Interview

Rambling with Willie Sugarcapps and Finding Paradise Right Here

Willie Sugarcapps at the Frog Pond at Blue Moon Farm (MCE Photography)

“Welcome to the Frog Pond Sunday Social. The kids are home.”  
— Cathe Steele at the Frog Pond Sunday Social on April 17

“The kids” are the members of Willie Sugarcapps: the popular Americana band born on a stage shaded by a cedar tree on a Silverhill, Alabama, farm. The band started when Cathe Steele brought Grayson Capps, Will Kimbrough, Savana Crawford, Anthony Crawford (Sugarcane Jane) and Corky Hughes together in February 2012. It was Sunday Social time at Blue Moon farm and their unrehearsed, unplanned collaboration felt so good they kept playing together.

Talented kids having fun is what Willie Sugarcapps music sounds like, and it's how they perform it on stage. Mandolin, violin, snare drum, harmonica, shaker, and all kinds of guitars weave and dance in and out of their songs. The five players stomp, laugh, lean in, listen, and make fun of themselves -- and each other. The structure of the group’s songs leaves room for jamming and fingers to run.

Playtime begins in soundcheck, which is often the first time they have seen each other since the last concert, and tuning up is almost as good as the show.

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“I put people together who complement each other and I knew they would be good for each other,” said Steele, introducing Willie Sugarcapps at the Frog Pond last week. “Musicians on this stage have to leave their egos at the door. They have to pay attention and compromise.”

The name Willie Sugarcapps is a combination of the first, last, or band names of most of its members. Johnny Fisher, owner of Fisher’s in Orange Beach, thought of the name during their show at the Frog Pond.

Their first album, Willie Sugarcapps, was released in 2013. Recorded in one day on the porch at Anthony and Savana’s dogtrot house, it climbed into the top 10 on the Americana Music Association (AMA) chart and was named the 2013 Americana Album of the Year by the Independent Music Awards. Their new album, Paradise Right Here (out April 15 on Baldwin County Public Records), was recorded during a three-day touring break at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. This week it is at No. 33 on the AMA chart.

“The album was recorded live,” Savana Crawford says. “Our producer, Trina Shoemaker, kept the laid-back, loosey-goosey feeling of our music. It is polished and sounds commercial, but you can tell we are having fun. Trina is a perfectionist and put much more time on this album than we did.”

The band doesn’t rehearse or play from a set list and their spontaneity adds chemistry and unpredictability to their shows. On the album, Shoemaker catches the improvising energy, the warmth and richness of the group's harmonies, and Corky’s steel guitar, which adds depth to the imagery of highways, loneliness, and faded neighborhoods.

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Paradise Right Here was released on April 15, and Willie Sugarcapps played at the Frog Pond two days later, their first performance together since November. They all have their own music careers and Savana and Anthony had their third child, Dusty, in November.

A week that started at the Frog Pond ended with shows at Jazz Fest and the Mud Bottom Revival. The Southern Rambler talked with them before their show at the Frog Pond. It was the the first time they had all been together in months and the teasing, silliness, and laughter came back quickly.

The Southern Ramber: This is a big day with your CD release and a sold out show at the Frog Pond. How does it feel to be back?

Grayson Capps: We have been waiting for this day for a long time, but I am a little nervous about it.

Savana Lee: We took time off from Willie Sugarcapps and today feels like the first show again. I hope I remember everything. This is the first time we have played together since early November when I had the baby. There is no place we would rather be for our CD release party. This is where it began. And it is Grayson’s birthday party.

Will Oldham: How old are you?

GC: 95. I have just been living good.

WO: I didn’t think you were a day over 96.

Grayson Capps celebrated his birthday at the Frog Pond.

It took a little while for this album to come out. When did you record it?

GC: Five years ago.

SL: February last year.

GC: We recorded it in three days, but we had to do a lot of tweaking.

WO: We were on tour when we recorded the album. Grayson was sick.

GC: The album was ready by summer, then something happened.

WO: Then Dusty came. We have been playing these songs for a while. But they are still new to a lot of people.

GC: [laughs] I am done with them. I am not playing them any more.

You recorded Willie Sugarcapps in one day when you had just started playing together. What is different about Paradise Right Here?

WO: There are five big personalities in this band who are used to doing their own thing, but we have learned how to collaborate. We are lucky we stumbled into each other. This record shows we have grown. It’s not Willie Sugarcapps, Volume 2.

GC: Playing in the studio with these guys, you discover the song right there.

SL: We also had more time to work our parts. That helps with the harmonies and they have a more prominent place on this album. My voice is second soprano, Anthony is tenor, Will is baritone/tenor, and Grayson is the bass. It makes a nice chord. We try not to cover up the singer, just come in and out to make it special.

