“I’ll probably become a complete road warrior once [my children] turn 18 and get out of the house… that’s why I stay in the Southeast so much.”
Grayson Capps is referring to his local-heavy touring schedule that allows him to balance his career with family time. Grayson tours nationally (and internationally) when he feels the need, but, when not on tour, is a frequent performer at dozens and dozens of bars and venues scattered across Alabama. With a rabid Southeast fanbase and abundance of venues within driving distance, Capps averages a mind-boggling 170 shows a year while still spending most nights at home.
For the past couple of years, Grayson has hosted local concerts at The Frog Pond in Silverhill each Sunday that find he and his guitar player, Corky Hughes, collaborating with national acts. Drawing inspiration from Levon Helm’s midnight rambles, Capps’ Frog Pond slows are similarly influenced by traditional Americana and blues, and encourage collaboration (Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, Brian Stoltz and Luther Dickinson are among those scheduled to join Capps this fall). As fate would have it, local Alabama musicians Will Kimbrough and Sugarcane Jane (the duo of Anthony Crawford and Savana Lee) joined Capps and Hughes for one of their Sunday shows. As Grayson tells it, the chemistry and magic of their voices blended together was obvious from the first instant, and new supergroup Willie Sugarcapps was born.
Let’s start off by talking about Willie Sugarcapps. Congratulations on getting the debut album out. How did the group get together?
The Frog Pond in Silverhill is where it all started, about a year and a half ago I suppose. I’d been hosting national acts there every Sunday. Me and Corky Hughes, my guitar player, have been playing with different people for a couple of years and Will showed up and Sugarcane Jane. And it was unusual because everyone was able to accompany each other and sing with each other right on and it just gelled and we all realized we had similar backgrounds and it just felt really good.
And then a fellow named Johnny Fisher who used to book the House of Blues in New Orleans and LuLu’s in Gulf Shores, he said “Man that was the best thing I’ve seen in years! You oughtta name yourselves Willie Sugarcapps and do something!” We said “Yeah, yeah whatever,” and then we got together again months later and it was magical and we just toyed with the idea of doing a recording of some kind and we finally did. It’s been a real wonderful break from everybody’s individual careers and it’s been lots of fun to collaborate. It is what it is and it’s just an organic, fun project.
Sounds like it, and that feeling really comes across on the album. How do you like collaborating and being just another songwriter in the band rather than the bandleader?
I love it. It’s a great break for me because I have to carry the load all the time in my own band because I’m the primary, I’m the only thing really, the only songwriter. With this, I don’t have to carry the whole show. I can play guitar and sing harmonies and having four-part harmonies, I come off the stage buzzing after singing and hearing the other singers. It’s like wow, man. It’s just uplifting, really cool.
Are harmonies kind of a new experience for you?
Yeah. I mean I’ve sung with different people but not where I’ve gotten to know the songs and the part and stuff. It’s really exciting. I can’t imagine, it would be great to be a sideman (laughs). We all take turns singing lead, and I like singing the harmonies a lot, it’s really cool.
Did you guys collaborate at all on the songwriting or did you all bring in individual pieces that you wrote on your own?
Well we had songs. I had songs I had been working on. Well actually, I only had one song that I wanted to do. I wrote a specific song for the project, a little theme song called “Willie Sugarcapps.” We all came in with other songs, we haven’t had time to be together or rehearse or anything (laughs). We’re always on the road with our own projects and we just set a date on a Monday to record. We got kind of like we do when we play together live. You know, here’s the songs, here are the chords and it goes like this, here’s the chorus part that the harmonies are on (laughs)…
We did the take and it would be like learning the song. Second take we’d be like “We kinda got the song.” Then third take we’d own the song, I’d be like “Wow, we got it” and we’d move onto another song.
Did you record most of these songs in three takes or less? How did you approach the recording process in the studio?
Well it wasn’t really a studio (laughs). We were at Anthony Crawford’s house on a porch and Trina Shoemaker and Anthony set it up the day before and we all showed up from different gigs on Monday, cause that was the only day we could all get off. And we recorded the whole thing in eight hours.
Yeah it was amazing. I’ve never done anything that quick. Eight hours and we split (laughs). And then Trina sat with it for about a month just mixing. Most of it what was what we did live at Anthony’s, there were maybe 2-3 overdubs… I had to go get my son from school at one point so I had to overdub my harmony. And we added bass to something and did electric guitar on something… All of it was live except for a couple additions.
That’s a quick creative burst there, eight hours…
Yeah it’s kind of a combination of experience. Everybody had the studio experience and this musical experience. Everyone has recorded. It was crazy because we didn’t really know how good it sounded until a few days later and went “Jesus, that sounds great!”
How long had you guys been playing together live before you sat down to record?
Maybe one show (laughs)… We only did one show together as Willie Sugarcapps at the 30A Songwriting Festival in January. We played one more in the early spring and then we recorded. We’re doing shows now, but we weren’t really doing shows together before that.
Like I was saying, the combination of people just felt so magical the first time it ever came together, it was just… so weird. Nobody told anybody what to do. It was just like, “Here’s a song, do what you want.” Like Will started off “Gypsy Train,” Corky had a little a guitar part, Anthony was playing bass, I just pulled out a harmonica, Will said “That sounds cool” and we recorded it. Each person would pull out whatever instrument they wanted to play for the song, and it was just real eerie experiencing that.
That really comes across on the album, it just has this incredible, comfortable campfire-jam feel and it works out great. I know you’ve played with Corky for awhile, had you played with the other guys before you started sitting in with each other at Frog Pond?
No. Just me and Corky have been together about four years. I’ve known about Will forever since he’s from Mobile. Anthony and Savana just moved down here not too long ago. He’d been on the road with Neil Young for twenty years and their settling down and having babies and stuff and raising a family. The way it came together, it was just “Wow man, this is really natural and real, whatever it is.” It’s not what we set out to do, it just kinda happened.
You name-drop Woody Guthrie on the title track. Can you talk about what inspired that song and his influence on your songwriting?
Whenever I write I always go back to Woody Guthrie. Most of the time, I play two chords, sometimes I play three to impress the ladies (laughs)… that approach to songwriting, you know, it’s a song, it’s not an acrobatic machine or anything. He always keeps me rooted. I played a bunch of shows with Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion. I met them in Italy and really got back into thinking about Woody Guthrie after playing with them, cause she’s Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter.
Early on, I liked Bob Dylan and that led to Woody Guthrie and that led to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and all of that – Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson; and back up the other side through Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, the country world. And I still go back to Woody Guthrie and call him the most quintessential American songwriter that ever was.