Doug Glover over at the literary E-Zine Numéro Cinq gave me the opportunity to spout off about my CD ‘Big Texas Sky’. Doug gave me my weekend’s allowance of words in order to talk about my creative process for writing the songs and crafting the album. Take a read and let me know what you think — and maybe even purchase it so I can be encouraged to put out another one!
Darryl Gregory lives in Connecticut but has roots in Texas, plays country music on his lap steel guitar, and sings like a mournful soul. He can also write, and so we have here an analysis of the genesis and composition of an entire album, music and words. He tells a story about telling stories, eloquently and generously, and incidentally tells the stories again, family stories. I love any insight I can get into the working language and practice of an art form other than my own. It always creates analogies, parallels and connections in my mind. While you’re reading, you can listen to the songs (click on the widget half-way down the page).
I met Darryl through his wife, Sophfronia Scott, who published an essay here last issue and is a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She told me a delightful story about how they found each other during a football game when she was in the stands and he was the band leader. I tell you this because I like the family connections here on NC which in the end is very much about friends, families and students (this is one of the reasons so many of the author photos on NC have children in them — have you noticed?). Also I think talented people find each other.
I’m a songwriter. I’m also a storyteller—a raconteur with melodic intent. When I set out to write a song, I want to guide a listener through my character’s state of mind as that character plays the hand I’ve dealt them. I use music to groove along with the words and to fill in for the fat I trimmed off when crafting singable lyrics. I doubt a novelist or a poet would or could do such a thing. But I can, in a sense, leave out some words that my lap steel guitar will intone with a reverb-ladened wail. That’s the really cool thing about being a songwriter, but you still need to tell a story and connect to the listener no matter how much reverb you soak in.
I say this all up front because as I began work on my latest album, Big Texas Sky, I had to keep reminding myself that I was a storyteller. I needed to tell a story, not just within each song, but over the entire album. What did I want to say and how could I string an album’s worth of songs together in order to convey it to a listener? I had a lot of songs to choose from as I had been writing consistently since my previous release in 2007. But which were the songs that told their own story and told a bigger story when played together with other songs?
Life, as it does with many a creative process, played a hand in answering that question. Last year as I began thinking about the process of writing and recording a new album, I was dealing with a boatload of family issues. I lost a very close friend and then my sister-in-law, attending their funerals in two different states only days apart. At the same timeI watched my mother’s health deteriorate as her age sapped her strength and will to live. I spent months saying my farewells to her. She passed away two weeks before her 86th birthday.
Last autumn I received a photograph in the mail from my Aunt Thelma, my father’s sister, who had just turned 95. She resides in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a photo of her, my other surviving aunt, their children (my cousins) and their children, all at the gathering for Thelma’s 95th birthday. As I looked over the picture a feeling of deep regret began to well up in my heart. Besides my aunts, I did not know any of the people in the photo. There were many familial characteristics that I latched onto (that man in the second row looks a lot like my brother) but I had no names and no story to go along with the photo. This thought truly saddened me.
So as I gathered songs for my then untitled album, I began to notice I was putting together a collection of songs about family. Consciously or not here was a group of songs that said something about how I was feeling. I saw the love and the regret in the words I had written, and those lyrics felt like unsent letters waiting to be postmarked.
From one of the songs emerged the phrase that would become the title of the collection and give me the way to connect all the dots. “Anywhere But Here” is a story about a young girl trying to escape one abusive situation after another. She curses her fate for being born under a big Texas sky. The image of a big sky overhead makes me think of God: the omnipresence, the spirit that is always there, watching as we live our lives. We either acknowledge it or not, but the fact remains that it is there. So for me the sky became a metaphor for God and Texas became a metaphor for family and these two ideas strung the beads together. After I saw this, picking the rest of the songs for Big Texas Sky became easy. Though I ended up with fewer songs than is on a usual CD these days, 7 instead of 10 or 12, I feel these seven songs are solid stories of family, life, spirit and love. Together they create a tableau the listener can comfortably insert themselves and feel right at home.
I’m very fortunate to have a recording studio in my basement. I built it when our family moved from cramped quarters in NYC to expanded-suburban-landownership in CT. I can go downstairs, shut the door and take my time finding the right way to record the songs I’ve written. For this CD I wanted to have a country/Americana sound throughout because I knew, even before I decided on the title, I wanted the album to be associated with Texas in some way. I was raised listening to country music: Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Waylon Jennings. I hated it all. I hated it all because my parents loved it. But I absorbed it through the pores of my musical skin and when I got very serious about songwriting I found that my songs were inherently country. Oh I can write a mean post punk power pop diddy, but country is where my heart is.
I don’t have an exact process to recording, but the general path goes something like this: first drums, rhythm guitar and bass, add in the lead guitar, keyboards and background vocals, top it off with lead vocals and mix it all together.
