I am so grateful to have been able to safely schedule some studio time in Nashville over the past few weeks, and to again record music there with some of the very finest musicians and technicians around. By sheer luck, all of the scheduling came together in the brief period of time when Covid and the B.1.17 mutation were on the wane, and before the Delta variant developed into the present Covid resurgence. I’m now continuing to work towards the release of this new record (which isn’t yet titled), with renewed caution. I am nevertheless, happy to say that it is nearly finished, and I am very much looking forward to being able to share it with you all soon!
It’s been almost two years since I released my third album, “Now I’m Free” (9/19/2019). At that time, I was fully taking for granted the joys and freedom of travelling, and appearing and performing in person in venues and private homes and at radio station studios across the country. During the three-month, 11,000-mile tour for that record, and for just a few of the months that followed that tour’s end in November of 2019, I had no idea that everything would soon change so drastically and for so very long. When I think back on it now, it occurs to me that the title of that album was, at least on some level perhaps, prescient. But, as drastically as things change, we also learn, change and adapt to an equal or further degree, and for that reason, I am one-hundred percent confident that we will transcend the losses and challenges that lay behind and ahead of us, and that we will emerge from all of it, stronger than ever.
When I left that freedom and the open road behind me in November of 2019, I was first immediately confronted with the sudden and severe decline in the health of my then 94-year-old mother. After speaking with her doctors and making some adjustments in her health care, happily her condition and quality of life greatly improved. I spent the next several months taking some rest from the road and visiting her daily (she passed a year later on Christmas day, 2020). While taking care of my mom, I was also focused on writing new music and on getting back to building the recording studio which I had been working on in my spare moments for several years. My plan was to work a little bit more on the studio and keep writing songs until I had enough for a new album, and to then return to Nashville to record them at Skinny Elephant Records. That’s the studio where I had recorded my “Now I’m Free“ album in April and May of 2019. When Covid hit in the beginning of 2020, and we all had to adjust to that “new normal,” I had to cancel my travel plans. So, I decided to use my time in lockdown here in New York, to finally finish all of the construction work that was left to do in the studio I was building, so I could start recording here until things opened up again.
By the end of April of 2020, I had finished the studio construction and had also written enough songs for the new album. Then on May 1st, with great satisfaction, I started to record the new songs in my own newly-finished studio, right here in New York. First, I recorded 14 songs just playing my acoustic guitar and singing. In the midst of that, I also contacted a native American Flute builder in Utah, and after several discussions about the music I was intending to record and the flute making process and materials, I began designing and drawing the artwork for two flutes that I had asked him to build for me. After those flutes were finished in late 2020, I had several telephone conversations with Ty, the Navajo man who had built them. One thing led to another and a few months later Ty, with the help of his friend, Caleb and Caleb’s dad, translated the lyrics to one of my songs, from English to Navajo, in both written form and in an audio file. I spent a lot of time studying the written translation and listening to the audio file and learning and practicing how to recite my lyrics in the Navajo language. I’m going to very candidly say that this was no small task and that many times, for a very long time I felt that I would not be able to do it, or at least not do it well. I eventually spoke with Ty about how unusually difficult some of the pronunciation was for me and it was at that point that he told me that Navajo is, for several reasons, renowned to be the most difficult language for an English-speaking person to learn how to speak. I felt that, for sure, but I was committed to learning it and when he confirmed that the difficulty that I was experiencing was inherent in the language itself, it encouraged me to just work harder to get it right. After many more weeks of practicing and studying the eight Navajo verses and five choruses, we had a few more phone calls where both Ty and Caleb helped me work through and resolve the lingering questions that I had about proper phrasing and pronunciation. Language being the approximate art that it is, I don’t really have words to sufficiently describe how profoundly honored I feel to have had that experience and to be considered a friend by these new friends of mine. Because of them, I was able to record a vocal track in the Navajo language on one of my new songs, and I’m really proud to now be able to say that.
I also composed parts for the two flutes that Ty built, and I recorded them into that same song. This was another milestone achievement for me as I had only started learning how to play the Native American Flute just a few years ago. There are some other tracks that I also added to that song, and which are pretty special in a number of ways, but I’ll save the details about that for another day. Before all of this had happened though, I had Mac, a Cherokee man from California, build another flute for me. It was actually the first of the three flutes that were made for this record. I had taken a different approach with the flute that Mac built for me—rather than create my own design for the Flute ornamentation and artwork, I instead had several conversations with Mac about the spiritual aspects of the music that I was working on and the voice that I was hoping this particular Flute would have. Then I made a few suggestions and asked Mac to surprise me with his own design. From working with Mac in this way, I have been blessed with another cherished friendship and another beautiful Native American Flute which also sounds amazing on this new record.
