Old Gray Mule's Have Mercy is an absolutely brilliant statement on the state of post-Junior Kimbrough, post-R.L. Burnside, Paul "Wine" Jones, and Post-T-Model Ford-style alt-blues, or whatever it's called. It's got all you need: Texas guitarist meets Mississippi drummer and clicks hard with North Mississippi Hill Country grooves packed with south of Austin soul-stylistics, and plenty of central Texas grit. It sets a high bar for everyone involved in this kind of music, not just in its musicianship, which is outstanding, but for its sonic construction as well. You'll want to listen to this on headphones just as loud as you will on the big speakers. Out in your yard. With all your family, friends, and neighbors. There'll be mas Cerveza, plenty of barbeque, and whiskey for those who need it. This is the year of the Old Gray Mule party y'all!
|^Have Mercy sounds like this^|
I contacted OGM's OG, C.R. Humphrey to talk about the new work:
DB (Rick Saunders) :: Tell me about your ideas, thoughts, influences for the way you approached recording Have Mercy...sonically. It sounds fantastic on headphones, and just as killer blasting from the speakers (and it sounds great played quietly, too.) I dig the trippyness of the production on the song Have Mercy. The vocals in particular are something else, particularly considering your history as an instrumental unit. I'm also interested in your ideas behind the re-do/update of Son House's Don't You Mind People Grinning In Your Face. That song, as amazing as it is, is such a blues classic now. How'd you manage to make it so fresh? And who the hell's doing vocals on Stop Playin'? Is that JJ? 'Cause DAMN.
C.R. Humphrey:: Ha! Well, I guess I didn't realize it was the new Mustang Sally! I'd only ever heard one band do it live, and that was Meredith Kimbrough (who sang on No Sleep Til Memphis) and her band Mother Merey and the Black Dirt. They did an acapella version that had that work song feel to it at a show we all played together in Austin and for some reason it always stuck with me. So I worked up my version of it and tried to put that work song feel into it as well, with that foot stomp/hand clap beat, unison singing, slower pace...all that shit. And yeah man that's JJ on Stop Playin. As the sessions progressed, you could hear his confidence level in his vocals rise, it was awesome.
Sonic approach -
What I was shooting for with these records was a kind of "brand new old school" sort of sensibility if that makes any sense? We did our best to keep it raw where it needed to be raw, yet add more modern production to the atmospheric trippy tunes. Probably the best example I can think of is Don't You Mind where we started with a field hollar vibe with the unison vocals and handclaps, but with the guitar and more modern drum beats accompanying. That's something we're going to explore further on the next record...that foot-stomp/hand-clap vocal heavy stuff. Nothing closer to The Source than that.
As for the studio, it's KNOWN for hip-hop, metal, and gospel. Matter of fact I think it was the second or third session for these albums...Lil Wayne tried to get our studio time, but we had lockout and the studio owner stuck by us, so LW had to wait. But the pedigree of the place was pretty damn good...Lil Wayne, Master P, Lil Boosie, all those NOLA rappers had recorded there, Down, Crowbar, Corrosion Of Conformity, all those southern metal guys had recorded there..hell Phil Anselmo broke the sink off the wall shagging a girl in the bathroom when Down was recording NOLA. Our engineer recorded RL Burnside at some point as well. Add that to the fact that the effects of Katrina on the exterior of the building were still visible...the place had a vibe for sure.
Prior to these albums, I hated singing and I only did it when I had to. JJ had always been a side man too, I mean he sang in church, but I don't think he'd ever been the front man until we recorded My Lyin Ass on No Sleep Til Memphis. What we discovered at the second session was that we sounded good when we sang together. Not only that but singing in unison gave us more confidence and somebody to hide behind if you know what I mean? Which of course leads to better singing. JJ was singing along with the studio roughs every time we were in the car getting better and better and better. Vocals are still our weakest point, I feel, but having the time to work on it during these sessions was invaluable.
