Favorite recent songwriting

Paste Magazine talks to Mike Cooley about Primer Coat (lyrics).

… “I’ve never been one to have the lightbulb go off, write it down and finish the song in an hour. When I have something good, that’s when I have to be my own boss and say, ‘Take this further, make it better.’ I have to twist my own arm. Maybe the chord needs to change; maybe the story needs a new scene. It’s almost like writing for the screen; you ask yourself, ‘What do you see? What’s she wearing? Is it sunny? Is it hot?’ I answer those questions and then I’m off.”

This resulted in songs like “Primer Coat,” the story of a factory foreman, a Southerner, sitting by his pool and thinking about his twentysomething daughter leaving home. This is an unusual subject for a rock ‘n’ roll band, which is more likely to focus on freewheeling characters in the no-man’s land between school and marriage/career. But the Truckers have always specialized in characters with jobs, spouses, little glamour and lots of debt.

This song is sung by the foreman’s son, who knows more than he’d like about painting houses. His mother may be as plain as a primer coat, he realizes, but there’s a clarity and necessity in that undercoat of paint that shouldn’t be underestimated. In four minutes, Cooley lets us know all four members of that family, while his Keith Richards-like, just-ahead-of-the-beat guitar riff and Morgan’s Charlie Watts-like, just-behind-the-beat drumming supply all the tension the story needs.

“I had this image of this guy, middle-aged and working class, sitting by his swimming pool,” Cooley explains. “I didn’t know what he was thinking about, but I liked that image. I thought he might be thinking about politics and how working class families can’t afford pools like they used to. But that wasn’t it; he was thinking about his daughter. The mother of the family’s almost always stronger, especially when it comes to things that kick you in the gut. She’ll do what she has to do; she won’t be moping by the pool.”

On repeat in my tabs this week — thank you, No Depression

The first two links come from its quality email newsletter.

Drive-by Truckers, The Day John Henry Died. How have I not heard it before? Jason Isbell, you’re such a damn good songwriter. I mean, come on…

I watched the rain; it settled in. We disappeared for days again.
Most of us were staying in, lazy like the sky.
The letters flew across the wire filtered through a million liars.
The whole world smelled like burning tires the day John Henry died.

Bruce and E Street covering Clampdown. Solid cover, really clean mics.

Lucinda Williams, Are You Alright? I think I’ve posted this song here before, back when… I don’t remember. I associate with some Will Ferrell movie… one of the comedies… and that seems odd. Anyway. Was great to hear it prominently in True Detective when I caught up on that this week.

‘He worries the little things’

There are so many things to love about this weekend’s New York Times Magazine profile of Jason Isbell. I’ve been a fan of his ever since coming late to the Drive-By Truckers, and hearing friend Meghan argue for why her favorite was Isbell while mine was Patterson Hood. Since leaving the Truckers, Isbell has blown me away with Here We Rest (too often I find myself singing Codeine under my breath in the big stairwell at the new office), kicked his addictions, seemingly come to peace with his writerly self, and left me excited for his soon-out (June 11) Southeastern album.

Bound for Best Music Writing, the profile captures all of that and more.

Isbell is a slow, careful writer. He worries the little things. “What keeps me up at night is stuff like the consistency of pronouns,” he says. He’s a grammarian. “My dad, as much as I love him, has one of those signs — ‘The Isbell’s’ — on his front door, and he’s got the damn apostrophe in there. I haven’t strangled him yet.”

Later, after a long day of recording, Isbell was sitting at the kitchen table in the unassuming duplex apartment he shares with Shires on a run-down street in Nashville. There were guitars and books all over the place. Isbell attended the University of Memphis on an academic scholarship. He studied creative writing to help his songwriting and published a few poems in small literary magazines. He read a lot of Faulkner and Welty and Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy. So their apartment looks like what George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s apartment might have looked like, if George Jones and Tammy Wynette had gone to the Iowa Writers Workshop.

Shires gave Isbell a kiss and headed back up to bed, after bringing us two RC Colas and a couple of Moon Pies. The next morning, they would race into Nashville in his pickup truck, an Obama/Biden sticker affixed to the bumper, to get a marriage license. That night, he watched her go with a sheepish grin and said, “I used to think that only stupid people could love each other this much.”

Here’s a track from the new album. Going to go pre-order now. You too?

A song to hide the bodies by

No Depression linked to this WNRN video in its email last week. I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since. I’ve always liked the Drive-By Truckers Mercy Buckets song about friendship, but it shines even brighter when it’s just two friends playing guitar and accordion in a public-radio studio. Patterson Hood, Jay Gonzalez, you do right by the universe.

When all your good days keep getting shorter, count on me.
When you’re ’bout 20 cents shy of a quarter, count on me.
When you just need a place to hide out for a while.
I’ll help you hide the bodies in a little while.

I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship recently, about what kind of friend I’ve been. Birthdays, like the one I’ve just had, force you to look up from your work, to admit time is passing — to admit, as a result, that your connections with people are subject to time. I haven’t been able to keep some friends in my life as much as I would like. I wonder often how they’re doing. And if I have to wonder about them and admit to not knowing how they are, I have to wonder about me. Maybe I need new buckets.

