Matt Brown talks about his new Chicago-inspired collaborative album, On Big Shoulders.
What started out as a dream project quickly turned into a reality with the help of a city grant, multiple donors, and a successful Kickstarter launch for Chicago-based musician Matt Brown. His latest endeavor, On Big Shoulders, was two and a half years in the making.
The 10-track collection showcases the city’s rich musical history. On Big Shoulders features a dozen of the Windy City’s current acclaimed musicians, while each song was either written by a fellow Chicagoland artist or was previously recorded in Chicago. The compilation plays like an Americana-style love letter to the “City of the Big Shoulders” (a nickname bestowed by Carl Sandburg’s poem Chicago) and to the big shoulders of earlier great musicians that Brown and his collaborators rest upon and credit by inventively covering their tunes.
C&I caught up with Brown to talk about creating the album, his inspiration, and working with some of Chicago’s star musicians.
Cowboys & Indians: You just recently released On Big Shoulders. What excites you the most about its debut?
Matt Brown: That it is finally out in the world! It was two and a half years in the making. I’m also excited that music fans outside of Chicago now get to hear a bunch of my favorite Chicago musicians sing and play a diverse array of songs, each of which is somehow connected to the city. And I hope everyone reads Greg Reish’s terrific liner-notes essay about the project. For those who don’t get a copy of the album on vinyl or CD and are just streaming it, I’ve posted his essay on our website. It’s a fascinating read.
C&I: The album highlights Chicago’s rich musical history. How did you come up with the idea for it?
Brown: It started as two separate ideas. First, I began noticing at rehearsals, gigs, recording sessions, and jams that Chicago has a number of hardworking musicians on par with the best in Nashville. I schemed about assembling some of my Chicago peers and heroes in the studio as an all-star band to see if we could add our voices to the musical landscape. … Meanwhile, I was gradually learning, through my teaching at the Old Town School of Folk Music, what an incredible variety of music has been either recorded in Chicago or written by Chicago artists. … My favorite music features great singing and usually a pedal steel guitar, and lends itself to two-step dancing. So I thought, What if I made an album that I’d want to dance to? And who better to play on it than that all-star cast I had assembled in my mind? So I got a $4,000 grant from the city of Chicago, found some local angel donors to further seed the budget, and then ran a successful $26,000 Kickstarter campaign to come up with enough money to make it all happen. And once it came time to pick the rest of the repertoire, I couldn’t resist covering the music of legendary Chicago residents Sam Cooke, Lil Hardin, and Big Bill Broonzy. The album is not just covers, though. There are three new songs written by active Chicagoland songwriters, including one by Old Town School teaching artist Steve Dawson, who sings lead on seven of the 10 songs.
C&I: What do you hope to convey to your audience with this album?
Brown: I hope people listen to the album and enjoy it enough to listen to it a second, third, and eventually a 70th time. Because there’s a lot of rich history that you can read in the liner notes or in an interview or in a book, but at the end of the day, our job is to make good music. I think we did it.
C&I: You chose songs written by Chicago artists or artists that previously recorded in Chicago. How did you go about winnowing the list?
Brown: Each song was different. “I’m Mississippi Bound” was the first song I chose, and it was really an accident. I was just looking for a Delmore Brothers song to teach to my early country guitar class one particular Wednesday at the Old Town School, and Chris Walz, a highly respected colleague who is also the guy who seven years ago hired me to teach here, suggested “I’m Mississippi Bound.” I did a little bit of research to prepare the song for that evening’s guitar class and discovered that the Delmore Brothers had recorded it and the more famous “Brown’s Ferry Blues” here in Chicago, right downtown in the Loop on Michigan Avenue. … It blew my mind that this hugely influential brother duet from rural Alabama who were playing the Opry in Nashville had trekked up here in December of 1933 to record their songs. … That began my trip down the rabbit hole.
Next I learned that Bill Monroe made his first iconic recordings with Flatt & Scruggs in 1946 in Chicago’s famed Wrigley Building, which sits on Michigan Avenue blocks south from where the Delmores had recorded in the ’30s! So I chose a song of his called “Heavy Traffic Ahead,” which now leads off our album. …
Steve Dawson suggested we celebrate Sam Cooke and picked “I’ll Come Running Back to You,” which he sings beautifully. Elise Bergman suggested covering Wilco’s “It’s Just That Simple,” and she sings harmony vocals to Steve on that one along with Gia Margaret. Banjoist and scholar Stephen Wade, who isn’t on the album but is a mentor of mine, told me about pianist and composer Lil Hardin. That’s what led us to record her song “Just for a Thrill.” Gia sings our version and she really expressed it so well and with such intimate precision. It’s breathtaking, and so different than Ray Charles’ terrific version. Gerald Dowd, our drummer, suggested “Shake Your Head,” our Chess Records cover.
