Tommy Emmanuel - 2014

Posted September, 2014

tommyemmanuelfirstpicPhoto by Allan ClarkeIt’s always an honor and very flattering when an artist agrees to an interview with me for the second or more time. That is especially the case when I was given the opportunity to chat again with Australian born guitar virtuoso, Tommy Emmanuel. 

For the uninformed, let me fill you in on just who Tommy Emmanuel is.  As just stated, he is a self-taught guitarist who first picked up the guitar at the age of four and began playing professionally at the age of six.  He had played the entire continent of Australia by the time he reached the age of ten. 

Consequently, his considered one of that country’s most respected musicians – guitarist or otherwise.  He has been nominated for a GRAMMY twice.  His hero, Chet Atkins, bestowed the title of “Certified Guitar Player” onto Tommy. “Big deal,” you might say. Considering that the honor has been given by Mr. Atkins to four other people in the world, yes, it’s a big friggin’ deal.

Since that time, Tommy moved to the United States by way of England, and is calling Nashville, Tennessee, home. The fifty-nine year old guitar maestro maintains a grueling tour schedule that is not for the weak or faint of heart. Perusing his itinerary posted on his website, the man is literally all over the world each and every year. He’s virtually a touring animal!

Currently on tour, I learned that he was going to be performing nearby at the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee and, when offered a chance to speak with this great man for a second time, I naturally jumped at it. 

Emmanuel called me from his hotel in Syracuse, New York, after a TV appearance and other media related events.  As we settled into our chat, I mentioned that I would be catching his show at the Tennessee Theater in the near future and asked how he liked performing in them. 

“They have such a feeling to them, haven’t they – those older theaters? They’re such a good atmosphere. The Tennessee Theater is one of the best theaters in America to play. It’s a beautiful art deco kind of place; that big beautiful blue dome in the middle of the ceiling of the hall. And there’s just not a bad seat in the house. It’s a really nice place to play. They’ve done a really good job on the dressing rooms and stuff like that. It’s special to me because backstage my dressing room is the Chet Atkins Room. Chet’s always there.”

Tommy allows his thoughts to step outside the legendary theater to reminisce about how special the city of Knoxville is to him.

“Knoxville’s one of the places I got started in America. I first came there and played a little hall called Ossoli Circle which is really where ladies meet and play Bridge. We started there and then I moved to the Bijou and I played a couple of clubs in town. Eventually, I had my sights set on the Tennessee Theater. We eventually got there.  AC Entertainment – the promoters there – they’re the ones who really set me up there so I have a lot to be thankful for.”

Not only is Tommy Emmanuel a touring maniac, he’s a prolific recording artist, too. In fact, he has two recordings that have just been released: A 2-CD set entitled, “The Guitar Mastery Of Tommy Emmanuel,” and a CD/DVD package, “Live And Solo From Pensacola, Florida”.  I asked Emmanuel about the “Mastery” offering.

“It’s a real carefully chosen song list of songs – the best stuff that I’ve done. We went back over the last twelve or fifteen years of my life and chose the songs that we felt were kind of the landmarks along the way for me. If I could join the dots in my life using songs these are the ones that I would use.”

When I mentioned that I understood that there were two bonus tracks (“Sunset” and “Only Elliot”, Tommy replied, “There tommyemmanuel.1aPhoto by Allan Clarkeare. That was because the record company in Japan wanted to put this album together and they said, ‘What we really want to be able to offer people are a couple of tracks that they’ve never heard before.’ So, I went into the studio and recorded those tracks. When I came back home from touring, I went in and recorded them, re-mastered them, sent them to Japan and they pieced it all together. So, there are two new performances of new songs on there as well as stuff from previous albums.”

And what does he hope that his fans and others get from this 2-CD set?

“I hope that they get a great experience from the quality of what we’ve chosen to do, the song order and also, of course, the song choice. It’s really about getting the best quality and integrity into your music. I think that it’s a good cross section not only my writing styles but of my playing styles, as well. It’s like a snapshot of my life, really. The music and the songs came from deep places.”

On Facebook, I often share videos of songs that are then-currently looping on the jukebox in my mind and Emmanuel’s music is often in that loop – especially his performances of “Initiation,” “Morning Aire,”  and (my all-time favorite) “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” which brought tears to my eyes when I saw Tommy perform it in Dallas a couple of years ago. I shared that with him as a backdrop to when I asked him which song from “Mastery” he would point to as the calling card to the collection.

“It would be ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’”.

I’m glad that great minds think alike.

“I mean, everybody knows the song. When you hear someone play it their way, you get an insight into who they are, how they think and what makes them tick. That’s an interesting way of being able to do it is to just play a song to somebody in your own way which speaks volumes about you. So, I would have to say ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ would be my calling card for this double album.”

Some may not realize that the label that that disc is released on is Steve Vai’s label, Favored Nations. I asked Tommy how that has worked out for him working with a label that is headed by a fellow respected guitarist. Were there unique synergies being affiliated with such a company?

“It’s been encouraging and inspiring to me because Steve, obviously, gets what I’m doing. I can’t play like him and he can’t play like me. We remain who we are. We’re also at an age – both of us are very similar in age – we’re family guys. We have the same kind of values in life. I think he’s always looking to do something with quality and integrity and I’m the same, you know? I think both of us are always looking for ways of expanding ourselves out into the world in ways that are of quality.

tommyemmanuel.2Photo by Allan Clarke“Steve totally gets me which is a great thing to be able to say about your record label. He totally understands where I’m coming from and what I’m doing. He gets the whole thing of being true to the music and just trying to play the music with the best feeling. He totally gets all of that.”

This begged the question in my mind of whether there was any chance of he and Vai would do anything together.

“Well, I hope so! I definitely would love to do something with Steve. If I could just get him to play acoustic with me, that would be wonderful! Whenever I go to visit him at his house when I’m in L.A., I always get out my guitar and play it and he’ll play on it. We like to pick at each others guitars. Ha! Ha!”

Bringing it back to the subject of collaboration, Emmanuel added, “You just never know until you try. I remember when we were at Carnegie Hall doing Les Paul’s 90th Birthday Bash. Joe Satriani and I were sharing the same dressing room so Joe gets Steve on the phone and we say to him, ‘Okay, we’re going to G3 but it’s going to be acoustic. It’s going to be Steve, Tommy and Joe.” It was hilarious and was a joke, of course. But Steve was, like, ‘Oh, no! We’re not doing that!’  I think it would be fun to give it a go, at least. If we didn’t do any shows, at least get together in a room and jamming on a song. I think that would be so cool!”

Bringing the conversation around to his “Live and Solo in Pensacola, Florida,” I mentioned that it looked like the song list was all tunes that he hadn’t previously recorded live.

“I just recorded the studio album – the new solo studio album that is being mixed at the moment – and that has a lot of those songs on it. I was wanting to get out and play those songs to an audience and film it. That’s how that all came about. It was a PBS driven project. So, in the middle of the show, I pick up my Larrivee guitar and just used a mic on it. That was something I wanted to do. I wanted to have a part of the show where I just played on the mic and played a different guitar, as well. It brought another dynamic to the show. The audience loved it and it was one of those TV shows with a live audience where there was no stopping, there was no fixing up. There was no two or three shows and pick the best. There was just one show straight through.

“It all worked very well and everybody left feeling like, ‘Whoa! We did it! We kept that feeling – that moment.’”

With the upcoming Knoxville show, I asked Tommy what could fans expect from him in that show as well as other stops on his tour.

“Oh, I’m going to play a lot of the new songs on the show. I’ve also got Loren and Mark – Loren Barrigar and Mark tommyemmanuel.3Photo by Allan ClarkeMazengarb – they’re the first part of the show. Those guys are fantastic players. They’re really popular with guitar players everywhere now. So, I’ve got those guys opening. They’re really doing a wonderful job. Then we get together and play at the end of the show. It’s a wonderful crescendo at the end of the night.

