@ReedTurchi is a producer, label head, band leader and solo artist. He’s also a master of guitar driven blues that shapeshift seamlessly between acoustic slide, electric juke joint boogie, and the improvisational, groove-driven, massive sound of his Nashville based Kudzu Orkestra. @MusicNews360 caught up with Reed returning from a trek deep within the Grand Canyon. Through winding twists and turns, we discussed ManateeVans, beagle poop, putting the social back into music, and high proof corn liquor. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Reed Turchi – Full Performance (Paste Studio NYC)
Reed Turchi – Full Performance (Live on KEXP)
MN360 – What is your astrological sign?
RT – Gemini.
MN360 – What is your spirit animal?
RT – Manatee, the Manatee Van.
MN360 – If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
RT – Perfect pitch. A lot of people have that, but I count it as a superpower.
“Perfect pitch. A lot of people have that, but I count it as a superpower.” – @ReedTurchi
MN360 – If you had to describe your music as a color, what would it be?
RT – Dark Blue.
MN360 – So when does the new record come out?
RT – The record comes out July 2018, though you will start to hear about it in April. I’ll be in NYC with the Kudzu Choir performing at The Bitter End, as well as doing a Paste Live Session and a Leesta Vall Direct to Lathe Session, to help show off the band, and the new record.
MN360 – When did you first get into music?
RT – Haha! Well…in different forms, pretty much most of my life. In terms of playing…My mom rounded up me and two of my elementary school friends and forced us into piano lessons. So that was my first non-recorder music class, pre-k musical learning. Then different versions of piano is what got me up until college, which is when the slide guitar bug bit and proved contagious.
MN360 – Your first musical instrument was the piano?
RT – Yep. Once I had the technical proficiency to be able to, I went down a more narrow piano path, and found stuff that I like, which was almost all boogie woogie piano stuff. Somewhere between Professor Longhair New Orleans stuff and the Pete Johnson Kansas City Blues stuff. All that is real rhythm left hand and more ornamental right hand. I love that stuff, but when I got into Fred McDowell and Hill Country world, I ran out of ways to fake that on piano…
I see a link between establishing musical proficiency with piano, diving more specialized within piano, and then realizing that was the wrong instrument for what I wanted.
You know, I can’t really play the guitar, but the reason I picked up the guitar was to play that particular sound, ignore the rest. The narrow method has proved somewhat useful.
“The reason I picked up the guitar was to play that particular sound, ignore the rest. The narrow method has proved somewhat useful.” – @ReedTurchi
MN360 – So you arrived at the blues while playing the piano?
RT – That’s definitely the case. Slightly a different blues, though I would say the same feeling. If you really nerd out about the way the Fred McDowell stuff works with the rhythmic thumb and single note melody line…There are a lot of parallels between that and the way, on the boogie woogie piano stuff, how the left hand is the rhythmic monster and the right hand is the melody. That’s not quite a clean comparison, but I see the connection there.
MN360 – You studied slide guitar with Kenny Brown. Can you tell us about your apprenticeship?
RT – One story that comes to mind … Kenny boarded all of his neighbors hunting beagles, as well as his own. So Kenny being the resourceful man that he is built about a 15 foot by 50 foot cement slab, and partition runs within that. All the dogs would be in there and still separated within these narrow rectangles. And that was fenced in. But then Kenny also not wanting to deal with the amount of beagle shit being produced by like 15 beagles, especially in summer heat…he would just take a pressure hose and hose all of that beagle defecation off the back end of the slab.
Unfortunately there was a point at which the immense mound that was being created along the back end of the slab was solidified and dense enough that the pressure washer could no longer push the beagle shit past a certain point. So in effect a shit mound about two feet tall, two feet wide, and fifty feet long had formed along the back end of the cement slab.
Kenny’s idea to deal with that, since it was on the edge of a hill, was to take a big PVC pipe…like a 12 inch diameter pipe…saw it in half, and then lay that behind, doing it at an angle so it could run off the back of the hill. Only problem…and my task…was to dig the trench for the pipe. But in order to dig the trench, and before you got to the ground…one had to dig through the approximate two foot by two foot by fifty foot mound of two year old beagle shit.
So I got about three shovelfuls in, and that was about all I could take before the project was aborted. I did end up burning those shoes.
The most telling moment of all was…when I walked back down to where Kenny was, after he had left me with the shovel and the…hm, informal blueprint. When he saw me walk back down after having stood two feet deep in beagle shit…Kenny said, “Oh…I guess I had some boots I could have lent you!”
The real blues experience is just that last little bit.
“When he saw me walk back down after having stood two feet deep in beagle shit…Kenny said, ‘Oh…I guess I had some boots I could have lent you!'” – @ReedTurchi
MN360 – Right on! Any other insights from your tutelage with Mr. Brown?
