I don't know man, I've just been making records and recording songs. Since I signed with Bloodshot in 2005, I started doing more originals. Before that I was doing a lot of obscure blues and folk covers, and once I got signed I started more original songs. You know, I've been recording my own records all this time in my house, my own studio. When I first started touring I was playing a lot smaller venues and stuff. It's come a long way. I'm playing to 200 or 500 people a night. You know, trying to make a living man, and get all this shit off my chest. (Laughs)
How much do you think your sound has evolved from those first recordings up to now?
It's really come a long way. My production skills in the studio have definitely improved. I learn something new every record. I do a lot of reading and stuff, so I learn a lot of recording techniques. You know, I've stuck to the minimal, lo-fi sound the whole time, but slowly, these stacks of amplifiers have grown up around me. I'm all tangled up in cables (laughs). I guess my songwriting has come a long way over the years. The songs I write now are not nearly as cartoonish as they used to be. Just trying to make a living and keep on keeping on. I try to take everything I know how to do and put it on a record. I've been playing guitar for 25 years. I'm still learning. I hope that never stops.
In 2012, what separates a genuine bluesman from those that are trying to mimic a sound and write words that sound bluesy?
That's a complicated question.
You don't have to name bands.
(Laughs). Yeah, I'm not gonna do that. That's dangerous territory. I don't know man, as far as my journey through all that stuff, when I cover a blues song or when I'm trying to do something bluesy, country or going for a certain kind of sound, I hear the voice of the person that originally did that song, so there's a little bit of impersonation going on there. What sounds correct to me is what they did originally, but I've also got so much background of punk rock and heavy metal in me, it ends up bleeding through, so it ends up being my own thing.
Sometimes I'll hit some songs that are just straight-up blues or straight-up country. Then I have quite a few that are a cross section of the two, or it'll be a blues song with a metal tinge to it. I feel like you gotta feel it in your heart, in your stomach and your liver, and you just gotta have some attitude on there, whether it be a mean, aggressive attitude or a heartfelt attitude. That's something that a lot of people, like you're saying, they're just trying to sound exactly like Robert Johnson or trying to sound exactly like Son House or something like that.
I personally have to put something of myself on there, otherwise it's just like a novelty, museum thing. And I personally think that when you overdo the emulation, a lot of times it comes out sounding like the super whiteboy blues, and I can't stand that kinda shit. I feel like there's not a enough soul in it. What the blues is all about is soul and having the spirit and all that, and if it's not there, it's just going to sound contrived.
Do you think where you grew up had an influence on your music? I know in our generation we can seek out music from all over the world, through the Internet.
Definitely. Up until I was about 10 years-old I lived in the country and ran along the riverbanks of the San Marcos River. My friends and I ran around finding any old wells and throwing rocks down there, and chasing rattlesnakes and this and that, and climbing up in old barns and stuff like that. I think it definitely had an influence on me. Also, when I was probably 7 or 8 years old, this Southern black Baptist gospel choir came to our school, and it just touched me and did something to me. I'd never heard anything quite like that before. I don't think that right then it set me on any course or anything, but when I became a musician and started playing the blues it took me back to all that definitely woke up that old memory.
So what influence has the church and Christianity played in your music?
As far as the church goes for me, I have a love for old gospel music. The old prisoner chain gang songs, there's a lot of gospel in those. And then a lot of old Bill Monroe and stuff like that. But then there's that part of me that's against organized religion, and a pissed off part of me that thinks a lot of it's a joke. So I go back and forth between singing straight-up gospel music to singing against the church. I have all kinds of music that I play, and it's all a part of me, and the contrast between the gospel music and the pissed against church thing, it's all a part of me and it helps put this whole idea of being human and having this struggle within yourself and what you really believe in, so I think people understand. I think they get it. Whether they get it consciously or subconsciously, it's part of what has touched some of my fans and made them like my music. A lot of them say that my shows are their church.
Is there a part of you that feels like an ambassador for blues music, for the younger generation?
For sure. An old band from Austin that's one of Tim Kerr's bands, he had a band called Jack o' Fire a long time ago, and one of their records in the liner notes said 'this is all review.' They were explaining to the listeners that they were reviewing music that's already been done, and they were bringing it back so that people could listen to it. I definitely think I'm going back and taking people to some music that might've got looked over. They didn't catch onto it and they're gonna miss it. I have a lot of people that come to my shows and are like 'I've always been a metal head and hated country music, but since I started listening to you, I like country music.' Or maybe some of the older folks that come to my shows and could never listen to metal or punk rock, they liked one of my country songs or my bluegrass songs, and they got kinda turned on to the harder metal stuff. So I definitely feel like it bridges gaps sometimes, and being a part of that makes me feel good. They'll ask me what records to buy and I'll name off a few blues musicians.
How has getting older affected your songwriting?
It's harder to find inspiration, just because I'm on the road so much. You can only write so many songs about the highway (laughs). Sometimes I feel like quitting. Sometimes I feel like I just gotta go out to the country or to the desert or something and be a human again. But the songwriting is still coming. I've been having a little trouble lately with putting the lyrics to music. I think what I'm gonna have to do is come into the studio with some pre-rolled inspiration, with some lyrics I've already written and put some guitar to it (laughs). I'm still confident I can write the songs. I have a shit-ton of lyrics at this point. I write things down all the time. And it's like single words, like one word I feel like I've never used in a song. It can be a simple word, but I feel like I never wrote a song that revolves around it.
