You can’t help but like Steve Young, the low-key, self-effacing, singer-songwriter who’s been seriously been making tasty, thoughtful rootsy music since the early 1960’s. I sat with him in April, 2010, while on the Roots on the Rails expedition from Los Angeles to Portland and back, after having seen him perform four sets. He’s a very accomplished guitarist, a fine singer, a great interpreter of songs, and he writes superb ones, which is why the Eagles cut “Seven Bridges Road,” one of their staples in concert, and Waylon Jennings made famous “Lonesome, Ornery and Mean.” I subsequently bought three of his cd’s, and can enthusiastically recommend his work. Steve is a class act, highly regarded by his fellow performers. Go see him live if you get the chance.

TREVOR: How’d you get into playing music?

STEVE: I couldn’t do anything else and I always wanted to be a musician from when I was a tiny kid, and I told people I would be.  Of course, they didn’t believe that. And they thought it was a pretty bad idea, too …

TREVOR: This was in Montgomery, Alabama?

STEVE: The nearest thing I had to a home town was Gadsen, Alabama, but I was actually born in Noonan, Georgia.  That’s still far from Atlanta. My family was unsettled and would move around, and I would sometimes live with my grandmother.  She lived in Gadsden, but all these people originally were from Georgia.  But, you know, I was fortunate in the music of that time and that place was very rich and real, more real, than it is today, you know.  So it had a lot of influence on me.

TREVOR: Mom and dad, they didn’t want you to play?

STEVE: Oh, no.  Nobody did.  Their idea of security would be to become a mailman.

TREVOR: When did you get a guitar?

STEVE: I couldn’t get one.  They were too poor, and a guitar to me was like an astral dream as a kid.  It was a magical thing and I really wanted one, but I could not get one.  I even sold seed.  I took the ad in the back of comic books and sold seeds door to door to get this pictured guitar, and they said it was made out of cardboard. (laughs)  When I was about 14 my mom became convinced enough that she bought me a real guitar.  It was a Gibson ES 125.  Little thin body electric.   Simple guitar.  And from there I really started to learn, or how to play.

TREVOR: Did somebody teach you?  Did you take lessons?

STEVE: There was a guy that helped me get some fundamentals and he believed that I was a real musician, and he went out of his way to help me, but other than that, I was mostly self-taught.  That’s one reason my playing is kind of eccentric.  And I would watch and listen, and I heard, and the street singers, whom I loved.

TREVOR: What were you playing, folk music tunes?

STEVE: I would play different things, some folk, some gospel because my grandmother wanted to hear some of that, blues,  country, and also at that time the hit parade was on, and the top 10, whatever, the standard type coming out of that era of the big bands. So it was a wide variety of music that I heard, and really liked all of it.  And then when I was a teenager I saw flamenco guitarists.  That had a big influence on me, because I didn’t even know what flamenco was.

TREVOR: That was Montoya?

STEVE: Carlos Montoya.  And the sounds that he could get out of one guitar just blew me away.  I was just a kid in high school.  He played at a community college in Beaumont, Texas, which is a terrible place near the Louisiana border.  I was just obsessed with guitar, and I learned the basics of what I know between 14 and 17.

TREVOR: When did you decide to try and make a career of it?

STEVE: I never thought in terms of career.  I just saw it in terms of being able to play and sing and doing what you wanted to, and being a free guy.  I never had ambitions to be a star or anything like that.  I wanted to do my own thing and do it my way, and people could take it or leave it, which was a pretty arrogant attitude.  I mean it’s a tough enough business to try to…

TREVOR: I take it you never really had any other job other than music?

STEVE: No, I tried to have other jobs.  I did have some.  I couldn’t hold them very long.  You know, the people would say “Ah he’s,” whatever, “He can’t do this,” or else I just couldn’t, or I would just bail on them, and getting’ up and going in, and doing the whole thing.  I think the longest I ever held a job was about six months.  One time I was a mailman in L.A, the worst mailman they ever had.  But I’d made a high score on the tests and they thought I’d be a good mailman.  (laughs)  I told them I would never play music again.  I quit.

TREVOR:  Did you have recording agreements?

STEVE:  My introduction to the recording world… There were two guys in Gadsen, Alabama named Richard and Jim, and they did this Appalachiany, folky, whatever, weird bag, mixture, and they had comedy.  They were really trying to make it, whereas I was just kind of a wandering bum, but they wanted me to open shows and to play guitar behind them and they really appreciated what I did, and put up with me.  In Montgomery, I was always getting in trouble about local politics and the junior Klansmen were pissed off at me, and Montgomery was getting’ pretty intense and one day they said “Hey, we got a contract with Capitol Records in Hollywood, California.  Do you wanna go?  And I said “Yeah, let’s go.”  That was 1963.

We went to Capitol Records and we did an album.  They did their album and the producer really like me and he wanted to produce me, but I was just too crazy.  I was drunk all the time. I know they secretly recorded me in the old Capitol studio singing a song.  As I’m playing it back on these huge speakers, I said “Hell that sounds good.  Who is that?”  They said, “It’s you, you fool.”  (laughs) I would get in sessions.  I was doing session work.  I’d go down to the Musician’s Union, and get what to me was a lot of money.  But I didn’t know what to make of L.A. or California, and I said “Well, I’m gonna go back home, but when I went back it was more miserable than ever.  So being in California did something to me,  in a way that still goes.

TREVOR: So you, how did you make your career?

STEVE: It was tough because, because I was uncertain and there was nothing really that commercial or ever has been in a way about what I did, or do.  So I would try to do gigs, and a lot of them were miserable and just didn’t work, but I finally made a record for A&M.  It came out and nobody got it, but a few people got it.  I was invited to the Newport Folk Festival in ’69 by Jim Rooney because he got it.  So there was a little sparkle of…

TREVOR: Who’s Jim Rooney?

STEVE: He’s a musician who now lives in Ireland, but he was instrumental in the old folk world.  He either ran or started Café Lena in the Northeast, which was a famous old folk club. I played the folk festival.

TREVOR: And it went over well?

STEVE: I was stirred up, very conflicted personally, looking back.  So when I would present myself, it wasn’t clear what I was doing.  It created problems and it went on like that for years, and finally I wanted to stop dealing with the whole music thing, and I opened a little guitar store with a friend, in San Anselmo, California.  I did that for a couple years and then I couldn’t take it anymore, and finally Joan Baez cut “Seven Bridges Road.”  That was my first significant event.  Over the years I became more respected, slowly but surely people heard things and liked them.

TREVOR: What are some other cuts that were successful?

STEVE:  “Lonesome, Ornery And Mean” was my next most successful cut, which Waylon Jennings did.  It’s still a song that even today is loved by a lot of young people, apparently.  So it all worked out in a pretty good way because I don’t require a great deal. So, between getting some royalties and doing some gigs that I really wanna do,  I can make a living, I have made a living, but it was a lot of hard times in between there, just struggling and trying to find some kind of footing somewhere doing something.

TREVOR: So, these days right now you’re happy?  You enjoy it?

STEVE: Oh, yeah, because I do it pretty much on my terms when I wanna do it, and I’m very lucky in spite of me.  I’ve had a wee bit of success, and, because I’m the worst self-promoter in the world.  I really don’t care about a “career.”  The thing that bores me the most is Steve Young promo.

TREVOR: How many albums have you made?

STEVE: There must be about 11, and I’m well overdue.  I need to make some more.  I’ve become too much of a perfectionist now.  I have to come off that.  I got a lot of good ideas I need to finish, and just go ahead and record them and accept that nothing is perfect.

TREVOR: How many songs have you written in the last year?

STEVE: I’ve finally finished a couple.  They must be 100 or more songs that are almost there.  If I would just do the final work.  I get distracted with all these other little things and somehow I’m just not finishing them.

TREVOR: Do you play music every day?

STEVE: No, not necessarily every day.  I go in spells, and I got a bunch of recording gear and I try to understand how to work it, and it’s more difficult than I thought. I like to fool with the stuff and I go up in my little studio and once you get into it, you may stay there hours doing it.

