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Bob Cheevers - The Triste Interview
|Sometimes the greatest talents fly below the critical radar; known by a lucky few, but a mystery to the many. I am sure many of the people attending Bob Cheevers' concert at Worden Arts Centre, Leyland in May 2002 had gone out of curiosity. What they witnessed was a two hours plus performance that combined great songs, with rambling stories and a laid-back humour and warmth that led to a aftershow rush on the merch store. Four decades in the music business obviously have their benefits and it's no surprise that Bob Cheevers has many tales to tell.
Triste: Bob, like many of your contemporaries it seems as if it was the early rock and rollers who got you interested in music. Which ones in particular? I know you won a competition playing Johnny Cash's "Big River" and Elvis was obvyiously huge in Memphis, but what about the others?
Bob Cheevers: Growing up in Memphis, the explosion of rock and roll on the Memphis scene was incendiary. All us kids were totally moved by what they called the "jungle beat". My Mom was very definitive in her reaction...she called it "trash" and always wanted me to get some "good music" on the radio. Billy C. Riley's "Flying Saucer Rock And Roll" and the Burnett brothers Johnny and Dorsey were huge in Memphis. There was a kid in my junior high school (about age 14) named Travis Womack. He became a big Memphis kid star and had a regional hit record and is now performing somewhere up in east Tennessee as part of a rock and roll revival doing shows for tourist audiences.
Just last weekend, I played a gig in Memphis and saw the brother of the guy who played guitar in the combo I was in that won the talent show in 1958 doing Johnny Cash's "Big River". He had asked me to help him form a combo. I played drums and he played guitar. He knew the lyrics of some songs but he knew I had a good voice and wanted me to sing...but I couldn't imagine at that time being the singer. So he sang...and we won. Johnny and Elvis and Jerry Lee were huge stars what seemed like immediately in the rock and roll movement, which caught on like wildfire in Memphis. We all wanted to be in bands. My Mom had been a radio star in her youth and still played piano and sang daily in our house...so the concept of being involved in music wasn't foreign. However, because she saw the seedy and unsuccessful side of the music biz, she discouraged me from being in it. Her discouragements only fuelled my desires to be part of a musical life.
A friend of mine from Memphis wrote and recorded a little rock number way back then called "Keep On Dancing"...his name was Larry Raspberry. I still hear that song often on the oldies stations. I also remember hearing Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn playing in the rock dance band at the teenage dances in Memphis in the late fifties. Of course, they went on to be in Booker T and the MGs.
It was a fabulously exciting time with this brand new music with its brand new beats and words that rang our bells. Chuck Berry and his "School Days". What song could have been more tailor-made for a kid in school? "Blue Suede Shoes" by Carl Perkins was just too cool for a kid who was dying to be a cool cat at age 15. Bill Haley and The Comets was the first record rock record I remember hearing. Way out man. It sealed the lid on the coffins of Perry Como and Dean Martin whose crooning styles were so popular both with the kids and the parents alike. After rock and roll blazed a trail right across their careers, there were at least two different camps...those who stayed with the tried and true artists like Como and Martin and those of us who got totally swept away by the jungle beat. I never came back to Perry or Dean.
Triste: Your song "I Saw The King" is apparently about Elvis. Did you ever see him?
Bob Cheevers: I never saw Elvis perform, but frequently after junior high school as I waited for the bus to ride home, Elvis would drive his lavender colored 58 Lincoln Continental past our school on his way back to Graceland which was a few miles from the school. I'd always wave to him, and he'd wave back and smile. After that happened many times, it felt like he and I were friends waving at each other. While it was very surreal, it was also very run-of-the-mill. It was my life, and Elvis just happened to be part of those many afternoons when I stood at the bus stop. I would go home, get my tennis racquet and pretend it was a guitar and I was Elvis. Later, during summers between college years, I worked for a fund raising organization in Memphis. Elvis always donated a check for $50,000.00 to the organization, and I'd go out with the executive director to pick up the check. He wasn't home the several times I was there, but I met his Dad and Pricilla when she had just come to Memphis about age 16 or 17. One time when I was there, I needed to use the toilet. I remember walking across the tall, white shag carpet to the bathroom. Some years later, Elvis was considering recording a song of mine when he died on the toilet. When I play the song "I Saw The King", I make the connection of my having used the toilet at Elvis' house and him having died on the toilet and how my song didn't get recorded due to his untimely death. Invariably, that little story gets a wide variety of responses. Elvis had a profound impact on me. His musical talent, charisma and personality flooded the Memphis hometown folks especially most of us boys and girls.
