones on inside a tank and just turning it up to 11 and just rolling through the desert as fast as they can with this song on.
I’ve got a military background. My father was a Major in the Marines and flew helicopters in Vietnam and then ended up being President Johnson’s helicopter pilot. The first thing I said was that we needed to bring in some of the military jargon into this–and we needed to update it so it wasn’t Vietnam era, but what they’re using today. I knew a few slogans. KMAG YOYO was one. They abbreviate everything. I looked up a bunch of slogans and things they used in the Gulf war. Then we just kind of put it together. Literally one day, it was the three of us. Me, Hayes, and Scotty in the same room and we just basically laughed our heads off for three hours. He’d been struggling a little with it and all he really needed was just a fresh perspective.
Hayes is a really good writer. He’s really good at phrasing and putting a story together. Really, I was just shooting rapid fire at him with different things and ideas. A lot of times in these writing sessions, you’ve got a writer, you’ve got a creative guy, and then an editor [laughs]. There was another song called “Grand Parade” on that record that Hayes had this great track that the band had put together in the studio. He told me his idea for it and gave me a few lines. He wasn’t sure what to do phrasing wise on the chorus. It was because there was this really great guitar part that, I thought made up the vocal line of the chorus. Hayes hadn’t heard it like that. I took the song home with me and said “I’ll work on it and then send you what I come up with. And don’t think I’m crazy when you hear it. I’ve got an idea.” So I went and took some of the lines Hayes had and some I had thought of and made it work with that guitar part. It sounded like The Beatles. It had a Beatley chorus feel. He liked it and we got together and finished it up.
NS: Sounds like you’re saying Hayes is human; he doesn’t just come up with these perfect songs without effort [laughs].
JE: Yeah, Hayes is human [laughs].
NS: Hayes is really one of my favorite songwriters. Like you said, his phrasing is just perfect.
JE: And he has this unique ability to connect. I wrote this song on his first record called “Take Me Away.” It got used in Country Strong and some other stuff. It was a big song for Hayes and one that I’d written with Adam Carroll. I was putting it on one of my rock records, Circling the Drain. I had this cool, kind of Beatles melody line and it was completely different from the way Hayes had interpreted the song. He asked me to play it acoustic and had said he really wanted to cut it. I said, “dude, cut it.” Two weeks later he comes to me with his version, which was acoustic. And I just thought, “wow, this sounds just so much more intelligent than mine [laughs].” Just the way he can interpret what you’re saying and deliver it to the people is incredible. He’s got a real knack for it that is all his own.
NS: What’s the last song you wrote?
JE: I guess the last song I’ve finished writing is this song I wrote when I went out to Terlingua. I don’t think I even have a name for it. I’m kind of all over the place right now. My daughter passed. She was 20-years-old. She passed on December 23. [John’s daughter, Abigail, had a rare skin disease and was the subject of the documentary Butterfly Girl. For more information on Abbie, her story, and Butterfly Girl, click here.] It’s been a really tough time for the last three-and-a-half months. So more of the stuff I’ve been writing has been more singer-songwriter Americana-folk stuff. It’s really me working my way through all the heartache I’ve gone through.
I just started writing a new song with my girlfriend, Emily Bell. If you’ve not heard her stuff, you need to look it up. She’s awesome. I co-wrote and produced her record last year. She won Best New Act at the Austin Music Awards this year. I’m starting to now get back to where I’m able to write in more rock n’roll mode. More upbeat tempo stuff.
I guess the last song I’ve been working on is called “The Speakers Don’t Lie.” It’s kind of about society and how a lot of times, they tell you how things are supposed to be and try to move you in one direction or another by telling you how they’re supposed to be. This song is like “my teachers tell me this, but I go home to my room, turn up my albums, and the speakers don’t lie.” It’s got a little of the punk element into it.
NS: Yeah. Sounds like it’d certainly lend itself to punk. When do you think your next record will be coming out? Or when do you think you’ll be going in and beginning a new record?
JE: I’ve got one in the can. I’ve had it for about a year. I’ve been doing a whole lot of work with my girlfriend. Helping getting her band put together, getting her record out, going out on tour, and helping break her as an artist so I haven’t really had the time or the focus to put my own record out. But I’ve got it in the can and hoping for a fall release, either September or October. It started off as a bunch of more singer-songwriter songs that I’d normally taken and made an acoustic record out of or something, but I had been producing a lot here in Austin and had been playing with a group of musicians who were just incredible in the studio. I had a good relationship with them as far as explaining to them what I wanted them to bring to the table in the studio. Every time I would, they’d just crush it. So I thought, I have these songs. I’ve got some money coming in from the Country Strong soundtrack. I’m ready to do this record, so let’s just do it and I’ll pay for it myself and have these guys play on it. So we did. I think it’s the most beautiful record I’ve done as far as sonically sitting in a space. It’s up, it’s down. It kind of has some vulnerability that I’ve not been able to display enough in other records.
NS: How’d you get into producing? And was that always something in the back of your mind that you knew you’d want to do at some point?
JE: I kind of just grew into it more than sitting it in my sights and aiming for it. I really liked watching Jack Saunders do what he did on my record. I brought him a bunch of songs that were basically me and an acoustic guitar. He was friends with Gurf Morlix and all these guys out of Austin who were really great producers. Gurf did all Lucinda Williams’ early stuff. He was big into sound. Like creating beautiful sounds out of saw blades. It was more like, “OK, if we don’t have a bunch of great instruments, how do we make due with what we have?” I really loved that and admired that. It was something that I found myself in a lot of times. I’ve never been signed to a big record label with a big budget. But I’m friends with all these people in Houston who have fantastic songs, but they don’t have huge budgets to make records. I keep on hearing shitty demos that they bring me. The people recording this just don’t get it. The more I heard it and the more I saw it, the more I wanted to create my own sounds and see if I could get big, heavy tones out of a little, tiny amp. I just became curious.
I was introduced to one of my favorite people in the world at Sugar Hill, Steve Christiansen. He won a Grammy for engineering Steve Earle’s Townes. But before all that, he was kind of like the indie-rock guy. What I liked about him, was in the studio, he didn’t have any preconceived notions of what a country bass was supposed to sound like. Or country drums. I could tell him what I wanted and he wouldn’t give me any shit for it. He never told me “That’s not how you do it. That’s not how it’s done.” He was like, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s try that out. Let’s see if we can make this work.” Even though he wasn’t a real melody kind of producer or engineer, he was a real gear head. More like one of The Beatles’ engineers. Big into gear, fuzz boxes, into sound. So I really liked that. The more I worked with him, the more it made me want to do other projects. People would come to me and ask how I made certain things sound on the record. That interested people and people started hiring me. It kind of put me in a position to make records that I wanted to make instead of just making records for money. It made me feel good to help people make records that they wanted to instead of spending $10,000 on a record and coming back with a piece of shit that you and your fans didn’t want to listen to.