One of my priorities was to involve Robbie Fulks, a Grammy-nominated Chicago icon, in the process. After considering a couple ways to do so, I asked him if he’d be willing to write us a song to debut on our album. He graciously agreed and delivered a masterpiece, “How Lonely Can You Be?”. At the urging of my co-producer, Liam Davis, I gave Robbie no limitations or suggestions as to the nature of the song. Robbie just wanted to know who would be singing it, and I told him Steve Dawson, whom he’s known and collaborated with for years.
C&I: How did you go about making the songs your own?
Brown: Each song was different. For example, “I’m Mississippi Bound” was built around a James Gadson-style drum groove that Gerald and I geeked-out about — Gadson played drums with Bill Withers. And just like that, we sound nothing at all like the Delmore Brothers, who had this sweet innocence to their sound that I didn’t think we should try to match. That was their sound and we needed our own. So Liam Davis and Keely Vasquez sang a really bold duet that’s one of the highlights of the album. Many of the other arrangement ideas were Liam’s. He is the best arranger I know, in addition to being a fantastic singer and musician. He had an active dialogue with the core band throughout the recording process that began to define the overall sound of the record. And then once he got to editing and mixing, he fully realized a lot of ideas that even I didn’t know he had. That’s why I hired him, because I’ve seen him do that same thing for other people’s records, and I wanted him to do it for mine. I think he made the album twice as good as it would have been without him.
C&I: The album features a dozen of the city's busiest and best musicians. What were some memorable stories during the recording process with them?Brown: Well, “Shake Your Head” is this Chess Records deep cut from Barbara Carr. When I charted it out for everyone, I couldn’t make out some of the words on the original recording and, despite some avid Googling, was unsure of what a few key lyrics were. I asked our drummer, Gerald Dowd, who had suggested the track for my consideration, and he didn’t know. We got into the studio and still weren’t sure. As we are sitting in the control room at I.V. Lab Studios about to record the song, Gerald somehow manages to get Barbara Carr on the phone to help us with the lyrics! She was so sweet and incredibly helpful. She and Gerald stayed in touch such that we sent her the album upon its release and she likes it well enough that she offered to come up to our release show in December and sing a pair of songs with us!
The other moment I will never forget is the recording of “Long Tall Mama.” There were a number of tunes that the band did in just one or two takes — mind you, this is a band that didn’t really exist and that had one rehearsal before tracking — but “Long Tall Mama” stands out because we didn’t even get to take 1. The rendition you hear on the album was the first (and last) successful run-through of the form by the band in front of the microphones. They were just working out the arrangements and solos and not thinking about us in the control room. As a result it was completely uninhibited. It starts zany and gets wilder as it goes. Fortunately, our engineer, Shane Hendrickson, was recording the whole thing, so once they finished their “rehearsal” and asked if we were ready to record take 1, we told them that they had already done so.
C&I: Can we expect some touring or exclusive live concerts?
Brown: At this point we have one very special concert scheduled, and it’s our hometown release show on December 2, 2018, at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Given that there are 12 very busy artists on the album, I never expected to be able to tour the record as we recorded it. Fortunately, 11 of the 12 of us on the album will be performing at the show in December, plus Barbara Carr is going to join us!
Matt Brown’s Chicago
Parks: Lake Michigan, Grant Park, Winnemac Park.
Restaurants: The Warbler, Gather, Avec, Blackbird, Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, Momotaro, Big Star, Taste of Lebanon, Union Pizzeria.
Entertainment: “See live music and stand-up comedy at venues like SPACE up in Evanston, Thalia Hall, The Hideout, and the Chicago Theatre. Two-step to The Hoyle Brothers at The Empty Bottle on Friday nights. (Brian Wilkie, who plays pedal steel and electric guitar on our album, is the steel player with The Hoyle Brothers). On Big Shoulders bass player Aaron Smith is a fantastic dancer and can usually be seen gliding around the dance floor if he’s not off playing a gig somewhere in town. He’s in seven bands? Or 12? I can’t keep track.”
For more information on the album On Big Shoulders, visit the website. Photography: Courtesy Tim Brown.