RT – Park headed out…
“Park headed out…” – @ReedTurchi
Thanks to that intimate time, that lasted about 2 – 2.5 years, he did not directly teach me that much guitar, but I was certainly exposed and hands-on in that type of guitar playing much more than any healthy human should have been. You know, like any non academic tradition, it was definitely more of an informal passing of information, but a passing of information, nonetheless.
Kenny always told me he had the idea for a blues tour where you’d get a bunch of people on the bus from the airport in Memphis. You take them all down on the bus to whatever half functioning music venue Duwayne Burnside is running. Drop them all off. Take their bags, wallets, and just leave them.
So that would be the blues tour–everyone trying to figure out what they could do to get out of there while they were stranded without a wallet or bags, somewhere between Holly Springs, Potts Camp, and Oxford.
“That would be the blues tour–everyone trying to figure out what they could do to get out of there while they were stranded without a wallet or bags, somewhere between Holly Springs, Potts Camp, and Oxford.” – @ReedTurchi
MN360 – So how has your experience in North Mississippi influenced where you are today?
RT – Well I don’t think I realized this until years later…there just aren’t that many people in the world who have been crazy enough to spend a significant amount of time there. It’s definitely its own world. After spending a decent amount of time there, you realize that what from afar looks like giant genre of musical legends is basically this tiny area where a bunch of dudes just played the same stuff and didn’t have anything better to do…
“After spending a decent amount of time there, you realize that what from afar looks like giant genre of musical legends is basically this tiny area where a bunch of dudes just played the same stuff and didn’t have anything better to do” – @ReedTurchi
MN360 – What is the blues?
RT – Well, it’s a folk music and an oral tradition, which is fun. Beyond that, the artists who seem to get it and ring true understand that the blues is a celebration of life and also admitting difficulties in life. If it becomes about guitar work, or it becomes about gear…you know all the blues doctors and lawyers in the world…then you’ve kind of missed the boat. And if it’s just about being sad, then that’s not quite right either.
“The blues is a celebration of life and also admitting difficulties in life” – @ReedTurchi
It’s a social music. I think we have less and less social music in the world because we consume music in our earbuds or as background music in a coffee shop, which is social music of a type, but kind of a social music meant to be ignored. So like all kinds of other music, a lot Latin music…anywhere where the audience and the performers are riding the same wavelength…instead of performers on a stage pretending like the world should worship them–that’s not the experience I’m talking about. Where the music just comes out of daily life, that’s the essence of where blues comes from. That essence or feeling of it coming from life is what matters.
“It’s a social music. I think we have less and less social music in the world because we consume music in our earbuds” – @ReedTurchi
“That essence or feeling of it coming from life is what matters.” – @ReedTurchi
MN360 – What keeps the blues alive?
RT – The way it looks will constantly change. As long as people are genuinely expressing themselves in music and not just turning it into some sort of anonymous sound or expression for marketability, then that same feeling will live on.
MN360 – What is the connection between blues and spirituality?
RT – Well you know…all the jokes about playing blues music Saturday night and gospel music Sunday morning ring pretty true. Blues at its best is willing to accept that there are great unknowns. There is definitely appeals to a greater or all powerful God that is built within the blues, so I think they are all related.
“Blues at its best is willing to accept that there are great unknowns.” – @ReedTurchi
You know there is a Fred McDowell quote that goes something like, “Most people go through their lives and they do not even feel anything until someone they know dies, and then it is too late.”
One reason I liked Fred so much is he would play everything. He would play from 4pm to 2am every single Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoon, because that was the gig. He played everything, sometimes it’s spirituals and sometimes it’s blues. It just depends on what the setting is, or who is listening, or what mood he is in. It’s all music.
MN360 – What do you see as the importance of rhythm in blues music?
RT – Rhythm is all there is in music. That’s why we have it. You can hear the different rhythms that are seen as the pillars of blues rhythms come from the situations they are being played in. Whether it is fife and drum rhythmic background in Hill Country music, or the Texas Shuffle that is closer to western dance. And then, Chicago Blues, having a more homogenized rhythm and structure, although sometimes boring, was the key to keeping those guys playing together, and the key to making Willie Dixon a ton of money when he standardized the songs into 12 bar formats that could be sold to publishing companies.
“Rhythm is all there is in music. That’s why we have it.” – @ReedTurchi
The rhythm is all that really matters, and you can hear each geographic rhythm just comes from the setting it’s being performed in and…the state of the listener. You know, Luther Dickinson says the key to Hill Country blues is the hypnotic properties of corn liquor. If you have high proof enough corn liquor, the way you play and the way the listeners react kind of take a left turn.
“If you have high proof enough corn liquor, the way you play and the way the listeners react kind of take a left turn.” – @ReedTurchi
MN360 – What do you think about drummers?