My curiosity and interest in other traditional Native American instruments also grew during this time in Covid lockdown, and after some direction from Ty and a few weeks of my own research, I found a great source for them in Vermont. With that instrument maker, I auditioned several handmade Native American drums, shakers, rattles and other things via Facetime and Skype. I then had the ones that I heard make the most incredible sounds, shipped to me in New York, and later brought them with me to Nashville to record with them there.
Finishing the build-out of my recording studio, writing the new songs for this record, designing two and having three flutes built, learning the Navajo language and creating, playing and recording all of the Flute, English, Navajo, Acoustic and Electric Guitar, Mandolin, Singing Bell and other parts that I recorded here in New York for these 14 songs, took a little longer than a year and a half. For the Nashville sessions that followed in July and August of this year, I returned to Skinny Elephant Records. I had had a phenomenal time recording my “Now I’m Free” album at Skinny Elephant in April and May of 2019, and later that year, on September 16, Billboard published their exclusive interview of me with a full album preview of that record. I put all of my heart, mind and soul into those songs and I’m proud of that record. I feel the same way about this new one. Maybe even more so.
Being back in the Skinny Elephant studio this July and August, I felt like I was back home with family. Engineer, Dylan Alldredge took over the recording there and Neilson Hubbard, who had produced my “Now I’m Free” album there in 2019, joined me as coproducer for the Nashville sessions. Neilson is an acclaimed record producer, film director, film producer, singer-songwriter and photographer. He has produced records for Mary Gauthier, Sam Baker, Kim Richey and others, and has directed and produced films for many artists, including John Prine. Among other achievements, Neilson’s collaborations with other artists have been featured in “Private Practice,” “One Tree Hill,” “Bones” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” Dylan and Neilson have both become great friends of mine and I’m so very thankful for their friendship and the talents they have so generously shared with me on my “Now I’m Free” album in 2019 and in the making of this new record in 2021.
Likewise, some of the musicians who played on the Nashville sessions this year, had also played on one or both of my previous two records, and it was great to be able to spend more time and make more music with them as well. I was also excited and honored to meet and record with the musicians who I hadn’t met before, but who also took time out of their busy schedules to come in and play on these new songs.
First, there’s Fats Kaplin who came in on day one and played Pedal Steel Guitar, Fiddle and Viola on about six of the 14 tracks. Fats has worked with John Prine, Jack White, Beck, Nancy Griffith, Pure Prairie League and many others. I was in the Nashville studio for 11 days this time around and was lucky enough to have Fats come back and play on some of the other songs as well, on a couple more of those days.
On the second, third and sixth days, Neilson played Drums and Mike Rinne played Electric and Upright Bass on all 14 tracks. Mike also played on my “Now I’m Free” record in 2019 and I was happy that he was able to work his schedule around to make time to play on this one too. Mike’s list of studio credits includes Willie Nelson, Rodney Crowel, Jack White, Alicia Keys, Ronnie Milsap and many more. He’s performed with Emmy Lou Harris, Rodney Crowel and others, and among other things, in 2017 he joined Miranda Lambert’s band.
On the other days in between recording Neilson’s and Mike’s Drum and Bass parts, Danny Mitchell played Hammond B3 Organ and Piano, Matt Menefee and Kyle Tuttle played banjo, Juan Solorzano played Electric Guitar, Slide Guitar, Baritone Guitar and Lap Steel, Brent Burke played Dobro, Will Kimbrough played Mandolin, Chelsea McGough played Cello and Mia Rose Lynne sang a harmony Vocal.
Danny Mitchell is a pianist, singer, composer and songwriter. He currently plays piano, organ and sings background vocals for Miranda Lambert. His compositions range from small chamber pieces to full symphonic works. His “Dawning of a Soul,” was performed by the National Wind Ensemble in Carnegie Hall. The Piano and B3 parts that Danny played on this new record of mine are breath-taking.
Matt Menefee has been described as “probably the best banjo player alive.” Winner of the prestigious Winfield National Banjo Championship at age 17 and now a/k/a “MATT, TheBanjoPlayer,” Matt has recorded and performed with Be’la Fleck, Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, Ricky Scaggs, Jerry Douglas and Mumford and Sons; just to name a few. Matt’s banjo parts on this record are sublime. I need not say more.
International Banjo Champion, Kyle Tuttle, was a member of the Jeff Austin Band, and has worked with Jamgrass legends Larry Keel, Travelin’ McCoury’s, Leftover Salmon, Greensky Bluegrass, Billy Strings and Railroad Earth. I first met Kyle six years ago at the Bomb Shelter Studio in Nashville when he played on my second album, “Through These Waves.” I’ve always loved Kyle’s playing and it was great to reunite with him and have him join in on this record after all this time. Kyle’s phrasing and note placement elevated every song that he’s played on for me.