“I’m going to be playing some songs from the album I did with Chet Atkins (“The Day Finger Pickers Took Over The World”) and as many new songs (from the upcoming studio album) in the show as I can.”

As we wrapped up our chat, I asked Mr. Emmanuel what was on his radar for the next twelve months. His answer surprised me.

“Well, the most important thing in my life right now is I have another daughter coming. Hopefully, with everything going well, she’ll be born the first week of January. I will have three daughters, then. My eldest daughter was born in Sydney and she just got married two weeks ago. My second daughter, Angelina, was born in England. And, then, our little girl will be born in America so I’ll have an Australian, English and American! My wife and I are so happy – so excited to have her on the way. She’s in good shape. We’ve seen her on the screen a few times. She seems to have all her fingers and toes and is normal. We’re hoping that her health will be good and that things will run smoothly.”

When I asked if the ultrasounds showed his new daughter playing some decent riffs in the womb, he replied, “Yeah, yeah! She’s gotta little ukulele in there! Heh Heh Heh! Actually, a friend of mine put up a photograph of an ultrasound photo with a little baby and he PhotoShopped a guitar. He said, ‘Yep! It’s Tommy’s child!’ Ha! Ha! Awesome stuff!”

Keep up with the latest in Tommy Emmanuel’s life and career by checking out his website, TommyEmmanuel.com. If you get a chance to catch this amazing guitarist in concert, do so. You’ll be in for a phenomenal experience that you’ll never forget.

Note: Be sure and read Boomerocity's first interview with Tommy Emmanuel here.

Dizzy Reed

Posted October, 2011

dizzyreed2Since the advent of rock and roll in the 50’s, it seems that there is at least one person or band that served as a lightning rod of criticism of the genre.  It started with Elvis in the 50’s and then on to the Rolling Stones in the sixties.  In the seventies, Alice Cooper and KISS drew hostile artillery from parents and press, alike.

In the late eighties, the cloak of controversy fell – no, strike that – was taken by force by an aggressive new band called Guns N’ Roses.  The band sonically carpet bombed the world with their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, unleashing such hits as Welcome to the Jungle, Sweet Child o’ Mine and Paradise City.  With subsequent tours and multi-million selling albums, the band developed the reputation as The World’s Most Dangerous Band.

Last month, the band was nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which, under howls of “foul” by fans of many other artists and bands, stirred up more controversy.  Then, again, a large percentage of nominations from the Hall have attracted the same kinds of criticisms so the more things change, the more they remain the same.

To the outside world, every GNR tour (and this current tour is no exception) appears to be a rolling thunderstorm of chaos, confusion and confrontation.  I caught up with Dizzy by phone at his hotel room in Paraguay during the South American leg of GNR’s tour and I asked Dizzy if the view from behind the keyboards is any different than the fan’s perception.

“Well, you know, it is different. It’s confusion, chaos and rolling thunder. It’s similar to how it’s probably perceived but the most amazing thing is that we actually get out there and get the show on for everybody and that’s the most important thing.”  Dizzy concludes with a bit of humor, “I’m sitting right now in a hotel room in Paraguay and wondering how I’m going to get a cup of coffee.”

Once upon a time, that crisis would have precipitated a royal trashing of a hotel room if not the entire floor but cooler heads obviously prevailed.

Artists and bands are often mischaracterized in the press and by “urban legend”.  While I seriously doubt that the boys in the band were holding Bible study every night while they’re on the road, I did suspect that there was more to the stories that I have read.  Laughing, Dizzy shed some light as to how the band is misunderstood and misquoted.

“Everything’s misquoted.”  Reed then shares a personal story as an example of how the view of the fans often is different from the reality of the band.

“I was watching a friend’s band at this tattoo convention out in California a couple of months ago.  This guy comes up to me and goes, ‘Do you still ride?’  I say, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ He goes, ‘Oh, c’mon, man! You’re gonna blow the whole image!’  I go, ‘What image is that?’  He goes, ‘You know! You ride motorcycles!’  I’m like, ‘I’ve never been on a motorcycle in my life, dude! And, you know what? To be honest, I don’t know too many others in the band or have ever been in the band who has spent a lot of time on motorcycles. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

“People get it in their head what they want and they’re going to believe it until it’s proved wrong. I don’t think he was a big Guns N’ Roses fan to begin with or he would have known that.  There are a lot of those people out there. Honestly, I think about my favorite bands as I was growing up and I had these images of them of how I wanted them to be like. I never got to meet them so I don’t know. Maybe they were like that. Maybe they weren’t. There are so many people who are going to think what they want to think.”

Busting into his humorous vein again, Dizzy engages in a mock conversation with the mistaken biker fan.

“‘Yeah, man! Let’s do a ride, dude!  Awesome!  I’m going to Sturgis, like, five times once this year! I’m going back and forth. It’s awesome!’  But, I wasn’t in the mood so I just said, “Sorry, I hate to blow your image.”

Along the same line of thought, Reed shares where he thinks band mate, Axl Rose, is getting unfair characterization.

“The guy works his butt off constantly. I don’t know if that ever gets represented.  He’s had so much to do with the success of the band over the years. Perhaps he doesn’t make himself as visible as other people that have been in the band.  Therefore, he doesn’t get attached to what was, what has been and what will be the success of the band when he probably has more to do with it than a lot of people outside of the raw riffs and guitar talent that he’s surrounded himself with.  I think that might be one thing – the main thing.”

In “Guns N’ Roses” years, Dizzy is the second oldest member of the band, second only to Axl.  I state that as a lead-in to my next question when he interrupts me.

“In ‘Guns N’ Roses’ years, I’m like 275!”  And what does that make Axl?  “300, probably”.

With so many GNR years behind him, I asked Reed how this tour is different from the other tours over the years.

“Right now, we’re in sort of the same mode that we’ve been in the last couple of years – like all of last year.  I was thinking about South America last year and I go, ‘Oh, wait! I’m in South America again!’ It’s the same show. We’re doing a couple of new songs that we haven’t done – new ‘old’ songs and new ‘new’ songs. Other than that, it’s pretty much the same. We’ve had DJ Ashba on board now for going on two years, I guess. So, that’s different but it’s great!”

As for what’s next for the band after this tour, Reed says with a laugh, “I go home and dry out for the holidays.” Then, in a slightly more serious tone, adds, “I keep ticking away on my solo album when we have some down time. If we have some significant down time then I’m out performing those songs with whoever I can get together to play with me. So, that’s what I’ll be doing.  You never know what’s around the corner for Guns N’ Roses, to be perfectly honest about it. It’s an ongoing, constant ‘adventure’. Hey, it keeps things exciting!”

As our call was wrapping up and Dizzy about to continue his search for a cup of coffee, I asked him how he hoped he and the band would be remembered and what their legacy would be.

“I hope people remember that I added some tangible, cool stuff to the band’s music and helped the band grow; that the band is remembered – that we delivered kick-ass music on a nightly basis that, hopefully, affected people in a positive way. I’m leaving my dream and I hope somehow, some way, people can get that out of the music and be able to apply it to themselves and do what they want to do with their life.”

You can keep up with all things Guns N’ Roses at GunsNRoses.com.  Be sure to go there to check out when they’ll be appearing at a venue near you. 

Donnie Sumner

Posted May, 2012

Sumner Donnie001After Elvis Presley died thirty years ago this August, like many fans, I devoured every book and article that I could find and afford to learn more about the man.  I have more books on the subject of Elvis than I do any other singular subject – and that’s after having lost one or two of them.

