Ben Jarrell Nashville May 2019
Following Roger’s review of the excellent album Troubled Times from Ben Jarrell I asked if Ben would be available for an interview when I was over in Nashville in May. Ben invited us to the Laughing Heart recording studio in East Nashville where we chatted to Ben and his drummer John Papageorgiou who had just moved to Nashville from New Jersey. We had had the pleasure of seeing Ben and the band play at The Nashville Boogie Weekender at Nashville Palace the previous weekend.
CL: John, you’re from New Jersey?
JP: Yes, I’ve been here for three months.
CL: Ben, how long have you been in Nashville? You’re from Alabama, aren’t you?
BJ: Yes, I am from Alabama, and I have been here for two and a half years.
CL: Oh, for some reason I thought you were new to Nashville!
BJ: How John and I met was funny because we had a drummer, and he’s a great guy – a great drummer – but he wasn’t getting along well with the bass player and the bass player Rob will never not be in my band! So, if anybody challenges him, they are basically saying they want to quit. As a result, we were hanging out with our friend Josh who now owns Bobby’s Idle Hour Tavern, which will be reopening soon. It’s our favourite bar. He said, ‘Hey, you should meet this drummer’. He was visiting and we went over to the house and he just set up a crappy drum set, played with us and we loved it! So, we asked him if he wanted to join the band, and he did. He went back up to Jersey and got all of his stuff and came back.
CL: Oh wow. (To John) Your look is very different to the rest of the band – you are more clean-cut, and the others mostly have longer hair!
JP: I actually had longer hair for quite a while and then I was traveling through Europe and it’s much easier with a buzzed head. So, I came up with a buzzed head pretty much going in to now. It is going to be my first southern summer and I have a long thick Greek hair, so it is going to be pretty hot. My Father is from Greece, Skotina, in Northern Greece and my Mother is Irish. He came here by himself and then married an Irish woman. So, the John Henry Papageorgiou is kind of Irish!
BJ:The best drummer name ever – Papageorgiou!
JP:As Ben mentioned, I was visiting, and I met Rob at a bar. We were talking with Josh and hit it off. We were talking about Mark Bolan and Lemmy, things like that. He was in with Ben and he was saying, ‘I’ll send you the record’ but the links were locked at the time as the record wasn’t out. The record was coming out in three weeks. This was around early March. He said, ‘I think you should do it’. A lot of it is the ‘hang’ and your co-operation with the guys that you make music with. I had thirty hours and listened to ‘Troubled Times’ for thirty hours. I came in and said, I think that we can try these four tracks. We tried them, we extended some things, added some jams and felt each other out. Ben said, ‘Alright I’ll see you at noon tomorrow, let’s do it again’. I said ‘OK’ and then the third time Ben said ‘Jonny, you want to join the band?’. I said, ‘Let me go up and tell my folks I won’t be going home for a while’. I came back down. We had some jams, it felt right.
BJ:We played some Allman Brothers and some old Lynyrd Skynyrd, some Johnny Paycheck and Waylon, and kind of hit all the different sub-genres.
CL: In the late 70’s and 80’s I was in to Deep Purple, AC/DC etc. when everyone else was into the New Romantics coming out of the punk era. I think that’s why I like the rockier side of country.
BJ: The guitar driven?
BJ: I was in punk bands…
CL:You mean like GooGoo Dolls or Ramones ?
BJ: More like The Ramones. John likes Slapshot and The Business – hard core punk.
CL: American Punk was a bit different to English punk wasn’t it?
BJ: John likes Oi! Music as well (an English sub-genre of punk – I admit I have never heard of it-Kate)
CL: My husband’s favourite band is The Clash.
BJ: My girlfriend’s favorite band’s is The Clash.
CL: How do you know Kendell Marvel? Are you writing for his album or yours or just see where it goes?
BJ: I have just been to The Honky Tonk Experience, it was cool. I am a big fan of anyone that writes like that
CL: Did you go to the one with Ashley?
BJ: No, I went to the one with Sarah Gayle Meech, John R Miller, Tanya Tucker, Paul Cauthen and Waylon Payne.
CL: I saw one in September during Americana Fest with Sarah Gayle Meech, and Gary Allan. The next day I saw that Sarah was playing at Roberts Western World so I went there and saw Sarah with JP Harris and Paul Cauthen.
