The Story of “The Blackbird Diaries”
Red River Dave was behind this album all the way. You see in the 1st week of May 2010 I ended up being stuck in London for a few days following the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland, which was spewing out volcanic ash. A steady trail drifted over Europe like an invisible thread which stitched up any hopes of me getting back across the Atlantic anytime soon! I was in London on a secret mission (now known as The Conspiracy For Good) along with a number of people from all over the world. After several days of wandering between my hotel and Bar Italia (best Italian café in Soho with so much history I am now writing a musical about it!), I decided to wander down Denmark Street (a very famous street – I suppose it was Britain’s version of Tin Pan Alley at one time). Denmark Street has several guitar shops and one in particular always has some rare vintage guitars; since I was stuck in the ash, I headed off by foot to check them out.
Now I have this weird, almost alchemist type, sensibility when it comes to making decisions that will alter the course of my life. I can also predict or visualize the outcome of something within seconds of thinking of or seeing it (whatever it is). This can be anything from which train to catch, a melody I hear, or a person I see. I get a kind of vibration; when it’s really strong I actually see fireworks in my head like a fireworks display, only from the inside. I have been concerned about this on occasion and have in fact had a brain specialist do a study of my brain. He discovered I had “Mu” patterns in my brain-waves (they look like little croquet hoops). Mu waves are seen often in studies of Autistic people and are signs of hyper-electric brain activity around them. I know I’ve gone off the plot, but this leads me to the moment I saw a guitar on the wall in the vintage shop on Denmark Street. I saw the fireworks and immediately asked to play “that one” – the most difficult guitar for the shopkeeper to get at. He seemed excited to show it to me and then went on to explain how this guitar belonged to Red River Dave who was a very eccentric country singer from San Antonio, Texas. The more he told me about Red River Dave, the more I realized this was a moment of synchrodestiny. I instantly made the decision to buy the guitar. This is what I learned about Red River Dave:
- In 1946, Red River Dave McEnery confirmed a burgeoning talent for unusual self-promotion by having himself handcuffed to an upright piano for 12 hours and inviting members of the public to submit potential song titles drawn from a selection of magazines.
- A move to Hollywood saw him appear on the silver screen alongside the singing cowboy Jimmy Wakely before going on to star in a series of short films of his own for Universal Pictures.
- Over the coming decades he starred on local television, sold real estate, and worked as a preacher – becoming the first and perhaps only person ever to deliver a sermon entirely in CB radio jargon.
- He continued to write “event” songs, releasing scores of them on his own record label. His subjects included the Bay of Pigs debacle, Watergate, James Dean, the mass suicide of the followers of the Reverend Jim Jones and Don Larsen’s perfect game in baseball’s 1956 World Series.
- Having returned to San Antonio, McEnery enjoyed his status as a cult figure and returned to prominence once again when, having been overcharged for the repair of his truck by a local service station, he composed “Shame is the Middle Name of Exxon” in retaliation. An executive with the company eventually heard the song and, much to the veteran singer’s delight, a full refund was ordered.
I walked out of that guitar shop and I not only knew I was going to Nashville, but that something amazing was going to happen there…
When the ash cleared, I made my way back to California and two weeks after that I touched down at Nashville International Airport to have a meeting with John and Martina McBride. Now I must interject here and explain – as you will have guessed from reading so far, I am a man with many lives! So here goes. I run my own company called Weapons of Mass Entertainment; I won’t bore you with the details but basically we are an “ideas factory” and one of my ideas was to create a TV show called Malibu Country. For some reason, my bizarre ideas always manifest – I guess you can say that I’ve mastered the intersection of creativity and commerce (and written a book on it called The Business Playground). So there I was in Nashville along with Pam Williams (my co-producer Laura Ziskin’s right hand) on our way to meet Martina McBride and her husband John at their recording studios called Blackbird Studios. It was an odd meeting as we were in a tiny office and little did I know there was a huge and stunning studio complex sitting behind the office. After the meeting, we decided to go to dinner at The Patterson House to have a more relaxed chat about the project, where I ordered my usual vodka martini whilst the others drank red wine. The evening became merrier as the hours rolled on and we ended up at a late night drinking establishment, where John introduced me to his favorite, the Amaretto Sour whilst Martina drank bourbon on the rocks.
We left that place around 1am and much to my amazement John suggested we go to the studio. Now by this time I could hardly string a sentence together let alone play an instrument (thankfully I didn’t have to). What was to happen next would alter the trajectory of my whole mission and all I remember is being in a room with two and a half thousand little sticks of wood pointing at me while Sgt. Pepper’s was coming at me in surround sound. John was serving vintage dessert wine and laughing. The next thing I recall is Martina and I kind of dancing / staggering around to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Martina – having switched from red wine to bourbon and then to dessert wine – was doing a lot better than me at the moonwalk, although I was definitely scoring high points for playing imaginary drums! This was not the master class in country living that I expected from the McBrides!
