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 Shining a light upon music that matters

 

The Copperheads
This Train is Gainin'
Battered Soul Records
By Al Kunz

When former Rockzillaworld resident Dave Pilot reviewed The Copperheads first disc, Country & Blues Revue , he got it mostly right, but I thought he missed the mark twice. (What, you thought we agreed on everything? Read the fine print at the bottom of the page.) In addition to thinking the disc was self-titled (Country and Blues Revue only shows on the spine, not the front of the disc) Dave gave lukewarm marks to "Letter From Houston," the song I thought was clearly the standout track. I rarely disagreed with Dave's assessments and, in my mind at least, the explanation for this miscue was clear. "Letter From Houston" was so unlike the country-blues on the other ten tracks that it seemed out of place and therefore something felt wrong with it. When heard outside of the context of the rest of the disc, as happened frequently on several Twin Cities radio stations, the verdict was much different.

Last summer Copperheads front-man and primary songwriter Ray Barnard and I discussed the direction he was taking with this new disc. He described it as country-soul, an updated version of Arthur Alexander sound or, for those not familiar with Alexander, Charlie Rich's best non-Rockabilly sides. Via email Barnard told me that feedback from tastemakers such as Twin Cities radio personality Jack K. Sparks (www.othersideofcountry.com) had suggested that "we were on stronger footing when we played our countrified [less bluesy] material our voices, mine in particular, were better suited to, and more credible with, a prettier sound." Sparks and the others were right. Building on the direction suggested by "Letter From Houston," a prettier, more countrified song (but, to my ears, not the Brad Paisley meets Chicago sound that Dave Pilot heard) and upping the soul quotient, The Copperheads have hit on their ideal aural formula. This direction combines the sounds of Barnard's favorite musical heroes - the country of Willie, Waylon, and Sammi Smith with Rich, Alexander and the southern soul of Joe Tex, Aretha, and Clarence Carter. Another obvious influence is Elvis, whose version of the traditional gospel tune "So High" is one of two covers on This Train is Gainin'.

The other cover is the Eurythmics "Here Comes the Rain Again." This song translates surprisingly well to the Copperheads new sound with a few minor changes. Barnard explains the choice this way. "I liked it when I heard it back in high school (before I started drifting retro) and always thought it was a good song. I discovered if you removed one chord, it made a perfectly good roots song. (It's quite similar to Del Shannon's "Runaway," which I bet was its inspiration, consciously or not). My voice works well on songs originally done by women, too. To me, my voice sounds as much like Sammi Smith's as anyone else, though not as world-weary." Barnard continues, explaining that The Copperheads used to play it like a straight country song, but he thought they should change that approach when they got into the studio, adding pedal steel through a Leslie speaker (for what he calls a "cool, moody sound) and changing the harmony vocals into a call-and-response. Barnard said he thought the result "sounded really remarkable, the first time I really felt that way about a track that I've sung or produced."

Another significant change from Country and Blues Revue was less reliance on Barnard's songwriting. Although he contributed on a majority of the songs (writing or co-writing half the originals) the other band members doubled their songwriting contributions this time around. Barnard explains it as having a band full of Beatles fans who argued for "having a variety of voices." He continues with the comment "I think this record has much more of Beatles approach to a record than any other roots act I've heard. We went with the strongest songs that we had at the time, with different singers, writers, rhythms, vibes, and subjects."

Although Dave Pilot tried unsuccessfully to uncover a history of the various members of the Copperheads it turns out that they've all been playing in various bands for some time. Barnard says that "we're a fairly introverted bunch and don't do much moonlighting with other bands, which translates into less notoriety, but a tighter sound." Prior to the Copperheads Barnard and keyboard/percussionist Thomas Larson "did a coffee-shop act called Vince & the Renegades." Steel player Jim Nee was in several bands in Orlando, FL including the Jim Connor Band with Dwight Yoakum's bassist J.D. Foster and also did some studio work. Lead guitarist Michael "Otis" Oachs was in a band called the Skydogs and bassist Bill Davis was in the pop band Jon Ken Po. In the 80s drummer Marc Johnson's pop band, the Moe Factor, cut some tracks with Butch Vig, producer of Nirvana's Nevermind disc and founder of rock band Garbage (also power pop expert Bill Swan's college roommate for those who care). Johnson has also done some studio work with ex-Replacement Chris Mars.

