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Keith Sykes Interview – A Songwriting Icon

Keith Sykes

Keith Sykes is a songwriter’s songwriter. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s true. From the early stages of his career up to the present, well more than 100 of his songs have been recorded by well-known artists such as The Gentrys, Rodney Crowell, Roseanne Cash, George Thorogood, and Jimmy Buffett – just to name a few. Although reluctant to admit it, he is admired and his work is highly praised by peers such as Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, and countless others.

Keith first broke into the singer/songwriter scene back in 1969 with the self-titled album Keith Sykes, and quickly followed that up the next year with 1-2-3. He toured quite a bit, working the Coffee House Circuit, forging friendships with other prolific songwriters, many of them remaining good friends to this day.

Almost seven years passed before his next release, The Way That I Feel,  hit the shelves. There were two songs on that album that threw Keith into a whole new direction. If you’re a liner-note-reading, old-timer Parrot Head like me, you know what I’m talking about. Keith’s songs “The Coast Of Marseilles” and “The Last Line” were recorded by Jimmy Buffett, and moored on his highly successful 1978 album Son of a Son of a Sailor.

Keith Sykes in Montserrat - 1979 - Photo by Tom Corcoran

From there, Keith went on to tour with Jimmy as one of the Coral Reefers. In 1979 he went to the island of Montserrat with Buffett, James Taylor, Russ Kunkel, and all the Coral Reefers to record Buffett’s tenth studio album. While on Montserrat – inspired by the then-dormant Soufrière Hills volcano on the island – Buffett, Sykes, and Harry Dailey co-wrote what was to become the title cut of the new album (and one of Buffett’s biggest hits) – “Volcano.”

That’s enough typing for now. Kick back, grab a beer (unless it’s morning… in that case, grab a scotch), relax, click the video below to watch and listen to the legendary Keith Sykes tell us all about his fascinating career. (He’ll also sing a couple of songs for us).

Interview with Keith Sykes

Keith Sykes performing B.I.G.T.I.M.E. on Saturday Night Live

On December 6th,1980, Keith Sykes appeared on Saturday Night Live (his first time on national television) and performed “B.I.G.T.I.M.E.” to promote his latest album I’m Not Strange, I’m Just Like You. B.I.G.T.I.M.E.” would later be recorded by George Thorogood and the Destroyers.

Keith Sykes – “Gray Beard and Whiskers”

This song is absolutely beautiful, and I dare you not to cry when you listen to it. “Gray Beard and Whiskers” can only be found on Keith Sykes – 20 Most Requested CD. Click here to purchase it in Keith’s online store.

Click here to see all of Keith Sykes releases available on Amazon.

Keith Sykes – Hot Springs Weekend – June 1st & 2nd, 2012

Like he mentioned in the interview – (You did watch the interview, didn’t you? If not, get your mouse back up there and click on it!) – Each year in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Keith hosts a weekend of music in the lovely Arlington Hotel. Shows are on Friday and Saturday nights and feature some of the best songwriters performing today. On Saturday afternoon Keith interviews one of the songwriters and afterwards the guests are encouraged to ask questions on the craft of songwriting and the creative process. After the evening shows there are impromptu jams where the guests can mingle with the pros and even have a chance to play a tune or two. Click here or on the poster to the left to go to Keith’s website and purchase your wristband to an unforgettable weekend!

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Tommy Womack is feelin’ good on Now What!

Tommy Womack - Now What!

The title of Tommy Womack’s latest CD – Now What! – may describe what went through his mind after the unexpected success of his 2007 release There, I Said It! (an album that almost never found its way to the record rack). As Tommy told me, “I thought I was done, and I almost pulled that record. I almost pulled the plug on it because I thought, No one wants to hear me confessing all this stuff. Thankfully I found out that by voicing my fears, I echoed the fears of a whole lot of people of my generation… It was far and away the most successful record I’ve ever had… It totally turned my career around.” The title of that album came from words that Tommy had written years earlier, and later took shape as a track on There, I Said It! called “I’m Never Gonna Be a Rock Star” that tells the tale of Tommy’s realization and reluctant acceptance that his rock star days were over. From 1985 to 1992 Womack had played lead guitar and sang lead vocals for the post-punk band Government Cheese. He may not be the rock star of yesterday, but Womack’s career as a must-be-heard singer/songwriter of today is thanks to that nearly shelved self-therapy project.

