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Interview with Vince DiFiore of Cake

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It would be an understatement to say that 2011 is going pretty well for Cake: the sardonic rock band’s newest album, Showroom of Compassion, debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, and they’re about to embark on a string of sold out shows (of which the 9:30 Club will host three). We got the chance to chat with trumpet/keys player Vince DiFiore about Showroom, the band’s solar powered studio, and where the band’s going next.

JULI THANKI: You’ve been with Cake since the beginning. How has Cake evolved in the past 20 years?

VINCE DIFIORE: The electric guitar was bound to creep in and become stronger; it was so restrained on the first album and the second album, too. There was a very deliberate restraint that didn’t want to be restrained, because it’s an electric guitar. Given time, that sonic expression of the electric guitar is going to make its presence felt to a greater degree. I think it’s the nature of the beast and probably something that had to happen.

I became the default keyboard player in the band starting with “The Distance” synthesizer line. When it dawned on me and everyone else in the band that I was playing keys, we started adding a lot of keyboards in the studio because we had somebody to play them. It was like we added a keyboard player. The first album has instrumental organ parts that we didn’t really play when we played those songs live.

The third part of that answer would be the background vocals. We have always had harmony vocals but I think we really stepped it up as other band members have been in the band longer. Once you find your voice in the band, maybe even through your instrument or how you identify yourself in the band, then the vocals come. There’s something singing that’s very personal, and you have to mean it. All five of us are singing onstage now. Victor [Damiani], our old bassist, never sang, and Gabriel [Nelson, the current bass player] sings. That’s been a huge difference.

THANKI: Aside from the B-side comp, this is your first record since Pressure Chief in 2004. Why was there such a long gap in between records?

DIFIORE: We toured on Pressure Chief for two and a half to three years, going all over the world touring, then resting for a while. It became a lot of business details with record labels and stuff. We made the decision to leave Columbia Records and started Upbeat Records and put out B-Sides and Rarities. We did a little bit more touring for that. Then we took about three years to make this last record. We did gigs here and there to keep being a band that plays and has a connection with an audience. We communicated with each other musically and through the website to get us all on the same page and have a similar worldview. We weren’t on a deadline; there wasn’t a record company saying “Your three years have passed. Where’s your next album?” It was up to us. We knew that if we were putting out an album we want it to be an album that we can really stand behind. So we took the time to do that.

THANKI: What else do you dig about having your own label? Is it mostly the freedom?

DIFIORE: It’s a lot more freedom. There’s a feeling of helplessness in anything if you don’t have control over the situation. It’s probably why couples fight so much and why there’s antagonism in business relationships, because you want to determine the outcome of something and say how much of your life is going to be committed to something and hope that the commitment turns out to be some sort of self-fulfillment also. When you’re living like that and you don’t have control, it makes you feel helpless. We’re experiencing the opposite of that now in terms of calling the shots. There’s a lot more administration that needs to happen, but we have a very good manager and a very good distributor. Everybody put their best foot forward and had all the pistons firing at the same time.

THANKI: I heard you guys have a solar powered recording studio. Tell me a little bit about the decision to go green in that aspect of the band’s career.

DIFIORE: We figured how much energy we would need to rehearse and record and then put thirteen solar panels up. Lo and behold, we did the entire album with solar energy. I think it changed the way we felt about being in the studio. It was a really good move. It assuages some of the guilt of being on the road and consuming energy and traveling about and using hotels and all that. Everybody is an energy consumer if you want to participate in society; that’s the way things seem to be running. That made us feel a little bit better about [the band’s] carbon footprint.

THANKI: Cake plays DC fairly often. I don’t know how much free time you have, but do you have a favorite thing about the city or a favorite part to visit?

DIFIORE: You know what’s remarkable? The amount of space there is. You’d think it would be a crowded place like New York City or Boston or Philadelphia. Those places are roomy, but when you’re out on the Mall, there’s so much space around you. There’s not much difference in the Mall when there’s no one on it and a weekend in the summer when everybody’s there. Things are still working out. I feel so safe at night. I love to go out on the Mall at night on a bike or walking; it’s so open and peaceful out there.

THANKI: You’ve got a couple co-writing credits on Showroom. How involved do you get in that process?

