tOm ovAnS confessin' the blues to Shaun Belcher (this interview appears in an edited form in #56 of Bucketfull of Brains a rather splendid U.K.music magazine)
Born just outside of Boston, Mass. and now resident
in Austin Texas and in-between?
Left Boston when I was eighteen or so and headed west, hitchhiking around and ended up in Berkley.Ca..Stayed in California for a while about ’72, ’73.
So the psychedelia had gone by then?
Yeah I lived there for a while, Lake Tahoe for a while then hitchhiked my way back across the country, Boulder, Wisconsin...different places along the way and finally headed back into New York City. It wasn’t really chasing after any Beatnik myth it was just what I did. I didn’t really believe in that stuff. It was just so I could see what was out there you know ‘cos I was young and had time to do it.
I ended up in Big Sur just because to stay in any one place for a month was a long time you know. I remember Big Sur ‘cos there was a camp-ground there where people could stay for nothing and people used to stay in there and keep going there and be right by the ocean.
Were there many musicians around?
More people, there were a lot of people on the road in those days. You’d just kinda travel and hitchhike around. That was probably the last generation that took to the road – it’s more dangerous now.
Did you have a guitar with you in those days?
I always had a guitar with me. Playing wherever I ended up. Travelling around with a guitar and a knapsack and playing around camp-fires. In Brooklyn I actually hooked up with some other street singers.
Did you pick up songs from other people?
A lot of people were writing their own songs and the only covers I know was through working out on the street. I never had a record collection or nothing. I never learnt much off of records. Usually I learnt face to face with other street musicians.
You were busking and making a living?
You’d make just enough money to survive because you didn’t really need much, just enough for a meal.
You have a record collection now?
Not really. Well an old record player and old hi-fi records – mostly jazz records, old mono records –kinda beat up – I’d say about 60 records. You say record collection that’s about 3,000 records. Mine’s old jazz records, old blues records, a few old 78’s. I like listening to those records through one speaker because that’s the way it was recorded.
Do you think you are trying to make records that way? No because technology is so different now and those guys were using a different form of recording in those days. You never felt like going and recording with one mike over the drum? No I’ve never tried that retro thing ‘cos it’s like trying to create something, doing something that’s not a part of your time, like you’re trying to recreate a sound. You should just do it with what you meet at the time you’re living in. Going back to the hard travellin’ days.
When did you start settling down a bit.?
I think when I got to New York. Getting back from the West Coast to New York was always my goal. When I got there I stayed for about four years. Best memories of that time? Well when I first got there I was pretty much living on the street and crashing in different apartments and stuff. Pretty wild times and also pretty scary times. When I think back I just think my god how did I survive that? At the time I didn’t think like that – just constantly meeting people and living in that world – kind of a night life world. The great thing about New York was that you never knew what was gonna happen to you every day. You’d wake up in the morning and never know where you were gonna end up that night. You could see a lot of different people come through and play. A lot of street singers – a lot of musicians were hanging out.
The period you were there covered both the Dylan thing and punk –were you influenced at all?
Well I wasn’t really in one tribe – it was such a melting pot. I never went I’m this or that. I was just kinda sucking it all in. If it was good it was good you know. I used to listen to an old blind jazz player who used to sit there and play all the time at a bar on Bleeker Street called Jocks and he was great. There was a street singer called Ubi who had the most incredible voice I ever heard on a guy.
So there was a strong street culture?
Yeah Sugar Blue used to play on the street all the time. He’s a harmonica player, played on the Stones record ‘Missing You’. Last I heard he was in Chicago. Just a lot of street singers – a lot of different people. I was more influenced by these people who never became greatly known. Just as much as the more famous ones.
In other interviews you’ve talked of Ochs and Hardin.
Yeah you’d see those guys in the clubs. I hung around Gerdes Folk City a lot. If you were a musician and the club owners knew you they’d let you in for nothing. I know that doesn’t happen much any more but in those days there was a sort of a community, kind of a remnant of the folk community. It was still there in the village but dying fast.
You ended up working?
Yeah ended up working - manual labour. I never thought about a career. Never thought that way. Probably should have done.
What happened then – you went to Cambridge?
Yeah went up to Cambridge for a couple of years and recorded some four-track recordings with other players. Just bass, guitar etc. Hung around there for two years. Worked in a couple of factories. I left New York ‘cos I really wasn’t in the straight world at all. At the time you could live in the village real cheap in this different world. I ended up on MacDougall Street in a room for $20 a week. I knew there were two choices – get out or go mad. I knew guys who went crazy.