TREVOR: Give me a couple high points that have been thrilling for you as a musician.

STEVE: When Waylon Jennings did “Lonesome, Ornery & Mean.” Everybody else was thrilled when the Eagles did “Seven Bridges Road,” and I really appreciate them doing it, and it certainly has helped me be who I am and be kind of free.  The little things that thrill me now are not really very significant in terms of big career or anything. For example, I have a memory of playing one time at a place where they treat alcoholics, which I am one, drug addict/alcoholic; I just don’t use or drink anymore. I did a song I wrote about alcoholism.  There’s a bunch of old black guys there, and they gave me standing ovation and that was a thrill.

TREVOR: You live in Nashville.  Why?

STEVE: I was living in the San Francisco Bay area and … oddly, it’s crazy, I’d forgotten about some of my great differences with the South, and I went back and it was a shock.   I went through a divorce there.  My son had been born in San Francisco; he was just about two or three years at that time, and out of the necessity in about ’81, I bought this house in this old neighborhood when they were cheap, and then I would go away other places and rent it out to some friends.  Over the years, I just got rooted there, and it’s a place that I know in a sense, but if I had a lot of money, I would probably really buy a place in California.   Or keep this house and then have another house.  I really, I did a lot of years of commuting back and forth.  I had an apartment in L.A. in Echo Park.

TREVOR: How many gigs do you do a year?

STEVE: It depends on what I want to do.  A lot of times I do gigs in order to get somewhere.  If I want to go from Nashville to L.A., I’ll go to Texas first probably and do several gigs.  Texas is the most supportive state for what I do.  I’ve got a guesthouse where I can stay and hang out.  So I’ll go down to Austin and look around, and then I like to go from San Antonio to El Paso on the back roads.  You go through Del Rio and Langtry.

TREVOR: You’re driving yourself?

STEVE: Yeah.  That’s what I love to do.

TREVOR: What kind of car do you drive?

STEVE: Toyota Camry.

TREVOR: Is it lonely being out there?

STEVE: Oh, yeah.  You get lonely, but I’m a loner.  I need friends, I need people, but I’m essentially a loner person as far as big family commitments go.

TREVOR: What do you do for fun?

STEVE: I look at good old movies, good old music.  Try to record it.  Try to play and write some.  Go to the gym and work out.  That’s about it.  That’s about as fun as it gets.

TREVOR: Is there anybody contemporary you’re listening to or a fan of?

STEVE: Contemporary?  What the real meaning of contemporary?  Would Dave Alvin be contemporary?


STEVE: Well, well I can appreciate very much Dave Alvin, Tom Russell, people like that.  I’m serious.  But most of the young folk people?  I don’t get it.

TREVOR: It’s, uh, Sunday morning, and you’re going to put on some music.  What will you play?

STEVE: I’d probably play some Blind Willie Johnson or Elvis’ Sun Sessions, or something old probably.  The past fascinates me, and a lot has been lost and will never return.  It’s like the modern country, so-called country, it has no roots, no soul.  The old guys that produced this stuff worked out in the fields, and I know what it was, because I was there at the tail end of it.  I was there when Elvis came on the scene.  People don’t understand, and certainly young people think he was some fat, burned out old guy, a joke.  Well, before that, he was something for real.

TREVOR: Tell me the three best shows you’ve ever seen.

STEVE: Carlos Montoya, then I would have to say, and I’m not just saying this because they’re here now, it would have to be probably some of the shows I’ve seen Tom Russell and Dave Alvin do.  I’ve seen Waylon do some good shows, and I say this kind of reluctantly, David Allen Coe with his band.  It was comical in a way; he put down his band at one show they did then on the stage they slowly came together and became friends again.

TREVOR: Okay, you’ve just been on Roots On The Rails for four day, what’s your take on this?

STEVE: This is my second train trip, and only now do I get why these people are addicted to this.  There’s a magical camaraderie, and even though being on this train is a form of suffering in a way, it’s a wonderful suffering, an escape from the folks’ real world,  to this wondrous, friendly, creative, appreciative little bubble.  So it’s really a great thing, and now I see why as some of these people have told me, “One reason we come back is because of the other people.”

TREVOR: The fans are respectful.

STEVE: Very respectful and they’re very supportive and accepting.  It always worries me a little bit.  I had a conversation with somebody here about, “Don’t think because some songwriter writes a great song, that he’s a wonderful person. That’s a big mistake.”  I’ve seen a lot of musicians play that, and I don’t want to do that because I have a saying that most artists are failures as human beings.

For more on Steve Young, go to:


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?

TB:  Yeah.

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.

TB: Yeah.

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:

It’s funny how one learns about a performer. In my case, it was from a newsletter from Loyola High School in Los Angeles, a rigorous Jesuit college prepartory school, from which I graduated. The notes of a class a few years ahead mentioned that one Tom Russell was releasing a new album and continuing to tour the world. That was unusual as most graduates did not go into the arts as performers, rather they became doctors, lawyers and businessmen. So I checked out Tom Russell the next time he came to McCabes, the best venue in Southern California for roots/Americana/folk — you-know-what-I-mean — music. Tom blew me and my friend away that night, and I became an instant fan.

Tom Russell is charismatic, handsome, wary, sometimes insouciant, witty, intense, ambitious, and very talented as a songwriter, performer and painter. His “man’s man” exterior — with a Southwestern motif — can be intimidating, but spend some time with him and his charm is evident and real. Russell is educated (he was reading a book of New Yorker profiles when I sat with him), articulate, realistic and genuinely enjoys performing.  His show is not just music, but a delightful mélange of anecdotes and off the cuff witticisms. His following only increases. He is managed by his wife, the gorgeous, organized Nadine, who travels with him. I interviewed him on the Roots on the Rails trip from Los Angeles to Portland and back in April 2010.

TM: What’s an average year like?

TR: Since my wife took over the management and agent job in the United States, we’ve gone from 150 live dates to about 70 choice ones — festivals, theaters, larger clubs, and our goal is to make better and better records full of original songs that will advance me more towards playing about an 800 seat theater in the John Prine territory. It would be a very good place for me.  I don’t have a desire to become the next Bob Dylan and play arenas or whatever.  In this day and age when the song, the art of the song is dead, I want to be the last songwriter and move up into that general area of a John Prine.

TM: How many albums do you put out a year?

TR: We don’t put ‘em out every year.  Every two, three years maybe.  It takes a long time to write 10 or 12 songs that I’m satisfied with, so one every two or three years, and then there’s compilations and cowboy records and side projects, so we put out one piece of product every year.  Let’s put it that way.

TM: Do you ever co-write?

TR: I used to co-write a lot with Dave Alvin and Steve Young and Katie Moffat and Ian Tyson, and I learned a lot, but I find more and more I wanna just write from one position.  Co-writing entails a lot of compromise.  A learning experience on one hand and a compromise on the other hand so the more I learn about it the more I want to write from my own position these days.

TM: How much of the time are you writing about things other than romance?  TR: I’m not really known for my love songs.  I’ve written a few for Nadine.  If it’s gonna be a love song, it’s gotta be either very true or a new glimpse of love or something refreshing. There have been so many great love songs and 98% of all songs are about love.  So it’s just the last few records that I’ve turned my attention (to it)  – “Love and Fear” was the record that focused…

TM: All right, let’s get some background.  You went to a Catholic high school I know.

TR: Yeah, you’re trying to flog that one…

TM: And then, uh, you went to University of California at Santa Barbara.  Did you graduate?

TR: I got a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in the Sociology of Law, aka Criminology. (Then I) taught school one year in West Africa. I got disenchanted with academic people, not the subject matter.  I loved the Africans; I didn’t like white academia (so I) went back to Vancouver where I had some friends teaching at the university and did odd jobs and loved Vancouver and walked by a bar one day and saw a country band playing.  I thought, “That’s what I really wanna do.”

TM: And that’s where it started?

TR: I was 19-20, very young.  Graduated very young.

TM: You had a master’s at 19?

