Bob Frank Tells It Like It Is
"The best songwriter you never heard." — Jim Dickinson
Bob Frank is a singer-songwriter born out of the tradition of when folk singers would play smoky bars with beer-stained floors, singing story-songs about the people and places they knew best—barroom losers, hard luck vagrants, and quite often songs about busted, broken hearted but not quite ready to give up folks much like themselves. Frank released his debut album on the Vanguard label in 1972 but he first came to my attention with the brilliant and emotionally devastating album he recorded with John Murry, World Without End, an album of modern day murder ballads based on true tales of horrific crime. Not one to be pigeonholed, Frank also recorded A Little Gest of Robin Hood, his version of the Middle Ages bard’s tale of Robin Hood and his Merry Men told in Frank’s distinct Southern drawl backed with acoustic guitar. Frank’s latest album is Twilight in Tolleson, a dozen songs that would sound perfectly at home played on a dirt floor saloon on a Friday night after a hard week of working.
We corresponded via email, here's what we got:
Roy: So let’s start kind of at the beginning. What ever made you want to pick up a guitar and write songs in the first place?
Bob: don't know. gene autry? probly. i had a little paperback book of cowboy songs and learned a lot of them. right away i tried to write some of my own. first guitar i had was an old Kay f-hole, with the action about an inch or two off the neck. really hard to play. i thought all guitars were like that. about then, i heard Teen Angel on the radio, by Mark Dining, and i just had to learn that one. i loved the ballads right off the bat. what i liked most about elvis was, when he sang those slow soft love songs, his voice was so mellow, that was always my favorite sort of song. Donna, by Ritchie Valens. nothing better than that. so i wanted to write songs like this. like anything, really. cowboy songs, love songs, didn't matter. i just right away wanted to write my own songs. i thought that's what you were supposed to do.
Roy: Okay, you have an idea for a song—how do you get started, what’s your process for starting and finishing a song? When do you know for sure that a song is truly finished?
Bob: there ain't no process. you just do it. riding in a car is the easiest way, driving across the country, hell, just driving to work, best place to write a song, you can sing anything you want and not worry about anybody hearing you. so, i usually start with the lyrics, but right away, i usually come up with some sort of tune to sing 'em to, so i'll know where i'm going in that respect. but i've written whole songs without a tune, just lyrics, and then found a tune later. or sometimes, i hear a tune first, but usually not. the thing is, i don't believe in any sort of right way to write a song. every song is its own creation, you do it like it wants to be done. it stands alone. not comparable to anything else. just as it is. of course, i never wrote a hit song, and that's probly why. i never listen to the radio. i don't like to listen to music, really. i mean, i like it sometimes, and when i was young, i loved all those songs in the fifties, on the radio, and then later on, all the folk songs, and so on, i learned 'em all. but eventually, i got where i just didn't give a fuck about listening to anybody else. now, i never listen to anything, unless it's sent to me by a friend who wrote it himself, or herself. i'll listen to that. but otherwise, what's the point? if i want to listen to music, i pick up a guitar and write a song. really, at this point, i don't even care anything about music at all. i just write songs. has nothing to do with music, per se. music is just part of what it takes to write a song. that's all. so i know when it's done by playing it and seeing if it's done. sing it. see if it's a song or not. like that.
Roy: I would definitely call you a troubadour, and much like your work on A Little Gest of Robin Hood, you are carrying on that “bard” tradition. Word has it that you memorized all 456 stanzas of that piece. I personally take pride in not using a music stand with lyrics in front of me when I perform, but some folks have difficulty playing without the words in front of them. Do you have any advice for aspiring songwriters and performers on the best way to memorize their material?