Triste: Do any of these early influences still have things to offer to a songwriter like yourself nearly fifty years on?
Bob Cheevers: Sure...but some of them are hard to describe or even put into a mental shape so that I could describe them. I think, for me, probably the most powerful thing that keeps occurring is the incredible, euphoric, magical and surreal nature of songwriting. Had it not been for the rock and roll explosion in the 50's, I'm not sure I'd have never been so captured and completely taken over by the music, and Iíd probably never thought about becoming a singer someday...becoming a performer...learning to play guitar and eventually to actually write songs. My career of writing has evolved over the decades from wanting to write songs to wanting to write songs from the heart that speak for me the writer. Elvis and the early rockers took so much of their lead from the black, blues musicians and writers of that era changing the rhythms and even adding or changing lyrics to illuminate their own struggles and joys. It took me many years and hundreds of songs to get hold of any concept of who I was as a writer. The longer I've lived and the better I get to know myself, the more transparent my songs have gotten. As in any undertaking, there are those who excel early on and who are the pioneers who set the pace for others. The rockers whose careers had the longevity of Elvis, Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry and so many others were the true leaders of rock and whose songs are still the flagship songs of the 50's musical explosion.
Triste: Can you run through your early days and explain your evolution from playing basic rock and roll to your later West Coast incarnation? I suppose your path in some ways mirrors the way music changed in that period - you were one of many foot soldiers following the paths beaten out by groups like the Beatles, the Byrds and the Stones.
Bob Cheevers: I imagine I began like many others...playing what the masters had recorded and what I heard on the radio. Before I even played guitar, I'd sit in my rocking chair by the radio for hours listening to and singing along with the songs. When an instrumental break would come, I'd sing a verse to hear what my voice sounded like singing the song. My first combo won the talent shows in '58 and '59. That was fun, but I really didn't get the connection then that I may have a talent in that direction or that someone like me could really consider doing something like that as a career choice. Back then, it wasn't a career choice in my mind. It was something "those guys" did. They were untouchable... legendary... larger than life. There was no huge music industry as there is today or MTV that gave young people the option to look at a career in music as an alternative.
It was only after borrowing an old untunable Silvertone guitar around 1963 from a college mate of mine that I wrote a few songs. They were rudimentary 3 chord songs about love. And they weren't even about love I was feeling for someone...they were about the kind of love that I had heard talked about in songs by other people. Friends of mine and I put a band together to play fraternity parties. We had a guitar player and a piano player at first. We all had so little sense about bands and how music fits together band wise that we chose to get a drummer and not have a bass player. We didn't think we needed one...but we KNEW we needed a drummer for those jungle rhythms. That was one thing we were sure of.
After college, I moved to California where I went to work for Capitol Records telling them I just wanted to be close to a music company. They put me in charge of the 3rd floor stockroom where I also ran the copy machine which, in those days, was the size of an auto. Everyone from the janitor to the president came to me to get copies, cause I was the only one authorized to run the machine. I met the girl who was in charge of music publishing and asked her if she'd listen to my original songs. In addition to my own songs on the tape, I added one written by the Addrisi Brothers that was on an album by The Association. I put it on there because I liked the way my voice sounded singing that song. It so happened when the publishing lady played my tape, an independent producer was in her office and heard my voice. He asked her who was singing, and she told him it was the kid in the stockroom. He called me from her office and told me he was a Hollywood producer and wanted to produce me. It so happened he had recorded a track for the song I had included on my tape by The Association, and he was looking for "the perfect voice" to sing it. According to him, it was mine. Within a few weeks I had a major label deal, and within a few more weeks I was driving down Sunset Boulevard listening to my voice on my car radio. It was an amazing feeling.