I quickly discovered this was the tip of the iceberg. John started telling me he was nervous about having to move his thirty thousand Beatles vinyl albums from their safe place into their new home. He showed me a list of vintage microphones along with rooms full of guitars and historic drum kits. I knew I was not only in good company but that Destiny again had led me into an Aladdin’s cave of possibilities. The next day, having stopped at the Pancake Pantry for the first of many times to get coffee and something to absorb the amount of alcohol in my system, I was back to the studio at noon. I had promised to meet Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson, and Martina to kick around a song idea I had started within minutes of getting Red River Dave’s guitar out of the case in my hotel room in London.
While stuck in London, all I heard on the news all day long were the words “natural disaster.” Being a bit like Red River Dave myself, I tuned into his psyche and with a twist of lemon changed “natural disaster” into Nashville disaster, making it a song about a home wrecking woman who preyed on country star singers who were married! When I arrived at the studio I was a bit nervous and hung over. I had just tried to eat a pancake covered in some sweet sauce, a specialty of Pancake Pantry, but eating it in a moving car over bumpy rail tracks has its setbacks (i.e. a sticky handshake leaves a lasting impression as Hillary would testify to!). So I pulled out this song idea sketch and within minutes Hillary and Gordie were playing and singing away, hammering it out with me until Martina arrived. We all had fun singing it through into my tiny video recorder. I always film or record every songwriting session so a) I remember the attitude, and b) I can see the chords I’m playing which helps with my awful lack of memory skills. Pam arrived and we went off to the airport still whistling Nashville Disaster, but the truth was Nashville had been the absolute opposite for me. It was a huge success. Whether Martina wanted to play the lead role in our TV series or not, I had made some great new friends and I knew I would be back very soon. How soon even surprised me; I was back in less than six weeks, and not only that, but I was there to make my own album – my first solo album in over 13 years!!!
John McBride’s enthusiasm for music and recording was so infectious that I knew I had to record with him and in that very studio, so I sent him an e-mail, this one in fact:
I was very impressed with your studios and your passion for music in general. It gave me an idea, I would like to do an album in 5 days with you, live set up with all players at once, using the vintage stuff etc., do a few duets here and there and the rest me singing my songs, not trying to be country just my own style, a little Dylanesque meets Leonard Cohen meets Tom Petty meets Lou Reed meets Johnny Cash sounding kinda thing my low vocals and some quirky Beatles type chords and melodies thrown in. I would call it “DAVE STEWART, THE BLACKBIRD STUDIO SESSIONS, NASHVILLE TENNESSEE.” I would make it that you can only get it on vinyl at first. What do you think?
When he said YES, I was so excited, I was “beside myself,” a weird English term meaning, I suppose, experiencing out of body experience.
I wanted the whole experience to be an adventure in freedom and just let myself be led over the edge, leaping off the top diving board and letting go of any control. I asked John to put together some players that would be able to deal with my eclectic list of influences, that could improvise around my ideas and songs, and be in the moment.
It was on Saturday July 3rd when I was in the garden of our home in Los Angeles. I was in a really good mood (not that unusual), and I had just gulped down a very strong homemade cappuccino (I love our coffee machine) when it struck me – my mind kinda did a cartwheel and those Mu waves must have been going croquet crazy – I realized I had not written anything for Nashville and recording was in 5 days time!!!! John had the most amazing players lined up, the studio was booked, I had my flights / hotel, and I even had Mike Bradford (my trusted musical director) agree to drop everything and come co-produce… but co–produce what? Yikes!!!!
I ran around the house finding scraps of paper, chewing gum wrappers, beer mats, napkins, all the things that I write lyrics and song titles on and went back in the garden with an acoustic guitar and started strumming away. I knew the next day we were having a 4th of July party with our friends from Finland coming as guests, and Monday and Tuesday I was working with Stevie Nicks.
In a mild panic I rang Mike Bradford and just in passing I mentioned I hadn’t quite written anything yet. As usual he calmed me down (he knows me well) and said “don’t worry, you will.” I arranged to meet Mike for an hour on Wednesday the 7th (the day before I was to leave) and we sat in my all white photo studio on Hollywood Boulevard – me with some scraps of paper all around me and Mike with his small digital recorder. I sang six or seven sketchy ideas into it.
