Updated: Jun 20, 2021
I had been writing songs for my next record, entitled APPALACHIA: AMERICAN STORIES, since I finished my previous album, DUST BOWL: AMERICAN STORIES, three years before. I was saving every penny that I could manage in order to make this new record and promote it. It's expensive to make records. DUST BOWL had cost me $25,000 for the players and my co-producer... and then was promoting it, which cost even more.
Records come out every day, and not just from independent artists like me, but from major artists with all kinds of money and teams of people behind them. If you don't properly promote a new record you might as well not make it in the first place, because it won't go anywhere. Ever drop a rock into the water? Yeah, just like that. Splash and gone.
Viper / Fusonia, near Hazard, where my family is from
By the early part of 2020 I was nearly done with writing the songs for APPALACHIA. Part of my writing process is also make demo recordings in my own studio. I do my own vocals and guitars, of course, but I also put together rhythm section parts, as well as cobble together the parts that I am hearing in my head for each particular song. I have gotten pretty good at using a combination of virtual instruments and parts played by the musicians on my previous albums. In my software I can re-pitch them and warp them on the time axis to approximate what I am thinking of. The public is never going to hear these demos, mind you - I make them only to provide an example to the musicians when it comes time to cut the real tracks in the studio. It's how I write.
So by early 2020 I was starting to plan when I'd start recording. I figured that by the time I got back from touring in Scotland, it would be August, and I'd have enough money for the musicians, and the mixing and mastering I intentionally didn't book any shows after August because I was leaving time open to record in Nashville. I couldn't wait to repeat the process that me and my co-producer Jeff Silverman of Palette Music had done three years earlier with DUST BOWL. It was exciting to think about.
And then came COVID-19, and the whole world changed.
On March 11 I was heading out to play some shows in California's central valley, starting in Bakersfield then out to Tehachapi, Fresno, and then back around to Bakersfield again. By the time I boarded the first plane from Providence to Denver, the Coronavirus was all over the news. There were whispers about states closing restaurants, bars and venues, but it hadn't happened yet. At 30,000 feet I was really worried that everyone would be scared to go out, and I would be walking onto the stage in front of ten people...or maybe zero people. Worse yet, I'd fly 3,000 miles and then find out my shows were canceled outright. The entire trip would be a bust and I'd go home having lost money.
When I got into the small Bakersfield airport, things were starting to change. No one was wearing masks yet, but the car rental places had hand sanitizer dispensers scattered across the counter.
The next night I played out in Tehachapi, which is a beautiful spot in the mountains. There's a small but absolutely wonderful venue there called Fiddler's Crossing. It was Friday, March 13. The owner was (and is!) the very agreeable Peter Cutler. He and his crew got me set up sound-wise very quickly. I had brought my own microphone, but Peter had a disinfectant spray for his much better microphone, so I used his. One of his crew went across the street and got food for us all, and we ate, mostly in silence. We didn't know what to expect, or if anyone would show up.
Fiddler's Crossing Show, March 13, 2020
Thankfully, they did. There were only a few empty seats that night. After the show Peter took the stage and announced that my concert was the last one that they would be doing until further notice. When? It depended on the virus. It was out of his hands, of course.
The next night I was playing at a beautiful house venue called The Harmony House in Fresno, which is run by a friend of mine and great musician in her own right, Gina Lenee. She had performed at an Indie Collaborative event that I had emceed in San Francisco two years before, and she had invited me to come and perform there.
Harmony House in Fresno, California
That show also went off very well, and the room was filled. They had brought in a great chef and his crew, and they laid out excellent food and drink for everyone. But again, this was to be the last show that this venue would host until further notice. Gina did a great job, and I even got to sleep in the guest cottage out back.
Every show I played that week was the "last" one that each venue would hold. As I write this eight months later, they are all still closed to live audiences. Fiddler's Crossing did re-open for virtual concerts in July, but no audience in the room, of course. There was an article in the local newspaper that mentioned this, and my final show there on March 13th.