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GC: I love singing with harmony and finding the timbres of voices, phrasing, and accents that lock together and make it so easy. There is a big buzz when it locks in and I am usually still buzzing after we are through.

WO: The songs are spontaneous. We just captured where we were. It’s almost like a field recording. Luckily we had Trina and Anthony and time afterwards. Every time we play together, we learn more. The first time we played together, we knew we wanted to do it. It has stayed that way and it is nice after a lifetime of playing in bands.

Anthony Crawford: Recording at FAME was just as cool as the dogtrot recordings, and we were on the road and away from local and family distractions. Savana and I have such a young and demanding family, and that made it hard to prepare ourselves for contributing songs. We drew from the hip. Will and Grayson are always prepared and it shows. 

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Corky, how do you know what to add to songs written by three different songwriters?

Corky Hughes: I take cues from them and let the music dictate what sounds right.

AC: We have thought about firing him so many times, but he is too good.

GC: Once he is paid off, he is gone.

You would be lost without Corky. What does he bring to the band?

WO: I have been listening to Corky since before I played guitar. He is tasteful and takes his time composing his part. Anthony and I are ready to improvise at any time. We thrive in that and it's good to have Corky and Grayson, who take the time to compose their parts. Corky’s voice in the band is instrumental. It is soulful and thoughtful and that comes out in alliterative music. He is always thinking about what to do around our vocals and thinking of melodic tunes that represent the lyrics. We trust each other to come up with the thing and make it happen. There is no controlling the song or each other.  

GC: Corky is the most empathetic guitar player I know. The music soars and transcends beyond ego. He focuses on the song and will play a simpler guitar line if that’s what the song needs. He doesn’t try to show off, he just lets the song paint the picture. He seems quiet, but he is the funniest person on the planet when he is on the bus.

AC: We are still waiting for Corky to sing.

CH: I heard George Clinton say ... He said, "The answer is in the question."

WO: That’s it. With this band we have tried to leave the question mark there while still having a sentence with a period at the end, that says we have to be in Cincinnati to play at Southgate House or we need to pay for T-shirts. The nuts and bolts. Maybe it’s the way to have a band. It is for us.

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Tell about recording the song “Mancil Travis.” The lyrics are one of Grayson’s masterpieces, and the dynamics, harmonies, and Corky’s solo give it deep emotions.

GC: That song wouldn’t have happened without this band. I was thinking about them when I wrote it. On top of the harmonies comes the dream sequences of the white carnation. We played it enough where it felt like it sustained the audience’s attention. Often, during the song, we go off structure and jam, and we wanted to find a way to do that on the record. It was relatively easy to record. Corky doesn’t sing, so I wanted to leave space for him.

CH: It is nice to have that space to play and do what I do. We all just go with it.

SL: Grayson gave his thoughts about the song when we played a show with him. We took it literally and it has grown over time. ... I had to overdub my harmonies on that song. We had just found out I was pregnant, but I couldn’t tell anyone and I was an emotional wreck. Maybe that was for the best on “Mancil Travis” and “Love Be Good to Me.” I can’t jam like everyone else, I am just glad I can add background vocals and have something to add to these badasses.

GC: I had to re-sing the whole song because I had a sinus infection. It was a good take, but I could hear the snot. It was good for the low background harmonies.

WO: I was lucky on that record. All I had to do is play guitar and mandolin. I wasn’t sick and didn’t have morning sickness.

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Why are you releasing this album on Baldwin County Public Records?

AC: It is good to have Jeff Zimmer involved with Baldwin County Public Records. We are glad to do this locally. The Zimmers are huge music fans and Jeff cares so much about it. We have people who put so much effort in this and we are thankful for them. I hope they get something for it. Everything we do is homegrown.

GC: It is good to see the Baldwin County Public Records name on the Americana list. People around us have a passion for what we do.

It is hard to believe you haven’t played together in five months. Was it good to take a break?

GC: It didn’t really feel like a break. In this career, every day is different. I love this band because it takes the burden off of me to be the leader of a show. It’s also inspiring and fun and like a vacation.

WO: Life without Willie Sugarcapps is not taking a break. The band is the break. We are still learning how to be friends and every time we get together, I am glad to see them. I want to see what they pull out of the hat. We all have our own music careers and families, but I wish we had more time to just hang out. There isn’t a lot of technical precision to our shows and the stage is where we socialize and spend time together.  No other band that I know of has a dynamic like this, but to us it is normal. Willie Sugarcapps is complete joyfulness of music and friendship for us.