With these recordings transferred onto my laptop I boarded the plane to Nashville and proceeded to write seven complete songs on that four hour flight. When we arrived and I checked into the Hermitage Hotel I wasn’t in such a state of a panic! 5 days later I walked out of Blackbird Studios with 15 songs recorded and most of them sounding like finished mixes. Now I will get into the process, the players, and the Magic In The Blues!
First the players. John had hand-picked probably the best band I have ever recorded with, even though none of us had ever played together as a band!
On Drums – Chad Cromwell
Chad plays with Neil Young live and played with many others, including Crosby Stills and Nash. He has a heart like a lion and a motor like a Jaguar. He can go from 0 to 100 in a nano-second. He puts every bit of intensity he can into a tiny egg shaker as he does when the full kit is blazing. Nothing he plays is pedestrian. This man is mighty.
On Bass – Michael Rhodes
Michael plays with a who’s who of country music (Gretchen Wilson, Brooks & Dunn, Faith Hill, Randy Travis, Wynonna Judd, the Dixie Chicks, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, etc.) yet his knowledge and understanding of everything from R&B to British psychedelic music is mind-blowing. He is totally rock-steady with massive melodic flair.
On Pedal Steel and Lap Steel Guitar – Dan Dugmore
Also played with everybody (Linda Rondstadt, Neil Diamond, David Crosby, Tim McGraw, etc.). Dan is legendary in Nashville and even has a song written about him called “My Steely Dan.” Dan is one of those quiet geniuses, like a crazy inventor who has that little smile on his face as he flicks the switch and the world explodes around you. Once Dan has switched on his instruments, amps, delays, and various foot pedals he is one of the most dangerous men on the planet. He hurls slide grenades at you and just when you think he’s peaked he switches his overdrive pedal on and it’s like being caught in a crossfire between Hendrix and Jeff Beck. He’s a Nashville tsunami wave that travelled from Sunset ‘69 in Los Angeles and landed on my record!
On Electric Guitar – Tom Bukovac
Tom, like the others, is wanted by everyone (plays with Faith Hill, Sheryl Crow, LeAnn Rimes, Gretchen Wilson, etc.). I know the reason why. He’s a thumping, slamming, rhythm machine that when let loose will leave trails of melodies and countermelodies all over your track, just like a gunslinger shoots six straight holes in a tin can. I can start any song and Tom instinctively knows not only which of his 50 vintage guitars to pick up, but hones in on the exact tone within minutes that will slip perfectly into place, like an Olympic runner lining up for his 100 yard dash to the gold medal. Tom, like all the guys, is so conscientious and respectful of music itself that it would be impossible for him to play anything that would seem out of place. Even so everything has a twist and surprises you like when sun shafts pierce through stormy clouds.
On Keyboards – Mike Rojas
Mike played with just about everyone (Ricky Skaggs, Reba McEntire, Patty Loveless, Hank Williams Jr., Wynona Judd…) and won the Top Keyboard Category from the Academy of Country Music for the years 2005 and 2010. Mike is one of those keyboard players you dream about having locked in your studio. He plays grand piano like he’s tickling under a baby’s chin, and boy is that baby (me) grinning from ear to ear. As well as being an absolute musical genius in every sense of the word, Mike is so humble and understated. It gives him a kind of aura like a country music Buddha. On every song we recorded, Mike was not only playing grand piano, electric piano, accordion, and Hammond organ, but he was constantly building a different plateau where the song could climb to, and when you got there, he would then embellish with a Hammond riff that was straight out of all your favorite albums put together from Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde” to Booker T and the MG’s. Just in case that was not enough, he would sprinkle little melodic motifs in between melodies and riffs that stuck in your head for days. Mike would finish the most amazing take on a track and then walk into the control room as if he had just been meditating (actually I recognized that IS what he is doing while he’s playing).
So with John McBride at the helm and Mike Bradford on the bridge we set sail on July 9th at 2pm. The first song was recorded live with everyone in the room together, including my live vocals and electric guitar, and it began with me playing the exact riff you hear on the album. “So Long Ago” was put down in one live take and this set the atmosphere amongst the players for the entire album. You see, once the guys know the structure, (they speak in Nashville musical language to deal with number configurations I didn’t quite understand) then it’s like one big jam session with singing in between.
