Writer's note: We are going to try something a little different for this week's spotlight. One of our site members, Sibella Giorello, an author who has published several books (and whose first-rate journalism has garnered national awards, including two nominations for the ), contacted me a few weeks back telling me she had previously conducted an interview with this week's featured artist. I read her fantastic write-up, thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the man behind the music, and wanted to share some highlights from her interview here. You can read the full version at BigDawg Music Mafia. It is my great honor and privilege to introduce Mr. James Hooker...
Listen to this song. Listen to it. If this song doesn’t crack your heart wide open -- especially on Memorial Day weekend -- don't worry about Obamacare; you’re already dead.
I first caught James Hooker's "Hanging Out With the Boys" on Big Dawg Music Mafia when the tune was on the BigDawg Jukebox. But by the final chorus I’d downloaded the entire album and felt like some IED had just gone off. An Incendiary Ear Device that blew my mind.
"Hanging Out With the Boys" album had everything from blues to ballads to bagpipes. A soulful heart, yet not sad. Patriotic but not corny. And beyond all that, it managed to be absolutely unabashed in its support for our men and women in uniform.
After days of listening to it, I wrote singer/songwriter James Hooker a thank-you note.
But musicians are a funny breed. That innate sense of timing that makes them hit the right riffs on stage also shows up in conversations. For instance, Hooker’s reply to my letter. I told him my blues-musician husband thought his voice sounded like a cross between Leon Redbone and Leon Russell.
“Just so long as he doesn’t say Leon Panetta.”
Born James Brown (no joke), Hooker took his middle name as his last and served time in Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Nashville as an "A Team" studio musician and a founding member of "The Amazing Rhythm Aces.” He won a grammy -- “my 17.5 minutes of fame," he says -- and spent years as Steve Winwood’s keyboard player, including the “Back in the High Life” tour. He was also folk-star Nanci Griffith’s band leader for nearly 20 years. After moving to Ireland and setting up house in a 16th-century Irish castle, Hooker moved to Mallorca, Spain where he lives with his beloved Jessica, the woman he "intends to die with," he says, "the exact order still to be determined.”
Despite years abroad, he doesn't want to be called an ex-pat.
"Ex’ my butt,” he said. “I’m an American.”
Yes, musicians are a funny breed. So rather than paraphrase the sometimes acerbic, sometimes tender bluesman, here’s James Hooker in his own words, talking about how his amazing patriotic album came together, and what it's like to play music surrounded by people who don’t think the same way politically.
You were raised in the South, the land of roots music and fabulous storytelling. I hear both influences on this album. But what's your connection to the troops, what compelled you to make "Hanging Out With the Boys?"
This album grew from something I felt for a long time. All my life, growing up in South Carolina, being surrounded by military bases, military people, things that went zoom and boom just a few feet above the house. I grew up listening to WWII and Korea stories told by uncles, neighbors and such, and photos on the mantle of kin who still sleep in France. I knew from a VERY early age, the debt I owed them then, and the debt I owe now to the younger warriors who have followed.
Those people I knew and saw every day during my formative years helped put out the fires of Hitler’s ovens. They saved countless millions of people across the Pacific and Asia from an equally horrible fate.
If somebody can´t find thanks for the Vets from the past and the Troops/Vets of today, well, they have my pity.
How did you manage to put together such an all-American-themed album way over in Mallorca?
Here in the wilds of Spain, musicians who speak my musical style are fairly hard to come by, unless I was doing salsa, flamenco, or disco. So all keyboards and sounds are played by myself and some Scottish guy named Macintosh.
There are other musicians on the album, but they are looped audio parts played by real musicians who record for a living, charge me a fee, and remain nameless. I wish I knew who a lot of them are.
These songs are finely tuned pieces. And there are some subtle plays on the military theme. Such as the “boom” on “Hanging Out With The Boys.” It sounds like something exploding.
This was one of those happy accidents. Over the years, I’ve often discreetly used a huge low-tuned parade drum at certain points, usually a start to a chorus. It’s a sub-audible ¨pulse¨ that sets apart a bit.. I meant to do the same thing here, but the louder I played it, the better it sounded. So I left the volume up, added a ton of reverb, and was quite pleased with the result. It fit with the march feel of the strings. And yes, it does sound a bit like artillery.
The album has some wrenching, heroic, even dark messages -- delivered through everything from bagpipes to stomping kickers. Yet all the songs hold together thematically.
