North Carolina artist Greg Hawks debuts the new track “Pretending Not to Know,” exclusively with C&I.
Critically acclaimed singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Greg Hawks’ latest endeavor, I Think It’s Time, takes inspiration from Big Star and Buck Owens alike. Recorded at his home studio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the album, out October 12, showcases Hawks playing most of the instruments — from finger-style acoustic guitar to keyboards — himself.
A standout on the album is the track “Pretending Not to Know,” a melancholy tune that puts a modern spin on old-timey classic folk.
Driven by beachy pedal steel, hypnotic acoustic strumming, and plucky electric pickings, “Pretending Not to Know” explores the dark parts of heartbreak as the solemn tang of Hawks’ vocals conveys the pain of falling out of love.
We recently talked more about the track with Hawks.
Cowboys & Indians: What prompted you to write this song? Is it about something in particular?
Greg Hawks: The inspiration for the song was prompted by a troubled relationship between two people I know. Then as the writing process unfolded, I began to reference my own past relationships as well as others. The song is written from the perspective of someone who feels betrayed and has lost trust in their partner. The relationship feels like they are living a lie — maybe because the significant other is not being honest about things they are doing in secret or an addiction that is doing great harm to themselves and everyone around them.
It could be alcoholism, gambling, or an ongoing clandestine affair. Both people stay in denial for different reasons. The victim hopes the addict will change and convinces themselves that maybe they are being too paranoid or possessive and that, “After all, they say they love me.” The one living the double life thinks that everything is fine because they’re getting everything they want in the two separate worlds they’ve created.
I’ve been on both sides of this kind of charade, so I know how painful and debilitating it can be. The narrator in the song has finally reached that inevitable breaking point where they realize they’d rather be alone than to keep “Pretending Not to Know” the truth.
C&I: Your music has a lot of flavors to it and straddles several genres. If you had to describe your music using only five words, what would you say?
Hawks: Folk songs from the gut.
I say this because I think that blues, country, soul, R&B, and bluegrass are all forms of folk music: music for the people, the regular folks. And I have dearly loved many artists from all of those genres all my life. I say “from the gut” because when I’m writing and recording, my biggest priority is keeping it honest. Don’t try to be anyone or anything you’re not. Make it as personal as possible. Give ’em all you got.
C&I: Your songs have a lot of lyrical depth. Do you feel a need to share stories and messages with an audience when you write, or do you write more for yourself?
Hawks: While I’d say it's a little of both, it is more common for me to write more for myself to get something off my chest or to gain clarity. As I’ve gotten older, though, I have found myself becoming more interested in the story approach. I would say “Pretending” is more story-based, because it’s mostly coming from other characters’ points of view but with some autobiographical elements woven in.
C&I: Your bio says you were alt-country before the descriptor even existed. Did you feel like you were breaking new ground then? Do you continue to strive to do that now?
Hawks: No, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything new or breaking new ground. To me, the groundbreakers and pioneers of what became known as alt-country were people like Neil Young on albums like Harvest or Comes a Time or The Stones’ Exile on Main Street or Let It Bleed. Also there were bands that got labeled “country rock” in the late ’60s and early ’70s, bands like the Byrds with their classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo record or Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde album. Gram Parsons was a huge part of Sweetheart of the Rodeo and fronted the International Submarine Band and Flying Burrito Brothers, besides making those great solo records. So he was profoundly influential on what became known as alt-country.
Then you’ve got the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Gene Clark, and many others. You could argue that in the ’80s the Blasters, X, Los Lobos, and R.E.M. were alt-country by today’s standards. While they were all wonderfully unique, modern, and original, they certainly had influences based on a deep knowledge and respect for the history of American roots and folk music and they all drew from that well.
I think the Everly Brothers’ ’60s Warner Bros. records were groundbreaking and preceded all of those bands. The Everly Brothers Sing Great Country Hits album came out in 1963. I love that era of their music, and they were ahead of their time: country with a rocking edge to it.
Alt-country has now become “Americana,” which seems to be where they put everything that can’t get played on mainstream country or pop radio. It’s funny to think that Emmylou Harris isn’t called country but somebody like Florida Georgia Line is. I will say that I wasn’t aware of anyone else doing Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Gram Parsons songs in their sets at the clubs I played in back in the ’90s.
When I look back on it, I think the origins of how I came to play what got called alt-country has some history, rhyme, and reason to it. First, I come from the South — I’ve been a North Carolina boy my whole life. The first records I ever heard were Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Chet Atkins because they were my dad’s favorite artists. Sometime in my twenties, it dawned on me that my singing voice sounded most like my talking voice when I would sing those old country numbers by Hank or Lefty, Merle or George. It also just felt right — authentic and true to who I am and where I come from.
By the time I started writing songs for my first record, I decided to embrace that way of being and never look back. Even the songs that I’ve written that are not in the country vein are inspired by the purity and honesty of those classics.
As far as what I strive for today, it’s pretty simple: I want songs that move people. My goal is for the listener to feel chill bumps and, above all else, believe what the singer is saying. That what I’m singing comes from the heart, with soul.
Get an exclusive first listen to “Pretending Not to Know,” below.
For more information on Greg Hawks, the new record, and upcoming tour dates, visit his website. Photography: Courtesy yorkwilsonphoto.com.