The first of a three-concert series, hosted by Aspenite John Oates at the historic Wheeler Opera House, the show began with a young, local songwriter named Riley Skinner who started off the night by playing her contest-winning song.
The next hour and ten minutes were filled with music and banter between the three headliners – Patty Griffin, John Oates and Scott Miller.
John Oates introduced the series as “This is the ‘Stories Behind the Songs,’ the idea came to me a few years back. I started doing a one man show with all the Hall and Oates hits that are so familiar to people and it occurred to me that a lot of people didn’t really understand the back story and where the songs came from and I thought it’d be cool to just sit there with my guitar and talk about songwriting and talk about where the songs came from.”
He continued to say how usually the songwriters do these ‘in-the-rounds’ for each other to get their songs out there but they don’t often do them for audiences.
He said, “I thought, ‘Let’s do them at the Wheeler Opera House, it’s the perfect venue for this,’ and I started reaching out to artists and I was very pleasantly surprised when certain people actually picked up my phone call and so you’re in for a really good treat tonight.
“The people who are coming out here with me tonight, they love the art of songwriting and the process and they’re just really good. I’ve had the pleasure to, I actually met them for the first time yesterday, I met Patty a little bit earlier in Nashville. Someone asked where we had met and I said, ‘Well, we met in a bar so I guess we got off to a good start.’ So without further ado, let’s get it started and the first guy we’re gonna bring out is a fellow named Scott Miller, Scott come on out.”
Scott walked out on stage saying, “Thank you folks.”
John said, “Scott started out in 1995 with a band called the V-Roys and he does a bunch of stuff. He plays on his own and he plays with his band, the Commonwealth and he’s an American History buff as I’ve learned in the last 24 hours and a lot of his songs have a historic background to them.”
He asked Scott if he’d like to tell the audience anything and Scott said, “This accent is real. It’s a pleasure to be here.”
John said, “And finally, our center stage, this gal has one of the most beautiful voices you will ever hear and she was, in 2007, was voted the Americana Music Association’s Artist of the Year. She’s had many of her songs covered by very, very big artists and she had toured the world and she’s currently on tour with Shawn Colvin and Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller and they have a really cool show.
“Her new album, which I believe will be released in April is called ‘Downtown Church’ also produced by Buddy Miller and it’s her first gospel album, so I think she’s pretty excited about it. So without further ado, Ms. Patty Griffin.”
Patty came out on stage and John asked, “How did I do? Alright, well, Scott’s gonna kick it off for us. Aren’t you?”
“Yeah, they voted me to kick it off. This is going to be very difficult, for one – nobody knows who I am and two – I could derail this whole thing right now so I thought I’d start with a song, you know the songwriter Townes Van Zandt? He was once asked if his songs were autobiographical and he said, ‘Yes, but sometimes reality doesn’t rhyme.’
“So this was true enough, I grew up in Virginia on a farm and my parents are WWII-generation-old, and I was a pleasant surprise, I think. This song is called ‘Daddy Raised a Boy’ and I’ll just start it off for you.”
Daddy Raised a Boy
Patty said, “Your Daddy raised a man.”
“Thank you very much,” Scott said.
“You’re just a little skinny,” Patty said. “That’s all. You’re a man, don’t let anybody tell you different.”
“You were drinkin’ like a man last night,” Scott said. “I was drinking like a kid.”
After a bit of laughter John said, “I guess I’m next.”
Patty had already picked up her guitar and was getting ready to play so he said, “Well, do you want to go? Thanks okay. I have a real problem, I actually have to follow my sheet down here, it’s one of my personality flaws as a musician. I try not to let it get in the way.”
There was more laughter and he continued, “Back in the early ’90s I took a break and decided to go to Nashville and try some songwriting and when I got down there it was very politely explained to me that I didn’t know how to write a country song.
“So I had this song prepared because I don’t like to come to the table empty-handed, what happened was I ended up putting it on a shelf until my new album came out and I realized that the reason it didn’t go over was really because it was just about me. It was a little too personal. It’s called ‘I Found Love.’”