DIFIORE: John wrote the words for those songs. He came in with the words and melody; I got credit because I came up with a lot of parts for the arrangements. He was nice enough to give me credit on there, and I think I deserved it (laughs). I did write a lot of the music around the melody. You want something that’s interesting both melodically and rhythmically and that goes along with the song. A lot of the process is intuitive, just doing it, then stepping back and then doing it again until everything seems to work.

THANKI: Where do you see the band going from here?

DIFIORE: I liked how everybody worked together on the last album and how everybody felt confident about bringing what they liked about music into the band. That was really great. Nobody was shy about their contributions. We all played how we wanted to play, and there was a great chemistry working out. If we do that for the next record then no matter what we bring in, it’ll be something good. It might not be different [stylistically]. It will be a different experience certainly, but the precedent that The Beatles and The Police set for changing their sound on every album is pretty freaky, you know? (laughs)

I think our strength is writing songs within an album. The sound works out for us. It’s guitar-bass-drums-trumpet-keys-vocals, and that’s what we are. I don’t think we’re going to bring in any kind of robot to play synths or Xan’s going to turn into a classical guitarist or we’re going to start playing like U2. It’s going to be the same effort if we are so lucky to get together and make more music.

THANKI: As a big Louvin Brothers fan, I was so glad to see you guys touring with Charlie Louvin a few years ago. Whose idea was it to bring him onto the tour?

DIFIORE: That was John’s idea. I’m so glad that so many people were introduced to Charlie Louvin’s music; that’s a great thing. He was fun to be around. It was important for him to be funny. He always had some jokes. He was a very friendly guy. I actually visited him in his museum that he had near the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. He just hung out there during the day; you could go in and see the Louvin Brothers’ stuff and talk to him and get photos with him. He was really a good person to be around. The Louvin Brothers were the Everly Brothers’ favorite band, which says a lot. They had those really sweet vocals and wrote incredible songs and harmonized really well together. It’s a beautiful thing when brothers are singing like that.

THANKI: Were you a fan of their music before touring with Charlie?

DIFIORE: I knew of the Louvin Brothers from when we were on the road; we had mix tapes and mix CDs in the van and John loved “The Great Atomic Power,” which I heard on the way to Portland once. I clearly remember going over the bridge over Lake Shasta and hearing that song. It’s a good memory. There’s a bunch of great Louvin Brothers songs, but there was about two or three that I knew before we toured with him. It was really special. What a great experience to have.

THANKI: We’re about out of time, but thanks so much for talking with me, Vince.

DIFIORE: Right on. I appreciate the interview. Have a great day, and we’re looking forward to being in Washington, DC again.

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Interviews

Blake Shelton: New Album, New Format, Newfound Focus

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On March 2nd, country superstar Blake Shelton released Hillbilly Bone, the first in a planned series of two 6-song releases dubbed “Six Paks.” The second, as-yet untitled Six Pak is tentatively scheduled for August.

The move is an apparent attempt by Warner Bros. to shake up the stale album release formula that has contributed to more than a decade of declining album sales. The two half-length collections–which Warner Bros. adamantly opposes referring to as EPs–will serve in place of a new Shelton full-length album, the most recent of which was released in 2008.

Last week I had the opportunity to chat with Shelton about what this new format means for him as an artist.

JIM MALEC: Will these so-called Six Paks be digital only, or will there also has a physical version available in stores?

BLAKE SHELTON: There’ll be a physical product in every normal retail store where you’d find music.

JM: From a business and career standpoint, what’s the reasoning behind this substantial shift in formats

SHELTON: Not only do I not really know, I don’t even care. (Laughing) That’s a record company dilemma. They’re the ones that came to me and told me about their idea and about what they’d like to try to do. They asked me if I’d be ok with it.

I came back with, “absolutely.” The more I thought about it, you know, I could see the advantages for me, and for my fans. This will make it easier to get music to my fans—and at a lower cost. Honestly–and I don’t want to speak for all artists in Nashville ‘cause I know there are some that it does make a huge difference with–almost 100 percent of my income comes from touring. So I’ve never once wondered or thought about how record companies make a profit, or how much they make off a 16-dollar album versus a nine-dollar album versus a six-dollar album. That’s never been something I’ve thought much about because that’s never something that’s been a big part of my world.

Obviously, I pay attention to how many records we sell. That’s always something I keep track of. And, of course, I keep track of what our singles do. Because those things support my touring.

JM: What would you say is more important to you, then, as far as your touring and your profile as an artist: Is it country radio supporting your singles, having new music available on a regular basis or albums sales?