Now What! is an all-embracing collection of songs pulling influences from musical styles diverse as blues, Dixieland jazz, and classic rock, with just a pinch of rap. Womack lyrically sheds his skin with an equally assorted batch of subject matters. Tommy defends his diverse topics and says, “It’s really not a skitzo record at all!” There’s no need to defend his choices that, once again, a lot of people will relate to:  dealing with life on the road (or the road of life) and some of its pitfalls; the warmth of home and family; the past and how it can show up unannounced and bite you in the ass; the mortality we reluctantly realize as we grow older; and finally – love, simple and real.

The upbeat opener “Play That Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick Play” sets the optimistic tone – cheerfully declaring  “Another dollar, another day / I shouldn’t look back but I do anyway / Dad’s in the ground, Mom’s on the way / Play that Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick play” – while also giving us glimpses of Tommy’s undying love of his family, and his ever-haunting self-doubt. It’s all good in the end though as he borrows some favorite lines from Cheap Trick’s Surrender to sum it all up – “Momma’s alright, Daddy’s alright, the boy’s alright, we’re all alright.”

Listen to “Play That Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick Play”

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Continuing with the “we’re all alright” good vibe, comes “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Good” carrying the message that life needn’t be filled with gloriously rewarding moments. Sometimes it is what it is – ups, downs, paying bills, and mowing the lawn (and all that can happen in one day). The tune also reminds us “No matter what your life is like – it beats the pants off death.”

Have you ever run into an old flame and wish you hadn’t because all those old memories – good and bad – came flooding forward from their long-time hiding place way back in your mind? In the gentle ballad “Bye & Bye” (one of my favorite songs from Now What!) Tommy shares a story of when he bumped into, as he put it, “A real girl that I had a fling with back in the 80s.” As he explained further, “She was a real girl… well, she still is a real girl. We’d bumped into each other in the grocery store one day. It happened pretty much as it’s described in the song, except we didn’t end up at the checkout line at the same time”. Lyrics of remembrance came out of that encounter – “Your body still makes me a young man / Your brain’s still a bomb you can throw / I had me a nice hard decision to make / All those years ago.”  But in the end, the admission is made, possibly justifying that hard decision made so many years earlier – “I’d have made you a miserable husband / You’d have been a high maintenance wife.” But ardor seems to still linger in the air at that Harris Teeter. (Being from the west coast, I had to Google “Harris Teeter.”)

Listen to “Bye & Bye”

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The flip-side to “Bye & Bye” – “I’m Too Old to Feel That Way Right Now” – has Womack briefly trying to fan the old flame but realizing he isn’t quite up to it as “The touch of your hand leaves me inspired / But I’m set in my ways and kinda tired.” Getting old sure is a bitch.

In the slow-paced shuffle “On And Off the Wagon”, with a comical arrangement that cleverly pairs pedal steel guitar with a tuba,  Tommy confesses “I’ve learned to know my limits / I’ve learned to pass them by.” The lesson here – Maybe it’s best to say you’ve paused instead of quit.

In the few of the tunes on Now What! you might get the sensation that you’re on the road with Womack as he shares his witty tales. But in the hard-driving Rap-esque “90 Miles an Hour Down a Dead-End Street” you feel like there’s a pissed-off drunken maniac behind the wheel, and you’re trapped in the passenger seat clutching a bottle of Chianti for dear life as the driver – looking a lot like a creation of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth – barks at you, “Don’t spill any of that shit!” At this point, you may wonder if jumping from this crazy ride would be better than the possible ending – but you choose to stay because it’s so damn fun!

