Sticks a fork in Americana
Tim Easton is in a natural conversation with the world. He’s a critical success, dubbed a songwriter’s songwriter with a literary bent, having grown into himself the old-fashioned way — through living. His songs wring out the everyday, and might be about love, a child, a three-day bender, a shining star. Many of them speak to awakenings of self.
Today, Easton lives in East Nashville, by way of Akron, Tokyo, London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Alaska, Joshua Tree, and other stopovers in between. He’s well-known and unknown, and at 50 years, he seems to have found the sweet spot — the convergence. He is set to release an album on Last Chance Records in September, American Fork, and has recently completed his own definitive songbook “100 Songs,” while practicing as a burgeoning visual artist, creating custom vinyl covers for a select number of his records. He’s a family man with a wife and daughter, and two dogs.
But there is an odd undercurrent in which you’ll find the joker and the thief, his counter to the idyll. Easton can be restless — it’s how he’s found the home inside himself. He walks and talks and has a revolution on his mind, which in fact, often belies a comfortable nature found in
“I play for people to get out of apathy, [to remove themselves from it] through art and music,” he says from his home, where he is preparing to leave for Alaska to play Salmonfest. “I feel like Nashville is way into avoiding people’s politics. It’s not discussed. We had Steve Earle there for a while. He and Woody Guthrie are pretty big inspirations in my life, as far as activism goes.
“I wanted to bring politics — actually, not politics, but apathy — into the songs [on American Fork], and reveal how you can avoid it. I wish that more people in this town would give their opinions on how they feel about this country, and what direction it’s headed in. I love The Clash. They never hid it … and the reason I’m into Latin American writers is because they don’t hide it. Music and art. Politics.”
Ah, the Latin American writers. Spiritual translators of the seen and the unseen, and critics of tangible oppression. Easton, who was a poetry major at Ohio State University, is heavy into novelist Roberto Bolaño. It’s no stretch to understand why Rolling Stone said “Easton’s songs are doubly blessed — with memorable musical nuances and a novelist’s sense of humanity.”
In other words, you’re getting twice the bang for your buck when you drop the needle on any one of Easton’s 11 records. “I wanted to stick a fork in that Americana thing,” Easton says. “Change the direction. I love messing with people’s expectations with songwriting. Unfortunately, Americana is just a little bit tepid. We all love Levon Helm, but for God’s sake, you’ve got to break some new ground. You’ve got to challenge yourself. I’ve got nothing to lose. The music business gave me a shot. So today, I get to travel and make the kind of records I want to make. I don’t have to really answer to anybody except
To Easton, American Fork speaks to decision and challenge by shining a light on everyday living. The power of just feeling blood coursing through the body can set one on a path to discovery. As Dylan sang, “Use your hands and legs, it won’t ruin you.” Often, awakening to the reality of living can move one toward a greater understanding.
“It’s pretty obvious to me the country is headed for some kind of forked path,” Easton says. “And the term ‘American Fork,’ I’ve had that in my notes for a long time, and passing through the town in Utah — some of the darker things that happened in that town are in the book Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. And, I thought it was a funny pun. It’s very close to ‘American Folk’ or ‘American Fuck’ or the fork in a river. I’m way into fishing — I go to the Alaska festival for work and play.”
He’s constantly worked to shape a career outside the box, though the business demands ready identification. There are those who want to see your papers. Through his own doggedness, Easton avoids much of it, but ultimately makes an uneasy peace laboring beneath the Americana thumbprint. Today, he remains a relatively free man.
“When I made my first two albums in Nashville with Brad Jones and Robin Eaton at Alex the Great back in 1997 and1998, the Americana Music Association did not exist,” he says. “They labeled it ‘alt-country’ back then, which was far worse a description than ‘Americana,’ in my book. The next album I made, with New West on board, was with three members of Wilco backing me up — a band that successfully ditched all marketing labels.
“I’m older now, so I don’t care what people call my music, and I get it that the music business has to have categories in order to market the music. Though I can only imagine most of today’s 20-something songwriters feel uncomfortable being marketed as such. It’s a box that will need to be broken out of, because all great artists change and morph into something new as they progress through time. I will hand it to the AMA’s for getting behind artists that are now changing the face of country music and Music Row, and Nashville itself. I’m very happy to be living in Nashville during this amazing change-up.”
Changing the face of country music may be a reach, but Easton’s self-awareness is built around his own personal revolution. There may be a movement afoot, but when you dig into the scene, there’s still a heavy vibe of uniformity — even in alternative circles. Revolution has to take place in the mind before it can take place in the body, in the sound. In the lyric. Social and political issues seldom rise to the top.
“We’re obviously headed for a period where it’s being talked about more,” Easton says. “I love Hurray for the Riff Raff. They’re post-Katrina, out of the musical and artistic scene that came from there [New Orleans]. And they’re out of here now. I love them musically. To hear them speaking their mind on oppression and equality. I love it.