SHELTON: A combination of all of that. When you release a new record, there’s a lot of publicity that comes along with that, which, in turn gets me on television a lot more. That, in turn, may make someone out there pick up the phone and go, “Hey man, I heard Blake sing his new song on television this morning and I wanna hear it [on radio].” It starts getting that ball rollin’. It all matters to my world, as far as touring goes. A big hit single out on radio may be the best thing of all.

But as far as how they make money on those things, I’d probably kill myself before I was satisfied with knowing how that all works.

JM: So let’s talk about it from an artistic standpoint, then. How do you approach choosing songs for a six-song album? And how is that different, or not different, than choosing songs for a “full length” album?

SHELTON: We were already workin’ on a record, and we were right in the middle of it when we decided that we were gonna do this thing. So we had more than six songs recorded already. So, what we decided to do was make the most rounded album we could make with six songs.

We said, let’s make it as good as we can, and the things we don’t use for the first one will be our starting point for the next one.

That’s what we did. And, obviously, I’ve always been a guy that has four or five ballads on each album. Well, clearly you can’t do that with only a six-song album. So “Hillbilly Bone” was set to be the first release, and we had another song recorded called “Kiss My Country Ass” that I knew needed to be on this first record because it fit so will with “Hillbilly Bone.” And the record kinda started becoming this little piece of attitude. It was an in-your-face, redneck anthem type of album.

We just decided to go down that road with this particular record. There’s only one ballad on the album, and one mid-tempo, and the rest of ‘em are all up-tempo, fun, party, drinkin’ songs. Which is new for me also, just to kinda go there. To completely go there with my music.

JM: Do you feel like this format for a record gives you more or less artistic freedom? In the future, do you envision each song being recorded as its own, almost one-off project, or will you approach the recording of a Six Pak more as a structured, themed project?

SHELTON: Definitely, each song is under the microscope way more than if you’re doing a 12 or 13 song album. You know this as well as I do—if you’re makin’ a 12 or 13 song album, you end up with two or three on there that probably not only you [the artist] aren’t that crazy about but also that nobody involved is really that crazy about. But you need those extras, you know?

You’re not gonna record anybody’s great songs as album filler. And you’re not gonna waste one of your great ones as album filler. And it’s not that “filler” means “bad songs,” it just means those songs aren’t difference makers.

When we’re doing a record like this, we can’t have one song on there that’s not great. Each song you cut has to have the possibility of being something great. Whether you’re even thinking about getting it played on the radio or not—just like the song I mentioned before, “Kiss My Country Ass.” We know good and well that’s not gonna be played on country radio. But we also know that there’s a lot of other avenues for somethin’ like that. The song will get a lot of attention.

So we had to think about it that way, as each song being really important. Because once they release this thing, they’re gonna go all kinds of directions with songs. There’s only one that goes to radio, so they have a lot of projects to do with the other five songs to get them heard as quickly as possible.

JM: I remember when Rhett [Akins] released “Kiss My Country Ass” as a single–I had the same thought even back then: “There’s no way!” I think I heard it on the radio once, and that surprised me–

SHELTON: –and it was bleeped out!

JM: It was! But on the subject of that song, I read a quote from you that said something to the effect of it represented the kind of artist you want to be. You said that you heard that song and realized it as the foundation for what you wanted to do in the future. Do you remember saying that, and if so, can you expound on that statement? I know you take a lot of pride in being Blake, so talk to me about what that song in particular means to you, personally and artistically.

SHELTON: Well, artistically it…man, here’s the thing: You can exist a long time in this industry by having hit singles. And this, what I’m about to talk about, has happened a lot. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of artists. I don’t want to be one of those artists that was “the guy that sang ‘Austin’,” and “the guy that sang ‘This Song’ or ‘That Song’.” I want people, when this is over, to go “Blake Shelton…” and then remember my songs. Not vice-versa. Not think of a song and then try to remember who sang it.

I guess what I’m sayin’ is that at some point here I came to the realization that I’ve gotta try to step out and become a person that people know what I stand for. I want them to have something they can cling on to, whether they hate me or love me for it. They’ve gotta know who I am. And I finally…well, you gotta figure that out for yourself, first. Then you’ve gotta find a way to get it to the fans. And then you just hope they buy into it.

For me, I just finally started realizin’ some things. I moved back to Oklahoma because I missed bein’ out in the middle of nowhere. I love my friends and my family. I love drivin’ back roads. I love drinkin’ beer. I love that type of thing. So, I guess that’s who I am at the end of the day. And I need to figure out how to connect that with my music.

