“When did the idea come to you about making the album?
I’ve frequently recorded or performed Holly’s songs as a way of getting a shot of rhythm and blues, as Arthur Alexander used to sing. With Holly’s music, you hear lots of good, swinging drums and strong rhythm guitar. It can invoke the Everly Brothers or Elvis or The Beatles if you're so inclined. There’s lot of opportunities to “lean” one way or another. To my tastes, Holly’s recordings didn’t have the hard rhythm push that his colleagues’ records did like Bo Diddley or Johnny Burnette. So, whenever I would work on his songs, I would try to pump it up the way I imagined Holly performed live. When I heard his birthday (it would have been his 75th) was coming up, a friend of mine in the band played me some studio rehearsals of Holly’s that had a lot of muscle to them--lots of hard driving acoustic guitar and drums way up front in the mix. So, on a lark, we went into the studio to try to do a few songs like that, just to get them out of my system. We recorded very quickly and it sounded really good. I did another session with a few of the band mates I don’t see very much and the same thing happened. We recorded 8 masters in about five hours. We were practically making Please Please Me. But in my mind, it wasn’t a tribute album. Instead, it was a chance for us to make a lovely little album that let us concentrate on being musicians. And we all love rock and roll. We didn’t have to suffer through a lot of arranging. We might try a few bars of half a dozen songs before we found one that came together easily. Once we did, we tried 2 or 3 takes and put it away.
But to answer your question, earlier this year, I started to feel like there was something in his music that was tugging at me and I thought this would be a good time record his songs while my voice still had that youthful sound. I heard a Harry Nilsson interview where he said he recorded his album of standards while his voice was still intact and I thought that was a thoughtful idea. I think the album worked the other way, too. We got to make an album of Holly songs as mature people something Buddy never got to do. His legend is not interesting to me but his musical life is. The words are good and the melodies are good and anyone can put Holly’s songs in their own voice.
“I take it you have always been a fan of Buddy Holly?
Yes, I’ve been a fan of Holly’s music since I was very young, probably about ten. But I took him in with the same mighty breath that I took in Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and the Everly Brothers. The sound of rock and roll was the siren song for me. I grew up around devoted artists and printmakers so the look of rock and roll seemed to fit right into that aesthetic. Those beautiful black and white photographs by Astrid Kirchherrand Jurgen Vollmer of the Beatles in Germany had that effect on me, too. For me, rock and roll went with art, poetry, the city, small towns, graphic design —everything. It was cool. It still is. To this day, when I see a Fender Stratocaster, I think of Buddy. When I see a Gretsch, I think of Bo Diddley and Eddie Cochran. These guys just seemed to know how to look good. It didn’t matter whether they wore glasses or plaid jackets or bow ties. Bo Diddley dressed like Dr. Who does now. It was fantastic. And remember back then, there was no way to see what these guys looked like other than their album covers. You had to imagine everything.
“Can you remember the first time you heard his music/ and what was it that attracted you to it?
I first heard Holly on the soundtrack to the film American Graffiti. It was around my house when I was a lad. But I didn’t pick him out right away. I probably liked things like Chuck Berry’s “Almost Grown” and the guitar solo on Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” just as much if not more. I loved the sound of ‘50s rock and roll. The tape delay, deep bass and sense of spontaneity, although I did not call it that. I’ve found that Holly is one of the few artists that ages well—good words, good melodies—and if you don’t get too wrapped up in the history and listen to the music, there’s lots of good stuff. I think with some artists like Charlie Christian or Robert Johnson or Holly, who all left us young, when you listen, they sound fresh, timeless, and always in a state of becoming. In other words, I hear them as just starting out on a trip and that’s the best feeling of all, right? Starting a journey of some kind.
That’s a good place to go back to musically sometimes. Every kid with a jazz box sits up a bit straighter when they tackle the greats. Rock and roll is good for that, too. If you learn some Scotty Moore licks, you’re learning a little Chet Atkins and Les Paul and Merle Travis, too. I got to play some lead guitar on this as well, which in the past I have never focused on that much.
“The thing that strikes me is the simplicity of it all. His music was so simple. Bass, drums and guitars and, his infectious vocal style was of a kind that made people what to jump up and dance.
Well that is the thing with Holly—you’re not sure what it is that’s attracting you. You can say with other talents that you’re gravitating toward the siren song of a guitar or a voice. Holly’s music is not super complicated but there are small, accomplished moments within each song. Jerry Allison was a great drummer and if you can’t swing like him, the songs fall a bit flat. Holly was an original guitar player and the same thing happens if you don’t really play some guitar and keep the band going while you’re singing. He had style. He was enjoying himself, and taking chances. Not bad for a kid of 21.