Triste: What year would that be? 1967? 1968?
Bob Cheevers: That would probably be 1967. I continued to write songs that I thought would fit into the market and the direction that my big time Hollywood music career was taking me...but my producer told me I wasn't a songwriter. I was crushed but disregarded his advice and continued to write. I hooked up with some guys who wrote songs from the heart. At that time Neil Young was in The Buffalo Springfield. His songs in that band were so powerful for me. His and Joni Mitchell's and Jackson Browne's songs all showed me there were people out there writing songs about their lives and about things they knew about. It turned me on to the idea of writing what I knew about. Suddenly, a huge door was opened for me as a writer and as a person. From then on, I was on the road to becoming a true artist. Now, that road isn't any easier than any other road...but at least its one of truth and honesty to one's self in terms of art. Years went by with over a thousand songs being written, and my dedication to the road I was on continued. I was having no luck in the music biz though. One thing I discovered is that I'd wandered too far into my own world and wasn't paying quiet enough attention to what was happening in the business of music. A fine line must be walked when choosing to be an artist and still wanting to be successful in the business. Some folks have a natural ability to write for the market. I didn't and still don't. So success can be measured in how successful I am at writing exactly what I want to write so as to say exactly what I want to say...the way I see the world thru my eyes. There are many other ways to measure success one of which is to pay attention to the market and educate myself in ways of writing songs that are more likely to get recorded by others or are more likely to be "accepted" by others buying songs that I put out as the artist. Moving to Nashville, in late August 1991, I tried real hard to develop tools that would tailor my songs making them sound more like other songs on the radio. There are all sorts of techniques that can be used in the songwriting process to make a song more succinct and transparent with a higher level of communication between the writer and listener. My Nashville experience taught me so much...and then I chose to revert back to the artist mentality writing direction. When I did that, taking with me all the things I'd learned during my "learn how to write hits" period, things really began to happen. The songs for my CD Gettysburg To Graceland were written, and I got an independent record deal resulting in that CD being among the CDs from which were chosen the Grammy nominees for Best Contemporary Folk CD of 1998. Finally, some real, tangible, artistic success. In addition, it was success at something I knew about which was stories of the Old South and The Civil War. I guess the moral of the story is stay with what you know, but learn about everything you can along the way.
Triste: Was there a common thread to all the music you've made over the last few decades? Would it be fair to say most of your music has a strong melodic sensibility?
Bob Cheevers: I think so because I had so much background in my Mom's kind of music which was very structured and harmony oriented, I went for a much more refined direction with harmony and smoothness rather than the raw, garage band sound. I played electric rhythm in a few bands until the Springfield, James Taylor type artist singer/songwriter thing happened. Then I felt that was more appropriate for me. I've pretty much always preferred to play solo. I'm a Scorpio only child with lots to say and probably selfishness in terms of wanting to be heard as me not as me and the other and members. Thatís a blessing and a curse. Itís limiting, but itís also limitless to the extent that my personal limitations and ability to communicate are limitless. However, during the later 70's and early 80's, I was working and writing with some rock and jazz musicians and got far away from my solo thing. In fact, I got so far away from it that I couldn't play the songs I was writing that were being interpreted by these other musicians. I realized what a fundamental musician I was during that period. Years later, as the solo thing crept back into my field of interest, I began to work harder on my musicianship and brought my level of playing up to meet my writing and singing ability. Itís been a long, hard road.
Because I have always been a driven writer, I've been the bandleader in my bands because the songs we were playing were mine... but I have always chosen a wonderful player to be in the band who can communicate musically to the other musicians in ways that my musical vocabulary suffers. For the autumn tour of England and the final date in Scotland, I've put together a 10 song CD of things written and recorded mostly during the 80's with one going back to 1976. The songs hold up both musically and as songs, but I did have to eliminate many of my choices because the sounds were dated. Looking back, I also got to see how my writing has progressed. Its taken years to realize the best songs have a beginning, a middle and an ending...and there is a fabric that carries the lyric and story along from beginning to end.