I Found Love
“Damn, it’s my turn,” Patty said. “Well, I don’t know what to do so sometimes the thing is to start at the end and go back to the beginning so I’m gonna start with this. This is a song I wrote pretty recently and it’s the kind of song that I’d normally stick at the end of the set. Just to be contrary, John has found this out about me.”
John said, “I’m learning, I’m learning.”
Patty said, “Just to be (something) I’m gonna have to always start with this one.”
I’m Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone
Scott said, “Is that incredible or what? Now, I gotta follow that. With this accent.”
Someone in the crowd yelled, “We know who you are Scott!”
“Well, good.” Scott said. “I was enjoying my weekend out here so much, and I’m in so much trouble when I get home because I did not bring my wife with me and it’s Valentine’s Day weekend and I’m gonna have to tell her that when she sees all the pictures on the camera that I take home that’s somebody else’s camera, it was. I’m in a lot of trouble, but anyway, I’ll send this out to her.
“I’d like to, Loudon Wainwright is one of my favorite writers and he has a song called ‘Muse Blues.’ If you’ve ever heard that it’s like a song about how he can’t write a song. Like the movie ‘White Christmas’ or something with a movie in a movie and making a show about a show. So that’s sorta what this is about, thought it might work for songwriting, a song about writing a song. It’s called ‘Angels Dwell Among Us.’”
Patty sang harmony with Scott on this song, like she does on the album cut but she missed the first part of her vocal and made a little face.
John said, “I’ll speak to over the phone and let her know you were a good boy. I just can’t get away with an evening without at least one Hall and Oates song. It may not be what you expect, this is a song I actually wrote this in Nashville with two guys from a group called Little Texas. It was supposed to be for their album and there again, my country song writing chops just didn’t cut it.
“So I brought it back and Daryl kinda liked the idea and we worked on it and it ended up as a Hall and Oates song. What was really ironic I think was that I was about to get married at the time and this song eventually became the ‘Wedding Song of the Year’ by Brides Magazine.”
If A Promise Ain’t Enough
Patty said, “Well, I went to Nashville for the first time about fifteen years ago, kinda kicking and screaming. You know, my manager at the time went, ‘Patty, you’ve got this twang in your voice.’ and I said, ‘I do not!’ And he said, ‘Yes, you do. You need to go to Nashville and meet some people. You’re gonna like it there.’
“And anyway, I was one of these people, I grew up around country music, it was always around but it was not what I listened to and I made fun of it and I’ve been around Nashville so much now that I have, you know, I’ve been humbled many times over for my having that attitude as a youngster.
“And actually, lately I’ve been digging into some of the greats a little bit and um, this song was pointed out to me by my current manager, Ms. Kathi Whitley, and it’s one of her favorite country singer and songwriters and one of her favorites songs is this old Tom T. Hall song that he wrote about flying over his wife’s house while he was going on the road and she’s sleeping down below, it’s called ‘I Flew Over Our House Last Night.’”
I Flew Over Our House Last Night
“I think I was supposed to help play on that but I was enjoying it so much that I forgot,” Scott said.
“I forgot to sing a part on your song, cause I was watching the show up here too, you’ve got the best seat in the house,” Patty giggled.
“You know, I live in Knoxville, Tenn.” Scott said. “We have an attitude about Nashville, we feel like we’re the older brother that put them through Vanderbilt. So if anybody ever gives either of you trouble again, I want you to let me know. I’ll go down there and give them my favorite revenge – putting a locking gas cap on somebody’s car.”
“Is that the Knoxville Revenge?” Patty asked.
“That’s the Knoxville Revenge. The ‘KR.’ OK, this song is one that took me the longest to write, it took me years. And it started with a theory that the reason that New Orleans is so crazy is that all the uptightness in the Midwest gets in the Mississippi River and flows down there and it settles like the silt, you know? There’s power in the Methodists and Presbyterians,” Scott said.
“I think you’re on to something there,” Patty laughed.