TR: Yeah.  Don’t even try to figure this out.  Kid genius.

TM: When did you start playing guitar?

TR: L.A.  My brother Pat is a pretty well known horseman and cowboy.  Had a Tijuana guitar in the 50’s and he played Tex Ritter and Johnny Cash but he couldn’t really sing very well, and so I got his guitar.  In college I always had a guitar and played Kingston Trio stuff.  Then when I discovered Dylan and Ian and Sylvia I got more serious, and I always had a guitar.  I never so much became a guitar player per se as (being) into song writers and folk singers and learning three chords and singing a lot of songs.

TM: Did you play at parties and things like that in college?

TR: A little bit — skits and parties — but still I didn’t have the guts, I was very self-conscious.  Actually, I’m an introvert.  It doesn’t seem like that but I am, and I didn’t have any stage presence at all, and so I was really scared to be in front of people. It wasn’t until about the last 20 years I’ve been really comfortable, more comfortable on stage than I am in real life, and it took a long time. So I really didn’t play until I got back from Africa and had to play in bars for five or ten years.

TM: That’s what you did?  Playing what?  Covers?

TR: Covers, 6-9 hours a night in bad bars. I gave it up a little in 1978 and drove a cab in New York for awhile.  Married, I had a couple kids (including) the daughter we saw yesterday in Portland.  Then I met one of the lyricists of The Grateful Dead in a cab one night.  Long story, but he encouraged me to get back into music.

TM: Is that Robert Hunter?

TR: Yeah.  I sang him “Gaya Del Cielo.” He loved the song. Invited me up on stage to sing it one night.  Voila!  Opened some shows for him and got back the music business and never looked back.  He was a solo, and he would play to Grateful Dead audiences ’cause they were hip to the songs he wrote — all the good Dead songs. I knew who he was when I picked him up in the cab because his name was on the marquee.  I told him I wrote a song called “Gaya Del Cielo” and he said “Sure, kid.”  He had a drink in his hand.  He said “Sing it for me.”  I sang it for him.  I blew him away.  I couldn’t believe it.  I thought he was drunk … “Sing it again.  Sing it again.  Sing it again. I wanna get the Dead to do that,” (he said).  And he came back to town, which is New York, and hired me.

I went to his gig two weeks later and he started talking about, “I met this cab driver who wrote this song.  I can’t get it out of my head.”  He goes, “Instead of me talking about it, let’s get this guy up here.”  And it was terrifying.  Hadn’t played for a year, and number two, I wasn’t comfortable on stage and this song is very demanding.  Even to this day the song is very demanding to sing, because it’s ten verses, but he got me up there, handed me his guitar and split and I looked out at the audience, all these reverent Dead Heads.  I got through the song and they applauded me and I thought, “Wow.” I looked around to give him guitar back and he wasn’t there.  So somebody yelled out, “Play another one.”  So I ended up playing about three songs, and I felt like Hunter knew that this guy (me) needed encouragement and he was a good songwriter.  Then he suddenly appeared and smiled and took the guitar back.  He said, “You’re gonna be really good,” and then he came back to town two months later and had me open a show for him.

All of this is unbelievable in light of the current way people treat each other in this business.  Nobody’s ever done anything like that to a cab driver.  Two things happened since then.  Somebody sent me a cassette tape of him at the Glastenbury Festival in England about a year later where he does “Gaya Del Cielo” and said, “I learned this from this cab driver.  You won’t believe this song.”  I have a cassette of that.  And then I didn’t hear from him for 30 years.  And when mynew album came out “Blood and Candle Smoke,” somebody got him a record and he e-mailed me saying, “This record is incredible, man.  You really did it.”  So that to me is enough that this guy did that back then.  He’s co-writing with Dylan now and he just wrote me and said, “Man, between then and now, you’ve really done it.”

TM: My sense is that you have quite a good rapport with your fellow musicians, for example, Dave Alvin (who was on the Roots on the Rails trip)…

TR: Yeah.

TM: And your guitar player Thad Beckman, you watch each other’s back, and try to help each other to some degree, don’t you?

TR: Yeah, definitely.  There are, there is an inner circle of kind of outsiders and writers who respect each other and help each other out.  It’s a diminishing circle at this level, which I would call the level below, fame-wise, Dylan and Springsteen and Leonard Cohen, but yet above most other people.  In this kind of environment and economy it’s a really rough level to be at, and we have our cult audiences, but we respect each other’s writing and, and it’s sort of an underground thing.

TM: The sound recording business is chaotic at best.

TR: Yeah, but in the light of that, what’s great for us is number one, we’re signed to a label “Shout Factory,” which are the guys that used to own Rhino.  The label is doing very well and this record, “Blood and Candle Smoke,” has outsold anything I’ve ever done.  It sound scanned in the United States 8 or 9 or 10,000 in an environment where aren’t any record stores.  So I have to say, what I think is happening is a really good songwriter, which I hope I am, in this environment can survive better than before, because it’s down for a lot of people, like the people on this train, it’s down to like, “I’ll support that guy who’s still writing great songs.  And it doesn’t hurt that I was on Letterman and NPR.

TM: How did you get on Letterman?

TR: Gerard Mulligan, who used to write for Dave, is a big fan of mine.  He started feeding the CDs to Dave and Letterman’s a big songwriter fan.  He loved Warren Zevon.  Of course he featured Zevon on his show when Zevon was dying, and he heard my stuff and he liked it.  It had a cowboy edge.  He’s interested in the West.  He’s got a ranch in Montana.   He loved the songs.  He also liked Nancy Griffith, who sang with me on the first appearance, 2004, I think, and since then he will usually have me back if I have a new record.

TM: How many times you been on his show?

TR: Five.

TM: And has that been a great boost?

TR: Yeah.  Well you’re playing to 15 million people.  Especially that last time we were on the show, October 1, when he made his revelation that he was being blackmailed by…

TM: You were on that show?

TR: We were in the building.  What happened was we were there and when it was going down, he taped two shows back to back, and our show played the next day.  It couldn’t have been a better thing.  It was unbelievable, and I didn’t know what was  happening.  People were coming up to me and saying, “Do you know what just went down?  When he came out to tape my show, which was the second show he taped, it was the first time ever that he got up off the desk while the commercial was running.  He came over to me and took my hand and said, “It’s great to see you.  Great to have you back,” as if he needed a friend,  because he had just laid that down.  And then bang, we did our thing and he came over after, and he usually says something nice.  He said to the people, “Tom Russell played in Choteau, Montana, rode in on a switch.”  It was an inside joke as I had played a prior, kind of semi-private function (for Letterman).

TM: Has he interviewed you yet?

TR: No and I don’t think that’s gonna happen — you get your musical 3 ½ minute segment.  If  you’re Madonna, or world class, then they’ll give you another five minutes, but I don’t really need that, and that’s not part of the deal there.  He’s the most successful guy in the history of television.  That one hour is extremely valuable to anybody, just promoting anything, and when you get your 3 ½ minutes in front of 10 million, at my level it is a major thing.

TM: How did you get on NPR?

TR: Again, because of the songs. There aren’t that many great songwriters left that have an interesting angle to ‘em and I’ve done records like “Man From God Knows Where,” about my family coming from Ireland, which got a lot of NPR-type press. “Hot Walker” about the Beats and growing up in L.A.  I was an interesting item for a little 6-minute Weekend Edition story for them.  Again, there’s not that much interesting happening in music.

TM: When did you move to El Paso, and why did you move there?

TR: I moved there in ’97;  I was getting tired of New York.  I’d been in New York, Brooklyn, for 15 years as a base, and I was really a Southwestern person.  I’m from L.A.  I was looking in magazines, saw haciendas in New Mexico.  I thought that’s where I want to be, and went out there and drove around and I saw a house for sale, and it was historic hacienda on three acres, very reasonably priced.  I just wanted to change my life.  I knew I didn’t have to go to a networking place.  At the level I was at I knew I just wanted to be a writer and be isolated.

TM: Were you single then?

TR: No, I was in a relationship with a woman who had a connection to El Paso but she didn’t relate to it and went back to New York.

