There’s a few things in life one can justifiably judge their fellow humans on – how they treat animals, how they treat their kids, whether they cheat or steal or kill – and in music I have a few similar litmus tests for whether someone has any real depth as a listener. One of them is whether someone gets what a national treasure Grayson Capps is. I’ll actually sit people down and make them listen to him – say the carnivorously carnal “Give It To Me” or the slow brewed ache “Ike” – and then ask what they think. If they get it – and it ain’t hard to get with a singer-songwriter of this caliber, this generation’s answer to the bruised perfection of vintage John Prine or Lowell George – then I know we’re gonna be fine. If they don’t get it, well, there’s a door and they shouldn’t let it hit them in the ass on the way out.
Capps is equal parts rock ‘n’ roll beast and pick-up truck troubadour. There’s rust and wrinkles on his tales, which hum with wisdom both streetwise and non-denominationally celestial. His characters ring true, kin to Sam Stone and Bobby McGee, and they move through a landscape drippin’ with verisimilitude – real stuff about real folks for real folks, weaving mythology and workaday madness together with the silver thread of love and quivering, shaky-at-best hope. He’s seen better days but he’s putting up with these, and he shows us how to do the same if we listen hard enough.
Capps’ latest release is titled The Lost Cause Minstrels (released June 7 on Royal Potato Family), which is also the name of his new band. Once again, critics with ears and more taste than what’s in their mouth should be short-listing this set for their Best of 2011 list, but the world is cruel and talent and truth like Capps’ is too often overlooked. Like many of Capps’ rabid fans, I feel the guy is a worthy cause, a musician that makes music in the meta-sense better and deeper and sweeter, too. His fifth studio record only reinvigorates this feeling, stirring up strange feelings and grins with a mixture of New Orleans sway, barroom ready rock and reverberant, folksy rumination. It is a spell that builds slow and sure, luring one back inside his grooves for reasons one can’t quite pin down in words, drawn to return to his world by forces one feels more than understands. Even if he’s reached a point where he murmurs, “Who the hell am I foolin’, I ain’t gonna be no star,” the music is only richer for that honesty. Most of us aren’t going to be celebrities and millionaires and we need music that pulls us together in the reality of our lives and gives us melody and phrase for this pain we’re carrying around. Lost Cause Minstrels is this sort of album, and there’s four more just like it – though each different in their own charming ways – that lie before it.
We got Grayson on the phone as he drove home to Alabama from New Orleans, and here’s the fruits of our lively chat.
There’s an element of testifying to your music. It’s a far cry from boy meets girl and goes to the dance type fare.
I can’t stand that stuff! Growing up and playing around the Southeast, which is such a conservative mindset, I grew up thinking outside the box. Like my cousin said, “Grayson, Jesus is the only way,” and that just irritates me. I can identify with these people but come on, there’s a whole world out there! I like to appeal to people but also draw them in and sucker punch them a bit, too. I get turned off if the word ‘politics’ or ‘economics’ or ‘religion’ is in a song. Ewww, turn it off!
Too often it’s stated too forthrightly in a Toby Keith kind of way. He’s not a bad guy but he’s become my shorthand for that kind of bubba thinking.
It’s a cheap laugh. You can always play the patriotism card. I won a high school election because I was an actor at the time and said, “I’m an American and I’m for everybody here!” I was being facetious but I won because people couldn’t see that. It’s like how Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” became a national anthem but if you really listen to the song it’s really not.
It’s a critique of what Reagan had wrought at that point…
…don’t even get me started on Reagan.
This helps situate your mindset in your songs. You always write about people on the edges – the sandwich makers, the janitors, the overlooked and the lonely. Those are your people.
Well, those ARE the people. I just looked at an issue of Rolling Stone and it seemed like a high school yearbook with who’s dating who and such. I guess somebody likes it. It’s strange, but I’ve always been this way.
The Lost Cause Minstrels is an awesome name, but at the same time, I don’t want you putting ‘lost cause’ on an album cover just five records in.
I witnessed Jack White come up with The White Stripes when he was nobody then became a huge superstar, and now he’s an old retiree. Wow. I witnessed it all, and I’m still here doing this thing [laughs]. I’ve witnessed whole careers be born and die, and I’m still doing it.
That’s a kind of perseverance that people who need to do a thing exhibit.
I have a fan base that’s not huge but it’s real intense. For example, this woman’s husband died and he was a fan and she wants me to play this one song when he’s being buried. I have this widow that comes out to almost every show, no matter where it is. Her husband died almost two years ago and she’s found some sort of salvation [coming to these shows]. I have a bunch of crazy, intense fans. I don’t know what it is, but it’s really valuable to me whether I’m making money or not.
It goes beyond a job when it means that much.
To me it’s not a job. I did landscaping for almost 20 years while playing music and I came to the proverbial crossroads where I had to decide to do music or landscaping. Obviously, getting older, music was always what I wanted to do, but all I’m saying is I came at it with music as my outlet, my whole reason [for being], and I didn’t try to please anybody. Even to this day, if I find myself in a situation with music where I’m not happy I’ll go work with plants because there’s joy in that. If I’m not finding joy or rewards in music why do it? I need to pay a mortgage and buy gas to the next gig and food to eat but after that’s taken care of it’s a dream world playing music right now and making a living at it.