The inspiration for the opening track, "She Lives in Dallas," was a lady Thomas Larsen met during training in Dallas. If you've ever tried a long distance relationship you'll understand completely. Barnard explains his approach to putting the music to Larsen's lyrics as consciously "splitting the middle between an O'Kanes song, 'Tell Me I was Dreaming,' and a Shaver song called 'Comin On Strong,' then making it moodier," adding that the rhythm section gives it a groove that's unique for an alt-country band.

Otis Oachs' now ex-wife Tami inspired two cuts. Barnard says that on the first of these, "The Simple Truth Undone," Oachs' was aiming for a vintage British pop song. While grabbing a quick, cheap lunch at a local convenience store Barnard heard the Queen of Memphis Soul, Carla Thomas, singing "Gee Whiz, It's Christmas" and was struck with a bit of inspiration. He explains that "it sounded a lot like Arthur Alexander's early stuff, which was where the Brit pop bands had gotten some of their ideas, so I added piano to it (with Otis' blessing) to make it closer to the original source." The difference between British Pop and Country-Soul is less than you'd think. While "The Simple Truth Undone" hints at the conflict in the Oachs' marriage, "Sweet Azalea" highlights the good.

So here I'll stay, nestled in the garden
Where our love, where our love has just begun

Sweet Azalea, reaching for the sky
Sweet Azalea, keep me satisfied
Sweet Azalea, so glad you're found
Sweet Azalea, bring me to the ground

The rhythm of one song, "My Heart's on Fire," grabbed me immediately. I couldn't have explained why until Barnard explained the evolution of the song. Originally written by Barnard and frequent collaborator Bill Giese as an acoustic blues, Barnard changed the arrangement, recasting it "as a twangier version of Sam & Dave's "Knock on Wood." That's what had captured my attention, a slower, laidback version of the rhythm from "Knock on Wood."

The title track was written in response to a former girlfriend asking him to write a train song. Barnard explains the story behind the song: "I was working at a warehouse with a fellow who was having brushes with the law and had to regularly see a parole officer. He liked to cut too many corners so he was always in trouble, but he'd always say, 'you can't keep a good man down.' So I thought I'd paint him as a guy who had messed up and nobody would let him redeem himself or forget his past. Try to make a folk-hero out of him, I guess."

I paid my debt to the county
Been set free to resume my life
I worked hard to get back on the so called right track
So folks can see me run a race with sin and strife

This train is gaining on me
I hear that whistle wail a warning
That I can't escape the past

During my time in Minneapolis I formed an opinion of Ray Barnard as a keen student of songwriting and musicianship. Whenever the Copperheads opened for a national touring act or a band of note was in town you'd see Ray wandering the club, totally focused on what was happening on stage. You could almost see the wheels turning in his head analyzing what worked in the performance and lyrics, what didn't, and why. This Train is Gainin' finishes with an interesting segue, that Barnard describes as "two different versions of reaching Heaven." First comes the traditional (the previously mentioned cover of Elvis' "So High") then "Fireworks," another Barnard-Giese co-write. "Fireworks" is one of those exercises that you'd expect from someone who's a student of the craft working at expanding his songwriting skills. Barnard explained his concept to me this way. "I'd been trying for many years to write a tune that had something to do with Jim Thompson's novella called, 'This World, Then the Fireworks.' I'm a sucker for good noir fiction and movies (also Faulkner novels). The novella has an amazingly debauched story, but it never feels like it's trying to be sensational. It's also the most plot I've seen ever crammed into 50 pages . . . I thought I'd set the scene in Hollywood and figure out a suitably seamy story. A B-movie actor who sluts around and is deathly bored with life felt right." Barnard says the "lady backup singers" on this track (Gabrielle Feivor, Rena Haus, and Phyllis Johnson) are his "'69 Elvis hangup" coming out.

Life was like an early morning movie
I could see the twist from miles away
So I smiled when we met
As if born again that day

Laura said she loved all my pictures
So I did what leading men should do
Took her home
So she'd have a sweet memory or two

With This Train is Gainin' the Copperheads have found their musical niche. One foot in Memphis, one foot in Nashville, and (they must be mutant) another foot somewhere in Texas. By sharing the spotlight with his diverse crew frontman Ray Barnard is strengthening the band while continuing to exercise his vision through arrangements (as on "Here Comes the Rain Again" and "The Simple Truth Undone") to maintain a consistent sound. If you haven't heard the Copperheads yet it's time to get your copy of This Train is Gainin'. Visit www.thecopperheads.com for more about the band and news about their next disc which Barnard says will maintain their country-soul sound. This Train is Gainin' is available from CD Baby or Miles of Music.

Contact Al Kunz at kunz-at-rockzilla.net

 

 
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