Tim Easton - Not Waiting For Columbus
Sometimes the good breaks are lurking in the midst of disasters. When Tim Easton's band, Columbus, Ohio, roots-rockers the Haynes Boys, made their first appearance at the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, in 1995, they were eagerly looking forward to their showcase slot -- until they took a look at the schedule. "Wilco was playing the same night, at the same exact time," recalls Easton, noting that it was one of Wilco' first-ever public performances, shortly before the release of their debut disc A.M. "I was pissed. I remember thinking, 'That's just not right; that just isn't fair,'" he continued. "I just thought it was funny, because you go down there, and the bands that are all signed and set to go are the ones that are still getting the crowds; all the A&R men or whatever are going there." Welcome to the music industry. On the other hand, looking back on it now, Easton realizes that quite a bit of good came out of the visit. At an afternoon party hosted by East Side Digital Records, he met several other musicians who became friends and supporters, such as Eric Ambel, who has regularly given Easton gigs at his renowned New York City bar the Lakeside Lounge. Perhaps more importantly, another connection he made on that trip led to his acquaintance with Nashville producers Brad Jones and Robin Eaton, who ended up producing the Haynes Boys' self-titled 1996 debut album. Easton has since put the Haynes Boys on the back burner; "It's pretty much like everybody's side project now," he says. "We all have other things -- one guy's in Gaunt, one guy's in Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, and another guy's in another band. So I had to get something to do to continue working, and wouldn't have to get a job." That "something" became Special 20, Easton's solo debut, which was released in October by Heathen Records, a new imprint started up by Easton and his manager, Blake Squires. Working once again with Jones and Eaton (whose production credits include albums by Steve Forbert, Jill Sobule and the Ass Ponys), Easton has crafted an eminently listenable and well-written album that takes the rough-and-tumble early promise of the Haynes Boys to a whole 'nother level. Backed by a cast of friends from Columbus (bassist Matt Surgeson, ex-Big Back Forty guitarist Sean Beal and others) augmented by a few Tennesseeans (including renowned multi-instrumentalist Al Perkins and drummer Ross Rice), Easton struck a vibrant balance between the rock 'n' roll leanings of his old band and the songwriterly instincts he's honed more recently by playing solo shows. It's a short record, clocking in at just 36:45, but very little of that running time is wasted: Every one of the ten cuts holds its own on the album. Easton shows his penchant for catchy electric pop numbers on "Help Me Find My Space Girl", which vaguely brings to mind the Byrds' similarly melodic and astronautically inspired "Hey Mr. Spaceman". Equally impressive in a pop vein is "Trouble Comes To Mind", which has more of a V-Roys-ish bar-band feel and reveals Easton's talent for turning a clever phrase in such lines as, "When nobody in this world believes anything you say/You can't blame those teenagers, 'cause they're just stupid that way." Elsewhere, Easton possesses a similarly deft touch with quieter material. "All The Pretty Girls Leave Town" is a subtle anthem for anyone who's ever been stuck in a college town during summer break, or perhaps just any burg where the young folks itch to leave in pursuit of big city dreams. "Sweet Violet" is more tender, a simple but pretty ballad that further diversifies the overall scope of the album. Bookending Special 20 are a couple tunes with interesting stories behind them. The leadoff track, "Just Like Home", is a bluesy, lo-fi romp that, true to its name, was recorded at Easton's house in Columbus, "in my little four-track studio -- basically a little bit bigger than a closet," he explains. "The amp was in the bathroom, and the drummer played on a homemade snare, which was a piece of paper duct-taped over a bowl." Easton had no intention at the time of putting that primal version of the song on the album, but Jones and Eaton had other ideas. "It was just another demo, but when I sent it down to Nashville, the guys were like -- they didn't tell me this, but they just said, 'Well, when you come down, bring your four-track and your tapes.' So we get down there, and they just immediately bumped it to two-inch tape and said, 'Well, that song's done, we're gonna use it just like that.' We basically just added a little more drum sound to fill it out a bit." The final track, "Rewind", was a similarly off-the-cuff creation -- not in the recording process, but in the way it was written. "As long as it takes to listen to it is as long as it took to write it," Easton says of the song, which clocks in at 5:32. "It evolved from an overheard comment at a bar. It's a song written from eavesdropping and borrowing or stealing from other people's lives, and then maybe putting snippets of your own life in there....I wrote it just like that, and didn't change a thing." It's a perfect album-closer, opening with Easton confessing, "Jimmy's got this thing for my woman/She's not really mine/She's just all that I have." The music gradually gathers steam in time with Easton's stream-of-consciousness ramble, building behind Perkins' pedal steel pulls and Jones' Hammond B3 organ swells. On the album's liner notes, the lyrics are printed in paragraph form, which seems to suit