I write a single word sometimes just so I can fuck with it later. Speaking of "later," that's a word I wrote down yesterday. I want to write a song with "later." I don't know, man. And then there's songs that come to me in two minutes; I just write the words down really fast, and then I play it, and then I go and record it on my phone or in the studio or something, so I don't forget it, and some of those end up being some of my best songs. And then there's ones that I struggle with and wrestle with for three or four years, with pieces of the lyrics and things, until finally it just falls into place. Or I just stick 'em together with another one that doesn't really make sense, but it sounds cool.
When you're putting an album together, are there particular songs that you really want fans to like more than others, and are you shocked by what they like?
Sometimes. Most of the time, when I go in the studio, I have two or three songs that I think are going to be the main songs on the record. My favorite one of all, I'll put a lot of effort into it, a lot of layers on it, produce it and paint a picture with it. But I try not to put half-ass songs on a record. I have plenty of songs that have not gone on records, that I just don't feel are up to my standards. These days, I think a lot about, is this something that's going to get to radio play? I'm not saying mainstream radio, but will it sound OK on somebody's speakers, or is it going to sound like some unprofessional thing that I did? And there's the whole thing about how people are getting more open-minded about less-produced music, and I think about doing music that is completely bare-bones. But I don't wanna get stuck playing in coffee shops and stuff like that all the time. I want to play in the big clubs, I want to play to big crowds.
It's election season, and you've not shied away from writing about politics. But do you approach it with caution, because you have a wide audience?
I come at it with more broad strokes I think. More generalized pictures, not so much naming names or anything like that. I have a feeling that a lot of my fans probably have different political views than what my political views are. Some of my music is redneck-ish, but I'm definitely not a redneck or anything (laughs). But I'm pretty open-minded to different things. I believe in people's personal freedoms and being who you are and not judging everybody all the time. I try not to dabble in the politics too deeply because I don't want to alienate any part of my audience. My fanbase is from both sides of the spectrum, all the way across. I try to keep more about being human and doing songs about the human experience and the human condition, or songs that are more character-related, or landscape kinda stuff.
At this point in your career, what kind of reaction are you getting from young musicians? Are you able to mentor anybody or help them out?
Here and there. Mostly on the Internet. People ask me questions about influences and things like that. I try to give 'em some pointers. I try not to give away things that took me 20 years to learn and develop for my songs. I'm not just gonna give that away freely. There's a lot of younger guys trying to do what I do and sometimes it's a little too close to what I'm doing. It's not so original. I don't wanna put that in them to just be copycats. People are alway asking me what the deal is with my kick sound and my footstomp board, how did I make that. I don't ever tell 'em. You'll feel better about yourself if you go figure something out on your own. I might point 'em in a certain direction, but I'm not gonna tell somebody what my setup is or what I do to get the guitar tone on my records. I'm still a struggling musician myself (laughs). I'm not going to give all my secrets away. It would piss me off if told somebody and they got huge and I'm still sittin' here tryin' to figure out how to do it.
Are you tempted at all to say "Fuck it, I'm going to bring a full band in here?"
Yeah, if I ever got on some big-name label and they put a bunch of money behind me, I'd be up for it. I did that for years, and the ego-trips and the politics and trying to get so-and-so to show up for practice, and someone can't go on tour because his girlfriend said she'll break up with him, or so-and-so will lose their job at the electronics shop if they quit and they go on tour--it just gets to be a lot. And part of being a one-man band, even though it's a little more popular these days, is it is what makes me unique and not just your plain ol' band coming through. If it ain't fixed, don't broke it.
On tour, what does the caravan look like?
Well, it's a lotta work. I started organizing things--T-shirts and CDs and placing orders and shipping things and stuff a month ago, and it's a week away and I'm still not done, if that tells you anything. Plus the booking for this tour started four or five months ago, which was probably two tours ago. On the road, I usually have one person, sometimes two. Skinny Denny is my roadie right now. He's the road manager/bodyguard/problem solver/partner in crime/merch guy. I tour in a van. I don't have a trailer. I have a 15-passenger van that I've customized. I call it a trailer without a trailer. The whole back half of my van is this thing that's in complete lockdown. Everything fits in there. My friend Joe Buck a long time ago said trailers kill bands. As far as the day-to-day goes, we have a four to seven-hour drive, get there several hours before the doors open, take about an hour to load in, soundcheck, and by the time the doors open, crack open the first beer and the first band goes on, and next thing you know, it's time to play. Finish up around 1:30 at night, get to the hotel about 4:30 and get up again at 11:30 the next day and start all over again.
What's your stage setup like, without giving away any secrets of course.
(Laughs) It's a big wall of sound, so right behind me sits two big subwoofers that my stomp goes to and then two different guitar amps that I run my guitars through, and then I have a thing that kinda beefs up vocals a little bit and makes 'em more gritty. I have four guitars that I go through. One of 'em is my standard-tuning, hollow-body guitar, one of 'em is my standard-tuning heavy metal guitar, some of 'em is my open G-tuning and my open D-tuning. Some harmonicas. A little amp that I keep next to me as a table, where I put all my beers and my harmonicas, while I'm sittin' there playing. I have my stomp board in front of me. Effects pedals on one side. That's pretty much it, man. I think people see me settin' all that stuff up and they think, if they've never me, they think there's a whole band setting up. And if they have their backs to the stage when I start, they think there's a whole band playing. They turn around and it's just little ol' me.