One of the best songwriters ever, the late Harlan Howard, said every great song was basically “Three chords and the truth.”
Harlan was talking about country music songs. But the “truth,” whether literal or fictional, holds sway in every great song’s greatness, no matter what genre.
“Truth” in a song is indefinable, but when it's not there, you miss it terribly.
There's a lot of “truth” on this album. So much so it feels like it was written by a veteran. But you didn’t serve in the military. How did the material come to you?
This album practically wrote itself, although it took it´s sweet time - about eight years. It’s the album that finally convinced me that there is, indeed, a Muse. From time to time, things would get plain spooky. The songs kept “presenting” themselves. “Here I am! Record me, dummy!”
What initially kicked the songs into motion?
Until that time, I’d never written a patriotic song in my life. But That.Event.P*****.Me.Off.
After that, every other song or three, I’d get an idea, usually after watching
something on TV or reading the paper, something particularly confounding and
egregious or stirring and moving. And then snippets of lyrics and melody would start coming to me out of virtually nowhere.
The first complete song, however, didn´t occur until I had finished watching HBO’s “Band Of Brothers.” Thus begat the song “Kids 1944.” And the album's title song, “Hanging Out With The Boys,” came soon after.
And what about “Joey and Emily,” with its back-and-forth between a soldier and his love back home?
“Joey and Emily” sprang from my seeing a photo of a GI after “mail call.” He was reading a letter from home. My daughter Brinna Clare sang the Emily part during her stay with Jessica and me in Ireland, because, on the original track, I sang both the Joey and Emily parts, which sounded completely daft. My daughter saved that song.
“Find Your Way Home” is wrenching. The listener gets a real sense of the loneliness that comes with deployment, and with an uncertain future ahead.
“Find Your Way Home” came about a little differently. Part of it came from a Michael Yon dispatch and part from an online friendship I had developed with a Gold Star Mom and Gold Star Wife.
The first verse that starts out “City Boy” is the generic soldier - I didn´t know any at the time, though I know more than a few now. The second verse “Country Boy” is a combination of the son and husband Killed In Action: Army Spc. Micheal E. Phillips and Marine Cpl. Matthew D. Conley. Both killed in Iraq.
The last verse, “Little Girl” was from Yon´s dispatch that mentioned a female medic with the British 2nd Rifles who, while treating an Afghan civilian, backed down an uppity Afghan man with her weapon. I did take bit of a liberty in that last verse. I made her an All American Girl. But I wanted to make the point that there are a LOT of females up at the sharp end. From Yon´s dispatch I lifted a line almost verbatim: “Please don´t tell mom and dad what their little girl had to see and do today.”
The album walks a delicate line. The songs are not rah-rah patriotism. Yet the love of America and the fight for freedom shines through. Do you consider any of the songs political, in the sense of pro-country?
Political? I don´t feel the album is that political, with maybe the exception of “Calling All The Clans Together.” That particular song came to me entirely in a dream. I understood it to mean: “Vote every SOB out. Even if it means replacing them with a different set of SOBs.” (R) (D) (S) (I) -- I don´t care, sod ´em all.
The challenge I found with writing a patriotic song was to avoid “corny.” It´s not easy. It´s really easy to write a lyric that sounds as though it was hatched in Aunt Edna´s parlor.
But you've got strong political views that don't jibe with the uber-liberal world of pop music. How did you survive? Especially as Nanci Griffith’s bandleader? I enjoy her music -- a lot -- but the woman wears a big ol’ LBJ button on her guitar strap.
Nanci knew about my conservative/libertarian perspective from the start. Every two years or so leading up to a presidential or mid-term election there would be, without fail, at least one or two knock-down drag-outs on the tour bus or in the dressing room. That went on for the nearly 20 years that I was her band leader. However, we were always on speaking terms the next morning.
We did “Farm-Aid” together as a duo in Louisville back in the 90s.
While driving back to Nashville, Nanci and I got into it. I don´t remember at all now what it was about, but I do remember her leaning up from the back seat and me leaning over the front seat, both of us tearing each other new ones. Nobody lost an eye, but I attribute that only to divine providence. A few minutes after this fracas concluded, I looked over at our road manager. He was laughing hard under his breath. I asked him what was so funny. He said every piano player on earth that he knew of would’ve been fired about thirty miles back and left by the side of the road!
Nanci and I both had a good laugh at that. I love her to pieces.
