By Brian Wise.
They might look as though they have stepped out of another era but CW Stoneking and Nathaniel Rateliffe are two of the hottest roots music acts around these days. Sharing the stage at the Ryman Auditorium last year prompted another liaison for the Shindig By The Sea in Melbourne this week.
It was an intriguing double bill at the Ryman Auditorium, the holy church of country music, last September during the Americana Festival: CW Stoneking and Nathaniel Rateliffe & The Night Sweats. It was an echo of a time gone by. On one hand the eccentric bluesman dredging up rhythms from somewhere in the 1920s and 1930s; on the other hand, the retro-soul man channeling nights at the Apollo in Harlem. It was a spectacular evening.
Sitting in the Ryman, after CW Stoneking had reluctantly left the stage the chatter in the audience was all about the origins of this exotic ‘blues’ player. Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama or Louisiana were just some of the suggestions as to his birthplace. Not so, I offered much to the surprise of the Americans around me. ‘You’re kidding!’ was the general response when I informed them that CW was none other than a little Aussie battler. (A few years earlier, I had arrived at the Blue Moon in Lafayette a day or so after Stoneking had played there and the owner was convinced that CW had driven in from Meridien, Mississippi).
Not that CW’s birthplace matters much when it comes to the music that is so distinctive that it wins over every audience.
“Well, yeah that was cool to play in that,” replies CW when I ask him about the Ryman gig. “We played in Austin together and Houston as well. Yeah, Ryman’s cool.”
Rateliffe, who had been following Stoneking’s career after he had been slipped some of his music by a friend, contacted CW and asked if he would like to team up for some US gigs.
“They don’t usually view me as Australian very much,” agrees CW when I mention the reaction of the audience and he agrees that most people think he is from Louisiana ‘or somewhere like that.’
“I guess if I have a conversation with someone, it’s more obvious than just from listening to music,” says CW. “I don’t know what they would probably associate with Australia now. Maybe AC/DC or Men at Work or something. I don’t know.”
“It was pretty piecemeal over the years. It wasn’t really until like last year when I’ve just spent a long time there,” responds CW when I mention that he has done a lot of touring in the USA in recent years. “I guess we did about five or six months last year there. I can only hold out against the food for so long, it wears you down after a while. Being on the move and grabbing things quick doesn’t lend itself always to finding healthy food.”
“I have a real good time there,” he continues, “and we covered a lot of ground last year. That was cool to … Checked out all sorts of landscapes and cities.”
Stoneking’s old-timey music has struck a responsive chord (so to speak) with a growing audience of fans who are into the whole Americana genre.
“There has been for the last 15 years maybe, a kind of movement of people into old American music,” he notes. “There’s an undercurrent in the States of that stuff, as well as here there’s been as well. But in some ways, that makes a market, but then you know, if you have a defining stamp of your own within that, that’s also helpful.”
In Stoneking’s case, both his latest album Gon’ Boogaloo and its predecessor Jungle Blues, both featured prominently on the ARIA albums charts, with the latter winning an ARIA Award for Best Blues & Roots Album.
“I try and make them catchy,” says Stoneking. “So then anybody can get into it whether or not they necessarily listen to the same music I listen to. If I was to put on stuff maybe that I listened to, it would not necessarily please as many people in the crowd as mine, which I guess is sort of filtered through a modern sensibility or something. I don’t know.”
What does CW listen to?
“Well, you can sort of hear all the different little bits and pieces. Old Calypso music and whatever. I love it. It’s a different thing, really. From loving that music to what I try and do.”
With Gon’ Boogaloo now nearly two and a half years old it seems that Stoneking should be thinking about a new recording.
“Well, I’m just sort of really only starting to think about it now,” he says. “It took me a couple months to sort of wind down and get back into civilian life after being on the road so much. I’m going to try and get something happening by the middle of the year. That’s my plan.”
“I don’t really do it on the road,” he replies when I ask if he has been writing songs while on the road. “I can’t really do it like that. I really never have dedicated time by myself to just explore stuff. So no, I haven’t really. I’ve got little fragments of things here and there. It’s not really until I get alone and spend some real time tweaking things and trying out stuff that I start to get results.
“I sort of just take my time,” he adds. “I don’t really care about the album cycles thing where you’ve got to put out one a year. I didn’t take Jungle Blues over to like the U.K. and Europe until it had been out already two years. It was really successful over there. I toured for another two years on that. So I just kind of take it at my own pace. My main thing for the songwriting on those albums is just really when I’m happy with it. Any other consideration is just not really a consideration.”
“You know, it would be handy if I wanted to get more money, if I could just pump them out,” he laughs. “It would certainly make me way richer and have more opportunities but I can only do what I can do with my personality and my commitments in the world to get it done as quick and well as I can. That’s all I do. I don’t beat myself up about it.”
Given the inspirations behind the previous albums, I wonder what we can expect for the forthcoming album, whenever it appears.