“I’m telling you,” he said. “And then part two of my theory is that, I started traveling and writing down exit signs that had interesting names on them and I started this when I was up in Minnesota and I saw an exit sign that said ‘Buffalo Alice’ and I thought that would be a good band name. But the band got into this and we started writing down, we have a whole notebook just full of exit signs.
“So then I finally went through and I took some of these and I made a song about them. This song is called ‘Sin In Indiana” and it’s one you don’t know, so I’m safe.”
Sin In Indiana
About half-way through the song Patty picked up her guitar to play percussion on the back.
“Your wife’s gonna kill me.” John said.
“My wife’s gonna kill me, your wife’s gonna kill me.” Scott laughed.
“I’m glad someone’s funny up here, because I’m really depressing,” John said. “I’m thinking about my song selection and I’m getting a little nervous. And I’m actually a pretty happy guy.”
He muttered that he might have to change his set list and Scott said, “Do it!”
John said, “Oh, no. I can’t, I’m too…”
“I’d be a breakthrough,” Scott interrupted.
“It’d be a breakthrough for me,” John said.
“We’ll never know if you changed it,” Patty pointed out.
“That’s right,” John said. “You’ll never know if I changed it or not. Yes, I’m gonna change it. This is a protest song I wrote and I never wrote a protest song in my life but I thought a couple years back I thought it might be a good time for one. I felt like this is the right time to write a protest song and I know all of you people from Colorado, visitors and locals alike, you know the beautiful ravens that we have here, they’re just everywhere in the mountains. You know they have that image in literature of being kind of macabre and evil but I always thought they’re quite beautiful, and I thought there was some link between beauty and evil, so I wrote a beautiful song, it’s called ‘Ravens.’”
“Man, this is kind of a protest song too. I got asked to, you know John said I just finished making a gospel record and that all got started when I got asked to sing on a track with Mavis Staples from the Staple Singers,” Patty said.
“She’s such a huge hero of mine, I almost said ‘no’ because I knew I was not worthy. I am not worthy to sing with Mavis Staples but I had to do it or I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life.
“So I went and I did it and I kinda went, ‘God, I hope nobody I know hears that I…’ Anybody singing with Mavis is gonna sound about two-inches tall and anyway, somehow, the label that was doing the record heard the track and thought, ‘Why doesn’t Patty do a gospel record?’ I don’t know, that’s kinda a miracle in itself right there and I said, ‘Well, you know I’m a lapsed Catholic at best, is that okay?’ And they said, ‘Sure! Come on!’
“And so I just finished, I had been listening to gospel music for a little while and I surely love it and it always makes me incredibly happy to sing and I love it, it’s so interesting because a lot of it is, well, it’s right up my alley. It’s dark and sad and tragic and it makes me so happy to sing it, all that stuff does, right? So anyway, this is a song that I did learn from the Staple Singers and here we go.”
Samson and Delilah (If I Had My Way)
“Now that you’ve got religion, you want to hang yourself,” Scott said. “There’s a Randy Newman song where he says ‘I’d sell your soul and my soul for a song’ so you gotta look everywhere you can to find them and one of the places I love to look – one, because I’m a Virginian, right, so we tend to… you know the joke, ‘How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb? Five. One to change it and four to talk about how good the old one was.’
“We tend to not let go of things and we pack-rat and then we find out all these things we save become antiques and people from New Jersey pay a lot of money for them, it’s a cash crop. Anyway, history! I love the history songs. One, because I like songs that go from A to B and with history songs the stories are there and a lot of times the passion is there in what goes on.
“So this is a song about a thing you may have heard of called ‘World War Two’ and there was this thing in WWII called ‘D-Day,’ you may have seen the movie. In that movie, in that invasion, the Germans, that’s who we were fighting, they retreated a lot quicker than what the Allies, that’s us, thought and you don’t have to go to West Point to know that you can’t stretch out your supply lines, right? I mean I will drive around the Kroger parking lot four million times to find a parking spot close to the door, right? I’m a man! I declared it!”
By this point Patty was almost falling off her stool laughing (it’s so nice to see her laugh!) – as was the rest the audience.
