Nine Songs: Kurt Vile
The unashamed embrace of the hits and larger than life characters are what drew Kurt Vile to Country as a genre. The timelessness is what has kept him there.
In 2018, preceding the release of his last record Bottle It In, Vile told Best Fit that "I’ve been getting deeper into country music over the past few years. From Jimmy Rogers to George Jones, it’s just pure music. Some of its cheesy, but there’s so much in there." It was a hint at a newfound obsession; a love affair with a genre that he wasn’t just flirting with the idea of, but fully immersing himself within.
At the time few knew that Vile had already been to Nashville to record a cover of John Prine’s “Speed Of the Sound Of Loneliness” with famed producer Dave (Ferg) Ferguson. The recording took place at Ferg’s legendary studio The Butcher Shoppe, a recording space he opened with John Prine, and a regular hangout of Johnny Cash.
It was this experience that provided the footing for Vile’s upcoming EP Speed, Sound, Lonely KV, which also features a duet with the sorely missed Prine who passed away earlier this year. Here his Nine Songs selections are songs that inspired the EP, including the three which he covered.
Vile tells me that his foray into country is as much to do with its mysticism and community as it is about the music itself. “I definitely get obsessed with these characters, who you can just imagine are all out of their minds. They're like a movie, except they were real.”
Those who assume Vile’s interview manner would reflect the slow burning psychedelia of his music would be wrong. He lights up when discussing those that he describes as his “heroes and antiheroes combined,” occasionally bursting into song and all the while displaying an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject area, gained from absorbing the works of Nick Tosches, among others, whose Jerry Lee Lewis biography Hellfire is a masterwork of the music writing canon.
“Nick Tosches passed away recently and I gotta say his writing influenced me a whole lot. It got me where I needed to go with inspiration these past several years, with keeping the American roots thing going.” And that seems to be where the key to Vile’s interest in the genre lies; absorbing the nuts and bolts of the American songwriting tradition, applying it to his own work in an attempt to join the lineage of legends who have come before him.
It is also about tapping into a rich vein of camaraderie and becoming part of a wider collective to contribute to and learn from. As he say’s himself of his time in Nashville “I did feel that community there and I can’t wait to get back.”
““Gone Girl” was a deep cut that I didn't give away for a while because it was so personal to me, and now finally that I got my cover out there I can unleash it to the world. It is just incredible.
“A few years ago, I made an ultimate country mix for driving around Australia. I called it ‘American Country for the Ozzie Outback’ and that was one song on there. Matt Sweeney from the band Chavez and other bands turned me onto this song, and turned me onto Ferg, the producer who recorded this album. Dave Ferguson was Cowboy Jack Clements engineer.
“It’s a super gorgeous song with great lyrics. It’s so simple and he's the only country artist that I know that comes off like he’s in a play. He is very theatrical; his voice has a certain type of vibrato that a lot of people couldn't pull off. And you would be surprised how much influence he had on Nashville, Memphis, Sun Records and all those things. We'll mention him a lot through this list.”
“I grew up on Johnny Cash through my Dad. He had the early Sun Records recordings and that's what he would play the most. My favourite song was “Guess Things Happen That Way” and there's something extra pretty about it. It’s not just, ‘tick tack tick tack’, it’s got the backing vocals - ‘ba doop ba doo ba doop ba doo.’
“There was something extra special about it and then sure enough Cowboy Jack Clement, he wrote that song. There's a movie called Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan that's basically a documentary about Cowboy Jack Clement. Its him in his studio and all these people that he's inspired and influenced and produced. He was always hanging with Johnny Cash and stuff, but the fact he was there in the very beginning and wrote such a classic and got Johnny to do that, it’s pretty amazing.
“In another way that's a Johnny Cash song. He didn't write it, but he owns it. I'm pretty much positive that Jack recorded it too and helped produce it with Sam Phillips. Sam Phillips produced it, but Jack was involved.”
““Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” is the pseudo title track of my EP and it was the first song I recorded for it. That song spoke to me. It’s a John Prine song, off of German Afternoons.
“Sometimes you rely on the studio recording of a band that defines the version of the song. You hear a live one and sometimes they aren’t as good, but the thing about John Prine in general is you'll see him play these songs live and they'll hit you hard.
“It’s a sad song in a way, as his relationship is ending. I think it’s literally straight up about his wife at the time, but it doesn't have to be just about that. I love how he says, “You come home late / You come early / You come home straight / You come home curly,” that's the best line ever, it’s so funny. Who else would come up with something like “you’ve broken the sound of the speed of loneliness”?
“He has this simple country arrangement, a couple of chords, but in his loose hypnotic fingerpicking style. He says that his fingerpicking style was a mistake. He was supposed to have three fingers on the finger picking hand, but he just uses two and I do that style too. You can just lock in with two fingers and do this style. I also recently read that Steve Earle said ‘John Prine’s the greatest and the reason I finger pick with just two fingers.’
“He was always himself. He's also the only person I can really think of who looks 100% cool in a moustache, not everybody can pull that off! You can carry his lyrics and his songs in your head, there's so much in there. He's the man.”
““How Lucky” was the last song I recorded for this EP and by that time a few years had gone by. I was just there to mix the record and finish it up, while also catching John Prine this past New Year’s Eve at the Grand Ole Opry. I learned that I like to go to Nashville, and it usually revolved around seeing John Prine live.
“A couple of years before, when we recorded two songs on this EP, “Gone Girl” and “Dandelions”, it was for John Prine’s 70th birthday shows at The Ryman. The first time, when I recorded “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”, I was there for a Ryman celebration of Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday, so it always revolved around John. There's always been either a Ryman show or a Grand Ole Opry show combined with me recording these songs with Ferg in Nashville.
