Lanky, handsome Thad Beckman has a solo career as an accomplished guitarist, songwriter, and singer and he’s the accompanist for the Americana adventurer, raconteur, singer-songwriter, Tom Russell (see his interview), for whom he does a terrific job. Thad’s solo act is likewise entertaining and compelling: he clearly knows and loves what he is doing.
Thad is very pleasant company, easy going, easy to talk to, easy to be with. He’s based in Portland, Oregon and roots aficionados will appreciate his quality writing, playing and singing. I interviewed him rolling along the rails in Southern Oregon on the Roots on the Rails train in April 2010.
TREVOR: You’ve got four albums out now. What are the names?
TB: “Carry Me Back” I did in 1998 in Austin. Then I did “Beckman” recorded in Northern California in 2003. Then “Blues Gone By,” a solo blues thing, 2006 — in Portland. Then “Me Talking to Me,” which I did couple years ago. 1998.
TREVOR: And they’re on your own label?
TB: Thadzooks Records. I sell them on CD Baby, at shows, and I’m on I-Tunes.
TREVOR: When did you become a professional musician?
TB: 1980, September.
TREVOR: What did you do before that?
TB: I roamed and traveled. From ’71 through 75, I was in the Air Force, and that’s when I started getting back into playing music. I studied classical music, started playing classical guitar, and then I got out and I took music classes for a year. Then I rambled around a bit. I was married, got a divorce, played gigs here and there but nothing steady and did this and that for let’s four years. I was on the East Coast and I thought it was time to do something — make a stand. I’d gone to college, taken a zillion different classes in many different things.
TREVOR: Did you get a degree?
TB: No. I went for literature, did music, took a business law class, just looking for something that might strike me, and music was the only thing that really interested me.
TREVOR: You’ve been playing since when?
TB: When I was 12.
TREVOR: Were you in bands?
TREVOR: Rock and roll?
TB: Almost immediately. In ’65, ’66, ’67, we started playing together. There were three or four of us in Catholic grade school and then we made a band and played church socials, and played “Paint It Black.” Stuff like that. We were kids. In high school I was actually in a good band. We played every weekend all the way through high school. Then I quit. I sold everything I had and quit playing for five years and I started up when I was 22.
TREVOR: Why did you quit playing?
TB: Part of it was I didn’t really take music seriously and myself seriously as a player. Music was a more than a hobby, but it wasn’t something I thought I considered seriously. Then the drug thing really hit in the 60’s, and I didn’t like what it did to our band. We had a good band, but drugs entered into it and things changed in a way I didn’t like, and I got fed up with the scene.
TREVOR: So how did you become a professional musician?
TB: By playing professional gigs. I worked up a repertoire. I got to the point where I could do four hours of music because that’s what you needed back then. On the Coast of Oregon I had played one summer; they hired me to play three nights a week. It was fun, that was in ’79, ’78, and I thought, “I think I’ll really do this.” I went back to the Coast, the same club hired me indefinitely three nights a week, and I did that for two years.
TREVOR: And what were you doing, covers?
TB: All covers. Willie Nelson stuff, Kristofferson, John Prine, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, the songwriters. I got turned on to Mississippi John Hurt somewhere in there, which pulled me over, and then I started learning how to play the guitar more seriously.
TREVOR: How did you learn, did you teach yourself?
TB: Pretty much. In Portland, Oregon, there was a guy named Gary Nichols, a tremendous talent. You would just go, “If I had half your talent,” but he had a real hard time performing. He was very nervous about it, but he was doing shows with Leo Kottke, and was Portland’s answer to him, except he was (also) a great singer. He lived on the Coast, was married, had gotten into construction work, had an alcohol problem, and he and his wife split up. He was a great picker, so I moved in with him, and we jammed all the time and I learned a ton watching this guy play. I was surrounded by players who were better than me and I just played all the time.
TREVOR: You’re accompanying Tom Russell; how did that happen?
TB: Tom and I have a mutual friend who lives in El Paso whom I went to visit two years ago, and I saw Tom play. I gave him a card at the end of the show and said, “Hey, if you ever need a guitar player, look me up.” I’d never been a side guy, and I remember walking away from that table going, “Christ, what would I do if he called me?” Nine months later, I was back in El Paso and so was Tom, and his guitar player, Michael, needed to take a break as his dad was ill. Tom invited me over to the house, we played for a couple of hours and hit it off. I went home, studied his music for three hours a day for a month, started working with him, he liked it and hired me full time.
TREVOR: What do you do in the interim?
TB: I do my own shows. I teach three days a week up in Portland when I’m in town. Then I’ve got my own little tours I still do.
TREVOR: Do you enjoy being a sideman?
TB: I do. As a musician, it’s a whole different approach to playing. I’m used to playing solo, and you know I do a lot of finger picking, and then you do it all yourself. You approach the thing completely differently, and, as a musician, I very much enjoy it because I’ve had to learn a ton and it’s been a lot of fun to explore a different avenue in music.
TREVOR: He’s a good person to travel with I take it.
TB: Absolutely. We joke. He said, “You came along at a good time because,” these first tours I started on, the hotels were better, the gigs were better, the food was better, he’s really got it down. The traveling is all very simple.
TREVOR: Is he demanding?
TB: No, other than he expects me to play well every night, but that’s not demanding.
TREVOR: Do shows always go well?
