Gabe Rhodes Discusses The Beautiful Old - Antique Music With Modern Day Artists
When you grow up in Texas, most of that time in Austin, one of the foremost music cities in America and when your mother is a platinum selling songwriter (and singer/musician) and your step-dad was one of the most influential people on the Austin music scene, one might assume that music would be the career path you would also choose. That is precisely what songwriter, musician and producer Gabe Rhodes did, and from an early age.
Rhodes describes his early indoctrination to music, “From a pretty early age, I wanted to do something musically. My mom (Kimmie Rhodes) had a western swing band when I was pretty young, which had all of these old great pickers like, Jimmy Day the legendary steel guitar player, “Lucky” Meadows the great Jazz guitar player and David Zettner (bass, steel guitar). These guys were always around the house and they were cool enough to want to show me things and they inspired me as a musician. Of course all the above mentioned are dead now, but they really knew something about the old style music and it was just fascinating to me. I feel like the level of musicianship that they had you don’t see anymore. There are so many great players now, but it was just a different thing. I pretty much decided that I wanted to play the guitar and all through school that is what I did when I had any free moment.”
There were two major influences that steered Gabe Rhodes in the direction of sound engineering and producing. “I guess it was about in ’96 when I had a buddy named Matt Hubbard who had some ADAT machines (that I got interested). (Also) When I was thirteen I was the second engineer up at Willie’s (Nelson) studio and I really got into it then. I would end up running the session after a couple of days, just because I have never been able to keep my mouth shut. We worked with a lot of really neat people and I worked on several of Willie’s records up there. I started playing with Willie eventually and at a pretty young and impressionable age. I just developed out of that. As I said, Matt Hubbard had some ADAT machines and we did a record with Paula Nelson. I don’t know if it ever came out or not. One day I just decided that I was going to set it up in the living room and record my mom and she was kind of scared at first. I had already recorded several tracks, but I played them for her and she loved it. That record ended up being Rich From The Journey. She thought okay, well he can do it. Why not, he has all the stuff sitting here in the living room already.”
Gabe Rhodes found himself on stage with his mother’s Western Swing band at an early age. “I started when I was fifteen. I was the rhythm guitar player backing them up at dance halls. I just stood in the back and I would play rhythm all night. I went off to high school and when I came back she decided she had enough with dance halls and she wanted to concentrate on doing her own songs and things like that. Eventually, she started hiring me to be her guitarist, because I knew all of the songs and she called it using what you have laying around the house (we share a laugh at this point). I (have been) playing with her ever since. (In the fall of 2013 Gabe Rhodes joined Kimmie Rhodes for another tour, this time in Europe.)
I used to play in bands all through my twenties, but the last five years or so I have concentrated on doing sessions and things like that. I will still go out with my mom. I enjoy playing on the records, but I don’t really enjoy playing it night in and night out. My main (interest) are the moments that you create the song and record the song. Let somebody else keep repeating it after that (he laughs). Once a week I play at a local place with a bunch of great musicians, Dony Wynn, Glenn Fukunaga and David Holt and it’s basically like going to the gym once a week. We do whatever songs we feel like doing and just Blues jamming. I enjoy doing that.”
In November of 2013, Gabe Rhodes in collaboration with Paul Marsteller produced and released a collection of vintage songs, some dating back as far as the mid to early 1800s, on an album titled The Beautiful Old.
“It’s a neat record, I think. I was doing another album with Paul called Chandelier and it is a concept record about a girl who travels from Ireland during the Gold Rush and at one time she ends up in a saloon. He wanted to do an old time saloon song. I cut it for him on piano and I forget what song it was. I think it was the song “Long Time Ago,” and then he started tinkering with the idea of doing the whole record like that. I was really enthusiastic about it and the more we dug into it the more I really enjoyed it. I didn’t know a whole lot about that music to begin with. We just decided that we would do it,” he says.
As to how he approached songs that for many of them there is nobody left alive who was around when they first saw the light of day, Rhodes says, “I would just assume that it would have been in that kind of Classical style of singing and I could be completely wrong and off base on that. The earliest recordings (that I listened to) are with the girls rolling their “r” and Operatic style vocals. I am not sure when the earliest recordings are for some of these songs. I did quite a bit of research on Youtube and on any source that I could find at the Library of Congress. It was pretty easy to find the sheet music, but there wasn’t anything to record on back in the 1800s. There was Brown University and Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and places like that have (the original music) available online. They are pretty great resources. I don’t know who spent all of that time cataloguing it all with all of the great covers and the original music. Sometimes it just had a real crude type setting and everything, particularly songs like “The Dying Californian.” The sheet music would have (dated) back to the 1800s.