I’m finally doin’ that.

JM: What is country music?

SHELTON: Country music to me is…oh man, that’s an excellent question.

It’s music that’s about real emotions and real things that real people go through. And real feelings that real people have. That’s the easy answer. To me, the bigger picture is that it’s music that has the ability to adapt. It’s always music that people—generations—take ownership of. They don’t want to let go of their decade, or their two decades. And I love that about it, that each generation has its own decade or so that they’ve staked their claim on. “Man, that was the good years of country music,” you know?

If you look at country music, when it was created and who it was created by, it’s so much different then that now. In so many ways. You’ll hear a lot of people in my parents’ generation bitchin’ about how country ain’t country no more—well, the music they were listenin’ to wasn’t country to their parents. It’ll always be that way, and that’s my favorite thing about country music—if you look at the history of it, from then ‘till now, there really aren’t any boundaries. Because it has its own way of stayin’ true.


This content originally appeared in the country music blog The 9513, which ceased publication in 2011. It was added to American Noise in 2018. 

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Honeyhoney on Hiatus: Revisit our 2008 Interview with Suzanne Santo

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According to lead singer, fiddler and banjoist Suzanne Santo, Honeyhoney isn’t country. But on the Venice CA duo’s debut album First Rodeo, the powerful vocalist and her musical partner Ben Jaffe have crafted a style that is rootsy and rhythmic, one which sounds deeply and naturally connected to the genre’s traditions. Lyrically, the record is stark and raw, marked by moving songs of love, homecoming, fear and anger. That First Rodeo occupies this particular musical space is not surprising given Santo’s influences.

“I love bluegrass, Appalachian type stuff,” she explains. “I listen to a lot of Earl Scruggs and Pete Williams, Johnny Cash. Gillian Welch.”

But Santo has eclectic taste, also citing Tupac and Master P as influences. And while you won’t find anything resembling 90s gangsta rap on the record, it does brush up against jazz, blues, and even ska (on the delightfully frantic “Give Yourself To Me”).

“We weave in and out, like we’re drunk-driving through music genres,” Santo says. “Let’s go a little more rock this time, or let’s go a little more cowpunk. And I like to believe that people will take to our music because of that.”

Finding Her Way, The Hard Way

Growing up in a small town in Ohio, Santo spent her early teens busing tables at her grandparents’ Italian restaurant and dreaming of something different. At age 14, she landed a few small-time modeling gigs, which opened the door to bigger gigs in Chicago and Tokyo. Two years later she was fully immersed in the modeling world and moved to New York City, where she attended a private performing arts school. From a family of modest means, Santo financed her education with the earnings from her photoshoots.

“Pretty much anything I made would go to the school,” she says.

At first, her parents made frequent trips into the city to visit and attend to her business affairs. But the strain of so much travel wore on them. Santo was emancipated when she was 17. She was living on her own and fending for herself. And her modeling work was drying up.

“It was a really hard time,” she says. “My body started to change and I wasn’t landing as many jobs. I had never had to diet before. I had never had to cut back anything that I was eating. When my body started changing and I was getting curvy, I wasn’t working as much and I needed to pay my rent. And the stress it would put on me would be really scary.”

So she tended bar and waited tables at a barbecue joint. She worked as a nanny and a building manager. She struggled to keep things together, and she started mapping out a new path for her future.

“We’re Definitely Not Named After the Abba Song”

While in New York Santo started acting, and her acting aspirations eventually led her to Los Angeles. She even scored a few small roles in shows like Law & Order and Without a Trace. But she was also writing music and performing at open mics around town, which is where she caught the attention of a music engineer known as “The Double” who had worked with Jaffe – a New England native and Gershwin-bred classical music fan who was previously the guitarist for Sonya Kitchell – on a solo project credited as Black Tie Society. The Double introduced the two, and it didn’t take long for a new partnership to bloom.

“We started singing each other’s songs and mushing ‘em together and then we started writing together,” Santo says. By the time the two new collaborators had finished their second song (“Come on Home,” which appears on First Rodeo), they realized that something special was brewing.

“After we wrote that song we thought, wow, this is great. Let’s keep doing this.”