Triste: I suppose these were hedonistic times, but I gather ultimately you found them rather empty. Can you expand on this? A lot of sixties acts seemed to turn inwards and reassess as the 70's kicked in.
Bob Cheevers: Moving to Los Angeles in the 60's put me smack dab in the middle of the huge hippie-alternative lifestyle movement. It was a bit hard to comprehend at first after having grown up in a middle class family from the 50's in Memphis. But the rock and roll explosion did break that chain in me enough to allow me to dive headlong into the massive cultural change that the 60's offered. In addition to the incredibly different social and environmental scene of southern California, there was the quickly growing attraction to pot smoking, which led to psychedelics, which often led to harder drugs like speed and cocaine. For many of us, it was fundamental not only to the southern California lifestyle but also and perhaps even more-so to the music lifestyle. It all just seemed natural, and I went right along with it all. I was in a band in the 60's called The Peppermint Trolly Company which had several chart hits and dressed in wacky, colorful outfits designed by our producer to fit in with the Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Troggs and many of the British bands that were coming up with outlandish outfits. This was in severe contrast to the likes of The Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, The Seeds, etc....groups that dressed "down" so as not to fit into any publicists' idea of what was cool. That created their own artistic look which later became vogue in the movement when the dress of the hippies became so individual and colorful and weird. It wasn't long before I went in that direction and left my producer and his ideas behind. Itís pretty safe to say once I took LSD a time or two many things changed forever. Musically, during that period I was also headed toward a writing style that was more personally and spiritually driven. I had learned from Jackson Browne, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell that it was safe to write about feelings I was having and that there was a growing audience of people who preferred to hear artists speaking the truth about how they felt and saw the world. I think that is a direction which is still a strong part of my writing, although I have gotten great enjoyment out of making up characters and developing lives for them. While Jackson, Neil and Joni taught me I can write about how I feel, Guy Clark and John Prine have encouraged me to pay attention to the world around me and the characters in it and to write about experiences I see others going thru. Invariably, the two directions are inextricable and ultimately meet at the crossroads where the two connect.
I've grown accustomed to letting a song find its own way once it presents itself to me. These songs are, in fact, like independent lives on journeys of their own. I am only the scribe who chronicles the journey. It never fails to fascinate me as I watch the story of a song unfold. I may have had an original idea for what it was to be about, but that can get changed without my even intending it to change. Along the way, I get to use the tools I've picked up as a writer to put the story in a context rhymically or text-wise...but most often, the heart of the song writes itself in an atmosphere that has been formulating in that spiritual conduit that exists within me. Itís nothing short of magic for me.
Triste: Your music seems to reflect the many changes you have gone through both as a writer and as a person. Can you tell me a little more about how the growth of yourself as a person and as a writer were intertwined?
Bob Cheevers: For me as a person and as a writer, the early drug years were very instrumental in shaping my future. Had I remained entrenched in the shallow, pop music field of the 60's, I'd be not only a very different person but absolutely a different writer/artist. Remember the part about my producer telling me I wasn't a writer...well, smoking pot and talking LSD demanded of me that I look inside and see who I really was as a person. That translated to my looking at my music and choosing what I wanted to communicate thru my songs and on the stages where I found myself. My wife at the time and I decided we wanted to get as far away from the plasticity of Hollywood as we possibly could, so we moved to northern California and found a 40 acre ranch where we built our own house, grew our own food and for all practical purposes withdrew from society. I would still make trips down to LA to keep my music biz involvement alive, and a great writing deal with MCA Music happened during those trips. My first venture as a writer being paid to write was unbelievable. The guy who signed me loved what I did and was sure I was the "next" whoever. We'd go into the studio and cut my new songs. He'd be blazing on mescaline and we'd be smoking pot and trying to put the songs down. There were a few years of that sort of disorganized insanity followed by a huge shake up in the hierarchy of MCA. My guy got fired for spending loads of their money and having nothing to show for it. I got fired when the new guy took his place and realized all my songs were about getting back to nature rather than about life in the concrete jungle of LA. I had to do something. So I spent 6 weeks learning my songs before venturing out of the safety of the mountains into Sacramento to get my first job as a solo performer. I played 3-6 nights a week for several years, became a household name in Sacramento then flamed out before the very eyes of my audience as my marriage fell apart with me not far behind. Too much adulation, too many drugs and definitely too many women (given I was married). The songs I'd been writing were about how love is the answer and how a woman should be treated and how honesty was the corner stone of a relationship. Meanwhile, I found myself living the opposite of what I'd been singing about. It confused and disappointed me, and I felt it was the music that had "done" that to me.