RT – Usually how it goes is if I get along with the drummer, I can’t stand how they drum, and if I barely get along with the drummer, I love the way they drum. Thankfully, Wallace (new drummer) breaks that mold. He is in his 60s, maybe 50s, and plays drums in order to play music, rather than playing drums to hit things, kind of like Anthony Cole from that amazing Greyhounds lineup–it’s a much more musical type of drumming than just hitting things.
“It’s a much more musical type of drumming than just hitting things.” – @ReedTurchi
I don’t know anything about drumming…But when I’m trying to play with a drummer, if it doesn’t work right off the bat, I can never get it to work. No matter how much we break down songs, no matter how much I try to speak drummer vocabulary. When it’s just off, it’s totally off.
“I don’t know why, but 9 out of 10 drummers totally shit the bed on Hill Country style drumming. They want to tame it back…” – @ReedTurchi
I don’t know why, but 9 out of 10 drummers totally shit the bed on Hill Country style drumming. They want to tame it back…You know, instead of attacking on the upbeat, they want to flip it over. You lose all the energy that way. I’m very lucky right now to have Wallace here, because…poof…I have trouble with drummers.
RT – If I was a better audio engineer, I would have more specific lessons learned from that time. John Fry and John Hampton, they…the way they shaped what was being played and recorded wasn’t sort of the producer role we think of today–like polishing something or turning something into a more marketable version of a rougher demo, which is what we kind of assume the process to be now. Rather, they would make pretty amazing artistic and musical choices to enhance the music.
So if it were a Chris Bell song, like “You and Your Sister”… John would get the strings and would be able to make a heartbreaking string section, and he knew how to bring them in and make a perfect mix. Or if you would take some falling apart as it comes together…Big Star “Third” type of stuff. John would treat unintentional guitar feedback as just as vital a piece of a song as someone’s vocal. All the pieces were equal and all the things were musicals. In my mind, the best engineers are able to do that.
“All the pieces were equal and all the things were musicals. In my mind, the best engineers are able to do that.” – @ReedTurchi
Obviously, Memphis has a huge rhythmic background. But if you think about those studios working together in the heyday, between the Stax empire…and all of the string, overdub work, and mixing being done at Ardent, because of the high tech gear and because of Fry…and then using the Swampers rhythm in Muscle Shoals…You start to get an idea that each of these places were contributing a very special part to making probably some of the best music ever made. Memphis’s heyday was that whole region’s heyday.
So those are the things I try to think about because otherwise you can get a little too enamored with a particular time or a particular place. I mean there are circumstances historically that make that possible, but it’s not like…Yeah, if I go cut a record… I mean you can make believe whatever you want, but at the end of the day, those people with those skill sets made those things happen. It wasn’t just like…there may have been some circumstances that made it seem like it was just “in the water”, but you know there’s a reason why there is a hot period and then a not so hot period–you need the right people.
“There’s a reason why there is a hot period and then a not so hot period–you need the right people.” – @ReedTurchi
MN360 – So you went from North Mississippi to Memphis to Nashville?
RT – Well, one piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit geographically is meeting, touring, and making the Scrapyard record with Adriano Viterbini … Because, the intensity and the rhythm he uses when playing guitar, and also he’s such an omnivore of styles, a master of learning things and incorporating them, you know, blew my mind sideways. Having someone like that even interested in the least of what I was doing… so to some extent you know validating the very small and narrow approach I had was a big deal for me and a signal to keep going.
And now in Nashville…I’ve got a lot of people that I love making music with all around. Now with Wallace, the drummer, across the street… With the Kudzu Orkestra, I used to start “Going Down South” and just call out the key. Now I call out “Going Down South”, and Wallace asks “Who’s version?” I don’t know how many drummers in the world–the answer is probably about three–have played with as many Hill Country guys.
“Now I call out ‘Going Down South’, and Wallace asks ‘Who’s version?'” – @ReedTurchi
So having Wallace here, and Kathleen to sing and keep me in tune, which is very nice. And then you know Heather, from Caterwauls, who lives about three or four houses away, on piano. I mean, yeah, Nashville is full of great musicians, but these specific people are people that I love recording with and playing with. I feel a real resonance with them. So that really helps me just be able to make music that I love.
“I feel a real resonance with them. So that really helps me just be able to make music that I love.” – @ReedTurchi
You know one of my least favorite things about Memphis, and whoever wants to can kill me for this, but there’s a real pressure to worship the Gods of Memphis’ golden age. I’m into that and I love that music, but that’s not who I am. I’ll try to learn from that and incorporate parts of it, but I can’t get into some pissing contest about who can play the most Stax guitar licks. I mean it is not going to get me anywhere.