DB:: I disagree on the vocals. I mean, I can see your point, but you're wrong ;0) They're terrific. You've gone thru a couple drummers in your career as Old Gray Mule, but you and JJ are a very tight unit, and you became that way in a pretty short amount of time when you think of the actual amount of time you've spent together, with him in Louisiana and you in Texas.
How did you guys get together? Also, if you would, tell us about your guitar set up. I believe someone just made you a cigarbox guitar?
CR: I got to know JJ because of: a hot Latina, some big dogs, and some BIG damn snakes!
JJ was playing drums for Lightnin Malcolm a couple years back, and we were all playing a show at Antone's up in Austin together. Malcolm was staying with friends in Austin, but they had dogs and big ass snakes...so JJ said fuck THAT and told Malcolm he'd sleep in the truck. So when I got there to hang out pre-show, Malcolm asked if J could stay at my house and I said of course. JJ ended up staying with us for 3-4 days and my kids adopted him on day 1...by the time he left he was family. That weekend he was here we recorded Blue Front and Break For Me which were on the Like A Apple On A Tree album. We played together about 5 minutes here at the house, then went to the studio and laid down those two tracks in about 15 minutes. Then almost a year later we played an all night yard party on the Friday night of the juke joint festival in Clarksdale, MS with no rehearsal, just those 20 minutes of playing together the year before. Then we played Shack Up all damn night Saturday night with Lightnin, and again on Sunday. And that's the way it went until we started recording these albums...the gigs WERE the rehearsal.
We just fit naturally, he understands what I'm saying when I'm playing guitar, and I understand what he's saying on the drums so we can modify songs on the fly depending on what the crowd is into with damn little verbal communication. The only other drummer I was able to do that with was Cedric that night we played Antone's as a duo. It's very stress-free playing
Yes, I did just get a cigarbox guitar. My first one. A fan in England named Paul Smith (Stompin Hogg cigar box guitars) made it for me and it's badass. It took some getting used to because the body is so small, but it's fun to play. I mess around on it every day or so.
For my live guitar setup...
I use two guitars, a 5 string tuned to Open F, and a six string tuned to D Standard which I also re-tune to Open D or Open G if we're headlining or playing a longer opening set and have the time. If we're supporting then it's just Open F and D Standard. On these albums I used a bunch of different guitars and amps and pedals...not really tone chasing, but trying to make myself a little uncomfortable so I'd concentrate more and hopefully that would generate a tighter performance. I feel like it worked, but how y'all feel about it is what really matters.
One sort of goofy thing we used that I'd never tried before was an old 70's Fender PA head through a Marshall cabinet. That thing is on almost all the songs along with either my Bassman Ten, a friend's 410 Fender De Ville, an old Deluxe, I think I dusted off my old Twin and brought it down one time...regardless there are two guitar amps on every song, and if we doubled the guitar tracks I'd play a separate guitar and amp combo so it would SOUND like two guitars not just the same tone doubled up. Never doubled tracks before, but it was a lot of fun. Guitar-wise most of it is Telecasters of one stripe or another...the main one being a stock '74. Hump Night 55 was an old played-out 64 Fender Jaguar that the label owner had literally played the frets off back in his punk days in the 70's. Kimbro Style was an Epiphone hollowbody with 3 P90's. Edge Of My Head was the Strat I got back in high school that I put the electronics from a Gibson L6S into. Front Porch was a 1921 Gibson L4 I was allowed to borrow for that track and holy crap that thing sounded good.
DB:: You're going back to Australia next year. What's with you and Australia, and does your wife know about this? How many times have you played there now, and how'd it get started with Australia? Did she buy you a Foster's late one night in Austin, and next thing you know....?
CR:: The Australia love affair...yep Molly knows, we've had Aussies at our house several times a year every year since the first tour. Our first three albums were released on an indie label from Adelaide, and they helped get us (me and CW Ayon) down there for the Backwater Blues Festival in 2011 and toured with Chris Russell's Chicken Walk.
