Englishman Clive Gregson loves writing songs, and he professes to enjoy living in Nashville. But unlike most veteran songwriters who relocate here, he doesn’t harbor expectations that his songs will be climbing the charts anytime soon.
By way of explanation, he recalls his first and only stab at writing a country hit. Not long after he’d moved to town, Gregson got a call from a fellow English songwriter, who told him about a recent encounter with Hal Ketchum; apparently, the country singer deperately needed a good song to finish an album. Gregson invited his friend over to his makeshift basement studio. “Granted, I know nothing about Hal Ketchum,” Gregson confesses. “I’ve never heard any of his records. But my mate said, ‘He’s a bit of a heartthrob, and he’s got this country-rock thing.’ So we tried to write a song for him, and it was awful.
“That night, I went off on my own and wrote this song I really liked. When he came back, I asked, ‘Do you think [Ketchum] would consider this one?’ This chap said, ‘Not a chance.’ ” Gregson adopts a comically dour tone as he quotes his songwriting partner. “Nope, no way. You’ll never get that cut in Nashville in a million years.’ ”
That’s just as well, for the song, “The Cross I Bear,” fares much better in Gregson’s own hands. It’s among the highlights of his new I Love This Town, an exemplary album of painstakingly well-crafted pop songs. A simple acoustic tune, it sets a bright melody against a slow, insistent bass pattern that suggests the drama beneath the song’s sweet-natured surface. The lyrics portray a man assessing his responsibility for destroying a good relationship, and they reveal Gregson’s mastery with a well-turned phrase, beginning with the opening couplet: “Well, I rise each morning and I face the day/Safe in the knowledge that I sent you away.” Gregson croons the words soulfully, reinforcing the juxtaposition between the harshness of the message and the beauty of the melody.
Judged by his British friend’s Music Row-sanctioned standards, though, the song is lyrically too deep and musically too crafty to pitch to a ’90s country star. But Gregson doesn’t seem too troubled by his friend’s judgementhe’s accustomed to getting this kind of reaction to his creative endeavors. For 16 years now, he’s been creating outstanding pop and folk music that doesn’t quite fit the commercial vibe of the era. “My career has been a nightmare from day one,” he says, smiling as he shakes his head; he doesn’t show a trace of bitterness.
Mentioning “My Brilliant Past,” the new album’s autobiographical center and closing cut, Gregson offers an assessment of his career that’s just as pithy and as dark-humored as his songs: “I started out in a pop band that was a miserable failure. I was in a duo that was a tiny success in independent, folkie terms, but then we broke up right at the height of our popularity. And, really, my solo thing hasn’t gotten going. So, quite obvious to everyone, my past has absolutely not been brilliant. It’s like what people always say about the kid leaving home, ‘Eh, he’s got a brilliant future ahead of him, that one.’ I’m thinking, ‘Well, perhaps not.’ ”
No matter what he says, Gregson has turned in some very powerful albums over the course of his career, and in the process, he’s earned a small but intensely loyal following. His first band, Any Trouble, came out in 1980 at the height of the new wave era. They had the backing of Stiff Records, one of the hippest British labels of the time, and were aptly compared to such commercially successful rockers as Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. But Any Trouble weren’t as angry as their peers; rather than railing at the world or society, Gregson, the band’s primary songwriter and singer, offered tart assessments of his own failings. It didn’t help that this bald, bespectacled bandleader entered the rock ’n’ roll world at the dawn of the hair-sprayed, image-obsessed MTV era.
“We were a phenomenal thinga most unpopular pop band,” he surmises. “We sold about six records.” Still, the band’s legend looms large: Gregson still receives mail weekly from Any Trouble fans, and the band’s albums are considered collectibles by fans of British guitar pop.
Any Trouble broke up in 1985 after six albums. Gregson then released a solo album, Strange Persuasions, which was reissued last year by his current label, the Nashville-based independent Compass Records. He finished out the ’80s working as a guitarist in English singer-songwriter Richard Thompson’s touring band; around same time, he hooked up with the husky-voiced Christine Collister to form the striking duo Gregson & Collister. Both moves broadened Gregson’s following, but they were hardly easy roads to fame.
He wouldn’t have it any other way. Inspired by his former boss’s renowned eclecticismThompson has been quoted as saying that his influences range “from Memphis to Morocco”Gregson has refused to follow a set pattern in his music-making. Over the course of five albums with Collister and in his subsequent solo albums, he has explored the fairly expansive realms of folk and pop music. Indeed, his two most recent records couldn’t sound more different from each other: The darkly wrought People & Places, his first effort for Compass, is dense English folk music, with wordy tales that Gregson admits are “depressing and gloomy and impossible to get on the radiobut I’m rather proud of it.” I Love This Town, on the other hand, is his most straight-ahead pop offering since his days in Any Trouble.
“Working with Richard for seven years, I realized there really aren’t any rules to any of this,” Gregson explains. “I think Richard is the consummate songwriterthe greatest English songwriter of the modern eraand the greatest guitar player on the planet. But the thing I learned from him that I most cherish is that you do what you feel good about. You do it because it feels right. No matter what happens with it, at least you can always be proud of it.”
Maybe that’s why Gregson can laugh with such generous spirit as he surveys the pitfalls of his career. He may not have had an enormous commercial breakthroughat least not yetbut he hasn’t done anything to embarrass himself either. He’s got a catalog of unerringly powerful material that listeners will likely go back to for generations. True, those listeners may not number in the millions, but each one of them will be impressed with what they discover.
“I’m not interested in the music businessnot the major-label thing,” Gregson concludes. “I’ve done that, and it was just so horrendous. I’m quite quirky and independent, and I feel much better working with people that I respect. I’ve been doing this forever, and it’s still very small in terms of commercial success, but it’s tangible. I’ve managed to plant my little furrow well off to the side, and I’m quite happy about it.”
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