TM: So, the lovely Nadine, when and how did you meet her?

TR: We’d been linked forever.  We met six years ago. I think she heard me on the radio and came to a gig.  Of course when she walked into the gig with her mother, I just went who is that?  And the funny part was, I thought, “Well she’s a naïve, young Swiss gal, she doesn’t know much about what I, of course, she knows more about Texas music than I did.   She knew, since she was this big (indicating a little girl) Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers.  She knows a lot about Mexican music.

TM: How did you become a painter?

TR: Long story.  We have so much space out there. At one point I walked into this space that was built as a studio … and you can’t write all day.  We’re not TV people, so we have time, and drew a cow or something and painted it, and somebody liked it, and I gave it to him and it just started real fast.  I don’t come from any training or anything.

TM: When did you start painting?

TR: 2003.

TM: You definitely have your own style.

TR: Well it’s gone from folk art and the Yarddog Gallery in Austin handles the folk, real primitive stuff.  Now, I’m getting a little better and I’m painting larger paintings with a gallery in Santa Fe, Rainbow Man.

TM: Are you painting in oil or acrylic?

TR: Acrylics.  I would love to paint oil because the colors are stronger but it’s messier and you gotta be better, and I like to slop the paint on.  I can do a painting sometimes in 20 minutes and then it’ll dry in three hours.  Oils are for more sophisticated painters like say Charlie Hunter, who is a great painter. (Hunter is the entrepreneur who overseas and owns Roots on the Rails.)  He’s able to draw anything.  I’m more of a colorist and a fast painter.  I might paint ten things and nine of them are trash and I’ll paint over them, and then I’ll get something that’ll work.  More and more it’s like song writing.  Same kind of thing.

TM: How long does it take you to write a song or is there any length?

TR: Oh, can take two years or 10 minutes.  Same process.  You have all these crafty techniques, but it’s the magic elements that are important and just trying hard.  The more into it you get, the harder you’ve  got to try.

TM: Five influences musically.

TR: Ian Tyson was probably my greatest influence, very melodic, big time songwriter with a huge catalogue.  Ian and Sylvia is the first part of his career.  Cowboy songs is the second part of his career.  Melodic, very, very good songwriter. Dylan, but he wasn’t really an influence on me because his talents are so huge in so many different directions, but inspired continually by Dylan and Leonard Cohen. As far as influences, Tyson’s the main one.  If I had to name a few, I like Van Morrison, and what Lucinda Williams does.  I don’t like a lot of new younger songwriters.  I don’t think there’s anybody that’s hitting the ball out of the park.  There’s Freddy Neil who used to hang around the Village who was a great songwriter.  A lot of people from that era, great  songs.  We don’t see people like that anymore.  Steve Young is a great songwriter as is Dave Alvin. John Prine, I toured with him a little bit.  Great songwriter.  Guy Clark, but Tyson would be at the front of somebody I really studied and who really influenced…

TM: Did you become friends with him?

TR: Oh, yeah, we’re good friends.  He comes down to the house.  I studied under him, really. We co-wrote about 8 or 10 songs.

TM: Let’s talk about today.  Is there anybody that you’re watching?

TR: Nobody that blows me away.

TM: What was the last concert you went to see?

TR: Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen in Phoenix this summer, who blew me away.  Four hours.  Never a bad line, never a bad song.  Great shape.  Also connected to the audience in a way Dylan can’t really, Dylan isn’t a communicator as far as person to person.  Cohen just made you feel like he was happy you were there.  I learn a lot from people like that.  That was the last one that blew me away.  Of course I must say I saw Johnny Rodriguez about six years ago in a honky tonk down the street playing to about 20 people and he blew me.

TM: Your father was a film producer?

TR: No, he was a building contractor, horse trader, he owned race horses and during the war I don’t know how he did it but he got a job with the Motion Picture Society. He had something to do with the Oscars.  He ended up being the guy who brought the Oscar out to Bob Hope.  That was the kind of guy he was, that he could get a job like that.

TM: You grew up with horses, right?

TR: Yes.  I grew up around Hollywood Park, that back side of the track.

TM: Did you ride, too?

TR: Yeah, but my brother is the cow, my brother’s the guy that just, the minute he saw a horse, that was it.

TM: Do you ride now?

TR: No.  We live next to a guy that’s got 12 horses and I see them every day.  I can’t handle horses.  It’s too far to fall.

TM: Did your parents approve of your career choice?

TR: Well my father and I were somewhat estranged; he died at 81, 10 years ago.  I really wasn’t that close to him, he lost a lot of money. My mother was very, very supportive.  My mother’s side was very Bohemian. Her brother was a concert pianist in  New York.  He played at the Martin Luther King rally, played the Star Spangled Banner.  Uncle George, we call him, he was an incredible influence.  He died two ago.  My mother died in ’78.  She was very musical and that side of the family was very musical.  My father, he was more of a businessman, and a hustler.  I don’t think he understood.  He felt like, “Well, are you gonna make the same money Kenny Rodgers is making?”  He didn’t get it.  She got it.

TM: I sense that you could or should be a prose writer.

TR: I had a novel published in Norway 15 years ago and they’re going to bring it out in paperback now.  It’s a crime novel.  That’s why I ended up in New York.  I had a developmental deal with the William Morris Agency and they had  three of my manuscripts.  They came very close and nothing happened, so I went back to music after that but I am working on a couple books.

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Photo by Tom Ruddock

I’ve known Brian Ray for 35 years as I used to work with his sister, Jean. I always found him to be a very personable fellow. I ran into him a few years ago and we had a nice chat; I was thrilled to then learn and impressed that he was in Paul McCartney’s band. Brian was nice enough to sit for this interview in April 2010 at the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, one of the best stores in the nation (and I’m not kidding), for the best in all things fromage, wine, and other delicacies. It’s owned by Norbert Wabnig, my dear friend, and a huge McCartney fan, who joins in the conversation later on as we savored an exquisite meal.

I’m particularly fond of this interview because it gives hope to all musicians. Stay with your craft, do your best, keep it together and it will turn out all right, just as it did for Brian Ray.

TM: What do you currently do as a musician?

BR: My day job is that I play guitar and bass for Paul McCartney in his touring band and on several of his recordings, and have done so for eight years now.

TM: Where did you grow up?

BR: I was born and raised in Glendale, the gateway to Burbank, and now reside in Santa Monica, California.

TM: How did you get into playing music?

BR:  I was lucky enough to have a half-sister, Jean, who was 15 years my elder and in love with music herself.  She was a senior in high school, homecoming queen when I was 3 or 4 years old.  She would baby sit me and play for me Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Rick Nelson, Everly Brothers, and show me pictures of these people with their girlfriends, and they’d be fawning over these early rockers, and something about that moment just caught my imagination.  At four years old I knew what I wanted to do when I got older, and I have a very vivid memory of looking at Elvis, and looking at his image, his taste in clothes, and what he did to his hair.  All this stuff was apparent to me at four years old, and then I heard the music and it was done.  I had this sense from an early age what was the real stuff and what was the counterfeit stuff in pop music, and it just caught my imagination.  I knew then and there what I wanted to do.

TM: When did you get your first guitar?

BR: My first guitar was a $5 nylon string guitar from Tijuana, and it was given to me by Jean, my half-sister.

TM: Did she teach you some chords?

BR:  No.  What happened is, my brother, who hadn’t really displayed much interest in guitar at all, but he was the eldest of four kids, was given a beautiful, brand new 1962 Gibson guitar, and lessons as well.  When he would come home from his lessons I would ask him to show me what he had learned.

TM: How old were you?

BR: I was 8, something like that.  He would show me what he’d learned.  I would take what he’d learned, practice the hell out of it, and by the next lesson he had, I’d be ahead of him, and he lost interest.  I passed him up.  I kept going.  Never got lessons, I just kept going.

TM: Did you play in bands in, in junior high and…

BR:  I was performing before I could tune a guitar to be honest with you.  I was doing show and tell in the fourth grade or fifth grade, fourth grade, and mimicking records that I loved.  In front of the class I would do lip syncs of Beach Boys and other classics.

