Updated: Nov 8, 2022
How old were you when you started playing guitar?
I started playing guitar when I was about 12 years old, quickly realized it was a bit too much for me so I switched to bass and was a bass player for the most part into my mid twenties. My motivation was to play in a band and bass was much easier to make that possible. No one wants to be the bass player when you are 12 years old...
What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?
My very first guitar was a completely unplayable red acoustic guitar from a store at the local mall. It was a Christmas gift. I no longer have it but I’m not nostalgic about it. I do wish I had my first bass – a black Music Master Fender. It weighed a ton, but it had great tone for an entry level bass. I can close my eyes and still smell the case.
Did your parents or grandparents play any instruments? If so, what did they play? Did you ever get a chance to play with them?
No, there were no musicians in my family that I knew. Apparently, my great uncles could all play multiple instruments, but I never knew them.
What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?
I have three favorites. I have a very inexpensive Yamaha nylon string which is perfect for a certain kind of song when you want that soft butter tone. I have two great acoustic guitars: a twenty year old Gibson J-45 that was my only good guitar for about 18 years. The warm low end on a great Gibson just can’t be beat. It’s a real songwriter’s guitar as opposed to my other acoustic which is a Martin D-18 GE. The neck is absolutely perfect. I prefer the sound of the Gibson, but the playability of the Martin is far better, so the Martin has been my main guitar the last four years. I don’t think I could choose between them. They are just different but if I pick up a guitar without thinking, it’s the Gibson.
What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?
I use medium gauge John Pearse strings and I tune down one whole step to accommodate my voice. There are certain songs that are just out of my vocal range. I’ve been singing MUCH better since I committed to tuning down a whole step. I change them about every two weeks or so. There is a sweet spot after two or three shows when the strings have finished stretching and the high end is starting to fade. I don’t like brand new strings. Those ringing high end overtones sort of bother me. I’m always incredulous when I hear a great guitar player with that quacky string sound. I use a L.R. Baggs Dual Source pickup in both guitars so there is a mic inside to bring out the natural quality of the guitar.
Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?
Ha! I always bring them but never use them. I strum with the edge of my index finger. There is usually a solid callous which gives the strumming a nice warm sound. This works for me even though it’s a bit unconventional. I will say it can be a problem on a long tour as the fingernail can start to separate from the finger. It can be a bit painful after fifteen shows, but I’m used to it.
Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?
None. I might use a tremolo pedal when I’m recording but that’s the only exception.
Do you work on your own guitars or do you bring them to a guitar tech? Are there any guitar techs that you would like to recommend?
I don’t do my own guitar repairs. I use the best shop in Nashville. Joe Glaser is a miracle worker. He’s also very funny and sardonic so it’s always nice to see him. He can be quite sharp witted. Last time I brought the J-45 to him, he opened the case, looked inside and said, “Well that’s a tool.” It’s quite beat up and worn down to bare wood in spots.
Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?
Fanny’s New and Used Instruments is a great little shop over in East Nashville. It’s the complete opposite from Guitar Center. I used to like Carter Vintage in Nashville, but it was recently sold so I’ll have to see if they keep up to standard. They have an amazing used section and they aren’t as snobby as some of the upper level guitar shops.
At what age did you start writing songs?
I believe I was 15 years old when I started trying to write songs. Basically, I was imitating whatever I liked, which is how most people get started.
What is your songwriting process? Is it the music or the lyrics that usually come to you first? Do you write old school on paper, or electronically?
I write on my phone recorder. I think the best songs come all at once – not that the song will be complete but the songs where the melody just floats out of the chord progression and the lyrics are instinctive, have some kind of natural quality to them. It’s a very difficult process to describe. It feels more like they come through you. As though you’ve raised your antenna and you pick a song out of the air – then you get your songwriting tools out and finish sculpting it.
Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?
I would have to say Springsteen, Lucinda Williams and John Prine.
If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
I’m terrible at jamming. I’m a song guy. I could trade songs with someone, but I really don’t jam. I’m a very utilitarian guitar player. If I can’t see the dots on the neck I’m lost.
What are your top three “desert island” albums?
Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, Nebraska and Prine’s Souvenirs album where he re-recorded the early material. The worse Prine's voice became the better I liked it. I like things that sound like they’s lived.
What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?
Springsteen – The Music Hall Boston MA. 1978
Jason Isbell – The Ryman Auditorium Nashville TN. 2021
The Beatles or the Stones?
The four Stones albums with Mick Taylor are absolute magic. That was the lineup. I love The Beatles, but those four Stones albums are unbeatable.
Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?
I have no idea. Make? Hahahahahahahaha….
What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?
I played a show at The Running Horse in Nottingham England that was the best show I’ve ever played. It was almost scary how tuned in we all were.
What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).
A brewpub in Iowa. The waitress came over to me while I was right in the middle of a song and shouted, “Can you turn down? We can hear you all the way across the room.” I mean why was I even there? Put on a Jimmy Buffet record and I’ll just leave...
What are some of the venues you enjoy performing at the most? What things make the venue enjoyable for the performer (location, equipment, setup, organizers)?
There is a house concert series in Brick NJ. It’s tiny. Holds about 30 people maximum but the shows are just special somehow. There’s no explaining it exactly. There are too many venues that are great for me to list. The venue can be perfect but if the staff isn’t happy or the sound person is difficult it can really put a wet towel on the show. So, for me the venue is irrelevant. It all comes down to the people. With an engaged crowd who are on your side and really want to be there, you could have a magical show in a dirt floor cellar.
How do you work out your setlist?
I make a new set list that’s usually heavy on the latest album for each leg of the tour. Then, it’s a matter of feeling which songs like being paired up and making sure you don’t have four songs all with the same fingerpicking pattern and the same key. I try to mix in a bit of dark humor, vary the tempos and pick songs that have great intros as well. It evolves as the tour goes. It’s almost never the same exact set twice though it might be roughly the same songs.
Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?
I suppose there are a lot of things. The music business can be a snake pit. It’s very competitive but can also be incredibly fulfilling. Have thick skin. Whatever you feel when you’re playing is what the audience is feeling. Are you nervous? So is the audience. Are you confident? So is the audience. Alison Krauss pulled me aside when I was opening a few shows for her and said, “Everyone has a part of their voice that’s pleasing. It might only be three notes. If it is? Just sing those three notes.” Best vocal advice ever.
Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?
Just keep digging. Challenge yourself. It’s there in the air. Keep your antenna up at all times. Never be without a notepad and some kind of recorder. My phone has 387 pieces of songs on it since 2019. Slaid Cleaves and I have a 2% rule. Only 2% of what you do will be great. That means I have roughly eight great songs on the recorder. I’d say that’s about right. So, you have to write a lot, both to hone your skills but also to trip over diamonds.
If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?
I can come up with a pithy answer, but the truth is I’d probably be making coffee tables and nightstands. I like building things: songs, poems, cabinets…I like to build.
Photo credit: Allan McKay
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