““How Lucky” was kind of decided last minute. I knew we were going to see John on New Year’s and I was excited to just enjoy that and finish the EP, but then I got invited to sit in with John on a song. It’s something that people do in the country world, it’s not that uncommon. I had sat in with John before, but even so, it made me nervous because I thought we'd just be watching the show, and the Grand Ole Opry is a lot bigger than the Ryman.
“At first I was nervous, but then I was like ‘No, this is going to be amazing’ and I picked the song “How Lucky” to do. While we were there mixing the record, I said to Ferg ‘Maybe we could get John in here and he could teach me the song we're gonna do in a couple of days and record it?’ It’s not like I just had that idea then, I did have it in the back of my mind, but it was amazing how easy it was.
“So Ferg gave John a call and he just showed up like it was nothing. He said to me ‘You know I love to sing with you Kurt’, as if it happens all the time. It was just a couple of takes and I was definitely nervous. He was telling me all kinds of great stories. It was very awesome and natural.
“The label got real excited about that song and wanted it to be a single. The only thing that worried me was I like the fact it popped up on the EP out of nowhere, you can’t believe its Prine there, and it kind of tugs on the emotions. But I can live with that, because it really is such a great track and it’s pretty heavy to have pulled it off.
“I planned for it to come out while he was still around to enjoy it, but it’s a lot different than I imagined. But he did hear both of them in the studio and it’s still a beautiful thing to be able to have it coming out now. We’re all really excited to put it out. He was the man, and he still is the man, up there, wherever he is.”
“Charley Pride has the greatest voice in country music, its effortless. He's like Jimi Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix came out of nowhere and just blew Rock and Roll away effortlessly and Charley Pride is similar. He's this black guy who shows up in country music and sings like a bird. It was rare to have a black person in country music, and sure enough Cowboy Jack Clement discovered him and produced him.
“The story behind this is amazing. He got everyone super into his recordings, because they were great. Then he got the record labels interested and then he was like, ‘Are you ready to see who he is?’ And he pulled out the photo really slow and it was a black country dude. And because those were different times, everybody was wondering if it would work, and sure enough he was the greatest singer of them all.
“I love the way he sings in this song, "Rain dripping off the brim of my hat / It sure is cold today." But it’s better than sleeping in his king size bed which is where he was with his wife. He's like ‘I'm outta here.’
"He's a beautiful man, I have his picture on my refrigerator, a poster that came with this record. He's the best, he's still kicking too, and I hope that I get to meet him one day."
“This is probably Kris Kristofferson’s biggest song and it’s from his first album. Janis Joplin made it huge, but honestly, I respect her version and people who love it, and I understand why it was a big hit, but I love Kris Kristofferson’s version so much.
“I picked “Me and Bobby McGee” especially because I had burned this from a vinyl to a CDR. I'm known to travel around the world with a Discman and when I burn these records I don't notice how good they are, but once you crank them up with headphones they sound incredible when you’re flying all over and you’re out there playing shows and getting inspired.
"I love that they start the tape and he's like ‘If it sounds country, man, then that's what it is, it’s a country song’ and he kicks right into it and then they capture this masterpiece. The production by Jerry Kennedy is just incredible. I love when the harmonica comes in pretty quickly, then the next verse modulates up a key. I’d be playing it the whole time in my headphones and it’s hard to beat.
“That’s why I like country in general. In the indie world, everybody is trying to say that they like the obscure records, but in country music they are all about trying to get a hit that speaks to you. It’s all about the words and the melody and the soulfulness of it. So in country music it’s the hits that are the ones that people keep going back to, and that's what they are aiming for.”
“This album Dreaming My Dreams was also produced by Cowboy Jack Clement and I just love its groove. I love his bass and I like how Waylon steals some blues lyrics in this song, which is always encouraging.
“People like Bob Dylan do that all the time. Some people copy, but the people who know how to steal are the ones who know what’s going on. “If you want to get to heaven, gotta D-I-E” is stolen from a blues artist and there's lots of Furry Lewis lines in this song, but you just can't beat Waylon Jennings’ voice.”
“The first book of Nick Tosches I read was Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll and I would make all kinds of playlists reading those books. This is a Sun Records recording and it’s really amped up and fast.
“The first version I heard of this was cover of “No Name Girl”, a slowed down, ‘70s chugged version on the same album as Prine’s “How Lucky”, but then if you hear this version it is so sped up and fast, with this funny horn solo. Billy Lee Riley comes in and he's talking about “The girl I love ain't got no name / But I love her just the same… / She got great big feet with size number 10 / She never know where she going but know where she's been.”
“One might suspect that there were some black beauties involved or some kind of uppers going on, because I don't know how you can play that fast otherwise, and that was very of the times.”
“This was track one, I believe, of my very first country mix that I made for myself a few years ago. Jerry Lee showed up trying to do country when he showed up at Sun Records studios. Sam Phillips wasn't there, but who was there but Cowboy Jack Clement. “Sweet Little Sixteen” has got that intro with the heavy bass riff, and you can’t mess with his singing, they called him ‘The Killer.’
“Jerry Lee got huge at times and hit rock bottom, he went up and down multiple times. He was the only person who could live to tell the tale of demanding to see Elvis and ramming his car through his front gate, saying ‘He's no better than anybody else, he called to hang out and now he's not showing up at the door.’
“He was a frightening badass, let’s just put it that way. But nobody could boogie like Jerry Lee, the way he's singing and playing that piano live, and that groove, only Jerry Lee could do that. I know they say Elvis is the king, but he never punched me in the guts the same way as Jerry Lee.”