Bob: not really. you just memorize it. sing it a lot. maybe it's relatively easy for me to remember lyrics, i don't know, cause i don't know how hard it is for anybody else. got no idea what their mind is like. but i love to memorize lyrics. i've done it all my life. if i like the song or the poem, i will memorize it. i used to know all the robert service poems by heart. most of 'em. they're great songs, without any tunes. blake, donne, richard lovelace, a.e. housman -- i learned all that shit by heart. beautiful stuff. but how did i do it? got no idea. just kept going over it til i had it down pat. the gest, i learned it a fit at a time, recorded it like that. one fit at a time, i'd memorize it and then record it. in the first fit, i left out one verse. too late now. i didn't know anything about digital music. a guy offered to master it for me, i thought he meant he would clean it all up, take all the room sounds out of it, and i didn't want to do that, i wanted all the noise in there, like it was a live performance. so i never had it mastered. later, dickinson told me i needed to master that CD he produced of me, and that's when i realized, i should have mastered the gest and also that solo CD, pledge of allegiance. am i rambling on too much? what was the fucking question?
then, when i went to perform the whole gest live at a robin hood conference in Michigan, i had to put all those fits together and do it all in one sitting. i was hoarse by the end of it. crazy idea. i should have put in an intermission. but i didn't have any notes, i did it all from memory. like the old bards did. yep, i'm an old bard. i'm in that tradition, always have been, and it's a very great traditiion, and i consider it a high activity, but that doesn't mean i don't write some bawdy shit. it just means, the sacred and the profane are forever mixed together, and who am i to try to separate 'em?
Roy: Let's talk about performing for a moment. Writing a song and performing a song are two completely different entities. Do you prefer one over the other? Have you ever written a song that is difficult to perform live?
Bob: yep, they are two totally different animals. recording and performing live, same thing. two entirely different things. dickinson used to say he was a recording artist, not a performing artist. i'm more of a performing artist. i go on stage and am perfectly at home, feel like i can do anything i want up there and the audience will like it. in a studio, it drives me fucking nuts, they record it all and save everything, all your mistakes, you gotta do it a million times, it's impossible to make a recording i won't find something wrong with it. i hate all my CD's, they all have something wrong somewhere. music will break your fucking heart. i fucking hate it.
where were we? in a live performance, it's all gone as quick as it comes and that's that. one time through. done. move on. like life itself. no do-overs.
so, writing and performing. i think i prefer writing. but once it's written, i prefer performing. you gotta go sing it to somebody, otherwise, what was the point of writing it? ain't no point. you gotta sing it for somebody. so then, performing is where it's at. so i prefer both, sort of like eating and taking a shit. one at a time. like somebody said, there's a time and a place for everything.
yep, i've written songs that are hard to perform in the sense that i can't play the guitar very well, so i might fuck that part up.
Roy: Writing songs taken from real life events can be extremely difficult yet vastly rewarding. Your song “The Murder of Dylan Hartsfeld” is a true story you felt importantly about. You wrote the words and your friend John Murry recorded a seething version of it that impacts me just as much as your album World Without End—dark, relentless, scary, straight to the gut. Can you tell us a little about how that song came about?
Bob: dylan's dad, bill hartsfeld, called me from north carolina one day in the early 2000's, said he had the vanguard album and wanted to look me up. people do this from time to time. call me out of the blue and say, "i've had that old album forever. will you come play at my birthday party next week?" a yard party, that's what they're talking about. what they call 'em in north carolina. so i met bill hartsfeld like that. we were both in nam, so we would talk about that. then his son, dylan, went into the army and was sent to afghanistan and later, to iraq. so he had been raised on the vanguard album, poor guy, so he sent me an email asking me to send his dad my new CD's, so i did that, then the next thing you know, a few years later, bill calls me up and tells me about how dylan, who was back home now, was shot and killed, murdered, in his back yard, right in front of him, by a cop! and he wanted me to write a song about it. he told me the whole story. it was also on the internet, in newspapers and so on. the cops' story was, he was carrying a bush hook, a tool they use down south to clear brush, look it up, so they had to shoot him, but bill said, no, he was carrying a broken hockey stick that he'd had when he was a kid. and in the call from the police radio at the scene of the crime, you can hear the girl saying he has a hockey stick in his hand. so i carried that story around in my head for a couple of years, and then one day driving back from arizona, the whole song came out in a flood of lyrics, all at once. wrote itself just like that. it was too long for me to know what the fuck to do with it, but i figured john could come up with something. he's so creative and unique, and he would love the story, i knew he would do something cool with it. and he did, and he recorded it himself in memphis with kevin cubbins.
