FROM TOWNS TO TOWNES: JOE PURDY TAKES AURAL ROAD TRIP IN AMERICAN FOLK
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
PHOTOS: Adrian Elliot, Devin Whetstone
“There’s just a few people that I know in this world that are such fans of lyrics to the degree that I am. The art of putting a line together…and deliver it in a unique way. There’s just nothing better in the whole wide world. So, I’m always happy to find a real lyric guy.”
Real-life folk singer-songwriters Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth are the stars of – and sonic GPS for – the upcoming big screen saga and soundtrack American Folk, both set to be released January 26. It’s no surprise that a songwriter – let alone two – would have plenty of stories to tell and songs to sing while on a cross-country road trip together, which is the basis of the script and storyline. The temptation to spin a yarn and tell a tale within a chorus or verse would be too intense for any artist to resist. Thankfully, both Purdy and Rubarth give in to the temptation for the soundtrack, and pay homage to a batch of traditional folk songs as well.
Purdy was just as much the storyteller during our recent conversation. So, with that, I’ll stop typing and let the music and musician do the talking, but not before I encourage everyone to catch Purdy and Rubarth live during their upcoming ten city tour, which begins January 26 at The Hotel Café in Los Angeles and wraps with two shows February 15 and 16 at the Folk Alliance 2018 in Kansas City.
Yeah, Jim, how are you?
I’m good. Thanks for your time today. We’ve got lots to talk about, so, if you’re good, I’m ready to jump into it.
Yeah, you bet. Absolutely.
So, before we dive into the music on the soundtrack, let’s talk about what inspired the songs. Can you give me a synopsis of the movie American Folk?
Well, there’s probably people better qualified to do that better than me but I’ll give it a shot. The idea behind it was showing – through the eyes of a couple of people – the immediate aftermath of what happened on 9/11. It’s about two people who were on a flight the morning of 9/11 taking off from Los Angeles (to New York City) and were grounded, and had their way back east, both for different reasons. But with no flights or anything, they had to borrow this old ’72 camper van. And they kinda have to rely a lot on the kindness of strangers along the way to get to where they’re going. And also along the way they find that they have music in common. And so that’s really the gist of the film. David (Heinz) the director was really intent on showing how people kinda dropped their guard, and all of their really hot rhetoric, or religion or politics, and everything else for a minute and were just kind to one another. I happen to be traveling through the country at that time as well and I remember the change in folks. And that was what he wanted to remind people of, and do it with a musical journey. And that’s kinda where I came in. I thought it was a pretty good opportunity. I got asked to do the film, and I’d never acted before, and I told him it was a horrible idea. And over the course of the next year he finally talked me into doing it. I felt like it was a really good opportunity to reintroduce people to this really true, older idea of folk music and reminding them of some of these old songs, as well.
You did a fantastic job of summarizing the film, for a guy who said he couldn’t do it. Thank you for that. Let’s jump into the soundtrack. It segues from your opening instrumental 90-second salvo to John Prine’s brooding and biting seven-minute opus “Some Humans Ain’t Human.” Was this track chosen to fit the 9/11 narrative?
No. That particular track was the director’s choice. The reason that sits where it does in the soundtrack is that we tried to be as true to the order of the film as we could. In the end we decided that we wanted to place things as they came up in the film. That’s why it comes where it does. It really had more to do with the narrative of the film.
Got it. Okay. Tracks four and five feature your co-star and fellow folk singer Amber Rubarth reinterpreting two traditional songs – “Red River Valley” and “Black Jack Davey.” Who curated these songs?
“Red River Valley” was the first song that popped into my head. I mean if push came to shove it’s one of my favorite melodies of all time. When I thought about something that is the sweetest, simplest sound and sweetest, simplest words that you can get across in like a folk moment, or the feeling of folk music, “Red River Valley,” since I was a little kid, has always been one of my favorites. And it sings really well, if that makes any sense. And “Black Jack Davey” (sometimes listed as “Black Jack David”) is a song I’ve always loved by The Carter Family. That’s how I heard it originally. But I came across this video…from the early 60s, late 50s, maybe, of this couple in West Virginia. And this guy was singing the “Black Jack Davey” that he could remember. That got passed down. That’s where that version comes from. It seemed more appropriate to the oral tradition that had been passed down.
