George Thorogood’s most famous song might be a legendarily boastful anthem (“Bad To The Bone”), but the reality is another story. In a recent interview with American Songwriter, he was unfailingly humble and self-effacing, talking far more about the artists he covers on his new solo album Party Of One than about his own talents. But don’t fall for the aw-shucks bit; this is a record that only a charismatic performer and interpreter could pull off, considering the wide range of material included, from humanistic folk to forlorn country to lascivious blues. Here are some of the highlights of the conversation.
What made you decide that now was the right time not just for a solo record, but also for a deep dive into the types of music that inspired you when you were just starting out?
Well, first of all, I’m a realist. At this point, I hadn’t put out any real product in six years and that’s a long time in this business to try and keep your profile up. And I looked back on all the records that we did and said to myself, “What’s something that you haven’t done?” And there was a demand for it from Rounder and it was something that we were talking about for years to do. The timing was just right. Since I haven’t written “Bridge Over Troubled Water” yet, I gotta put out something. This seemed to make sense.
Was it an odd feeling to be performing by yourself in the studio after so many years of being with a band?
Yes it was. It brought back great memories. I remembered how difficult it was and how I should not be doing this.
But you got through it just fine though.
I got through it. I won’t say I got through it fine, but I got through it.
What was the process for choosing the songs that were going to be included? Did the song list come together quickly or did you labor over it for a while?
I didn’t labor over it for a while; I labored over it for a long while. First of all, you not only gotta figure out if there are songs that make sense, but [ask yourself] can I play them? And that was a problem, because there were people close to me who kind of overestimated me and said, “Well, you can do this.” And I said, “Well, no I can’t.” My hands have been playing “Bad To The Bone” and “Get A Haircut” for 30 years. So for me, it’s like speaking in a whole different language that I haven’t spoken in 40 years, and your hands have a hard time doing it.
With certain songs I said, “This song is really great. I really want to do it.” And I’d start playing it and this song is going nowhere. It’s different when you have a bass player and drummer and you got another guitar player, for instance, I turn to Jim Suhler and he wails on a solo. Or you got a sax player or you overdub a slide or something. This process is a little different. You’re there on your own. You’re standing naked. You got to deliver. I usually like to say I don’t mind working hard, but I don’t like hard work.
So this record was a little bit of hard work?
Yes it was. There’s only one Taj Mahal, you understand.
What I like about the song list is, by including songs from The Stones, Dylan and Johnny Cash alongside the blues classics, you show that the blues aren’t separate from that other music but actually the lifeblood of all those different genres.
I agree with that. It’s pretty much intertwined. If you listen to “Move It On Over,” the melody of it [sings] “I come in last night about half-past ten.” But then you listen to the song by Bill Haley, it goes “When the clock strikes two, three and four.” It’s the same melody. I always used to say rock ‘n roll in the 50s was either country music played faster or blues music played faster and basically that’s what it was. You just sped up the tempo and rock ‘n roll was created. That’s where it was connected to country music and blues.
The first time I heard a Led Zeppelin record, I said Led Zeppelin reminds me of Robert Johnson with a band. It’s mysterious, it’s eerie, it’s heavy and it’s got all those elements. I can see the connection. Jimmy Page knew every type of music, like Jeff Beck did. That’s why I really don’t have a lot of time for new bands who come out and I’ll go, “Well, did you learn to play Jimmy Reed when you were a kid?” “So, Jimmy Reed, who’s that?” Well, I don’t have time for you. It’s like going to an actor and them saying they’ve never heard of Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams. It doesn’t make sense to me.
When you’re doing songs by Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker and the like, do you feel extra pressure to do them justice?
I think of doing the tunes justice regardless of who wrote it and making it sound good. A good song is a good song regardless of who the author is. It could be me. To say, “Well, you know Willie Dixon did this; we got to make it work right….” [is something] we have to do with every song. It’s not just, “Well, we’re going in for John Lee Hooker; we better nail it.” People won’t buy it if it doesn’t sound good.
You do a version of “Soft Spot,” which is a song that sounds like it was written in the Great Depression, but in actuality is the product of modern songwriters (Gary Nicholson and Allen Shamblin).
Isn’t that a shame that there are people still suffering for things like that, things that we thought were only happening in the Depression? I had a soft spot for the statement and I had a soft spot for the song, although it’s not really close to my style. But it’s something that’s close to my heart. So when Rounder suggested it, I said I have to do this. And it gave the album a little balance, something besides just “I’m bad, I’m bad, I’m bad, I drink all the time.” Everybody thinks that’s all Thorogood sings about, so I put a little diversity in there.
Plus we got a Bob Dylan song in there, which is cool. Because when Bob started out on his first album, he was playing blues himself. “Down The Highway” is Bob Dylan trying to do John Lee Hooker. So it’s me, George Thorogood, doing Bob Dylan doing John Lee Hooker.