The lyrics in the jazzy bop number “Guilty Snake Blues” shuffles near-carelessly over a wide topical stretch of lustful land, but somehow it all ties together like a cool ribbon of random thoughts punctuated by Jim Hoke’s smokey soulful sax.

Tommy Womack & Sheba the Wonder Dog (Photo by Gregg Roth)

One of Tommy’s personal favorites on the record is “Pot Head Blues.” It’s a quiet heartfelt acoustic tune that has him recollecting and somewhat regretting  time lost while stoned. But he doesn’t let it hold him back, stating “Nobody ever made me do it / No time to turn around, you blew it, get to it / Lay it down, you got nothing to lose.”

“I Love You to Pieces” is Tommy’s playful, flirtatious love letter to his wife, Beth. But feel free to use it on someone of your choice. It’s got plenty of Stones-like jamming filling it up with nothing but fun.

“Over the Hill” had been bouncing around in Tommy’s head for years, and he’s finally let it out. It’s a blend of feeling your age and spreading your love in the spirit of Donavan – complete with sublime horns.

The peacefully haunting “Wishes Do Come True” (sweetened by Lisa Oliver-Gray’s vocal talents) intrigued me as I tried to get the underlying meaning of it. To me the lines – “All through the day you used to want me / You used to need me now you just haunt me / I sold my soul for one night of your touch / How could I know when too much was too much” – spoke of Womack’s up and down relationship with the music industry. When I told Tommy my thoughts on this he laughed and said, “You know, I’m not sure what all “Wishes Do Come True” is about. That one has ambiguities in it that escape me. I wrote that with Irene Kelley. There are lines in there that we really liked, but there are lines in there that I’m not sure what they mean to this day. It could be about the music business. If it works that way in your interpretation, then I’m not going to say that it’s not about that. Who knows, maybe subconsciously it is about that. Like I said, I’m not sure what it’s about. You could take it as meaning infidelity.”

Listen to “Wishes Do Come True”

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The album wraps up with “Let’s Have Another Cigarette” which made me ask Tommy if he still smoked (even though it wasn’t any of my business). “No, no,” he said, “I haven’t smoked in about two and a half years. I’ve got a snuff pouch in my mouth right now. I still do those.” Getting back on the subject at hand, I then asked him how “Let’s Have Another Cigarette” came about. “I don’t remember writing it,” he said. “One day – I had it, the day before – I didn’t. It’s based in fact to a degree. I got a speeding ticket in Ohio one day where they were convinced that I was transporting drugs. So they took everything in the car apart, and I didn’t have anything in there… thank goodness. So I always see that as being a song about being in Ohio going from one gig to another, and it just seemed to call out to be the album closer. You know, because I’m leaving somewhere and going somewhere else. Also, in that song – I’m sober. There are other songs on that record where the character of me is not sober, but in this one I make it to the end of the record, and I’ve sobered up, I’m going on to the next gig, and life continues on. A nice way to close out the record – on an optimistic note.” Now What! comes full circle, ending as it began, cruising along in Tommy’s car, taillights fading into the night, he’s fully aware of where he’s at – “I got about a half a tank of gas / I’m a pimple on Dylan’s ass” – and he couldn’t be happier. Hopefully, we haven’t seen the last of Tommy Womack.

There, I Said It! was a tough act to follow, but Tommy Womack took himself to the next level and did not disappoint with Now What!.

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What’s Become of the Bus

After Jerry Garcia died in 1995, the remaining members of the Grateful Dead officially decided to break up. Over the years, there have been a few reunions of the surviving members involving a variety of additional musicians. In 1998, former Grateful Dead band mates Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart formed a band called The Other Ones, which later became The Dead; they went on hiatus in 2004.

Ken Kesey with the original "Furthur" bus in July 2001. Photo: Brian Davies

The latest Weir and Lesh collection of musicians, Furthur, formed in 2009. The band’s name comes from Ken Kesey’s prankster-filled bus of the ’60s. The bus’ name placard, designed by artist Roy Sebern, gave inspiration to carry on whenever the bus broke down. The bus died shortly after a trip to Woodstock in 1969. It currently rests on the late Ken Kesey’s farm in Pleasant Hill.