I like to spend a lot of time finding just the right sound for my guitar through different amplifier settings and just the right groove for the bass. When a musician talks about groove he is talking about a couple of integrated items — the rhythms that allow the listener to move along with the beat (can I dance to it?) and how the other instruments all fall within that basic rhythm. You know you’re playing with good musicians when they know their place within the groove.
That being the case, I will record those instruments first over a looped drum track, kind of like a metronome, but with more of a rhythmic groove from a bass drum and snare (no one likes playing to a click-click-click-click). Once I get the bass and rhythm guitars down, I will go back and record a real drum part. I’m not a great drummer, so I will call in a pro to play these parts.
Next comes a scratch vocal track. Scratch means that I know I’m not going to keep it and it’s just there as a guide, like a piece of scrap wood. I use the scratch vocal to help me record the lead guitars, keyboards, lap steel guitars, background vocals and anything else that plays off of the lead vocal. The reason for doing this is so that those instrumental parts do not get in the way of the vocals. It’s all about the words and the story in country music, so the voice is center and upfront. Next time you listen to rock or pop, take a moment to listen to where the voice is in relation to the band. It’s usually even with or a little in the back of the instruments. Not the case with country. The voice is always more prominent than everything else.
Now I go back and do many, many takes of the lead vocal part. I find singing to be deceivingly difficult. Especially when you go back into the control room of the studio and listen closely: swallowed consonants, odd sounding vowels, bad pitch, poor phrasing. I usually record 5 or 6 full passes of the song, then go back and record multiple takes of verses and choruses and bridges. The real fun begins when I try to find the best sounding bits from all that and edit it together onto a single track. Digital recording sure has made this easier, but it still comes down to singing the part right, knowing what you want the song to sound like an being able to tell the story while singing. By the way, I never use auto-tune. If I can’t sing in tune then it’s time to find another line of work.
Here’s a quick run-down of the songs on Big Texas Sky and the thread that strings them together. A complete set of lyrics is available at the Big Texas Sky web page. I’ll also include a few notes about the sound as well just to give you an idea of how the music pulls the story along.
Aunt Jean’s Piano
This a story that makes a connection through time using the piano once played by a long dead relative as a pivot point. Jean was my father’s younger sister and she was always described to me as “the talented pretty one” of the nine children. She died of a brain aneurism at the age of 19. I often thought about what might have happened to the piano she played.
I run my hands across the keys
Black and white and yellowed with age
What might it be like to come back to her house and play it as the ghosts dance in the room?
I feel her ghost inside the chords
As they drift around this room
I see her dancing on the porch
Singing an old Texas tune
The interesting thing about this piece is that there was no piano in it. It’s a song about a piano and yet, no piano. The song is stark with just a guitar, mandolin and fiddle to accompany the voice. Of course this bugged me to no end until I came up with the idea to record a prelude. In the lyrics there is a reference to Jean’s father loving the old Methodist hymns. I decided to begin the song with a hymn being sung by Jean and me (the storyteller). I pulled in a dear friend to sing Jean’s part way out of her range so she would sound like a young girl and I sang the alto part down an octave. It comes out well as a very cool effect.
Anywhere But Here
I wanted to write a story in the vein of Emmy Lou Harris’s “Red Dirt Girl”. A story about a young girl who is trying to escape one abusive situation after another and not quite getting out.
She’s gonna run far
From this broke down life
Stepdaddy’s greasy hands
And his visits in the night
He ain’t gonna hold her down this time
She ain’t lookin’ back this time
The listener hopefully realizes that she’s never going to find peace because it’s always anywhere but here.
She got a ticket for a bus
Headed to Austin
Or is it Detroit?
Maybe it’s Boston?
As long as it’s
Anywhere but here
The guitars are special in this song. There’s a twangy-ness to them that makes me think of an East Texas Buddy Holly sound. Layered on top of this is a lap steel guitar played with a slide and drenched in reverb. If you’ve ever heard the Flatlanders you’ll know the sound I was aiming for.
This is my tongue-in-cheek poke at why some guys work so damned hard: for the pretty little woman at home.
Cause baby needs a penthouse view
Cause baby needs caviar
Cause baby needs a mink coat
Baby don’t know why I’m broke
I usually perform this song as a talking blues or a work-song. A work song is the grandfather to the music we know as ‘the blues’. It’s sung or chanted without instrumental support (acapella) and usually has a rhythmic groove that would go well with swinging a sledgehammer. I wanted to add atmosphere to the song and that meant adding instruments. I decided to arrange it for this CD with a pounding bass, a dobro and junk percussion. Junk percussion meaning, well… junk: tin cans, metal bars, trash cans, pots and pans, etc. I recorded the voice and then ran it through an amp to make it sound like the singer is talking through a bull horn at a union rally. All of this is intended to create a mood and a groove for this guy to wail about his lot in life.