“For the time he was incredibly young to be fronting a band and doing some of the things he was. Going to New York and start acting lessons isn’t something usually associated with rock’n’roll musicians?
I’m not an authority but from the players from that era that I’ve talked to, I gather a lot of them felt quite besieged by the industry and adults in general. They didn’t even think of themselves as being embraced by their own generation. And in fact they weren’t. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are that generation’s true heroes while the rock and rollers of the ‘50s are now thought of as quaint. But they did not have it easy. They worked hard. Rock and roll was not calculated on their part where as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were very much self-produced. They were smart and thoughtful and aware of pop music as a lifestyle. Elvis, Buddy, Chuck, and Bo –those guys were not calculated. They didn’t think about it or plan it. They were happy to be working.
“Do you feel your approach to music was influenced by his spontaneous improvised style of music?
I’m not sure how much of what Holly did was spontaneous. Perhaps none of it was but it sounds fresh and that’s what I get from it. You just can’t do that many takes of “That’ll Be The Day”—it’s not hard. These records had to be fresh. That’s what being young is about.
“In that you tend to keep it spare and sharp. Clean cut if you will?
I’m not sure “clean-cut” was my goal. We didn’t listen to the finished arrangements before we recorded. Most of my approach was from memory. I did consider from the beginning that I might be making a record, but I mostly just wanted to play something that felt substantial and give us a chance to relax a bit as a band.
“You mention in your liner notes of how unlike other musicians he liked to create in the recording studio. Do you think that had a lot to do with Norman Petty?
I think Holly was the man behind Holly. Norman Petty was at a loss to recreate the Holly sound without him there. He could somewhat reproduce the sounds but the energy and ineffable soul that Holly brought to the sessions came from him. None of those musicians ever produced anything close to that feeling after Holly was gone. Also, Holly was a good listener. He was thinking about artists like Les Paul and Elvis but he took chances. He was interested in communicating with people. Norman was a guy who got lucky with a dance hit, opened a studio, and encouraged area kids to make some records. Which was a great idea and we are lucky he did. But Holly’s thought to use the recording studio, as an instrument I’m pretty sure was his own. “Well All Right” and “Everyday” for instance, are not that far off from things like “I’ll Follow the Sun” or “Norwegian Wood,” in the sense that they are quiet songs that tell a story, a private story.
“Could it be that some of the songs were to a large degree written in the studio?
I don’t think so. To me, most of Holly’s songs sound like well rounded and well thought out compositions. I’m sure the Crickets were so busy that some things got finished in the studio. By most accounts, Holly enjoyed writing songs and pretty much one out of every three he wrote was a hit.
“When did you start the project and what was it that made you decide on the songs on the album?
As we gathered steam and each session started producing 3 or 4 songs, I continued just trying to think of tunes that I knew well. Most of Holly’s songs I know well but there are a few that I never really bonded with. I chose songs like “Think It Over” and “Midnight Shift” because they are great tracks that are not so well known and they gave the band a chance to show a little muscle in unique ways. Sticking with the blues is usually the thing to do for me. That’s when I’m having the most fun.
“Blues Days, Dark Nights by Ben Hall was, I understand his first recording so it has a good reason to be included.
That’s a terrific tune. It has the Sun Records feel and it gave me a chance to play with Kenny Vaughan again.
“By the way, it suits, arguable better than any other on the record. I love the guitar and general ‘Paul Burch’ feel.
Well thank you. If I couldn’t get my own ‘feel’ then I’d be in trouble. But most of what constitutes our sound—or my sound—comes out in a fairly natural process. My goal is to make a record where every song has a great moment that just really sends me. It could be anybody’s musicianship. For my album Words of Love I just ‘vibed’ most of the time. The idea to do “Peggy Sue” was not planned. The drummer, Tommy Perkinson, could play paradiddles, which is the drum pattern you hear on the original. Two minutes later and it was done. I liked the idea of a boy and girl singing “Words of Love”—it seems a natural since it’s so close to Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange.” So none of these ideas were deep thoughts. I’m just glad people like the album. At least I think they do.
I also know there are many from that generation who think no one should touch this material which is just silly so I liked the idea of doing something where I knew a few people were going to complain. I guess it’s the punk rock generation part of me.
“Were you familiar with all the songs?