One of the books I bought (but no longer have) was one written by the late televangelist, Rex Humbard.  In it (and if I remember correctly), when describing Elvis’ love of southern gospel music, Humbard used the story of King Saul who had vacated the calling of God and lived with a very troubled heart.  During his many sleepless, anxious nights, he would summon a young David to play music – music that became what we know to be the Psalms of the Bible - to soothe his soul.  It was Humbard’s contention that southern gospel music had the same effect on Elvis.

Whether or not that was actually the case may be open for debate. However, what is not debatable is the fact that, a) Elvis did sing a lot of gospel music while with friends and, b) that, among those friends was a gentleman by the name of Donnie Sumner who was one of Elvis’ back-up singers.

Recently, I became aware of a new book written by Donnie.  I, of course, have been aware of Donnie and his work – both during and after his years with Presley.  His story is interesting, entertaining and compelling.

Imagine this: You’ve got what would appear to be one of the sweetest gigs in the world:  singing back-up for Elvis Presley!  Not only that, but Elvis really considers you a close friend.  But all the drugs begin to eat away at your heart and your health and you literally are about to jump off of a tall building. Instead, you walk away from the King of Rock and Roll.

That is exactly what Donnie Sumner did. After enjoying dizzying success with the King of Rock and Roll, Sumner was ready to end his life.  It was then that he decided to walk away from it all. That story and many, many others are shared in In the Shadow of Kings (see the Boomerocity review of it here).

Mr. Sumner was gracious enough to grant a phone interview with me to discuss the book and his post-Elvis life. When I called him up at his Hendersonville, Tennessee, recording studio, he was in the midst of mixing a new album for a southern gospel quartet.

I was aware that, among the things that keep the sixty-nine year young singer very busy was his recording studio and production work.  He said of that work, “Aw, I stay in the studio from six-thirty or seven o’clock in the mornin’ to about eight or nine at night, five days a week.”

Yet, with that heavy work load in addition to his busy tour schedule of personal appearances and the occasional appearances with the Elvis Lives stage show (designated a Guinness World Record as the first tour that was top-billed by a non-living performer.  Leave it to Elvis.), Donnie found time to write a book.  I asked him how the book writing process was for him and if there was going to be a follow-up to the book.

“Well, I piddled at it for eight or nine years and then I took about three months off and concentrated on it, finished it up and got it out. Now, I’m doing somethin’ else.  I’ll do other writings but not anything autobiographical.”

When Sumner set out to write the book, he said that he had, “. . . three goals, startin’ at the bottom: To put down on a piece of paper as much of my story as I could to tell my grandkids. Second, was to tell the human side of Elvis and tell all this funny stuff and show him as a human being with no negative stuff. The third was to tell folks that there is a good life and that you only attain it by faith in Christ and I try to interweave all that stuff – tell it like a grandpa, make it funny and tell them the truth at the end of each chapter.”

As can easily be imagined, the targeted niche for Sumner’s book is the very wide, diverse and, sometimes, strange demographic of Elvis fans as well as those who love southern Gospel music.  I was curious who, from his perspective, Donnie saw as the typical purchaser of In the Shadow of Kings.

“A lot of Elvis fans, a goodly number of my old friends and a tremendous number of people who have kids in similar situations who want to give it to their kids and grandkids. That’s the best part of the whole piece is if I can help somebody.”

People are very often touched by the stories of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of others – whether high profile or not. Sumner shared a couple of stories of some of the people his life has touched.

“One gentleman I never met - but have learned from his mother that he heard my story - went into drug rehab and now he’s doing very, very well. And, then, I was in a little town called Lenoir City, Tennessee, where I did a concert. I came back years later and was the associate pastor of that church. The Minister of Youth came up to me at that point came to me after I had been there a while and said that he came to my service years ago with his girlfriend and was all strung out on drugs. He heard my story and that night he decided to start a new life. He did and was now my youth minister at the church I was an associate at! I don’t hear many stories of that sort of thing because they’re not close friends and only a close friend would tell you a story like that.”

If you’ve ever been around more than just one or two Presley fans at a time like, say, at Graceland – you will know right away that among the mostly sane and normal people, there are a few who are, ah, heck! How do I say this?  “Special”?  Yeah, special.  Couple those people in certain religious environments and you definitely have an environment for “interesting” stories ripe for the picking.  Sumner shared a story or two.

“The only personal responses have been how much they appreciate portraying the human, funny side of Elvis rather than all the negative stuff and they appreciate how I handle the subject of drugs and Christianity in the book.” Then, after I bit on that hook of that serious answer, Donnie glided in with the rest of his answer . . . with deadpan seriousness that contained the urge to burst out laughing.

“I’ve got a couple of people who talk to Elvis all the time. Then I’ve got one girl that has ‘married’ Elvis after he died.  They write me all the time and I don’t even respond. And, then, I’ve got one that’s his ‘daughter’ and Joe Moscheo and Red and Sonny West abused her all of her life. And I’ve got one that Elvis talks to her all the time. He’s come back as ‘Jessie’ and he’s got a new record out.  There’s nuts out there everywhere.”

These stories begged the question about Sumner’s opinion as to the claim that Elvis staged his death in August of 1977.

“Well, I’ll start by telling you when J.D. (Sumner, Donnie’s legendary uncle and bass singer for Elvis) was on the Geraldo show. Geraldo asked him if he was certain that Elvis was dead.  He said, ‘I am absolutely certain”. Geraldo said, “Why are you so sure?” He said, ‘If he wasn’t dead, he woulda done killed Michael Jackson.”

After both of us laughing very hard at that comment, Donnie added, “Yeah, I am absolutely positive that he is dead. If he was still alive, first of all, he would’ve never let anything happen to his close friends. They would’ve never had any financial problems. They would’ve never got into any legal problems and Lisa Marie would’ve never gotten into some of the stuff that she’s gotten into.

“At some point, he would’ve come back because he loved life and he loved music. If he were alive, he would still be doing it in some fashion because it would’ve killed him not to do it. That’s what killed him to start with was that he thought he was losing it.

“He is definitely dead. I won’t go into the personal reasons why I know but J.D. dressed him and I asked J.D. a couple of questions that only those who knew him best would know. J.D. confirmed those visible answers to the point that, if it was not Elvis in that casket, it was the greatest make-up job – and greatest wax dummy – ever known ever in human existence.”

Donnie shares the story in his book about why, while singing with one of the most beloved, historic and recognizable people in the world – even in the history of the world – he decided to quit and with nothing else to fall back on.

“A simple quote is in my book: ‘If you eat a bowl of cherries, the only thing you’ve got left is the pits and too much candy will make you sick.’  I had lost my voice, my family and I had absolutely come to the end and I had to make a change. It was either die or start over and I chose to start over.”

I commented that it took a lot of courage to quit a gig like that.  Sumner responded quickly and unequivocally.

“I tell you what, Randy, it don’t take any courage. When you hit bottom, you ain’t got no place to fall. It don’t matter where you’re at when you hit the bottom, the bottom’s the bottom no matter where it’s at. You can hit the bottom in the presidency or you can hit the bottom on skid row. The bottom’s the same. You can’t go no lower than the bottom.”

I asked Donnie if he had something to fall back on when he left Elvis, to which he replied, “Not at all. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get out of the drugs and see if I could live. I would’ve dug a ditch just to get straight and live. I had no idea. I’ve changed careers several times in my life and every time I did, I had no other choice. I had no idea what I was going to do when I quit the one I was in.”

Elvis was known for expecting almost unconditional loyalty from those who worked for him.  I had to ask Sumner if his friendship with Elvis was harmed by his departure or, for that matter, what his Uncle J.D.’s reaction was.

