Eric Brace branches out with folk-opera 'Hangtown Dancehall'

Eric Brace and Karl Straub

Most of us know East Nashvillian Eric Brace as an Americana singer and songsmith (as a solo artist, part of Last Train Home and a duo partner with fellow Eastsider Peter Cooper) and the head of local label Red Beet Records.

Brace is branching out this fall, though, bringing Hangtown Dancehall -- a "Gold Rush Folk-Opera" crafted alongside fellow songwriter and collaborator Karl Straub -- to 3rd & Lindsley's stage on Saturday, Nov. 2, alongside an 11-piece band and a small army of different singers.

Among the voices and players helping Brace and Straub bring Hangtown to life that night: Kelly Willis, Tim O’Brien, Jon Byrd, Pat McInerney, Fats Kaplin and many others.

It was no small undertaking, this stage show, but then the heft fits with the project's overall process -- 19th century folk song "Sweet Betsy From Pike" inspired Brace to pen a musical, and the "tale of love and gold, life and death, food and whiskey" came into being over a decade-long gestation period of on and off work, its Gold Rush-rooted storytelling fleshed out with instruments and voices aplenty.

"The number of people required to do justice to the songs, as we've recorded them, is intimidating," Brace says. "On some songs we've got a string quartet and two horns, along with four vocals and drums and bass and guitars and fiddles and accordion. Not to mention about 10 different singers throughout the whole thing. I just started piecing it together, one player at a time, with lots of e-mails and phone calls… Luckily I'm in Nashville where there is such a staggering wealth of talent that it never took more than two phone calls to find the right people."

Nearly all the performers featured on the album version of Hangtown Dancehall are joining in the live debut -- likely a one-time-only affair, given the massive schedule-juggle involved.

Ahead of the show, we talked with Brace about the inspiration and process behind Hangtown Dancehall, and what longtime fans of his records and shows should expect.

The East Nashvillian: Anyone who's been following your work for the past handful of years would probably assume that when you're inspired by something -- like the story behind Hangtown Dancehall -- you'd respond by writing songs or an album. What made you feel like a musical was the best form for this particular bit of storytelling?

Eric Brace: "I've been what you could call a singer-songwriter all of my adult life, and so much of what we singer-songwriters create is a product of whatever is inside our heads when we pick up a guitar or sit at the piano. Ten years ago I was feeling uninspired by my day to day thoughts, and the songs that were springing out of them, and I found I'd begun to repeat myself. When I first thought about writing songs about the California Gold Rush, I was just looking for a way to get outside my own head.

"I was born in Placerville, California, which was the heart of the Gold Rush, and used to be called Hangtown way back when. As a little boy, I was captivated by the mythology and romance of those times, and was always hoping to find nuggets in the creeks and rivers. (Never happened, by the way.) Though my family left northern California when I was 7, I kept my fascination with the Gold Rush, and in 1999 I wrote a travel story about that part of California for The Washington Post, pegged to the 150th anniversary of the '49ers. Working on that story was an excuse to finally study up on what really happened back then, then hows and whys, and I became obsessed with the Gold Rush.

"To me, it's the defining moment in American history, the moment where we threw out the work ethic and embraced the get-rich-quick schemes that still define our economic hopes. It was when we as a nation made any excuse we could to take whatever land we wanted, and tough luck for anyone who got in our way. It laid the groundwork for our so-called "Manifest Destiny;" it led to the mass destruction of all indigenous people in California; it provided us an excuse to enact the most racist and exclusionist laws in the name of a made-up greater good. But it also provided the impetus to create the transcontinental railroad, the telegraph, blue jeans (Levi-Strauss), canned ham (Armour), better wagon suspension (Studebaker). It sparked such a movement of men and goods that the world was never the same after the '49ers.

"The first song I started working on was about James Marshall, the man who first saw the gold in the riverbed on January 24, 1848. He was fated to not make a dollar from gold, despite years of trying, and he died bitter and probably drunk. After I wrote that, I wanted to keep writing, but thought that a bunch of unconnected songs about the Gold Rush would be less interesting that a bunch of connected songs, and so I spent a while trying to find a thread, a way to connect them. I found as many songs as I could from that era, mainly using John Lomax's Cowboy Songs book from 1910.

"'Sweet Betsy From Pike' is a song from the 1850s about a young couple that makes their way to California during the Gold Rush. I remembered that song from my childhood, and loved that they ended up in Placerville, but the last verse has them breaking up as soon as they get there. As I read the lyrics, I wondered, 'Wait. What happens next?' I just let my mind start imagining what was next for Betsy and Ike. The songs started coming easily then, once I had a story outlined in my head. Then I asked my friend Karl Straub to help me with some of the songs, and the characters and situations became more layered and more interesting.