Santo and Jaffe officially joined forces not long after under the moniker Zanzabar Lewis, a title coined from Suzanne’s childhood nickname. After signing with Kiefer Sutherland’s Ironworks Records, the duo wanted to find a name that more accurately reflected the tone of their music.

“We choose Honeyhoney because it’s kinda southern and sassy,” Santo explains. “We’re definitely not named after the Abba song.”

“I Can Smack His Ass Around”

“We’re married without the candy,” Santo says of her relationship with Jaffe, not really joking. “Sometimes Ben and I forget to hang out because we’re so busy. But he’s hilarious. I freakin’ love that kid. But no nookie.”

“Besides,” she says, “I’m about six months older, so that means I can smack his ass around.”

Their personal relationship may be platonic, but First Rodeo is a sexy and intimate record. Jaffe’s churning guitar rhythms complement Santo’s sometimes soaring, sometimes searing vocals. The first single from the project, “Little Toy Gun,” is smoky and dangerous – a modern gunslinger of a track. On “Sugarcane,” the subtle moan of a steel guitar underscores unforgiving lyrics: “You say you’re fine and sigh, sigh, sigh/So when I fuck around, don’t ask me why.”

Like Honeyhoney itself, First Rodeo is hard to classify. It simmers then boils; it whispers then howls. Throughout, Santo delivers stunning performances that will make you wonder why the hell you haven’t heard of her yet.

“When we signed our deal, Ben was teaching music at a store in Redondo Beach, and I was doing all these different day jobs,” she explains. “Before we signed it was really hard to keep our jobs and continue to be busy with music and have time to write and practice. And when we finally signed and got our advances, we were able to live off of music as a job, which still blows my mind. I’m like, holy shit, I don’t have to sell barbecue anymore. I don’t have to watch babies to pay my bills. When you work in the service industry or you’re a teacher it’s consumes a lot of your time and at the end of the day you’re really tired and exhausted and it’s harder to be creative. I feel like we have more room now to be creative.”


This content was originally published in the country music blog The 9513 on November 7, 2008.

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John Rich – The Interview

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John Rich may be contemporary country music’s most enigmatic figure, both a larger-than-life symbol of excess and a purveyor of heartland populism.

Once an unheralded member of the band Lonestar (catch his lead vocals on “Paradise Knife and Gun Club” and “John Doe on a John Deere”), Rich rose to national prominence alongside Big Kenny as one half of Big & Rich. The duo’s debut album Horse of a Different Color is remembered mostly for spawning the country rap anthem “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy,” but a deeper dive turns up gems like “Holy Water,” a striking song about abuse and healing.

Even people who are ruffled by Rich’s big personality or turned off by his constant showmanship will admit that he’s one of Nashville’s most gifted songwriters, equally adept at penning heart tuggers and barn burners. Still, he may best known as a TV personality; he appeared on CMT’s Gone Country and on NBC’s 2008 reboot of Nashville Star, and in 2011 he emerged victorious on the fourth season of Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice.  

The one area in which Rich hasn’t yet reached the pinnacle of success is as a solo artist. 2006′s Underneath the Same Moon peaked at #64 on the country albums chart, but now he’s back with a record titled Son of a Preacher Man and the rousing lead single “Shuttin’ Detroit Down.”

JIM MALEC: John Rich…

JOHN RICH: Jim.

MALEC: How are you doing today, John?

RICH: Good. I just wanted to let you know, before we start, that I read all your reviews on my records and on my stuff, and you’re an interesting commentator to say the least.

MALEC: I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today, despite those reviews. You know what they say about opinions. I do, honestly, respect your work. It is truly an honor to finally get to talk to you today – the one and only Cowboy Stevie Wonder.

RICH: That’s a fun title to have, yeah. Groovin’ cowboy music, you know.

MALEC: First of all, and I have to ask you this because I’ve always wondered — what in the hell does “Green green grass and a rubber Russian bimbo” mean?

RICH: Well, you’d have to ask Big Kenny. “Green green grass and a rubber Russian bimbo/No one’s got the name for the brain in the scarecrow.” Big Kenny wrote that. So you’d have to ask Kenny – and then you’d probably have to write a novel about whatever it means. I just thought it was a funny lyric and that it was fun to sing. He had a Russian girlfriend at the time, maybe that had something to do with it.

MALEC: Probably. This is totally unrelated to that, but important nonetheless: I have a picture on my office wall of you and Kenny at the 2007 ACM awards – you’re standing there with a bunch of people, including John Legend and the one and only Lil John, who, so the story goes, hung out with you later that night in Vegas. So I have to ask you – is Lil John, in fact, the world’s greatest rapper? And would “J. Money” be willing to work with him on his next project?