I visited some friends out there, including David De Cristofaro, who is an excellent mentor in the business of music. Besides hanging out a little and grabbing some great barbecue in Bakersfield, he had actually driven out to Tehachapi with me and attended my show. The day before I left David and I both had breakfast in Bakersfield with Rick Davis, whom I had met on the set of OILDALE, a movie that I had a small part in. He was the musical director of that feature film, which should be coming to the streaming services soon. A keyboard player, Rick had been one of the "Buckaroos," which were band for country music legend Buck Owens. After we shot that film Rick took me to Buck's old studio and let me drink in some legend dust. That was a special treat. Rick is also father to Jonathan Davis of heavy metal band KORN fame.
Sitting at Buck Owens' mixing board in Bakersfield
By the time that I returned home, COVID-19 was going strong, and the world was spiraling into lock-down. All of my gigs right through Scotland were canceled or postponed. I was supposed to go to New York city and start rehearsing for the Indie Collaborative show at Carnegie Hall, scheduled for April. It was canceled, of course. New York city was hit very hard by the virus and they closed everything. Broadway was dark. Theaters of every type were shuttered. Restaurants, too, except for take-out in some cases.
What was I going to do? My main source of income, performing live shows, was over. How was I going to pay for the new album? So I did some calculations, considering the money that I already had, and factoring in what I would make from royalties, producing demos for other songwriters, and the like. I would fire up my home studio and work hard at making money from it. In addition, I would double down on some of the writing that I had been doing for some clients of mine. I was also pretty good at making music videos, so perhaps I could earn some money that way, too. Staying home, me and my family would have no expenses beyond normal living. I could focus completely on making money to pay for the album, and maybe even write another song for it.
So put my head down and dug in. I worked technical writing in the mornings, then in my studio in the afternoon. I canvassed my contacts for production jobs that paid. After a month it was working: the balance in my music bank account was going up. I made two videos for clients, and did some social media and website work for them. That helped, and it was fun, too. I especially enjoyed working for Ron Ovadia, a very passionate songwriter who had created a song about the heroes of the front-line who were so vital in those days (they still are). I got connected to Ron from my producer Jeff Silverman, who recommended me. I ended up making Ron's website as well as his video for this song, "Heroes Of The Front Line," which you can watch here. As I write this it has about 10,000 views on YouTube®. A few months later I made a second video for his song "Make America Whole Again," which you can see here.
Ron Ovadia's YouTube page at www.youtube.com/ronovadia
I figured by September we could start recording, and with luck I wouldn't run out of money before we were done. Fingers crossed.
But then the most important question: how are we going to record without being in the same room with each other?
Back in April I had been optimistic that by September #COVID-19 would be under control. Well, that was wishful thinking, and wrong. Infections were going up and up. Nashville got slammed with COVID-19 infections. As we inched toward September I spoke with my co-producer Jeff Silverman about it, and we agreed that there was no way to make this record in 2020 like we would normally do. It would be at least the middle of 2021, or maybe even 2022 before things were normal again.
Rob Ickes playing on "Pushing Back The Wind" back in 2016, when we were recording DUST BOWL - AMERICAN STORIES
When we had made DUST BOWL, I was in Jeff's studio, sitting right behind him on just about every recording session. During mixing we made decisions together when comping the tracks, and more. There were some times when I had to tour, and could not be there for cutting or mixing, but Jeff had a solution: he had a way to stream high resolution audio to me, so I could hear what he was hearing as if I were there. We could be on the phone at the same time, so that we could discuss between takes, and we could both talk to the musicians. This was 2016. There was about a two second delay in the stream, so there were some awkward times when they asked me something but I didn't hear it for two seconds, so by the time I started answering someone was talking over me. But we made it work, and I was able to be part of every session. We even did this one time when I was driving down the Bluegrass parkway in Kentucky towards West Virginia. When it works, technology is a wonder!
But during COVID-19, Jeff didn't want anyone in his studio, even me. OK, he could stream to me like before, but how could we record the musicians if they weren't in Jeff's studio? In fact, there were virtually NO studios open yet.
Jeff came up with a technical solution involving using a specialized piece of software on his side, and a remote musician could run the same software. With this setup the musicians, working from their home studios, could stream music in real-time across the internet to Jeff's studio. It was also being recorded locally in case the transmission was interrupted, which did happen more than once. In those cases they could transfer the recordings after the session.
