When keyboardist Matt Rollings isn’t busy racking up tour miles with Lyle Lovett’s Large Band, Alison Krauss, Mark Knopfler or other artists, he’s likely to be inside a recording studio, either as a session player or producer. Or co-producer, as the etchings read on the Grammys he earned for his work with Buddy Cannon on Willie Nelson’s Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin, and My Way: Willie Nelson Sings Sinatra.
Rollings has been so prolific in those roles, it took him 30 years to get around to producing the followup to Balconies, his last release under his own name. But the grout is finally dry on Matt Rollings Mosaic, his very fine 11-song collection releasing Aug. 14 on Dualtone. When Rollings decided to record these nine lovingly chosen covers and two originals, he recruited some of the best talent he knows, starting with Lovett, Krauss and Nelson; he also tapped Willie’s son, Lukas, Vince Gill, the War and Treaty, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Buddy Miller, John Leventhal, Molly Tuttle and others, all of whom were accompanied by Rollings and his favorite drummer, Jay Bellerose, augmented by bassists Dennis Crouch or Alison’s brother, Viktor, on most tracks.
Well, truth be told, Rollings didn’t actually start with that trio. In fact, the entire album came to life because of a chance meeting with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, a legendary character in folk-music circles for his association with Woody Guthrie and influence on Bob Dylan, and for the kind of exploits that turn into stories repeated for generations.
A Brooklyn-born Jewish kid who wanted to be a cowboy, not a doctor like his dad, he ran away at 15 to join the rodeo. Seven decades later, Rollings and his wife, Paloma, were vacationing in the California hamlet of Inverness. On their last night, they headed to a little seafood restaurant, where they found a boathouse at the end of a pier, with a woodburning stove inside. They walked in and spotted an upright piano, and an older gentleman sitting at a table, sketching. Paloma, who’s not a musician, went to the piano and tapped a key. The man turned and asked her to play. She said she couldn’t, but, Rollings recalls, “I said, ‘I’ll play you something.’ There was no bench. So I stand at this piano and just improvised some old-timey ragtime.
“Well, this guy lit up like a Christmas tree. He said, ‘Are you in a band?’ I said, ‘I play in a couple of different bands.’ He said, ‘I’ve written two songs in my life. The first one got recorded by Johnny Cash.’”
As they admired his sketch, he joked, “If I’d have kept doing this, I wouldn’t have had to play guitar my whole life.”
They wound up talking to Elliott for an hour, enthralled, only later learning that he was not only a Grammy-winning artist, but that Bellerose had played on his award-winning album. Rollings started thinking about producing an album with Elliott. Weeks later, Paloma said, “Why don’t you make a record and invite Ramblin’ Jack to sing on it?”
“It was like a lightning bolt,” Rollings said. “I had these relationships: there’s Lyle; I’ve worked with Lyle for 35 years. There’s Willie; I’ve produced two Willie records. All these people started popping into my head, friends and peers and people that I would love to make music with. And it just started this ball rolling.”
Paloma became his de facto A&R person. As artist list grew, Rollings says, “This became my litmus test: it either has to be a song that I wrote or a song that I had been a part of … a song that’s part of my musical DNA.”
He also didn’t want artists to do their own songs, which is why Lyle Lovett sings an utterly charming version of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic, “Accentuate the Positive” and not “If I Had a Boat.”
“I’ve always loved how he sings standards,” says Rollings, who has played on every Lovett album since his debut. “He twists it just enough that he finds humor in places that you didn’t know humor existed, and he also finds darkness in places, in a really beautiful way.”
Another track, “Take Me to the Mardi Gras,” is from one of Rollings’ “desert-island records,” There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. He played it for the War and Treaty’s Michael and Tanya Trotter, and they loved it.
“Every song, to some degree, happened like that,” he says. Rollings wrote “Stay,” Krauss’s song, with The Voice season 10 winner Alisan Porter, for whom he produced two albums. It’s about their young children.
Vince Gill’s voice was added later; songs were always recorded with only the singer, Rollings and Bellerose in the studio. Then Rollings waited till inspiration struck before making further alterations.
“The background vocals on ‘Wade in the Water’ [another War and Treaty track] came the same way,” Rollings explains. “I just waited until I thought, ‘Oh, it needs to be a gospel quartet.’ And the only choice for that is the Blind Boys.”
The backing vocal for Krauss’s song was more of a challenge, he says, “because almost everything you do takes away from her performance. … The only person I know that can get there is Vince.”
sings “If I had a Boat” — with an unadorned, vibrato-free vocal that’s quite
different from what we’re used to.
“Jack is a cowboy poet,” Rollings notes. “He’s also a sailor. He’s rebuilt boats; he’s sailed boats. He’s like a mariner. Lyle wrote this song from the point of view of a child [wondering] why can’t he be a cowboy and a ship captain? — the notion of a child realizing that he doesn’t have to be just one thing.” He knew Elliott would bring poignance, singing from the perspective of an older man considering the life he’s lived.
Elliott and Lovett share vocals with Nelson on another standard, “That Lucky Old Sun.” Rollings originally had planned to cut it with Nelson, but inspiration struck while Elliott was in the studio, so Rollings asked Elliott to sing it. Then he asked Lovett, and spliced all three tracks together. The hardest part, he says, was picking which segments to use.
Nelson was almost tapped to record Stephen Foster’s “Slumber My Darling,” but Rollings ultimately asked Irish folk singer Heidi Talbot to do it after she recorded “When You Loved Me Still,” which she and Rollings wrote.
“The biggest thing about Willie is, he’s recorded everything,” Rollings says. “his body of work is so massive.” (And Rolling hints it may grow even bigger soon, with a second volume of Sinatra tunes.)
Lukas Nelson contributed vocals, along with Molly Tuttle and Buddy Miller, on another song Rollings considers part of his musical DNA: Walter Hyatt’s “I’ll Come Knockin’.” Rollings met Hyatt, a member of influential Austin trio Uncle Walt’s Band, through Lovett, who has recorded the tune; Lovett also produced Hyatt’s King Tears album, on which Rollings played.
“I thought it would be great to have father and son on the record,” Rollings says. This gospel-influenced rendition also allowed a younger-generation Austinite to pay tribute to a late, beloved hometown icon.
Rollings pulls out another surprise with a completely reimagined cover of the Police song, “Spirits in the Material World,” featuring singer Charlie Greene.
“The lyric is spookily prescient and current to me,” Rollings says; they’re even more pronounced in his version, a thoughtful ballad led by piano and strings.
Rollings already has another Police song — and, no doubt, several other artists’ tunes — picked out for a followup to Matt Rollings Mosaic. And this time, it’s not going to take three decades to arrive.
Photo Credit: Michael Wilson