Who did you co-write with on Southern Way of Life?
I co-wrote the first songs with Kimberly Perry. Sean McConnell, who’s amazing. Kacey Musgraves, we’ve got two songs. A girl named Lindsay Ray in L.A. who’s fantastic. She’s a phenomenal singer and songwriter, very piano driven, so with guitar it was interesting. It was a neat combo with her. I wrote with Tyler Hilton, who’s on One Tree Hill, the actor. He’s so talented. And I wrote one by myself and I wrote one with Damon Elliott, who is Dionne Warwick’s son. I don’t know if he’d want me telling everybody that. I wrote the title track with him. On that song, we got together — he’s this hip-hop guy and I’m the country girl. I’m the Nashville girl in L.A. wanting to get some R&B cuts, and he was wanting to get into country music, so we just did a song of southernisms. We were joking about how I talk, so I started writing down things that my mother and grandparents have said – and we just strung it all together in a conversation in this song. So that’s kind of our “Shave My Legs” for this record.
How did you end up writing with Kacey Musgraves?
Warner/Chapell hooked us up. She said she had been a fan. When I sat with her and watched how she played guitar – she had such open tunings and cool ideas – I was like, “I used to be that way. I used to just not worry about it and just create.” It was so refreshing to be with her and do that. I’m so proud of her, it’s so great.
The first song we wrote together was “That’s Just Me.” And it was just fun, it had a lot of Dolly roots to it. A good riff and tempo. It talks about the roots of who we are and making the best of a situation. The lyric says “It’s not the crown that makes the queen.” It’s that kind of thing. “What’s the point in a pot of gold if you haven’t got a hand to hold.” Just cool little lyrics that now, seeing her whole career and how she writes and us together, it was just a real good match. It was serendipity.
I’ve only tried to co-write once or twice, and I thought it would be a magic event where we’d have a song finished at the end. It wasn’t the case. When you sat down with Kacey, for example, how long did it take and what kind of work went into it?
That first writing appointment, we got the song done in like two hours. So we were going, “Okay, we can make happy hour.” There were some other people writing in the building and we were giving them grief because we had just gone in and written our song and they were struggling. There have been a lot of days when I’ve struggled to get through a song in a day, but that one came really quick and easy. So we thought it would be that way every time. When we got together again we worked a little harder on a couple more songs. That first one was just a gift. We hit it off. She liked me, I loved her, we sat and wrote, and it was done. I thought, “This is it.” It was really great. I’ve written songs with her and we’ve finished most of them. We have one song that we started called “Smack Dab in the Middle” or something like that. It was just kind of a mess-around song that we didn’t completely finish. I like finishing my songs in a day. If we don’t finish it in a day, I kind of feel like I don’t know if it’s a good song or not. And I have a rule — my rule in songwriting is if you get stuck, you just stop and you set the timer for 15 minutes and you have 15 minutes to write a song. Done, top-to-bottom finished. Doesn’t matter how terrible it is. Just to pull you out of that stuck place.
Then you go back and rewrite the lyrics?
No, you can’t rewrite it. You have 15 minutes to finish a song, and then you get back to the song you were writing that you got stuck in. It works, I’m telling you, you should try it.
Have any of those ended up on your albums?
Not yet, but I still have about forty songs yet to record. These ten came from about fifty songs, so I’ve got forty more. Once this one’s out and rolling, we can start the next record and some of those are those 15 minute songs.
You’re father got to work with a lot of rock legends, including Levon Helm.
He and my dad were buds. They worked together with Ronnie Hawkins and basically started the roots of The Band together before Robbie Robertson. I grew up with Levon around and a part of us, for sure. One year my dad produced the RCO All-Stars record with Levon and Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper, all those guys. My dad had this old Cadi limousine with the seats that pull out of the floor – a ’57. So we all piled into the Cadi limo, pimp-style, guitars and everything, and we drove from Nashville up to Woodstock and stayed with him and they did that record. And the car had gas tanks in the taillights, so the big thrill was to pull up to the gas station back when it was full-service and go “Fill ‘er up!” And they’d be pulling on the license plate. You’d just count how long it would take for them to find the gas tank. It was fun.
When I googled him, it was unclear whether he played on Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” or not.
He did. He absolutely did.
There’s some articles on the Internet that says he didn’t.
Well that’s the thing — it’s hard to document. I wish he was here to do an interview with me about all that to set it straight. They didn’t write things down. Things were paper-filed if they were written down back in the day. My dad always got credit for the riff on “Pretty Woman,” too, because he played with Roy Orbison for years. He was always saying, “No, that was not me.” My dad played on that record, but he wasn’t the stand-out signature lick. He got credit for that all the time, but he was very respectful of his fellow musicians. He would never take credit for something he didn’t do. He would also say, “Oh Lord, I can’t remember, I played on every record this way from sideways.” He played with Muddy Waters, he played with Ray Charles, he played with everybody. But he was definitely on that record, absolutely. That’s what got me on the Bob Dylan gigs, I think, a few years back, was having a little in. I did a couple of shows with him.
Did you get to meet him?
I was terrified to meet him because he’s somebody I respected and I knew my dad worked with. There’s some great footage of them in the studio together, old shots and stuff. But I just didn’t want my image of him shattered, like anybody if you meet an icon. We were at the gig and I had waited for him because I wanted to meet him. He was doing sound check and he was up on the stage testing his amp out. And I’m talking a football field away; it was far from our buses. He had his toboggan hat on and the big bug sunglasses and stuff, and somebody walked up to him and said something. He stopped playing and he turns and looks the football field away at the buses. He turns back, sets his guitar down, and starts walking, and I’m just standing there by his bus freaking out. He comes up to me and he puts his arms out and he goes. . . .“Did I shave my legs for this?” And he gave me this kiss on the mouth and gave me this big hug and we just had a moment. He turned around and went back and started doing his guitar again. I’m like “Where’s my camera?!” So all I have is the story, I don’t have the picture, but just watching him do his thing and feeling any amount of kindredness with him was amazing.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
People like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, what amazing songwriters. People that were in my life as a child. My influences were those self-contained true artists that wrote their songs and lived them and set a standard – an iconic, creative, artistic standard that has not been matched, really. I had that kind of influence around me all the time. Willie’s a great songwriter. People like Guy Clark and David Gates from Bread. I go back to Bread and the way he would intricately take lyrics that could break your heart but put a melody to it. That blew me away when I was young and starting to have crushes and falling in love and all that, listening to sappy makeout rock. That was the sound of the ’70s. It was a big deal to have that melodic journey support the verbal journey of the song. It was powerful. I miss that, I have to say. It’s something that does influence my music. I’m a far cry from being able to completely emulate it, but boy, it’s a standard that I think should be reached for a lot more often. Whatever the corner of music you’re in, back then, it was giant. You had Boston. Freddie Mercury from Queen. I love all that. I like melodic rock music or a great folk song. If it’s good, then I’m into it. It doesn’t matter what the genre is, it’s just gotta move me. So obviously I’m passionate about it.
Anything else you want to say about your new record, or songwriting?
My dad always said if you can sit on a stool and sing a song that you wrote, like sing and play it by yourself, you can communicate with anybody. And I loved that because songwriting is the ultimate communicator. It’s such a gift, it really is. The masters of songwriting — I marvel at people that are good at it, I really do. It’s painful when people don’t respect it and take the time to really dig deeper in their music. You know, if you’re writing a song, go ahead and take the time to dig and make it a little more meaningful. That’s my challenge. I say that to myself.