A CONVERSATION WITH BOB WOODRUFF
In 1994, Bob Woodruff released the criminally neglected Dreams & Saturday Nights, a defining musical statement that—no hyperbole—rivaled Johnny Cash’s American Recordings as Record Of The Year.
I’m gonna let that sink in.
The Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge and Eric Clapton’s From The Cradle were also released in 1994, but Dreams & Saturday Nights kicked their asses up down and sideways, no contest. It was like Her Majesty The Queen’s Humble Servants took the Duke of York’s knighting sword to a gunfight. And as for country music in 1994, let’s just say it went fishin’ with its best friend Bo only to periodically poke its head above water a handful of times since. Bob Woodruff painted a masterpiece and everybody else looked like chimpanzees playing with finger paints and construction paper at the Louisville Zoo. Friends, it wasn’t pretty but it was colorful.
In 1997, Woodruff released Desire Road, the long-awaited follow-up (and creative equal) to Dreams & Saturday Nights. Once again, Woodruff kicked everybody else’s asses up past their shoulder blades. Bridges To Babylon? Not even close, Glimmer Twins. Not even close. Of course, 1997 is also the year Clay Walker put out the elegant rumination “One, Two, I Love You” (“One, two, I miss you/Three, four, I walk the floor/Five, six, come back quick/I don’t want to miss you no more”) and LeAnn Rimes released the 5,000,000th rendition of “You Light Up My Life”, so William Blake wasn’t exactly writing the smash hits of 1997. Admittedly, it was not a banner year for melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, pitch, innovation, or performance, so comparing Bob Woodruff to the rest of 1997 is like comparing apples to assholes. Seriously, it was the year God gave up on country music and started listening to Slayer.
So what does Bob Woodruff get for all his hard work and talent? Having to sit through those last two paragraphs, for one thing. Like he needs a reminder of how FUBAR the music business is. Please. We all know the lowest common denominator and the half-assed walk among us free and unfettered with nary an emotional or financial care in the world. It’s common knowledge they breed like rabbits in confined spaces. This is not breaking news. Nobody needs to read it again.
But of all the musicians deserving of Grammy awards, Oscar song nominations, and critical accolades until the cows come home and set up housekeeping, it’s Bob Woodruff. What does he get instead? Pontificating blowholes like me preaching his virtues and probably not doing him any favors. Sorry, Bob, but you’re fantastic.
A few days ago, Woodruff was kind enough to grant me an interview, graciously answering my every stupid question and generally suffering a fool. I took too much of his time and he took it like a man. For that, I am forever in his debt.
I found him to be charming, refreshingly candid, and every bit as interesting as his records. Brother got soul.
Michael: If the appearance and success of this new CD is any indication, things are working out great for you in California. How’s life treating you these days?
Bob: Well, I suppose it has in many ways, not all or really so much career-wise, though. I do enjoy living here in L.A. It’s a unique city full of magical people and places with a rich history. Crazy dreamers of all kinds seem to end up here, so I think I kinda fit in. And I love the grittiness here. There’s a lot of wealth of course, but it’s not all gentrified like NYC is now. Not by any stretch. My neighborhood isn’t, anyway. For some reason I kinda like knowing you might see the occasional hooker on the corner, the bums who never seem to mind if all you can afford to give them is maybe a quarter, and the way that’s all tempered somehow by the nature in and surrounding everything here — all the mountains, palm trees, coyotes, and night blooming jasmine you can see hear and smell. And of course the weather’s always beautiful — it’s always either spring or summer here.
But as far as my music and the new CD, at the moment it’s only been released in Europe. That’s where I seem to be getting the most love right now. To be honest, making a living with music continues to be something of a struggle here. But never a prophet in your own land, right? [laughs] I can’t really complain, though. What’s been happening overseas is cool enough. I mean I just played a club date here in L.A. a couple of days ago with guys who normally tour and record with Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, and John Fogerty, and I don’t think there are many places in the world where that kind of thing can just organically happen. I really wasn’t sure who was gonna be in the band when I booked the show a month or so ago. Or even two weeks ago for that matter. That’s reason enough to love L.A.