Acid Test Poster 1965

The ties between Kesey and the Grateful Dead go back beyond the beginning — before Jerry Garcia picked up that old dictionary in search of a new name for their band, turned to Phil Lesh and said, “Hey man, how about The Grateful Dead?” Before they were The Grateful Dead, they were The Warlocks, and they played at many of Kesey’s parties during the mid-’60s. Their first performance as The Grateful Dead was on December 4, 1965, at one of Kesey’s Acid Tests. From there, The Grateful Dead — with an eclectic style that fused elements of rock, folk, bluegrass, reggae, country, jazz, psychedelic and space rock — took that long, strange trip into rock and roll history.

Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Furthur

In addition to Weir and Lesh, Furthur has a strong lineup: keyboardist Jeff Chimenti of Weir’s band RatDog; guitarist/vocalist John Kadlecik of the Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra; drummer Joe Russo, who first played with Lesh in 2006; and backing vocalists Sunshine Becker and Jeff Pehrson. The Grateful Dead’s music remains the same, but the Deadhead has changed quite a bit over the years.

"Old Joe" O'Hara

"Old Joe" O'Hara - Click picture to watch video of Widespread Panic performing "Old Joe" at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, WI.

I spoke with a longtime Deadhead, Joe O’Hara, also known as Old Joe. For you Widespread Panic fans, yes, he’s that “Old Joe.” O’Hara has been going to concerts since the mid-’60s when he was about 6 years old (thanks to his older cousins), and he’s seen the Grateful Dead countless times since the early ’70s. Regarding the Deadhead scene, he told me, “Before ‘Touch of Grey’ came out [in 1987], it was a very kind, peaceful scene. We were family; we helped each other out. I would make big pots of stew or chili and feed others and sell some of it. I’d sell beer and tie-dye too.”

O’Hara continued, “After ‘Touch of Grey,’ — which, believe it or not, was their biggest hit with that MTV video — all of a sudden, the scene filled with a bunch of wanna-bes. We, as a family, would try to help those that looked like they needed help. Did they appreciate it? No, it would be, ‘Thanks, what’s next?’ They didn’t get it. It lost a lot of its appeal. It was that way until Jerry died.”

O’Hara assured me, “Now it’s come back to calmer people at the shows just enjoying the music.”

This article was originally published in Eugene Weekly, September 9, 2010

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Tyler Fortier – The Next Big Thing?

The Next Big ThingI became aware of Tyler Fortier a few months ago while doing an article on an act for which he opened. Honestly, after going to the show, I liked Tyler’s music much more than the headliner. That’s just me.
I interviewed him and I’ve been enjoying his music. I’ve had an in depth article about him on the back burner for a couple of months now (that I promise will be my next entry).

In the meantime, Tyler is in the running for the “Next Big Thing” that is sponsored by Eugene Weekly. His entry is the very timely and driving  “Fear of the Unknown”. “Fear Of The Unknown” is a not-quite, almost finished version of a song that will be found on one of Tyler’s future releases. For a not-quite, almost finished version it sounds damn good. Go listen to it (you can click on the song name or on Tyler’s picture to go listen to it and vote). If you like it even half as much as I did, vote for it!

Tyler Fortier, at the age of 25, has released 4 CD’s and proves to be a consistent presence in the NW as a prolific singer/songwriter. With the release of his new record, This Love Is Fleeting on April 15th of this year, Fortier embarked on a 2 month long/40 city tour throughout the NW (OR, WA, ID) and has been playing shows and festivals in the Eugene area throughout the summer before he heads back out on the road in September. Since Fortier’s return home, he’s recorded 15 new songs and declares, “ he has many more to go,” already planning the releases of his 5th and 6th records.

Much more on Tyler Fortier coming to OKOM very soon!

