Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with modern troubadour and Old Crow Medicine Show member Gill Landry about his days living and playing in New Orleans, his upcoming move to England and his passion for travel.
CP: How is the rest of the year shaping up for you?
GL: Well, this tour with the Felice Brothers and shows I'm doing in between will run until Thanksgiving. I think at that point, I'll take a break. After the tour, I'm thinking of moving to England for a spell, so I'll be preparing myself for that and visiting family for Christmas and those types of things in Louisiana.
CP: Why England?
GL: There are some guys over there who run this label/promotion company who will release my record there and will get me touring. It sounded like fun. I love Europe, and the opportunity arose. Pretty much, it's that easy. [Laughs.]
CP: Sounds like you've got a traveling bug. What do you get out of traveling? Is it something you're drawn to?
GL: That's a good question. We moved a lot when I was a kid, but it wasn't until I moved to Nashville a couple years ago that I've stayed in any town for so long. For years, I was traveling without any direction or reason.
Music started working as a form of living, so then that basically facilitated it. It was like the music facilitated turning what I already loved into part of my living. It was like, “Oh, now you can travel semi-aimlessly, and it will pay for itself.”
I don't know what it is. It might be a fool's paradise. Maybe it's a running away from myself. Anytime I get home for any length of time, I start feeling itchy and I leave. I don't have a solid answer.
It's a bizarre thing because it hasn't always been so easy to do these things, so it's taking advantage of it. I never tire of it. I'm not really a townie. I don't function properly in town like everyone else. I can't be content in the same place. I don't know if that's a blessing or a curse. It just is what it is.
I get a lot of satisfaction out of it, depending on how adventurous it is. I don't like it when it starts feeling more like work. Sometimes, it gets to where you feel like you're going through the motions, and that's not as pleasurable to me as making every day an adventure and trying to soak up the local culture.
CP: The title track to “The Ballad of Lawless Soirez” is about a man wandering aimlessly in search of a home. Is that about yourself?
GL: I've never really said that about that song, but for me, the name came from the name of a man buried next to my great grandmother, but it's totally autobiographical. All the iron-laced, haunted streets and the imagery like that is true.
I don't even remember all the words to the song - I will when I go to sing it - it's apocalyptic, to a degree, but it gives me a good feeling. It's my version of “Rambling Man” by Hank Williams. I'm OK with that fate, if that is my fate. [Laughs.]
CP: Have you ever played Chattanooga as a solo artist before?
GL: Yeah, I have. I did Barking Legs when I was touring the “Lawless Soirez” record back in 2007. It was great. It's been a long time and a lot of miles between it, but I remember really liking the room. I've been to Chattanooga tons. Even as a kid, I can remember when we moved to Jersey from Louisiana stopping at Ruby Falls and going down into the city. I like that Cherokee area of Tennessee.
CP: You grew up all over, but your music is pretty heavily influenced by New Orleans. What was it about the city that left a mark on you?
GL: Yeah, because that's where I was given a voice. I'm no more a New Orleans guy than anybody. I'm a Louisiana guy. New Orleans was where I went and found a voice that spoke to me. It was a time without any rules or structures. The things I was set up to experience and the street life of being a busker and the things you would encounter all had a greater influence on me.
First of all, the city is dynamic. There's no other place like it. The people I met and that budding time of growth as a performer had a great influence on me than anything else in my life has. I'm trying to get past it, actually. [Laughs.] I'm really not trying to play the New Orleans card by any means, but it really affected me.
For the period I was there before the storm, me and my buddy Woody Pines were in a band down there. At that time, it wasn't the same scene it is today. We had the freedom of less competition. We were sort of like Old Crow being at the beginning of all the string bands that have now popped up.
We were studying under the last guys, the people who were 10 years older than us and had been on the streets stinging and were older and smoked out and drunk but were deep characters. To go in under their wing and experience the danger of the city - it just had a profound impact.
Nowhere were things so extreme - one side of life to a complete other. It's not a town of moderation. Depending on where you live and how you live in it, it is what it is, but living in the Quarter and living off the tourists I've never spent more nights in my life spending all my money going out to watch music and drinking. I fully dove in.