Yes, I was. I did want to include a song called “Stay Close To Me” which he made a demo of near the end of his life. The Flat Duo Jets do a great rendition. However, I just didn’t quite get it together.
“Had you heard some of them recorded by others prior to Buddy’s originals?
I’m not familiar with many Holly covers and the reason why I avoid them is for the same reason that some people would avoid mine—I’m just not that interested in hearing anyone but Holly. Mostly because I liked that trio, the Crickets, and they had a certain zing to them that I think most people who cover Holly’s music leave behind. I’m not cynical about someone who is moved by the music. Old or young, I say go for it if it makes you feel good. But my preference is to keep the music with the swing the Crickets gave it. I like that best.
“Of the material I found Midnight Shift to have a different feel to most of the songs. Would you agree?
Thanks—I’m probably too close to tell. It’s a bit driving which I like. The original was Holly’s unsuccessful attempt to become a sort of country/rock and roller in Nashville. Good words.
“Buddy’s guitar style is it something you were attracted to from a young age?
Holly is a cool guitar player. He used a capo a lot. It allows you to use basic shapes in odd keys and also because of its placement, it changes the way the strings react to one another. The Stratocaster is a great rhythm instrument. I don’t actually own one at the moment. The Mark Knopfler model is probably one of the best you can find off-the-rack. But the Strat has a very cool sound as a rhythm instrument. Eldon Shamblin used one in the Texas Playboys from the early 50’s and eventually with Merle Haggard. He was a forceful rhythm player, one of the best. When you play Holly songs on a Strat with the same kind of attack with a swinging drummer, it really does work! It’s a terrific sound. Holly played great solos, too. “That’ll Be The Day” is a great combination of melody and rhythm. Every note is in-tune and clean and full. Just learning the tune the way he did it will give you a bunch of good things to chew on.
“Was he a huge hero of yours when you were learning to play guitar and was your first one a Fender like his?
My first guitar came from Mexico. My brother won it in a card game. It was bright red with lots of buttons but I'm not sure it ever really worked. I don't think I ever bought a real electric guitar until I was maybe 23 or 24. A mid '60s Epiphone was the first decent guitar I ever bought. At an early age, I probably first wanted to play like Scotty Moore. Primarily, I was an acoustic guitar player for a long time. As I started to improve I was drawn in to the style of Don Everly and Hank Williams. When I aspired to be an electric player, Magic Sam was the fellow I really liked. He played a lot of rhythm in his solos. I liked Hubert Sumlin and Otis Rush as well. Curtis Mayfield is a big favourite. I certainly enjoyed Holly quite a bit. There is a bit of a problem in trying to play like him as he had super great support from Jerry Allison, his drummer. It took me 20 years to find drummers who could swing so I had to develop more of a Merle Travis style where I could keep the rhythm and throw in a few licks that approach making a melody.
I play such a hard driving rhythm that when I solo, it often feels like the band has stopped playing –probably because I’m the only one who knows how the song goes—so I’ve had to develop in other ways. I wish I owned a Fender now. They’re still terrifically made and if you’re patient, you can always find one that will do the job. That’s the beautiful thing about Fenders. They make them all day long basically the same way they made them in 1955.
“Did you approach the recording any different from other records of late?
I did feel that after making my last album, Still Your Man, we were about to turn a corner into a new kind of era for our sound. Still Your Man was recorded in my own studio. So for the first time, I sort of got to make something that didn’t feel rushed. We didn’t work super long hours and most everything was done in a few takes. However, we had the luxury of recording a song a few times on different occasions until we got something that sounded and felt good. My attitude with the Holly album was that we should do something quick, relaxed, and get it out the door. It wasn’t rushed, but it wasn’t fraught over. It got some vintage feelings out of my system. It’s a sweet little album for me—a nice experience—and now I don’t feel like I have to do that same kind of album again.
“Players used include one of the best bass acts in music, Dennis Crouch plus Jim Grey on electric. Bass was always going to play a big part as would drums.
Yes, good bass is really the key to discovering your range as a singer. Dennis and Jim have different backgrounds but they would probably both agree on what makes a good session. Jim especially is a big Holly fan and like me, is in the music business but not in the business. We’re still just fans at heart. Neither of us really have any conception that anyone is listening to us.
“I see you play them on Not Fade Away; why was this and not use Tommy or Marty?
Drumming is my first instrument and from time to time I jump on to get a feel that I’m looking for. Mostly it’s just fun. I miss it. I’m not as accomplished as I once was on the instrument so it’s nice to make sure there’s something not too proper on the album.
