Bob Woodruff's Long Road Back
I'm gonna take this burning heart and stick it in the ground
Put me out of your misery where I almost drowned
I was on fire – I needed you – the year we tried to kill the pain
Bob Woodruff – "The Year We Tried to Kill the Pain"
“I’ve seen a lot of people die, and it looks easy,” songwriter Bob Woodruff sings on “Poisoned at the Well,” a track from his superb 1994 debut album, Dreams & Saturday Nights.
It’s a line that nearly became all too real for Woodruff, whose promising recording career foundered in the late ’90s thanks to the indifference of country radio, bad timing, and, later, drugs.
And while the lyric has a literal component, its metaphor is even more resonant.
“I think I thought of it in terms of real death, because I have experienced a lot of death in my life with loved ones who’ve passed on,” Woodruff says. “But I’ve also seen a lot of people who haven’t found a way to do what it is that they’re called to do, and that to me is sad.”
For nearly 20 years, Woodruff was largely unable to do what he is called to do. But that changed Feb. 26 with the release of The Year We Tried to Kill the Pain, his first U.S. album since Desire Road in 1997. It finds Woodruff in command of his songwriting skills, sharpened by the kind of wisdom earned through experience; his voice is grittier, lived-in.
Listening to the album makes it even more incomprehensible that he’s been away for so long.
The album includes new recordings of four songs from his ’90s catalog that move the arrangements more toward heartland rock from the orginals’ then-mainstream country. And Woodruff has added soul flavors to his sound in songs including “If I Was Your Man” and “So Many Teardrops,” which evoke of the style of Dan “The Dark End of the Street” Penn.
He has even covered the Supremes’ hit “Stop in the Name of Love,” turning it into a gentle, melancholy plea.
Woodruff’s lyrical gift is intact, as well, and his knack for grabbing the listener with the first two lines is still strong. For example, “Stand in the Way” begins: “How could I have known the wrench that I was thrown would fix a problem I never knew I had.”
Woodruff says he believes that “everybody has a purpose and everybody has talents that they have the potential to tap into.”
“It doesn’t necessarily mean anything that would make you famous, and in the arts it doesn’t matter, it’s not about that,”
Woodruff, who turns 55 on March 14, says by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “But everybody has a calling. My wish is that people find whatever it is that makes their heart sing and that they get on with that. I think that’s what we owe to ourselves and to everybody else.”
Woodruff is a native of New York City, where he initially played in rock bands and where he learned about songwriting from the great Brill Building mainstay and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Doc Pomus. (The young Woodruff looked up Pomus under his real name in the phone book, took a leap and called him – and acquired a mentor.)
Although he grew up in a household where Johnny Cash and Everly Brothers records were on the turntable, he didn’t turn to country themes in his songwriting until the ’80s.
“I remember Elvis Costello put out that record called Almost Blue and it contained songs that were kind of my gateway to George Jones, to Gram Parsons,” Woodruff says. “And those are big openings. … I became a researcher of country music. There was so much mystery and wonder that was associated with that music, with the South.”
In the late ’80s, his band the Fields was signed by the hip label Restless Records, which promptly went bankrupt, scuttling the project. It’s a theme that would repeat.
A few short years later, Woodruff was living his dream. He had been signed by Asylum Records Nashville in 1992 and moved to Nashville, and by 1994 he was in a recording studio working on what would become Dreams & Saturday Nights. Looking around the studio, he felt like “a kid in a candy store.” There he was, surrounded by A-list musicians – among them James Burton, Sam Bush, Harry Stinson, Glen D. Hardin, and Emmylou Harris – and the industry power of parent label Elektra Records.
Dreams & Saturday Nights was released that year to enthusiastic reviews that heralded a can’t miss new talent. But, somehow, it did miss. Country radio was under the sway of Garth Brooks, Martina McBride, and Little Big Town, and two singles from the album, supported by videos, charted only in the bottom of the Top 100. Radio was not interested in “the next Dwight Yoakum,” as some critics called Woodruff.
Asylum dropped him.
Three years later, he got another shot with another studio full of prime talent that included E Street Band bassist Garry Tallent and singer/songwriter/producer Ray Kennedy. But Imprint Records, a Nashville independent, went bankrupt, and the equally impressive Desire Road was sentenced to the cutout bins.