How Do I Tell Her
In my job as a music educator, I have been in the position of having my job eliminated as school districts try to cut the budget. It’s a fearful situation in so many regards, not least of which was having to go home and have a discussion with my wife about the possibility that I might not have a job in the coming school year. “How Do I Tell Her” relates the story of a man who is let go from a long standing job and doesn’t know how to tell his wife.
Now I feel like a thief in the night
Like a ghost in my soul I’m going out of my mind
I’m afraid to deliver disappointment
Collecting her tears in kind
He finds that his wife knows more about his fear than he does and together they have the strength to weather the storm.
Next to “Anywhere But Here”, this is the most ‘country’ sounding track on the album. I wanted to go for that late 60’s, early 70’s sound with the pedal steel awash in reverb and a male chorus of background singers. Sad sounding, but not too sad. This is the type of song that a guy would call up on the jukebox, order a shot and a beer and after having a listen he’d raise the shot glass and say – “Here’s to that guy… I know how he feels… Man, I wish I had a woman like that…”
What About Love
Picture a couple in their mid to late 60‘s. The children have moved out, the house is too big, they have their ingrained habits and the love may or may not be there anymore. The song is written as a duet where each person is questioning the other – Were you, are you, and will you be the one I love?
What about you
What about me
Was I your guiding light
Your rock of Gibraltar
Did I part the sea
I love a good country duet. George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard and Janie Fricky, Dolly and Porter Wagoner just to name a few. I asked a good friend of mine to come into the studio to sing the female part. We discovered that the really interesting thing about getting the right takes was in the vocal inflections. We had to make sure that as we sang to each other we sounded like we were in love and that these two characters were questioning their relationship and yet reaffirming it at the same time. A singer needs to be an actor.
Elegy for an Old Man
Death has been a constant companion for my wife and myself for the past year. I’ve thought a lot about it and written on it many times in my journal. This song is about dying from the point of view of the one who, while on his deathbed, realizes he never really thought about dying.
I was a man of broad shoulders
Never thought my strength would disappear
Death snuck up behind
Cause I paid him no mind
Now we sit here in familiar conversation
I drew inspiration from the old cowboy song “Streets of Laredo” in the way that the character laments some of the things he has done yet relishes the full life he did have. After I wrote it and listened to it a bunch of times I realized it was an unintentional song about my father. He grew up in Texas, served in the Navy, settled in Cleveland and was always a cowboy in my eyes.
A note about the arrangement. I wanted to originally have a very mellow piano and bass accompaniment interspersed with a very distorted guitar sound in the vein of RadioHead or Adrian Belew. But as I listened, I found that the sounds were very distracting (as I mentioned before, the vocals are job number 1) and so I opted for a more chordal distorted guitar that, in my mind, represent the old man’s fists coming down on the table in defiance as he is about to relate his story.
Prayer & Hallelujah
This is a very simple song as far as lyrics are concerned, yet when I perform it I always get a powerful response. The song starts slowly with two verses that are a prayer to the divine for peace, love and compassion.
Give me peace
In my soul
Give me love
Let me rock-n-roll
I’m gonna reach up into heaven
And touch the light of an angel’s wing
Bring it all back to my heart
So the world can hear me sing
The song then breaks into a rousing gospel section with a repeating refrain:
May we all feel the light of a brilliant love.
I put this song at the end of the album to sum it all up by saying that we all need some spiritual connection to get through all that life hands us. It’s the connection to family and friends that allows us to sing a Hallelujah every now and then.
When I began writing this song, the guitar part in the beginning prayer section reminded me of Led Zeppelin’s song “Ramble On”. The more I played it the more it touched that musical memory so much so that I almost abandoned the song entirely. But I loved the way it grooved with the lyrics and so I kept at it and it found it’s way onto the album. I do tip my hat to the mighty Zeppelin song by emulating that great bass line of John Paul Jones that stands out as a melodic counterpoint against the voice and guitar.
So I’m turning 50 this year. 50 is a good number to make one look back and think about regret, or not. I’ve decided to make a list of things I want to do in my 50th year – a to-do list for the man peering over the edge. I think one of the top items on this list will be: Visit family in Texas, bring guitar, leave regret behind.
— Darryl Gregory
Darryl Gregory is a true multi-instrumentalist who honed his skills as a rocker and singer-songwriter in NYC in the late 1990’s and early part of the new century. He produces other songwriters in his studio (Blue Cave Studios) in Sandy Hook, CT. Darryl has composed music for many different types of ensembles including orchestra, band, brass quintet, string quartet and Javanese Gamelan. He has composed music for film as well as incidental music for several off and off-off Broadway theatrical and dance works. Darryl has degrees in Music Education, trombone performance and music composition. He lives with his wife and son in the backwoods of Connecticut.