Juan Solorzano is a producer and multi- instrumentalist. I first met Juan in 2019 during the recording of my “Now I’m Free“ album. I immediately fell in love with his playing. His guitar technique is flawless and his phrasing is heart wrenching. After hearing him play in the studio in May of 2019, I invited him to join me on stage for my performance at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 2019. His playing on this current record surpasses even what he did on my previous release and it was good to have him bring his great talents to these new songs
Brent Burke, is the first recipient of the bachelor of arts degree in Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music at ETSU and has been a member of Rhonda Vincent’s band, The Rage, from since he turned 23, up until he decided to take a break from the road in December of 2019. This is the third record I’ve had the good fortune of having Brent play on. He’s simply-said, one of the best dobro players around. He’s also a good soul and a good friend.
Will Kimbrough is a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. In the 1980’s, his college band, Will & the Bushmen, made it onto MTV. His songs have been recorded by Jimmy Buffett, Little Feat, Jack Ingram, Todd Snyder and more, and he’s collaborated with Roseanne Cash, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowel, Steve Earle, Gomez, Emmy Lou Harris, The Jay Hawks, Mark Knopfler, Buddy Miller, John Prine, Kim Richey, Mavis Staples…the list goes on. Recognized in 2004 as “Instrumentalist of the Year” by the Americana Music Association, Will has also produced albums for a great many artists. This is the third album of mine that Will has played on—mostly Mandolin this time. I’m always glad to have him on board.
Chelsea McGough is a Cellist, composer and producer. Her compositions have been featured in films, television, social media and ad campaigns in the U.S. and abroad. I hadn’t met Chelsea prior to these sessions and am so glad she was able to come into the studio for this album. Her Cello lines are so moving on this record. I was very fortunate to be able to have her in to the studio, on rather short notice no less.
Mia Rose Lynne, is a prolific singer-songwriter, who is well known in the festival circuit. Mia sang harmonies on my “Now I’m Free” record in 2019 and I was glad that she was able to come back into the studio to sing on this new record this year. There weren’t a lot of places for harmony on this album, but Mia’s beautiful vocal was just exactly what was needed.
I’ve spoken a lot here about the Native American instruments that I’ve recently become fascinated with, and many of them wound up appearing on more of the songs than I had first envisioned. I’m amazed at how these instruments fit so well into the context of this record, which to my ear has a primarily Americana, Bluegrass and Folk flavor, with all of the traditional cues that one might expect to hear within those genres. But if you can imagine what a Banjo and a Fiddle paired together with a hand-made Buffalo hide Powwow drum and Bear and Moose hide shakers, accompanied by a Dobro, and a Hammond B3 played through a swirling Leslie, accented with the chiming of a Tibetan Singing Bowl and Native American Flute lines, oh yeah, and a Tambourine and a Triangle and a Piano, Viola and Cello, might sound like, then you’re on your way to experiencing how traditional genre cues can still shine through an unexpected and unusual arrangement, in ways that you’ve likely never heard before, but are glad to have discovered. It was a vision I had and it all worked really well.
I also want to mention that, although some of this record was recorded in New York and the rest of it was recorded in Nashville, you wouldn’t know it by just listening to it and if I hadn’t told you. The Nashville sessions were intense and robust. At times we had the Fiddle, Mandolin, Dobro, Banjo, Piano, and Percussion all playing and recording live at the same time. The result is that the record has an authentically “performed live” feel to it, even though it wasn’t entirely recorded that way. You’ll just have to take my word for it, until you can hear it and confirm it for yourself.
On the last few days in Nashville, after Nielson had finished adding the final Percussion instruments to the last track, Dylan, Neilson and I began to get them all ready for rough mixing. On day twelve, I left Nashville with rough mixes to listen to and I’m just going to come right out and say that even just the rough mixes of this record sound amazing. I feel so good about this one that I’m counting the days until I can share it with you all! Dylan has been working on the final mixes since I left Nashville and at some point in the next few weeks, I’m going to have some vocalists from Alabama add some background vocals to a couple of the songs. Then I’ll head back to Nashville for a day or so, so the final mixes can be made final. Oh yeah, and there may be a video coming soon as well!
There’s a lot more of the backstory to this record than I’ve talked about here, and I’ll speak more about it in future posts, but for now, suffice it to say, it’s been a long, fun, humbling, educational and deeply gratifying journey that is nearly ready for you to hear soon. I thank you all for your continued support and for being a part of my soul’s journey! I appreciate each and every one of you. Stay safe and check back here from time to time as you wish and I’ll keep you posted as things keep rolling along!
Bill S. 💙—>