The songs on Turning Point
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Before there was the freight train, there was the golf cart. I spent a night in the North Charleston County Jail for driving an electric golf cart at night. Well, there’s a little more to the story than that. I gave the night-duty officers a hard time about how you can drive a motorcycle at 70 miles an hour on the interstate (without a helmet), but you can’t drive an electric golf cart at night because you might get hurt. I told them a few other things I had on my mind, too. It was late at night. They were tired, and I wasn’t, and I think they just reached their limit. The junior Kojak told me to get into his squad car so he could take me home. The third time he told me, I agreed, but asked if he would turn on the blue lights when he drove up the driveway, to give the kids a good show. Next thing I knew I was in handcuffs with a one-way ticket to the pokey.
But the words “golf cart” don’t make for a powerful chorus. Not like the words “freight train.” Freight Train is a chugging and frantic accounting of my “last hurrah” in a Ford F-250 Super Duty Crew Cab. I wrote it the morning after while taking a long walk. I had the riff of an unfinished song from years before pulsing through my head, and then the words started to flow. Typically what happens is that I can’t memorialize the music or words in time, and they disappear as quickly as they appeared. Somehow, I remembered all of the verses when I got home from my walk, and I scribbled them all down as quickly as I could. Similar to Jiffy Pop, the story behind this song was as much fun to make as it was to play. I even nailed the train whistle on the first take. Richmond, Virginia, boasts the only three-level train track in the world. One of these days I’m going to see if an engineer will let me yank a real train whistle.
How You Doing, Baby?
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This is my soap opera in a song. Guy comes home after crummy day at work and is greeted by his overly cheerful and inquisitive wife, asking him over and over and over: “How you doing?” He puts up a good front, and then he succumbs to her nagging, and he ”tells it like it is”, goes bonkers, and then gives up resisting and surrenders in her arms.
I told Ben “Mr. Tasty” Zecker that I was looking for a sassy Nicky Hopkins style Stones-flavored piano in the first segment, and he nailed it. John “Captain Awesome” O’Reilly Jr. creates a hair-pulling episode of temporary insanity with his drums in the second segment. The tender red-clay country gospel flavor of the third segment is all due to Samantha Hewlett’s lush vocals, Ben’s piano and Hammond Organ, and Trey Pollard’s tender pedal steel guitar. This is three different song genres in one, and worth the Super Duper Double Down Dollar Doozy Deal all by itself.
Listen to the Music
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This song started life as more of a jam rock tune. It shifted gears in the studio, starting with the rhythm guitar. A steady staccato rhythm plays on the left, and a complementing bouncy strum accents the right, creating a swinging Soul feel.
An elderly drummer told me that it would be a good song to shag to due to the rhythm and the horns (I think he was talking about dancing). I never could do the pretzel, so I’ll take his word for it. It’s got a perfect tempo for a brisk walk. There’s a fun nod to Dirty Harry during the spoken part. Click here if you “gots to know.” Trey’s guitar and Samantha’s vocals at the end are just stupendous.
Endless Pastures in the Sky
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The working title of this song was Take My Hand. I wrote the rhythm and solo after a childhood crush succumbed to cancer. Until I took it into the studio, the only line I had was “Take my hand, take my hand, look into my eyes. Things will be alright in time.”
At that time, the guitar was heavy and mellow in a Neil Young sort of way.
We recorded it in that vein in the studio. Later Stewart had the idea to experiment with some pedal steel guitar on a few songs. This was one we tried it on, and it completely transformed the whole feel of the song. The rhythm and lead guitar parts stayed the same, but the vibe escalated from gloomy and heavy to an uplifting country flavor that Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers might enjoy.
The lyrics started flowing with that change, and a story unfolded about a woman dying and being reunited with her childhood horse. The angel Gabriel sings the chorus, so I thought we should try adding some uplifting trumpet at the end. John D’Earth plays in unison with my lead on the first phrase, and then plays harmony. It gives me chills every time I hear it. There’s a pretty piano part in the middle. The icing on the cake was Regan’s lush layered harmony part at the end, and her emotional chorus. If EmmyLou Harris and Leonard Cohen sang a song together, it might sound like Endless Pastures in the Sky.
Endless Pastures in the Sky is dedicated to and in memory of Louise. Rest in Peace.
Tell You What I’ll Do
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Someone said this song could be “the Free Bird of Christian rock.” I appreciate the comparison, but Tell You What I’ll Do is not really in the Christian rock genre. Of course, we can all do a better job of striving to live and embody the golden rule. As the narrator finds out, it’s hell to pay if you don’t. St. Peter says, “Gonna make you a deal you can’t refuse…” (Bernie Madoff and Frank Mozilo, take heed!)