“There’s a real pressure to worship the Gods of Memphis’ golden age.” – @ReedTurchi
“I can’t get into some pissing contest about who can play the most Stax guitar licks.” – @ReedTurchi
So it’s refreshing to be somewhere where…like if I was here in Nashville trying to do country or country pop or even Americana, wherever that is…I think there would be a lot of a similar weight. I don’t care about that stuff. I feel like I’m a little more free in the music I can make because of what’s going on and also being surrounded by some of my favorite musicians within walking distance of the house, or in the house. So that’s the best case scenario for me. And now I get to practice all the time since I actually live somewhere–that makes a big difference!
MN360 – What is the biggest misnomer about Nashville?
RT – The biggest misnomer is that it’s all country. Though, in truth, it is the country empire, so that is only partly a misnomer. I would say that for a lot of those genres it is really shitty and hyper competitive, or even worse, passive-aggressive competitive. It is also true that there are a lot of great musicians in the woodworks, not just guys that have had a country hit. It’s a town that right now is in that sweet spot of affordability and creativity. I’m sure that won’t last…and I’m sure I’m part of the problem. It’s a nice place to be right now…there are interesting things happening. When that door closes or when we all get priced out of the neighborhood, we will all look back on it as a special moment and scene. And I’m not talking about people moving here from Portland with their Stetsons to be part of a scene.
“Nashville’s a town that right now is in that sweet spot of affordability and creativity.” – @ReedTurchi
MN360 – Can you tell us a bit about the Kudzu Orkestra?
Kudzu Orkestra is a totally open invitation, recurring gig, that happens on average once a month. I lead the songs and get them started. It’s a mix of Hill Country classics and the simplest “Reed” songs, so almost no chord changes, or no chord changes at all–best case. People who are into that, having a somewhat led but otherwise pretty free interpretation chance to perform without an ego trip and without, you know, a lot of money worries involved love it, and they come back and maybe bring a friend or play whenever they’re in town, stuff like that. So it’s incredible.
I mean the group of people that play in it are pretty spread out in who they are and how professional they are with their music. But the music we make is some of the best. There are a lot of people now who say it’s the most fun gig and their favorite band they’ve ever heard in Nashville. It’s just a party. We play in a room about the size of your living room kitchen, and there will be 14 people playing.
It’s just about sharing rhythm. We do it the last Wednesday of every month at the Inglewood Lounge.
“It’s just about sharing rhythm. We do it the last Wednesday of every month at the Inglewood Lounge.” – @ReedTurchi
There’s no pressure. There’s no judgement. Especially in a town where everyone is always being begged to come to everyone else’s show, so they can get the right number of people at the door. There is none of that. It’s just a good time. And I think people are just starting to recognize that that feeling that seems like it should be so basic in music is actually absent most of the time. So they’re kind of refreshed by it.
MN360 – How are these Kudzu Orkestra gigs informing the new album?
RT – The album morphed more out of my solo touring over the last year and a half, which has been the most gigs I have played in my life. I did about 100 gigs in 2017 and will aim for about the same number in 2018. So the album really grew out of that.
The relationships for the people on the album came from the Orkestra. I experiment with some stuff but it’s more fun…The Orkestra really experiments on me. I start songs and then just see where they go.
We recorded the album all live in the same room together with no headphones, no computer overdubs, no computer edits, none of that. On the new album there’s a lot of vocal heavy stuff, in large part thanks to Kathleen’s harmony abilities. She can help me get vocals together and figure out parts, because I have no ear for that.
The album is me and my Kudzu Choir. It’s not a Kudzu Orkestra record, like the last one. It’s Kathleen singing. Wallace playing drums. Heather playing piano and singing. Then Lee playing bass and also singing. So we have got four singers, and instruments. I’m playing slide guitar through a tiny little amp. We’re all together in the same room doing it live, all the vocals at the same time. So volume is really important.
“We’re all together in the same room doing it live, all the vocals at the same time.” – @ReedTurchi
MN360 – Can you tell us more about recording with the Kudzu Choir?
RT – The strength of the album is that it is obviously a recording of people in a room sharing a certain moment and mood. We recorded the entire album on Saturday, mixed the entire album on Sunday, and sent it off to be mastered on Monday. We rehearsed for it, and I had spent 100 some gigs playing these songs–it’s not like this was totally off the cuff. But the beauty is in how it came together, and how the personalities came together.
“It’s not the musicianship so much as it is the combination of personalities and characters. I really think you can hear that on the record. There is just a feeling to that you recognize is a very special, and rare, trait.” – @ReedTurchi
You know, Lee is from Tupelo, MS. Heather is from Woodbury, TN. Wallace has spent the last 12 years in Holly Springs. The only rehearsal everyone attended was the Friday night before the session. Everyone came over, and had dinner. As soon as everyone sat down, it was obvious that this was the group. It’s not the musicianship so much as it is the combination of personalities and characters. I really think you can hear that on the record. There is just a feeling to that you recognize is a very special, and rare, trait.