Tim Easton could have probably shut his eyes at the beginning of his recent trek to Nashville – and kept them closed until he rolled into the Music City. Such is the capital city’s draw for the talented tunesmith.
The compelling artist recently relocated from California to Tennessee, where he recorded his recently released album “Not Cool” in five hard-charging days with producers and longtime collaborative team Robin Eaton and Brad Jones. Easton’s new record is a no-holds-barred collection of gritty tunes that highlight his musical influences, a who’s who of legendary talents that includes Doc Watson, Elmore James, and Keith Richards.
Nashville’s favorite adopted son chatted with me recently about the exceptional new record and life in the center of the music universe. Easton professed that the notion for “Not Cool” hit him square in the face as he was getting acquainted with his new hometown. Inspiration can be easy when you’re in a city that has such a tangible music vibe – something that you can touch and feel.
“The Americana awards a couple of years ago Jason Isbell won best song for ‘Alabama Pines,’” related Easton. “And I was out in the alley between the Ryman (Theatre) and Robert’s (Western World), talking with him and congratulated him. Then I stepped into Robert’s. J.D. Simo and Joe Fick were on stage playing that night and the audience (was) dancing and having a good time.”
“I went over to another show. And in the parking lot of The Basement, a great venue in Nashville, I wrote the lyrics to ‘Little Doggy,’ just thinking about taking a friend in there that wasn’t doing so well – just taking him around town and showing him a good time and showing him a band that was important, like Elmore James and Hank Williams.”
“‘Little Doggy’ was most definitely completely influenced by the feeling of Robert’s and that was easy. It was easy for me to just get that down. It’s just a three-chord country blues thing and it wasn’t the first time I’d been to Robert’s.”
“Most people would tell you that have been down old Broadway – kind of a tourist scene down there – that bar is the one bar where guaranteed you’ll catch a band that’s playing more of a vintage sound. Pretty much any time you walk in that place you’re gonna get a great band, some A-list guys that are playing for fun on a weekday or not on tour with such and such – guys that played with Buck Owens. And it’s just wonderful. So it feels truly historic going in there.”
Without question, the move to Nashville rewarded Easton with renewed inspiration. But there was another benefit as well. “I kind of changed my life and cleaned up a little bit in the approach of making it, so I had a lot of energy. I worked very hard with the producers on hawking it down and getting it pinned down to these short, succinct little attacks of music.”
“The band played a big part in this because J.D. Simo and Joe Fick showed up at 9 a.m, you know, for 10 a.m. down beat. There’s no slacking in this town. People are professional and they are encouraging. They do the job the best they can and they give everything.”
“And those guys…I was sleeping at the studio (laughing). I was staying in an apartment at the studio. We were scheduled to start at 10 a.m. and at 9 a.m. they were there to get their sound check. At 10 a.m. we started and on day one, we recorded six songs. And that six song EP alone would have been enough (laughing).”
Easton’s remarkable new record is at once a departure from – and a return to – his first solo album, 1999’s “Special 20.” And even after nine memorably crafted studio albums, the gifted songwriter confessed to a musical epiphany as he worked on the 10th.
“I learned that my favorite way of making records is live with the band. That part is clear to me. That’s easier to do than stacking it up. Having the whole band there rather than stacking it up. I like to do both, but I prefer the way of just doing it live with the band. It’s just way more satisfying to be done and move on. And I just don’t feel like going The Beatles route.”
“Stacking everything is also lots of fun. It’s just part of making music and everything. Every now and then you’ve got to re-sing something or you have to add back-up vocal or a tambourine or something like that. But I really enjoyed making some of those tracks where it was just a couple of us in the room doing it – and that’s where it stayed. It’s more real.”
Like “Special 20,” “Not Cool” draws inspiration from an assortment of scrappy, lost-and-found instruments, including Easton’s $100 Kay guitar. The “experienced” instrument was just what the musical doctor ordered according to the songwriter.
“Well that particular guitar, I found it in the Chicago School of Folk Music – a $100 Kay. And it’s had the same strings on it this whole time. I’ve never changed the strings and there’s just a dirty buzz in there that is fun. It’s a distraction and it’s a little bit broken, so you have to learn to work around it. And that is just a little bit more of a challenge there, so I enjoy it. I honestly wasn’t shooting for a super clean sound, a super clean acoustic sound.”
“We had the guitar mic and amp anyway, so we could use both options when it came to mixing. It goes back to the kind of music we’re making, the kind of music that requests you to play it live with the band. You can’t really stack. That’s the way records were made in studios. It was just one room and you just did it.”
Rolling Stone lauded Easton as having a “novelist’s sense of humanity.” It’s that quality that drives the gritty realism of many of his best tunes. He spoke about two stellar examples from the new record, “Don’t Lie” – a hard-hitting romp driven by Simo’s greasy slide guitar – and “Four Queens” – a blunt tune inspired by an off-the-strip Las Vegas hotel Easton has frequented.
Given the straightforward recital of “Four Queens”— “Skipped all the good stuff, took straight up with the pills / Now she’s underneath the table licking dollar bills” – a serious listener would likely be curious as to Easton’s inspiration for the stark lyrics.
