Greener pastures

With the release of his latest record, Jackie Greene could finally become a household name

GREENE MACHINE <br>Only 25, singer-songwriter Jackie Greene already has four albums under his belt.

Only 25, singer-songwriter Jackie Greene already has four albums under his belt.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Sacramento singer-songwriter/ multi-instrumentalist Jackie Greene’s new album, American Myth, his latest and definitely best record (in this reviewer’s eyes), was released last month and trades the straight folk of previous releases for a more layered and polished sound. I caught up with Greene by e-mail because, as his manager Marty put it, he and Greene have been “completely preoccupied with Jackie’s CD release,” which features two musicians he pulled from Elvis Costello’s band.

CN&R: Well, I’m a newcomer to listening to you, but I just love what I hear on American Myth. I went back and did some listening to your earlier stuff, and I kept thinking, “This reminds me of Tim Bluhm.” It’s got a lot of that laid-back Cali-style folk-rock sound. I notice that he’s opening for you on some dates, including Chico. How’d you hook up with ex-Chico-boy Tim?

Jackie Greene: I’ve been a fan of his music and the Hips since I was about 16 or so. A friend turned me on to their album called Shootout, and I was hooked. I can’t say enough good things about Tim. As a musician and a songwriter, he’s second to none. His music has definitely influenced mine, and he continues to inspire and impress. We actually met only six months ago, in New York. He was playing there, and my band was there doing a show, and we caught his set on one of our off nights. We had been talking through e-mail and such but never actually met in person. Long story short: After his gig, we had some pizza and beer and talked about records, etc. We’ve been pals ever since. Tim is such an amazing musician and an even more amazing human being. He’s creative, warm and is a joy to work with and be around. I can’t say enough good things.

Who’s in the band that you’re bringing to Chico? Tell me something about them. How will that sound compared to the band you use on American Myth?

The band has changed since the last time we were in Chico. Basically, I hired the best guys in the area. Each one brings a unique flavor to the mix that I think folks will notice. Bruce Spencer is our drummer, Nathan Dale plays guitars, and Jeremy Plog is on the bass. The best part is they all sing. I’ve never been that interested in recreating a recording on stage. Every night is a different night. We strive for the feel of the record, and that’s it. That’s all there really is anyway. The notes may change, the keys may change, the instrumentation, the tempo—but it doesn’t matter. A song is a song. So, to answer your question, I’m not sure how the sound will compare to the record. I guess we’ll have to see.

When did you find yourself starting to become a headliner? Who do you see out there now as openers that you really like?

Well, that depends, I guess. We’ve headlined shows for years. It’s only the venues and audiences that are getting bigger. We still do a lot of tours as an opener, particularly in parts of the country where we haven’t been that often. There are a lot of great bands out there, and sadly I haven’t the time to listen to all of them. I will say that we are really lucky to have Tim doing these shows with us. It’s really an honor.

Marty says you’re in the studio producing for the next week. Are you guys working on a new album? Anything you want to say about that?

Marty is crazy. Don’t listen to him. I’m kidding. I’m producing a couple tracks for Chris Webster’s next record [Davis singer-songwriter, also a member of Mumbo Gumbo]. From what I understand, it’s going to be a compilation of her career so far. I was just producing the bonus tracks. Speaking of openers I really like, Chris opened for us at the Fillmore last year and pretty much stole the show. She has an amazing voice and is a total show stopper.

One reviewer described “So Hard to Find My Way” as “a song that’s too middle-of-the-road for an artist of Greene’s caliber.” What do you think of that statement?

Photo By Larry Dalton

Well, you can’t please everybody, that’s for certain. Not everybody is going to like every song I do, and that’s OK with me. I don’t think it’s too “middle-of-the-road.” I don’t even know what that means. It’s a very simple song, sure. I like it, though. It’s not trying to be something it’s not. Not every song I do is going to have some prophetic quality to it. Not every song needs to be an anthem. I can only do what feels right, and the best I can ever do is write that down.

How would you describe your evolution from your former California “folksy rock and blues” sound, as one reviewer put it, to what sounds to me like a more worldly, deeply felt, life-lived sound? Is your “new” sound in some way just what was lurking deep inside of you all along?

It’s a perfectly natural evolution. Or at least it seems that way. It’s hard to tell because it’s me, you know? I didn’t notice a change, really. My guess is that if I didn’t feel that I was changing, then it must be a natural thing. It doesn’t seem forced or abrupt to me. One thing is for sure, though: I never was a blues guy. I’m not that good. I love authentic blues music, though, and I would give anything to sound like that. Like Sonny Boy or Lightnin’ Hopkins or somebody. Those old blues songs have some of the best lines.

Is the band that played with you on American Myth in any way a kind of “dream band” as far as the sound you were looking for? Did/do you feel more connected with your band these days, i.e., more like part of a musical ensemble and less like a solo performer with a back-up band?

Well, I’ve always played with a band. I just did a lot of solo tours because that’s all I could afford to do. People don’t realize it, but even when I was touring with big acts like B.B. King or somebody, I still got paid shit. That’s how it is for openers. There’s no money in it at all. So I couldn’t afford to take a band. The band that played on the record was just a smokin’ band. It’s really that simple. We cut the whole record in about a week. Pete Thomas is an amazing drummer, Davey is a great bass player and singer, and of course … Val McCallum. He’s literally one of the best guitar players alive. We had lots of other good players come in and play parts. Greg Liesz, Joel Guzman, Rene Camacho. All these guys come from different backgrounds, too. Rene, for example, is a salsa bass player. He played on “Just As Well.” If you listen close, the bass line is a total salsa line. It fits right in, but none of us would have thought to do it.

What was it like working with [Los Lobos producer] Steve Berlin?

Steve and I have been friends ever since the first time we opened for Los Lobos. He’s a great producer and musician, and we have very similar tastes in music, production, etc. He’s not a “gear guy,” and he doesn’t micro-manage the sessions. He’s great at getting really great takes out of the musicians. Which is (in my opinion) the best thing a producer can do. He’s really easy to work with and has tons of good ideas.

Any idols or otherwise out there that you’d just love to play with?

Well, it doesn’t seem like he tours at all, but Tom Waits. Tom is probably the reason I wanted to write songs in the first place. On my very first record, which is (thankfully) out of print, I pretty much tried to mimic his voice the whole way through. I was still searching for mine at the time. Other than that, I have lots of other favorite artists and musicians. Wilco, Dylan, Tom Petty, etc. All of them I would kill to tour with.

One writer said you were “the real thing.” What does it feel like when you hear that?

I’m not sure. I don’t know what that means, either. Sometimes I think these writers don’t have much to say, so they’ll throw that in there. It’s fine with me. I take it as a compliment, I suppose.

I think you play great, sing great, and you’re darned cute.

Why, thank you!