CP: Is it hard being away from the city or do you feel more connected to since it's not all around you all the time?
GL: Well, the last time I was in New Orleans, I got robbed by a guy at gunpoint right across the street from the first house I lived. It was the night before Mardi Gras. I don't know or think it's a better or worse place than it used to be - I don't want to allude to that - but for me, my time there was what it was, and I don't miss it.
All the magic and things I felt when I was living there - you can't go back. I've been back and a lot of the same people are there, but it doesn't have that same fire for me. A lot of people are struggling to get it back to the way it used to be, but it never will be, in my opinion.
CP: Was the impact it had on you more the characters you encountered there and experiences you had there or the styles you heard there?
GL: It was all encompassing. The first time I went there, I went with the number of a lady who had been a lover of a guy I knew in the Northwest who taught me a good deal about playing country/blues/ragtime guitar. He sent me to this lady in New Orleans, so I just showed up. I think I might have called her once before I came to let her know I was coming. She pretty much took me in and let me live on a cot in her kitchen the whole spring.
She worked in this voodoo shop, and she went by the name Ragtime Annie. She was a washboard player and everyone knew her. She learned to play guitar from this old man, so she'd show me all the stuff she knew and introduced me to all these people. She brought me into this band. I was their third guitar player, and we played on the street.
Through that band, I formed the band called the Kitchen Syncopators with my friend Woody. I hate that name, but it was a great band. It was really fun.
From there, it was the entire experience, it was the playing of that music and having that vibe, but it was also going up town and eating the food. It was a lot about the people you met, but it was also about the spooky architecture.
And I met these characters. I may meet characters who are similar, but they won't have the same impact because of my youth at the time. I don't know that I would fall under their spell the way I did with these people. That had to do with the town and that style of life. My style of life has changed a bit.
We had built up until it was hand-over-fist money. We were really driven. I spent a lot of time playing back then and studying old records and watching guys play all night long in bars. I could watch them night for night.
The whole thing was this big, grand experience. There's a spirit that that town can teach you that you can't learn from records. It depends on how much you're willing to sacrifice of yourself to get to that point. Man, at that time, when we were younger, we sacrificed everything and didn't hold anything back. That was its massive influence.
But will I go back? No, because I'd have to go back in time as well. I was there before the storm, and it would be like starting over again in a different town. There are a lot of towns. You only live so long and the world is so big. [Laughs.]
CP: What do you get out getting to go out and perform on your own? What do those opportunities give you, creatively, that you don't get out of playing with Old Crow?
GL: Umm … everything. [Laughs.] I do have creative input within Old Crow, and I love the gig, but having my own gig is everything. It allows me to fully communicate in my voice.
In Old Crow, I'm more of a hired gun, in a lot of ways. It's a whole different kind of gig. My own gig forces me to completely communicate things I've felt and believed and experienced as an artist. Old Crow existed before me, so it's based around its core members. Even the songs that I write for Old Crow, I write for Old Crow. They're not written in my natural voice as something I would say. Old Crow is its own entity, despite all its members even.
For me to go out on my own gives me the freedom to say what I want however I want to, whether I win or lose. I sing about all the things that inspire me. My life is the culmination of what I have to say, musically. That always changes.
CP: I don't want to keep going back to the Big Easy, but your latest album, “Piety and Desire” is described as a “love song to New Orleans” based on your experiences there. How did that concept occur to you? Was it something you'd wanted to do for a long time or did you not realize the album was about New Orleans until it was done?
GL: That was basically it. I wrote all these songs, and then I just realized how all of them had New Orleans all over them. It was after the fact. I didn't sit down with the idea of writing an album about New Orleans. I just wrote these songs and realized they were coming from my time there.
Some of it is just the beautiful imagery of the town, even using words like Tchopitoulas Street, just because I think it's a beautiful word. That's all still in my lexicon of my language. It was coming out free form, depending on what I was writing.
It's about all these hard characters I met. The woman, Lisa, which the song “Between Piety and Desire” is written about, is about her and her relationship with a guy who was a great influence to me as well.