It was clunky, to be honest, but it did work. We decided to give it a try. Jeff had even more years with Pro Tools than me, and not one minute of experience with this specialized software, but it was the only game in town, so he jumped in and learned what he needed in order to be able to cut tracks. He had done this in the previous months making records for artists Debra Lyn and Raveis Kole.
We hooked up first with percussionist and drummer Matthew Burgess, who was Jeff's go-to guy in the world of all things percussion. Matt had played on hundreds of records, including my DUST BOWL album three years earlier. Matt and I got along so well that when I was touring in 2018 and 2019 he frequently played with me, including at my Carnegie Hall debut at the end of 2019. We and the band drove down to Dallas, and across to Manhattan, Kansas to play at the Kicker Country Stampede. He also played with me in Virginia on the show SONG OF THE MOUNTAIN and in Lexington, Kentucky on WOODSONGS OLD TIME RADIO HOUR. We played live on WPWT "The Possum" with CanJoe John in Blountville, Tennessee, and on the WDVX Blue Plate Special in Knoxville, and a bunch of places I can't even remember.
So, yes, Matt was going to be on this record! He had already run some remote sessions for Jeff for the other albums, so he was ready to go. Matt was using an Apollo UAD front-end like I do, and he had enough good mics for his drum kit.
So on Monday, August 3rd, we had the first of several recording sessions with Matt, where he replaced my temporary drums and percussion with his own. We used Zoom® to talk and see each other between takes. Jeff guided the sessions with his usual Zen demeanor, even when there were technical glitches with the software. And there were many of them. But with Matt playing drums and percussion and me playing bass, we got all 12 basic tracks done, so now we had a solid foundation upon which the album could be built.
In the weeks that followed we brought in other great musicians, one by one, to do their parts. We decided to bring in Jeff Taylor next, because, like the percussion, his pads and movements on the accordion would be fundamental to the feel and vibe of every song. Jeff is a "musician's musician" who has the most incredible touch on the piano, and yet he is better known for his work with the accordion, at which he is a master. For years he has played with The Time Jumpers, a multiple Grammy® nominated band in Nashville that also features country legend Vince Gill.
In each case the players were in their own home, using their own audio interface and microphones. These are "A LIST" players, so they certainly had good equipment. And a LOT of equipment was not needed because it was just one acoustic instrument at a time. One, or better yet, two microphones and a very nice preamplifier and audio interface were all that was needed.
We learned early on that the thing that made the biggest single difference in terms of stability and avoiding the dreaded glitches, pops and re-boots was the internet speed at their homes. That includes both what their maximum and average upload/download speed was as well as their speed between their computer and their internet router. For example, we found that avoiding a WIFI connection and plugged the computer directly into the router using an ethernet cable to be a good idea, so much so that I ordered one on-line and had it delivered to a store near one of the players so that she could pick it up the next morning.
Nashville seems to have some areas, especially in the suburbs, where the internet is really slow. Those sessions had far more troubles than ones that had a fast internet.
Well, we kept going - recording between one and two artists per week this way.
Rob Ickes is one of the of the best dobro player in the world. He's won the IBMA award for best dobro player of the year about 14 times, as well as being a Grammy® winner himself. He had cut 10 tracks on my DUST BOWL album, and recorded just about the same number on APPALACHIA. We had a lot of fun "visiting" each other on Zoom and recording all of his tracks. Same with Trey Hensley, an absolutely incredible guitar player, and also a musical partner with Rob in their duo "Rob and Trey." I could listen to Trey play all day. He's a Grammy® nominee as well as winner of so many awards, and deservedly so.
Trey Hensley, lead acoustic guitar on APPALACHIA - AMERICAN STORIES
We also recorded several tracks with Frances Cunningham, an excellent bouzouki player in Nashville. The bouzouki is a very distinctive instrument, and you'll know it when you hear it. It's a Greek instrument that looks like a large mandolin. Frances is a very sweet person, too. A few months later she got COVID-19, but she's fine now.
