"It's not a style it's just I like things that are in the slot, easy to listen to... When I was a young fella I used to romp on it. But so many people were so good at that I went, 'There ain't no way I'm going to out-volume everybody or out hot-lick someone or whatever.' So I took the opposite approach."
And how about that old Harmony [guitar] that we've heard so much about, do you ever play that anymore? I know you don't tour with it or anything, but do you ever mess around with it at home?
No not really. I took all the pick-ups back out of it. It was a very very cheap guitar and I modified the crap out of it. I took the back off of it and it fell all apart. And I played it and played it, it's in storage now, just sort of the bones, the carcass of what it used to be.
Do you currently have a favorite guitar?
I've been playing Danelectro guitars. They're kind of a cheap guitar. I have a bunch of guitars--some real expensive ones--Martins and Gibson's and stuff. I play an acoustic Danelctro; it's a swimline acoustic; it has a little acoustic properties and also electric properties. I modified it and put a pickup in, a Magnetic Lipstick pickup in it. And I've been playing that on the gigs, and it's been kinda fun.
Now moving back to To Tulsa And Back, how did the loss of Audie Ashworth affect this record?
Quite a bit. Audie was a song guy. And that's kind of how I make my living really, writing songs. Audie is an old disk jockey from Nashville so I would run songs by him. And he's really great for feedback, you know he'd go, "Well that's a good song you got there John, and that one there sucks." And he also hired all the musicians, the first eight albums I made with the Nashville players of that era like that with him. And then the last four I made I did kinda like the drum machine album. So we had talked and we were gonna get back together and hire the old guys that were still alive and go in and rent a good studio in Nashville and kinda do it the way we did it in the old days. And he passed away. So yeah, Audie influences me quite a bit. The sound of the records, the songs I put out, because like all songwriters I write more than I can put out. And he was real good at that, and now I kind of have to do that all by myself, and it's kind of a lonesome duty.
I'm sure. And did his death have anything to do with the amount of time it took to put this one out?
No, Audie passed away about three years ago. And we were gonna do this thing and then he passed away and I went, "Oh well, I'm gonna go back to what I've been doing." So that's why I decided I would go back to my hometown and record there with some of my other old crony musician friends. And that's kinda what I did. I was gonna go to Nashville but after Audie left, you know... I didn't really know anyone. I knew Audie in Nashville and he knew everybody else. So I decided I'd go to my hometown, I knew a bunch of musicians there and a few of the guys who are going on the road with me. So that's what I did. We had a totally different concept of what we we're going to do. And when he passed away I had to rearrange and kinda do what I've been doing the past ten years.
It doesn't seem obvious, but have you written any material inspired by Audie?
(Laughter) No, he wasn't that kind of a guy. Audie was the kind of guy where you give him something and he'd tell you whether he liked it or not. But he wasn't the kind of guy who if you were around him he inspires you to write. He would always say, "John you gotta write some more songs." Because he was the one who had to cut the deals. And I'd go, "Oh man, what was wrong with the last album I made?" "Well, we need another album." He was that kind of a guy. He wasn't an inspiration for writing; he was sort of a straw boss for me to write.
Was the writing process any different on this album than in past efforts?
Not really. There are a couple of songs on there that I probably wrote 20 years ago and never put out and went back and re-arranged it and changed a little. And some of them I wrote a couple days before the recording session.
In listening to all of your albums over the years it sort of comes across to me that the instrumentation takes center focus as opposed to the vocals. Would you say that's true?
Yeah, I never considered myself a singer. When they say "singer/songwriter," you know they label people. "He's a singer/songwriter/guitar player." Probably the singing part is way at the bottom. I don't sing very well, and that also hinders my songwriting because I don't have any vocal range, I'm just kind of a talk/sing/mumble kind of a guy. So I'd have to write in that range. You know I couldn't write in a range for a real good singer who could do a lot of notes. I'm gonna sing about three notes.
Do you mix down the vocals in the production process?
Yes I do. And I've gotten busted for that many times. "You know the reason your records don't sell very much is because your vocals, we can't hear what the hell you're singing about." Well that's the way I like it. And sometimes I'll bring the vocal up, but I'm always embarrassed when I do. I don't know, through the years some people have said they like the vocals; I always wished I had a really good singer to sing my songs.
After you lay a track down, what is your process like in the studio?
Generally I won't even do a scratch vocal, I don't rehearse or nothing. So I'll holler out the chord changes to the band as we're recording it and then take that off, and I generally overdub my vocal. Because what I'm doing in the studio is hollering out the chord changes to the band so that way we don't have to make a hundred and fifty takes. And sometimes I've used the original vocal if I thought the band could play the song without me explaining it to them. Then generally I'll do some guitar overdubs if I don't think it's fat enough. And then I mix it, and that's kinda what I do. When I'm doing it in somebody else's studio it's the same thing, except I don't mix it, somebody else mixes it.
When you are doing the mix there seems to be a lot of subtle nuances in there, is that just the way it's coming across or are you spending a lot of time on this after its been recorded?
On some things I do. Some thing's I'll write a song and cut the tracks and I won't think it's quite there yet. You know it's kinda like cooking food. You go, "Well it's not quite done yet." So I'll experiment with it and put things on it. And go like, "Did that help it any? Or did that hurt it?" And you know the creative process is kind of a trial and error thing anyway. There's no rules. So sometimes I'll overdo a song, and sometimes I under-do them, and sometimes the song just sucks.
This latest record we find you talking about the environment on "Stone River" and addressing politics on "The Problem." While you may have touched on some of this in the past, it's definitely not something we equate with you. Why now?
Right, well I don't know. I asked myself that same question. It's probably because I'm 65. And I've already written about a lot of other subjects. Those two songs you mentioned... I made a demo on this thing called Earth Justice; anyway, they asked me to put a song on their record. Well everybody else just released one of their outtakes. I actually wrote the "Stone River" song for them and made the demo. Then cut it again and gave them the new cut, and what's on this record here is the demo. So that was about four or five years ago. So some of the songs are from now and some are from yesteryear.
Gotchya. In "The Problem" you sing, "The problem is the man in charge of you." And it seems to not really leave a whole lot to the imagination. So I'm kinda curious how you feel about the current political climate?
Well I definitely have an opinion about the current political climate. Probably more so now because I'm older. You know I think all the politicians have their head up their ass.
It's hard to argue with that.