BJ: Sarah is the Queen of Roberts!
CJ: I liked JP Harris, so looked him up and he was playing London the next month so watched him and interviewed him.
BJ: You’ve listened to John R Miller haven’t you?
CL: No, I haven’t. (I have now!)
BJ: He is incredible! He is from West Virginia. He had a band; I don’t know if they are still called John R Miller and The Engine Lights. Him and his fiddle player Chloe are incredible. He’s an incredible songwriter. Just one of those people where anything he puts out, I’ll listen to it – I don’t skip a song.
CL: We were listening to music yesterday – Charles Wesley Goodwin?
BJ: Yeah, he’s good. Seneca, right? It’s a great album.
CL: So, Kendell…. I heard about his album because one of my friends in the industry sent me a link telling me I’d like his music, and he was right! I did. I then contacted him on social media to see if he was coming to the UK and if so, could I interview him? He then came over with Brothers Osborne. I got my interview and he invited us to the after party after the Brother’s London gig. Next thing I’m flying to Nashville for Americana Fest and going to his Honky Tonk Experience in Exit/In.
BJ: He’s great. I think he wrote or co-wrote a couple of songs for Chris Stapleton’s Traveller? I don’t want to quote that…
CL: Yes, he did. He has written a lot of songs with Chris.
BJ: Yes, he did. I remember listening to his interview with Chris Shiflett (Walking the Floor).
CL: So, I’d better start talking about you instead of all the others, haha!
CL: When did you start playing music? Was it something you played from childhood?
BJ:I started singing when I was about three or four, then started playing guitar when I was about eight and I didn’t really take it seriously. Then my family liked the fact that I was singing country music. So, of course, I stopped and started playing in punk rock bands! I was a really big Motorhead fan. I grew up being exposed to all kinds of kinds of music; 30s and 40s like Ink Spots, Platters and kind of barbershop type bands and then classic country and a little bit of bluegrass. My Dad hates country music but some of the stuff he listens to I think is country. He just doesn’t consider it to be. So, with him it was like the most country he would like would be Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck, Willie Nelson & Hank Jnr. He got me into Blackfoot, early Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, Grinderswitch, early Charlie Daniels Band and all that kind of stuff. So, I guess I didn’t really think about all those influences until we made the record and then I could kind of hear them.
CL: What was the first time you stood up and sang in front of an audience, paid or not paid?
BJ:I mean, you know I would sing for my family when I was a kid. A lot of Randy Travis, that kind of stuff. You know I’m 32, so I was exposed to a lot of that late 80s/ early 90s country. But the first gig I played I was in a punk rock band and played at a coffee shop, pretty well you know, yelling, and then everybody didn’t hate it! So, I wanted to do it again. It all started because of this girl that lived down the street from my grandmother’s house. We were on a school bus one day and I was probably twelve or thirteen, and she said we should start a band, and something just snapped in my mind and never snapped back. That was it, that was what I’m going to do! I was like ‘Oh I’m going to start a band’. People were like ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to do this’. I was ‘Nope. I’m still starting a band’.
CL: Did you start that band with her?
BJ: No, I tried, but a week later she was into something else and I still wanted to start a band. So, then I started going through the waves of people that were assuming that it was a hobby and I was saying ‘No, this is what I’m going to do’. There were these long drives, my Dad was always in and out of trouble (track 9 on the record, right?). So, he was always in and out of trouble. I was living with different family members and I had the Garth Brooks double live album, and I think like a ZZ Top CD and some other stuff in my Walkman. I would sit in the back of my Aunt’s car and I would listen to it, to kind of escape. I would pretend it was me and then all the people were clapping for me, and I think it just kind of became an obsession. And then of course when my family started to validate it, like I said I was like, well then that’s no good! I was a teenager, so I thought that if they think it’s good, I’m doing something wrong!
CL: Got to do something to rattle the cage, you’ve got to be angry at something!
BJ: Later on, after the punk shows, we would all be drinking at parties, after-parties etc. and people kept asking me to play country songs. Finally, a buddy of mine was like, ‘Man you know you should probably just do that’. And so yeah. Then I did, because I realized that they were singing about the same things, like EXACTLY the same thing; working class stories, corrupt governments, heartache, murder trials etc. It was all the same stuff.