TM: Did your parents encourage or discourage you from music?

BR:  My parents were great, very encouraging to me.  I don’t think they thought it through to the degree that I might choose it to be my career path, but among my friends, we all knew that I had no plans to do anything else.  From the age of four I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up.  So it was just a matter of getting better at the craft and dedicating myself to it.  I was already dedicated, but it was a matter of applying myself then.

TM: I take it you were into the Beatles when you were a kid.

BR: Absolutely.  I loved the Beatles and I saw them the first time they appeared on Ed Sullivan, just like so many people of our age.  Sunday night, probably 8 p.m., if I’m not mistaken, cross-legged on the floor, four feet from the screen, knowing full well that I was about to be blown away.  I just had this great expectation, because we had heard “Please Please Me” on the radio, which was my first memory of them.  And there they come and changed my life.  But even before the Beatles, I was a big R&B fan, and early rock and roll fan.

So the Beatles spoke to me in a few ways, because they were younger, they were a band, they had a similar look to each other, and they were doing something new and rare.  They were playing original music as a band, all from the same town, and they were all joking around on TV as if they all knew some inside joke, and I wanted to be in on that joke, and I wanted to be in a band, and it made me want that, you know.  Radio had given me an impression of music that I couldn’t shake, but seeing the Beatles live solidified the dream to me.

TM: When did you start playing in bands?

BR: My first guitar playing on stage was with my sister Jean, funny enough.  She was in a folk rock duo called Jim and Jean, and both of their albums are out on Collector’s Choice right now, really great stuff.  Some of Dylan’s players are in the band.  So when they split up, she continued with her solo career and I played the Troubadour, the Ashgrove, which is now the Improv, and all these different shows.  The Icehouse.   By the time I was 17, I was playing on stage with her quite a bit, and all the while I had bands in junior high and high school as well, forming bands and covering other people’s songs, writing our own songs, and rearranging other people’s songs at a very early age.

At 17 years old, I would take songs I loved and rearrange them for our band, or I would take bits of famous songs and string them together in a medley set to a blues song.  The strangest things — I was using West Side Story songs like “America” and setting them to a blues shuffle.  We’d do this great breakdown as a band and go into that melody.  I just loved playing with music.

TM: Did you go to college at all?

BR: No, I did not.

TM: You went straight into show biz?

BR: I was really lucky in that after touring with Jean, my sister, my next professional job was with Bobby Boris Pickett doing the “Monster Mash.”  That was a blast.  We would do Six Flags Over Texas and these amusement parks and these scary Halloween shows and in full zombie makeup and the whole bit.  He had had a whole bunch of songs, and we’d do a couple covers and “twist” songs.

TM: What was Bobby Boris Pickett like?

BR: He was hilarious.  He’s a comedy writer.  We lost him about a year and a half ago, but he was a fabulous guy, very gentle, very funny, very affable and very kicked back.  Really good guy.

TM: Did you stay in touch with him after all these years?

BR: He came to one of my last gigs in my last lineup at the Viper Room.  I had no idea he was suffering from cancer, he was just there in full spirit backing me up and being such a sweet guy and I find out after he passed away that he was suffering a long time before I saw him at that show.  So, anyway, I loved that guy.

TM: Did he make a pretty living as being Bobby Boris Pickett?

BR: Sure he did. It’s a huge song.  We got contracted to play a backyard benefit show for a guy named Phil Kaufman, the legendary old pal road manager of Gram Parsons and for the Rolling Stones, Flying Burrito Brothers, and Gram Parsons old best friend as well.  They had a tipsy vow they made to each other that they loved each other and that whichever one of them went first, the other would take the body out to Joshua Tree and dispose of it in the way that two brothers would want — have a bunch of drinks and incinerate it there in Joshua Tree, and Phil Kaufman took that very seriously and when Gram OD’s, Phil Kaufman did just that.

There we were in the San Fernando Valley playing a show for Phil Kaufman to raise money to pay off his bail or his fine for grand theft of a coffin, and guess who we were? — “Bobby Boris Pickett and The Crypt Kicker Five.”  Kinda crazy story.

We played there along with The Modern Lovers, Dr. Demento and some other people who joined in that day.  This is all documented in Phil’s book, Road Mangler Deluxe.  Phil took to me for some reason.  He’d just lost his best friend.  He hung out, he was helping teach me how to drink.  Drink like a man.  (laughs)  Drink like a cowboy, which meant Jack Daniels, of course.  Anyway, he asked me to stay over because then the next morning he was going up to a rehearsal for a rhythm and blues singer named Etta James, who he had just taken me to see at the Troubadour, and he said that in the morning Etta would begin rehearsals and the guitar player couldn’t make it, could I just come along and bring my guitar, and, “You never know,” maybe I could sit in.  I said, “Sure, you kidding me?”  So there I was in the back of his green equipment truck with my old Les Paul, tooling up the road to Hollywood Hills, and inside there was Etta James, and she didn’t say much.  We started playing, I started jamming along, very insecure.  I might have just turned 19.  I had white blond hair down to my chest.  I was skinny as a rail and white as a ghost and I was jamming along with Etta James, big blues mama.  At the end of rehearsal – I was keeping up okay, I guess – she goes, “I like that white boy,” and she asked me to go play a gig with her in Long Beach the next night.  That was the beginning of what turned into 14 years together.

TM: 14 years!

BR: As her musical director and guitar player.  We would go out to shows and I would put together a band, and the promoter would get musicians in the various towns…

TM: So it would probably be just you and her most of the time on the road?

BR: And her husband, and her son sometimes.

TM: So what was that experience like?

BR: Oh, it was ridiculous.  It was so fun, adventurous, crazy, dramatic — her husband was a jerk.  They were both recovering addicts.  There was probably more going on than I ever realized, and there were times when her husband would take off with my money.  So the biggest show of my young life at 19 was the Montreux Jazz Festival… and in the band was John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin and Rick Wakemen from Yes on keyboard.  These great horn players like David Fathead Newman, Tony Poindexter, these legends.  There I was and Sam, her husband, stole my $350 bucks!  I never got paid for the show, but it doesn’t matter; to me it’s just a wonderful memory and a great story with a little bit of drama on top.

TM: What was her biggest hit?

BR:  “At Last.”

BR:  And then also, “I’ve Got to Go Blind.”  Two huge records.

TM: Who wrote “At Last?”

BR:  I don’t remember who wrote that (It was Mack Gordon and Harry Warren in 1941 for the film musical “Sun Valley Serenade”), but she wrote “I’ve Got to Go Blind.”

TM: And she always put on a good show?

BR: Oh, my God.  She’s one of those rare performers who can literally make you laugh and cry within eight bars.  Reach in, take a hold of your heart, grab it, show it to you, and then put it back in your chest and pat you on the back.  You know, just a rare, rare performer where her insides were just right there on her sleeve, right there in her voice.  She’s very connected to herself.

TM: And did you record with her as well?

BR:  Yeah.  First record I did with her is way out of print but it was called Etta Is Better Than Evah. And that was my title by the way.  (laughs)  That was in 1976, recorded for Chess Platinum records in Fort Lee, New Jersey.  I was 20 years old, 21.  And then I did another with, with her in 1977 that is available called Deep In The Night, and that was produced by the great Jerry Wexler for Warner Bros.

TM: It must have been a thrill to work with him.

BR: Oh, my God, yeah.  A very cool guy.

TM: You traveled all over the world with her.

BR:  I sure did.

TM: And that, that must have been a great experience.

BR: Yeah, sure.  Going to London and Germany and Switzerland when you’re 19 years old is monumental.  It was huge.

TM: Is Etta still alive?

BR: She is, and recovering from some setbacks health-wise, but she was recording and playing live as recently as 8 months ago.  So she’s still around.

TM: How come you left working with her?