TB: The only time I’ve had a bad show, and it wasn’t our … not that there’s a fault thing, it wasn’t because of the music. It was just a venue, the people, the situation wasn’t well organized, but again, not his fault or mine. We haven’t had a bad musical show. He’s as steady as a rock, he may get tired, his voice may get tired, but his story telling is always spot on and he varies it every night. He’s always cracking me up, he’s got that entertainment aspect of it down.
TREVOR: My wife and I found you as a performer to be very engaging. Does that come easy? Did you teach yourself?
TB: That actually came from playing different venues, different shows, and finally just relaxing. I used to get uptight and I would have everything I was going to say planned out in my stories, and that was okay, but a lot of times I would be stiff, and then finally I said, “Just be yourself.” You hear that all the time. I just relaxed, telling stories that basically are true, and I have things I draw on, and there’s a natural ham element to it.
TREVOR: Do you write a lot?
TB: I write in spurts. I’ve got maybe 12 or 13 or 14 good ideas in songs. Then I get up every day and I write for hour and hour and a half, and I work on a tune or two until I finish it, and that process doesn’t stop at that hour and a half. I don’t have the mental muscle to write much beyond that because I also practice every day so, but that (writing) continues through the day. Those songs will cycle through my brain and if something hits me I’ll write it down. I’m processing the material all the time. I did my last album in 2008 and I didn’t write a song again until three months ago, and now I’m writing every day again.
TREVOR: Do you co-write ever?
TB: I can’t. I’ve tried it. I’m not interested in it.
TREVOR: Do you produce all your records solo?
TB: No. The first one I did, “Carry Me Back,” was produced by Merel Bregante, he drummed with Loggins and Messina. Great drummer, good producer. He lives in Austin now. He and David Heath and I co-produced it. The rest of them I produced myself.
TREVOR: And who’s the band?
TB: In Austin I use the best guys. I had Gene Elders on the fiddle and Floyd Domino on piano on “Carry Me Back” on board. Denny Bixby is on bass, Rodney Crowell’s guy, on “Me Talking to Me.” On the latter, Bryce Shelton isn’t really famous, he’s just a great drummer. I try to draw in the best players I can find.
TREVOR: What’s the music scene like in Portland?
TB: It’s active. There are a lot of clubs happening. There used to be a real strong blues scene. Portland was a good blues town, best in the Northwest, and in the 80’s it was a great jazz town. Unfortunately, that’s not true anymore. There’s a real strong indie rock thing in Portland.
TREVOR: How would you categorize the kind of music you do?
TB: It’s roots-based singer/songwriter.
TREVOR: With a heavy influence in blues.
TB: For sure. On the last album, there are two distinct country things on it. There’s a little bit of funk on it.
TREVOR: What do you enjoy and dislike about being a professional musician?
TB: It’s constantly creative in a way that I get to do what I like to do. I play the music that I like to play. I’m not in a cover band, I’m not a side guy all the time. What I don’t like about it is there’s not a lot of money involved. (laughs)
TREVOR: Unless you get a hit.
TB: If you get a hit, you can squeak by, but there are guys in Portland, tremendous players, playing for 75 bucks a night. You can’t live on that. And that’s the market, it’s just the way it is. Everything went up. We’re making the same money we made in 1980.
TREVOR: Give me your perceptions, feelings about “Roots On The Rails,” what we’re in the middle of now.
TB: This is sort of a fantasyland to me. I love it. I did the one in the Southwest, which is very different than this, because we didn’t stay on the train. They’re narrow gauge so you, they bus to towns and then the group gets on a specific train for the day and it chugs through the mountains at 20 miles an hour, and it’s great, (with these) steam plumes. There’s a lot more people on a boat cruise. This is cool because you get 50 people, and at the end of four days you all know each other, and I haven’t really had a bad experience with anybody on either one of these trips. Everybody’s very respectful. You got Steve Young sitting watching all these people at an open mike. You wouldn’t find that in a town. That we’ve got a place to go to have some privacy is great … Look at this! (laughs at extraordinary sights out the window).
Trevor: What music are you listening to now, anything contemporary?
TB: Before I came on this trip I listened to a lot of Dave Alvin, Steve Young because we’re doing shows with them. I haven’t listened to a lot of contemporary music. I’m not hearing any great writers. We’ve talked about that a ton. Great music, great production but…
TOM RUSSELL (joins in): Sonically everything’s become pretty interesting. There’s no songwriters. It’s a dead art. It’s all over. Except for a few people.
TB: Yeah. (laughs)
TR: It’s mysterious, an alchemy that’s been lost.
TREVOR: Let’s talk about heroes and influences. Hank Williams, Mississippi John Hurt?
TB: Yeah, all the blues guys. All the Delta guys. All the old country guys up into the 70’s. Merle, Buck Owens, George Jones, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters huge, Howlin’ Wolfe, and all the players associated with them. All the guys in Chicago. Jimmy Rodgers, Willie Big Eyes Smith. All the guys that were the support players. Tremendous musicians. Hubert Sumlin, incredibly inventive guitar player with Howlin’ Wolf. He’s still alive and a very nice man. I got to meet him. A lot of people who are my heroes in my music world are people that are close to me. Victor Guschob is a painter in Portland who lives a reclusive life, who turned me on to electric blues and he had a tremendous feel and love for it. My sister and my mother were extremely influential getting me to play music and to not quit. Those kinds of heroes are not the great players that I’ve listened to, but without them I wouldn’t be here.
For more on Thad Beckman, go to his website: http://www.thadbeckman.com/