CL: All songs are, aren’t they? Love, war, money etc…
BJ:The only difference with this kind of music, I could pay my rent. With the other one it was like you had to lead the punk rock lifestyle or be like, you know, a trust fund kid, which I’m definitely not.
CL: So ‘Troubled Times’ is a fantastic record in our opinion, as our colleague Roger’s review stated.
BJ: Thank you guys for that. It was a great review.
CL:He’s a good writer, he loves his Texas music and musicians. I’m rubbish at writing. I’m okay at interviews and doing the homework and promoting etc. but I’m absolutely rubbish at reviewing. I’m not as good a wordsmith as Roger, he’s really good.
BJ:I mean it takes all kinds. I couldn’t write reviews. It’s interesting to read reviews when people don’t actually know what all the songs are about. It’s kind of fun to watch people. We recently got a new review; I can’t remember who it was. It was a small publication but there were a couple of the songs where he was saying, ‘Oh you know this, and this, and this..’, and I said‘Wow, that’s not even what that song is about!’ It was pretty interesting. Some people really do not understand satire.
CL: What tracks are you most proud of on the album?
BJ: Some of them are just more fun to play and they’re just songs that I wasn’t trying to get too deep in the lyrics I just wanted to be fun. Probably ‘Troubled Times’, ‘Marissa’ and ‘Daddy’s Prison Radio’. Those are my three favourites. Marissa’s a co-write but those are probably my three favourites as far as writing them with an acoustic guitar and then bringing them to my amazing producer, Preston Tate White. He just gets these sounds out that I never thought I’d hear, and that’s another thing too – nobody has mentioned him, nobody in any reviews, period.
CJ: I noticed that because you put the post up, didn’t you? Saying just that.
BJ: It wasn’t anything personal to the reviewers. It was just kind of like, if it wasn’t for him none of this would happened. None of this would have sounded this way. I didn’t have the money to pay him for pre-production. I’m giving him a point, so that he is getting a percentage of what we make. That is how he makes his living. I definitely want him to be more recognized because he’s amazing. I mean like, if I would’ve made this record without him, the songs would have been there, and I’ll stand by my songwriting and the band would have been there. I’ll stand by how good they played and my real band now – how good they play and how good they’re going to play on records, but without him there it just wouldn’t have sounded the way it sounded. ‘Troubled Times’ when it had those big huge hits you know, he’s so good at taking people for a ride on songs. My stuff probably would have been more monotone and would get more kind of the same thing.
CL: In the song ‘Black Helicopters’ you really hear the whirr of the blades in the song, can’t you?
BJ: Well part of it was the idea of the band itself. He also sampled in at the end of the song. He asked me, ‘What were you feeling when you wrote the song?’ When I wrote that it was actually a bluegrass song, it wasn’t even a funky country song. I said, ‘Well, you know, I got the idea for the words because the way that I sang it was because of Jerry Reed. I’m a huge Jerry Reed fan. So, I wanted that to kind of be the Jerry Reed song. He said, ‘okay, then – it needs to be way funkier!’ So, it’s just stuff like that. I told him, ‘People were going to write plenty of stuff about you if you keep making more records like that’. He is amazing and the reason I think he’s so good is because he respects what the artists want and what the musicians want, but he doesn’t get distracted by people. He has, very much, tunnel vision. If he asked you to do something, he doesn’t want to discuss it. He wants you to do it and then if you don’t like the way it sounds, or he doesn’t like the way it sounds, that’s okay but you can’t say no to anything until you do it. It’s kind of his method.
CJ: You have to trust him?
BJ: Yes, you do. He is from Alabama as well. We met at ‘Bobby’s Idle Hour’. I thank them on the record – that place is where it all happens.
CL: You used to see that on the end of vinyl albums, but now people stream you don’t have that packaging now.
BJ: Ha! Only us music nerds sit down and read all that. I will give credit to Bob Wayne. I believe he’s from Texas – he’s kind of an underground country artist. He is a bit intense and vulgar, but I love his stuff. I heard him do it on the end of one of his records and that’s what gave me the idea. I was like ‘Wow! this is so cool’. I really liked it. So then when we finished up the record, I just burned one and then let loose on the ending.