Follow me, Joe, on this next question. It’s a bit of a long one, but I think you’ll get where I’m going at the end, here. The track “Someone Singing With Me” is an original song by you and Amber, and written by you. To me, it sounds like a sonic cousin to Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side,” which some say borrows from another song that also borrowed from a traditional Irish folk song, etcetera, etcetera. My question is this: isn’t that sort of the definition of folk music – or all music – in a nutshell? Borrowing from others.
It is, absolutely. I mean, that’s the tradition. I have to say that I’ve never thought of that with that particular song, because I’ve always thought of that song more as like a cowboy song. But, yes, to your question. Absolutely. I mean, Dylan was the master of that. And actually, Woody Guthrie, for “This Land is Your Land,” he took from The Carter Family’s “When the World’s on Fire.” And I f***in’ love that song! I think especially back then it was a very common thing to do. And then I think we started calling it ‘stealing’ somewhere around when Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings did a song called “Don’t Cuss the Fiddle.” And I think Kristofferson wrote it, but it’ on a Willie and Waylon record, and there’s a line it that says, “So, let’s settle down and steal each other’s songs.” And I feel like they had it right. But it’s harder and harder these days to find people to steal from (laughs).
(Laughs) That’s true! I think you gotta go back further and further to find some quality stuff. But that’s a whole other conversation, right?
Which we’ll have some time.
Oh, I’d love to! So, some of the songs on the album are separated by a series of brief snippets of dialogue from the film, which I enjoyed, contextually. What was the idea behind using these brief, I guess, interludes?
I think it was probably a little bit different for all of us in the collaborative process. For me, personally, I just thought it was cool. It kind of reminded me of an old school kind of a thing. I liked having like the theatre curtains drawn and then taken back up. And it reminded me of some of those funky old school tape edits, the way that they used to do, because we did everything on tape. It didn’t matter to me as much whether someone could derive an entire story of the film in the link of the soundtrack. It just felt like to me that it told its own story and it let you use your imagination for the rest. But I also just liked having a little break from the music. And like you said – I think you put it well – it’s a little contextualization. Its just a very subtle guide. So, I just think they’re kinda cool on their own.
Obviously, I can’t wait to see the film when it opens. Before we move forward, let me take you back. Was there a song that came on the radio, or a concert you went to, or an album you listened to, where now you can say that was the moment where you knew you wanted to make music your life?
Oh, wow. No. But I have a few earmarks. I knew it was a big deal when I was like 11-years-old and we got a VCR and a new console television, which is like, you know, as big as a Cadillac, with all the wood around it, and we had to move my father’s stereo somewhere else, and he moved it into my room…and it was the first time my father taught me how to set a needle down on a record. I just – at random – picked out a record from this probably 200-deep collection and it happened to be (James Taylor’s) Sweet Baby James record. I probably didn’t take that record off until I was, like, 14 (laughs). I really got into it and I used to love and sit there and read the liner notes. I think that’s why I’m so partial to stories painting pictures. You’ve got “Fire and Rain” on there and “Sweet Baby James.” I mean its cowboy songs, imagery and some really great finger picking. So, I started playing guitar around that time. But later on, I was 20, almost 21-years-old and I’d left Arkansas and got a job in the San Bernardino mountains out here in California, singing campfire songs at this arts academy in Idyllwild. It’s a beautiful place. I always felt that writing songs was something that happened in this magical faraway place. I never really considered writing a song myself, but I stumbled across my first song when I was in Idyllwild. I’d never met people who played and wrote their own songs. I’d never met these dancer and actors and (people) of all ethnicities and sexual preference, and it blew my hillbilly mind. That really changed my life. And so, that was the moment. And then I went back to my childhood home with an eight-track recorder the next week after that job was over and I recorded my first record.
I just have to say, Joe. I asked a question, you started your answer with one word – “no” – and you ended up giving me four of probably the coolest stories I’ve heard in all the years that I’ve had these conversations. Those were great! If I have time, and before I get the plug pulled here, I have two more questions for you. Jumping back to the soundtrack, you revisit the soundtrack’s opening 90-second instrumental with the full-length version of “This Old Guitar,” sung again by you and Amber. I wanna quote a lyric, and please feel free to correct me if I get it wrong…
No problem, go ahead.