"Even then, it wasn't taking shape as a musical, but more as a song cycle, several songs telling one longer story. But as I wrote, the characters started taking on depth, at least in my head, and I began imagining dialogue, movement, facial expressions. They were taking on a life of their own, in a way, so I'm hoping that it will continue to evolve so that there is an actual musical to be staged, and not just a string of songs with different singers and a narrator. It's such a different beast than a three-and-a-half minute song that stands alone."

For people who are familiar with your music, is this music markedly different? Do the songs show a different stylistic side?

"People who know what I've been doing the past 10 years will definitely hear something familiar in Hangtown Dancehall.

"Some of the melodies and the construction of the songs definitely are in the style of things you'd hear at a Last Train Home show or an Eric Brace & Peter Cooper show. But I tried hard to get a little more creative in the songs for Hangtown Dancehall. It helped to collaborate with Karl Straub, who actually said the phrase, 'After studying Kurt Weill's modulation techniques, I've got a few ideas,' during a conversation a couple of years ago.

"We knew from the outset we didn't want to try to recreate the sound of 1850s music. We allowed ourselves to use any style of music, but still keeping a slightly old-time feel to things. In that sense we've got some things that are much more old-timey sounding than anything I've ever done before, but also some things that are more complex. One of the most fun things was writing songs that are barely a minute long, saying what needs to be said to keep the story moving, then ending it. That was something new."

Hangtown Dancehall

You've worked and written with a lot of different musicians -- from Cooper to Mike Auldridge and Lloyd Green. What made you see Karl as the right partner for this particular project?

"Karl is something close to a musical genius, in his songwriting, his guitar playing, his very notion of what music is and can be. I asked him to work with me soon after getting started on this, while he was studying composition at Howard University. I thought I'd give him an exercise, so I asked him to write an overture to the whole thing, a three-minute instrumental, setting the scene, like the soundtrack to a movie underneath the opening credits. He never did write that overture, but he did end up writing several stunning songs and adding a sophistication to the music that I could not have brought.

"He looks at things in such a unique way, I was hoping to get a fresh way of imagining songs, and I definitely got that from Karl."

Ten years is a pretty sizable incubation period. How did the project develop over that time? Was it just a case of schedules dictating the pace, or was this the kind of project that just necessitated a long gestation?

"A lot has happened in my life in the past 10 years. I left my job at The Washington Post, I took Last Train Home on the road full-time, I moved to Nashville, I got married, I started Red Beet Records, Peter Cooper and I launched our duo. I've put out something close to 12 records, so for a long time, Hangtown Dancehall was a back-burner project, one that I would turn to only now and then. "But I think it really needed all that time. It gave me a chance to study up on different ways of writing -- I highly recommend Stephen Sondheim's two books analyzing every word he's every written for musicals -- and to watch a lot of musicals and listen to a lot of song cycles, like Paul Kennerley's 'The Legend of Jesse James' and Anais Mitchell's 'Hadestown.' It also gave the story time to evolve, which was a necessary and interesting process. And it will probably continue to evolve in places."

For most of us, a very specific aesthetic comes to mind when we hear the word "musical." Does Hangtown Dancehall fit into that classic tradition, or do you feel like you and Karl put a different spin on it?

"I've seen quite a few musicals the past several years, and Hangtown Dancehall is definitely a different animal. But I recognize that if it's ever going to get staged in a more serious way, it will probably have to conform to some of the conventions of musical theater a lot more than it currently does.

"I'm open to working with people who know that world better than I, so we'll see what happens. I'm just eager to hear these songs performed live, in sequence, by great singers bringing these characters alive.

"I'm lucky that Kelly Willis is enthusiastic about the songs we wrote for 'Betsy.' She is stunning on the record, and will be live as well. We've also got Tim O'Brien, Andrea Zonn, Jon Byrd, and Peter Cooper singing on Nov. 2. And on the record, you can hear Darrell Scott, John Wesley Harding, and Jason Ringenberg as well. Live we'll have an actor, Mike Parker, narrating the whole thing, telling the story between songs and such. So while it's not being staged as a musical, per se, it's definitely not going to be your typical live concert."

Be There

HANGTOWN DANCEHALL: A Tale of the California Gold Rush
Saturday, Nov. 2, 7 p.m.
Where: 3rd & Lindsley, 818 3rd Ave. S.
Admission: $10 general; $20 reserved
More info: Red Beet Records

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