It’s an off-the-beaten path song choice. Along the same lines, you do “No Expectations” by The Stones, where some people might expect you to do a harder-rocking Stones song.
Well, two reasons why. Number one, I would love to do those hard-rocking songs that The Stones do, but you have to do those with the band. So I was thinking, “What song can you do by The Stones that you don’t need a band to do that people know and like?” And I’ve always been a Brian Jones fan. He was the first person I ever saw play slide guitar. I saw him play on television. He was playing “Little Red Rooster,” I think.
I once asked Bo Diddley, “Who do you think can really play your stuff?” And of course, Bo says, “Nobody can play me.” “Okay, I know that, Bo, but if you had to pick one artist who can nail Bo Diddley.” And he said Brian Jones. That’s a beautiful song. The slide is beautiful. So I’m giving tribute to The Stones and Brian Jones with this particular tune. Besides it’s open D slide, which is comfortable for me. I think, “I could do this.” Trust me, I could’ve never played “Brown Sugar” or any of those songs.
You kind of run the gamut with the country songs on the album, because you’ve got the Johnny Cash charismatic, outlaw-type song (“Bad News”), but then you also include a haunting Hank Williams song (“Pictures From Life’s Other Side”).
Johnny Cash was one of the first cats where you can’t really qualify him as country. They say he’s country, but that’s a process of elimination. All those cats. They never could say, “Well, what’s Willie Nelson?” He’s Willie Nelson. He’s not rock, he’s not country. He’s Willie Nelson. That’s Johnny Cash, and that’s Kris Kristofferson. I mean, can you really categorize Tom Waits? No, he’s Tom Waits. That’s what he does. And I always thought of Cash like that. They say he’s a country guy. No, he’s not, he’s just Johnny Cash. If Johnny Cash wanted to make Westerns, John Wayne would’ve been out of a job.
As far as Hank Williams goes, the one element that Hank Williams had in his music, that was probably in his soul, was pain. A lot of times people come to me and they ask who do you think is the greatest blues writer of all time. And I say either Hank Williams or Bob Dylan. Because, to me, anything that’s sad is blues. The song “Yesterday” by The Beatles? It’s a man singing about the death of his mother. What could be sadder than that? I can’t classify that as a rock song. “Lucille” by Little Richard? That’s a rock ‘n roll song. But “I Threw It All Away” by Bob Dylan is so sad, it’s beautiful. Listening to Bob’s music is like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie. It’s categorized as comedy, but there’s tragedy within comedy, and that’s what Dylan is to me. And Hank Williams? This guy really had some pain in his soul and his writing was impeccable.
That Williams song that you chose certainly comes from that painful core.
He had other ones like that, but that was one I knew how to play. I’ve been playing that song for years, so that fell into place, pretty easy. I actually got a chance to play that at the Ryman Auditorium. How about that? I ended the show with it. How cool is that? I got to play a Hank Williams song at the Grand Ole Opry and I had the same dressing room that Hank Williams did. Can you dig that?
It seems like, on the whole, this album stresses what you mentioned earlier about breaking down the genre walls and showing that the songs come from the same place
They do. Even “No Expectations,” he sings, “Once I am a rich man, now I am so poor.” Mick Jagger does not get enough credit for his lyrics. Nobody else talks about that and Mick Jagger himself never talks about it. This guy writes [brilliantly]. Some of them are funny songs, like “Live With Me” is funny. It’s bad, but it’s funny. “No Expectations,” that’s beautiful. Look how young he was when he wrote it. So I don’t think that man gets enough credit, ‘cause I listen to some of those lyrics and I’m going “Jumping Jack Flash,” it’s Bo Diddley, man. “I was raised by a toothless bearded hag.” That’s bad. If Mick wants to write sad, he can do it too. Ever hear the song he does called “Fool To Cry?”
Of course, with the falsetto.
You cannot keep a dry eye with that song. Especially when sings the part about his daughter on his knee. “And she says ‘Daddy, what’s wrong?’” Heart-wrenching.
What about playing these songs live? Is that in the cards?
You have to listen to it on your turntable, or whatever you guys are listening to these days. No, man. When I hit that bandstand, baby, it’s rock party.
In the press for the album, you talk about this music being “what I was, what I am, and what I always will be.”
That’s pretty good what you said, but that’s pretty long title. So we settled on Party Of One.
But do you think this album will occupy a special space in your heart when all is said and done?
I think maybe as time goes on. You don’t know when you do something. When the baby is first-born, you’re happy and you’re pleased and you’re thrilled. You don’t know, when time goes on, how you’re going to feel about it, maybe ten years from now. It’s still a little too early and I’ve been a little too busy to really take it all in. But I’m flattered that all you cats want to talk to me about it.