BR: I had gotten lucky after doing a bunch of records with some various artists and being a session guy, and I had gone into songwriting, and I had played with various artists like Nicolette Larson, and Reggie Knighton, a band called Crackin’ on Warner Bros., and Laura Branigan.  I decided that I wanted to start concentrating more on songwriting, so I found a writing partner and we wrote as if it was our job, 9 to 5 every day, five days a week. From that came a very big song that we wrote for and got over to Smokey Robinson in 1987 called “One Heartbeat” from the album of the same name. It was a hit on three formats, and it’s now nearly 3 million airplays.  So I had thought I had it all going on in about 1988-89, rolling in royalties and I wanted to write more and do my own band thing.  I’d been with her for 14 years by the time ’88 rolled around, and her husband and her  manager were starting to change the way they were gonna do things.  They wanted me to be the band leader but they didn’t want to let me do the hiring and the firing of the band, so it was a strange, stressful kind of position, and I just decided to move on.

Oh, but man, did I miss her and, oh, I tried to get back in the band.  That was big drama years later where I really wanted to be back in but she had moved on — but we’re very close now.

TM: Where does she live?

BR: She’s out in Riverside.

TM: Have you played with her since you left the band?

BR: Sure have, I sat in with her a number of times at the House of Blues.  She was really kind to offer her vocals to a song of mine on my first record called Mondo Magneto. It’s a song called “Soft Machine.”  The unmistakable Etta James.  There she is.

TM: So then you did the songwriting thing for awhile.  What happened with that?  Where did you go?

BR: I wasn’t able to create another smash, but we kept working away at it.  I did put my own band together.  We played around.  A band called Charm School and then I did a solo band for awhile and then I started playing with Rita Coolidge.  I had stopped drinking in that time, around ’88.  I think that was part of my decision as well to leave, because sometimes it was a little bit dangerous for a guy who’s newly sober around Etta’s camp.

TM: And what was the name of your partner that you wrote with?

BR: Steve Le Gassick.

TM: What happened to him?

BR: He still makes some music.  His wife’s got a great cosmetics business and he helps with that.  They travel quite a bit.  He’s got a band and they do WAVE-style soft jazz.

TM: Playing with Rita Coolidge, was that good?

BR: Oh, it’s great.  I mean to play with a woman who had been out with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell and Clapton and all that stuff.  It was a big thrill for me.  And finally, they are recognizing publicly that Rita Coolidge actually wrote that end bit of “Leila” where the piano breaks down to that lovely piano thing.  That was Rita Coolidge’s riff, and their keyboardist, maybe Bobby Whitlock, started playing it.  Stuck it in the song and never had credit for it.  Heard a DJ say it the other day.  Good for her.

TM: How long did you play with Rita?

BR: Four or five from ’91 through ’95.

TM: And then you went where?

BR: Then I went to France and auditioned to play with a cool artist named Mylene Farmer.  She was like a Madonna of France with a very reedy thin voice, an Enya-type voice but singing provocative deep lyrics with a very flashy show, and doing big arenas.  I was just lucky to get the audition. In the band, the drummer who also won the audition out of many auditioning drummers, was Abe Laboreal, Jr., who would soon figure into my life in a big way.  Then, after Mylene Farmer, I got another French artist gig with a guy named Johnny Hallyday, the French Elvis, who’s still kicking and a remarkable performer.

I became his guitar player.  I would go between Mylene and Johnny back and forth, because they’d use some of the same crew guys, just go back and forth between those artists and had a wonderful time together, all of us.  Touring in France.  Nice times.

TM: So you learned to speak French?

BR: Uh peu.  Un petit peu.  Abe Laboreal, Jr. also won the audition to play with Johnny Hallyday, so Abe and I went back and forth between these two completely polar opposite artists and in doing so became best of friends.

TM: Give us the scene, what’s it like being his guitar player?  Was it fun, was it hard, was it unusual, was it weird?

BR: It was the first time I’ve been with an act who was about to do a 3-hour show  and we were playing at the Stade De France, the big football stadium, soccer stadium in the middle of Paris, and a brand new stadium.  We were the second music act to come in there, and it held 85,000 people.  And he was going do it for three nights!  The Stones come in there and they played for maybe one night.  He’s a big deal over there.  I was very, very excited.  I’d warmed up to the French experience by playing Mylene Farmer just before that, but in arenas, more like 12 to 17,000 people per.  They pushed me forward and got me into some crazy rocking clothes and gave me a lot to play a lot of emphasis, and it was just a total blast.  He’s a real rocker.  He’s a fun guy.  Nice guy to work with.  It was very demanding of you musically.  They also had an 86-piece orchestra and 200 choral singers arriving, coming up from a hydraulic lift in the middle of the show.  Is that insane?

TM: Do you read music?

BR: I don’t.  I read charts, but as far as reading notation, no.  I but I read chord charts and make my own charts when I hear a song, or just play by ear.

TM: How long did you play with Hallyday?

BR: Johnny was from ’98 through 2001.

TM: And then the next job was what?

BR: Next big thing after Johnny was Paul.

TM: We’re about 2001, how did you actually hear about the gig?

BR: Abe had left the Johnny Hallyday tour before our last leg. Got a new drummer.  I was unhappy and I was calling Abe, “Man, oh, dude, I miss you so much.  You get me outta here.”  And he’s like, “Oh, I’ve been with K.D. Lang,” and says, “You’re not gonna believe what I just got,” and I said “What?”  “I got a call from Paul McCartney.  I’m doing his upcoming record.”  I went, “Oh, my God.  I’m gonna run back to town just to shake your hand.  Don’t wash your hand.”

I come back to town and he tells me all about it and they’re gonna be touring in a couple of months, and I said, “Okay, so you have Rusty on guitar, you on drums, Wix on keyboards and Paul, but who’s gonna play bass when Paul moves to piano, and guitar when Paul’s on bass?  And he goes, “Well we’re looking for a guitar player who plays a little bass,” and I put my right hand in the air and said, “I’d love a shot at that.”

TM: That was one of the things that astonishes me when I saw the show, how much bass you did play and how well. How did you get into bass if you spent so much of your career focusing on guitar?

BR: The big secret is I didn’t.  I put my hand up in the air knowing that I would have to run home and woodshed and beaver away at it until I was good enough to be that guy.  And I had played bass on my demos and stuff like that.  Maybe on a demo or two for other people.  I had a bass.  I was more of a bass owner than a bass player.  I always thought that guitar players who played bass basically sucked and so I guess my objective would have been just to do the best I could to honor Paul’s amazing bass parts which are among the best ever recorded ever, and not blow it, and not play like a guitar player when I play bass.  And so that required just simplicity and I did just that.  I got the first job with Paul was one song for the Super Bowl, the pre-National Anthem song right before the 2002 game, and I flew out to New Orleans to meet Paul for the first time.  Did this one song.  I thought that was gonna be it and I’d never see Paul again and Paul comes back to the hotel after I had already said goodbye to him and he comes back to the hotel bar and he’s getting ready to now go to bed after telling some stories, and he’s giving everyone a hug goodnight. We’d played one song.  He comes up to me and he says, “Okay, Brian, welcome aboard, stick with Abe and Rusty and they’ll show you the ropes.  See ya in five weeks for rehearsals.”

I turned to Abe and I said “Did he just say what I think he said?,”  and he goes “Yeah, Dude.”  You know how Abe talks.

That was the beginning.  I ran home and got the right bass, got a guitar, got an acoustic guitar, put them in stands in front of me, got two amps, mike stand standing up, a stack of CDs and CD player all within my reach and I just woodshedded for five weeks straight.  Just immersed myself in Beatles, Wings and solo stuff, and I must have learned 70 songs just all on my own, not knowing what the set list would be, I just worked, and worked, and worked, and worked.  The first week I thought, “I’m not good enough.  This might suck, but I’m gonna do it anyway.”  The second week I go, “Aw, it’s better.”  The third week I had Abe come over and he said, “Oh, it sounds great!,” and by the fifth week I was ready, and I went and got the job.

TM: So then you went out for rehearsals, and what were they like?

