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Joe Henry

A Conversation with Joe Henry (continued)

JH: So it really wasn't like a club. It wasn't really a stand. When I started working in that vernacular, I never had it in my mind that that's where I was supposed to stay. It just made sense at the moment. I certainly grew up listening to a lot of country music.

I was born in the South, and my parents are country music listeners. My parents aren't people of leisure. They didn't play records a lot when I was young. That wasn't happening around me. But if I heard music, that's what I heard. So I certainly had that in my foundation, as part of my subliminal education. And what happened is that I made a couple records that I didn't really think were my own. The first record I ever released was on Profile Records in New York, which was a hip-hop label.

PM: Wow.

JH: They had Run-DMC, they were making a lot of money, and they were thinking about branching out to become a much broader record label. They signed a couple of really odd things that they didn't know what to do with. But as a result, it was the first record of mine that came out--essentially demos pressed to vinyl. It wasn't really a shot at making a realized record.

From there, I got signed to A & M and made a record with Anton Fier that, again, was not anywhere near the kind of record I wanted to make. They had much more invested in their relationship with him than with me. And when it came down to it, I realized that I was the lowest man on the totem pole. And so Anton was kind of making another--almost like another Golden Palominos project and just using my voice and my songs, but not really taking into consideration where I wanted it to go musically.

Then, when I got to make the third record, and I'd gotten the lay of the land a bit, I said, "Hold on. I can't afford to let another record get out of my grasp."

PM: Right.

JH: And so I started working in a much faster, much more stripped down way. It was mostly acoustic, because I felt that was the best way to get people in a room where we could hear each other. We were going to record pretty live and pretty fast, so that when I went home at night, no one was going to be tinkering behind my back.

And I made a record called Shuffletown with T-Bone Burnett. I've known him for a really long time, and that was the beginning of my association with him. And it was also the beginning of me putting an idea together that I didn't really realize at the time was going to become a template for me.

But I worked with some more folkie musicians like David Mansfield, who's a violinist and guitarist, and also Don Cherry, who's the trumpet player from Ornette Coleman's original band.

PM: Wow. How did he end up on that same record as David Mansfield?

JH: I just called him. He was available at the time. Don was only in town a brief moment when I was. I saw a moment of daylight, and I had this concept of putting a particular kind of band together.

PM: Wow.

JH: So I got in touch with Don, because I loved his playing.

PM: Sure.

JH: And I also knew enough about him to know that he wasn't restricting in his thoughts--as opposed to, like, "I'm a jazz artist, and this isn't jazz." He just liked songs, period. And I worked with the great jazz bassist named Cecil McBee. I'd see him play in New York. I was living in New York at the time. And my original idea was to get Charlie Rich to be the piano player.

PM: Oh, man...

JH: Thinking Don Cherry and Charlie Rich, it made perfect sense to me. They're both soulful in a really unique way. I couldn't interest Charlie in doing it, though I pursued it pretty diligently.

PM: Wow. Did you talk with him personally or just manager to manager?

JH: No. As far as I got was flying to Nashville and talking to Barry Beckett who had known him for a long time and worked with him on records in the 60s.

PM: A real character all his own.

JH: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I was down there meeting a publisher. And they introduced me to Barry, whom I'd gone to hoping to get him to intercede on my behalf. And he basically said, "Look, Charlie doesn't really leave the house. He sits at home, and he's got his chicken franchise." He owned some stock in Church's Chicken.

PM: Really?

JH: "He just drinks and watches his chicken stock go up and down."

PM: [laughs]

JH: So I didn't get very far. And I didn't really know how else to get at him beyond that.

PM: Wow.

JH: But I made a record that was folkie in its nature because it was small and acoustic and the songs had a very folkie structure, which is what I do. And that promptly got me dropped from A & M.

PM: Right. That's not what they were looking for.

JH: I mean, the day the record came out, they told me that I was released.

PM: Oh, my God!

JH: Kind of makes me angrier now than it did then, if I think about it. Because they could have easily just given me the record and said, "Go find a home for it."

PM: Yeah!

JH: But instead they just diffused it by sending it out--shipping it, and then refusing to do anything for it, and giving notice to the industry that they weren't in the Joe Henry business any longer.

PM: And in essence, burying it immediately.

JH: Exactly. So where that took me was, I had a manager at the time who was based in Minneapolis, and he worked at Twin/Tone Records. He was an A & R man there. He also managed, at the time, Soul Asylum and the Jayhawks. There was no record deal, but I was looking for a way to keep working and get out on the road and play. It turned out his band the Jayhawks were in a similar situation. They were waiting to be signed to American Records by George Drakoulias, but were in between their Twin/Tone deal and going on to bigger things.

PM: Right.

JH: And they were in a funny stalemate, waiting for that deal to come together. We were not being subsidized by anybody, so we were both kind of broke and looking for a way to tour. So we got thrown in together and became foxhole buddies, out on the road in a kind of primitive way.

And I realized that I so much enjoyed playing with them as a band, because I'd never worked with people who worked and played and thought as a unit; I'd always brought different musicians together. But to start working with a band that actually worked and thought as a band was really intriguing. And when we were out on the road trying to play the songs from Shuffletown, which were very intricate in a way, it didn't fall into their bag very easily. But I would listen to their set every night--they opened the show as themselves, and then were my backing band for the second half of the show--I heard how open and free their thing was, because their songs fit their vocabulary.

When we finished the tour, I said, "Thank you. I know that was pretty tough. But I'm going to go home now and I'm going to write a bunch of songs that we can play together, and we'll see what that's like." So I went home with no other intention in mind except to write to fit that scene--just like a screenwriter saying, "Okay, I'm making a western..."

PM: Right.

JH: "It's got to be like this. Here's how it has to work." So I wrote a record that we could make together because I was curious to see if I could do it, and what would it be like to plug into their machine, if the songs could fit their musical voice.  continue

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