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The Star Who Never Was
How Trailer Star was posthumously recognised and the story of how his tribute album came together
Since the first stirrings of the genre in the late 1980's - with the release of cover albums of the songs of Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart and The Byrds on Imaginary Records - the tribute album has become a small, but important, part of the record business. With most of the more obvious candidates having been honoured, the compilers/organisers of the more recent tribute albums have had to widen their remit to include mainstream MOR artists (Tribute to Garth Brooks anyone?) as well as delving deep into the territory of cultdom (More Oar - a replication of Skip Spence's poor-selling, but critically acclaimed 1969 album) or increasingly tortuous hybrids of styles and artists (You can currently enjoy your Dylan tributes in reggae, blues, bluegrass or gospel flavours, if you so wish!).
When I first stumbled across press for Moon Over Downs, the tribute album to Trailer Star, my initial thoughts were dismissive: a minor US talent who probably stayed unknown for very good reasons - not every new discovery can be a new Nick Drake, or even a new Skip Spence. On closer reading it soon became apparent, from the tongue in cheek descriptions and various unsubtle clues, that the Trailer Star depicted was a mythical figure and had never existed (or at least not in the form stated) and that the source of the songs was Shaun Belcher - a freelance writer and published poet from England. A little research uncovered the facts that he has run a website "Flyin' Shoes Review" since 1999 (which is dedicated to literate songwriting and claims to be "independent in mind, body and spirit") and that he had also had some musical ambitions under the title of Trailer Star. Some of the artists gathered together on the album I knew of, others were unknown, but my interest sufficiently piqued, I decided to buy a copy and give it a listen.
My expectations were not exactly high but, even after a first listening, it was obvious that the album was more than just another vanity project and that the combination of Belcher's lyrics and the artists' music and performances worked together very well indeed.
The whole album stands or falls on the quality of Belcher's lyrics. Fortunately, they are very good, with several nice twists and turns in his lyric writing that show him to be a man for whom words and their order mean a lot. Several of the songs have American subject matter and, luckily, Belcher is steeped in enough Americana to make them sound true and honest without having to resort to too much lyrical ventriloquism. Belcher's lyrics with English subject matter are also astutely handled, but whereas you feel that he's reaching back to the country, folk and blues acts of the mid twentieth century as his inspiration for the "American" songs, when he's tackling his homeland you feel his touchstone is as likely to be Hardy or Houseman as any current musician. "Donati's Comet" and "The Lynton Flood" explore historical events and prove that an English sense of place should be no handicap to creating a mythological landscape for song, and that one shouldn't try and echo American archetypes when they are inappropriate.
Due to the constraints of time and budget many of the songs are quite sparsely arranged - although probably more varied stylistically than I would have expected. Some of the acts on the record have opted for the default mode when providing music to accompany Belcher's dark lyrics, with many of the songs ending up covered in the windswept dust of the American mid-West. Not everybody decided to go down this route and Deanna Varagonna's jazzy-bluesy reading of "Bled Dry" evokes the jazzy-blues of pre-War St Louis, while Jim Roll approaches his song from the powerpop angle adding handclaps and squeeky organ to make the most upbeat song on the record. More variety comes from this side of the Atlantic with Steve Roberts very Mersey-pop take on roots styles, without ever being derivative and Cicero Buck's "November Morning Sun" is a light and breezy confection that floats along. Other highlights on the record include Robert Burke Warren's self-harmonising on "Ghost Of What Might Have Been", the tone of Claudia Scott's singing on "The Devil's House" and James McSweeney's precisely finger-picked album opener, "My Little Town".
Having been delighted by the album I felt that the story behind its creation was worth deeper investigation. And as I half-expected, the story behind the genesis of the album was worth telling...
When you're down and on your knees, you often find that life's even more ready to put the boot in than normal. In a particularly bad week in November 2002 Shaun Belcher first found himself unemployed and then a couple of days later discovered that his Dad had been diagnosed with cancer. Feeling powerless in some ways, he resolved to take control where he could and decided to initiate some kind of a charity event. A couple of months later and feeling his musical endeavours were leading nowhere, on a whim, he killed off his songwriting alter-ego, Trailer Star, by emailing the contacts in his address book of his decision. An email interchange between Belcher and Terry Clarke, a long established singer-songwriter from Berkshire, resulted in a change of direction in Belcher's thinking: Trailer Star would indeed be killed off, but by getting together a group of musicians to cover some of the Trailer Star (aka Shaun Belcher) material, Belcher could probably assemble enough material to make an album and then use the sales to raise money for charity.
