The surreal Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There underscores just how many different faces an artist can have. Singer-songwriter Grayson Capps and his growing catalog of recordings make that same point a little more subtly—and without the help of Cate Blanchett in drag.
On 2005's If You Knew My Mind, Capps specialized in detailed character sketches (a hallmark of his songwriting) and rusted-out blues. The next year, Wail & Ride offered stronger country leanings, a touch more polished playing and a couple of raucous, bar-friendly sing-alongs. Then 2007's Songbones spotlighted Capps as the solo, introspective troubadour.
The wilder, looser Rott 'n' Roll—released last September on Hyena—is his version of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Of course, the differences between albums aren't really as clear-cut as all that, but Rott 'n' Roll is definitely the first one that has featured his entire ragged-edged live band—the Stumpknockers—from start to finish. "I wanted to kind of give a vibe of what we do live, however ridiculous it is," he says.
Capps recorded Rott'n'Roll with producer and engineer Trina Shoemaker in the barn-turned-home-and-studio outside of Franklin that they share with their young son Waylon. The one thing Capps didn't include on the album that live audiences have come to expect is his colorful storytelling between songs. "Yeah, well, that's just hard to do on a record," Capps says. "How many times would you listen to a story when you play it over and over?"
Some of Capps' stories—like the one about a 12-year-old kid who used a dead spider monkey, green paint and a couple of hubcaps to fool a whole town into thinking a UFO had crash-landed in the '50s—seem almost too bizarre to be true. But they are—true, that is. That particular story's real-life perpetrator showed up when Capps played The Basement last year. Says Capps, "I started telling it, I was like, 'This guy Earl Miller...' and all of a sudden this guy said, 'Wait a goddamn minute—I'm Earl Miller.' "
Capps—a onetime theatre major at Tulane—knows how to captivate a beer-swilling audience, make them belly-laugh and even get them to sing along. But he also strikes much deeper than that. There are shadowy tales lurking behind seemingly goofy songs like "Grand Maw Maw" and "Sock Monkey." (The former involves an attempted murder with a meat cleaver, and the latter a crack-addicted woman stealing pickles and peanut butter from the fridge.) And the larger-than-life people Capps profiles in songs—often folks he's met while living in Alabama, Louisiana or Tennessee—are fractured by poverty, addiction or eccentricity, yet finding their own strange ways to survive.
"There's a lot of bands that are out there that are more like a drug, you know—they can be really big and bombastic and you go see them and it's like you just disappear, and that's part of the function of music," says Capps. "But it leaves an emptiness the next day that makes a guy want to wake up and not really reflect on what happened as much as try to find another thing to numb them or entertain them. And I'm not really about numbing. A lot of my own writing is for me to get myself out of certain holes. I start off in a hole, and by the end of a song will be out of a hole. So I hope to offer that to other people."
The sole spoken-word track on Rott 'n' Roll—a dramatic poem called "Fear Fruit Bearing Tree"—suggests that Capps has a more abstract, philosophical bent that he's only scratched the surface of on his albums to date.
"I've got a friend who's studied philosophy for a long time," Capps says. "And he said, 'Man, you need to just do a record called Songs of Metaphysics and Ontology and have me do the liner notes in a book.' I was thinking, 'Wow, that's necessary,' because with this band for the past few years I've been kind of catering to having fun with an audience, but a lot of my thoughts still lie in things that could be taken out of a bar and put more in a scholarly setting.
"I have to remind myself of Woody Guthrie, you know," he continues. "I have to remind myself of three chords and the truth and just how powerful that is. Yeah, I'm ready to just get an old wire and stretch it across the porch and play it and sing a song and stomp my foot. 'This record's called Simplicity—two nails and a wire.' "
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