Billy Bragg Shines A Light on the crossroads of blues, country, and rock 'n' roll
For nearly 40 years, music critics have tried to saddle songwriter and guitarist Billy Bragg with many labels. He's been called folk, anti-folk, folk punk, and "socially conscious." Yet none of those labels--all true to various degrees--properly give Bragg credit for being one of the great entertainers of his generation. Like all great artists, he constantly defies labels by producing work of both sublime beauty and bruising honesty. He is also rock n' roller--whether he's playing electric or acoustic. Bragg is one of the few artists (no others come to mind) who have gone to the top of the charts with a Beatles cover --"She's Leaving Home"-- which only strengthened his considerable reputation in England as an artist with a deep appreciation for the tradition of story telling and a keen sense of where things come from and the clues to the future they might still hold.
Bragg's fame in America blossomed with Mermaid Avenue, a collaborative album with Wilco based on unpublished songs by Woody Guthrie. Last September, Bragg received the 2016 Trailblazer Award during the Americana Festival in Nashville and was recognized as a model Americana artist. During Americana Fest, Mr. Bragg stopped by Epiphone to pick up a new Masterbilt Century Olympic and talk about his new album with producer and friend Joe Henry, Shine A Light, which features the duo covering their favorite songs from the American and English songbook while traveling across the western U.S. by train.
It's great to see you in Nashville, Billy. How do you like your new Masterbilt Olympic?
It's been a real great addition to the Shine A Light tour. I was initially only going to use my J-45 acoustic for the whole show, including my solo spot, which would have limited me to my more ballady songs. The compact size of the Olympic gives it a little more bite and the neck seems faster. I just felt like I was wielding something with more kinetic power than an ordinary acoustic, which really helped on the BB songs.
During the show Joe and I both have sections where we play our own material. With the election coming up, I've been dedicating "Accident Waiting to Happen" to Donald Trump and the Olympic has allowed me to play that chugging riff on the bottom E that I use on a lot of my songs. It simply wouldn't have worked so well on my J-45.
Do new guitars inspire you to write?
Steve Earle once told me that every time he buys a new guitar, he writes a new song -- which explains why he has so many guitars I guess. I've had that experience once or twice, getting to know an instrument unleashing a torrent of ideas, but the guitars that have had an influence on my song writing are the ones that had a definitive sound.
The Burns Steer is probably the guitar that is most identified with my sound -- you can hear it on songs like "Levi Stubbs' Tears" and "There is Power in a Union." It has a harsh ringing tone that works well with my trademark chop and clang style. It's a solid body electric that looks like an acoustic -- it has a faux sound hole -- and a stainless steel plate running under the strings on the body. The guitar that I always have to hand at home is a lovely Gibson LG-1 from 1966. I write most of my songs on it and it always sounds warm and inviting.
Tell me about the book you're writing about Lonnie Donegan and his music.
The book is really about the period in British cultural history when our pop music changed from being jazz based to guitar-led. This hinges on Lonnie Donegan having a hit, "Rock Island Line," in January 1956. It was a kind of accidental hit. He'd recorded the song two years before for an album of New Orleans jazz tunes -- coincidentally just a week after Elvis recorded "That's Alright Mama." Donegan inspired a generation of British boys to learn the three chords on guitar that were needed to play what we call skiffle - which basically consists of Lead Belly's repertoire.
Almost all of the bands that invaded the American charts in 1964/65 started out playing skiffle, yet it's kinda been written out of pop history. If it does ever get mentioned it's only in connection with the fact that the Beatles started out as a skiffle group. I've set out to write a book that seeks to put skiffle into it's proper context in British cultural history and, hopefully, introduces an American readership to something that was a crucial part of the development of our common pop culture. The book is due out next June.
Skiffle and punk have a lot in common--the idea of artists as self-starters.