Bike riders and spinners will appreciate the steady groove and cadence of the first two thirds of this tune, as well as the three-minute epic guitar solo at the end. There’s a lyrical nod to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and a musical nod to lush 60’s era background vocals, such as Jimi Hendrix’s version of Hey Joe. Stewart did a nice job of capturing the stereo effect on the drums.
Good Old Days
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I was a bit of a goofy and socially awkward kid. When I hit my stride in late high school and college, I embraced my social life with everything I had. Our crowd lived life with gusto. Great memories are strewn about over the years like so many empties on a long road trip. Somewhere along the way, I dropped out of the light, but I still hold those people and those memories close to my heart, moreso now than then because I don’t see you much any more. Good Old Days is a tribute to those great times we spent together.
In the pre-production, I explained to the other players the feel and vibe that I was after. Initially, it was going to be a melancholy Neil Young flavored tune, with acoustic guitar rhythm and a heavy electric guitar solo. I played a scratch rhythm and a scratch solo track for reference, with the idea that I would come back and lay down a polished tracks at a later date. Trey played a Wilco flavored acoustic rhythm.
The studio schedule was tight. We had to schedule some dates over a month in advance. Days before the studio dates, two very close friends had deaths in the family. Beau is one of my best friends from home, and his brother Philip died unexpectedly due to a freak staff infection he got in the hospital. And Johnny’s mother died. Both funerals were slated for September 16. I missed both funerals because I had already made arrangements for the studio time, and didn’t know when I could get back in.
My head was in a terrible place during the rhythm guitar takes and I had a difficult time concentrating on my work. Eventually we moved on to other material, figuring I could do them over in a few days, when I had another day booked. Then tragedy struck again. Johnny’s son Henry died unexpectedly just prior to my next studio date. Richmond was in shock. I couldn’t stop thinking about Henry. We didn’t use one single track of my work on the final version because I just could not play.
As we were finishing production, Stewart asked me what I wanted to do about my rhythm and lead for Good Old Days. I just wasn’t sure I could do it, even though my guitar parts weren’t very difficult to play. Then he suggested having a song that didn’t have a big guitar solo, since almost everything else had lots of guitars. We talked about harmonica, and I thought I might even be able to pull off the harmonica myself. Then we talked about fiddle. Stewart knew a self-taught fiddle player who had his own studio. He sent Nate a digital copy of the song over the internet. Nate played my guitar melody on the fiddle, then added his own thing for the harmony. I think it fits the mood of the song perfectly.
Good Old Days is dedicated to and in memory of Henry and Philip. Rest in Peace.
Will I Ever See You Again?
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This song started out as a soft acoustic ballad with an acoustic lead solo. It had an A-minor chord in it, which gave it a slight Latin feel. We recorded the basic tracks and a scratch vocal track for reference. This was another song we tried with pedal steel, which again changed the flavor in a good way, but losing that Latin feel. But when I played my original acoustic lead on electric, it was too busy. Stewart helped me simplify so that it fit the dense backdrop. The song opens with a simple but pretty Clapton-esque bend. That pattern is repeated later and then again for the solo outro. The outro was improvised. I knew where I wanted to take it, but didn’t have the exact path worked out. My favorite segment is where the guitar is repeating the same note while Ben hammers one of many beautiful runs on the piano. That’s me doing my best Coldplay background vocals on the outro.
One Day at a Time
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Lifestyle patterns aren’t set over night, so breaking the bad ones won’t happen overnight either. “That’s what the caretaker said.” So you got to keep on keepin’ on, one day at a time.
This song was a blast to record. The rhythm guitar on the left channel has a crisp cool tremolo effect, and the chorus riff on the right has a heavy pulsing tremolo. The staccato horns kick it up a notch. Here’s a lyrical nod to the Ventures song Walk Don’t Run, a favorite from summer school in Charlottesville in 1982. (Thanks, Duncan!)
Baritone sax solos are few and far between, especially on rock tunes, because it weighs 15 to 20 pounds and is about four feet tall, thus requiring a massive amount of air just to get a decent sound, much less an authoritative solo. JC “Low Blow” Kuhl’s original powerhouse bari solo clocked in at 90 seconds! Unfortunately, we had to cut out over three minutes of this song to get the album to fit on one CD, and that included a minute’s worth of the sax solo (along with an out-of-control slide/wah solo by Trey). Maybe we can try a baritone sax version of Gangnam Style on the next album!