Triste: So what did you do?
Bob Cheevers: I quit! Over the next couple years after moving to Indiana and not doing music, I realized people liked me for who I was rather than who I was on stage. The road back to finding the confidence to try playing again was a long one with lots of fear involved. But the realization that it wasn't the music that caused the trouble was encouraging. It would be decades before I addressed the real causes...but for then, I was slowly slipping back into something that is fundamental to my makeup...music. During the couple years when I gave up the music, I learned leather craft. After my wife and I divorced, I went back to California and put together a group while doing solo gigs and continuing some leather craftwork. Not slowly, the music took over, and for 5-6 years things sailed along briskly in the local scene. During the 80's for me, cocaine blew into town taking me along with it on a ten-year ride. I never stopped writing though I did lose my voice and my confidence along that road. It was interesting what amazing song ideas we'd have during that period with the help of coke...then we'd re-write and un-write anything of any worth. It was not a period where a high percentage of great songs got completed. I was sailing a lot in the Caribbean on a 67-foot sailboat and generally living a very lascivious and indulgent lifestyle. Then one day, my spirit said, "Thatís enough!" I never did another drug again and took up where I left off in my quest to find a spiritual higher ground that I'd gotten a glimpse of during the hippie daze. This period began in 1989 and has continued thru today.
A few years ago, I put together the Cheeversongs Archive Series which spans my writing/recording career over the last 20 years. Each of the 8 CDs has a theme with songs on them that follow the themes. From my catalogue of over a thousand songs, I had to choose songs not only for how well they fit into one of the themes but also for their sonic quality and for how tolerable they were from an instrumental standpoint (some songs are virtually unlistenable because a drum machine just tortures the entire track). For my autumn tour CD, I chose songs from the Archive Series along with other tracks that didn't make it to other CDs. Its great to know that some songs have a long shelf life and that their emotional content as well as sonic value stands the test of time. This is a personal choice, but I rarely if ever go back and re-write something. My process is always one of moving forward which seems to preclude a return to the past.
Triste: About this time you also started the Bob Cheevers Songwriting showcase. What exactly was it all about? How did it differ from a normal open mic session? As well as encouraging other people to play music I suppose it was also about getting your confidence back and getting your name known again?
Bob Cheevers: The Bob Cheevers Sacramento Songwriters Showcase was a multi-purpose undertaking. I suppose more than anything, I wanted to create a forum where I could comfortably slip back into the performing thing surrounded by friends and other professionals who would be invited to participate. Sacramento had a thriving music scene with a wide variety of music styles. The Showcase ran monthy for over two years featuring a different style each month and having a commercially successful artist in that genre as the headliner along with local talent that complimented the star. I was the host and opened the show with a few songs then sprinkled one or two songs throughout the show between acts. We got lots of publicity, because it was so well attended and served the community so well. It definitely wasn't an open mic situation. It was well planned and orchestrated and became quite a "show". I was beseiged with calls from people from all over the area to play, and I had to screen each tape that was submitted and choose acts based on their abilities and direction. Lots of work went into each month's show, and watching each show unfold was always the reward. When I decided to move to Nashville in 1991, we had a final show featuring about 60 performers from the previous couple years. It was interesting to watch over the lifespan of the shows how often performers were featured again and again in different band configurations or with new material. As in most towns, there is a core group of people who make up the most devoted musicians, writers, or performers. This was no different, and we all knew each other and supported each other in our various incarnations. It was a very heartening experience for us all and really brought the musical community together. I still hear from people in Sacramento telling me how much they appreciated those shows. That a great compliment both for me and the other people who put so much time and effort into each month's show.