It is amazing, especially when you think that the
population wasn’t as big as it is now that some of those songs were selling
millions of copies (of sheet music). They were hit songs.
I think it was kind of like pre Tin Pan Alley. I would imagine, I’m just
making this up, but you probably picked one up at your local, wherever you got
your dry goods, they probably had a little section of sheet music and there were
probably a few publishers. For some people their entertainment was to sit around
the piano and sing songs.”
Rhodes takes a moment to talk about a couple of the songs. “The one that surprised me the most was a song that I was already familiar with and I was hesitant to do “Oh Sweet Mystery Of Life.” I had already heard it in Young Frankenstein and it had been almost like a joke song, but when I really read the music and the lyric. I just thought this song is a masterpiece. I had never come across a chord progression like that and it was a song that was really well written. At first, I was afraid that it would come across as corny. That was my reservation on quite a few songs that we pulled out, because we had hundreds of songs.
As we dug through the songs, “The Flying Trapeze,” stuck out to me at the very beginning. There were a lot of songs, a lot of ballads, but there weren’t a whole lot of up-tempo songs that were available that were any good. I just loved that song from the minute that I heard it and I wanted to do something circuslike with it. I liked that song and “Come Josephine In My Flying Machine.” They are both just so quirky and fun and that somebody actually wrote that song.
I had a lot of fun doing the arrangement for “Come Josephine In My Flying Machine.” I hired a really great horn player (Jon Mills) from around here and he also plays flute, saxophone and clarinet, so he was able to give it a lot of color. I have been playing with Will Sexton (vocals) for years in his band and I thought it would be a great song for him (Simone Stevens was the other half of the vocal duo).
Pretty much for all of these songs I tried to stick pretty close to the sheet music on the melody lines. Obviously all of that instrumentation and stuff wasn’t in the sheet music. We tried to stick close to the original intention of the songwriter with the one exception being the style of singing. I never thought there was a problem with the music with those old time records. It was mostly the singing that was hard to listen to. My intention was to stick pretty close to the style of music, but to let people come as themselves singing wise.”
In recording the album, Rhodes stuck pretty close to instruments that existed at the time the songs were written. His studio already was stocked with a pump organ and old parlor guitars.
While a host of stellar musicians appear on The Beautiful Old, including, Garth Hudson (from The Band), keyboardist Michael Thompson (Eagles) and Richard Thompson, the record also features some outstanding vocal performances by the ladies, including, Rhodes mother Kimmie Rhodes (“A Perfect Day,” and “Somewhere A Voice Is Calling”), his younger sister Jolie Goodnight (“Silver Dagger” and “I Love You Truly”), the aforementioned Simone Stevens (“Come Josephine In My Flying Machine”), Heidi Talbot (“Love’s Sweet Song”), Carrie Elkin (“The Dying Californian”), Christine Collister (“The Band Played On,” and “Home Sweet Home”) and Kim Richey (“Beautiful Ohio”). Outstanding Blues singer-songwriter-guitarist Eric Bibb also appears, singing “Just A-Wearyin’ For You.”
Rhodes credits Marsteller for attracting a lot of the artists to this project and he adds, “Pretty much everybody was excited to work on it. You do so much run of the mill music and that was certainly the case for me. I am constantly working on records that I love, but it is a pretty standard thing and especially if you are working on somebody’s album and they want a specific thing, it might be slightly homogenized. I got to do something unique and interesting. I think that everybody else shared that same excitement and because it was something out of the ordinary (they thought) it would be fun to work on.
Originally we were going to (only) put Garth Hudson on “The Band Played On,” because I thought that would be a neat combination. It was kind of a nod to The Band and pairing him with Richard Thompson and honestly hoping that maybe Garth could get some more work out of it. We just kept putting him on more and more songs, because he brought a great spirit to the project.”
There is a very interesting factor about the collaboration between Gabe Rhodes and Paul Marsteller says Rhodes, “I have been working for Paul for maybe four years now, but we have never met. There is something almost neat about that relationship and even when we hang up on the phone, it is see you later, but we just have never met. He has a great enthusiasm for music and he has a great work ethic. He knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like. I really appreciate that in people and who are unabashedly not afraid to say what they mean and what they dislike and what they don’t. There is none of this beating around the bush that you get a lot of times.”
When asked how he would
describe the music on The Beautiful Old,
Gabe Rhodes uses the word “antique.”
Most antiques are priceless and so is the music that you will hear on
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Bottom Photo: Garth Hudson who appears on The Beautiful Old. Interview with Gabe Rhodes by Joe Montague, Published December 15, 2013, protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved
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