when dylan talks in that song, when that cop is pointing his pistol at him, that's word for word what bill told me he said. "this guy ain't gon do nothing, dad. he's a fuckin punk." the thing is, dylan knew the cop, they knew each other. they grew up right there in that little town in north carolina. what i think it was, the cop was scared. he got scared and pulled the trigger.
so i showed it to john, we were on the deck in my backyard, overlooking the creek, and he leaped up and said he could hear the tune to it right now. so that was that. he did a great job on it. i knew he would. john's a powerful artist, one of a kind. like nobody else in the universe.
Roy: On World Without End you wrote modern day, true murder ballads, following the tradition of bluegrass and mountain songs. Whose idea was this and what sort of research did you have to do?
Bob: it was john's idea. he said let's do an album of murder ballads, but when we started to learn the songs, we decided it wouldn't work, cause they had all been done to death (no pun intended...). so then we decided to write all new ones, but make them sound like they were old. and use true stories from american history. so john did all the research, most of it.
the interesting part to me was, john wanted to do this as a sort of catharsis thing, like existential angst or something, fear of death, write about these morbid stories and somehow overcome a fear of death, something philosophical like that. but for me, it was just, hey! great idea for an album! right up my alley! get to write a shitload of songs about people killing each other, just what i love to do! like Wild Bill Jones, the song that dickinson recorded with Dr. John and all, write some more shit like that. i had rewritten that song from an old hillbilly song. different tune, different chords, took it out of the mountains and put it in the swamp. so i was very eager to do this project that john had come up with. then, he went and found all these stories. bubba rose was one i submitted, it was a true story from my childhood, one night we were eating dinner at my grandmother's house there in memphis, and uncle bud said, "it's too bad about bubba rose." then he told us how bubba rose had gone to work that day and killed his boss. bubba lived right next door to them, we had photographs of bud and bubba rose playing in the backyard when they were kids.
so, like that, we found some stories and the songs just wrote themselves. i would have complete songs written, chords and tune and everything, but all john would have would be some lyrics and a line of melody and no chords, just some music he heard in his head, and we'd go in the studio and he would create the whole song right there, on the spot, using any instrument he thought it needed. he'd play all of em, piano, guitar, xylaphone, organ -- didn't matter what. just a note here and a note there, and pretty soon, the whole song would emerge. from literally out of nowhere.
Roy: These are dark, quite often hard to listen to songs because of the subject matter with explicit language and the grisly details detailed therein. Most songwriters wouldn’t bring themselves to delve all the way into their subject matter like this but I’m glad you didn’t shy away from it. Was this a tough mindset for you?
Bob: not at all. it was fun. like i say, i love to write songs, and that's all it was for me. writing songs full of action and drama and shootin' and stabbin'. but i think john's songs are actually stronger songs. he was so fresh and innovative. i was just writing more folk songs. his shit was like born out of warfare.
Roy: Some songwriters like to collaborate with others when working on a song, I know a few who prefer to only work solo. I know you’ve collaborated with John Murry on a few projects, what’s the secret to a successful collaboration?
Bob: you just gotta get on the same wavelength. i guess. i don't know. if there's a secret to it, it will remain a secret forever, cause if anybody knows what it is, it ain't a secret anymore. sometimes i just take something somebody else contributes and go off and write the rest of it by myself. sometimes, we write it together, sitting right there next to each other. sometimes the lines come one right after the other, i'll say one, and the other person will say the next one right after that, without skipping a beat. that's when you're on the same wavelength. it can happen any way at all. you just have to be open to it and not try to force your ideas into it. leave it alone, let it write itself. be helpful. don't want it your way too much. see what the other person has to say. collaborate, compromise. put the song first and yourself last. something like that.