Triste: The first two of your more recent albums certainly featured a lot of songs based on the South and the Civil War. Was this a conscious decision to focus in on a time and location in history?
Bob Cheevers: The CD Gettysburg To Graceland actually came together out of a year or so's writing which sort of "happened" to go in the Old South/Civil War direction. One of the Cheeversongs Archive CDs is titled My Southern Heart and includes all my songs about those two topics. When I was young, my grandmother told me many stories about her family including her father who was a plantation owner with slaves but who was a humanitarian. When the war was over, his slaves came to him saying "Massa John, Massa John...please don't make us leave...we wants to stay on yo plantation". Required by law, he had to free them and, in many cases, the newly freed slaves wandered directionless in their lives after the war.
My first Civil War song was written from a dream I had in 1969. It had about 8 versus and lots of historical references. When I awakened in the night, I wrote it all down then went to the library the next day to find only two things were wrong...a general's name and the location of a battle. That song is called "Civil Liberties" and will be on my next studio CD which will probably be titled Southern Heart.
I've been carrying my grandmother's stories around with me for half a century. While their surfacing in my song was surprise, it was also very organic and turned into a strong direction for a Southern boy who had the information stored in his soul until the gift of songwriting set the stories free. Many people have said to me "You must read lots of history books"...not true. I draw from the stories my grandmother told me, but more than that I make up the characters and just put them in their historical places with other people of my imagination around them. That way, I get to use the information thatís in my mental storage files along with the vivid pictures my mind conjures up. Its quite a process, but its one that I've acknowledged as being one of my greatest gifts.
Triste: When playing 'The Ballad of Caleb Leedy' I think you introduced the song by saying you'd got the name from somewhere, but later saw the grave and discovered Caleb Leedy was a Union soldier, not the son of a Yankee cotton grower. Can you elaborate on this a little?
Bob Cheevers: An American named Ken Burns did an 8-episode series of The Civil War. It was mostly a photo-pictorial interspersed with interviews of historians such as Shelby Foote and others. There was a series of photos of tombstones one of which had the name Caleb Leedy on it. I loved the name and wrote the song "The Ballad Of Caleb Leedy" about a Southern boy who was killed by a Yankee soldier. Later, when my wife and I visited the National Burial Ground at Shilo in the hills of Tennessee, we had somewhat of a supernatural sense that Caleb's grave was there. She went one way thru the cemetery, and I went the other. A period of time passed, and I was looking at the name on a tombstone when I realized she had found Caleb's grave. I turned and at that very moment saw her with her hands raised as she shouted, "I found him". We took photos of me at Caleb's gravesite. It turned out that Caleb was a Northern soldier not a Southern boy as he appears in my song. The grace of time and its forgiveness have made up for my literary mistake. God bless Caleb Leedy.
Triste: You often use characters to address viewpoints in these songs, but your latest album is very much more relationship based and personal? How much was this a conscious decision?
Bob Cheevers: My recent CD, We Are All Naked, is a 14-song collection written about a wonderful Kentucky woman with whom I had a 4-year love affair. The songs are about the up and down sides of love. As the years of being together and splitting up passed, the songs continued to come. It began to be obvious that a tribute to her was in the making. Considering the majority of my previous work was focused on characters of my own imagination, it became obvious that I was putting together a CD of songs whose object was a single person. While the songs were born naturally over a 4-year period, the decision to put them altogether was very conscious. Listening to it after time has passed, I can say itís my most honest and vulnerable work. Whereas in other CDs, the characters were assigned emotions that I may have felt, the emotions in each of the songs on We Are All Naked are true and relate to a real person. For that reason alone, the CD stands apart from anything I've ever done.
Triste: Are you happy with the cover of We Are All Naked? Don't you think the photo of yourself naked except for the guitar might gives the wrong impression of an album of quite serious songs?