“It’s a bit hard for me to say, really, in advance what I’m going to do,” he responds. “But I have been listening, I guess, to more music with kind of electronic bits in it and stuff like that. There’s some things that I’ve wanted to do, stretching right back, even, to when I did King Hokum. I either lacked like the knowledge to do it or the people I was working with in the recording process maybe didn’t want to do it or didn’t know how to do it themselves. So, I’m starting to come back around to that. I think there’ll be some more use of different technology than the straight up instruments in that but how it all ends up being rendered, I don’t know. It ain’t going to sound like a techno record, you know?
One of the strong attractions of Stoneking’s albums is the fact that they stand out so much from everything else that’s being released.
“Right. Yeah, well that’s good, you know. I like that,” he agrees. “I guess I spend a lot of time just in my own interests very much and not so much following what’s happening, which is probably why it comes out sort of like that – outside of the trend or whatever, maybe.”
Stoneking’s closest brush with wider fame came a few years ago when Jack White asked him to record at his studio.
“Jack White has just been sniffing around my door for like ten years or something,” says CW. “I’ve checked it out and we’ve talked about different things, and I just always come back to the same answer: no.
“He’s got his thing going and that’s cool and there’s lots of people who’s wanting to get onboard of whatever it is he’s doing but it’s not really what I’m looking for in my life. But, yeah, there has been that. Other than him, no.”
I suggest to CW that some people might think it a bit strange that he knocked back an offer from someone with as high a profile as Jack White where others would jump at the opportunity.
“Well, that’s good,” he replies. “Lots of people watch TV too and I have no interest in that either. Lots of people doing anything don’t make it validated, really.”
Do I detect a stubborn independent streak here?
“Well, I think if you’re making music,” he continues. “If you’re really serious about it, you’ve got to have some sort of level of respect for what you’re doing. If you have that, then you carry it around with that level of respect. If it’s not going to be handled that way or you are not on the same page with people, then it’s better to just avoid those situations and keep your thing the way you think how it ought to be.”
“I guess because I sort of make up the tunes so much I like to get the idea very clear if I make a record,” says CW when I ask if he needs to be in control. “I guess in that way, I kind of know what I’m talking about so I usually don’t really want somebody else to try and tell me what I’m talking about. I think I am like that.
“I think there’s different ways to make it. Some people work real good in a team – like great bands where it had all the perfect ingredients and stuff like that. I’ve never sort of found that sort of thing. Maybe my life when I was younger and then later, I guess, pushed me into that way of sort of thinking and making and things like that.”
When Nathaniel Rateliffe & The Night Sweats visited us last year in Australia for Bluesfest and other gigs he caused quite a sensation. Of course, the hit single ‘S.O.B’ was a showstopper but at Byron he also launched into a fantastic rendition of The Band’s ‘The Shape I’m In.’ It was a salient reminder of his musical influences.
Last year’s tour was hot on the heels of the debut album released in August 2015. Since then Rateliffe has added an EP with another 8 songs to his repertoire and a live show that has been honed to perfection on the road.
“It was my first time in Australia aside from just playing there and we loved it,” recalls Rateliffe of the tour. “I thought it was beautiful, flying into Brisbane and then hanging out at the surf beach and Byron Bay. It was just gorgeous and then on to Melbourne and then Sydney, so loved it.”
Rateliffe’s recent success story is gratifying given the struggle behind it and the years of graft that he put in to get to where he is now. When I saw him at the Ryman with CW Stoneking I couldn’t help but be reminded of the remarkable back story to Rateliffe’s ascendency into the top ranks of the neo-soul movement.
Rateliffe recalls how his version of ‘The Shape I’m In’ was inspired by his solo days and a visit to Levon Helm’s barn in Woodstock, upstate New York.
“I started doing that awhile back ago,” he says when I ask him about the cover of ‘The Shape I’m In.’ It takes him back to his early days before the Night Sweats.
“I had the opportunity with a previous band where I was going to go hang out at Levon Helm’s place and missed him by a couple of days and then he passed on, which seems to be the thing these days. It’s hard to see your heroes leave and it definitely makes you start to feel old.”
“I was actually traveling with a group of different bands and I was just doing my solo stuff,” he continues, “which I had a band for, and traveled around for years. That was kind of more singer/songwriter/Americana kind of stuff.”
“I feel pretty lucky to be where I’m at,” says Rateliffe when I mention that his success has come after quite a struggle, “considering just being kind of a dullard from Missouri that has no education.”
“I feel pretty lucky to be here, growing up poor and a lot of death in the family and a lot of tragedy throughout my life and the people surrounding me,” he continues. “But I think that’s one of those things that I think everybody experiences.
“Some of those things that happened in my life happened so long ago it’s hard to tell how they shaped me or affected me, or what is it about those situations that have changed me into the person I am now; but, luckily, I just now that I am the person now, and those experiences helped make me who I am.”
It’s an inspirational story but what was the turning point in Rateliffe’s life?
“I grew up singing with my parents but I was always pretty shy about it,” says Rateliffe. “Then, I don’t know, I started playing drums when I was seven, and got really into that and wanted to be a good drummer, and would put a lot of time into playing drums every day. Then, after my Dad passed away, I had some interest in guitar and I asked my Mom to teach me a couple of chords. She taught me three chords, and my best friend who I grew up with, Matt, taught me three more chords. Then I just started writing songs, but they were goofy, obviously, or they were kind of sappy love songs. Not too long after that I met Joseph Pope, who still plays with me, and we just started to kind of dick around.