Michael: So tell me about your experiences writing songs for films. I understand you wrote some songs for Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones and Mark Pellington’s Henry Poole Is Here (which, incidentally, is one of my favorite movies ever). Any chance of these songs appearing on a CD in the future?
Bob: I did, but they didn’t end up in either of those pictures. Alice Sebold, the writer of the book The Lovely Bones, happens to be an old friend of mine and she went to bat for me, but ultimately she didn’t have much to do with the production of the film and I don’t think Peter Jackson’s team ended up using any original songs in the movie. It was a fun exercise, though, and I wrote and recorded two songs I probably wouldn’t have otherwise–one called “What Is Heaven” and another “Where The Angels Know Your Name”–one or both of which may very well end up on my next record. The one I wrote for Henry Poole Was Here was a song that also had that as its title. It was a long shot getting it in the film and like most long shots didn’t happen, but I’m certain in that case I wouldn’t have ever written a song with as interesting and unique a title as “Henry Poole Is Here” if I hadn’t had that opportunity.
Michael: Let’s back up to 1994 and Dreams & Saturday Nights, the only record you put out with Asylum. I remember seeing your videos on CMT and thinking, “Wow. Look out, Dwight Yoakam. This guy is headed for arenas.” But unfortunately, it didn’t happen. Can you give us some insight into what happened?
Bob: I couldn’t tell you for sure. A lot of people, in fact many of my favorite artists’ first albums, failed to catch fire right away. There used to be something called ‘artist development’, where a label would stick with an artist and allow them to make another record or two before dropping them — even if their first album didn’t exactly fly out of the stores. It was, I think–and is now definitely at least on the major label level–pretty much a numbers game. I was bummed at the time, not so much that I didn’t become a big star, but mostly ‘cause I felt I was just starting and hadn’t yet hit my stride as a musician, singer, writer, and recording artist. There was so much I wanted to do or thought I could do better, given the chance and the encouragement that comes with having an audience–large or small–that were awaiting a new record, and the excitement and creative pressure that can come of knowing there’s a big label that can bring to bear the kind of resources it takes to really help make and get something out there to lots of folks, potentially.
Michael: In the early ‘90s country music was awash in ten-gallon hats, ironed blue jeans, and cardboard shirts, all sanitized for everyone’s safety. CD covers looked like Sears ads and everything was just so bland. As soon as I heard your lyric “with sex and drugs and bad intentions”, I thought maybe you might be too…realistic for Nashville. Is it possible Nashville just wasn’t ready for you?
Bob: [laughs] Yeah, that line probably scared a lot of potential country fans away. Oddly enough, it’s in a song that very young children seem to always dig?! The funny thing was I didn’t know what to expect until after I got to Nashville and eventually learned that the music — the sweaty human realism that the singers who inspired me most were about– was not really what was in vogue there at the time. You have to know that I was signed to Asylum when I was living in New York City and I came to Nashville with a recording contract. My ideas of country music were things that were rooted in my imagination.
Michael: Desire Road was another stellar release, but it seemed to suffer a similar fate as Dreams & Saturday Nights. Was it basically a case of bad luck combined with bad timing? Because the music itself was extraordinary.
Bob: Thank you, Michael. That’s kind of you. All I know is I spent a long time and had a Iot of fun — maybe too much fun [laughs] — making that record with Ray Kennedy, the guy that I co-produced it with. We really tried and thought we had some songs that could hit the sweet spot between what could be played on country radio yet still be the kind of record we were interested in making. I was the first one signed to Imprint records, the label that Roy Wunsch, who had been the former CEO of Sony Music Nashville, started. They had a lot of dough and they wanted to do something different and we all had high hopes, but it was a case of bad luck and bad timing, ‘cause basically by the time Desire Road got released the label had not only lost their balls but they’d also apparently run out of money. I don’t think my record had been out for more than a couple months when that label went bankrupt. I’m not gonna lie, that was a heartbreaker.
