Interview: Woody Pines Declares “You Gotta Roll”
Singer-songwriter Woody Pines has recently released his latest recording called You Gotta Roll. Woody was a founding member of the Kitchen Syncopators, a legendary busking street jugband from Eugene, OR, that were one of the most exciting acts to emerge out of the West Coast folk scene in recent history.
Since the Kitchen Syncopators disbanded years ago, Woody Pines has been writing and recording albums and frequently performing for audiences everywhere, while co-founder of the band, Gill Landry, has gone on to joinOld Crow Medicine Show while pursuing his own solo projects (Check out my recent career-spanning interview with Gill).
Shortly after the Kitchen Syncopators dissolved, Woody Pines wasted no time and shot off on his own, embarking on a solo career interpreting his vision of American roots music. Woody’s recordings and live performances are full of stomp and swing, and jump and jive. It’s old-time feel-good music done by a young master who clearly understands that this kind of music was always about having a great time.
Woody’s You Gotta Roll is his first recording since his wildly addictive third full-length album Counting Alligatorsfrom 2009 (which featured such guests as Ketch Secor and Gill Landry of Old Crow as well as Woody’s good pal Felix from the Kitchen Syncopators days).
Upon hearing Woody’s You Gotta Roll, I decided it was the perfect time to catch up with him for an interview feature, in the hope of exposing his music to a wider audience. As a fan of the Woody’s solo work, as well as his days with the Kitchen Syncopators, I am very excited to share this one with the readers of Uprooted Music Revue and No Depression.
How and when did you begin playing?
Woody: My first instrument was a….
Sears drum set that I got for Christmas when I was 8. I was completely enraptured by it and played all the time. My dad built guitars and had every Bob Dylan song book there is, and I used to rewrite the melodies because I couldn’t read music. I ditched out on my prom to go see Ramblin’ Jack Elliott with Felix Hatfield. We still continue to write songs together.
What inspired you most to begin pursuing music seriously?
Woody: I forget who it was, but I read in the news that a musician had died. I didn’t even realize they were alive still. Some of those old recordings sound hundreds of years old. So me and Felix decided we ought to try to find some of our other heroes before they died.
We hitchhiked to Pete Seeger’s house in upstate NY and met him at small church he was playing at. I remember Pete peering down at us with our guitars over our backs, not sure what to make of these run away 17-year-old kids. We went on to meet Ramblin’ Jack at his motel in Oregon, Utah Phillips at a concert in Portland Oregon, and The Holy Model Rounders and Michael Hurley too. It was an amazing musical adventure.
When did you begin writing your own material?
Woody: I started writing songs in a junior high school rock band called Soul Kitchen. We started out as a ‘Doors’ cover band then starting doing our own material.
Can you describe your work in the Kitchen Syncopators?
Woody: Gill Landry (of Old Crow Medicine Show) and I started the Kitchen Syncopators at the Oregon Country Fair, which is a festival out in the woods in near Eugene that was started by some of the first hippies. I played the cheese grater for percussion and the fiddle, and Gill played the guitar, and we played along the paths for tips. We ended up making a guitar case full of money and we starting going to all the festivals up and down the west coast.
Then, on a tip from a street musician in Seattle named Baby Gramps, we went to New Orleans to find his ex-girlfriend, Ragtime Annie, a washboard player. We ended up staying with her, paying our rent with cartons of Lucky Strikes and red wine. We were playing on the street down there nearly every day, making it our full-time job. We recorded 3 records down there. It was an amazing education!
What was most memorable for you from those experiences?
Woody: Playing in New Orleans was the most rewarding and most challenging time. There were times when there were stabbings on the streets because of the turf wars. Sometimes it felt like a job, like the Beatles doing there time at the Cavern Club. We had to get up at the crack of dawn and during busy weekends too, but we held the spot 24-hours a day!
When did you begin recording your own albums as Woody Pines?
Woody: I stepped back from the Syncopators because I wanted to move to North Carolina and learn fiddle music. At that point, I also started busking on the street in Asheville for extra money. After several months of that I decided that I wanted to make a record. Rags to Riches was made on hand held tape recorders and a laptop. So was most of Lonesome Shack Blues. Hopefully I will get those remastered and reissued sometime.
Can you discuss the writing and recording of your most recent full-length, Counting Alligators?
Woody: Half of Counting Alligators was recorded in Asheville, NC, and the other half was recorded in Nashville, TN at a home studio. That record was a lot of fun to make. We had Old Crow’s Ketch Secor and Gill Landry working on it with me, and several of the songs were co-written with my good friend Felix, from the Kitchen Syncopators. We used to write songs together in high school so it was a blast to write with him again.
Counting Alligators has a few songs that were on my first record. “Walking Down The Road” and “Cocaine Bill”. I wanted to re-record those songs because the low-fi quality of my first records got in the way of what I wanted express. I wanted bigger bass in “Cocaine Bill” and a slightly higher definition on “Walking Down The Road. I love the way they came out on Alligators. My early records were made on hand-help tape recorders, and although I love the sound of them, I really wanted these songs to be more accessible.