“I don’t expect — you know — people like Lucinda Williams. She doesn’t have to do it. She says it in her poetry. She says it in her lyrics. It’s a responsibility I’m really glad is coming back.
“And a little bit of sex is important, too,” he adds. “That is the reality of our lives. … You don’t have to agree with everyone’s opinions, but it’s nice to know that someone has a backbone, and I like the idea of being inside the other camp. I like to place myself deep within the camp of the perceived ‘other side.’ They’re not enemies, they’re just people that think differently than I do. I like to be there and be myself there and try to bring everyone closer together.”
Easton’s music bears a chameleon-like quality. It is literate, but it can veer toward pop when desired, or it can get dirty inside three chords and a garage. The separation comes through how easily Easton’s vocals and relaxed, natural arrangements get under the listener’s skin and into the mind. A revolution may begin slowly. On American Fork, produced by Patrick Damphier at Club Roar, with one track recorded by Gabe Masterson at East Side Manor, he covers the broad spectrum easily and delivers a personal record whose strength is found in the lyric and an understanding of everyday life.
“The fact is, ‘it takes a village’ is so true with me and the musicians on this record,” Easton says. “Many of them are East Nashvillians. They are the real heroes to me. I sense a lot of Dylan on the vibe of the album and that’s because I sang and played it with the band. I’m so fortunate to live in a place where you can have these kind of players around. I think about just how amazing it is in the neighborhood.” That primary studio band consisted of Jon Radford on drums and percussion, Michael Rinne on electric and upright bass, and Robbie Crowell on keys and saxophone.
Beginning in 1988, Easton earned his bones bouncing around Europe for many years troubadour-style, busking in the London Underground, playing the streets from Paris to Prague, practically homeless much of the time.
“It took a while to get there,” he says. “[Sometimes] I feel like I’m a very slow learner. I left Ohio and got a job as a bus boy in London. I was busking in the Tube. I was playing covers — Stones, Hank Williams, … some contemporary. I hadn’t really written many songs. I began to feel like I could do this. I had to go over there and live for a while, hitchhiking all around. I couldn’t hitchhike around the states at that time, so I went over to Europe where it was accepted.
“I was on the Charles Bridge in Prague after the Berlin Wall came down, and that’s when I felt I had written some songs that were worth committing to tape. I made my first recordings over there in Prague with a Polish guy. He had a 4-track in his apartment. I recorded a couple of my songs and definitely did some Doc Watson. He’s been there all my life — and I was using that American template. John Prine. Kristofferson. The greats. It’s great to be on the planet at the same time as those guys, to inform our thing.
“And walking the planet has been a big part of my creativity,” he continues. “I went over there to exercise the writing muscle and the performing muscle. Life was really good and easy at the time. I didn’t fret too much about where I was staying. I was doing the Bohemian couch-surfing time of my life. Sometimes I slept in the park. Sometimes I slept in penthouses.”
After cutting his first solo U.S. album, Special 20, in 1997, he got his real break and signed a record deal with New West Records. His The Truth About Us led to a national tour with John Hiatt and Cowboy Junkies. Along the way, Easton has tried to make activism a part of his life, whether through his music or in practical application, like registering voters at the street level. It’s his comfort zone.
He ultimately landed here because he feels like this is where he is meant to be, and like many of the artists today who operate outside the Nashville mainstream, Easton finds himself facing the machine — once again. He has looked for common ground and come to terms with it.
“The Bluebird gave me a gig where I’ve curated about four shows a year, and super proud of all that,” he says. “Of course, it was left-of-center, and some of the tourists might not have liked it all and had different ideas. But there have been some great nights of [showcasing the] songwriting.
“And I’ve been there, and some of the [Music Row] Nashville songwriters have totally blown me away with their professionalism and attention to detail. You know, I bet there was a time when Hank walked into a room and Fred Rose or Roy Acuff said, ‘I don’t know, Hank — that might be over the line. I don’t know if we can talk about that.’ Now we’re going through some change again. I look at the songwriters who are doing it for me now — Darrin Bradbury, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Robert Ellis, Erin Rae — it’s an amazing time.”
And Easton intends to shake the tree for years to come. He remembers the day he discovered himself.
“I wrote some poems and got good marks in school, so my brother, who loved Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt, told me if you write poetry and play guitar, you can write songs,” he says. “I remember the moment. I remember where I was standing. I wrote my first song that day. I’m pretty sure it was a John Lennon ripoff. There was a political, teenaged angst to it. Lennon will do that to you. World-changing thoughts from Lennon. He’s the original punk rocker for me.”
Easton contemplates the future of music, and the landscape in which so many young artists and songwriters labor. And in true activist fashion, he wants to believe, and gives his charge.
“Don’t create for the gatekeeper,” he says. “Do your thing regardless and let the gatekeepers come to you. The music business more or less shut its doors on me. Let’s just say it tolerates me, but I never let that stop me from writing songs or making albums. I’m already working on the next one, and thinking about the one after that.”