Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Brett Allen
A three-day stay in a much drier Nashville, Tenn., of then was coming to the end in January when this session with the venerable and always inspiring Lambchop came together very last minute. Sharing players with Cortney Tidwell, Kurt Wagner and the rest of his group found their way to Mark Howard's Signal Path studio, where we were set up for the day. We'd spent the previous day taping sessions with Justin Townes Earle, The Del McCourey Band, Charlie Louvin, Bela Fleck and others, eating shoulder burgers, hearing dirty jokes and stories from Dave Ferguson, visiting Cowboy Jack Clement's house/studio/cowboy spa, seeing Kris Kristofferson play at the Ryman Auditorium, unknowingly crowding our kind hosts in Roman Candle out of their own beds, wine and scrambled eggs, sharing a couple pizzas and drinks with Brendan Benson and wondering where John Prine and Jack White were all week long. Signal Path is just one of what seem to be an endless number of studios in Music City that don't look like studios at all, but instead look like simple ranch-style houses until you walk inside the front doors and realize it's one of the most incredible and legitimate spots you could ever record at. Our spot for the day was stately and our new friends spent a good amount of time messing with a website that could be programmed into animation of Larry King interviewing Sarah Palin, with the unwritten point to make both characters say the raunchiest things ever. Within this studio is where all of the bluegrass and hillbilly compilations sold in Cracker Barrel restaurants across the country are recorded and so, here we were wrapping up a late night with Wagner and Lambchop, recording a piece of work that includes a John Prine cover and some new songs that make for a stunning listen - one that makes us bake a little bit and stew in our insecurities. It's a most comfortable restlessness - the one that Wagner makes, as if there may be urges to get up and out of here, away from the sticky spider webs of a bed, a chair or a lover's clutches, but there are also the urges to just take the fangs to the neck, feel the euthanizing take place and just let the eyes roll groggily back. It lies on us, this fragility of the moment where two paths converge and there's something frightening about either choice. There are fucked up possibilities sloping each choice into some sort of slow free-for-all. Wagner is a master of his odd, narrative delivery, giving us all of the details that we need and coating them with a sheath of soft, but barbed drama. We feel pinned to these songs as if we were the butterflies and insects posed in a collection, stuck alive into the Styrofoam floor that's now a casket. The people that Wagner throws into his settings are constantly struggling with the ways in which they're shorthanded and the ways in which they're getting weakened up. He gives them all their own ballads and infects them with self-consciousness that's hyper and seems to be stored up in the clouds. It's damning and it's invasive, and it makes the struggles all that much headier. He takes us - with patience and poise - across these fault lines and to various edges and we feel exhilarated as we look over them. We feel as if we have a lot in common with all of these groggy folks on the rocks and a man who can write a line such as, "I guess it's right to like the girls who fight off our manly acts of desperation." It's as heartbreaking of an assessment of all human frailties as has ever been written.