Bob Cheevers: When I came up with the concept for the We Are All Naked CD, the cover idea came along with it simultaneously. Because the songs are about "the naked truth", I somehow had this twisted idea of a cover with me naked. I tried to no avail to find a shot of me as a child naked, so I had a series of photos done with me naked holding my guitar and chose the one I liked the most. The problem with that cover, for me, is the attitude of the photo does not at all coincide with the attitude of the songs on the CD. But because I was up against a huge time crunch in order to get the CD done in time for the tour, I went with it. After the tour, I had my art guy do another cover which was to be for the American release. It is a beautiful, stark photo of a tree with no leaves and an eagle sitting on one of the branches with a huge lightening bolt coming down from a dark sky in the background. The image is very naked and ominous and probably not much closer to the song text than the original cover. People who know me and who have seen me perform understand my humor and hopefully accept the discrepancy between the cover art and the song text. If I had it to do over again, I certainly would think past my first reaction for a cover. But that's what makes history and art so interesting...isn't it?
Triste: Now you've put a lot of your recent personal history into song do you feel happy you've done it? It must be difficult to sing a song which crystallises your emotions in time when at a later date they've changed.
Bob Cheevers: The mastering process for We Are All Naked was completed the night before I left for the November 2001 UK tour that supported that CD. I didn't know what the response would be, since I'm known mostly for my story songs about the Old South and Civil War. Here I was, about to play 35 shows baring my soul and telling the world how I had been feeling for the last several years about a particular person. It was frightening and also empowering, because it was so honest and real. The relationship came to a rather final end just before the tour ended leaving me singing the songs more from the standpoint of the affair being over rather than it being alive. While that was tough, it was cathartic hearing myself sing out loud about the end. Once again, the music provided comfort and closure.
Triste: Over in Europe we only see you as a solo singer-guitarist. In the States do you ever play with a full band behind you and if so do you which style do you prefer?
Bob Cheevers: I have 4 groups of guys I work with in the US... one in Nashville, another in northern California, another in Indiana and yet another in LA. The US is so huge making travelling with a band is very expensive. I occasionally play with a band but am predominately a solo artist. I love the band thing but realized years ago when I play with a band, I tend to relate more with the band members than with the audience. My songs are very personal and intimate, and I think one of my biggest strengths is communicating to the audience what the song I'm going to play is about. As a solo, I can do that better and more freely than I can with a band. Either way itís a trade-off... but I think I prefer the solo approach most of the time.
Triste: What about the change in songs between being performed live and solo to being performed with a full band behind them in the studio eg something like "Colleen" from Gettysburg?
Bob Cheevers: On Gettysburg To Graceland, my producer Charlie White suggested I not play on certain songs. He had such a greater command of the guitar and could really place the guitar in a more predominant role with him playing it. I felt it gave the song more strength. There was, however, the trade-off of the song not having that real fundamental connection to the writer's feel. We followed that approach on "The Stories I Write". I didn't have a problem with it, because it elevated the sound of the production.
We Are All Naked was recorded in my living room with me playing my guitar and singing the song. It was originally gonna be a guitar/vocal CD with perhaps a harmony here and there and maybe an additional instrument. But I got carried away and kept hearing vocal and instrumental parts. First, I put backup vocals on the songs then brought various players in to add things finally putting bass on everything and playing percussion myself on most songs. Some of the songs went to 24 tracks, even though the entire recording was done on my 8-track Tascam digital tape machine.
The huge difference on that CD is that each song began with my guitar part and the symbiotic relationship of my playing to my vocal. Something inextricable happens when a person sings and plays at the same time. Doing it that way truly gives the listener a musical view of what the writer was thinking melodically and lyrically. I'm going to do more recording that way. A step further would be to play and sing my part while the band is playing live around me. We did ďCaleb LeedyĒ and ďShoulda Picked Our Own CottonĒ that way on Gettysburg To Graceland, and thatís how we plan to do the Southern Heart CD.
Triste: Why did it take so long to find your voice? Bob Dylan was pretty much fully formed by his second album? Similarly with Neil Young or Joni Mitchell. Or are you more like Guy Clarke for example who had a long apprenticeship before releasing his first (and to my mind best) collection of songs.