“I think in every tune, even if you’re telling a story, you might pinch something from your real life in there. In ‘Don’t Lie,’ I had a solid chorus in my brain and I just finished the song based around this kind of cantankerous couple of people that everybody knows. I just tried to make a short film about it. I really kind of visualized it like that. And it was like ‘Okay, this is a wild couple and I’m gonna paint them a picture.’”
“What I was kind of getting at before is that I am the kind of songwriter that crosses over into both worlds as far as writing about autobiographical experiences and also the human side of things, where you’re telling a story.”
“But you sing it in the first person because it’s just more believable and it’s more fun. Rather than to saying things like, ‘He walked in the door’ and ‘He thought this and he thought that.’ It’s more fun to say ‘I’ because you can get into the persona. You can get into the character a little bit more. With that one, ‘Don’t Lie,’ and then with ‘Four Queens,’ I was just trying to paint a character.”
“That’s based on maybe four wild women or four awesome women or four amazing women. If I had to go that line by line, I’d probably say, ‘Oh yeah, I did actually know a girl that did this or something like that. But there’s only four queens in the deck, so I had to write four verses. It was easy. It wasn’t gonna be a twelve verse Texas ballad or anything.”
Casual music fans tend to underestimate the difficulty behind songwriting. The veteran tunesmith talked about one of the biggest challenges.
“The hardest part is just being open to it and having the time or to not realize it’s happening and just do it. You just have to do it every day. If somebody asked me songwriting advice, I’d just say, ‘Well write. Just start writing. Just do it every day. Just write words down or write phrases down or eavesdrop and write things down and feel stuff from the television.’ I don’t care.”
“You have to practice writing. And when it comes down to it, if you get a verse and a chorus, you’re pretty much there. Then you have to just write some more lyrics. It’s not really rocket science. I don’t think so anyway. It depends on how much of a story you want to tell and how original you want to be and how unforced you want your lines to be and all that.”
“But it depends on what kind of song you’re trying to write. If you’re trying to write personal singer-songwriter stuff, then maybe it does get difficult. Because maybe you find that you’ve got nothing to sing about and you’ve got to get out there and travel around and figure it out.”
Not surprisingly, several somebodies have asked Easton for songwriting advice. And much like the talented artist, the advice has always been straight-up. “Younger musicians reach out to me and go on social media. And I did write a piece called ‘Advice to Young Songwriters.’ Basically it says, ‘just travel’ (laughing). Listen to everything you can, read everything you can and travel. And if you like a song, learn how to play it.”
“It’s like the teacher who says on the first day of class, ‘Okay, well, we’re not gonna come back to the classroom anymore and I want you to buy a ticket to Havana. Get out of here. Just start living your life.’”
“There are friends staying here that used to come and see me play before they were old enough to get into bars, and they’re now professional musicians. They’re here rehearsing with bands. So it’s kind of cool to see that. Some of it works out.”
“In my case, I did a lot of traveling. For about seven years, I kind of rambled around with no real purpose. I lived in Paris for a year and I lived in London for about a year and Prague and then New York City and then I finally got out to L.A. And now here I am in Nashville. So I have lived in a few places and I’m sure it’s had both a negative and positive effect on my career.”
Easton might not advise a fledgling musician to “have a kid,” but he readily admitted that being a father of a young daughter has made him a better songwriter. “I’ve been listening to the album a lot lately. My daughter won’t drive anywhere without me playing it. She demands that I play it. She’s only three and she knows all of the words, even the bad ones (laughing). She demands that I play it and so I’m constantly reminded of where my headspace was writing it and doing it.”
“It’s helped me to be a less self-centered and selfish person. I feel a little queasy saying the word ‘artist,’ but anybody that is kind of serious about what they do, self-centeredness comes along with it.”
“To be connected with family and all of humanity, I knew that before. I’m the youngest of seven, so I feel like a natural when it comes to fatherhood. But my daughter’s arrival definitely kicked in a whole spirit of having fun with entertainment. And doing things because they make you feel good and are enjoyable and not worrying about learning, but more about having a good time, about laughing and fun.”
“So yeah, there’s a little less of that ‘introspective songwriter guy’ and more of an entertainer, which really is what I’m looking for when I go out to see a band. I’m looking to be entertained. I don’t want to strain to hear the lyrics. I don’t want them to be hidden under layers of echo and reverb.”
Easton may have never considered it, but he’d likely be the first to admit that prior to his daughter’s birth, his life was hidden under layers of echo and reverb. But even with his welcome parental perspectives, his long range plans haven’t really changed – mainly because he didn’t really need to change them.
“I really don’t think they have. It’s nearly impossible to live in the moment and live in the day when you are scheduling shows and things two months away, four months away. All the time you’re constantly looking at a calendar.”
“I would say it’s getting better. To do better work. To continue learning and to do better work. I don’t think it’s changed. I want to make my family happy and I want to make myself happy and satisfied. So that’s the chore of life really.”
“One of the most difficult things in life is just being satisfied and content and being happy with what you do. Your work or job or whatever is about eight hours of your day. It’s like one third of your day. So you’d better be happy. If you’re not happy with your work, then one third of your life you pretty much disqualify, because the other 16 hours you’ve got to sleep. And the rest is hopefully for play and having fun.”
From the sounds of “Not Cool,” Tim Easton’s a pretty happy man. Ah, there’s no place like home.