Most rock scholars would agree: Life's not fair. If it were, Wilco would be opening for Nick Lowe instead of it being the other way around. Not that Lowe seems to mind. During a recent sit-down with the Scene, the legendary singer, songwriter, producer and all-around pub-rock, punk and Americana icon talked about why he decided against aging as a pop star, how depression and a doomed marriage to Carlene Carter almost made him give up music, how his former stepfather-in-law Johnny Cash taught him to be himself, cutting his latest LP The Old Magic, how his one-man show of hits, deep cuts, covers and dry-witted banter has evolved his writing, touring on Wilco's coattails and more. See the full, unabridged interview at Nashville Cream.
When did you start performing without a band?
Elvis Costello encouraged me to do it. He gave me a job in his band, The Confederates. ... After we'd been out on the road for a while, he said, "Why don't you open the show? Go and do a few songs on your own." ... So I tried it and I was amazed at how well it went. It really changed the way I wrote. When you stand with an acoustic guitar you can really see how a song can work for you, and how the arrangement is very crucial for how well the song is going to come over. To start with, I was doing songs just like the record, and there were lots of little bits and pieces you don't really need that get in the way, really. So the songs I wrote after I'd been performing live, I always had an eye — or an ear — out for that, [wondering], '"How is this going to be when I stand up in front of an audience?" I would think of it as actually just a guitar and vocal thing, and I found that my records started improving.
As you moved into the third phase of your career, you've talked about trying to cultivate this multi-generational audience. Is that why you're touring with Wilco?
Well, I'm hoping that these shows are going to really work for me in that area. Everybody tells me that I'm going to have a great time, which can be the kiss of death. It's like telling someone about a friend you've got. ... Very often the two just don't get on. Maybe it's not going to work. But everybody tells me that these are great guys and that I'm going to have a ball. ... If it works well, I've got a feeling that their audience, or a section of their audience, could actually be my audience too. ... It's the ones who've never heard of me that I'm kind of after.
Have you played The Ryman before?
No, I haven't. I'm very excited to play there. I went there to see the Johnny Cash memorial concert and sat on one of the pews for three or four hours, so my ass was really sore [laughs].
Have you ever thought about getting out of the business?
Oh, definitely, yes. There was a time when I just couldn't stand it any longer. The thing is, that the one thing I couldn't turn off was the urge to write songs.
When was it you thought of getting out exactly?
After my pop star career was at an end and my domestic life was in tatters. My first marriage to Carlene Carter had not broken up, but sort of disappeared, just sort of vanished. I let everything go and didn't have control over anything. I was an alcoholic, really, to all intents and purposes. I certainly was drinking all the time, and I felt bad, ill and very dissatisfied with my career. At that point you just want to run away from it all, and I would have done any other job. ... [But] I realized I'm not suited for any other job. ... I started thinking about using the fact that I was getting older in the pop business as an actual advantage instead of it saying, "Oh dear, I better wear tighter trousers and makeup." ... I remember hearing old-timers in the business whenever they were asked what advice they would give youngsters, they would say — and Johnny Cash even said it to me personally — "Just be yourself." I always thought, "What the hell does that mean? People don't want to see you being yourself, they want to see something magnificent. What does that mean? It's a copout." ... But the older I got, I started to understand what that meant.
How much longer do you see yourself making records and performing?
[Until] I can't do it anymore or until no bugger turns up to see me.
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