the song's structure much more naturally than the usual line-by-line format. In fact, all the album's lyrics are printed in paragraphs rather than lines, which adds to the impression of Easton's songs as short stories rather than poems. Though he doesn't consciously avoid rhyme and structure, he does seem less strictly bound to such conventions; yet his writing rarely loses the rhythm and flow that's as essential to good prose as it is to poetry. Truth be told, however, the format of the liner notes was purely accidental. "The paragraph form of 'Rewind' was intentional, but with the rest of them, it was just to fit them all on the three pages [of the CD booklet]," Easton explains. "I had them completely printed out differently, like more in line form. We had to do that in order to save space....But that is the purpose of my writing, is to get a story out." The most heartrending story on Special 20 is "Everywhere Is Somewhere", which was written about Kelly Scholl, a close friend who died recently of a heroin overdose (and to whom the album is dedicated). The lyrics are elusive enough that the details of the situation aren't overtly apparent, but the seriousness of the subject is betrayed by Easton's vocals, clearly his most emotional performance on the record. Adding further poignancy to the song is a hauntingly enchanting harmony vocal track by Clare Surgeson, Easton's girlfriend and the sister of bassist Matt Surgeson. "Clare's voice on that just makes it so sad and so beautiful; it's like a ghost or something," Easton says. "That was one of those things, like a lot of the album, that was made spontaneously. Phil Park [a fellow Haynes Boy who plays slide guitar on the tune] was in trying to sing that part, and Clare was sitting in the control room and she said, 'I could sing that part.' And we just turned around and said, 'Go in there and do it.' And she did it." One other song on Special 20 also references a recently departed soul who left a significant imprint on Easton's life. "Troublesome Kind", an easygoing country-folk number, contains the following lyric in the bridge: "Curled up in bed one morning/Listening to the singer's warning/'How much of your love is true?'" The "singer's warning" is a quote from "Pueblo Waltz" by Townes Van Zandt, who passed away in January 1997. "It's one of those lines that, if you're sitting there and listening to it with your baby, it just kinda strikes you. It just jumps out," Easton says. The line perhaps meant even more to Easton because he'd had the opportunity to open a show for Van Zandt a year or two before his death. "He was in pretty bad shape, but he did say a lot of nice things about me," Easton recalls. "But, you know, that was his style. He was very nice to other songwriters. So it wouldn't be unique to say that he was nice to me and supported what I did. "It just so happens that I was really a big Lightnin' Hopkins and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee fan, and he was playing a lot of that kind of style when we opened up for him. And later on that night, we proceeded to kind of tie one on, and played a lot of Hank Williams songs, which was great. "So, yeah, that Townes line was -- you know, everybody comments about that line, and the girl that sings on that song [Annie Light-Brown, another Columbus compatriot] was just like, 'I love that line so much.' And I was like, 'I wish I wrote that line.'" If he's not quite up to Van Zandt's level yet, Easton has nevertheless experienced quite a bit since he began playing music a decade ago with an outfit called the Kosher Spears. He formed the Haynes Boys in the early '90s, but he also spent several extended stretches traveling throughout Europe and playing on the street, at one point even releasing a solo album on the Czech label Podulka. "I went overseas like seven or eight times, and just kept staying over there, because it was so easy to get work and whatnot," Easton says. He spent most of his time in the Czech Republic and Ireland. "Ireland is heaven for musicians, because there's plenty of work, and plenty of good unpretentious musicians over there too," he says. His Czech Republic visits offered an entirely different perspective. "The first time I was there was when it was still Czechoslovakia -- it was after the wall came down. It was a party. And then the hangover started; that's what they call it now. All this Western stuff's coming in, and it's changing. Like, there was no McDonald's the first time I was there. And now, last week I was there, and there were more than ten of 'em." Easton's most recent visit was a mixture of business and pleasure; Germany's Blue Rose Records is distributing Special 20 overseas, and Easton played a few shows in Prague as well as doing some street busking (with Clare Surgeson playing washboard). Such traveling is common for Easton, who says he spends more time away from Columbus than in it these days. He moved to New York City for several months a couple years ago, and still frequently makes extended visits to other places around the country. No doubt his journeys will take him to Austin for another SXSW festival before too long. That initial experience four years ago has left him with a better perspective on such events, though. "I think it's not so much a thing to get worked up about as an artist," he says. "It's more just, maybe go there and have some fun. And hopefully see some really good music that'll change you. And you'd never wanna pass up a trip to Texas." ND co-editor Peter Blackstock would never wanna pass up a trip to Texas, either.