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Do you tell your soul mate that you love him/her often enough? Me neither. Stop reading right this instant and text “I love you” immediately. Or better yet, share this song. The soft organ/pedal-steel/piano intro blooms into a whispery pillow-talk love ballad and ends with a two-minute solo in the vein of Fleetwood Mac’s Go Your Own Way. There’s a lot of love flowing in that solo. Twenty-five years of marriage warrants at least one Super Duper Love Song!
This is a great bike tune. In fact I wrote the solo while riding my bike on the beach. I listened to the solo-less rough mix on my ipod Shuffle and would “hear” solo parts in between the piano and Hammond organ. When I got home, I would try to remember the parts, then figure out the pieces on the guitar, and make notes. Once I figured out all the pieces, I practiced putting them into one seamless solo. That’s Ben on the timpani.
Long Way Back Home
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There’s something magical about Autumn nights in Charlottesville, Virginia, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Stewart, John, Ben and I were taking a break outside underneath the stars. We were sitting at an old picnic table while the crisp cool breeze carried the smell of an old burned out fire. I played and sang Long Way Back Home for them, and told them I wanted to somehow capture the essence of that fall breeze in the recording. Then we went back inside and accomplished just that.
Samantha sings a beautiful part about mid-way into the song. I had wanted to slip in some vocals along the lines of Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky. Samantha put her soul into those takes, and you can really feel it.
The long instrumental interlude was something I really looked forward to playing leads over. But during a subsequent session, we had some extra time. Trey did a take, just so we’d have something on tape. What he played fit the groove so well I just told myself it was something I could not improve on. As much as I wanted to play it myself, I kept Trey’s solo in there. It was a big decision for me to make because my paradigm was that it’s my song, I’m a guitar player, and if I don’t play the solo, it won’t be my song any more. But as Stewart taught me, ultimately, it’s about the song. Trey played that fabulous lead start to finish in one take. His tone, style, ease of playing and fluidity is simply incredible. I added two small supporting leads with a nod to Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd.
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The title song is a ten-minute suite of five chapters. It started with a simple 2-chord instrumental jam that we played at band practice in the Green Giant days, called Full Circle, to which I added lyrics and three other sections. The end result is similar in spirit to The Beatles' Abbey Road medley. However, it’s not a far stretch to say that John O’Reilley Jr.’s drums run circles around Ringo’s one-and-only 15-second drum solo.
“Stuck Behind the Eight Ball” – I had about half the lyrics going into the studio, and wrote the other half during the recording. The initial gist of the lyrics was one of hope, kind of an “every dog has his day” put to music. The “blackness” refers to cancer and depression. That notion grew into taking a more proactive stance against whatever’s got you stuck behind the eight-ball, taking the first step, the hardest step, the turning point.
The Turning Point riff is a blast to play. Crank it up on the interstate and see if you can outrun the man. The squealing tires sound is a snippet of slide guitar that Trey played on another One Day at a Time. Stewart added some wild effects and it is pure coincidence that it sounds like tires squealing on a sharp turn—right at the words “turning point”.
“Home” was a separate piece, dealing with home as both physical and mental places, and how to get back there. Home is such a deeply spiritual concept. Recording the background vocals was a beautiful experience. Samantha would sing a layer, then we’d listen, then she’d do another layer. The three layers are all harmony—no overlapping notes in unison. The first time I heard all three layers played together brought tears to my eyes.
“Full Circle” – I had always wanted to do a lead guitar harmony as a nod to the Allman Brothers, but didn’t know where to do it. Stewart suggested this section. In practice, we’d play this part for 10 minutes or more. Cutting it down to four paragraphs was tough, but there’s a lot going on musically in that brief period. The horns added a whole ’nother dimension to it, and gave it a 1970’s cop show feel. I had been watching the Dirty Harry movies at the time while travelling, so that was a fun addition for me. (Awesome music in those movies.) I’ve had fun squealing through a parking deck in my black 5.7 liter Hemi Dodge Magnum RT while cranking Full Circle, but I wish I had an old GTO or Charger or Camaro or maybe even a Hot Rod Lincoln or a rocket-powered Lincoln instead. (Here are some fun low-tech car chases to watch while listening to Full Circle: The 7-Ups, Bullitt and The French Connection. Better get your car washed after all that action.)
“Believe” was written as the conclusion to Turning Point, but until it was recorded, I had never heard the entire suite as one song. Once again, JC’s and John’s horns added another dimension while Ben’s Hammond organ keeps everything grounded. Stewart does some impressive upper-fret bass work. I could have gone a little crazy with the guitar solo because there is so much going on, but it would have been too much. So I kept it pretty simple, which in a way, makes it stand out more. Trey’s vibrant and expressive rhythm is the perfect complement. The total is greater than the sum of its parts, and is a powerful and uplifting end to the album. “Set your soul free!”