Roy: On your latest album, Twilight in Tolleson, the songs are simply presented with bare arrangements that showcase the strengths of the songwriting. “Alone” and “You Don’t Know the Way She Lies” are two of my favorites on this album and “I Saved My Heart for You” makes me laugh every time. Are the songs on this album new or older ones?
Bob: those are all pretty new songs. Chuck Giamalvo and i wrote them in the last 5 or 6 years i guess. chuck and i always write a lot of songs. like in the old days, me and cletus haegert would write songs together, well, it's like that with me and chuck. he's a country oriented singer, and i'm sort of folk and old rock ballads and irish songs and cowboy songs, stuff like that. so we just sit down and write songs togther. it's fun. like i say, i just love to write songs, and i will write them with anybody, no exceptions. i will also write them by myself. there's a time and a place for everything. and everyone.
Roy: Do you ever write stream of consciousness style? Just start playing the guitar and see what comes up?
Bob: sometimes. at a period in my life, back in the early '70's, that's how i wrote all my songs. i was driving around the rocky mountains in a van with my wife, deirdre, and we would stop by a mountain stream and camp there for a few days, and i would get some beer and some weed and sit there on the bank with a guitar and just write whatever the fuck came out. beautiful little ditties. no story to 'em at all. just little rhymes with pictures and rhymes. then, i wanted more stories, more meat, with a backbone and all. so i started back to writing story songs, but they were better now. so it's a growing process, it has been for me. but in another sense, i haven't grown at all. i'm still just writing songs. some of the best ones i ever wrote were written when i was a teenager. but as for stream of consciousness, i do have one great song right now that i basically wrote like that awhile back, the unusual artist. it's a talking blues sort of thing, but not with the usual talking blues chords. at one point, when i was writing it, i thought, this will never work, it can't go anywhere, it's too weird. but i said, just stick with it, see where it goes. so then, it just went along, and by cracky, it came out at a gold mine. far as good songs go. far as actual gold mine, like hit song, probly not. but i never write songs to be hits. i write songs to be good songs that i can sing to people.
Roy: One of my favorite songs of yours is the hidden track on World Without End, the one about the Battle of Shiloh. One of the best songs I’ve heard about the psychological trauma of the Civil War (hell, any war!) Simply told, honest, and powerful. Um, what was my question? Oh yeah—You have a way with telling stories from the eyes and mind of true to life characters. You know how to “make them breathe true” so to speak. How the hell do you manage to do this so well on such a consistent basis?
Bob: i'm really glad you heard that song. it's not listed on the cover and it's not a separate track, it's hidden, buried at the end of the last listed song on there and there's a lot of space between that song and shiloh, and i'm always worried somebody will stop the CD before it gets to that song and never even hear it. john said it was a mistake, the way he did that. anyway, at least you heard it, and the best part is, you like it a lot. me too. that's one of my favorite songs on there, for the very reasons you mention, plus i grew up near shiloh, in memphis, and went there several times as a young boy, camped out there in the boy scouts and so on. it's in my blood. so it was really eerie and strange and strong writing it. like deja vu all over again. i already had a song about shiloh that i'd written years before, so this one is shorter and more to the point. the story is one from john's family, an uncle or cousin or somebody, who was actually at the battle of shiloh, and had an experience something like that. john is in faulkner's family.
as for how i do what i do with songs, i can only say, according to dickinson, and my wife, and cletus haegert and gary mcmahan ("old double diamond"), i'm a natural born songwriter. they always told me that, but it never made any sense to me until a few years ago. that's it. it just comes natural to me. in fact, it comes so easy, for years i thought it was too easy, i thought i should work on the songs more, i would re-write them, change lines in them, and so on. my wife hated that, so did cletus, so did dickinson. he said, every time you change a line you fuck it up! well, i told him, not every time, cause some of the lines you like were not the original lines that first came to me... but he was probly right. i don't do that anymore. or i try not to.
adios por ahora.
squeeze it easy!
This interview originally was posted on roypeak.com