Posts in Roots Rock
Evan Felker, Turnpike Troubadours

Evan Felker, songwriter and guitarist for Turnpike Troubadours, has his own version of the nuclear football, the bag that never leaves his side when he's on the road. It contains everything he needs to write a song: his laptop, a composition notebook, and a legal pad. Each serves a specific purpose. The legal pad is for song ideas and random lines, and for this he uses a pen. The composition notebook is for the lyrics, and for this he uses a pencil. Then the computer is where the fully formed song takes shape so that he can copy and paste to see where the lines work best. 

As you may have read in the last few days, Turnpike Troubadours have a new album out October 20 called A Long Way From Your Heart. Felker details some of his songwriting process behind the new material in our interview. He decided to write songs with a narrative bent filled with fictional characters inspired by the people he's known throughout his life. Many are from the area around southeastern Oklahoma where he grew up, from places like the factories and mills he worked after finishing tech school. Felker co-wrote one of the new songs on the album, "Come As You Are," with his good friend Rhett Miller of the Old 97s. (I interviewed Miller a couple of years ago, and I have to thank him for putting me in touch with Felker.) Here's what Miller recently told me about Felker...

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James McMurtry

James McMurtry wants his old iPhone back. The singer-songwriter hasn't been the same writer without it.  And it's all because Apple changed its Notes app.

In the days before computers were the default method for composition, McMurtry wrote lyrics on legal pads. He has boxes filled with legal pads filled with lyrics. He became intensely familiar and comfortable with those yellow pages; there was something about that yellow and those lines that made the words pour forth from his felt-tip pen. McMurtry eventually turned to computers, but with them he sacrificed portability. Cell phones solved that problem. And when McMurtry found that the Notes app on his iPhone 3 looked like that old yellow legal pad paper, well, the words flowed. It was creative nirvana. 

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Ryan Bingham

Before talking to Ryan Bingham, I watched some of his videos on his YouTube channel. Several of the commenters pointed out that his singing voice sounds nothing like his speaking voice.  And it's true.  I couldn't help but think about this when he talked about songwriting as a form of therapy for him, a way for him to get things off his chest. When he pointed out that the lyrics sometimes emerge from his subconscious, that singing/speaking voice dichotomy made sense: perhaps that singing voice is different because it represents something deep inside, a window unto his emotional state. 

Bingham calls writing "a very personal act" for him.  He's protective of the space he creates to write, both emotionally and physically. His best lyrics come out all at once, because a song that takes too long loses the original, raw emotion.  And his writing is cyclical: he soaks in his environment on the road and almost never writes there.  Once he's home, he writes about those experiences in a short, powerful burst, "venting and getting those feelings off [his] chest." Once those songs and feelings are out, he stops, and he feels not one once of guilt for not writing for the next few months while he gathers those experiences on the road again. 

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Nils Lofgren, Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band

When talking about his songwriting process, Nils Lofgren, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, espouses a view shared by successful long-form writers. To many of them, writer's block is merely a failure of courage: it happens when writers expect perfection whenever they put pen to paper.  They're afraid to write badly. But any good writer will tell you that you cannot be afraid to write badly, because writing badly makes you better.  Some writing is better than no writing, and with work you can turn bad writing into better writing.  If you wait for perfection, you won't get much accomplished.

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The Reverend Peyton and Washboard Breezy, The Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band

It’s hard to describe something when you have no frame of reference, when you have no means of comparison.  Such is the case with The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band.  When I wrote this review of the band’s latest release The Wages (SideOneDummy records) last week in the Washington Post, I was asked to name a couple of acts that the band might sound like.  I was stumped. Because in The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, we may finally have found that one band in rock and roll who truly sounds like no one else. 

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn band consists The Rev on bottleneck slide guitar (his oldest guitar was made in 1935), his wife Washboard Breezy on the washboard, and his cousin Aaron “Cuz” Persinger on drums (and five gallon bucket).  They hail from rural Brown County in Indiana.  The Rev’s songs are all true stories; he writes about what he knows.  So yes, his mother’s fried potatoes really are the best (“Your Mama’s Fried Potatoes”), a cousin really was on Cops (“Your Cousin’s on Cops”), and The Rev’s brother really did steal a chicken from a zoo (“Fort Wayne Zoo”).

 When it comes to The Reverend Peyton and his songwriting, one thing matters above all else: melody.  That’s why, as I wrote in my Washington Post review, it’s impossible to stay still at one of their shows.  They play front porch, gather-round-and-dance blues with aplomb. 

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