Was that demo tapes in Cambridge?
No it was just a guy in a little studio who said do you want to do something with all the songs I’d been writing. We didn’t do that much –just a few things here and there. This was late 70’s early 80’s. So post-punk and songwriters were not that fashionable? Well in Boston The Cars were breaking and there was a lot of great stuff there at the time. Bands like the Real Kids, really cool bands like that. I saw the Real Kids a bunch of times in a bar there and a lot was going on in the clubs like that. I guess you’d call it power pop or pop punks. There was also the Cambridge folk scene which seemed kind of sterile to me – I couldn’t relate to it at all. It was more the intellectual approach to folk music. I preferred the reggae, jazz – Boston was a great place.
You mentioned reggae there, do you see yourself outside the No Depression scheme of things?
I’m not from that place. I couldn’t segregate music like that. Music is music – I couldn’t say Buck Owens is great let’s go make a Buck Owens record. I just write and whatever it is it is that’s all and it comes from my experiences, the music I’ve soaked up over the years and is naturally inside of me. When I was in New York I never had a record player and everything I heard was in the clubs and on the streets.
Does that make it fresher for you? Do you go out in Austin now and listen to live music?
I wish I could but I really can’t afford it. The covers ain’t cheap any more. No club owners to let you in? No, not yet ( laughs) I don’t think they do that anywhere any more. I still think getting music first hand is a lot better than getting it through records. You can feel its presence ‘cos you’re in the same time and space. A natural relationship with what you’re influenced by rather than pick and mix? You can cop anything you want to these days with sampling not that there’s anything wrong with that but you are what you are.
Maybe that regional difference in music is gone?
Well you can tap into it but there’s something different about the rhythm in Nashville or the South compared to Boston that you can only get by living there, eating the food and drinking the water, drinking the whiskey..
Robbie Robertson said he stepped off the train and could ‘smell’ the music? You can go by a church in the South and get a rhythm that sends a chill down your bones.
So you moved to Nashville, from about 1981? Did you like it? Yeah, when I first moved there it was a real small town. There was still a leftover singer-songwriter spirit from the Willie and Waylon days. So it was really different to what I was used to in Cambridge. Not radical lyrically but in a low key way it kind of a different scene. This was pre Steve Earle – more publishing houses then? Publishing houses – still open publishing houses. Places where you could knock on the door with your guitar and a can of beer and walk in and sit down and play your songs. Now it is all steel and concrete.
Did you ever try that approach?
I went around a few places but I realised that wasn’t me – I couldn’t cross that line. Instead I started working odd jobs, making a living and playing music and kept writing songs. Played the occasional gig.
You’d been there 10 years when you released the first disc?
I did some playing around recording between but it was about 1989/90 we started recording.
What prompted you to start N.S.R? was it dissatisfaction with things in Nashville?
Well there was no way anybody was gonna do anything with my music there. Lyrically it wasn’t even in that ballpark. It was too political or too ... I don’t know what the word is......there wasn’t anybody there who could relate to it that well. What happened was Lou Ann Bardash ( my partner) and I had a tape and hooked up with a foreign distributor who shipped cds overseas and he got my tape and sent a few copies over to a bunch of customers over in Europe and he said if you can put that down on a cd we can sell it. That’s how it all started. We decided to put a record out and we got a connection into Italy and it really took off there.
You did a tour of Italy?
Actually we toured after the second record.
You were a way ahead of people with the internet now – sounds more like Butch Hancock with his own labels deal. It seems now that everyone is doing it but then?
For me there was never any place to turn musically as far as record companies were concerned. We just did it naturally.
If somebody comes from a label now waving the big dollar?
They won’t wave the big dollar I know that (laughs) Small Dollar? What about artists like Jimmie Dale Gilmore who suddenly get the Elektra treatment?
With people like Jimmie Dale what happens is they go get a big producer and they try and make these crossover records and it takes something out of what they do well. The pressure on a big record label is to sell records and they think all music has got to sound alike to do that.
You said your latest record took seven hours? Not much time for a producer to influence that?
I find producers/ musicians really like working with me because everything is ‘there it is’ and the best way to record it is to let it be what it is. Have all your discs been recorded that way? Any re-recording or overdubs? They’re pretty much live rhythm and vocal parts – maybe we’d overdub the guitar parts. Beginning with ‘Tales from The Underground’ –the third record – we pretty much went in and cut live. That was the first time we had enough money to do it that way. All the band tracks for that disc were recorded in one night – we started at seven at night and ended up at four in the morning. I came in the day after and cut a few acoustic things by my self. We spent a week mixing and stuff – it was pretty easy to mix.
