Greg Garing remembers standing onstage in the back room of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and realizing that he’d finally attained a dream he’d struggled for a decade to achieve. With the Ryman Auditorium and all its ghosts casting a shadow from behind, and with a packed room of fans gazing up at him, Garing had proven that hardcore honky-tonk music could still create a buzz in the very city where it had been cast aside for a slicker sound. Garing and his crack band were the first performers to draw attention to Lower Broadway. They attracted young rockers, old honky-tonkers, artists, hipsters, and music-industry insiders, many of whom had rarely, if ever, planted a leather shoe on the Orchid Lounge’s weathered, sticky linoleum.
That same night, however, Garing realized that his initial dream had to end there. Despite all the excitement he’d created, despite all the lucrative offers and lofty promises coming his way, he recognized the image and role being pressed onto him would limit his music and ultimately undermine his purpose. “I was put into this stereotype of being Hank Williams reborn,” says Garing, speaking by telephone from his New York City apartment. “I don’t think I sound like him, but I’m tall and thin and I had an old suit and hat. I was stuck with what people said I was.”
Garing had considered his music a combination of several of genres, including bluegrass, honky-tonk, swing, and early rock ’n’ roll. But once he’d been tagged as Williams reincarnated, he knew he would never live it down. “I realized that if I kept going that way, it would turn into a caricature, a cartoon,” he says.
With a record deal in hand, Garing quit his Tootsie’s gig and set out to do something different. The result is Alone, a stunningly powerful, wholly modern album released July 15 on Paladin/Revolution Records. On his first LP release, Garing succeeds in integrating the haunting, primitive power of mountain music with the ethereal, arrhythmic sound of trip-hop and modern English pop music. It’s a heady, original collection that touches the heart while jarring the body.
As eerie as it is progressive, Garing’s sound has its antecedents: Modern rock acts Portishead, Everything But the Girl, Ruby, Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega, and Ashley MacIsaac have all merged pop and folk styles with the buzz, clang, and jerk of drum-machine rhythms. But Garing is the first to haul this ultra-urban style up a backwoods mountain and marry it to the high, lonesome sound of Appalachia. It works because of Garing’s chilling voice, his emotionally precise lyrics, and the crafty way he and producer David Kahne have combined traditional folk instruments with modern beats.
The 11-song album, which features all Garing originals (including two songs cowritten with Ruby’s Leslie Rankine and one with bluegrass great Peter Rowan), shifts boldly from dreamy to narcotic to angry. The arrangements blend fiddles, banjos, and train-crossing signals with a drunken string quartet, a psychotic carnival organ, and a shrill disco whistle. All the while, beats rattle and grate against the sweet, nylon strings of Garing’s acoustic guitar and against his unearthly voice, which contains a dramatic emotional sweep comparable to that of the late Jeff Buckley.
“When I heard the new trip-hop and Brit-pop stuff, it really connected with me,” the singer says. “I’d listened to the radio for years, and there was nothing there for me, no sign of music with a musical quality to it that was able to reach the masses. [Then I] found something there I thought I could work with. Come to find out, there’s not really any male singers in this musical style. It’s mostly been females. But it’s the kind of music that really allows you to sing, and there’s not too many guys doing that anywhere in rock music these days.”
Garing’s career has followed a winding path over the last few years. His journey began, he says, when he hooked up with The Shakers, a popular Nashville folk-rock band in the late ’80s and early ’90s that consisted of Rebecca Stout, Robert Logue, and Oscar Rice. At the time, Garing had been singing at the Bluegrass Inn and playing fiddle and other instruments on the road with bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin. “Playing with The Shakers is what got me back into rock ’n’ roll,” he says.
Not long afterward, however, acoustic bassist Preston Rumbaugh dragged Garing to Tootsie’s and suggested they form a band that could play the bar’s back room. Garing had already tried to play honky-tonk in Nashville dives in the late ’80s, but “I literally starved doing that,” he says. He gave it one more try, however, and before long, his shows at Tootsie’s exploded into a Lower Broad revival. “When that took off, the rock thing kind of fell by the wayside,” Garing laughs.
But the specter of Hank Williams ultimately brought him back around to rock music. He first took an old Shakers song, “Follow a Blue River,” and tried to work up a new musical style with his honky-tonk band. “I wondered what it would sound like if I tried to combine what I did with The Shakers with what I was doing at Tootsie’s,” he says. “I brought it up at rehearsal, and they very begrudgingly agreed to try. When we finished, the band was like, ‘You’re not going to do that again, are you?’ They thought I was nuts. But I really felt I was onto something creative. I knew from that moment on that I would do something different.”
Garing also remembers music-business champion Dub Cornett encouraging him to listen to Beck, telling him he could do something similarly modern and effective. “But I hated Beck’s voice,” the singer recalls, “so I didn’t really get it then.” Then he accompanied a friend to see Garbage at the Exit/In. “That’s when it clicked,” he explains. “That’s when I thought, ‘I really like this, and I think I can do something like this.’ ”
He credits others for help along the way, including Bug Music executive Gary Velletri; ex-Praxis Entertainment execs Andy McLenon, Kay Clary, and Jack Emerson; and attorney and Paladin Records executive Jim Zumwalt, who put Garing on a Nashville Entertainment Association Extravaganza bill that led to crucial support from Missy Worth of Revolution Records.
Musically, however, Garing considers English record veteran B.P. Fallon his most important mentor. After the Garbage performance, Fallon introduced Garing to the music of Portishead, Tricky, and P.J. Harvey, among others. The pair eventually went into Nashville’s Sound Vortex Studios and, with the help of studio owner Robb Earls, tried combining Garing’s voice with sequenced rhythms. “It was close to what I wanted,” Garing says, “but not quite.”
So the singer bought some recording equipment and ensconced himself in a rented room in Spence Manor. “I taught myself how to use a sampler,” he says. “I didn’t know how to do it right, but I learned how to use it my own way. I locked myself in for three weeks and basically wrote the record. My producer, David Kahne, took those tracks I made and built upon them, made them a little more sonically correct.”
Garing had met with several producers before choosing to work with Kahne, who began his career in the early ’80s producing San Francisco bands Pearl Harbour and the Explosions, Rank and File, Romeo Void, and Translator before moving on to the Bangles, Firehose, Fishbone, Sublime, and others. “He said he wanted to make a modern rock record that captured the ideas and the feel of my demos,” Garing says. “He told me that, first and foremost, I was a singer and that everything had to be built around my voice. And that’s what happened.”
Garing plays a wide variety of instruments on the album; the only accompanists are bassist Mike Watt (of Minutemen and Firehose) and drummer Andy Kravitz (Joan Osborne’s drummer). Peter Rowan sings with Garing on one song.
“A lot of people in Nashville may think that I walked out on them,” Garing says. “But that’s not it at all. I was pretty whacked out there for a while, especially when everything started happening at Tootsie’s. I know some people have bad-mouthed me. But I’ve got nothing bad to say about Nashville. A lot of great things happened to me there. But it was time for me to do something else. I’ve always been a drifter anyway.”
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