Album: Stand Up Man
Song: 30 Days
Home: Los Angeles
Musical Influences: Conway Twitty, George Jones, Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens
Bio: As a kid growing up in Alabama, Grant Langston heard two kinds of music being played in his house: his mom favored the folkie side of things, meaning lots of Dylan and Joan Baez, while his dad loved '50s country: Hank Snow, Merle Travis. Then, after picking up the guitar at age 10, he found himself playing bass in the local gospel quartet, The King James Version, into his mid teens. In his late teens, he had one ear cocked toward Van Halen and Thin Lizzy while the other took in the likes of Freddy Fender and the hit machine that was Conway Twitty. As a student at Auburn University, he toured the Southeast in a Zep-loving cover band. "I was bombarded by all these different influences," Langston says.
So, what does one do with that kind of musical background? Langston fought the urge to go to law school (talk about fighting the good fight) and, in his words, "I loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly." Eventually, he rediscovered the "real" country music of his early childhood, and these days his work honors that storytelling approach while also containing more than enough of Langston's own personality to fend off any charges of being a mere imitator.
You can call Langston's music nonconventional traditional, with his sense of humor reflected by titles such as "Burt Reynolds Movie Brawl" and "Shiner Bock and Vicodin," as well as by his offering a range of performance options culminating in a $10,000 model that includes a concert in your backyard and a custom-written tune. But make no mistake, Grant Langston is no joke. Neither are his songs, every one of which on his new "Stand Up Man" has a memorable story to tell.
CST's Take: West Coast (albeit with deep south roots) rockin' country, with wit, twang, and hooks applied in the perfect measure to sell the stories
Country Standard Time: When asked about your influences, you named kind of an extended Mount Rushmore of country greats. But your band, the Supermodels, isn't exactly a conventional country band.
Grant Langston: Yeah, my take on all this was to try to find some guys who don't know anything about country music, that were more hard-edged players. Sort of bring them into it and teach them - I'm certainly not teaching them how to play their instruments, they're awesome players - but they don't know much about country music. It lets me say "Listen to this, listen to that," and really kind of guide what they're about. Just for example, the drummer is a guy named Tony Horkins. He's English, he's from London, and he grew up doing a lot of music like The Jam, sort of like the first generation of Brit pop. He was in a band called Goldbug that had a big hit over there doing a dance version of Whole Lotta Love. So he comes from this Elvis Costello-ish rock background. The bass player is a guy named Josh Fleeger who played for a while with this whiskey-drinking hard rock band called Buckcherry. He's from Pittsburgh and comes from this bluesy hard rock world. And the guitarist is Larry Marciano. He's from Connecticut, and he comes from sort of a shredder, jazz background....It's worked out really well. It's a different thing than just finding a bunch of country experts and just having them play what they've known their whole lives.
CST: On "Stand Up Man," there are laugh-out-loud funny lines, but they always serve the song and serve the story; they're never gratuitous. When you're writing, how much do you keep in mind that line between being witty, funny, and clever and being too humorous, to the point of entering novelty song territory?
GL: Let me tell you, it's a constant thing for me. I don't want these to be joke songs. I'm not trying to be a comedian. I'm not trying to do novelty material. I sort of cringe when I hear that - not from you, but from people who are like "Hey, that's a funny song." I want it to be wry, I want there to be wry humor. I want it to be kind of clever sometimes. Humor can help make the point and soften the point, and I want to use it in that way. There've definitely been times in the past, old records, where I've just not gotten it right. And people say "I love that song," but they love it for the wrong reasons. So, it's hard to get it right. My natural tendency is to be a little bit of a smartass, to tell stories in a funny way. But I'm learning more and more how to temper that and make it work...It's a thin line to walk: I have to be true to myself and write songs that I want to hear and that I like. But you're exactly right. I'm always aware "okay, is this a joke, is this silly?" Because I don't want to be silly. I want the song to make the point and maybe have a little wink.
CST: Not too long ago, I spoke with a musician named David Serby, and I asked him about the roots scene in the Los Angeles area, and I'd like your take on that scene there in L.A.