Michael: There’s a cover of an Arthur Alexander song on Desire Road, indicating a soul influence, but the classic soul and R&B influences are stronger this time around. Is that what you grew up on? Also, being born in New York City, how did you come around to country music?
Bob: I love music from the Sixties and Seventies, be it rock ‘n’ roll, soul, or country. I started playing in bands and writing songs in the Eighties, but there was very little music that was being made in that decade that inspired me or that I even liked. I don’t know, I did like bands like The Replacements and R.E.M. [I] saw Jason & the Scorchers, was a fan of Elvis Costello & The Attractions and other British post punk bands, but I liked the words, the stories, and simplicity of country music and maybe saw it as similar to the soul or country soul music that I always loved. Something that as a white guy–and without the ability to sing like Sam Cooke or Otis Redding–I could do. I adore great soul songs and singers. It’s what I listen to mostly.
Michael: So what was it like working with Doc Pomus? How did you meet him? In terms of songwriting legends, they don’t come much bigger.
Bob: Yeah, I miss Doc! I just saw a brilliant documentary about him called AKA Doc Pomus a couple months ago at the Grammy Museum here that his daughter Sharon Felder made. I knew his real name was Jerome Felder, so I looked him up in the phone book and called him. He was someone who I was fortunate enough to have come into my life at a time when I needed him to. I wanted to know what a great songwriter– not my friends, my bandmates, my family or whoever– thought of what I was doing. I felt if I sat at the feet of a master, I might just learn something. Doc was not in my life for very long, unfortunately, but he made a big impact on it. He introduced me to Cassie Roessel, his friend and music business attorney, who got me the deal with Elektra/Asylum and became my lawyer and close friend for many years before she herself passed away. Having him as a mentor for a while was possibly the best break I ever got. He was a giant as an artist and had probably the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known in the music business. I know my life is far richer for having known him.
Michael: I realize this is a touchy subject, but I understand you’ve had some issues with depression and drugs. First of all, congratulations on making it out of the darkness. But what was the key to making it out? What was the turning point for you?
Bob: Thank you, Michael. You know, everyone is fighting a hard battle. I just try to be kind and bring love, not discouragement, to whatever the hell happens. I need to have a spiritual practice like a boxer needs to train for a match. I mean, life is relentless and throws shit at you which you would never ask for. Yet if it weren’t for the darkness, I might not have recognized or made it a practice to seek something else which I call God, ‘cause it’s a short word and I think the less said about something that can’t be put into words — a thing beyond what our minds can fathom–the better. You have to try, but ultimately I think talking about God is kinda like dancing about architecture. It’s not how it’s experienced. All I know is that if I hadn’t had to go through my dark night of the soul as it were — had my own crises — I may never have had the opportunity or felt the need to try and rise to the challenges that life threw at me. Or made the effort to know what I really am — where I come from and where I’m going.
Michael: How did you end up recording The Year We Tried To Kill The Pain in Sweden? I understand you’ve also done quite a bit of touring there? Why Sweden? And did I read that Benmont Tench played keyboards on some of these tracks?