BR: By then I’d been woodshedding for five weeks and I was pretty prepared, and we fortunately had five days to rehearse as a band before Paul showed up.  So by day five of those five days, we were sounding pretty good and we knew 45 songs.

TM: You play rhythm and lead?

BR: Rhythm and lead, and acoustic and 12-string, and bass.

TM: And you switch off with Rusty Anderson.  How did he get the job?

BR: He came at the same time Abe did for the record called Driving Rain, produced by David Kahne.

TM: How did Paul know to call Abe and Rusty?

BR: He didn’t, but David Kahne did.

TM: So then you rehearsed with McCartney for how long before that tour?

BR: We rehearsed for five days before he got there and then six days with him, and then we went on tour.

TM: Wat were those rehearsals like?

BR: Insane.  I mean to hear that voice come out of those monitors on those songs.  There we are playing “Hello, Goodbye” and he’s asking me, “Brian, what’s the chords at the end?”  Aiiiee, I can’t even talk.  You’re just in that Nirvana and just feel so blessed and it’s really surreal, and otherworldly.  I did not accept that I was gonna go on tour with Paul McCartney until the end of the first day of that six days together where we finally played together, and he comes in at the end of that day and he says, “Okay, guys, sounds good.  I’ll see ya tomorrow.”  And it wasn’t until then that I really owned that, “Hey, I think I’m goin’ on tour with Paul.

TM: So let’s now rate McCartney as a musician, it’s so softball but…

BR: You’re right, it’s a softball; anyone who doesn’t know should come and see him play live because he is from another planet, basically, for one thing, because he sings better than anybody and he sings more dynamically than anybody, he’s got more range than anybody, plus he plays great guitar, great lead guitar, really great on piano, he’s a great drummer.  On a bunch of Beatles’ tracks he played drums, and then he’s this amazing songwriter and arranger, and he’s self-taught.

TM: Have you come reached an opinion as to whether or not it’s innate talent or because he’s been such a hard working musician all along, or both?

BR: It’s both, but you can’t have one without the other.  You can’t have the kind of genius that he displays without great innate talent, and he’s just born with a bunch of magic.  Sorry, there’s no other way to say it. You can’t do all those things self-taught at that level and explain it any other way.  His dad was a piano player and he liked show tunes and vaudeville, and you hear that come out in Paul’s writing, but he wasn’t the singer Paul was and he wasn’t the guitar player or the drummer … He was just gifted.  It was a gift.

TM: Why is he performing so much now? He clearly doesn’t need the money.

BR: That’s a good question.  I don’t even know to answer it except to say that what he tells me is it’s fun.  Fun you can’t buy, and he’s not an ostentatious guy anyway.  So he’s not out there trying to buy fun.  He’s a simpler, cool guy, his houses aren’t giant.  His life isn’t giant.  He doesn’t have a butler.  He has a very simple, groovy life.

TM: Where does he spend his time?

BR: He’s usually in London or in New York.

TM: Is he here in L.A. at all?

BR: Sometimes, when we come here to work.

TM: I know he has a house, but he doesn’t spend much time here.

BR: No, I think he’s got a place that he uses sometimes but he’s not here a lot.

TM: So what’s it like on the road? Do you travel with him?

BR: Yes, we do.

TM: Do you have a private jet or…

BR: Private jet.  Chartered.  He doesn’t own.  He charters.

TM: How many people are on that private jet?

BR: Well usually it’s the band, Paul, mostly, most of the time Nancy, his girlfriend, and maybe four other people.  A core group, maybe 15 at the most.

TM: And then you’re touring all around the world, right?

BR: We’ll hub out from the city and go to various cities and be back in bed by 3 or 4 in the morning after partying together, and do it again in a day or two.

TM: How many months working?

BR: Paul doesn’t work at this time right now more than six weeks straight.  The most we’ve ever gone out together was I think 12 weeks with rehearsals included.  But he’s into shorter stints right now, which suits us fine.

TM: The band is all based in L.A.

BR: Except for Wicks, the keyboard player.

TM: Where’s he based?

BR: He’s in London as well.  English guy. Paul “Wicks” Wickens, his nickname is Wix.

TM: Do you, Abe and Rusty look at each other and say, “Can you believe this?”

BR: Yeah, ’cause we’re all old friends.  It’s a funny thing, I played with Abe for 6 years by the time we got together with Paul.  Rusty I’d known since 1989.  He was my neighbor, and a buddy, and we used to trade guitars and borrow each other’s gear, and play on each other’s demos, but we were never in a band together.  And Abe and Rusty knew each other, but the three of us never played together, so you had this awareness of each other.  It just happens to be a really good chemistry and we get along with each other.

TM: Is it fun on the road?

BR: Oh, yeah.  It’s great.  We’re gifted with liking and appreciating each other, and after 8 years that’s saying a lot.

TM: And he treats you all with respect and decency and…

BR: Great guy. He’s funnier than hell.  He likes a good time.  Treats you good.  Makes sure you’re happy.  He’s not too demanding or tough on you but he wants the stuff done right.

TM: What is the experience of actually playing on stage and playing these songs night after night to the adoring crowd that you find?

BR: What the audience who comes to a show doesn’t understand, and maybe could never understand, is that for us they’re our show.  We stand up there playing these songs that we know are gonna strike chords within them, but watching that happen is quite another thing than just knowing this might happen.  Watching their faces light up and you see these memories just flash by on their faces and they tear up and they cry and they shout, and you see these giant emotions.  It must be really something for Paul knowing that he wrote those songs and that he’s had that effect on people.

A guy who quite literally, one of a handful of people who changed the world in the ‘60’s, you know, I mean he was at the head in the top of the cultural revolution in the ‘60’s.  He and Dylan and John… and Kennedy.

NW: (Norbert, sitting with us) Just an observation…the generational gap that he’s managed to bridge.  Abe gave us some wonderful tickets and on this side was Ozzie Osborne, who was totally in awe of McCartney… and sitting behind us were the Jonas Brothers.  And they were totally in awe.  You could tell.  It was amazing.

BR: It is amazing that he’s traveled the time and the distance in the generations and stayed relevant.  It’s a strange phenomenon and no one else can really say that.  Do you see that kind of spread at a Stones show?  No, you see great fans, but you don’t see that same sort of emotional hit.  You see a physicality and a party memory hit, but you don’t see that deep visceral… life resonance going on.

NW: McCartney manages at the same time being very casual and very open, very professional when it comes to the music.  He’s really true to the music.  Just to use the Stones as an example.  The last time I saw them, they’re really sloppy and maybe they take it for granted or they’re just not as professional as …

BR: They’re not as reverential toward, towards their own music and their own records.

TM: I was astonished at the quality of the musicianship overall and the ability of five guys in the band to recreate so honestly and correctly and fully the music on a wide variety of the records.  I take it that he and the band are all sticklers to do that.

BR: We could be even more like the record if we were asked to or if we chose to, and the truth is is that Paul was smart enough and lucky enough to get the guys together that adored his music as much as we do and respect what each of our instruments did in our songs that were hooky to us, and pay attention to those little funny details, and when we’re all doing that at the same time, it’s not karaoke, but it is louder and bigger perhaps than some of the records, but it is in the spirit of … I think that’s the point.  Geez, we’re just actually having fun playing.  We’re not being reined in to play the exact same thing at the exact moment all the time.

TM: A friend of mine said that the band has been longer with Paul than any other band and it’s the best band he ever had.

BR: That’s awfully kind.  He’s had some amazing players.  If people say that it’s amazing, but to hear Paul in an interview recently say, when asked, “Of all of these great players who have come across your threshold over the years, who among them, here or not, would you want to put a band together with?  Be with again?”  And he goes, “Oh, really just the band I have right now.”  Wow, it just took my breath away.  He’s got a lot of choices in this, and great players that have come and gone, but it’s kind of him. He doesn’t say things like, “We’re better than the Beatles.”  He won’t go there; that’s the best band ever but he’s really kind to us as well.  More to the press than to us directly.

TM: On a personal level, it’s been great for your life, hasn’t it?  In terms of achieving what you wanted to do as a musician from Glendale?

