Old Crow Medicine Show guitarist releases his self-titled third album today on ATO Records.
You can excuse Gill Landry for being a little tired; he had just woken up from a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to his home in Nashville.
The guitarist of Americana super group Old Crow Medicine Show was coming back from the Grammy Awards where the band had just picked up its second Grammy – this time for Best Folk Album (to go along with their 2013 Grammy for Best Long Form Music Video of the documentary Big Easy Express). Old Crow also performed at the Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony, playing their song “8 Dogs, 8 Banjos.”
The stage of the Nokia Theatre in L.A. is quite a distance from where Landry got his start in music, busking on the streets of the Pacific Northwest and New Orleans in the late ’90s before joining Old Crow in 2004.
And now Landry is adding to his own catalogue of solo work (which includes the 2007 release The Ballad of Lawless Soirez and 2011’s Piety & Desire), releasing his self-titled third album on March 3 through ATO Records. Recorded over two years in what he called “a ramshackle, shanty-ass apartment on the south side of Nashville,” the album features themes of compassion, kindness and love (with three of the songs including the word “love” in their titles). His new album also features the sounds of fellow Nashville musicians and/or friends, including Robert Ellis, Laura Marling and Nick Etwell of Mumford & Sons.
Landry joined fellow Nashville singer/songwriter Justin Townes Earle last week at the Strand-Capitol in York. But a few weeks before that, I caught up with him by phone where we talked about everything from his extensive cassette tape collection to his definition of the word “love.”
Michael Yoder: What was your experience like this year at the Grammys?
Gill Landry: Ultimately, it was fun. I’ve been there twice before – once as a guest, and once when we won for the film that we did for the tour with Mumford & Sons and Edward Sharpe. I’d say it’s a spectacle. It’s not my kind of thing. I don’t go in for it, personally, but winning is definitely an honor. It feels very encouraging.
MY: Back in the days when you were busking in the Pacific Northwest and New Orleans, could you ever have imagined you’d be standing on stage of the Grammy’s with an award in hand?
GL: Not at all. It was never my direction. That’s what’s kind of a treat about it. It’s sort of surreal in a way, because it was never on my radar or anything. I didn’t even own a television, so I never watched it. Yeah, it’s pretty funny. I was just thinking about that contrast, and it’s pretty cool. I got to take my mother, which made her year. That was pretty sweet.
MY: Do you find any difficulty switching your mindset from playing with Old Crow Medicine Show to doing your own solo shows?
“It’s sort of a new start for me, so it seemed like a clean slate… Going self-titled leaves it wide open, so you can pick up the record and judge for yourself.”
GL: Well, I’ve been doing my own thing since long before I even met Old Crow. There’s more work involved, for sure, and there’s more responsibility. And I suppose the main shift would be fronting as opposed to being a sideman and just taking on my character and really tearing into it. But other than that, no. The difference is vast between the two in that I’ll be driving in a van as opposed to riding on the bus – all those types of things. But I enjoy it – listening to cassette tapes, rolling down the highway, pulling into town, setting up the amps, hopefully the people will listen and playing your heart out.
MY: What cassette tapes will you be listening to on this tour?
GL: I just discovered thousands. I was really into cassette tapes when I got started. I grew up in the era of cassette tapes. I used to buy CD’s and burn them onto cassettes and then get rid of the CD’s. That was really weird. It took me a really long time to catch on. I wasn’t interested [in CD’s] because I had cassette players in my car and in my van. So I just found them the other day. They’ve been buried for years.
MY: Do you still have Licensed to Ill on cassette?
GL: Oh, I do, man. Wow, how did you know? Or was that just a guess?
MY: I actually read an interview you did years ago where you talked about your first two cassette tapes being Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill and Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell.
GL: Yeah, I’ve still got them, and they still play. It’s amazing. If I had bought CD’s in that time, they’d be dead. I mean, they probably warble a little bit. But right here, I’m looking at Mississippi Sheiks. I’ve got a bunch of Yazoo Green Label, so anything Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Henry Thomas. Then I’ve got a bootleg my friend made me of a live Tom Waits show, and here I have some friends of mine who used to play on the streets of New Orleans. There’s The Washboard Rhythm Kings, Bob Dylan, Lonnie Johnson, The Beauty of Nora Crumpet, Nirvana. I’ve got a lot of live recordings, like here it says, “Frank, Paul & Mary in New Orleans 1-99,” so I would take a little cassette recorder and record bands that I was learning from at the time. I’ve got loads of that, and I’ve got loads of WWOZ where I would just record the radio when I was in New Orleans. I put one on the other day, and for some reason I recorded a pledge drive [laughs]. I have no idea why I did that. This one seems to be a fairly old blues and old-time Delmore Brothers, and Baka music, which used to be one of my favorite tapes of African river drumming where they stand in the river and they use their hands. So a wide array of things that happened before 1950.