Bob: I got an email out of the blue from Andrew Dansby, a writer who did a piece about me in the Houston Chronicle a couple years ago, saying that he’d been contacted by a fellow from France by the name of Jose Ruiz, a writer and DJ at Radio France who had read his article online and who asked him for my contact info. The name was familiar and since I didn’t think I owed him any money, I told Andrew to go ahead and give him my email. Long story short is Mr. Ruiz had been chatting with a guy in Sweden by the name of Jerker Emanuelson, who owned a small label called Sound Asleep Records, and my name happened to come up in a ‘I wonder whatever happened to that guy’ way. Jose told him that when he was in Nashville doing a story in 1999, I had given him a demo that I had made there, again with Ray Kennedy when I was signed to a development deal with Interscope Records for about a minute after Imprint Records went out of business. Nothing ever came of that deal or those songs, but he had kept it, and after he spoke to Mr. Emanuelson in Sweden a couple years ago, he sent him a copy and after hearing it the label contacted me saying they wanted to release it on CD after all these years and they did. It’s titled The Lost Kerosene Tapes, 1999. It led to a pretty successful tour in Scandinavia and an unexpected opportunity to record with some very fine Swedish musicians– Fredrik Landh, Clas Olofsson and Mathias Lilja– at a nice studio in Örebro, Sweden, where I made the bulk of The Year We Tried To Kill The Pain. Just a couple overdubs were done here in L.A. by my talented buddy Rich McCulley, who played some beautiful guitar parts and a solo, and by my girlfriend at the time Heidi James who added some sweet harmonies, and also where my friend Benmont Tench was around and gracious enough to lend his amazing skills to the recording and play piano and organ on some of the tracks.
Michael: I always like to ask this question, because it’s revealing in terms of where an artist is coming from: What are your Desert Island Discs–the ones that you simply cannot do without? Your favorite records of all time?
Bob: I’m gonna cheat and just give you the first artists who pop into my head who I couldn’t imagine never hearing again. The Beatles, Stones, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Bach, George Jones, Gladys Knight, Al Green, Merle Haggard, Chopin, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Beethoven.
Michael: What’s next for you? Any chance of another CD soon? The reviews of this one have been universally positive. Every single one I’ve seen, in fact. Of course, some of them are in Swedish and my Swedish is a bit rusty. But there’s an enormous amount of goodwill out here toward you and your music. A tour, perhaps?
Bob: I’m not sure. It’s an uncertain but exciting time. And yeah, the kind reaction to the new album and just having the opportunity to make it has been very gratifying. And it’s put some wind in my sails lately. I did some shows last winter in Sweden, and while I was there I went back in the studio with the same guys in Örebro. We only had three days in the studio, but we tracked almost a whole album’s worth of songs. I haven’t even heard what we did there since, but it felt like we were making a good start. I’d love to release a new record again soon. There’s talk of releasing The Year We Tried To Kill The Pain here in the States — hoping a label in the U.S. emerges to help make that a possibility- – and also re-releasing Dreams & Saturday Nights to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its release which is this year- – and maybe doing a tour behind that. Right now all my records are either out of print or only available as expensive imports, so I do want that to change. In the meantime, I have a very limited amount of copies of every album I’ve made available for sale– but no official website at the moment– so if any of your readers want to get their hands on a copy, I suppose they can private message me on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/bob.woodruff.9 . I’ll give them the deets about how they might purchase copies from me directly.
Thank you, Michael, for the kind words about my music — and for your interest in it — and also for taking the time to ask me some thoughtful questions here. It was a real pleasure doing this with you. Good luck, my friend!
Michael: Once again, a thousand thank yous for the interview.
Dreams &Saturday Nights, The Lost Kerosene Tapes, 1999, and The Year We Tried To Kill The Pain are available on iTunes, but take my advice: go to https://www.facebook.com/bob.woodruff.9 and message Bob Woodruff. Buy all four CDs. They are simply the best of the best.
All four. It will be the best move you ever make. Go.
[My review of The Year We Tried To Kill The Pain can be found here: http://pointlessendeavor.wordpress.com/2014/04/16/bob-woodruff-the-year-we-tried-to-kill-the-pain/ ]
Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael is also a professional musician and sound engineer. He is currently recording his 6th CD with his best friends Screenlast 6.0 and Audacity Sourceforge. He thinks Iggy Pop is the greatest singer in the history of music. If you disagree, you’re wrong. You better ask somebody.
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