GL: Well, David's a good friend of mine. I saw him a couple nights ago. First of all, the thing about music in L.A. is that the town is so big, and there are so many people here that I had pretty much given up on there ever being a (country) scene here. It just seemed that there's a guy who lives in Santa Monica and a guy who lives in Hermosa and a guy who lives in Chatsworth, and it just makes it hard for them to get together. And the second thing is that to have a scene you need to have people who aren't musicians who love the music and support it in other important ways. You need promoters, you need writers, you need fans. I always wondered where those people were going to come from. And it really has kind of materialized. It's a pretty loose-knit group of bands, but there are probably 20 bands that fit into this mold, a half-dozen clubs where we play. There are fans who turn out to support it. The thing I like most about it is that the people are super nice. I just don't want to be around competitive people when we're talking about music.... So the big challenge at this point for this L.A. country scene is to hop outside of being a scene. We can't just be a little clique. We have to get the word out.
CST: For the song Shiner Bock and Vicodin, you apparently had the title first and then went from there. I'm curious about how that process went and how that song evolved?
GL: I can remember, gosh, it was three or four years ago, I was doing some solo dates around the country, and I had a show in Austin, and then I had to drive to Houston to play the next night. On the road, I saw an exit for Shiner, Texas. And there was a sign saying basically "Tour the Shiner Bock Brewery." I like that beer, and I needed to kill three hours. So I pulled off, and there's this gorgeous, old brewery. I guess when the Germans were making these towns in South Texas, they would get the basics of the town and then send someone back to Germany to hire a brew master. This was the mid-1800s. So, they'd done that, they'd brought this guy over, and he founded a brewery, and it's still there. I took the tour, and at the end the lady said "We used to end the tour in the pub, and you could have as much Shiner Bock beer as you want, but the police have asked us not to do that because people are getting drunk and driving up and down the road here. So I have these wooden nickels, and I'm going to give you five, and each is good for a pint of beer." So I sat down with about 14 other people at 11 a.m., and we drank those 5 pints of beer. It was like a point of honor. So, that just stuck in my mind, and for about a year had written in my lyric book "Shiner Bock and Vicodin." I've had Vicodin a couple of times for various reasons. I really can't tell you why, but it seems like two things that you would never want to mess with…Sarah Stanley, who's an awesome singer-songwriter in town, she came over, and we were going to write a tune. I said, "You know, this is probably too weird to write a song about, but I've had this title for the longest time." And she said, "You know, if you were to take those two things together, I think you'd probably do some crazy stuff." And she told me a story about someone who broke up someone's wedding. Then we just married those two things together. So, I had something, she had something, and we just fit them together like two pieces of Lego.
CST: There are two versions of Call Your Bluff on "Stand Up Man." But you know that. I was wondering what was it about the song that made you want to do two versions. And I was also wondering how songs kind of let you know what style of music is best for them.
GL: That's interesting. That is a great question. This particular track, I had written it as an up-tempo kind of dance tune, and I felt that the record needed an up-tempo tune. We were going back and forth over, "we have this many slow songs and this many fast songs and one really fast song." But to show it to the guys, I played it very slowly. So they just started to play along with me at that slow tempo that I was just doing to teach. And I was like, "wow, this is a lot of fun at this speed. It's a shame it's not really at this speed, because it needs to be fast because we want this song to be up-tempo." And it was Tony, I believe, who said, "You know, I think this sounds better slow." I finally said, "there's really no reason why it can't be both." So we played it both ways. And we do that with a lot of our material: let's take it 10 beats faster, let's take it 10 beats slower. Just play with it. It's hard to know, hard to explain how you know what tempo a song should be. Everyone looks at each other and says "yeah." Then every fifth song, you have a knockdown drag-out because no one can agree.
CST: I was hoping that you'd talk about some of the show options that you offer, right up through the $10,000 model.
GL: (laughs) Yeah, I'd love for someone to take me up on those offers. I wish I had the list in front of me. There's you get all my CDs, and I sign them all. Sign some posters. And we've definitely had people take us up on those. The funny thing is, I don't think the guys in the band know that they've been signed up to do things like teach lessons. There are a couple of those packages that are like "Get a guitar lesson from Larry Marciano." He doesn't know he's been committed to do that, but I'm sure I could persuade him. I think artists, now, we all know the score. The music business has gotten weird and hard, and if you're not willing to do something different, it's even harder. I don't have all the answers, but I try to read as much as I can and see what some new ideas are. I think one of the things that everybody agrees on is that you're not buying music anymore. You're buying into an artist.
CST: I have to ask this of the guy who wrote Not Another Song About California: what are your three favorite songs about California?
GL: In no particular order: Going to California by Led Zeppelin. The song that launched a thousand journeys to the Golden State. California by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. "Sometimes you've got to save yourself." Indeed. Here in California by Dave Alvin. A gorgeous duet with Christy McWilson, and a great example of Dave's genius. Gentle, lilting music wrapped around the hard truth.