Dave Carlock: Friend nudges a country gait

Published 7:43 am Friday, January 18, 2013

I have to say, I don’t really like country music. As soon as I hear the ghostly vibrato whine of a steel guitar on a ballad, I’m possessed to exit stage right. For the feeling it evokes in me, it may as well be a Theremin on a science fiction movie — except for the fact I like science fiction movies.

Living and working in Southwest Michigan exposes me to sneak attacks from country music when I least expect it. One of the most unlikely places in my town is a French sandwich shop named Baguette De France. Don’t even get me started on how wrong it is to have country music in a place where they have prints of the Eiffel Tower and of French impressionistic painters on the wall. Hearing “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” while eating does not aid in my digestion, I assure you.
At age 4, I gravitated away from my father’s Mac Davis and John Denver records and toward my brother’s Chicago and Elton John records, choosing pop and rock music over country for good, but it seems country just won’t let me be. Perhaps that’s why it’s so funny that I spent my last week knocking out two new country songs for an old friend and collaborator, songwriter Larry Lange.
Larry began hinting around about my interest in country a couple of years ago when he began focusing his attention toward the melodies of the drawl-tongued devils of Nashville. Despite being an ex-New Yorker transplanted in Florida, Larry truly loves the genre. This is to me, again, further evidence of a world gone mad, but just as I would love and support a gay friend who decided to come out, I love and support my friend Larry who goes to every country concert he can, devouring the music, the scene and the style.

Solid song writing
And yes, I’ll give you that there’s some solid songwriting in a great percentage of those country songs. The songwriting is where I can really appreciate Music Row’s international product, even if the music’s style feels as ill-fitting to me as a cowboy hat. Knowing what a great songwriter Larry is, it makes sense he admires and is adding his usual panache to the genre’s songcraft.
And yes, country records have some great musicianship. No surprise, records made in Nashville rely on session guys who deliver a sort of “Wrecking Crew-Nashville” approach to making records. Really smokin’ hot players, in a room live, cutting records in typical three-hour sessions. This is a world I understand, no doubt. Larry says, “you’d be great at it!”
Keeping in mind that great friends help each other by answering a 4 a.m. call for bail, I decided to produce some country songs for my old pal and, in the process, reignite a collaboration that went back to the first songs I’d written for Columbia Records. Larry sent me an MP3 of two songs: “Man Up, Girl!” for a female singer, and a shuffle tune called “I Run Country Deep” for a male. And so it began with only a week to finish before I left to do sessions in California.
Though I’d play most of the instruments, I wanted a somewhat more traditional country sound on ‘I Run Country Deep.’ I set out a challenge to find what I called the best “Chicken Pickin’ Country Lick-in” Telecaster player in the region. After having several players drop by to play a few things, I found an amazing player in South Bend’s Mike Davis.
After listening to my drums, bass, rhythm electric and acoustic guitars under a killer performance from South Haven vocalist Jared Knox, Mike nailed the part. Having just looked at my charts for the first time, we had to punch the bridge once, and that was it. His groove was rock solid, his licks were fluid and authentic. It took a little working to craft the right solo, as it always does, and before we knew it, Mike was headed back to South Bend and I had a new musician friend on speed dial.
After a few fiddle player auditions, Jess Jernigan came in from South Bend to lay down the track’s fiddle part. I met Jess last summer when I contracted her for a string session on Michelle Bythrow’s vocal jazz EP that I produced. Jess plays it all: country, rock, classical, Irish and bluegrass as well as her classical symphonic gigs. After we cut her part, I had the joy of introducing her to some YouTube videos of Jerry Goodman playing violin with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. That made her jaw drop.
“Man Up, Girl!” was more of a ‘New Country’ track, sounding a bit more rock, as most New Country does. Another South Haven vocalist, Theressa Ruppert, was chosen from auditions to knock it out of the park. The only additional element added over my playing various instruments on this one was Paw Paw native Jimmy Phillips’ four-string Maybell banjo, playing arpeggiations. My suggestion to Jimmy was to play an E over the D chord in the verses, and beyond that, he laid in a simple, anchoring part that really shines.

Last minute? Of course
At the 11th hour, I decided to recut the drums to drive it more and give the song real push. Since the song’s story was about her father’s empowering three-word advice, the drums needed an intensity of paternal energy where the previous take had been somewhat more of a backing performance. Now, the song lends itself well to being a stunningly powerful live concert anthem.
Producing the tracks for my old friend was fun and interesting. In a musical sense, it’s kind of like seeing my friend in love with a new quirky girl, being a touch suspicious while sizing her up, but then coming to see they’re actually good for each other. Knock ’em dead,  Larry — go make country as fun for the rest of the world like you did for me. I’m honored to have been a part.

Dave Carlock is a 26-year veteran of the entertainment business: www.davecarlock.com.