RICH: I like Lil John. You know, one thing about me is that I have friends in all genres of music that you would never think I’m friends with. But I’m friends with Lil John and John Legend and some of these guys. Chad Kroger and Kid Rock and just a cross section of people.

Lil John is a big country music fan. He likes the fact that country music talks about the real stuff. And I guess in urban music a lot of the big artists, the reason they’re big is because they talk about what’s real. They talk about their neighborhood and about what they’ve gone through. Country music’s the same thing, just with a different sound around it. It’s the same sentiment. If you’re real, you’re real. And I think that’s why I get along with a lot of these guys. I have respect for them, they have respect for me.

MALEC: You’re talking about things being real, and I do want to congratulate you on the success of “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” which deals with a very real problem. I do have a question about that song, though. Outside of your outrage over what has transpired with the financial situation, what do you think the best solution is? Because it seems like that song presents a bit of a Catch-22. On one hand, the song criticizes the financial bailout. But on the other, it seems like a failure to bail out the dying auto industry would have amounted to literally shutting Detroit down — which would result in massive job losses for the people the song is supposedly speaking to and about.

RICH: See, the bigger point and the bigger picture of “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” was never meant to be strictly about Detroit. To me, Detroit is Ground Zero of the economic meltdown, and obviously it’s the singularly hardest-hit city in the United States. Without a doubt. But I come from a neighborhood where it’s all generational farmers. Depending on where you’re from in this country you have your own story of what it’s like to work there and what type of work you’re doing.

What made me write the song was the disgust I had over turning on the news every night knowing people in Detroit and everywhere else in the country are losing their jobs and are barely hanging on to their houses while our taxpayer dollars are going to these Wall Street CEOs, who are then spending that money – our money – on jets and remodeling their offices. It’s such a sign of disrespect to me and every other taxpaying American. That’s when I picked up the pen and paper and wrote the song. And I used Detroit as the emblem of hardworking America. The song is not just about Detroit. But I do believe Detroit, since WWII, has represented hardworking America.

If you want to go in and start dissecting why the auto industry is in trouble, man, that’s above my capability to go into that. I mean, unions and all the things that come into play there. Man, it’s way beyond my scope of what I really know factually. But what I do know factually is people are fed up with seeing the people they vote into office give their money, over and over and over again, to people who do nothing but abuse it. That’s what the song is about, and to me that’s why people in Texas and in California, people in Boston and in Florida, why people all over the United States love the song “Shuttin’ Detroit Down.” They’re not from Detroit. They’ve never built a car. That’s not why they like the song. They like the song because the sentiment of the song is an American sentiment right now.

MALEC: I understand that Merle Haggard has talked to you about recording the song. How does that make you feel?

RICH: He came up to me and he said, “Tell me about this song you wrote about Detroit.” He said, “Tell me the lyric.” And so I told him the chorus lyric and he looked at me and said, “Son, that reminds me a whole lot of ‘Okie’.” As in from Muskogee. I guess that’s the highest compliment I’ve ever been paid as a songwriter. Or probably ever will be paid as a songwriter. And then he asked me, “Would you mind if I recorded that on my next record?” I just asked if he was kidding.

I hope he follows through on it. I’d love to hear one of the greatest of all time sing that song.

MALEC: Your next single from Son of a Preacher Man will be “The Good Lord and the Man,” correct?

RICH: That’s the next single. It’s a song I wrote about my grandfather. He was a WWII veteran. He had six purple hearts. In WWII, he lied about his age – he told ‘em he was 18 when he was only 17. He went in a year early and was just one of the greatest men I ever knew. And it dawned on me one day that I couldn’t think of a country song about the greatest generation – the people who literally saved the world. The people that beat Hitler and beat imperial Japan and beat Mussolini. And to me, we’re looking at an American crisis right now in the financial system, but let me tell you that’s nothin’ compared to what they looked at. They were lookin’ at Nazis. You know what I mean? When I sing about him and that generation in this song it gives me a little bit of hope that, hey, if we can do that – if America is capable of winning WWII – we’re capable of getting through this.

MALEC: Who is “The Man” that you’re referring to in that song? Because you don’t seem to be, in other contexts, an especially big fan of government.