BR: What I wanted to do when I was 4 years old, somehow, someway, I got to do it, and it’s a good thing, because I was not prepared to be able to do much else, and I’d never had a desire to do anything else.  This is what I wanted to be good at and it’s just what I put my energy towards.

TM: You’re single?

BR: Right now I’m single.  Just out of a relationship that ended in November and enjoying my life right now…

TM: And did you do another record since the one you talked about?

BR: Just finished it and it’s going to be released this summer, 2010.

TM: Do you have a name for?

BR: The title is This Way Up.  It’s a follow up to my ’06 album called Mondo Magneto.

TM: The plans are to continue touring indefinitely with Paul?

BR: Yeah, Paul hasn’t said a word about slowing down.  In fact, more dates just keep coming in, so I’m happy.  He doesn’t talk about stopping or retiring or anything like that.  I think he mentioned it once.  He says, “Well, we’re never really hired, so I don’t think I need to retire.”  Something like that.  Some clever little thing.

TM: Do you wanna ask any questions?

NW: I wanted to compliment you on “Hey, Jude,” where Paul goes in the front and gets the audience to go… Nice bass line.

BR: Thank you so much.  That’s really nice of you.  Do you wanna hear the story behind that?  Very interesting story.  Check this out. We do that break down in the “Na, na, na, na, na.  Hey Jude.”   Then he asked the girls to sing.  He asked the boys to sing and then the girls to sing again. Now everyone together, and out of nowhere, in Chicago, and this is documented on our first live DVD called, “Back In The U.S.,” I just was struck by Abe’s playing that night, a little rhythm behind the “na, na’s.”  He’s the only thing that’s playing and it’s just the audience singing and Abe playing drums, and as usually, big drums.  And he’s playing this really chilled R&B beat, and Abe’s always inspired me, so I decided right then and there for some reason to just start playing a bass line along with him.  And I started playing boom, be, be, be, boo, boo, boo, bi, di, pi. Boom, pi, bi, boo, be… a boogaloo bass line from the days of old, and then I stopped it and started it, like a remix record or a dub record.  And I saw Paul kind of turn over to me like, “What in the hell’s goin’ on?”  and I just kept doing it, and on the bus on the way out Paul said, “I really liked that.  That’s really great.  So here’s what we do.  Let me ask the boys to sing, then I’ll ask the girls to sing, and I say ‘Everybody sing,’ then you start that bass line.”  The funny thing is that now four years later, we’re all in Las Vegas to see the LOVE show. The Beatles’  Cirque De Soleil show ends with “Hey, Jude.”  There at the end of “Hey, Jude” is the cast getting everyone to clap along and there’s the Beatles version of “Hey, Jude,” playing loud and there’s a breakdown, and all of a sudden, there’s a boogaloo bass line that was never there before, never any of us had heard on the record.  I turned around and go, “Wait a second.  How in the hell did my bass part end up in LOVE?”  So I ask George Martin’s son, Giles Martin, who did the LOVE soundtrack, “What’s the deal with the bass?”  And he goes, “Well, in listening to the original record, they went on for three minutes on the tag, and we’re listening down to the tag, and Paul starts playing this boogaloo bass line.” Isn’t that weird?  Somehow he sent forward 40 years, a little bass idea and I picked up on it.

NW: That’s amazing.  By the way, did you do the bass line on “That Was Me?”

BR:No, that’s Paul on that one.

MV:  That’s Paul?

BR:   Ba, do, do, do, do, do, do…  Yeah, it’s great, isn’t it?  He’s such a master bass player.

TM: You’ve recorded with him?

BR:   We’ve done a number of live records of course. But we also did Memory Almost Full and Little Bit Of Chaos And Creation.

TM: I saw the U.S.S.R. show on television… That must have been fun?

TM: Aw, yeah.  Pretty amazing to play for that crowd who was basically starving for a real Beatle, and they’d been so infatuated with the Beatles.  While they were having one of their toughest times in their long history in the ‘60’s, and everything was prohibited, it was illegal to own a Beatles record in the ‘60’s in Russia.  So they’d trade ‘em on the black market.  They’d have people in other countries cut Beatles records onto X-ray film and you’d go and buy what they call “bones,” which are X-rays.  There’s some guy’s broken ankle.  You’d drop the needle down on it and “Please, Please Me,” so they were starving to see Paul McCartney by the time we showed up there.

TM: So you’ve met a lot of interesting people in the last eight years?

BR: Whooo.  Yeah.  I got to meet Gorbachev.  Here are these guys, these world leaders, shaping relations with the West, talk about being a Beatles’ fan, but not being able to talk, not being able to tell anybody.

TM: Give me a couple other interesting people you’ve met.

BR: Bill Clinton is pretty interesting.

TM: He wanted to meet McCartney?

BR: Yeah.  Brian Wilson, amazing, interesting guy.  The Royal Family.  “The Queen’s Jubilee,” so meeting Prince Charles.  I didn’t meet the Queen but she stood right in front of me and smiled.  (laughs)  I guess that’s like meeting the Queen.

TM: Thanks, Brian.

BR:  My pleasure.

For more on Brian Ray go to and find him on Facebook

John Wooden is gone, having passed at 99 on June 4, 2010.  I loved him and except for my parents, no one had a bigger impact on my life than him.

I found John Wooden so interesting that I wrote his biography, The John Wooden Pyramid of Success. Of all I have ever done, I am most proud of writing that book in part because it was also the hardest endeavor I’ve ever taken on as there is so much to learn and then say about this legendary, beloved sports figure.  Focusing on Wooden and his wisdom changed my life for the better in all respects.

Coach Wooden lived a balanced life where family came first, but the work obviously got done and there was time for friends and relaxation.  Love, integrity and class are three words that Wooden personified.

As a basketball coach, his records are not just unequaled, but unapproachable. His UCLA teams won the national championship ten out of a twelve year period, seven years in row, with 88 consecutive victories.   Wooden is widely considered by sports journalists and the public to be the greatest coach of all time in any sport, but he is more proud of being a husband, father and teacher.  His greatest successes were off the court, in life.

Coach Wooden was one of the most respected persons who ever lived, and rightly so.  Awards are named after him, many bestselling books have now been written about and with him.  Wooden exemplified and lived the ideals he promoted. He was the real deal, complete with also truly being humble, kind, personable, charming and witty. He loved people, life, and was a joy to be around. This is why what is being written about him concentrates in him as a person . One commentator observed, that’s the mark of a true man: it is what and how he lived, not his victories by which he is being measured and remembered.

More than anything else, Wooden was a philosopher. His Pyramid of Success, the no-nonsense, brilliant, non-sectarian strategy for living he created is a masterpiece, his magnificent gift to humankind.  Its essence is that, “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become your best.”

Would that we all follow his guidance. The whole world is going to miss him, but his values and legacy shall always remain.

Just out!

When I Was There: Life at Berkeley 1960-2010, a fascinating look at Berkeley, including a reminiscence by Neville Johnson aka Trevor McShane about his days there during the student revolution when he was the music critic for the Daily Californian, the University Newspaper. Order it from Amazon.

Francisco Aguabella passed away at the age of 84 on May 6, 2010. He is gone, but his music and spirit remain.  I was his attorney for the last 17 years, and he backed me as a musician on a number of projects. He was one of the greatest drummers in the history of music, playing drums and congas and many other percussive instruments.  You can hear him on these cds: First Love, Last LoveDizzy, and Contemporary Retro.

What a powerful presence this quiet man brought to any occasion. He was gifted, and through discipline, perfected his craft so that he is rightfully regarded as one of the giants in the history of drumming, from bata to conga, Afro-Cuban to rock to traditional. He played up to the end, and I was very touched to see him lug his heavy drums uncomplaining nor asking for assistance.  I never saw him angry, I never heard him complain, he loved people, and we loved him back.  He was a class act in every sense of the word, kind, reliable, stable, and consistently humble.  He was a genuine in what he did, had a good sense of humor, and fun to be around. He wanted to do his best at all times.

What an honor it is to have known and worked with this fine person.