I unfortunately make it all sound quite depraved, which isn't necessarily the truth, just how I see it. There's a difference between art and truth. It's cinematic in a way that makes me feel good.
I'm realizing now because I wrote these songs a while ago that as I'm tooling them out and thinking about what I was saying, it was really dramatic. [Laughs.] It was a lot of lost characters. Even as it can be looked on in a negative way, there's something really romantic and interesting to me about it. Everything just sort of came out that way in hindsight.
CP: Do you feel like your perspective of the city was skewed by the people you were around or was it an accurate portrayal of the city?
GL: They were my inner circle. It's a really hard thing to describe. For them, their lives don't suck. They don't look at it that way at all. Many of them are addicts or have other things going on, but I don't judge them for it. I have no issue with how they live their lives. None of them are hurting anyone but themselves
Over time, you can see the path laid out a little bit more. Some of them are dying a little bit before their time or are sick, but it's not all like that. Other people got married and started a little business and had a beautiful little kid. There are all different sides of it.
That was just my immediate family of it. I gravitated towards it because it's just vastly more interesting than somebody who is doing OK. [Laughs.] It's like, “Oh, this is living on the edge.”
It was also the only people who would put up with bums and let them sleeping on their floors. I can't even speak to what my own character was at the time. I don't know what they thought of me. [Laughs.]
CP: You must have fit in, or you wouldn't have stuck with that crowd.
GL: I fit in fine. I fit in almost everywhere I go. In my mind I do - at least it seems that way. I've always been adaptable. I know how to turn on the right kind of southern accent when I'm in Mississippi that will get me through the mechanic's shop. I'm not going to be talking to him like I'm from Brooklyn, but I know how to turn that on as well. You learn these little, subtle things. It's like learning from the old hippies that you should dress a little nicer and not drive around with a lot of bumper stickers on your van if you just want to get through. The whole point is to get through.
CP: Listening to some of your music online, one of the main voices I'm hearing elements of is Tom Waits. Is he on your personal list of influences? Who else?
GL: Oh, sure. Also Bob Dylan and all the songwriters. I don't sing like Tom Waits and I don't write songs like him, but I will not lie and say I'm not influenced by Tom Wait. My main influence I had my whole life was Bob Dylan, but nobody ever compares me to him, which is funny. When I put out my last album, I had all these reviews, and people compared me to all these people I'd never heard of, and Tom Waits would always be one, but nobody ever said Bob Dylan. Perhaps more of the musical flavors came from Waits, and that's what people are hearing.
CP: Do you see yourself as a singer/songwriter, a storyteller or somewhere in between?
GL: I don't like the term singer/songwriter at all, but storyteller is a good term. I do have a lot of stories. I've been in a million different kinds of scenes in a million different situations. I'm rarely afraid, as long as there are no guns are involved.
The songs are very based in a storytelling type of format. Pop music, chronologically, doesn't have to make sense, whereas I seem to gravitate toward writing in more of a ballad format that tells a story.
It's all just a journey. I'm a wage slave evader. [Laughs.] I would say I'm maybe a storyteller because it's all about how I felt. It's all just a human being traveling the earth. For the longest time, I've always been fringing the rules. It's a rounder-type vibe. Sure, a raconteur or a troubadour.
CP: What are you working on now, recording wise?
GL: “Piety and Desire” was made a bit ago. I love the record, but yes, I've already written two more [albums].
This tour will be pretty much every market and place I want to hit - 32 shows circling and ringing the country. After that, I'm done for here and now. I'll do that and see how I feel when I'm done.
London is calling, so in January, I'll be going to London. Then, ideally, I'll be making another record here. I may either make another record over there or come back here and do it.
I already have the whole concept. I would make it now, but it's just ridiculously busy. That's my next deal. Either that or I bought this nice conversion van for touring, so I might just drive the van out to the West Coast and be a bum and hang out in coffee shops all day, just be creative without ambition.
The business part of it is where I start to fail. It's not where my skill set lies. For me, it's more about the art, anything that can afford me the ability to create.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...