“I’d play him the songs that I wrote and then he started to write songs and we formed a little band called Born in the Flood. At the time back then I started really getting into playing guitar. I was like, ‘I’m going to be like Jimi Hendrix or Duane Allman’ or something, you know? That didn’t really pan out. Me and Joseph reversed roles and a later incarnation of a different band, where I started to write the majority of the material and he switched to playing bass. Then I just kept writing and playing, and trying to push myself.”
“Sometimes it takes a while,” he continues. “I still ended up working while I was signed to a label, so I think it’s not that uncommon for people to be pursuing music and even to be a signed artist and then still just have to have a day job. Right up until June of last year, Joseph, who’s been playing with me for 22 years, was still painting houses and Luke Mossman, who hadn’t joined the band yet, was still teaching guitar lessons and doing that kind of stuff. Then Patrick and I were trying to work on commercials or anything we could do.”
“I’ve been a gardener on and off for I don’t know, five years. Then prior to that was 10 years at a trucking company,” says the now 38-year-old singer. “Growing up in Missouri, we all started working pretty young.”
After seven years of pursuing the singer/songwriter route with a band and sometimes solo, Rateliffe decided that he needed a change of direction.
“We were just kind of struggling to keep our head above water,” he recalls, “and trying to make a living off of it and having families and stuff. I kind of got discouraged and just ended up trying to write some soul songs.
“I wasn’t anticipating it being a new project or anything like that. After I wrote the first two songs I ended up writing about eight or nine of them within the first week and then put together a band, had a first show and it was pretty fun. But it wasn’t for at least a year and a half, two years, before The Night Sweats record actually came out.”
“It was something that I’ve always really loved,” responded Rateliffe when I asked him why he specifically decided to write some soul songs. “I feel like I when I was younger I used to teach myself how to sing by listening to Famous Flames or even early Bob Marley and the Wailers, or Sam Cooke and Sam and Dave. I don’t know, it was just something that always resonated with me, and I think it’s a type of music that resonates with a lot of people.”
It has also become extremely popular recently with a rash of soul and R&B bands both here and in America.
“Surprisingly,” notes Rateliffe. “That was kind of the drag about how long it took to get the record out, because I didn’t want to come across as somebody coming in after everybody had ploughed their way through and made it an easy path. But I think we’re doing something different than all the other bands out there that are doing a great job too.
“Leon Bridges came out and hung out with us and joined us on stage in Dallas where he lives, and I got a chance to hang out with St. Paul and The Broken Bones after their set at Byron Bay. We also played with Alabama Shakes awhile back ago and all those cats are … I feel like we’re all doing our own thing, for sure, but it’s nice. It’s a nice little family.”
Last year I caught up with Rateliffe at last year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He had just bused in from Memphis where he played the Memphis in May Festival the day before and was just about to go on stage as the lead up act for Van Morrison. No pressure! Despite the fact that he was about to go on stage in front of 20,000 or so he was relaxed in the knowledge that he had an impressive outfit behind him.
“We joked about playing ‘Domino’ or something else to see if he’d come out pissed off,” laughed Rateliffe at the time, “but I don’t think he’ll come out. He’s a big influence on me as well. So it’s cool to share the stage with him.”
Needless to say, Rateliffe and band put in a killer set and had the audience, most of whom had probably never seen them before, enthralled. It was the perfect mid-afternoon warm-up for Van The Man, who was in uncommonly good spirits when he arrived on stage a half hour later. (Maybe he had been warmed up by Rateliffe as well!).
That evening Rateliffe appeared at Preservation Hall as part of the Midnight Preserves series, where selected guests appear with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. After finishing around 2.00am, Rateliffe then had to head to the airport for a 6.00am flight to California where he was playing Coachella that day. He seemed to be picking up James Brown’s mantle as the hardest working man in show business.
“You know, we’ve all worked for a long time,” explains Rateliffe, “so to have people care about what we’re doing is always a humbling and exciting experience. After leaving Australia [last year]I think our record went to number one, which is just mind-blowing to us. I never thought we’d end up there or doing the things that we’ve gotten to do.
“It’s funny, though, because you have this idea when you’re a kid that you’re going to be a rock star or something, and then the next thing you know you’re in your late twenties or something and you’re still working your shitty job, or you just realise that, ‘I don’t really have any other skills other than this.’ I kind of fucked up. I didn’t go to school. I missed the opportunities and you start to feel like, ‘Well, I’m too old to go back to school,’ or ‘I’m too old to do this,’ but I feel like we got pretty lucky here with the album and how people have responded to it, especially where I feel like I was at in my life and felt like I was going to probably stop pursuing music as a career and just continue to write and play it for my own enjoyment.”
“So I try to make sure that, like I said, I work as hard as I can to make sure we are giving back to everybody that’s been giving to us.”
Nathaniel Rateliffe and CW Stoneking appear at Shindig By The Sea this Thursday evening, March 10, at Seaworks, Williamstown.