“I never talked to J.D. about what he thought when I left but he was certainly proud of me. When I told Elvis that I would like to resign, he said, ‘I’d like to do that, too. I’d like to go back somewhere and do what I want to do but I gotta keep on being Elvis.’ I turned around and walked out of the hospital. That was the last time I ever talked to him face-to-face.

“He called me two or three times, wanting me to come work on sessions with him. Charlie (Hodge) would call from time to time to see how I was doing. He said Elvis said to call and see how I was doing. But I never talked to Elvis again face-to-face.  I talked to him twice about sessions. Charlie would always call on those session calls and said, ‘Elvis wants you to come over and do this, that or the other’ and I would say the reason why I couldn’t. Elvis would then get on the phone and say, ‘I understand. I love you. Bye.’

Like those of you reading this article, I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news that Elvis had died.  I was at a church youth camp in the desert outside of Tucson, Arizona.  A kid had a local newspaper and I could see the headline that said something to the effect of, Elvis Heart Attack Victim.  I asked the kid, “Is he dead?” because the headline didn’t make it clear if he “just” had a heart attack or if he died from one.  The kid gave me one of those, “Yes, you idiot” looks. I spent the rest of that day totally stunned by the news.

I asked Sumner what his reactions and thoughts were on that fateful day.

“I was in Florida at the time. I was in a revival. J.D. called me and said that Elvis died. He said, “I want you to come up and sing at the funeral.” I said, “Aw, Uncle Jake, he ain’t dead. He’s been going to do this for years and he finally did it. He’ll be back next week.’

“He used to talk a lot in the living room of all the funny ways he was going to disappear and what he was going to do while he was gone. Then he was going to come back and freak everybody out. I honestly thought when J.D. called – he called about one o’clock in the afternoon on the day Elvis died – I really didn’t think that Elvis was dead. I made up this crazy excuse that I just couldn’t afford to come up there.

“They kept talking about it on the news.  The next morning, I called J.D.  I said, ‘Uncle Jake, are you sure that Elvis is dead?’ He went through all these things. ‘Yep, I dressed him. I had the hairdresser come in and we fixed his hair and I had so-and-so cosmetologist come in and put on his make-up.’ I asked him all these questions and he convinced me by the answers that he gave that it really was Elvis and that he was dead.

“I hung up the phone and I started trying to find a flight to Memphis. There was no – between Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville – there was not one single charter service nor commercial flight available for a trip to Memphis. I tried to make car arrangements. J.D. said that he would rent a limousine to bring me up there. In Polk County, where I lived, and in Hillsborough County in Tampa and in Orlando – in those three big cities, there was not one single limousine that was available for long distance service. Because of logistics and the time element that I had wasted, I wasn’t able to attend the funeral.”

Donnie’s uncle, the late J.D. Sumner, is legendary in the southern gospel quarter genre and is known for holding the Guinness World Record for eighteen years for recording the lowest vocal bass note – a “G0”.  If you sit at a piano and hit the further key on the left, it’s two notes below that.

No, I’m not kidding.

I had the privilege of meeting J.D. Sumner at the ’78 Dove Awards.  He was wearing his “TCB” ring and pendant which Elvis had given him. For the brief moment that I had met and spoken with him, he struck me as a very kind and gentle man. He passed away in November of 1998; just three days shy of his 74th birthday. I asked Donnie for his thoughts on his legendary uncle.

“He was a giant of a man, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and domestically. People never talked about J.D.’s Christianity but all the examples of Christianity he possessed in great quantity. He never brought it on stage with him. He didn’t wear his salvation on his arm sleeve. He was the most human Christian gentleman that I had ever known – other than my father. I have nothing to say about him or his Christian example or his moral ethics. He’s like everybody else in the world of entertainment – every once in a while he’d slip but just because you slip doesn’t mean you’re down. There was only one sinless life and he died so that I could get over mine.”

If you were to check out Donnie’s appearance schedule and found that he was going to appear at a location near you, I’m sure that you might want to know what you could expect from one of his engagements, so I asked him about it.

“I hope that, while they’re there, they think, ‘Boy! That guy’s got a lot of stage skills. He’s got a good voice. He’s got a great presentation and I really enjoyed it. It was funny. It was exciting and I think I’m going to tell my friends what a great program he does.’

“Then, when they walk out the door and get in the car, I want them to say, ‘Hmm, I didn’t think about that while he was there. I think I’m going to try that’ and then cause their life tomorrow to be better than it was the day before because they had a good time at my program the night before.

“My only desire is to cause somebody’s life to be better because I passed through it. If I can do it with a song, I’ll do it. If I can do it with a Scripture, I’ll do it. If I can do it by just walking around and being friendly, I’ll do it. There’s a lot of ways to be a help to somebody and I’ll proudly use all of them.”

Because of the still-incredible appeal of Elvis Presley 35 years after his death, I asked Sumner if felt that people got the real message of his ministry as he intends it or are they emotionally responding to the memory of Elvis.

“I call my work a ‘blind side’ ministry. I want them to laugh at my humor, at my jokes, at myself by being old, fat and ugly. And I want them to understand that I did, in fact, work with Elvis. I’ve been there and done that and these are the stories that I’ve got to prove it. That’s about eighty-five to ninety percent of what I do in an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and a half.

“In the last 10 – 15 minutes of my programs, I can concentrate an entire Sunday. It’s at that point that I lay aside all my stage skills, all my humor and just tell them the cold, hard facts. I was a scoundrel. I’m not a scoundrel any more, thanks to Jesus. I’ve got a brand new life. I am now victorious in all things and they can be, too, just by deciding that they want to believe on the Lord, Jesus Christ.

“You don’t have to put on a football helmet and run at the gates of Heaven. You don’t have to squall and bawl, have a fit and fall back in it.  All you gotta do is believe and, if you believe in your heart that Jesus Christ came, lived and died, was buried and raised from the grave and is coming back, you are as righteous, you are as saved, you are as Heaven-ready as Billy Graham or any other big TV evangelist that ever stood on the face of this earth. It ain’t gonna be perfect tomorrow but, with Jesus living in ya, it can get better and better and better. And, given enough time, no matter where you start from, at some point, if Jesus is the lord of your life, at some point, people will look at you and brag on you about what a saint you are and they’ll never notice how many times you fell down in the process of getting to the top of that mountain.

“People look at me now and say, ‘Oh, Brother Sumner, you’re a true warrior of the cross!’ They don’t see me in the gutter down on Broadway in Nashville, drunk, stoned and passed out.  They don’t see me in all the places of ill repute that I found myself in during that time period. I got saved - came back home.  My life was still messed up. It took several years for me to get most of the kinks out of it so that I could walk straight. Over a period of years, people started calling me ‘sir’.

“I tell you what: I’ve been drug free for 35 years or more and I have been an ordained minister since 1979 and I still break out in a rash when I police car behind me on the road. That’s the gospel truth!  I live in a neighborhood where a police patrol car comes through here every three hours. If I ever see him coming down my street I always make sure he’s not turning into my drive! God said that He wasn’t going to remember my sins. He didn’t say that I wasn’t!”

As we were close to wrapping up our call, an unplanned question popped into my aging cranium about Sumner’s involvement in the “Elvis Lives” shows that occasionally tour the country and the world.

“Only the big ones. I don’t do the little ones and I don’t go overseas. As a matter of fact, I’m debating right now as to whether I want to go to Hawaii in January for that big deal (the 40th anniversary of what is known as the “Aloha from Hawaii Concert”). When I left Elvis and got sober, the first time I ever went to an airport, I saw a big red sign that said, ‘Terminal’ and I don’t fly unless it’s an absolute necessity. Jesus said, ‘Lo, I am with you’ and that’s where I’m gonna stay!”

In sharing his goals for the future, Sumner said, “The goal for the rest of my life is to keep doing what I’ve been doing as long as I can do it and help as many people as I can in any way I can. And if I can’t do that no more, I’ll be in Heaven.”

