The Origin Story of Story Songs
The Story Songs project started ten years ago with my accepting an invitation to my high school reunion in Houston. I flew down from Seattle, rented a car, drove to within a block of the party and pulled over with cold feet. Would these people see me as still being the jovial, hapless dreamer I saw myself as then? No, as I turned out. I was welcomed warmly. As I shifted among the guests, shaking their hands, I felt a kinship with them far greater than I had as a teenager. As I leaned into their stories, I could see the patina of their lives in their faces. Some had been cunning, some lucky, and some truly blessed. Others had suffered awful setbacks. Some dealt with tragedies. And, of course, some were missing altogether.
I returned home with a sudden desire to pick up the fine guitar I had hardly played since I was a songwriter, performer, and songwriting teacher in California decades ago. A few months later I began to have dreams of my old classmates, the ones with the darker tales. Each dream had a soundtrack with bits of lyric that I wrote down upon awakening. Over the years I turned these fragments into nearly forty songs about my classmates and others I have known – some briefly in Seattle and Santa Fe: two in cafes, one on the street, one asleep in the wrong rest room, and another in a Mexican cantina. This album is mostly their stories.
Preparations began with practice and performances in our my wife’s and my digs near Boise, Idaho. I played open mics, events, a festival, the Idaho Songwriters Forums and sixteen months of Friday night shows at Caffeina Roasting Company, a spacious, cordial coffee house in Boise. When I was satisfied with the level of my playing, I knew I needed at least a second guitar for the recording. Being that my music is largely Texas folk, I needed someone who could play its foundational genres: country, blues, and border music – a player like the late Grady Martin, Marty Robbins’ guitarist on “El Paso.” I mentioned this in passing to my good friend Maria Mackey who told me about her new boyfriend Joe Breskin. I nodded politely. That night I watched a YouTube of Joe accompanying someone in a murky, rose-lit bar. I knew instantly I had found my Grady Martin.
The stars continued to align when I discovered that Joe lives in Port Townsend, a picturesque coastal town on the calm waters of Washington’s Puget Sound. To add to my string of good fortune, my dear friends Walter Dalton and Ann Brown live in this seaside Brigadoon, making Port Townsend the perfect base for a recording retreat. Joe strongly suggested a local engineer, Everett Moran and his Rainshadow Studio. A close look at Rainshadow’s website and a two-hour phone call with Everett convinced me to book three days.
Rainshadow proved to be perfect. The building is on the grounds of Fort Warden, a Gaslight era installation built to keep enemy ships from entering Puget Sound. Its guns are gone, but its lovely green grounds and white barracks remain. (So lovely are the grounds, they were the location for the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman.) The studio is housed in the old armory. Its two-foot thick concrete walls and twenty-foot ceilings are acoustically ideal. Rugs and baffles trim the echoes properly. The microphones are superb, and the mixing board, venerable. Adding to all this was Everett’s calm and kind demeanor, an acute ear for music, and an extensive knowledge of his equipment. Importantly, both of us are from Houston and Austin and share the same passion for the region’s folk, country, blues, and Hispanic music.
Joe and I spent the first afternoon practicing in my motel room. The next day we laid down the basic tracks for eight of the eleven songs. Excluding the session I did with Michael Bloomfield decades before, I had never played with anyone more focused. Joe studied my face nearly the entire time, watching for subtle shifts in my mood and timing. His arpeggios, harmonies and double-stops were right on the money. (And kudos to Maria for helping with the video.)
The last day brought John “Greyhound” Maxwell and Jon Parry, two friends who had finished each others sentences and musical measures for years. John added haunting blues and bluegrass dobro parts. His elegant fills and general restraint caught my ear with every line he played. Jon ripped tasty Louisiana, Texas and Mexican fiddle runs at just the right moment – and in just the right measure. The best way to describe Jon’s musical style is that if he were born thirty years earlier, he could have played the fiddle parts in all of John Ford’s Western movies.
It was time for me to go back home. In my absence Everett made an immeasurable contribution to the album: He brought the six-time Grammy nominee mandolin virtuoso David Grisman in to play – in the throws Covid! “Dawg,” as Jerry Garcia named him, has had a long career playing bluegrass with the likes of Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs. He led his own jazz quartets and quintets, playing with masters Stefan Grappelli and Mark O’Connor, sometimes on the Tonight Show. Over the years David appeared often with the Grateful Dead. He and his old friend Garcia created hits with “Friend of the Devil” and “Shady Grove.” (My level of esteem with my granddaughters was immediately tripled as they were already huge fans of David and Jerry’s from their popular Not for Kids Only album.) David graced Story Songs with sparkling performances on “Boys Town,” “Round Road Home,” and “The Glitter Is Gone.” His nearly sixty years of brilliant rhythm and licks illuminate those songs, and will be etched into grooves next year with the release of the LP.
After listening to the rough mixes, Everett and I agreed that something was missing. We put our heads together and realized the music needed a lower bottom from cello and bass. Covid was raging again, and Everett wasn’t able to secure a qualified cello player in his area. So I took on the task in Idaho which is a deep well of musical talent. It’s one of the reasons I moved here. This is a very, very supportive area for musicians. Recording here for me means Steve Fulton. Steve is a highly regarded songwriter, performer and audio engineer. His Audio Lab studio in nearby Garden City is one of the best in the state. Steve brought in two musicians in demand: Bernie Reilly for cello parts and Troy Ferguson for standup bass. We recorded the two on separate nights. I asked them to play simple, restrained support, and they certainly did. It was sheer pleasure to watch them and hear their parts over Steve’s fine monitors. The fidelity is amazing. Their contributions are beautiful, supportive and neither stepped on anyone’s line, as you will hear. Each of their finishes were smooth, on-time, and graceful.
My last trip to Rainshadow was for the final edit and mix. By then Everett had hired an engineer, so he himself could concentrate on the business end of the studio. Again the stars were aligned. Engineer Conor Sisk is a quiet, methodical fellow with a phenomenal ear and deft hands at the board. I have some nice videos of him mixing. His cuts are precise. His levels and pans are right-on, leaving clear, quiet spaces between the sources. I couldn’t be happier with the mix. By the way, music is in his blood. His mother helped found the local community radio station.
The final step in the audio process is mastering, the art of massaging the stereo eleven tracks into a single cohesive aural body, the album. As always Everett found the perfect person in David Glasser of Airshow Mastering in Denver. Dave transformed a terrific mix into a musical gem. He somehow added to the separation, made the vocal stand out further, and buffed the corners of each instrument. Hearing the master for the first time, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for an entire day.
The last bit of work was developing the CD packaging. What I wanted was an handsome, eco-friendly wallet with two pockets: one for the CD itself and the other for an 8-page booklet printed with liner notes and lyrics. For that I had the help of my wife Springer. She is a multi-media artist who creates unique totem pieces, acrylic and encaustic paintings and beaded leather wall hangings. Being that most of the songs have Southwestern themes, she and I walked Santa Fe’s Canyon Road art district looking for inspiration. I took the photos that she thought would work. On our return, I enlisted my artist friend Dan Petroff who skillfully arranged the raw photos, liner notes and lyrics into images suitable for the printing process.
The Icers of the Cake
Header photos by Jim Gilmore