We (me and JJ Wilburn) went back down in 2013 to play the Wangaratta Jazz Festival then toured with Chris Russell's Chicken Walk. This Feb we (me and JJ) are returning to tour with The Backsliders which is Dom Turner on guitar and vocals, Rob Hirch (from Midnight Oil) on drums/percussion, and Ian Collard on harmonica. They're world class musicians in their own right and I believe all of them are in 5-6 bands and we can't friggin wait to head down under again. We're returning to Australia again next year in May as well as New Zealand to play some dates and a festival I'm not allowed to divulge the name of yet. We've played Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, and Tasmania so far, and will be adding Queensland and possibly Western Australia next year.
DB:: That's a good way to get some serious frequent flyer miles!
What about a tour of the states? Any plans?
I'd love to see y'all and i'm sure a lot of other folks would too.
CR:: Man. There is nothing I'd love more than to tour in the US, the problem with that is I flat can't afford it. Molly got laid off last year, we're both scrambling to tread water financially, plus we've got the kids to feed and clothe and house...so the only way we can tour the US is to be paid, and unfortunately that requires us being at a level where there is a demand that would support us. So far that demand has been in Australia. We're hoping these albums will create that demand, so we can hit the road closer to home
DB:: I wonder if you've done any research on the number of bands having their mom on the album? Your's happens to rock a didgeridoo on one track. Did it just hit you, Oh Crap! That song (Edge Of My Head) needs a didgeridoo? Who do we know...?
CR:: Haaaa! Nope, the didge thing is something we've done for years. Back when we were playing TC's Lounge every Friday night Mom would come do that same tune with us I think the idea came about because she had a didge in D and that tune was the only one we were doing at the time that the didge didn't muddy up the sound, so we've been doing it ever since. Adding that track was a tip of the hat to our Oz folks.
DB:: Your comment about tipping your hat to Albert Collins on Stop Playin made me think about all the other hat tipping that goes on not just on this recording and the forthcoming Hump Night 55, but throughout your catalog. Why is that so important to you?
CR:: We tip our hats to the folks who came before us on every album because we didn't invent this shit, and I want people to know who inspired us. Also, I get excited to be able to record the songs that got me fired up to play music in the first place. There are some very unique styles that seem to have passed on with the folks who played them. We lost T-Model Ford last year for example, and there are maybe three people I've ever heard who can get close to his style. As for Stop Playin, to me nobody was better at a 12 bar slow blues than Albert Collins. Now, I sure am not anywhere near the master that he was, but I feel like we captured a close approximation of an Albert Collins slow blues with Stop Playin. The horns helped with that, and having Buckwheat Zydeco on that tune also allowed me to tip my hat to Clifton Chenier. That song also has some Albert King in there, some T-Bone Walker in there, and I suppose there's some CR Humphrey in there too...and I like all those guys, and I have felt joy because of all those guy's music.
DB:: I think a lot of people will feel joy in this album, as well as heartache, pain, and just plain ol' happiness too. They'll get that from from the storys, the songs, from the music, and from the fact that Old Gray Mule and Have Mercy have confirmed that blues music is far from dead. It is alive, kickin', growing and evolving.
I've been writing about Old Gray Mule for years now, and have watched Charlie Humphrey grow this thing from from a guy recording instrumental blues in a tiny studio in Lockhart, Texas, playing with pick-up and semi-permanent drummers (cheers CW!), to playing with an exceptional drummer and singer, to a guy that someone finally gave a chance, a (financial) break to prove himself, prove what he could do with his blues, and what could be done with blues...and he took that chance and ran to a full moon over New Orleans with it.
Old Gray Mule has made a pair of exceptional albums in Have Mercy and the forthcoming collection Hump Night 55. I've asked you to go buy albums, to give bands your money, and i'm not gonna ask that with this album. I'm gonna beg you. If you love the music I write about please, Please, Please baby, PLEASE! Buy this album. You will thank me.
Please go HERE.