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Robert Earl Keen Interview – Part 3 of 3

On August 18, 2010 I was given the opportunity to interview the legendary singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen. In Part One of this three part interview we talked about a variety of subjects – a burning car, Todd Snider, and Robert’s not-so-traditional love songs. In Part Two of the interview we explored some of his more bizarre recordings and one of his somewhat unorthodox songwriting methods. In this final installment, Robert tells us some more about his songwriting methods, some of his thoughts on mainstream country music, and an interesting side-story about a song that is probably his most popular – “The Road Goes On Forever.” Enjoy!

Robert Earl KeenOKOM: Okay, you’ve already mentioned one of your methods of songwriting – lying naked on the floor with your guitar –

REK: [Laughs]

OKOM: [Laughs] So, I don’t even know how to ask this next one. When it comes to songwriting, when compared to mainstream – oh hell, I can’t compare you to mainstream, I can’t even listen to that shit – anyway, you seem to get it so right when others seem to be getting it so wrong. I guess the question is – how do you approach a song? Is it story first, lyrics first, melody first, or does it vary?

REK: Because I’m not a genius musically, I really like to latch on to some kind of music that stirs me or something that piques my interest. So, I do kind of just strum guitars. My God, when I really get set up to writing, I set about five, six, or seven guitars around me. I’ll strum on one for a while, and maybe I’ll feel like it’s kind of dead. So, I’ll pick up another one until I sort of get a vibe. What happens with me is that the music will bring out some sort of image. Then I’ll take that image and try to describe it. Maybe it’s a car in a parking lot under a street lamp, or maybe it’s a girl in a doorway – any kind of an image. That’s where the beginning starts to blossom a little bit. Then once I describe it to my satisfaction, then I’ll try to create a puzzle. And then I’ll try to solve the puzzle.

OKOM: That’s really interesting. That’s a cool approach, I mean, starting without knowing the ending.

REK: Yeah, I know. I like to read. One time I went on this Leon Uris jag where I read all his books. Then I read some of his biography stuff, and when I read that he’d started with the ending, I went, “Well shit, that’s cheating!”

OKOM: [Laughs]

REK: You know? [Laughs] Anybody can work backwards. Let’s work forwards and find the mystery, you know? Where’s the mystery? So, I’ve never been much on starting with the ending. I don’t know why. It’s just one of those things. I like to stumble onto the ending, you know?

OKOM: Yeah.

REK: It’s more why I don’t write from titles much. I’ve written a few songs from titles and they’re never as good as a song that I write from an image. So people will give you those – “Hey, here’s a good title for you!” – shit, I don’t know, man, I can’t write from a title. It’s a tried-and-true method; it’s just not my tried-and-true method.

OKOM: So, where do you do most of your writing? Do you do it on the road?

REK: No, no. I have this place; it’s a little shack on a side of a hill that I’ve owned for about twelve years. I do most of my writing there. I used to say that I didn’t write on the road. But, I’ve got where I’m on the road so much that I’m working on that. I’m working on getting over that whole fear. I’m not saying that it works all the time. It seems to be harder to really kind of mine some serious lyrical pay dirt on the road. However, I do try a lot more than I used to. I’m on the road all the time, so I got to write something.

The Rose HotelOKOM: Hey, one of the songs from Rose Hotel – “Village Inn” – Have they ever called you and thanked you for their increase in business since that song came out?

REK: [Laughs] No, they never did. But I haven’t been back. So, if I go back, I’m definitely going to hit them up for it!

OKOM: Yeah, they should at least put you up for free, right?

REK: Yeah, yeah.

OKOM: So you actually did write it there?

REK: Yeah, I wrote it right there. Even though there was some tongue-in-cheek stuff going on there, it truly was an inspiration. I was truly inspired. As a matter of fact – and I’m not a big [guitar] tuning guy but – I found a tuning on that, I swear that it was just because of where I was and what was going on. That’s how I ended up writing the song. Like I was telling you, I have to find some type of music to follow. I found this little weird small change in tuning that just made that song happen. That was what it was.

OKOM: Another song on Rose Hotel – “Wireless in Heaven” – You haven’t caught any heat from the Vatican over that one yet, have you?