“Could you tell me a little about them? Henry Burch who sings on ‘Think It Over’ is that your son?
Yes! That’s my son Henry singing. I thought the lad ought to get on the record. Actually writer Peter Guralnick confirmed the thought. He said, “What’s Henry singing on?”
“What a great idea to use Jen’s accordion playing on Rave On; Buddy would, if he were alive approved? What decided you to use it like you do on the album?
I’m glad you liked it. I think I was doing something else, cleaning the tape machine or something when I thought oh, “Rave On” should have fiddle and accordion.”
I probably was thinking of a cup of tea or a grilled cheese right before that. Often the best ideas seem like someone has just whispered the thought into my imagination. “Psst…put accordion on “Rave On.”” I don’t know where it came from. We cut the track live as a trio and I knew it needed something—the rhythm felt great and the track overall felt great. Accordion fit the bill. I have a feeling the Crickets would have approved of anything that sort of leaned left or right in the direction of what they heard growing up.
“Whoever played drums on “Peggy Sue” must have thought it was his birthday for he is allowed so much room to express himself?
I’m not sure Tommy Perkinson thought so. You’d have to ask him! Some might think of it as a straight jacket but it’s a great sound when you play that drum pattern properly which gives the song a great sort of upward/downward flow that you wouldn’t get if you were just playing it like “Wipe Out.”
“The sound of guitar at the beginning brought to mind the Who; I can see where some of their ideas came from?
I love the Who. Today, this moment, Pete Townshend is probably the guitar player whose style comes in handy most of the time.
“On listening to your version of “Rave On” you have almost made it into a Cajun track?
Thanks! The early Cajun honky tonk music like Iry LeJeune and Clifton Chenier are long-time favorites of mine.
“Did you rehearse much before going into the studio or was it there some of the ideas came about?
We didn’t rehearse a bit. In fact, nobody knew but me what we were going to do at each session. I may have sent a song to the drummers so they could think about Jerry Allison’s pulse but most of the time we were just riffing. We might try 5 or 6 and put them down because we just couldn’t get a hold of them. Tommy and I did a two-man version of “That’ll Be The Day” without bass. I thought the album was strong enough without it but it’s a great track.
“Apart from having Fats Kaplin once again play on the album you have guitarists Kenny Vaughan and Will Kimbrough; two more acts who play from the heart and are in big demand on the record and live scene. Do you know them well?
Will is my neighbour as is Fats. Kenny Vaughan and I used to stay up all night and play the honky tonks in Nashville in the early 90’s, which led to a big to-do in the press. BR5-49 had a better venue and also had drums which we didn’t’ play with. You gotta have drums! But we were into the late 40’s early 50’s sound of Floyd Tillman, Johnny & Jack, and Ernest Tubb. Kenny was a big help to my guitar playing. I was very lucky to hear him every night for months on end, conjuring Charlie Christian and Jimmy Bryant at the same time. It was a great education. Many nights we would just push Kenny to the edge of the stage and say, “take off their heads” and away he would go.
“How big an influence was Buddy in your mind in catapulting pop music to what it became with the likes of the Beatles. Was it he more than Elvis that broke the shackles free on teenagers?
That’s a question best answered by someone who needs to pass his or her thesis exam. There are rock fans who can’t relate to someone like Holly or anyone from his era and that’s fine. But they’re missing out. It’s good music that sneaks up on you when you least suspect it. I’m as cynical as anyone when it comes to covering that old stuff. Jeff Beck made a note-for-note copy of Cliff Gallup’s solos for that Gene Vincent tribute record. ‘Bless ole Jeffrey. He’s great but it just made me turn back to the originals. But maybe that’s what Jeff needed to do to keep making great records. As a musician, you’re constantly renewing and then breaking new ground, visiting old times and discarding them. To know that great feeling of discovery in music—finding a guitar, learning a chord, discovering a new hero—that’s a marvelous feeling. And as we get older, it’s a bummer to think you’re not going to find that experience again. So occasionally, it’s healthy to look back on what you love and see if you can bring something new to it. The next step after that is always to get as far away from it as possible. As with anything with value in your life, every time you look back, you discover how much you've changed.
“Could you tell me what you next venture is going to be?
We’re working on a new WPA album and after that I’m eager to start writing some songs based on Jimmie Rodgers’ life to go along with a biography of his producer Ralph Peer that my friend Barry Mazor is writing.