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In addition to this interview, I asked CR to write me up a sort of Cliff's Notes of the sessions for this Have Mercy, and for the forthcoming piece delightfully entitled Hump Night 55. Here's what's up with that:
2013 was a hell of a year. The bad luck started when the engineer on "No Sleep Til Memphis" had a complete mental break and disappeared with my album and my money. A very short time later several folks I had worked with fighting wildfires were killed, followed by Molly getting laid off, then an old friend being killed by a drunk driver, and finally our Australian tour which I was now hoping would pay rent and groceries through the winter had more than it's fair share of Spinal Tap moments. So, by Christmas I was depressed, heart-sore, tired, and ready to stop playing music professionally for a very long while. For real.
Then between Christmas and New Year's Eve, the phone rang and the voice on the other end said, "Hey, I just booked some time at a studio here in New Orleans, do you want to come down and record an album?"
Heavy sigh, "……sure" I said.
That phone call launched six months of miracles, and both albums. From January to June 2014, I was commuting between my home in Lockhart TX, Cash Munkey Records headquarters in Covington LA, and Festival Studios in Kenner, LA (out by the New Orleans airport). Every morning JJ and I would cross Lake Pontchartrain and head into the city to record. We would lunch at Subway, dinner at Bud's Broiler on Veteran's Ave, and sometime after midnight we'd hop in the car to drive across the 27 mile long Pontchartrain causeway and listen to that day's sessions on the CD player.
We went into the studio in January with a list of songs and riffs we wanted to work on, but no real idea of what we could do with them in terms of arrangements or guest musicians because this was the first time JJ and I were recording together with real support and time to develop songs and arrangements beyond our live two-man set up. In the past, we'd always recorded as quickly and as cheaply as possible because we both suffer from Chronic Brokeness. Once we'd finished recording the rhythm sections and figuring out which songs were gong to work and which still needed some development, we started contacting friends and heroes to see if they'd be interested in adding something to our music. It was very flattering that every person we invited…accepted.
The KANG of Zydeco! A living legend, Grammy award winner, and one of my personal music heroes since I was 13 when I first heard his music in the movie The Big Easy. Having him on this album is one of the miracles. We caught him at the perfect time; he got home from tour on a Friday, and was leaving to go out on the road again the following Tuesday…but was free that Sunday to record. He and his son Reggie came down from Carencro, LA after lunch on Sunday. We all got to know each other a little bit, and then we played him the three tracks we thought he might be interested in playing on. To my surprise when we played Stop Playin over the monitors, he said "Man! That sounds like Albert Collins!" I jumped up and shook his hand, laughing, and told him I was tipping my hat to Albert Collins because he's my favorite guitar player from Texas, and folks seemed to have forgotten him a little bit. Turned out Buck and Reggie had toured quite a bit with Albert, and had considered him to be family, so Buck decided he'd tip his hat to Mr Collins right along with us. He played understated, subtle accompaniment and when he finished his first take he asked, "Did yall get that?" We said yes, and he replied "Thank you Jesus!" It is an absolute honor to have him on the album…even more so because he played on a song that was in tribute to his close friend.
Rockin Dopsie Jr and Anthony Dopsie
The Saturday before Buckwheat came down, we had Rockin Dopsie Jr and his brother Anthony Dopsie come in to add some heat to our song Ass On Fire. Anthony came in from Lafayette, and RDJr came in from New Orleans. Ass On Fire is my attempt to capture the energy and happy vibe of the zydeco music I had heard when I lived in Lake Charles, LA back in the 90's. When he first got to the studio, Anthony pulled out his Roland digital accordion, started warming up…but when we played the track for him, he got this excited look on his face and he said, "Oooooooh! Yall are going old school!" So he tok off the Roland and brought out his old school three row button accordion and immediately started tearing the place apart! We got three takes out of him and when he was finished, he was dripping sweat! When you hear the song you'll know why. Just as we were listening to the playback in the control room we heard a holler, "SOMEbody's zydeco'n in here!" We all turned and there was Rockin Dopsie Jr with his vest frottoir. He ran upstairs and laid down two tracks of washboard, and by the time he got back downstairs into the control room with us, it was a damn party yall! It's the highest energy track we've ever recorded, and these two men brought some SERIOUS pepper to what we had cookin! Having them on this album is another miracle.