BJ: …Are these answers too long winded?
CL: No, I mean, it will be a lot of work to transcribe! I can crop it. It’s much better than clipped two-word answers!
CL: Is there any artist that you got to collaborate with, but you haven’t had a chance?
BJ: Well, definitely Kendell Marvel, and Jason Isbell for sure.
CL: Do you like Sturgill?
BJ: I do, I do.
CL: I’m seeing him tonight at The Opry with John Prine.
BL: When I first moved here, being a baritone country singer and coming out of bluegrass there was a lot of .. ‘Oh so you’re a big Sturgill Simpson fan?’ He doesn’t like anyone predicting what he is going to do. I would say that I’d like to collaborate with him. I would be intimidated by Jason Isbell as a writer, but I would be intimidated by Sturgill as a person. I would feel like he would hate everything I did. If I had to nail it down to three, I would choose Kendell Marvel, Jason Isbell and Whitey Morgan. I think that would be cool. When ‘The Conversation’ comes on – you know that song with Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings? I always thought that it would be really cool if he and I did something like that. I can do the Waylon thing, but I think he just does it so well. That’s why we’ve been leaning more into the old Johnny Paycheck stuff, to try to kind of find something that’s still similar, but I just feel like…I don’t know, I think a lot of guys are trying to do it and I think the closest thing to that vibe and the attitude, is probably Whitey Morgan.
CJ: Could you and those guys – Kendell and Whitey – just come over to the UK and do a mini festival?
BJ: Yeah, yeah, I would love to do that! And we’re talking to some bookers about going over there in 2020.
CL: Oh good!
BJ: So far, it’s more like Spain, France, and Norway at the moment. Where are you guys from?
CL: We’re from south of London.
BJ:I’m starting to slowly get the accent differences. You guys, and the Irish and Scottish, even if it’s a heavy accent, it is easier for Southerners to understand as that’s where our accents came from.
CL: So, there are a couple of things that I picked up doing my homework. Not a lot though, as there isn’t a lot about you on the internet. Why would you like to record with Hugh Laurie?
BJ: Oh man! Oh nice. Did you see that on Twitter? I was a fan of his music before I saw the show. Then somebody said I should check out the show, which I did, and I watch a lot.
CL: Which show? Oh, House?
BJ: Yes, in fact I watched it last night. I watched some of his early recordings and stuff and was really into him, then I saw the show and then I became doubly obsessed of his versions of ‘ Unchain my Heart’ and ‘Down in the Swanee’.
CL: Have you seen his comedy with Stephen Fry?
BJ: It was British specific comedy?
CL: Oh yes, they did have a trust fund probably! Ha!
BJ: I like some British comedy, I didn’t get into that stuff, but I did like the Young Ones, Mighty Boosh, IT Crowd, that kind of stuff. I mean obviously I’m watching re-runs of it, but I love it because I have a friend that reminds me of each character.
CL: There are plenty of the ‘Neil’ characters!
BJ: Probably the same here.
BJ: But anyway, it would be cool to collaborate with him. I like his acting and I like his music – he seems to be really into Southern blues.
CL: What’s the deal with murder ballads?
BJ: Oh, I just love murder ballads. That’s what ‘Troubled Times in a Tribal Town’ is. It’s a true story. My grandmother called me and told me that a guy that I went to school had beaten his girlfriend to death and I knew both of them. It bummed me out, so I wrote the song, and of course he is still going to trial. I changed all the names and since he still going to trial, I made up the third verse. Yellow Mama is the name of the electric chair in Alabama. But I just love murder ballads. A lot of them came from Ireland; ‘Down in the Willow Garden, ‘Knoxville Girl’, all that kind of stuff – ‘Troubled Times’ and murder ballads in general. I like how there would be these beautiful compositions about something so dark. I also liked murder ballads because of how many times you’ll hear your elders complain about, ‘Oh music today is just wretched and sinful and dark’. Well, this song was written in like, you know, the 20’s or maybe before, and it’s just about murder you know! I don’t know, I just like sad songs, and there is nothing sadder than death!
JP: So beautiful melodies, telling you terrible things.
