Exclusive: James Nash and The Waybacks Hillside Album Hour at MerleFest 2015
The Waybacks, along with special guests Joan Osborne, Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale, and Jens Kruger, have something special planned for this year¹s Hillside Album Hour at this weekend's Merlefest. It will be the band¹s eighth consecutive performance of what has become a hallmark Merlefest event, and it tends to draw the biggest audience of any non-Watson Stage performance.
The Hillside Stage is packed with fans who arrive early, listen attentively to the other artists who precede them, and you can feel the anticipation and hear the buzz. This year's artists are no slouches: Donna the Buffalo, JOHNNYSWIM, Jim Lauderdale and Band, and the Steel Wheels. In other words, lots of folks will be spending the day at the Hillside Stage.
I sat down with James Nash yesterday at his hotel and he talked at length about this year's album, the planning that went into it, the pulling together of music from different eras and genres to weave into the album to flesh out the album's themes, and to continue the social and cultural resonance that it has had since it was released. But some folks have perhaps forgotten about. Nowhere will this be more apparent than in the opening song whose well-known refrain will be saved, and not be sung until after several verses have been performed. The lyrics to this song are as pertinent today as they were upon release, perhaps, sadly, more so. It will bring home its meaning that has been overlooked by many. In other words, they'll perform this year's album it'll be as if we are are hearing it again as if for the first time.
The most immediate thing that strikes you when you meet Nash is his good-natured enthusiasm, his articulateness, and his graceful manner. If I was not already a fan, I would have left our chat a convert. Just call it charisma. And intelligence.
Make no mistake, though. While the Hillside Album Hour has never been a straight cover of the chosen album, this year's choice is the most well-thought-out and most musically diverse, and has been given an intellectual consideration that takes your breath away.
"This year's Album Hour will likely be our most ambitious to date," Nash told me. "We're taking a classic American album and exploring its lyrical themes by juxtaposing music from other artists and time periods. The album we've chosen is from the mid-'80s (our first from that decade), and its songs are mostly upbeat, while simultaneously referencing war, poverty, and racial tension. We've rearranged these songs by incorporating recognizable melodies and lyrics associated with earlier eras and events -- for instance, the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War protests -- as well as cultural touchstones, in an attempt to put the album in a historical context that we hope will deepen and broaden its underlying themes."
As in the past, The Waybacks have provided cryptic clues. And the fans then chime in on what it all means. This year's four clues are:
We promise to treat you right.
Myrtle Grant, his ex, wanted nightly bar romance.
Smiling rookie flips out on two joints.
She was a friend of mine.
I have been following the fan's guesses, and the leading contenders include Hotel California and American Beauty, and lots of English bands. But, as implied above, there will be no way to know til the band hits the stage later today.
According to the press release, over the past eight years, The Waybacks have performed and interpreted a broad array of classic albums by the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan & The Band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The band's special guests have ranged from Elvis Costello to Emmylou Harris, Susan Tedeschi to Mike Farris, and many more. Their inspired performances have made the Album Hour a highly anticipated event and a fan favorite at MerleFest. As in past years, the album choice is a closely guarded secret until the show begins.
Yes, I know what it is, and I am not telling. But I can tell you is that knowing that album as well as I do, I am looking forward to it like none of the others. And it promises to be a performance like none of the others. You do not want to miss it.
A review of the perfromance, with photos, will follow.