Since he brought up the end of his life, I asked Donnie what, when he’s joined Elvis in leaving this building called “earth”, he hopes his legacy is and how does he want to be remembered.

“Well, I’ll start by telling you my brother-in-law was terminal. He was in hospice and he got all inspiration one day and he’s talking about all the things he wanted people to say about him at his funeral when they pass by and look at him in the coffin. He said, ‘Donnie, what do you want them to say about you when they pass by and look at you?’ I said, ‘Ed, I truly hope that somebody looks down at me and says, ‘Golly! He’s alive!”

Then, in a more serious tone, he added, “Nah, I’ll be truly delighted – I don’t care what they say about me, as long as they close it with – when they leave the head of my coffin – ‘I’ll see you in the mornin’’ If they say that, I’m happy with everything else they say.”

Lefty Williams

Posted August 24, 2014

leftywilliams001a.2Over a year ago, a Boomerocity reader turned me on to a remarkable and gifted guitarist from Georgia. His name is Lefty Williams and he was nothing short of amazing. What made him ever more amazing is that he played so incredibly well despite the fact that he was born without a right arm. I have two arms, all my fingers and four eyes and I can barely play a few chords. Lefty was smoking up his guitar like you wouldn’t believe.

Despite getting this great tip on a mind-blowing artists, I didn’t get around to asking for an interview until recently when I heard from his publicist that Lefty was coming out with a new EP entitled, “All In” (August 21st release date), I begged for the disc and for an interview.
Ask and y’all shall receive.

When I received “All In”, I was all in , for sure. Each of the five tunes on the disc are great and worth repeated slaps of the “Repeat” button (Look up the Boomerocity review of this great album). If I hadn’t already been a fan of his from watching his gigs on YouTube, this disc would’ve made me one.

When I called Lefty at his Norcross, Georgia, home, we talked a lot of industry related shop before getting to the formal interview. Williams is engaging and very easy to talk to, making me feel as if we’d known each other for years.  I asked him to give Boomerocity readers a “Reader’s Digest” version of his story.

“Before I was born, my dad used to put headphones on my mom’s stomach and play ‘Yes’. Initially, I guess, I cut my teeth on early prog rock. My dad started out teaching me and my dad is not an educated guitar player. He did everything by ear. He never went to school for it or took any lessons. His dad taught him and his dad taught him. I was sorta handed down through the family.

“I can remember the first song that I ever learned to play was ‘Hey Joe’ by Jimi Hendrix and the second song was ‘The Wind leftywilliams001Cries Mary’. My dad started out teaching me chords and then how to listen to the songs and figure out what they were playing. That has, probably, been the most invaluable bit of teaching that I have ever gotten – how to listen to the song and pick apart each little instrument and figure out what each instrument’s doing. So, I grew up transcribing a lot, listening to songs and figuring songs out.

“Some of my earliest influences were, obviously, Jimi Hendrix and I was a big, huge fan of Led Zeppelin. Still am. Led Zeppelin is still, to this day, my number on band. I’ll never get sick of listening to Led Zeppelin. I don’t know what it is. That’s a band that I can listen to every day for a month then put it away for a week and then listen to them every day for another month. There’s just something about Jimmy Page’s riffs and musical ideas and Robert Plant’s vocals and John Paul Jones and John Bonham. I think that John Paul Jones is one of the most underrated musicians on the planet. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant get all the credit for everything but John Paul Jones, from what I understand, did all of their arranging. He brought all of the bass and keyboard stuff to the table. Anyway, I’m a big fan!

“After that, I would say, probably, Pink Floyd because a big part of that prog thing and Yes – Yes is a band that I have a funny relationship with. I have to be in a mood to listen to Yes. When I’m in a Yes mood, they’re the only band that I want to listen too. If I’m not in a Yes mood, I don’t like them. I mean, I love Yes when I’m in the mood to hear Yes. But if I’m not in the mood to hear Yes, I don’t want to hear them at all.

“So, I grew up listening to a lot of classic rock. I noticed that when I was in middle school, all the bands that I liked were from the sixties and seventies. All the bands that my friends liked were current. It took me a while to figure out why. I didn’t figure out why that was the case until I was older and then I realized that it was, ‘Well, this is what my mom and dad listened to all the time”.

“So, I went through that phase then, probably in middle school I started listening to a lot of Alice Cooper – got into heavier stuff. I was a big Iron Maiden fan and Metallica. When Metallica was first coming out in the eighties, I had ‘Kill Them All’ and ‘Ride the Lightening’ early on. Those are still some huge influences on me.

“I learned how to solo by transcribing the solo to ‘Stairway to Heaven’. That was my motivation for developing my pick in the first place was because – instead of just strumming – I wanted to be able to pick individual notes and have speed. So I invented my pick when I was six and then immediately started trying to start transcribing the solo to ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Looking back now, that was kind of ambitious. But, still, that’s where my head went. That was my motivation. I wanted to learn how to play that solo. I wanted to learn how to play those songs. That’s where my motivation came from was being able to do that. Even though it was a bit of a reach, that’s just kinda how I roll. I’ve always been an adventurous dude. I don’t mind taking risks.”

leftywilliams002Later in our conversation, Lefty added, “I’ve been re-discovering, here lately, some old bands that I had totally forgotten about or had only heard maybe one or two songs from. I’ve been getting into Paul Kossoff and Free, an early Paul Rodgers band and stuff like that. I’ve got a friend who is very tied in with Paul Rodgers and she turned me on to Paul Kossoff. We got to talking and I started looking up stuff and realizing that, man! That band was awesome!

“That and Humble Pie – I recently rediscovered Humble Pie. Yeah, everybody knows '30 Days In The Hole' but that whole record is just smokin’! And Little Feat was a band that I’ve been listening to for about ten years now. I knew a few of their songs when I was a kid. Growing up I had heard, ‘Oh Atlanta’ and stuff I happen to come across the radio in the eighties when they had their resurgence. All those deep cuts are just amazing!”

With the mention of Humble Pie, our chat briefly veered into Peter Frampton territory.

“I read an interview with him (Frampton) in Guitar Player probably a year or two ago. It was whenever he released ‘Thank You Mr. Churchill’ – his first studio record with vocals in a long time. I’ve been meaning to begin digging into him because I wasn’t aware that he had been doing all instrumental guitar albums for the last however long it’s been. He said he hadn’t done any of those in forever because he wanted people to pay attention to the music and not just call him a pretty boy. I thought that was really cool. That caused me to think that maybe I need to dig into some of his stuff.

“And since we’re talking about guitar players, Steve Lukather is a guy that blew me away. I was at NAMM in Nashville the year before last and I picked up a copy of Lee Ritenour’s “6 String Theory” – a compilation album with him and a bunch of different guitar players. Steve Lukather had a track on it that just floored me! It’s so good!  It’s got all kinds of musicians on it. Bonamassa’s on it. (John) Scofield’s on it. Keb’ Mo’, Taj Majal, Pat Martino. Steve Lukather’s on two tracks. He’s on a track called ‘68’ and on another one called ‘In Your Dreams’. ‘68’ has Lukather, Neal Schon and Slash and ‘In Your Dreams’ has Lukather, Lee Ritenour and Neal Schon on it. It’s awesome! It’s a great record – especially if you like guitar music.”

I asked Lefty if he was picked on in school because of the physical challenges he was born with and if music was his refuge as a result.

“Music was always a refuge. It’s always been something that I turned to when I’m upset or sad; when I’m happy as a way of expressing myself. But I didn’t do it because I got picked on. I never really got picked on in school. People either loved me in school or they hated me. I’m a very outgoing person. I like to talk to everybody. I’m very friendly with people.