That was 1995, you’d made ‘Unreal City’ in 1993. That was more a compilation of older tracks?
Some of the songs were older plus some new stuff – not really a true compilation like Nuclear Sky that Demon put out later. 1997, ‘Dead South’ Recorded on a four-track in a back room. Well time was going by and I’d gotten a good B.M.I. cheque from ‘Tales of the Underground’ because it was like a top-forty rock hit in France so I got some money from that. It wasn’t much but enough to buy this little thing and knock out a record on this and pay our bills. Paris? Yeah, 1995 – Survival couldn’t get anything going even though Bob Harris and Johnny Walker were playing ‘Tales..’. So the recording was kind of this is it you know...this is what I do. Demon gave us a little money for it to help promote ‘Nuclear Sky’.
I remember it was a critical success – what happened in the follow up?
I came over for a tour round about March of ’98 and we weren’t really aware of how ‘Dead South’ was received. We toured then with Martin Stephenson and Demon was starting to fall apart. They started pulling the plug. Last copies of the record are still available in Tower Records I believe. From what I hear I don’t know how much longer that record will be around. If Demon ever delete the record we’ll get the rights back but until then...
I noted Alan Lowery (Lambchop) on the sleeve notes. Did he just guest or is he a friend?
Friend and he actually plays with Lou Ann more than me. He was in Lambchop then – there’s a changing cast in that band but the core stays the same. You never know who’s gonna be on stage. Al was around so we tried a few things – he’s on a few tracks and Lou Ann’s on there and Rob Earls who’s always the engineer and co-producer. We’re still in touch and he’s still running his studio in Nashville. We took the four-track down to his studio – ran it through his board and fixed it there which really helped it a lot. Last track ‘Drowning Man’?
I know what it means but I’m not sure how much it related to me being the last track and all.
Are you a religious person?
Not really. I think we all have religion thrown at us. I grew up a Catholic so I spent a lot of my youth in big Gothic churches which are pretty scary when you are a little kid. Your imagination can really run wild in them. You look around and a tortured Christ etc. It’s almost like the Dark Ages or something. I don’t consider myself religious.
I asked because ‘Killing Me’ starts with "Gabriel, Gabriel blow your horn" and I know you come out of a blues and folk background so I wondered if the religious imagery was coming in from there?
I’ve lived in the deep South for eighteen years and it’s bible belt. Everywhere you turn you get Christianity thrown in your face. It’s a different kind of Christianity from when I was growing up. It’s very frightening because it’s almost like a political party.
How did you feel after finishing that record? Were you doing the day job? Still working now? I’m not at the moment but may have to pretty soon.(laughs)
What’s the reaction to the records in the U.S.?
My music really doesn’t get exposed there much. Coming out of Nashville there was nobody in the Nashville industry who could do anything for us.
Was there anybody remotely like you in Nashville?
I’m trying to think..... 1999 and ‘Beat Trade’ and Austin? Moved April 1999. In Nashville people were living and breathing ‘industry’. There’s more people outside that kind of thing. Totally different , more relaxed and refreshing for us.
Musical effects – the country track on new record with mandolin? I’ve had mandolin before but never as stripped down as that. That was by accident. The guy just showed up – a friend from Nashville who’d moved to Austin! ‘The Beat Trade’ is on the Floating World label in the UK which also has Martin Stephenson. Will there be more records on that label?
Hopefully yeah. Every record I make I think it is gonna be my last one. I’m always surprised when one comes out because of the nature of this thing.
Have you played much in Austin?
Not yet. Played the Cactus Cafe and some radio shows. I feel real good about the new record. I feel it’s a magical thing as all the tracks were recorded live in seven hours. Started around 12, broke for lunch and finished around seven or eight. Few overdubs the next day then we mixed it. Done real quick and listening to it we were kind of stunned as we hadn’t played together before. Change of studio and a great studio and engineer and it was recorded well.
I don’t write a song a week any more. I need to be real excited about a song or I don’t keep it. Does Lou Ann play with you regularly? She plays on her own and sings on the record and it’s always great to have her back up.
Plans for the future?
Gonna go see some of these fireworks. ( Interview recorded by telephone Guy Fawkes Night 1999) Tom Ovans is back in fall 2000 for a tour. For complete discography see TOM OVANS article from F.S.R. 3 or the Ovans / Bardash website http://www.nsr.texas.net