Bob Cheevers: As I said earlier, some folks just mature earlier or quicker. I think, for me, much of that had to do with finding myself as a human being. The personal and cultural shock of leaving Tennessee for the mind bending LA psychedelic scene...the toll drugs and alcohol had on my voice and my psyche...the different influences from 50's rock to LA pop to jazz musicians to bluegrass to Nashville country...to getting over all that and relaxing into who I had become as a person and what my heart was saying. All that stuff accounts for my personal and musical journey. I kid about being a slow Southern boy. And the interesting thing is that all the influences I have are still at work on any given song. Commercially speaking, itís easier for a promotion department to deal with an artist who has a very narrow artistic waveband. I've been all over the place stylistically, cause I've wandered down so many different roads. The wandering hasn't always been in a direction that has resulted in obvious positive ends, but each step has been a learning process...and I can hear the echoes of those footsteps in the songs.
Triste: Are you someone who's ever satisfied that a song's finished or do you keep on tinkering with it for years afterwards?
Bob Cheevers: I'm definitely a finisher. And as I said earlier, I rarely if ever go back and update anything. I have too many current things I'm working on at any given moment to Put it in reverse and go back...for better or for worse. If I start something, the probability of it getting finished is 99%.
Triste: Can you talk us through the genesis of a couple of songs? Which ones, if any, were "sky songs"? Which were laboriously crafted and sweated over, and can the casual listener tell the difference now?
Bob Cheevers: "Civil Liberties", which I mentioned earlier, was a sky song...written in the middle of the night after a dream. "Annalee Saint Pierre", on Gettysburg To Graceland was written quickly and fell together so perfectly. I was listening one evening to Dolly Parton sing a song on TV about a river. While she was singing her song, the idea for "River Of Jordan" came to me. I completed the lyric and had an idea for the melody before she was thru singing her 3 minute song. I went to the record store the next day to get her song and see if I had stolen her melody or lyrics. I hadn't. It just came that quickly. Often other songs trigger something in me to write a song... some emotional quality of the song Iím listening to calls to me and begins the creative process. Occasionally, I'll play a song on someone's CD over and over while I write a song of my own. Some kind of inspiration comes thru in their song that drives the inspiration in me. We were mixing a song at the studio one night when I got up to get something to drink. Passing through the room with a TV in it, I saw the tombstone with the name Caleb Leedy on it. I went right back into the studio and, while the other song was being mixed, I wrote "The Ballad Of Caleb Leedy". Itís all magic.
"We Shoulda Picked Our Own Cotton" is a title that I took from a bumper sticker. I loved the sentiment but couldn't figure out how to say it. I re-wrote the verse many times and just couldn't come up with a second verse even though my chorus was so strong. My producer Charlie White whipped the second verse out in a few minutes. I spent lots of time on "Old Soul". That song was written in reaction to an article in Rolling Stone where someone listed a bunch of things, which were supposed to be cool if they happened to you. Being called an old soul was one of them. I wanted to respond to that in some cosmic, outlandish way, and it took me a long time to get the courage to have the character singing the song (me) say the things he said about being an old soul. The title song to The Stories I Write took a while to write, because it was me talking about the stories I make up and the fact that they are really about things in my own life that I have may be struggling with or having a hard time embracing. That song was written when I was going thru an emotional wasteland that was very difficult for me. But the song rings so true and feels so complete and right every time I listen to it. I don't think the listener can necessarily tell a great song took a long or short period of time to write. The intervening factor there is craftsmanship. Its my job to make whatever song I write sound natural and understandable. As hard as I try and as many of the tools of my trade I use, that doesnít always happen. I seem to be writing fewer songs each year than before, but its gotten to where the percentage of songs I feel good about after completing them is higher than ever. I think I averaged 35-50 songs a year for a few decades. Last year, I may have written 25. But the quality is up, and Iíve found simpler ways to say the things Iím feeling. And Iím more in tune with what Iím feeling which makes me more comfortable and not quite so driven to explore my feelings thru the songs. Funny how that works. If the eyes are the windows to a personís soul, then a song must be the voice of the heart.