Skiffle was all about self-actualization. It was the first music that took hold among teenagers that hadn't been spoon-fed to them by Tin Pan Alley. As such, it was very similar to the punk rock scene that followed twenty years later. I was inspired by that scene and still hold true to the notion that you have to do things yourself. No one came to me with the idea of recording some classic railroad songs on the train from Chicago to LA. It was self-realized.
You mentioned that seeing The Clash play live in 1977 was a very inspiring moment for you. What was your life like when music and writing became a serious endeavor for you?
It was fast and furious. The guys I was in a band with, we all quit our jobs and moved to a studio in the country where we could be musicians 24/7. Total immersion. It was precarious, but when you're in your early 20s and have no responsibilities, except to yourself, you can survive on just playing songs real loud with your mates.
It seems that compared to American songwriters, English artists are more willing --or are at least more inclined to write about issues where as many American artists can go their whole career without addressing political issues. Is there some truth to that?
We are all products of our environment and during the pop era the UK and Europe in general has tended to have more of an ideological discourse going on in society than the U.S. This explains why punk was political in the UK from the very start, whereas it tended to be more arty in the US. I'm generalizing here I know, not least because there was plenty of insipid pop being made and consumed in the UK in 1977, but we have to recognize that an anti-establishment song -- "God Save the Queen" -- got to Number 1 in the charts during the Queen's Jubilee. Not sure a similar song could ever have done the same in the U.S.
Your new album Shine A Light was recorded with producer Joe Henry while traveling throughout the U.S. by train. And it features songs that are considered standards in the English and American folk tradition. Many of these songs date back to the time your favorite artists like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly were making records. How did the experience of making Shine A Light compare to making Mermaid Avenue with Wilco?
I think the challenge of Shine A Light was the same as Mermaid Avenue: how do we get a handle on someone else's song to the extent that we can claim it as our own. I would argue that Wilco were as steeped in the tradition as I was when we were making the Woody record. I didn't have to show them anything they didn't already know and when we pulled up a lyric to work on, I think we were all conversant with the musical points that were being referenced, even if we might have come at them from different directions.
The great advantage with the Mermaid Avenue material was that no-one had heard these songs before, making it easier for listeners to accept that these were the definitive versions. With Shine A Light we were singing songs that people have known since they were little kids -- the number of people who had "Hobo's Lullaby" sung to them by their parents at bedtime is phenomenal. So we had to be both respectful of their memories, but also try to bring something of ourselves to these songs, so that they weren't just covers. Joe's talent as an arranger was really helpful there. He added a chord here or found a new guitar line there that just put our personal spin on the song, which is how it should be.
Songwriters sometimes joke that Bob Dylan killed folk music in the sense that all songwriters after him have felt obliged to only perform their own material. How often do you pursue endeavors like Shine A Light where you are strictly an arranger and interpreter? Do you find doing so helps your writing?
Of course it helps to know lots of songs -- how else will you learn your craft -- but it's how you thread things together that really counts. It must be done seamlessly so that the join between your influences and your inspiration is invisible to the ear.
You've mentioned that Woody Guthrie was more of a rock n' roller at heart than many of his fans would think and that he was a fan of John Lee Hooker.
It certainly helped on the Mermaid Avenue project to know that Woody wasn't a purist when it came to musical styles. His middle son Jody, told me that his father loved new gadgets and would have given anything to get his hands on something like a Les Paul.
It's much easier today for an artist to operate outside of the music industry. Having seen both sides, do you prefer having a label or being independent?
I benefit from having a mixture of both. I own my back catalogue and lease it to my independent label, Cooking Vinyl, who handles all my distribution and promo. As an artist, you really don't want to be distracted by those kinds of things. They also keep me up to date with developments in the digital world, both in distribution and promotion, crucial if you only put an album out every five years as I tend to.
Do you still find studio work renewing?
I've never been much of a studio person. Working with Joe Henry on Tooth & Nail was a revelation. We made the whole thing in five days, bish, bash, bosh. I prefer the road.