Someone should do a playlist…

… of best songs to play when you wake up before the weekend sun.

If you haven’t heard Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Here We Rest, it’s worth your time and your Sunday morning. Codeine‘s one of my favorite songs on it. Friend Meghan came away a Jason person the way I came away a Patterson person after we saw the Drive-By Truckers doc, and she sold me on Jason’s post-Truckers work. He and the band visit D.C. in a couple weeks. But if you can’t catch them then, check out the rest of the KEXP session from which this video comes (via No Depression).

Now, who wants breakfast?

Five songs for the week: Amy, Truckers, Bon Iver, Ryan, Richard

1. After Amy Winehouse’s sad death, Casey posted and linked to this video, a beautiful, dark, nearly unaccompanied studio performance. This version of Love is a Losing Game is the one you need to hear.

2. Music in the Hall posts the rest of the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood and Jay Gonzalez at a cool bakery in Oxford, Miss. (First half.) It takes something special to play music that fits an odd space just right.

3. Bon Iver’s Holocene. I don’t know Bon Iver too well, but friend Amy says she’d been listening to it a ton. I played this June rendition and couldn’t stop listening either. The man himself explains the song to NPR Music as: “Our lives feel like these epochs, but really we are dust in the wind. But I think there’s a significance in that insignificance….”

4. Ryan Adams, Monday Night. I loved this song when I heard it on a bootleg. Then I forgot it existed. But then I joined Spotify, came across the song and loved it again. My first Spotify find (or re-find). All I want is to roll through your fingers, baby / All I need is to make it alright / All I want is to be your connection / Win your affection, be your reflection….

5. Little Richard, Ready Teddy. I’m so damn restless this week. Growl. Toss up between this song and the Stones’ trashy Dancing with Mr. D.

Two songs on my mind late at night

I have a whole bunch of posts to publish from the weekend wedding festivities and elsewhere, but I’ve been feeling restless all night and can’t write. So, it helps nothing directly, but I might as well put down the two songs that have been running alternately through my head. They’re both good. And what are you supposed to do with passion?

Neko Case, This Tornado Loves You:

I miss, I miss, I miss,
How you’d sigh yourself to sleep
When I’d rake the springtime
Across your sheets.

Drive-By Truckers, Used to be a Cop:

Used to be a cop, but I got to be too jumpy
I used to like to party till I coughed up half a lung
Sometimes late at night I hear the beat a-bumpin’
I reach for my holster and I wake up all alone.

The duality of the weekend thing

The two things I liked most about A Secret to a Happy Ending, the ’10 documentary about the Drive-By Truckers, were how the movie was about writing and how I didn’t realize as much until afterward. The filmmaker climbed on stage last night at the Takoma Park Community Center and told us so. And I thought, well, damn. That explained it.

I was running ragged, which, since I usually thought everything was about writing, probably explained it. The week had hit the accelerator Sunday night with the bin Laden news, progressed to a few hundred pages of data analysis on Monday and subsequently hadn’t checked the rear-view more than once or twice. By the end of work yesterday, my brain had a whiff of smoky tread. The week had been a good one, no doubt. Watching the movie, though, I was having trouble putting pieces together. The plot was a collection of stories from the Truckers’ career, sometimes major moments (making Southern Rock Opera as a long-shot to stay alive), sometimes key themes (“the duality of the Southern thing”) and sometimes random angles (an appearance by the man who owns Dangerously Delicious, my beloved pie shop.)

So, for sure, Secret was about writing. To an extent, the movie itself wrote in the same manner as the band. A good Truckers’ album had a mix of straight-forward declaration, admission by description, angled themes, and random excursions. That guy who did that thing — that thing that helped you out of a jam once, that always got the town to whispering or that sent him to jail or, worse, his neighbors’ medicine cabinets, fumbling with the kid-proof caps — he was a Truckers’ song, existing or yet to be written. The movie allowed itself such day-trips.

The upshot of all this angled explanation was restarting my head, not so much as with a kick than as with a shuffle. Friday finally showed up, recent stories coming to mind, rising out of a digital bog, and reactions to conversation feeling real. I was still more than a few songs short of a double-sided Gothic-American concept album, but I could have been a guy in town everyone whispers about, maybe one who throws rocks at the music studio’s windows because he likes letting the sound out.

Ten other cool things about last night: The screening was at Takoma Park’s community center and free because filmmaker Barr Weissman lives there. The crowd applauded when they recognized names in the credits. One of his daughter’s old teachers asked questions in the Q&A afterward. Friend Meghan wanting basically to handcuff Jason Isdell to her kitchen table with a ballpoint, notepad and guitar. Me wanting to ride shotgun regularly in Patterson Hood’s car. Imagining how my life would be different if I talked like Mike Cooley. Learning Hood once did a Darkness on the Edge of Town benefit cover night. Visiting downtown Takoma Park for the first time. Discovering Roscoe’s Pizza, which does a D.O.C. that nears 2Amy’s territory. Finding Hood is a friend of DCist.

And now a little music…

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