CL: Yes, Like The Steelwoods ‘Della Janes Heart’ and ‘Anna Lee’…
BJ: …Colter Wall’s ‘Kate McCannon’…
CL: They are all beautiful songs.
BJ: Jason Isbell’s, ‘Live Oak’ from the South Eastern Record. Those are all just good murder ballads.
BJ: I like country music because it’s honest. The world is not great. Like, everything is not okay. Everything may be okay, but at the moment everything is not okay. So that’s why I don’t listen to a lot of mainstream country because it’s bullshit. I didn’t grow up with a bunch of money. I don’t have a fifty-thousand-dollar diesel truck. I don’t have the luxury of going down to the river and being misogynistic to women every weekend. The kids need something to listen to. I don’t mind that I don’t fall into that category. I get them after they start reading books and getting jobs, so they can afford to pay for tickets and my records.
CL: Exactly. Yeah, I mean that’s why we’re here now and not in two weeks’ time for CMA Fest.
BJ:Yeah. Oh yeah. It’s going be crazy this year.
CL: Is there a favourite venue, or a venue that you’ve never played in the world that you would like to play?
BJ: The Ryman Auditorium.
CL: Definitely The Ryman?
BJ: Yes. I mean, you know playing Red Rocks would be great. We are playing Nissan Stadium in September and playing Arrowhead Stadium in October. All those are great, but yeah, probably the Ryman. Yeah. Deeper south there’s‘Flora Bama’. It’s kind of the gateway to the Gulf. Just a really cool place, you know.
CL: It is generally The Ryman, The Opry, Red Rocks and somewhere near Red Rocks but much smaller that I cannot remember the name.
JP: There is The Gorge in Washington.
BJ: The Cumberland Caverns here in Nashville. There are great videos on YouTube of artists playing there. All the videos of performing in Europe are all from the seventies, Isle of Wight etc.
JP: I’d love to play Glastonbury.
CL: That’s the biggest festival in the UK, I’d say.
CL: The Cadillac Three and Brothers Osborne play festivals in the UK.
BJ: The Cadillac Three are pretty big over there aren’t they?
CL: They are very popular. They’ve been coming over for a few years and now play to sell-out crowds.
BJ: It’s funny, I go to Jaren’s Christmas party and he still doesn’t know who I am, it’s because my girlfriend is friends with them. It’s just funny that when you’re a fan of someone and you’re in their house and they still do not know who you are! That would be weird if I had people in my house that I did not know…but he seems super nice. The videos of his kid playing drums is the cutest stuff ever. During sound checks they put earmuffs on him, and he plays the drums. He will get a groove.
CL: I bet his wife thinks ‘Oh God!’.
JP: The last things she needs is a drummer!
CL: Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about?
BJ: I’m really happy to have a real band. Nobody has ever asked me how much they would be getting paid for a show, which is rare around here. You know, it’s that kind of band. So, I think that the records that we make from here on out, I think are going to stand up to that first record. I think they’re going to sound good.
CL: They always say that the second record is the hardest.
BJ: I think Tom Petty said the first record lets people know you’re here, the second record lets people know who you are, and the third record lets people know you’re worth keeping around. I’ve been trying to follow that, and the band that played on the first record are incredible. So, this band has definitely got some work cut out for them but they’re incredible, and I think that it’s going to sound even better because we’re going to get to spend so much more time together. The first one was musical. The next one will be musical, but there will also be that intertwining there, you know? Kind of cosmically or whatever. Just like us (JP and BJ) being together all the time, we are intuitive. He knows when I’m going to push. So, I’m pretty excited about that – and the other thing that we’re doing too, is our output is going be a lot higher than most people. So, we’d like to have an EP out in the fall with five songs with the full band, and then another record out next spring. I want to do a record a year, minimum.
CL: You must be writing all the time…
BJ: And I’ve been writing for a long time. I had a discipline exercise that somebody recommended a long time ago and I wrote one song a day for five years. Most of them are garbage. I don’t do that anymore.
CL: A lot of artists are bringing out EP’s now.
BJ: There’s a few different ways people go about EP’s. Some people are anti-EP’s, and some are pro-EP’s. I think if you’re going to do an EP, it needs to make sense. For us an EP is going to be – number one – I’m never going to make anybody pay for a song more than once. I’m never going to do that.