With two previous albums under his belt, I asked Williams how “All In” was different in writing and recording from the other two.

“The big difference was that I had a producer. My first and second record, I credited John King with producing but John didn’t really produce. He just kind of recorded and engineered. I didn’t really understand at that time what a producer’s role was. That’s why I credited him with producing. The reality was that I did pretty much all of the producing. The big thing with me is that we got into the studio Ashley Dennis. He was instrumental in making the album sound the way that it does. He did all of the producing. He did all of the mixing on it as well. He’s a huge part of the reason why that album sounds as good as it does.

“As far as coming together with parts, he helped write a lot of the drum parts on the record and shape a lot of the bass lines. He was a very active participant in making that happen. That’s the biggest difference: the first time to really have time to get in and make an album sound the way that I wanted it to sound.

“My last two records were done in less than a week. That’s from the minute we loaded into the studio until having a finished master in my hand. With this new one, we really took our time to make sure all the parts were right. We pecked and poured over every note. Not only is it the right note but does it feel good? Is it in the right place? Should we affect the rhythm? A lot of that was me and a lot of that was Ashley just really being meticulous with things.

“As far as meaning goes, the songs on this record are a little more personal. All of my songs come from something that has leftywilliams003actually happened to me. Sometimes, I write stories and base songs around things that have happened to me but weren’t necessarily exactly what happened to me. ‘Crescent’ – I got the inspiration for that song because my wife – before we got married and part of the reason why I married her – on my birthday, she took me on a train trip on the Crescent line down to New Orleans. So, when I was writing the song, I knew that I wanted to write a song about New Orleans so I took that train trip to New Orleans as the inspiration for the song. I loosely created a story based around meeting a girl on the Crescent. It’s sort of half based on reality and half based on story.

“With ‘Let It Roll On’ – the second song on the record – that tune was actually just about waking up in a good mood. I had been playing that guitar riff for a while and it felt like such a happy riff. I just woke up in a great mood one morning and wanted to write a song about having a good day.

“’Your Know I Love You’ is a song that I wrote for my wife on our tenth anniversary. That’s a very special song for me because my wife has never given me a hard time about being on the road all the time. She never complains about me being gone. She’ll tell me that she misses me and that she loves but she never makes me feel bad about having in other states for work. I’ve written several songs to her and that one was me saying, ‘Thanks for ten great years. I really appreciate you and I know that we can make it through anything no matter what.

“’Coming Apart’ was a song wrote that has multiple meanings. Originally, it was kind of a prayer for people when they’re feeling sad. But the other part of that is, if you’ve ever done solo acoustic guitar, to get a booking you have to be the guy standing in the corner of the Mexican restaurant that nobody’s really paying attention to. That’s sort of, kind of what that song’s about: feeling a little sad.

“I’ll tell you the original inspiration for that song. It actually came from a very funny story.  I play in an Allman Brothers tribute band, sometimes. We had done a show at Riverbend Festival and played to 40,000 people and that was on a Saturday night. And, then, Sunday night, back at home in Atlanta, I was playing a show at a place – this old dive bar in Atlanta. It was just a solo acoustic gig. I do that to fill in income when I’m not on the road so I stay busy. There was probably five people in the room and not one of them was paying attention to me. I started thinking about it and I kinda laughed out loud because it tickled me a little. I thought it was funny. I’m like, ‘Man, I played to 40,000 people last night that were all screaming my name. And, now, I’ve got five people in the room who couldn’t care less what I played’.

“I thought it was funny and I laughed. One of the guys was, like, ‘What’s so funny?’ I said, ‘You really wanna know?’ and he said, ‘Yeah’. I said, ‘I played to 40,000 people yesterday’ and he goes, ‘Whatever’. So I whipped out my phone and I showed him the video that I took from the stage and said, ‘Well, I really did!’  He looked at it and said, ‘Oh my god, what are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Playin’ for you!’ 

“So, it’s that feeling of loneliness that I know every guitar player who’s ever done that gig understands, where you’re standing up there, pouring your heart out into a song and nobody’s really paying attention. But, then, the funny thing is that, every time we walk away from the stage, everybody in the room that you pass by says, ‘Dude, you’re awesome!’ And, it’s, like, ‘Well, clap! If you like it, show it!’”

Lefty then went on to share the story about his song, “You Don’t Tell Me”.

“That song is one inspired by an argument with my wife. It’s not about her. What happened was we were in an argument and I was ironing my clothes. I was mumbling to myself and running over the argument in my head. I was always fond of saying, ‘You don’t tell me. I tell you!’ It’s just my southern upbringing. My redneck side comes out in me every once in a while. So, I said that, as soon as I did it occurred to me that everybody has gone through a break up. Everybody has been at the end of a relationship. I decided at that moment that I needed to write a song about that. It’s something that everybody feels. So, the song is not about my wife or about our relationship but it was sort of inspired through our relationship. That’s another one of my favorite songs to play. It’s real high energy. It’s really cool because every time we start playing the song, by the time we’re done, people are singing the chorus with us. So, it’s a lot of fun.”
I know artists don’t like to pick a favorite song from their albums because it’s like choosing a favorite kid. That said, I did ask Lefty which song he would use as a calling card for “All In”.

“I would say, ‘You Know I Love You’ or ‘You Don’t Tell Me’. Either one of those two. They’re my favorite to play and my favorite to listen to.”
Every great artist always has a wish list as to who they would love to play with. Williams is no exception.

“I’d love to work with Billy Cobham, the drummer and I would really love to do either a show or a recording project with Jimmy Herring (Widespread Panic guitarist). That would be awesome. I got to hang out with Jack Pearson (formerly with the Allman Brothers) at NAMM this year. I’d love to play with Jack. That would be unbelievable. We actually talked about it a little. I invited him to come down and play on the next record when start recording and he said that he’d love to.

“Actually, when I met Jack, I had just finished watching him at this Muriel Anderson guitar show thing. Of course, he was amazing as he always is. As he walked off the stage, I saw him standing over by the exit door so I’m standing about seven or eight feet on the other side of the door. Jack comes through the door and he locks eyes with me. He looks at me and points at me and said, ‘I’ve seen videos of you.’ That blew me away! I literally looked for a soft place to land because I thought I was gonna faint! We got to talking and he said, ‘I’d like to jam with you sometime’ and I was, like, ‘Oh my god! I can’t believe he just said that!’ Seriously? Jack Pearson?”

What would he tell a young Lefty Williams out there who will be reading this interview who feels constrained by their physical limitations?

leftywilliams004.2“The only limitations that you have are in your mind. You can accomplish anything that you set your mind to. My mom and dad always told me that growing up. I have three kids and my kids are wonderful children but none of them are too overly ambitious. It could just be that they’re in their early twenties/late teens and they’re just at that stage I their life that they just don’t care. But, to me, even at that stage in my life, I was still focused on being a musician. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been focused on being a musician. I always felt that anything that I want to accomplish, I can.

“So, long story short with that, I asked my mom one time, ‘How did you instill that in me? Because I want to figure out how to do that for my kids.’ I want them to have determination and drive like that. My said, ‘Son, you were born that way. It’s not anything your father and I did. You’ve always been stubborn.”

And what is on Lefty’s musical radar over the next one to five years?

“Definitely putting out new records every six to eight months. Like I said before, I’d like to tour over in the Midwest more. Being in the south and doing southern rock music, a lot of times, people in the south are  - I wouldn’t say they’re kinda immune to it – but it’s like if you play southern rock, they’re like, ‘Dude, we’re from here.’ But when I get out to places like Texas and people go nuts over me. I get up to Cincinnati and people just go nuts over me. I feel like I’d like to get out of the south more and be not so much of a regional band but more of a national band. That’s a big goal. I have toured as far as Albany, New York, and Burlington, Vermont, and Toronto, Canada. And I’ve gone as far west as Flagstaff, Arizona, and as far south as the Virgin Islands. But I feel that I get warmer receptions up north and out west. I think a lot of that is because what I do is not something that they get to see and hear all the time. We’re inundated with it in Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. So that’s the big, long term goal is to get out and be more of a national band and get on the road more. I’d like to get to Europe in the next five years, too.”