It’s so much fun and so exciting and three-dimensional and everything that a non-playing listener might expect it would feel like. It just doesn’t let you down. The reason I started with this song in retrospect must have been because I’m referring to other times or places when I was ecstatic about being there, like when I decided to make a film about The Blues and was there in Mississippi with the great writer Robert Palmer. He appeared in and narrated the film, and we were watching R.L. Burnside (who taught me “Jumper on the Line” on his front porch) and seeing Jessie Mae Hemphill and Junior Kimbrough at his Juke Joint. It was also like when I first saw the Stones live in Hyde Park and fell out of a tree, I was so overwhelmed. I also reference Mississippi John Hurt; I nearly wore out that album in my parents’ house up in Sunderland in North East England. I learned to finger-pick and play nearly every one of his songs. He was about 60 or 70 years old then and I was 15 years old, but it was like I got entranced by his voice and playing. I yearned for it, and I sing in the song “I could feel it in my bones.”
I remember Jessie Mae
I remember how she used to wail
Back In Junior’s yard
So so long ago
I remember Mississippi John Hurt
His finger pickin’ nails
All covered in dirt
Down in Avalon
Well it was so so long ago
You all gave it to me
I could feel it in my bones
I just needed to see
Past the rolling stones
R.L. Burnside in the afternoon
“Jumper on the Line” he taught me that tune
With a little white lightning
So so long ago
Junior Kimbrough’s electric Juke Joint
“Junior I Love You” all night long
Now the Juke Joint’s gone
So long ago
You all gave it to me
I could feel it in my bones
I just needed to see
Past the rolling stones
I’ve got a mountain
So high to climb
Gotta use my rhythm gotta use my rhyme
I should have stayed on the road so long ago
Yes I should have stayed on the road so long ago
The rest of the songs just poured out over the next four days. And with a band like that, it was easy to knock each song into shape in literally ten minutes. In fact, most of the songs were recorded live on the first or second take with me singing the vocal and playing the guitar at the same time along with the band.
As well as the whole session going swimmingly well (in vodka mostly), lots of singers and friends were dropping by and hanging out. It became like a little club, and by 8pm everyone would heed the “call of the shaker,” wander into the kitchen, and line up for my fabulous martinis. I’ve mastered many tricks and techniques over the years – even my website is called martinimoment.com!
Ann Marie Calhoun, one of my best friends and a musical twin soul, flew down to play fiddle on the tracks. Judith Hill also came to sing and ad-lib amongst the mayhem. Recording 15 finished songs in 5 days is pretty fast, but writing most of them at the same time was a bit of a challenge even for someone like me who suffers from ADD and Mu waves. Somehow, not only did we manage to do that, I ended up singing three duets with very special women and having The Secret Sisters come in and guest on two other songs (one of which I wrote 15 minutes before they arrived and was my first attempt at writing and singing a country song called “Country Wine”). Martina McBride loved the song “All Messed Up” and we were singing it as a duet on my 3rd day in Nashville!
A song I wrote with Colbie Caillat and Jason Reeves became another duet, and again the band played with such delicate nuances, creating a very spine-tingly and crystal-clear first take. It made a perfect soundbed for Colbie and I to sing to. On the CD and digitally, there are three more songs, including one very special duet with Stevie Nicks. The song was inspired by something Reese Witherspoon said to us one night, “What’s cheaper than free?” Stevie and I looked at each other and both said “that’s good!”
I called Stevie from Nashville and asked her to finish writing the words for a song called “Cheaper Than Free” ASAP as I was on my last day of recording. She sent the finished lyrics at 2pm and that very same day I sent her the finished song back with my vocal at 5pm! It’s a song that makes us both cry when we hear it together, and wherever it takes you as a listener or whomever you think about, whether a child, a lover, a parent, it won’t fail to make you pause for thought and reflect on what life is really all about. Sharing that love.
Produced by Mike Bradford & Dave Stewart
Mixed & Engineered by John McBride Associate Producer: John McBride
Executive Producer: Dave Kaplan
Mixed and recorded at Blackbird Studio, Nashville, TN
Assistant Engineer: Nathan Yarborough
Mastered by Richard Dodd
Dave Stewart – Vocals / Guitar
Chad Cromwell – Drums / Percussion
Michael Rhodes – Bass
Tom Bukovac – Guitar
Dan Dugmore – Steel Pedal Guitars
Mike Rojas – Keys / Accordion / Wurlitzer
Ann Marie Calhoun – Violin
Judith Hill – Background Vocals
Sarah Buxton – Background Vocals
Hillary Lindsay – Background Vocals
Jed Hughes – Background Vocals
Drea Rhenee – Background Vocals
Wendy Moten – Background Vocals
Amy Keys – Background Vocals
Kim Fleming – Background Vocals
Stevie Nicks appears courtesy of Reprise Records
Colbie Caillat appears courtesy of Universal Republic Records
The Secret Sisters appear courtesy of Universal Republic Records