And that was essentially that for the next nearly 20 years. Until The Year We Tried to Kill the Pain, his only record release anywhere was The Lost Kerosene Tapes, a collection of recordings from 1999 that was released in Sweden and digitally in the U.S. – but not until 2011.
Entering the 2000’s, Woodruff battled depression and a drug habit but continued writing songs. He performed where he could, including in Scandinavia, home to rabid fans of American roots music. He moved to Los Angeles, played gigs when he could and tried writing songs for movies.
Woodruff is reluctant to blame his heroin habit on his career troubles; success is certainly no antidote for addiction. But his vocal register drops, and he is more hesitant, when he is asked whether any cause-and-effect had been at play.\
“I would have to say it certainly …,” he says, pausing. “I was feeling pretty discouraged at that time. I just fell into something to numb the pain. That was my way of coping with the hopelessness I felt at that time.
“To be honest with you, I’m grateful for that experience. I got through that dark night of the soul. It was the thing that allowed me to accept a lot of things (that I) might not have (if I) hadn’t had that experience.”
Woodruff says he tried many times to quit; he says he wasn’t afraid of dying because he almost did it a couple of times.
“It really came down to me having to hit my knees and ask for help,” he says. “And I did that. I asked God for help. Whatever you want to call it, the Great Spirit, the universe. I like to call it God because it’s a short word, and I think the less said about something that can’t really be put into words – a thing that’s beyond what our minds can fathom – the better. You have to try, but ultimately I think talking about God is like dancing about architecture.”
Woodruff has been clean for a decade, and a serendipitous series of breaks has finally put him back on the U.S. Americana and roots charts.
Those breaks started about three years ago in Scandinavia. Woodruff had just come off a grueling 30-shows-in-30-days tour with the Austin, TX-based roots band Shurman. He delayed flying home to LA so he could rest for a couple of days and enjoy Sweden and “the people without having to worry about getting down the road to the next gig.”
Then he got a call from one of the tour promoters offering to help him put a band together for a couple of shows in the town of Örebro – it could pay for your hotel and changed flight home, Anders Damberg told Woodruff.
In Örebro, Woodruff began rehearsing in Studio Rymdklang with its musician-owners, Fredrik Landh (bass, drums) and Clas Olofsson (guitars, pedal steel), along with Swedish garage-rocker Mathias Lilja (guitars and keyboards).
“You know, there was really no intention to even make a record,” Woodruff says. “That’s the thing you have to understand. When I met the musicians and producers in Sweden, we had no plans to make a record at all.”
But the rehearsals went well, and Landh and Olofsson turned on the recorders – the four rerecordings are part of the set they were rehearsing. After the shows, they recorded some more, and Mathias rescheduled his own studio time so they could continue.
“It wasn’t anything like I thought my so-called comeback record would be,” Woodruff says. “The songs that I did rerecord, I recorded them 20 years ago and, yeah, when they were released a few people heard them, and a few people dug them. But it was largely overlooked. So I thought, well, why not.”
Fast-forward to Los Angeles, where some additional recording was done on what would be titled The Year We Tried to Kill the Pain. Woodruff had become friends with Nelson Bragg, who “began playing drums with me. You know, he plays with another, much more famous BW — Brian Wilson. He’s been a big supporter and has really encouraged me and has this cool little label (Steel Derrick Records).”
Bragg, Woodruff and Steel Derrick repackaged the album and resequenced its tracks, adding two new songs and removing one from the Swedish edition.
“I tell you, every time I get a break, it never comes from a place that I expect it to come from. Ever,” Woodruff says. “It’s funny. I’m happy that I got a chance to put out really the first record I’ve put out in the U.S. in nearly 20 years. And today (Feb. 26, 2016) is the street date. So it’s kind of fun to be able to do an interview today when it’s happening.”
Woodruff says that if he hadn’t gone through the darkness, he might not have recognized or been ready to accept new challenges “and attempt to become better than I was.”
“Which is what I tried to do, what I feel I’ve done and what I continue to try,” he says. “Life’s not easy for anybody, and everyone’s fighting a hard battle. I just try to be kind and bring love, not discouragement, to whatever the hell happens.”
Additional photo credits: Band photo by Julia Ewan; color portrait by Alex Loftus; performance B&W by Daniel Sylvesson