REK: No, I don’t even worry about it anymore. [Laughs] Actually, I was worried more about heat from Starbucks.

OKOM: [Laughs] Yeah, they’re pretty tight with their trademark.

REK: Right, they are.

The Road Goes on ForeverOKOM: Okay Robert, this next question comes off the Todd Snider Listserv – they call it The Shithouse Wire. [Robert laughs] I put this question out there – “If you had one question to ask Robert Earl Keen, what would it be?” So, this comes from Eric Kincaid in Grand Rapids, Michigan – damn, I sound like Casey Kasem…

REK: Yeah. [Laughs]

OKOM: Anyway, he asked, “Have you ever been approached about making a movie based on the song ‘The Road Goes on Forever’?”

REK: Well, that one – I used to have a stack of screenplays that people used to send me based on that song.

OKOM: Really?

REK: Yeah, yeah, and I was always like, yeah, go ahead and write this screenplay or go ahead and make this movie. And I read some of them, and they all really just pretty much reflected the song scene for scene.

OKOM: They didn’t expand on it?

REK: No, not much, not importantly. Then, this girl from somewhere around Dallas wrote one and won some kind of little local screenplay writing contest with it. They sent it to me and it was great. It was really great! It was sort of Smokey and the Bandit meets The Road Warrior [Mad Max 2] sort of thing, and it was really interesting! It clipped along and filled in lots of stuff. It had some exposition and it had a lot of back-story for the characters. It was great! So, William Morris – I don’t know whether they’ve optioned or something – there was no money, of course, that changed hands – but it’s been sitting on somebody’s desk somewhere for the last couple of years like that. But, that was cool.

OKOM: Yeah, that is cool. I’ve got to ask you about a trilogy on Walking Distance – that pretty much makes Walking Distance one of my favorite albums of yours – and that’s the trilogy of “Road to No Return” – with “Carolina,” “New Life in Old Mexico,” and “Still Without You.” Do you do those much live?

REK: No, I did when I first [released] it. It’s not what you’d call a crowd-pleaser. I did it back then because I really loved doing it, and it was fun to do. I’d have to dust it off; we haven’t done it in a long time. It was a lot of fun but it took eighteen minutes. So, if you have a crowd full of beer-drinking screamers, it didn’t hold their attention very well.

OKOM: Do you have a preference when it comes to types of crowds? Do you like a crowd that really listens?

REK: I love a crowd that really listens but you have to be on your best behavior and you got to keep moving. You’ve got to be a little bit more on your toes with a crowd that really listens. Since I’ve been playing with this band for the last fifteen years, we’ve played so many crazy, rowdy, drunk crowds and stuff; I’d have to say that getting up for that is a little more difficult than riding the wave of a crowd of screaming, yelling, happy people.

OKOM: Do you have to sometimes adjust your set list on the fly?

REK: Yeah, I do. As a matter of fact we have – what is called in the band – The Secret Mike that’s located in front of the drums where I run over to Bill, the bass player, and tell him, “Alright, slash this bunch of stuff, and we’re going to go to these songs!” Then he’ll tell the rest of the band.

OKOM: Yeah, I can imagine that the crowds can really vary so much.

REK: Yeah, they really can.

OKOM: Robert, thank you very much for your time. I’m really looking forward to seeing you in Roseburg.

REK: Great!

OKOM: I really appreciate your time, Robert. Damn, I could go on for hours about your songs but I know you’re busy. I’ll see you in Roseburg.

REK: Well, I appreciate it, too. Be sure and say hi!

Note from author: I didn’t make it to Roseburg BUT I did go to Robert’s show the next night (8/25) in Portland, Oregon. What a great show it was, too! It’s always a treat to see him with a large group of true REK fans.
Some personal highlights – hearing “The Great Hank,” “Farm Fresh Onions,” “A Border Tragedy,” “Feelin’ Good Again,” and the tattooed girl in the baby blue dress who danced non-stop for two hours in front of my cousin Brian and me.
Thanks for an unforgettable night, Robert!

Go back to Part One

Go back to Part Two

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