I flew to Tennessee last Thursday with nothing but a 1956 tube amp and a case full of harmonicas.
My destination was the little town Sewanee. My mission was recording some songs with two old friends, neither of whom was Ella Fitzgerald.
No, I am talking about Drew Bunting and Brian Slattery, two former members of my college band, The Motherpluckers. The Bobbledy folk among you might remember Drew and Brian from the last Bobbledy album, Where Is My Chicken?
Before that, Drew created the first collection of Bobbledy songs, I Don’t Want to Brush My Teeth.
And a few years back, what seems to be a different lifetime already, Drew collaborated with Robbi and me to release his album The New South as an installment in the Idiots’Books series. The music was all Drew, but Robbi did the art, and I wrote a story that was included in the packaging.
Drew and Brian were also members of the first (and, so far, only) Subscribers That Rock event, held here in Chestertown the winter of 2008.
Here’s how we introduced them then. Drew…
And then there’s me.
That was eight years ago. In the interim we’ve written more books, played more music, and made a pile of children.
This year, we decided to collaborate on making an album, each writing a few songs in advance then spending a weekend recording them together.
Brian and I flew in on a Friday, joining Drew in Sewanee, where he is the chaplain of St. Andrews Sewanee school. We figured the best way to get things started was to dive right in to making music. So we pulled out our instruments and spent Friday afternoon practicing songs from the first two Bobbledy albums. Then, first thing Saturday morning, we put all our gear in the car…
…and drove over to the nearby campus of The University of the South…
And had ourselves a concert.
We played to benefit the Sewanee Children’s Center, where Drew’s two sons spend their days. While we pulled tunes from the vault, kids danced and parents helped clap and stomp the beat.
After the show, I got a chance to meet two Bobbledy Club members who happened to be there.
Playing music has a way of making you hungry. Being in Tennessee has a way of making you want barbecue. And so we headed out to solve both problems.
Feeling not quite brave enough to try the sauce above, I nevertheless opted for the challenge of tackling the buffet. This was plate one of three.
The concert behind us and our bellies full, we headed to the studio to get down to the business of making an album. We started with my songs (probably because I am the rustiest musician among us). Hoping to inspire the next generation, I wrote an anthem to my favorite instrument. It is half rap, half dirge, and 100% cacophony. I apologize in advance to the parents who will have to listen to it on road trips.
Suddenly, the hour arrived. It was just me and my microphone.
And my guitar. And my harmonica.
And Brian on drums.
And Drew on acoustic bass. And both guys on backup harmony.
We finished and we listened, and Brian thought something was missing. So he suggested that we might need an overdubbed keyboard track. He was absolutely right.
Yes, we had kids in the studio. A necessary ingredient when recording a children’s album.
In addition to keeping the mood light, Drew’s two sons added vocals for the seminal track Difficult in Space (it’s about things that are difficult in space).
Once Play the Harmonica was in the can, we tackled my other song, You Are My Son. It’s a soft and gentle affair, a love song from a father to his kid. On this one, I played harmonica while Brian played banjo and Drew played guitar and added harmony.
My stuff behind us, we turned to Brian’s two songs, one of which is an 80’s-inspired synth masterpiece about the pains of getting stuck in the backseat on endless road trips and the other of which is a trombone-centric swingfest that will trigger spontaneous dance parties.
Brian recorded his songs in advance and brought them to Sewanee for enhancement. His request to me was contriving an atonal, irrythmic harmonica solo to anchor the heart of the section in which one of his songs loses all semblance of propriety and goes gloriously off the tracks. To make the required sounds, I needed to call on the tools of the past. If you do not know, that thick, raw harmonica sound you might have heard on blues records comes from playing directly into an old-school microphone.
Which is pleasantly distorted by an old-school tube amplifier. A microphone is placed near the amp speaker so that all that sound can be funneled directly into the sound board.
At which point, you just add harmonica, picking whichever one matches the tune of the song in question.
I must admit that no small portion of the pleasure I derive from playing the harmonica is the beauty of the gear.
On Sunday, we recorded Drew’s songs, which ranged from weepingly gorgeous to full-on weird. You probably know this already, but he is an incredibly talented singer and songwriter. And Brian is an astonishing musician with facility in probably a dozen instruments and the ability to improvise gorgeous accompaniment on the spot. A really lucky thing to have when you are recording a children’s album with just three musicians, especially when one of them is me (aka, musically handicapped at best).
While Drew sang and played acoustic and electric guitar and acoustic and electric bass, Brian added drums, banjo, acoustic guitar, bass, and keyboards.
The results were incredibly exciting. We weren’t just recording songs. We were building arrangements on the fly. We’d lay down the vocals and guitar and then ask ourselves what was missing. We had a room full of instruments, so the options were many. In the end, we came up with a collection of nine recordings that didn’t exist three days before. A collection of songs that kids all over the country and world will come to know (and love? I think so) in a few months.
On Monday, we returned to the studio to listen to the tracks with rested ears and add a few more layers (harmonies, bass, keyboards, etc.)
On the way back to the airport, we couldn’t help but have one more taste of Tennessee.
It’s a well-established fact that any barbecue joint worth its salt has goats in the backyard.
And a biting rooster on the premises.
I am lucky to have such talented friends. I’m even luckier that they are willing to put their lives on hold for four days for the sake of making some songs.
Sometimes when you sit in the kitchen when a meal is being prepared, the feast itself is less gratifying. In this case, I can’t wait to hear this music when it’s done. We have a sense of the rough tracks, but the final magic comes when they are mixed and mastered, a thing that will happen in the weeks to come.
This album, still to be named, will be released soon. All you Bobbledy club members will get a copy, of course. And we’ll be selling individual discs so the rest of you can have a listen, too.
Until then pull out your dancing shoes and practice your moves. Soon it will be time to rock.
UPDATE: Jet Pack! has been released and is available HERE.