CL: That’s the worst idea ever to put out and EP with five songs on it, then you buy the LP and the same songs are on there.
BJ: I’m never going do that. Our EP’s are going to be more about expressing ourselves, similarly the way Sturgill will do weird stuff. He does it because he doesn’t care. Which is great – that’s part of his thing. I’m a fan. But I want people to know what they are going to get when they buy a record. I want people to not know what they are going to get when they get the EP. If there are people that say, ’Oh, I like what he did on his record, not the EP’. Don’t worry, as I’m making another record. I’m not going to make the same record over and over again, but I will stay consistent with the ideas. I love Blues music and I love Bluegrass, so I think that’s where the EP’s are…maybe we will do a blues-rock record. You know, my favorite guitar player on the planet is Rory Gallagher. I don’t know if you’re a fan of him or not?
CL: I don’t know enough about him to make any comment.
BJ: He was an Irish guitar player. He was in a 70’s blues rock band.
They had a lot of Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan influence. John, your favourite band?
JP: The Band, Zeppelin…
BJ: I want my band to influence me. I’m a huge John Paul Jones fan, I played bass first. I tend to lean towards bass players, I guess.
JP: Strong Rhythms, yeah.
BJ: I love a strong rhythm section. That was our main focus with this.
CJ: It was good to hear you at Nashville Palace and hear you sound the same as your record. It’s not always like that, you can’t always replicate that sound on an album, particularly if, no disrespect, you’re starting out, you’re not getting lots of money to pay lots of people in the band. But, as you say, they are not worried about that they just want to play music. You can hear that.
BJ The good thing about this band too, is that the pedal steel player and the piano player are both incredible singer songwriters and artists by themselves. So, it’s more of one of those things like, if one of them had put out a record like this and had gotten some traction, I might be backing them up. Eventually, my goal is to (and I don’t mean this in a bad way), but my goal is to have my own pedal steel player and my own piano player that are different because, you know, Cullen Wade and Jordan Harrison and The Revival, we are all on the same bill. That’s the reason that they are willing to go in and put in all the effort, because they know like this momentum. I want it to affect all of us.
CL: You’re treating them as equal, not you and the band…
BJ: Yes, the only reason it’s Ben Jarrell’s Roadside Revival is because I wrote most of the songs, and I went into debt to pay for the first record and I didn’t have the band yet. So, it was just kind of one of those things. The way we’re doing it for now is, if it’s billed as Ben Jarrell it’s probably solo or duo, but if it’s billed as Ben Jarrell’s Roadside Revival, it’s the whole band. Then eventually, after enough time has passed and we’ve built enough of a loyal fan base, I’d like to separate the two and make the Roadside Revival its own thing. Then whenever I use my name, it’s just kind of how Allman did with the Allman Brothers. I kind of eventually want to do that. I tend to help out people before helping myself, to a bad degree. I want to make sure I don’t shoot myself in the foot either. I make sure that I establish myself and then start.
BJ: If I make money off publishing, if I make money off selling records or anything like that, I’d take a portion of it and I put it towards capital – just towards anything the band needs, a van…whatever. The other part I want to just split everything evenly with the band. We’re not making real money yet; you know to say as a band. But you know when we are, I just I don’t know. It’s a good thing to do, it’s the right thing to do, but it also allows me to have a full, brutally honest opinion at all times. I don’t have to. You know, whenever I see a lead singer getting into it with one of his sidemen, and you know it’s just like, ‘Man! He is only paying that dude 75 bucks a day’ and he’s just like ‘yeah’. So, with me, if John and I get into it and you know when I want to say well ‘F you man’, and John says, ‘F you man’, we can do that because we’re equals.
CL: There is that saying, ‘Don’t tread on people on the way up as you’ll trip over them on the way back down’…
JP: On the positive side it’s what you appreciate when you appreciate people around you. You’re going to be better.
BJ: I mean like, he’s coming over to help me paint my kitchen after this! You go to any lead singer in town, ask if their hired drummer is going to help them paint their kitchen? They’re not, unless they give him a hundred bucks!
CL: Thank you very much and thank you for your time.
May 28th 2019
The Laughing Heart Studio