RICH: The man in this song is my granddaddy. The man. He was “the man” to me. You know, like if somebody walks up and says, “Jim, you’re the man.” My Granddaddy, he was the man. And also, when I say “the man” in that song it refers to all the men and women that fight. It’s not the government, it’s our fighting men and women. But for me, on the singer level, it was my Granddaddy Rich.

MALEC: Let’s put politics aside for a minute. As one of the most successful songwriters of our generation, how do you go about balancing artistic and commercial concerns?

RICH: I’ve written some songs that were strictly commercial, you know, maybe if I’m trying to write a song that would be great for a tour like “Comin’ to Your City” or something like that. But even there, you can chop that song up and see there’s a lot of colorful things going on in there that are pretty artistic.

A song like “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” for instance, is such a personal message from me, and a real serious sentiment of a song. If I sing it for you on an acoustic guitar it would hit you differently that it hits you when you hear the recording. When I sing it on a guitar, people say it sounds like a Woody Guthrie song. Which is a huge compliment. But when you hear the recording of it, you hear that I produced it with more of a commercial edge on it, because it’s a real serious subject and I didn’t want people feelin’ bummed-out when they heard it. I wanted them to feel like going, “Hell yeah, John! Tell ‘em about it!” So I put a little more energy in that track.

So I’d say I find the balance there. That’s why I like to produce my own records, because I know in my head where I want to take it.

MALEC: I want to ask you about Nashville Star. When you were promoting Nashville Star, you made some comments that were critical of American Idol. Later, you went on the criticize Nashville Star itself. I have nothing to ask about those comments in particular, but what I do wonder is whether you think these types of TV competitions help or hurt country music?

RICH: If Nashville Star had been handled correctly it would have been a huge boost for country music. But instead you had people at NBC who didn’t know their head from their ass about country music, and they made decisions on their own and without…

My opinion meant nothing. Jeffrey Steele’s opinion meant nothing. Jewel’s opinion meant nothing. And we’re the people actually living in Nashville, making country music for millions and millions and millions of people. We are country music fans. I am a country music fan. I know what I love about it.

Country music doesn’t have to be made cool. Country music is cool. Country music is the biggest format out there. We sell out stadiums every single year. So when NBC went about it the way they did, it was, in my opinion, embarrassing. And really not an accurate representation of what country music is all about, and what our fan base is all about. And that’s where my frustration came from.

MALEC: Thanks for your candor on that–

RICH: –That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?

MALEC: Very clear. What drives John Rich? Does he crave superstardom? Money? Creative acclaim? All of the above? What is it that gets you up in the morning? What is it that makes you be the go-getter that you are, John?

RICH: I grew up in a place called the Tierra Grande Trailer Park. It was on the west side of Amarillo, Texas. Going to the food bank every month was a common occurrence in my family. There were four kids and my dad was a small-time preacher who also sold cars on the side to make enough to actually pay the bills. I never went to college, but I started listening to country radio when I was five year old, on my little radio in the bedroom there. My dad taught me a few chords on the guitar and I took it from there.

Country music has given me every great thing I’ve ever had in my life. The country music fans have stuck with me through many incarnations of my career, from Lonestar to Big & Rich to now on this solo record I’m doing. So why in the world would I want to take a vacation from what I’m doing right now? Yeah, sometimes I might work too hard in some people’s opinion, but I figure I have just a certain amount of days to what I love to do, which is make country music on this level. You know, you’re not gonna be young forever and have the energy to do it, and frankly people aren’t going to give a damn about you forever–unless you’re lucky like George Strait or someone like that, and I don’t think there’s a great chance of that happening.

So I’m gonna write as many songs as I can, and do as many shows as I can, and promote country music as much as I possibly can while I have the opportunity. That’s what gets me up every morning. I just want to give back all the great things the fans have given me.

JM: Thanks John. I appreciate your candor and, once again, for taking the time to talk with me. I’ve really enjoyed it. Like I said earlier, I do respect your work a great deal. I may hold your feet to the fire, but I hold everyone’s feet to the fire.

JR: I like most of the things you write. And then sometimes I’ve got to read it two or three times to make sure you’re not being a smart ass. But that’s alright. You’re a very creative writer. I like reading what you write, even though sometimes I go, “Aw, man, come on!” But you’re a talented writer and that’s why I keep up with your reviews.


This content originally appeared in the country music blog The 9513, which ceased publication in 2011. It was added to American Noise in 2018. 

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