You’ve been on a constant evolution since your first record. The music just keeps growing in a real natural way.
Good! I hope so because my only insurance as a musician is to get better. So I better get better! When I’m old I want to be really good. I’m definitely not going to be like the Eagles and doing my greatest hits when I’m 60…mainly because I don’t have even one hit [laughs]. Hopefully I’ll be making hits then.
There’s a level of togetherness on the new album that I think could serve as a good handshake to folks who haven’t heard your music before.
I’ll put it up against anything that’s out there right now. Trina [Shoemaker], my partner who engineered and produced this record, is beyond professional. We’ve been making records together for a long time, and I think we’ve found a comfort zone, or maybe we’ve figured out how to achieve what we want. I also changed my whole band except my drummer, and hopefully that means growth, too. I’m just amazed at some stuff that gets away with being called music.
One picks up on musicians really serving songs on Lost Cause Minstrels, which I think is key – obvious humanity and blood and muscle right in the notes.
Definitely. A lot of artists use that Auto-Tuning and I’ve never used it because Trina always talks about loving when a singer starts a little off then scoops into it. You don’t get that with a lot of more polished artists because they want it to be big and seamless…
…and readymade to slot in with all the homogenous stuff that’s already on the charts. I can’t even imagine what your voice would sound like with Auto-Tune. Your voice has so much character and your phrasing is really unique.
I don’t think it would work [laughs].
We would never have gotten any of the classic 60s soul sides with Auto-Tune. Aretha and Otis were all about pushing things into the red, particularly with the mics they had in those days. I’ve said it in the past about you, but it bears repeating: You have a LOT more in common with classic artists like these than you do with most contemporaries. It makes much more sense to compare you to Kristofferson, Prine and Lowell George.
Those are my heroes. It may be part of my downfall, but I’ve never been a pop fan. It’s always been into Tom T. Hall and John Prine. People are trying to tell me about Arcade Fire and I say, “Have you heard Levon Helm’s last two records?” And they go, “Who?” What? Who the hell are you to tell me about ‘the best band in the world’ when you don’t even know who Levon is?
People just don’t have the history with music. One of my favorite records ever is Leon Russell’s Carney. It’s short – probably 38 minutes long – and growing up with that…man. That’s where Trina and I connect ‘cause she’s a seventies rock chick. She loves Bad Company and says, “It’s magic. How did they do that?”
There’s a lot of mythology about classic rock but it is music that doesn’t seem dated. It’s so well produced, played and written, especially compared to what’s coming out today. You can still put it on the radio and it holds its own. It’s a kind of skill and craftsmanship that’s really going out of the business.
It had some depth, too. When they hit those floor toms – wow! Some of those recordings by The Band are some of the greatest of all-time.
It must be frustrating on some level to shoot for that sort of benchmark and realize most of the world isn’t shooting for it anymore.
I’ve given up generalizing, though I agree with you on the mainstream, although I finally got somebody to expose me to My Morning Jacket, and that’s pretty intense. I saw them live somewhere and didn’t get it, and then I heard a recording and liked it. It’s kinda like Pink Floyd meets something else [laughs]. It’s enticing and the sound’s good. There’s all kinds of good music out there like The Black Keys. Trina knows Tchad Blake, who did the Brothers record, and it pisses me off that in interviews they say, “It was just the two of us in Muscle Shoals laying down guitar and drum tracks.” She talked to Tchad, who got these naked tracks and they told him, “Just do your thing to them.” There’s bass and keyboards, and it’s intense. It just makes me jealous really because they have lots of money and Tchad Blake [laughs]. They are great songwriters though, and I think Dan is a great singer, too. And there’s Junior Kimbrough all over him [in his guitar playing]. It’s just so obvious [laughs].
You’re one of the only people besides myself that’s ever brought up Junior in relation the Dan Auerbach’s playing, which just speaks to the general ignorance of music journalism about them. So, I wanted to touch on your move away from New Orleans, where you spent a huge part of your career. That city has been in the fabric of your songs for a long, long time.
It’s so strange. I think my next set of songs is going to be called Jaded [laughs]. I just moved back to Fairhope, Alabama, which is about two and a half hours away from New Orleans. I’ve started a regular gig on Tuesdays at Chickie Wah Wah in New Orleans, which is great but I’m still the black sheep of that community. Like Anders Osborne comes in and just embraces it and even talks like he’s from New Orleans. It’s wild! He became what he loves, and I’m not putting him down at all – he’s wonderful – but I never got embraced by New Orleans even though I’ve had my own little niche there. I’m half Alabama and half New Orleans. It’s a confusing mixture. There’s this guy who’s doing something sorta funky but he’s country, and he’s definitely white and hairy. Something’s not right with this [laughs].
I’m not a dance band, and I don’t aspire to be. I don’t know what I’m trying to do. My parents were both school teachers, and my dad was a preacher for a while. I’ve read so much philosophy, and I studied theatre for awhile. I know if people are dancing that’s a soul thing, and I’m more into epiphany, revelation, the magic that happens when people transcend. People can do that by dancing into a frenzy, and that’s great but I only know how to do that verbally. I feel like I’m learning more about music every year and the music is getting stronger and better.