But after 9/11, I think I witnessed a bit of “Right of Liberal Libertarian” emerge from her. I was with her in Toronto that Tuesday. Everybody on the bus was p***** off. She was livid.
But I suspect by now her needle has swung back to port.
Because Left is the default mechanism of most musicians?
I think it´s the nature of the respective professions themselves, whether you’re an actor, musician, painter, whatever . Art. It’s riddled with rebels. Art should be out-of-the box thinking. Personally, I pay no attention at all to an artist’s political views. I´ve worked with liberals all my life and still count many as friends, including quite a few on the lunatic fringe. Some even return my phone calls. As for me, I consider myself a ¨conservative libertarian¨
Not conservative Republican?
I don´t like “far” agendas, either on the Left or the Right. “Far” is just plain idiocy, and both Republicans and Democrats are rife with them. We need government --- SOMEBODY´S got to wind the watch. And we need the government to keep the roads clear and provide for the common defense. But any government beyond that is approaching the realms of excess.
Spoken like a conservative...
Yes, but where I part from both sides is this: The Far Right wants to constantly beat me over the head with the loaves and fishes and tell me I can´t have sexual congress with monkeys. Meanwhile the Far Left tells me I MUST invite the Taliban over for supper, and I MUST laugh at the very existence of MY Deity, and I MUST have sexual congress with monkeys.
The man/woman who wants to remain truly free is left flapping in the breeze.
And in Spain, does the rain fall mostly on the socialist plain?
The food and wine is Mediterranean, the people friendly, and the beer is served cold.
The government is more than a tad Socialist but, oddly enough, I´ve yet to see signs of political correctness run amok - you can joke about anybody or anything and not get hauled before some damned focus group. Very odd.
But linguistic dunderhead that I am, I do wish they would learn a little more English. I get by, though more often than not my Spanglish invokes gales of good-hearted laughter. They´re sorta like the French that way. They nearly all speak some English, but they enjoy watching you squirm a bit before they correct you -- in their version of Spanglish.
With the surge in interest for dynamic conservative and libertarian cultural sites like Big Dawg Music Mafia and these Breitbart “Big” sites, do you see a renaissance in music, where it won't be such a lock-step with liberal ideologies?
I´d like to see a renaissance in music PERIOD. The urban poets are driving me around the bend with their laboring under the idea of lyric and melody being: ¨F*ck, f*ck, f*ckitty f*ck¨.
You’re making me think of the recent dust-up with the rapper Common. Supports cop killers, follows that religious hater Reverend Wright, and says President Bush should be set on fire. Meanwhile the White House tells us he’s “a poet.”
I haven't been able to listen to the radio for years.
Same here. That’s why I’m listening to Big Dawg. And why I fell so hard for “Hanging Out with the Boys.” Soulful music that wasn’t whining about how America’s the bad guy. In fact, we're the good guys.
You know, some people have told me “Hanging Out With The Boys” is corny. Okay, it’s corny. Shoot me. The Star Spangled Banner is corny. Shoot Francis Scott Key. But I don’t think honoring veterans is corny. They got SHOT at for you and me to enjoy the freedom to call it corny, if we so wish.
I wrote “Hanging Out With The Boys” for all Vets, yesterday and today. And “All Too Soon” to honor everyone from “The Greatest Generation.”
It´s been a while since we´ve gotten any guff from the Germans or the Japanese, and those good people, who put a stop to that foolishness, are dying at a rate of about 1,200 a day.
We need to say, “Thank you” while they´re still here to say ¨You´re welcome.¨
Agreed. And I want to thank you for this album. And for your time. One last question. If somebody told you Barack Obama had “Hanging Out with The Boys” on his iPod, what would you say?
I´d say he probably picked up one of the Secret Service guys iPod by mistake.
(Author's note: 10% of all sales for "Hanging Out With the Boys" will go to the charity Soldiers' Angels “No preachers or politicians need bother knocking on my door," Hooker says. "Soldiers' Angels is my tithe.")
Amen to that, James.
Thank you, Sibella.
If you enjoyed these songs as much as we do, you can find more of Mr. Hooker's fabulous music on this special shout-out to BigHollywood page he set up on his official website.
Have a safe, and blessed Memorial Day weekend and please keep the families of our fallen heroes as well as our brothers and sisters in harm's way in your thoughts and prayers. ~ Lisa Mei & BigDawg