Back closer to the beginning of time, when rock was a rock and roll only a glint in the eye of a generation raised on Fleer’s dubble bubble and hope, Columbus set sail for a land later to become enshrined in the history of the pluralverse as the birth-place of bossa nova and, not incidentally, roch ‘n roll. Roch was soon forgotten, but its progeny, rock, was to survive by learning to disguise itself in multitudinous forms having only the back-beat and a certain attitude, or lack thereof, in common. Which brings us to the subject of Little Feat, and this album in particular:
Little Feat has always sampled a wide-ranging and variable musical menu to prepare their feasts. After all, how did a bunch of guys from Southern California come to sound like they’d been born and raised in Bayou Teche or somewhere else within earshot of Jackson Square, New Orleans? Biiiiig ears – which is to say, lots of influences. But then a band that is born half-way between Frank Zappa and the world’s best country truck-driving song is clearly going to cover lots of ground.
Nothing’s changed in this, their 16th studio album. There’s covers of Mississippi John Hurt and Little Walter, and Paul Barrere and Bill Payne collaborated with Stephen Bruton and the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter, which adds some new lyrical flavors to the gumbo, but it all comes out sounding undeniably and happily like Feat. Paul reflected, “I’m really pleased with how it came out. Gabriel Ford steps up large – this is his first studio effort. What everybody added to everybody else’s songs is really remarkable. It was truly a collaboration and it shows – it’s a good old Little Feat album.”
It kicks off with Mississippi John Hurt’s “Candyman Blues.” “We started throwing in a partial version of it at the end of “Down on the Farm” a couple of years ago,” said Paul. “I’d been listening to Mississippi John Hurt since I was 13 – in fact, he’s a major part of why I learned to play slide. I found this Arhoolie records album of his and that led me to his story, how he was only discovered in his sixties. He’s like the archetype of the happy blues singer, you know, he was just a sweet, happy guy.”
“And of course the lyrics are just wonderfully filthy, and that being one of my own sensibilities, it just fit right in. When we began recording, we were thinking about doing a blues album, so I thought of this, and even though the album’s concept evolved, the song was definitely a keeper.” It keeps the spirit, but musically it’s a lot more Feat than Hurt, a high-twisting New Orleans march with sizzling rock and roll guitar and lots of funk.
“Church Falling Down” is Fred Tackett’s first contribution. Bill said of Fred, “When we put Little Feat back together in 1988, I was thinking it was in part to showcase Fred. I’d worked with him on so many sessions
and always felt he was underappreciated. And he’s such a wonderful musician. The thing about these songs is that while his writing skills have always been up there, they’re now matched by him finding his voice, his literal voice – and it’s beautiful.”
The song itself began as Fred was driving down an Arkansas highway. He spotted a church that was literally falling down. “I made a connection between all the vows that must have been said there, and how it was just like a divorce, all the things coming undone in life. I wrote it in a hotel room, it was kind of an experiment in writing the lyrics first. It’s got a slinky Dr. John “gris gris” opening – all the stuff on his first album is acoustic, just like here.”
Fred’s “One Breath at a Time” is based on an up-tempo rocking blues riff that, along with the sound of
Fred’s voice, brings to mind Mose Allison. It’s wise, droll, and rollicking, full of bounce and fun, working off a slamming bass pattern from Kenny Gradney and some hot B-3 from Bill. Fred starts his lyric with a side remark to Sam Clayton – “hey Sam, what’s up, bro?” – and he and Sam begin to trade vocals: “My baby loves me one breath at a time.” The irony about the Mose Allison reference, Fred chuckles, is that “I used to carry a Mose Allison album cover to my barber shop – I had a flat top like everybody else – and ask for a Mose cut. He was a big influence. Working with Boz Scaggs once, Boz told me that Jimmy Smith had said to him, ‘Man, all you white guys sound like Mose Allison,’ which was ok with me.”
“I started coaching Sam, and eventually we got Paul involved too – kind of like three guys standing on a corner. I wanted something funky, to balance the Appalachian feel that we were putting into some of Bill’s stuff with Hunter. They’re both Feat flavors, of course.”
“Just a Fever” is a ripping rock and roll song, full of slashing chords and demonic energy. It’s a collaboration between Paul Barrere and Stephen Bruton, the late Texas-born guitarist and songwriter best-known for his work with T-Bone Burnett on the Jeff Bridges movie Crazy Heart. Bruton started out with Kris Kristofferson and played with the likes of Elvis Costello and Carly Simon among many others. Paul recalled, “I’ve known Stephen since he played with Bonnie Raitt, years and years ago. He was on the road with us a couple of times, and we always talked about getting together to write – actually this is the second song we wrote together. The first song is called “Why Ya Wanna Do Me Like You Do Me,” I’ve saved for the solo project I’ve been working on for about five years now in my spare time, which is not a lot of time these days…”
“I’ve always liked Steve’s rock sensibility, his Texas groove if you will. We shared a common ailment, so when I was in Austin we would hang out there. One day we were sitting around joking about our “problem.” The phrase ‘delirium tremens’ came up, and we started joking about how to get it into a lyric, and I said of course, it’s about a fever. That wrapped in with a love affair, and in my typical tongue-in-cheek way, this is what came out. Stephen has a band in Austin called The Resentments, and they did a version of this that was kind of acoustic and simple. Ours, of course, is much more rock and roll, but I wanted to keep Fred’s mandolin in there to echo the earlier version. I also really wanted a Texas Buddy Holly flavor, and the producer, Johnnie Lee Schell, suggested doubling the vocals, which I did. It gives it kind of an old-school flavor.”