As we wrapped up our chat, I asked how he hoped to be remembered when he’s gone to the great gig in the sky.

“Honestly, when people think about me years from now, I want them to say, ‘He was a nice guy. He was a good to people around him. He was friendly to everyone.’ I feel that I’m that person. If they said that I was a great guitar player, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings but it’s not my number one thing. Life is about people and it’s about relationships and being aware and present and experiencing this life and bringing consciousness into the world. That’s what I try to do.”

I don’t know about y’all, but I’m keeping my eyes on Lefty Williams. This man and his guitar are going places. Bet on it.

Follow Lefty and order his music at www.lefty-music.com.

Nils Lofgren Discusses “Face the Music”

 

Posted August 10, 2014

nilslofgren1.BI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m always honored and flattered when artists take the time to allow to be interviewed by me. That feeling ratchets up exponentially when they sit for a second or even third interview with me.

Such was the case when I recently had the privilege of chatting with Nils Lofgren for the second time in three years. He was kind enough to take time out of his incredibly busy schedule to talk with me about his latest project: The nine CD/1 DVD box set, “Face the Music”, that thoroughly covers his forty-five plus years in the music business.

I called Nils at his Scottsdale, Arizona, home while he was preparing to leave for Los Angeles with his lovely wife, Amy. They were going there for a few days of press appearances in support of the release as well as an acoustic performance at the Grammy Museum.  As we made small talk before the formal interview started, I asked him a question that a Boomerocity reader wanted me to ask. They wanted to know why he picked Scottsdale to live.

“In the very early eighties, I was playing The Stone Pony – which I still play – the famous nightclub at Asbury Park. I met this great girl by the name of Amy Aiello. I loved her and we hung out for the night. I went to Boston at six a.m. and I couldn’t convince her to come on the tour bus to Boston because she had a job and her mother would kill her. I said that I would call her and square it with her but that didn’t work out. So I thought I would see her soon because I play in Jersey a lot.

“I didn’t see her for fifteen years. Nineteen years ago this February coming up; I was at a great rock club here in town – in Scottsdale – called The Rockin’ Horse. At the end of the night she walked up and said, ‘Hi, remember me?’ We were both at the end of divorces. She had a young five year old. We started dating and we’ve been together ever since.”

Then with a little tongue-in-cheek humor, he added, “I wish she’d come to Boston but she was worth the wait”.

I was curious what prompted the idea of putting out such and extensive box set.
“It was really Concord Records’ idea. Eighteen months ago, their president, Gene Rumsey, and their A&R guy, Tom Cartwright - who’s an old friend that I’ve worked with at other companies - approached me. We had a lunch in New York about a possible comprehensive box set on Fantasy Concord.

“This was a beautiful idea to me because through the decades I called the companies and tried to buy my extinct music back for five dollars a CD just so that they could get a little money back and put them out. They always said no. So, to have someone who wanted to champion the idea was great.

“Most box sets, everyone has the music except for the bonus tracks and so much of my old music is out of print. A lot of people complained about not finding the old music. So, this is a great opportunity. As we got deeper into the discussions, we agreed to not do it if it couldn’t be a thorough box set which meant going back and getting the rights to hundreds of songs – some are out of print. Four or five had very messy, bureaucratic ways but, to their credit, they did it.

“We spent eighteen months crafting a great book and story. Dave Marsh helped me edit my story. He insisted that I write it. He wrote a great forward. Amy was our art director with our assistant, Omar, who’s got great artistic tastes. Both of them worked with the art directors at Concord and Fantasy and we finally got it done. It’s impressive. Ten discs and forty-five years. Dave had me write the story about the music and speak to every track. It’s a hundred and thirty-six page book with a lot of great posters and old paraphernalia that a good collector friend of mine, Steve Smolen, was nice enough to lend us. So, it’s very thorough.

“We found a lot of great bonus tracks – two discs of them; old Grin stuff that no one ever heard and we remixed them. There are a lot of jams that now see the light of day so I’m very grateful about it.”

I read in other interviews that, in the past, Lofgren couldn’t get his old record labels to cooperate with him in re-releasing his old albums. I was curious how he and Concord Fantasy were able to break up the log jam and make this project a reality.

“The music business is very strange. I mean, I would call these companies who, on their books, I owed them a lot of money, and I would offer them money. I would say, ‘Look, it’s a buck and a quarter to make a CD and I’ll pay you five dollars for my own music and you’ll make a little money.’ They would say, ‘That’s too small potatoes for us. We don’t want to bother’. That’s the bureaucracy and madness of life. ‘We don’t want to bother having you pay back money you owe us.’

“It really upset me but it’s not unique. Anyone who hasn’t had big hit records and has some power to keep their music in nilslofgren2print - which is most recording artists, professionally – if enough time goes by, the stock goes out of print and they don’t make any more, which is not a unique story. That was a frustration for decades that I accepted and certainly wasn’t happy about. So, to have a company go back and do all that work – it’s just business deals. They would be happy to tell me that they weren’t good deals for getting the music. They got charged a lot for it but, to their credit, they went and got every song I wanted and we were able to put a fabulous running order together of about twelve or thirteen hours of music.

“So, with that in mind, there’s about a hundred and sixty-nine different tracks and a twenty track DVD – some rarities and performances and interviews that are cool. I couldn’t be happier about it.”

“First, of course, I got everything written down with the keys they’re in. Then I just started listening which was not easy because I didn’t have a lot of the music. You give away your CDs and you never think that it’s ever going to be out of print. As a kid you always think, ‘Well, gosh, I ran out. I can’t get any from the company. I’ll walk into the music store and buy some more.’ I learned long ago that that wasn’t possible.

“So, to establish a running order with feels and keys that flowed right. Billy Wolf put a rough master together of that and I listened to it and made some changes. It was months and months and months of work looking at the past. I had forgotten how much I had done but I sure wasn’t thinking about it. Psychologically knowing that a lot of it’s out of print is kind of a little stain on your soul. Inevitably, you blame yourself. I’m not a finger pointer. I’m, like, ‘Well, I must not have had a hit record. I thought they were good enough.’ Standard stuff that musicians do but this time, knowing that the company wanted to go get every track that I wanted, it was exciting to put this together and they went and found them all and made the deals to get them.

In answer to my question as to whether or not they ran into any issues with the condition of the master tapes being less than desirable, Nils said, “Yeah, we did find some funky tapes that would have to be baked. Billy Wolf had to use every trick in the book to resurrect something off of a cassette or an old two track that had been damaged a little bit. But he did it! There were some bonus tracks or basement demos I only had in an old DAT type in my home studio which is some harsh sounding digital stuff. But he’s got all these great, high end tricks to make everything sound all warm and analog – and we did find some old analog tapes – not a lot but we did find some and got some from the old companies. In some cases, the old companies had lost them. That’s frustrating but, hey! It’s still the music.

“The heart, the time and the energy and intent that went into everything – especially the early Grin stuff, there’s an innocence and commitment there that’s beautiful to hear. Back in the days where there were no click tracks. There was no real choreography in rock and roll and there was no video and the only game in town was to play in front of people. That’s all Grin did: play anywhere and everywhere for little or no money or decent money. It didn’t matter. We just played. When David Briggs – Neil Young’s producer – thanks to Neil for turning us onto David – both of them took us under their wing – especially David; we had an expert in the studio that took a rookie band and helped us make good records, which he did.”

