Photo by Tyler McCay
Tim Easton’s forthcoming album Not Cool is a tightly wound gearbox of tunes that showcase his influences, including Doc Watson, Elmore James, and Keith Richards. A compelling live performer, Easton recently re-located from Joshua Tree, California, to Nashville, where he recorded Not Cool in five hard-charging days with producers and long time collaborative team Robin Eaton and Brad Jones. Says Easton, “It was the easiest time I’ve ever had in the studio.”
The concept for Not Cool came to Easton as he was getting acquainted with his new, adopted hometown. “The back stage door of the Ryman Auditorium is directly across the alley from the back door to Robert’s Western World on Lower Broadway. I walked in the bar one night and heard the locals killing it. JD Simo on guitar and Joe Fick on upright bass. It was just the modern, yet vintage sound that I wanted and I simply asked them to play on my record.”
Sonically, Not Cool is both a departure from and return to his first solo album, Special 20 (1999).Like Special 20 – a standout favorite among many Easton fans – Not Cool draws inspiration from an assortment of scrappy, lost-and-found instruments, including Easton’s $100 Kay guitar, wired with a cheap-o pick-up and run through a tiny, 5-watt Gretsch amp.
In choosing the band for Not Cool, the Ohio-raised songwriter embraced a collaborative approach and picked “players I knew could learn these songs on the spot and nail them. And, of course, I was prepared to roll with the surprises they brought with them because that’s how good work is done.”
“Don’t Lie” kicks the album off with a romp. Hard-hitting and tough, the song is driven by Simo’s greasy slide guitar and the instinctive drumming style of Jon Radford. Never has Easton’s studio band matched his sound and performance as well as on Not Cool.
“Don’t Lie”- like many of his best songs – developed quickly and naturally. Says Easton, “’Don’t Lie’ is a blues story-song, straight and simple. We all know couples like this, liars and ne’er do wells. And this is a snapshot of a combustible relationship.”
Now married with a young daughter in his life, Easton’s songwriting has been rejuvenated by parenthood. “Having a kid’s been great for helping me to get back in touch with the whole spirit of doing things just because they’re fun or because it feels good.”
As a songwriter whom Rolling Stone praised as having a “novelist’s sense of humanity,” Easton’s Not Cool – his seventh album – further expands his already impressive output of melodic and nuanced tunes. Often drawing inspiration from America’s more menacing margins, Not Cool’s “Four Queens” – inspired by an off-the-strip Vegas hotel Easton has frequented – is a blunt and memorable tune that traces a woman’s descent into addiction in fewer words than a tabloid lead: “Skipped all the good stuff, took straight up with the pills/ Now she’s underneath the table licking dollar bills.”
But just as Easton’s writing is evoking the tough and grizzled world of down-and-outers, he and his band put forward an impossibly appealing Tennessee Three- styled arrangement for “Troubled Times,” a true charmer that gets a gorgeous lift from the background vocal stylings of Easton’s longtime musical partner, Megan Palmer. Palmer also plays violin on the album’s haunting “Knock Out Roses (For Levon).” Says Easton, “The day Levon Helm died I walked out into my backyard with my mandolin, stood by a rose bush, and wrote this tune for him. It’s men like Levon who make you remember how much we owe the music. I feel the same way about Doc Watson.”
Of the eleven songs on Not Cool, one – “Crazy Motherfucker from Shelby, Ohio” – was penned by friend and Brooklyn-based filmmaker, JP Olsen, whose songs Easton has recorded previously onThe Truth About Us (2000) and Break Your Mother’s Heart (2003).
Now living happily in East Nashville, Easton maintains a rigorous and far-reaching tour schedule and has been participating in the Nashville tradition of co-writing. He has also been contributing to film scores and soundtracks, most recently Marc Smolowitz’s powerful, award-winning 2011 documentary, “The Power of Two.”
As for Not Cool, Easton sums it up simply, “there is nothing vague or indirect about the songs or lyrics on this album. It is my version of what American music sounds like.”