…”They say we’ll be standing when the last war is won/But will we be worthy.” If I got that right, tell me a little bit about this song.
Yeah, you did. “Someone Singing with Me” and “This Old Guitar” were written from the perspective of these characters. So, I wrote these songs for the characters, which was a little bit freeing because I could take myself out of it and I could have this guy that’s feeling sorry for himself, and really indulge in it without feeling too guilty about it. Like I would if I was doing it for myself. Not that I haven’t spent plenty of time in records and songs feeling sorry for myself. But I’m a little bit more conscience of it these days. So, I wrote the first part of “This Old Guitar” (and) it wasn’t completely unlike me because at the time that I wrote it I had a guitar that was falling apart. I got up to a certain point, which was all that we needed for a scene and then I wrote the rest after the film was over, or at least after our first large chunk of time that we had traveled across country filming. I tried to stay true to the character and I went where I thought the character would go. But it also had a lot to do with me as well and how I kinda felt. I couldn’t help but throw a little bit of how I feel personally about the state of affairs of the world and our position in it and how selfish we are. Which turns into a much longer conversation, which you may have guessed, I could totally do and be very long-winded about. But I think that’s where I was going with that particular line.
Clearly it stuck out for me.
Thanks for noticing. You really did your homework.
Well, I love what I do and do what I love, thankfully Joe, and I know you do the same. I’ve often been accused of being a “lyric guy,” and I am!
Oh, my f***in’ favorite kind of person! I love it! It’s so hard to find a lyric guy. I love it!
Guilty as charged!
It’s really difficult sometimes because there’s just a few people that I know in this world that are such fans of lyrics, to the degree that I am. The art of putting a line together. When someone can really deliver it in a unique way. There’s just nothing better in the whole wide world. So, I’m always happy to find a real lyric guy.
Cool. Well, hopefully we’ll get an opportunity to say hello face-to-face at some point and we can continue that conversation.
Yeah. I would love that.
Thank you, me too. Well, let’s wrap this conversation with giving Amber the last word with her album closer “Townes.” Speaking of lyrics – and lyric guys – what makes the great Townes Van Zandt so f-ing great?
I feel like that’s a softball because I think by now you know I’m probably a massive Townes fan…
…and again, I’m right there with you.
Good, good! Townes, to me, was an alien. He’s so incredibly unique. If I had to describe him I’d say he’s like an even more laidback Hank Williams singing Walt Whitman poems. He has such a firm, natural grasp of true poetry and metaphoric poetry and literal at the same time. But he manages to wrap it around these cowboy melodies and chords that are all, for the most part, very simple in nature, but the arrangement of them is so rare. Once it seeps into your skin it’s really hard to get rid of. And especially if you’re in a point in your life where you want or need to hear that, it’ll never leave you. That’s kinda how I feel about him. He just has some of the best lines that have ever been written. I love Steve Earle’s quote about, “He’s the best songwriter that’s ever lived, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and scream it.” And I remember talking to him (Earle) about that and asking him about that when I toured with him, and he was like, ‘They just wanted a quote. I don’t think that he’s better than Bob Dylan, or whatever, but he’s just a different kind of genius.’ And I agree. I think all of the great songwriters that we love – or at least you and I love – make their way back to Dylan at some point. And I know that I do.
Joe, thank you again. I was looking forward to this conversation and it certainly exceeded my expectations – and they were lofty.
Ah, well mine, too. Thank you for being so prepared, yourself because, it maybe hard to tell from our conversation today, but I can be very shy, and I have a hard time talking to people that don’t actually have real questions ready, and don’t have any bit of involvement or interest in what they’re asking me about. And so, an interview with someone like you, who has actually taken the time to hear the stuff and to dig in – it makes such a difference because you actually get to have a conversation. When we get to have a conversation, then I feel comfortable. So, you did your job incredibly well. So, thanks for that.
Thank you. I appreciate it very much. And as I always say, I don’t do interviews, I have conversations.
Awesome! Yes you do.
So, on that note, have a great weekend and I’m very much looking forward to the film.
Thanks very much, Jim. See ya.