Pianist-producer Matt Rollings has the kind of career path that looks more like a yellow brick road than a dusty highway, with each shimmery brick paving his way from a right-place-at-the-right-time moment to an incredible opportunity.
But the keyboardist who went from jazz-influenced high-school kid honing his chops in a Phoenix country cover band to playing on Lyle Lovett’s major label debut (and every Lovett album since), touring in Lovett’s Large Band, becoming Tony Brown’s go-to session guy for countless albums, producing Keith Urban’s breakout solo debut, touring in Alison Krauss’s band and winning Grammys for co-producing Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin, and My Way: Willie Nelson Sings Sinatra is just now getting around to releasing his second album — a mere 30 years after his first.
And this time, he had a lot more friends to call on for contributions. The talent on Matt Rollings Mosaic reads like a list of Americana Honors & Awards nominees: in addition to Lovett, Krauss and Willie, Rollings recruited the War and Treaty, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Vince Gill, Lukas Nelson, Molly Tuttle, Buddy Miller, John Leventhal and several other luminaries, performing on an eclectic array of tracks ranging from Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Accentuate the Positive” and Stephen Foster’s “Slumber My Darling” to Paul Simon’s “Take Me to the Mardi Gras,” Sting’s “Spirits in the Material World” and Walter Hyatt’s “I’ll Come Knocking.” Lovett’s “If I Had a Boat” is here, but he doesn’t sing it. That honor goes to the album’s inspiration, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. We’re saving that epic right-place-right-time tale for a followup story, but Rollings description of how he corralled the War and Treaty and the Blind Boys into doing “Wade in the Water” is pretty darned impressive, too. And their vocals on the traditional gospel tune contain so much power, they conceivably could lift any freedom-seeking wader right over the water — if the almost voodoo-like undertow their voices also suggest doesn’t grab hold first.
“My first legitimate piano influence, the guy I first latched onto when I was 9 years old, was Ramsey Lewis,” Rollings explains. Lewis (“The In Crowd”) had recorded a really funky version of “Wade in the Water,” and the first time Rollings heard it, he says, “I’m this white kid from Connecticut, like, groovin’ to a slave song, essentially. But I’ve always loved that song. So it was sort of sitting in the back of my head as something that would be cool to do on this record, but I hadn’t figured out who [should] do it.”
He’d already chosen the War and Treaty for Simon’s song. But after they recorded it, he asked them if they were game to try another. Michael and Tanya Trotter knew the tune, so he printed out lyrics and started recording. The album contains their first take, accompanied by Rollings and drummer Jay Bellerose. Rollings later added Dennis Crouch on acoustic bass. Then he started thinking about background vocals.
“My first idea was, ‘Maybe I should organize a group of singers that I know; I’ll get Buddy Miller and get Allison Moorer and John Hiatt; see if I can gather a group of notable friends of mine to come sing.’ It was a cool idea, but it never really resonated.”
Then he thought of a gospel quartet; he loves the sound and vibe of 1930s-era gospel bands like the Golden Gate Quartet. Which led him to the Blind Boys.
“I’m sure there are other gospel quartets out there,” Rollings says, “but to me, they’re the one.”
He asked Leventhal, who’d produced Marc Cohn and the Blind Boys’ 2019 release, Work to Do, to help make a connection, then sent their manager a rough mix of the track; the response was enthusiastic, but the band was quite busy.
“He said, ‘If there were any way you could be in Muscle Shoals on Aug. 22, they’re going to be at FAME [Studios] working on another project. We could try getting in on that session.’ And I said, ‘Man, I will be there.’” So Rollings drove from Nashville to the legendary Muscle Shoals studio, hard drive in hand, and waited. He learned the singers had already listened to the song and worked up an arrangement.
“It was just an incredible experience to hear them, to meet them,” Rollings says. “I mean, that was one of those pinch-me moments. But then to hear them sing on this song … there was so much juju flying around the whole thing, it was perfect.”
Even the video has “juju flying around.” And it’s just a taste of what’s coming with the album’s release on Aug. 14 — you can pre-order it here.