Back in 2010, I somehow stumbled across an Australian duo called The Yearlings. I was immediately struck by the atmospheric, laid back, subtle guitar played by Chris Parkinson. In 2011 we toured Australia for the first time, and on the only day off we had, I happened to be in Adelaide and was able to scrounge a ride down to McLaren Vale with the lady who was running our sound to go to Red Poles to chill, have lunch, and listen to The Yearlings. Chris and Robyn came over to our table on their break and we all got to know one another, and swap CDs. When we returned to Australia in 2013, I invited Chris to sit in with us at a show in Adelaide, and while he had never heard our song Have Mercy before, he blew me away with his playing. He was always right there in the pocket, adding atmosphere, harmony lines…it was incredible. Once we recorded Have Mercy and got the vocals finished in New Orleans, I sent Chris a studio rough and asked if he'd be willing to play on it. He responded by recording two tracks on two different guitars through two different amps and playing slide on one of those tracks. Those tracks were so damn good we're releasing an instrumental version of Have Mercy, on our vinyl companion to this album entitled Hump Night 55, and having him on this album is one of those miracles I'm very grateful.
We met Dom at the Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival in November 2013, and immediately hit it off. We played before his band The Backsliders on the Friday night of the festival, and we played again with him on Saturday night when he was part of a Muddy Waters Tribute. That Saturday night I asked if he'd be interested in sitting in with us, Jeff Lang, Ian Collard, and Snooks La Vie on an improvised John Lee Hooker inspired slow blues. He said, "Absolutely!" and rocked the place with his 4 pickup Teisco guitar and bottleneck slide. Dom has recorded so much music with so many people in so many different styles that, to me, he's like the Aussie Ry Cooder, so I asked him early on in this project if he'd like to play on a track or two, and as luck would have it…he and his wife Ida were going to be vacationing in New Orleans while we were recording. We actually performed a live streaming show for our Aussie fans from the studio while he was in town and two songs from that show are featured on the vinyl album we are releasing alongside this one, Hump Night 55. On this album his slide is featured on the acoustic tune, Front Porch. Again, a masterful, understated, subtle player and we were very fortunate and grateful to have him on board. Another miracle yall.
This was the voice on the phone asking if we wanted to come down to New Orleans to record an album…aka: "Monkey", aka: Cash Munkey Records. Without this man's enthusiasm and support there would be no Old Gray Mule. I would have hung up my guitar and strapped on an airplane again and headed back out to fight fires. He housed us, fed us, played bass with us, and made it all happen.
My Mom and one of the chief enablers slash reasons I've stuck with music all these years. It was an absolute thrill to FINALLY record something we'd played together ever since the every Friday night at TC's days years ago. She came to NOLA with me and recorded some didgeridoo as bass on one of the tracks.
- first time I've ever soloed on my own album
- first time we've ever had a Grammy award winner play with us
- first time we've doubled guitars
- first time we've ever had a bass line played by someone other than myself (Monkey on Stop Playin, and Mom on Edge Of My Head)
- first albums to be digitally distributed since 40 Nickels back in 2011
- first time JJ and I have ever sung together
and most importantly...
- first time we've EVER HAD SUPPORT--
DB:: Thanks to CR Humphrey and JJ Wilburn aka Old Gray Mule for their hard work, for taking the time to do this interview with me, and to Cash Munkey Records for having the forsight to support them.
Old Gray Mule live at The Spotted Mallard, Melbourne VIC, Nov 4, 2013 from CR Humphrey on Vimeo.
Old Gray Mule live in Australia from CR Humphrey on Vimeo.