Unlike most people with a daydream of making an album, Belcher had a hatful of songwriting contacts and also a stockpile of hundreds of songs, acquired over 20 years, to choose from. As he now admits: "I had the brainstorm of sending out a ‘Tribute to Trailer Star’ email to as many people as possible and see what happened - I had no idea how much a CD would cost or anything - I just went for it. I’ll be honest those were dark days in my father’s illness and the support was lovely. I simply asked them to select a written lyric and they could treat them in any way they chose as long as they kept to the spirit of project."
The response from the people he had contacted was excellent, with only a handful of acts being too busy with prior recording and touring commitments to submit songs. Kris Wilkinson of Cicero Buck was one of the first people to come on board and was instrumental in helping making the plans concrete. Wilkinson and her partner Joe Hughes had created the Super Tiny Record label to release the first Cicero Buck album and offered to release the album as well as recruiting other sympathetic musicians to the project. "I think I could have struggled on in both time and money and released the CD about Spring 2004, but she brought a lot of American ooompth to the project and next thing you know she has brought in Deanna Varagona and Claudia Scott through her Nashville contacts which was fantastic," explains Belcher. "She and Joe Hughes also helped put up the money to release the project, which I am eternally grateful for, as I soon found CD releasing and mastering and promotion was not a cheap pursuit. I put some toward the cost and they covered the rest." Cicero Buck also helped bring the official Cancer Research UK status to the album.
Belcher was also quite relaxed with his instructions to the artists and not too protective of his songs: "The only rule was that they should not change the lyrics, but everything else was left up to them. i.e. the treatment, the length etc. As this was a project done entirely by email - in fact even some of the tracks were posted to studio for mastering by email as MP3’s - then this didn’t always work out due to various breakdowns in communication." Only a couple of the participants added or changed the lyrics and then not to a substantial degree. "Dan Israel did a fantastic job of extending the lyrics of ‘One Horse Town’ and Robert Burke Warren played with the words of ‘Ghost of What Might Have Been’. Otherwise the lyrics were identical to what I posted on lyrics website which I find amazing and in most cases they caught the mood exactly."
With all the constraints of time and communication the only major problem arose when Bob Cheevers wrote and recorded a version of 'Drowning Moon', a song that that Brian Lillie had already covered. Fortunately, Bob Cheevers is nothing if not a prolific songwriter and quickly selected and recorded 'These Wishing Fields'. Rather than let his version of 'Drowning Moon' go to waste, he used it on his own solo album (see interview below). Belcher was amazed at the speed with which the musicians were working. "In double quick time we had CD ready to release in July 2003," he now says, not forgetting to add, " I’d like to publicly thank all the participants and especially Kris and Joe for their unselfish efforts".
The album certainly holds its head high with any other number of other, more orthodox, tribute albums and rarely betrays its DIY origins and the haste with which it was assembled. The quality of the songs and performances are certainly worth hearing for their own sake, but spending money on the album also gives the bonus of helping with cancer research. (Details of how to order the album can be found at the bottom of this page).
Triste spoke with a few of the artists involved in the project to hear their side of the story.
JIM ROLL TALKS ABOUT "MOON OVER THE DOWNS"
Triste: How were you approached to contribute to the project?
Jim Roll: Shaun [Belcher] just gave me the concept, told me it was a benefit and offered me the opportunity to adapt his lyrics to my music. I had just finished a record where I put music to lyrics by novelists Denis Johnson ("Jesus' Son") and Rick Moody ("The Ice Storm"). So this project was right up my alley!
Triste: How did you go about choosing "Clown's Car" as a set of lyrics you felt you could work with? Anything in particular appeal about it to you?
Jim Roll: Yes. Absolutely. I was drawn to the very strong image of the clown's car (you could make a poster for the song - just by it's title. It is very visual) -- but loved the fact that it was a melancholy love song at heart. The lyrics played out like a Technicolor movie in my head the first time I read them . . . so I knew it was the song for me. I don't do desperado-oriented folk songs as well as some of the other artists on the compilation. "Clown's Car" was perfect for my musical sensibilities. Shaun wrote an amazing song in Clown's Car. It's heartbreaking.
Triste: What was the process like working with someone's lyrics at a distance? (ie in time and geographically) I presume it wasn't too unusual for you as you've worked with writer/lyricists before on other songs?
Jim Roll: Exactly. For me it was a snap. My muscles for this kind of work were already in shape from the Inhabiting the Ball record I did with Johnson and Moody. In fact, this was the exact same process I did with Inhabiting the Ball: Whether it was Belcher, Moody or Johnson, they basically sent me lyrics via e-mail and I got to work on it from my home studio. Proximity, location and timing were all very comfortable to me.
Triste: Were you happy with the results? Personally, I really enjoyed the power-poppy feel which set it apart from the other songs on the album - plus adding hand-claps always gives that basic R&R excitement. Also is it true that the song is going on your next album?