Paul’s attitude may be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s not for the faint of heart: “Wanna see your soul/burning bright and clear/turn yourself around/and take a lookie here/I’m just a fever. Having visions/seein’ demons/shakin’ apostles/delirium tremons.” Paul’s guitar follows suit, leaving a heat trail across the tracks; feverish indeed.
“’Jamaica Will Break Your Heart’” was inspired, Fred says, “by a guy named Thunder that we met when we started playing in Jamaica – I met him through Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon. Tourism brings in the dollars to Jamaica, but it interferes with the life of the Rasta culture, and that bothers me.”
Guitar riffs echo the sound of steel drums, and then horns kick in. It starts as a reverie about paradise and depicts a doomed romance, but you come to realize that the woman in the romance is Jamaica itself, as beautiful as can be, but tourism and the outside world – “a blue eyed boy from across the sea” – move in on it and everything changes.
“I did it on my solo album Silver Strings, but there it’s a more refined drawing room song. Feat does it much harder, and there’s also room to jam in it.” In fact, the song covers a wide range, moving from dream into an instrumental storm as the blue-eyed boy buys the very sand and sea. As the song says, it really is heart-breaking.
“Freddy’s got a kind of bebop attitude towards life, I think,” said Paul. “And you can hear that in ‘Tattooed
Girl,’” which is basically a mellow jazz ballad with lots of trumpet and a swinging vocal from Fred. That bebop attitude is a balance of a positive worldview – “try to make it lighter” – and the realistic: “keeps on getting older.”
The origins of the song are interesting. “When I graduated from high school,” Fred recalls, “I got a record from my mom that was of Tennessee Williams reading his own stuff. One of the pieces was a poem he wrote with Clare Boothe Luce called ‘Gold Tooth Blues.’”
“I wrote music for the poem, but then had to get involved with his estate to get it approved, and eventually
I wrote my own lyrics for the track. After a while, I wrote some new music, and the combination turned out to be ‘Tattooed Girl.’ A waitress at a club we worked at in Virginia, had a tattoo of the world on her shoulder and I had that flash – ‘Oh, she’s got the world on her shoulder.” it took me three years to find the groove for this song – finally one day it came and I had a song. The mandolin on it is like Southern Fireflies – it’s actually kind of a tip of the hat to my friend Van Dyke Parks.”
Bill collaborates with Gabe Ford on “The Blues Keep Comin’,” which has an interesting background. “I did most of the lyrics on this, and then asked Gabe to help me with the third verse, which turned out very nicely. The start is all about late winter in Montana, where I live – and that’s the feeling of endless blues and endless cold. The music itself was odd. There was a song I was working on that had an orchestral feel, Stravinsky-esque – except that when I took the orchestral element out of it there emerged a decidedly more Hopalong Cassidy feel to it than Stravinsky. I liked the bass line on it – and so did Richie Heyward. Once in a jam on “Dixie Chicken” I threw in that line and it really worked. It’s a totally unlikely choice for a blues song, but it works.”
Sam Clayton takes on Little Walter’s classic “Mellow Down Easy” to finish things up. “I was always a fan of Little Walter’s,” he says, “and I sure enjoyed singing this one.” It’s superb, with Kim Wilson’s harp setting off Sam’s voice beautifully. Except that it’s better sounding, it’s almost Chess studios 1955. (hmmm, maybe that idea of a straight-up blues album isn’t such a bad idea…)
Regarding Bill’s songs with Robert Hunter: they developed such an interesting musical relationship that we thought we’d let bill tell you about it.
I had not written anything in about seven years. But with the realization that a new studio record with Little Feat was finally going to take place there was a reason to write again. By way of an introduction to Robert Hunter, I was also given another reason to write. The opportunity was intriguing, to say the least. Ten songs later, four of which are on the new record, the match-up between us seems to be working.
Hunter’s imagery is something that captured my imagination and played to one of my strengths: the visual.
Out of the four songs on Rooster Rag, three of them were started with the lyrics first (“Rooster Rag,” “Salome,” and “Rag Top Down”), while “Way Down Under” was escorted in by the music.
The challenge (and freedom) was to take what he had written and “score” the music and melody to them. My approach has never been to let form lord over substance. The lyrics suggested gave me all the clues I needed to where the song might go.
I didn’t analyze Hunter’s lyrics. (All the times I’ve written lyrics and people would say to me, “Oh I love what you wrote,” and proceed to tell me the meaning of them, which were often times completely different than what I had intended.) That said, I did respond to certain words or phrases. In the song, “Rooster Rag”: Tubal Cain, kings of creation, “make this old world a better place…paper chase,” were signposts for me, which set a mood, something tangible for me to provide chord and melodic structure to. Each song was challenging and gave me the impetus to take advantage of all manner of musical variety.
In the songs “Rag Top Down” and “Salome,” it really boiled down to knowing the terrain. I’m from Texas, born there, and I spent my high school years in central California in Santa Maria, where I joined my first band at age fifteen. The guys in that band, The Debonairs, were low riders. Santa Maria was made for the culture of cruising. I was a surfer—another world, but my band mates protected me. So, I knew the terrain for “Rag Top Down.” With “Salome,” black eyed peas, salty gravy, and the gritty side of life is something I know, as well. Little Feat took care of the rest.
So, enjoy, listen, interpret (if that’s what gets you going) and drive safely.
Thank you Hunter, for a great ride on these songs.