What was the biggest difference between Alligators and your previous recordings?
Woody: For the first time on record, I started adding instruments that weren’t necessarily included in the live show, Like the church organ on “Crazy Eyed Woman” and Gill Landry’s slide guitar.. Before that, I was trying to capture our live show on record.
How and when did you begin working on your new recording, You Gotta Roll?
Woody: I starting recording You Gotta Roll in the fall of last year, We did nearly 240 dates last year so it was a challenge to squeeze in the recording time. I really wanted to record some of the traditional songs we have been performing.
Can you talk about your song selection for You Gotta Roll, and share what these songs mean to you personally and artistically?
Woody: The songs (and artists) on You Gotta Roll have all changed my life.
When I first heard Dock Boggs, I heard the same hard-hitting energy, and protest that I heard in bands like Nirvana. I was blown away. this guy was real and did not gloss over anything. “Red Rocking Chair” was fast and dark, and had no whimsical happy ending. I instantly loved it.
Even though “Ham and Eggs” is a Leadbelly tune, I first heard it from Lonnie Donnegon, the Scottish Skiffle King. I like the way he arranged the song and we based our arrangement loosely on his version. The song has been traveling back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. We were planning a tour back in Scotland, and that would mean we would bring it back to the UK again.
“Long Gone Lost John” has the simple charm of a clever escape artist. I have always loved escape artists. When I was in school, me and my pals would skip school by walking backwards through the snow, stepping in each others’ footprints to evade our teachers. I first heard this song sung by Woody Guthrie and Sonny Terry and Cisco Houston. A incredible mix of people, I also loved the Holy Modal Rounders’ version. I added a verse or too to this, since I believe these folk songs are OUR songs, it is our job to add our two-cents in!
Washington Phillips was a street evangelist and played a strange homemade instrument that created a haunting melancholy. He recorded a song called “Mother’s Last Word To Her Son”. On You Gotta Roll, I turned it into sort of a love song and sped it up by adding organ to it is a nod to the gospel roots of the tune. All of Washington’s songs are incredible, and they really jump out when you hear them in a collection of other blues tunes.
Along similar lines, can you discuss the formation/evolution, inspiration, and desire behind your own interpretations of the tunes?
Woody: I really connected to Doc Watson when he said he was a “tamperer”. The thing about these songs is that when they were originally recorded, there was a creative energy infused into them. The music was band new, and it contained the influences of all the different people, like the Irish immigrants and the African slaves.
Some people have said that the the 1920’s and 30’s was America’s renaissance. But to me, that energy is more important then getting them exactly like another version. I have no problem writing verses things that I know about and adding them into a traditional folk song, or borrowing a melody and adding it to another set of lyrics. This technique is probably truer to the original spirit behind these songs.
How collaborative was this process among the band members?
Woody: I usually bring the songs to the table and then let the band play along. I prefer that my band not even hear the song beforehand. We play these songs while touring and they drift further and further from the original recording.
I love that we all have vastly different musical inspirations and histories among us. We are not trying to recreate anything. When we are in the studio, I’ll say to Lyon, “I was thinking about whale sounds on this one” or “ghosts” and he starts working on it. I am so lucky to work with such great artists. Referencing an older recording of the song we’re working on is the farthest thing from our minds.
Was there a tune that set the direction for the recording?
Woody: I think “Red Rocking Chair” was a first take, also, “Long Gone” set the 1950’s rock n roll feel to these tunes. With “Treat You Right”, we added organ and had a bunch of layers. It took a while to peel them all back and find the feel I was reaching for, but adding a touch of gospel organ and riding the Leslie made if all work in the end.
In the studio we all play live and then go back and listen, then add some layers, and then take some away. We don’t use click tracks, and even though that can cause problems with adding instruments, I think it allows the songs to breath, and thus, be more alive.
What’s next for you in 2012?
Woody: Man, 2012 is going to be crazy busy. This interview is right in the middle of our 4-week UK tour, and while we have been on the road we are finishing up writing the songs for our full-length album that we will be recording when we get back home. It will be all original songs. Our summer is filling up with a bunch of festivals and revisiting the west coast and it looks like a return visit to the UK sooner then expected. We are looking forward to it.
What have you been listening to lately?
Woody: I have lately been revisiting a lot of the classic Bob Dylan records. I haven’t listened to them in a while so it is nice to hear all those amazing songs will fresh ears, along with Charlie Feathers, and Lil Bob and the Lollipops. I’ve also been getting into the new Blacks Keys record too.
What would your fans be most surprised to hear is in your collection?
Woody: People usually can’t believe that I am a huge hip-hop fan. I’ve been getting into the South African rap rave group Die Antwoord too.
This post originally appeared in Chris Mateer’s Uprooted Music Revue.
Chris Mateer is a freelance music writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is the founder and writer of the Uprooted Music Revue, and has been contributing regularly to No Depression. In addition to music writing, Chris teaches woodworking and plays the mandolin, banjo, and drums.