Were there any surprises while putting this aggressive project together?

“Yeah, of course. Even just trying to remember old basement tapes. This was forty-three or forty-four years ago. For weeks, I was looking through my basement in Maryland and out here in Arizona, for an old cassette of a rough mix of ‘Keith Don’t Go’ with Grin and Neil Young playing piano and singing and I just couldn’t find it. Billy was trying to bake the cassette and make the most of it but I could never find it. I went through thousands of old cassettes. I’m not a great librarian. Everything isn’t perfectly notated in a computer and that’s my fault.

“I met Bob Dawson who engineered a lot of the Grin stuff with David Briggs in the early Grin days and he still has Bias Studios where we recorded in Virginia. He came down and we rummaged through some master reels that I had in a closet and, sure enough, we found a sixteen track master of ‘Keith Don’t Go’. We remixed it to emulate what we were doing at that point. Fortunately, it was the same engineer who worked with us there at the same studio and Neil gave us permission to use it. He played brilliant piano and sang. You don’t hear a lot of Neil Young session work on piano and that classic voice of his. So that’s the version we used of ‘Keith Don’t Go’ because I did write the song on the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ tour with him in Europe, specifically. All of the English fans were talking about Keith and that he wasn’t doing well. I was naïve and young and just thought he’s just made ‘Exile on Main Street’. Sounds like he’s doing okay.

“But, nevertheless, I had this dark piece of music and I wrote this giant thank you note on behalf of all of our fans to Keith to stick around. We found it and we found other Grin tapes that I’d forgotten about. A song called, ‘Sweet Four Wings’ and a song called, ‘Try’ – a song we used to play in bars as a power trio for years before we recorded it. There was a lot of beautiful stuff. There was a bonus track, ‘Sing For Happiness”, that did appear on a Legacy Grin thing from Sony Legacy but it was in pretty bad shape and Billy dialed it up and made it sound right. The great Ben Keith – the pedal steel player – he was on it with that beautiful pedal steel and his great harmony singing.

“So, it’s just a lot of cool bonus stuff that, once you started digging, you find and we resurrected it all.”

I asked Lofgren if he had any instances where, in comparing then to now, he had thoughts of “If only ‘this’ or, “I wish I had done ‘that’ back then”?

“Not a lot. I mean, I’ve long ago accepted that I’m a better singer now in the last ten or fifteen years than I was when I started. Most people are. There’s very few people who come out of the gate successfully. There’s successes like Paul Rodgers and Rod Stewart. They mature but they came out of the gate as amazing singers. I was okay and I got a lot better. But there’s a charm to that. The charm and the intent from young kids trying their heart out with a piece of original music together. That’s why I’ve never been a fan of all the record companies and some people who re-record some of their own music and put it out again. But I never seriously considered re-recording any of the old stuff.

“Grin was a true democratic band. We lived together with our crew. We played everywhere. We dug ourselves out of snow drifts at this old country farm we rented. It was really a powerful experience for a young band. So there’s a charm and an innocence and intensity there because that was our whole lives 24/7. I just don’t have a thought in my head to re-record them, really. I do that live. There’s some good live recordings and maybe 20 – 25 years later I might think I’m playing better.  As a guitar player I think I’ve matured but it takes something away from the intent and the innocence to some really hard work when you’re younger with a group of friends that you love.”

nilslofgren3Since Nils worked with iconic artists who have passed away – people like Lou Reed and Levon Helm, to name just a couple – I assumed that there was a rekindling of emotions and memories of them. When I asked him about it, his answer portrayed both the warmth of amazing memories and the bitter sweetness one feels when remembering lost friends.

“Of course. All of those situations – especially people that you lost like Levon and Lou Reed who I got to write thirteen songs with and it’s a great story in the book; and Kathi McDonald, I saw her singing with Claudia Lennear and Leon Russell in the beginning. Me and David Briggs saw them at the Santa Monica Civic Center and were blown away. When Grin was recording at Wally Heider’s in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District – we worked so much up there – her name was on the billboard as a singer for hire. We couldn’t believe it. Sure enough, Kathi came down. She sang her brains out for us on a number of tracks. David even went on to make a solo album with her. Grin played with her along with a lot of great players like Nicky Hopkins, So, to hear Kathi’s voice and know that she’s gone; Levon, Lou Reed, Buddy Miles, Claudia Lennear – who’s still around – so, yeah, a huge stroll down memory lane on many levels going through these old tracks in particular.”

On the lighter side of memory lane, Lofgren reflected on the comments he received from the likes of  Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne and Roger Daltrey, to name just a few.

“There are twenty-two or so dear friends like that who were kind enough even before the heard it all – a lot of them were familiar with a lot of my old music. Reading the testimonials in the book, I was shocked. In the case of someone like Elvis Costello, who I used to go see with the Attractions at the Santa Monica Civic Center in the early seventies. I’d go back and say ‘hi. I’m a big fan’ and for him to remember that and speak so emotionally about some of my early songs as Jackson Browne would. I was really surprised that people knew that many of my songs. Or, Roger Daltrey talking about some of my later releases and specific songs and what they meant to him. It kind of blew my mind.

“You kind of shield yourself with armor once all this stuff has disappeared in the companies say that they’re not going to get it out again, you kinda just move forward and you really can’t look back too much. It’s too painful because part of you feels like you failed in some way. So, to get this all out and have all these friends chime in and give me a vote of confidence with some detail surprised me with their reminisces of some of the older songs or tracks that I had no idea that they were aware of but meant something to them was a powerful part of this journey.”

“Then, October 3rd, I’m here in Scottsdale at the Talking Stick Casino and then October 4th at the Fox Theater in Tucson. So, these are the first four shows. I’m gonna get back to work and see how it feels. It’s been three years since I did my shows so it will be exciting to get back to that. A couple of years ago on the E Street tour, I fell a couple of times and tore my rotator cuff so I’m having those get strong enough to do my own show which is challenging and it will be fun. It will be good for me to get back to singing, playing more, leading a show in front of people. Right now, we’re working on a January run in the UK which looks like it may happen.

I asked Lofgren what he hoped fans would get out of “Facing the Music”.

“Hopefully, in one place, this will give them a great idea outside of who I’ve been outside of playing with other great bands. That’s a good place to start. Hopefully, friends will spread the word. My attitude is if you’ve gotta go online and spend twenty minutes tracking down some obscure track, that’s out of print to me. To me, music should just be available. For the company to help me put this together over the last eighteen months and have all these hundreds of songs available and running smoothly from one to the other – including the eras – it’s something that I really thought would never happen. So, I’m very grateful and thankful to the company and I’m gonna promote the heck out of it the best I can. It’s very grass roots word of mouth and I appreciate your help, too, in spreading the word. Hopefully, there’s a lot of old fans of mine that, by hearing the old stuff, will realize it’s here, now, will take a listen to it and spread the word for me, too.”

“Not big ones. I have a guitar school on my website for beginners and intermediate players. I’ll take up some more guitar nilslofgren4lessons. They’re hour long lessons that you can download from my website, NilsLofgren.com. There’s a lot of free video clips there and music. We’ll keep offering free stuff for you to listen to. As I get out and play here in the states, our great engineer, Frank Marchan, usually records it to his computer. So, maybe if we get some good recordings, we might consider putting out a live thing of some of the upcoming shows just as an interim thing audio wise on the website.

Obviously, Nils Lofgren is a gifted artist who never sits still for long. I’m sure that, in addition to the plans he mentioned in the interview, he will find himself creating great music as a solo artist as well as participating with other great artists to make many more musical memories to fill up another great box set somewhere down the road.  To be sure, whatever Nils does, he will do with passion and excellence that has marked his remarkable five decades long career and I, for one, am looking forward to hearing what he has to release.