MY: Was there a moment or an artist that sparked your interest in pre-World War II music?
GL: I started digging right out of high school on my own into folk music on sort of the superficial level of things. It wasn’t until I met this guy Baby Gramps, who was sort of a Northwest legend in his own right. I met him at this place called the Roseburg Fair in rural Oregon, and he had all these stories. He’s highly entertaining, and he’s never off – he’s always on. He took us back to his house and started showing us things. Then he turned on the Harry Smith collection, and he would drop names all day long. We had little notebooks that we would write down the names. Back then, we would have to hunt the tapes or whatever because it was pre-YouTube having everything, which was quite a great adventure. We’d go to New Orleans to the Louisiana Music Factory and all those places and try to hunt down the names that he dropped. And then we’d sit over them for days, trying to figure out what they were doing. That was sort of the start.
MY: I’ve actually seen a few YouTube videos of Baby Gramps. He’s definitely someone I’d like to see live.
GL: That is good that you say that. I think that the Internet diminishes him. He’s definitely so nice to see live. When we met him, he said he’s never going to make a record until 78’s come back [laughs]. I always loved that. He also got me into collecting 78’s, which I have like a thousand of.
GL: Yeah, I had seen that Beyoncé had self-titled her album [laughs]. No, I wanted to self-title it because I had a whole bunch of titles in the bag, and each of them sort of labeled it in a way I didn’t think was fitting to every song. Also, it’s sort of a new start for me, so it seemed like a clean slate. As is the best you can hope for, I really like every song on the record. There’s no specific song on the record that I could use the title for and thought was the leading track that everyone should pay attention to. And there’s no overall theme that I though maybe made it sound one way or the other. So going self-titled leaves it wide open, so you can pick up the record and judge for yourself.
MY: How long were you in your apartment recording the album?
GL: Well, maybe about two years or so. It’s kind of long, but really it didn’t take me two years to make it – just between tours and extra traveling. In those two years, I did a full tour of the country with The Felice Brothers, I did a full tour of the country with Ben Howard, I did a tour of half of the country with Mumford & Sons, and I was in Old Crow all this time. So I was getting to it when I could. I was seldom home. But it was more time than I had ever spent previously [on an album], self-producing and self-engineering most of it. I was able to take my time because there was no label breathing down my neck waiting for it, and there was no limitations with money or time because I did it all myself.
MY: Were you happy when ATO decided to release the album?
GL: I was very happy to send it to them. Since Old Crow is with ATO, and I’m with ATO through Old Crow, I like our relationship. I think they’re great people and a great label. I heard back from John Salter there in just a few days or a week. It wasn’t even a question; he just said, “We want it.” I was like, “Let’s go!” I was very excited and still am very excited. They’ve been great to work with.
MY: Living in a place like Nashville, does it encourage you more to find collaborators to work on an album – people like Robert Ellis or Laura Marling?
GL: That’s always been one of my favorite things. In this life playing music, I’ve met so many unique, great, amazing and interesting artists that you love in many ways. So on the last record, I got Jolie Holland and Brandi Carlile. It’s always been special to bring the community of people who are in my life into a record. Since I’m a solo artist, I don’t have to have a cut-and-dry band. It’s nice to be able to use their talents and make a record – and I would say it’s a record that documents this time in my life, besides the fact they’re just great talents who lend nothing but gold to the vibes.
MY: How would you define the word “love,” and what does love mean to you?
GL: Well, it really depends on the love of “what.” The first thing I thought of was music, but then I also thought about my partner and thought of my family. It’s all variables on the same word. Love, for me, would be a collected conscious attention that can see through the barriers between the “you” and “me” – that would be between people. For me, love is being able to see the overall familiarity and uh… seriously, I slept for three hours last night. Let me ask you this – do you mean in the realm of people, or do you mean just in general, because it’s such a broad word.
MY: Well, maybe the first thing that pops in your head when you think of the word “love.”
GL: “Self-sacrifice” would be right up there, but it’s not as simple as that. I would say it’s this ability, for me, to come from a place of empathy and understanding and breaking down the barriers between “me” and “you.” Or everything from keeping it straight with my lady to not getting pissed off at the guy at the gas station – understanding and being able to harness that tenderness as much as possible without getting hung up and angry and lost in your own endeavors. That’s roughly a ballpark idea. I could go on for probably an hour, but I don’t think we have that much time [laughs].