Jim Roll: I love the results. I know it shocked Shaun when he heard it for the first time. I think he needed a minute or two to adjust to the pop elements (the hand claps in particular knocked him off his stool). But after two or three listens I know he loved it. I think it is a great melody and that it matches his lyrics nicely. I intend to put an alternate mix/version of the song on my next record. I already asked Shaun for permission and he was into it.
Triste: Was it enjoyable working with some-else's baby, rather than your own, or conversely more stressful?
Jim Roll: Oh I really enjoy being a part of another persons vision. As a solo artist I am acutely aware of all of the responsibility that goes into a project like this, and while it is ultimately very satisfying, it is also quite draining. So anytime I can be the side man, fiddler, guitarist, banjo player, or simply contribute a single song to a larger project I am pretty much blissed out. I think Shaun Belcher and Super Tiny Records did an excellent job with this project!!
DEANNA VARAGONA TALKS ABOUT "MOON OVER THE DOWNS"
Triste: How did you get involved in this project?
Deanna Varagona: I believe Kris [Wilkinson] first approached me to join the project: Shaun contacted me shortly afterwards.
Triste: How did you go about choosing "Bled Dry" as a set of lyrics you felt you could work with? Anything in particular appeal about it to you?
Deanna Varagona: I enjoyed his lyrics quite a bit; but I wanted a story that I could feel coming from my perspective: "Bled Dry" fit being a woman and American more to me than most of the others.
Triste: What was the process like working with someone's lyrics at a distance?
Deanna Varagona: Not a problem in general as I often write my own songs lyrics first; I started writing as a poet first; so this can be quite natural.
Triste: How often do you co-write songs?
Deanna Varagona: I have not done a lot of co-writing; but it can be quite natural to work with/off another persons ideas:
Triste: Were you happy with the results?
Deanna Varagona: Mostly; it was a fun task. I would have liked a little more time to live with the feel of the story, but that was my fault; as it came at a very busy time for me.
Triste: Was it enjoyable working with someone else's project, rather than your own?
Deanna Varagona: I often work with others, i.e. Lambchop, Bevel and others. I often like to sit in or play with new musicians to keep things and ideas fresh.
BOB CHEEVERS TALKS ABOUT "MOON OVER THE DOWNS"
Triste: I believe Shaun Belcher asked if you would participate in this?
Bob Cheevers: Yeah...Shaun asked me, along with a bunch of other artists who he liked, to choose a lyric of his for the purpose of doing a CD - part of the profits from its sale would then go toward cancer research in the UK. I've lost friends to cancer. In fact, just two weeks ago my best friend of 41 years died of liver cancer. I was with him for the last 5 days of his life till the moment of his death.
Triste: I know you initially recorded "Drowning Moon", but leaving that story for a while, what attracted you to the lyrics of "These Wishing Fields"?
Bob Cheevers: The lyric to "Wishing Fields" had a longing to it that reminded me of some of the characters in my Civil War songs...the toil and the suffering that was overshadowed by the hope for a better tomorrow.
Triste: Normally you write your own lyrics. What was it like writing the music around pre-existing words?
Bob Cheevers: It was surprisingly easy. Plus you have to remember I'm a Nashville songwriter and have lots of experience in writing from every angle of a song.
Triste: I think your version of "These Wishing Fields" is very good - you've certainly put the Bob Cheevers stamp on it. Are you happy with the results?
Bob Cheevers: Absolutely happy with it. I'm very proud of how it sounds and the mood it portrays. Its a perfect enmeshment of two people's work.
Triste: Can you tell me the story of how you recorded "Drowning Moon" by mistake? Is it going to be on your new album?
Bob Cheevers: When Shaun told me to choose a lyric from the ones on his web site, I did just that. What I failed to do was look to see if someone else had chosen that lyric already. I was really taken by the story of "Drowning Moon". I first asked Shaun if he minded that I change a few words here and there and maybe add a line or so. He said he didn't mind, so I sorta reshaped the lyric into what I felt made it stronger from a rhyming, rhythm and story standpoint. Then I wrote the music and told him how excited I was about "Drowning Moon". His reply was "But Bob, someone else has already chosen that one". Ooops! By then, I was so invested in the song and so pleased with it, I knew I'd have it to use somewhere along the line. As fate would have it, my upcoming CD is a guitar/vocal CD of songs that I feel real good about playing by myself. Its called One Man One Martin, and "Drowning Moon" is the second track on the CD.
Moon Over Downs - Various Artists (Super Tiny)
The album can be bought from the Moon Over Downs page at the:
Flyin Shoes website. A minimum of £4.00 from the sale of the album will be donated to Cancer Research UK