“Anywho, where was I? Oh! Anyway, so when the Germans retreated so quick, the supply lines got stretched out and so, with American ingenuity, what they did was they took trucks and they put them in a three-hundred mile circle, bumper-to-bumper, and they ran for three months, non-stop.
“Nobody slept, they drugged them up and they drove and it’s called the ‘Red Ball Express.’ The ‘Red Ball’ is a train term for a train that doesn’t stop and this thing did not stop for three months. They’d haul gasoline and ammunition up and bodies back and this is a song called ‘Red Ball Express.’ It’s will depress you now. You guys have been a hell of an audience.”
Red Ball Express
Patty, who had moved to a cajón to play percussion moved back to her stool.
“So how are we doing so far?” John asked.
“Scott, I think I forgot to mention your new album, did I forget?”
“That’s okay,” Scott said. “They don’t know about it anyway.”
“Well, it’s out in the lobby.”
“It is. It actually doesn’t come out until April but I brought some advance copies so I can bilk you people for some money.”
“Are we getting near the end? Are we winding this thing down? Alright, well.” John said.
Someone in the audience said, “Not allowed.”
“We’re not allowed to stop?” John asked. “I guess we should have learned some more songs then. I’m gonna do a song that I’m sure is pretty familiar to most of you, al least over the age of 40. This is a song that I’ve played actually on this stage a number of times and I can’t stop playing it because it’s one of those defining moments, I think.
“You know, as a songwriter when you get one of those songs that kinda breaks through and people don’t realize that, people ascribe this song to a very heavy emotional experience but it had to do with me meeting a girl in Greenwich Village at an all night restaurant at three o’clock in the morning and she was wearing a pink tutu and cowboy boots. And we started dating, yes we did, and it was the early ’70s what can I tell you? So I asked her out on New Year’s Eve and she never showed up and I wrote this.”
“Wow!” Patty, who had been watching in awe, exclaimed.
“That just happened!” Scott added.
“It happened, and we were here. Right there.” Patty said. “Now, I gotta go.”
“Yeah, but you got something good to go with.” John said.
“Well, it’s such an honor to be asked by John to do this, thank you so much,” Patty said. “It really is. Iconic American music that this gentleman’s made, and been part of. If he only knew the groups of, you know, drunk females that I’ve been in singing ‘Man Eater’ and ‘Sara’ and all that stuff, he’d be a little scared of me. Maybe he is scared of me now.”
“You mean drunk girls,” Scott said.
Patty laughed, “Well, you know, the guys don’t sing together, girls sing.”
“May I say that I requested this next song?” John said. “Yes, I did.”
“I’m very flattered,” Patty said. “Thanks so much, thanks everybody for coming out.”
(With John playing and singing harmony and Scott on harmonica.)
“Patty Griffin, Scott Miller.” John said. “Thank you guys so much.”
They all departed the stage to return a few moments later to a bunch of shouted requests.
“Uh oh, we’re getting requests now.” John said.
He asked the sound guy to mute his guitar for a second as it had made an unfortunate noise when he unplugged it to leave the stage. “I don’t want to make the same mistake twice.”
“So, I came up with this idea for the closing number and I think they responded very well to the idea,” he continued. “It’s one of my favorite songwriters and one of my favorite artists of all time. When I was a kid I’d always wanted to play and sing like this guy, Curtis Mayfield. He had a group called the Impressions and this is a song they did back in the ’60s.
“I thought the really unique thing about Curtis Mayfield was that back in the ’60s most R&B singers, they sang and they usually had a back-up vocal group and a back-up band. Very few actually accompanied themselves on guitar. So as a little kid when I saw that, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s cool. He’s doing R&B and playing guitar at the same time. I thought only Elvis did that.’ And it really affected me and I kinda tried to play like him but of course I never could. This is a really beautiful song that he wrote and we’re gonna give it a whirl here.”
People Get Ready
“Thank you very much, goodnight everybody,” John said. “Thank you so much for supporting ‘Stories Behind the Songs.’ We hope to see you next time. They did one last final group bow and left the stage.