Jeff Silverman of Palette Music Studio Productions and Palette VSN
We ran these recording sessions at night because Jeff Silverman is like a bat: nocturnal. I sometimes refer to him as "Count Jeffula" since he keeps vampire hours. It worked out well, however, because we would record at night, and then I would go to bed. A thousand miles away, Jeff kept working in Nashville, putting all of the takes together for me and doing whatever clean-up from punches were needed, then put the takes in DropBox® for me.
Rob Ickes and me backstage at SONG OF THE MOUNTAIN, before the show
The next day, while he was sleeping, I would integrate the new takes into the Pro Tools sessions in my studio. I spent hours "comping" the tracks - a time-consuming process where you listen to the various takes and put together the best possible overall mix. I left all of the takes untouched in the sessions, but muted, so that when Jeff eventually got the Pro Tools sessions, all of the raw takes would be there. If he was hearing something different than I did for a part of a song, he could access all of the takes and look for what he needed. That worked out perfectly, because we are on the same wavelength 99% of the time with these decisions, and it saved both a lot of time as well as saving me a lot of money. Comping and tuning (i.e., subtle pitch correction) are very time-consuming, and time is money. Without any shows to play, I had time, but not so much money.
I had the title of co-producer on my previous record with Jeff, but this time I really earned it, putting in hundreds of hours in the chair comping hundreds of takes from a dozen musicians, all of whom put in multiple recording sessions.
I have to mention Matt Combs who played all of the fiddle on the album. Until COVID-19 struck he was the official fiddle player of the Grand Ole Opry. He is unique in that he can play classical violin in an orchestra in the afternoon, and then jump up on stage with his "fiddle" and hoe down with the best of them in the evening. He had some problem with his computer in the first sessions, but he borrowed a newer one and we came back a few weeks later and he really nailed it. Everyone who played on this album really put their heart and soul into it. They were patient even when there were technical problems. And there WERE problems. Technical stuff can kick an artist out of their zone emotionally, but when you hire the best in Nashville, you get the best in the world. They had to wait between songs while the high-resolution tracks were uploaded to Jeff on the other side of town, then close and restart the software. But we got the tracks done.
Recording remotely with me (top left), Mike Johnson and Katelyn Prieboy (top right), and Jeff Silverman (bottom)
Mike Johnson is one of the best steel guitar players in the business. A list of the major country stars that he has played and recorded with would take up another 10 paragraphs in this blog. It would be easier to list the stars he hasn't played with! He played steel for me on DUST BOWL three years ago, and he was up for playing on APPALACHIA in 2020. He had a technical assistant who could set up the software and run it for him so he could focus on playing, Katelyn Prieboy. An excellent guitarist in her own right, Katelyn earned some money and a credit on this record for her excellent work. What a pleasure to see Mike again and meet Katelyn on Zoom.
Work was on-going, and we had more players to record, but I was having a problem with one of the songs. Back on DUST BOWL there was a seminal song, the "flagship" of that album, called "Old Black Roller." It really set the tone for the record and is pivotal to the story of the Dust Bowl itself. I had struggled mightily with that song, writing and rewriting it several times and not getting it right until I found the right formula one day.
On this new record, the flagship song was going to be "The Coal Comes Up." But I could not find the right approach for the song. All of the musicians had done their parts, but I just didn't like it. It was too "heavy" compared to the other songs. It was loud, but it didn't have the emotional grit or poignancy that I wanted. I was leaning toward throwing out the recording and starting all over again, but I was worried about the money. The bank account balance was going down like water out of the bathtub when you pull the stopper. Could I afford to pay everyone again? Jeff suggested that I strip it down, and not do a production number. Focus on the guitar part and my voice, and maybe another instrument or two maximum, but make every note count. That made sense.
One of the pages from the 40-page book that comes with the album
The next morning I started on a new interpretation. I took my backup guitar and tuned it to open E, just like DADGAD except a whole step up. I experimented with a finger style way of playing it, and ended up spending three hours developing an approach. I moved the capo around, finally settling on the fifth fret, so that the song was in the key of A. The previous versions were in Bb, but A felt better. I practiced it and developed it for three days while we weren't recording. At some point I stumbled across a classical sounding opening part that felt right, and immediately followed that with some bluesy intervals that led into the opening figure that starts the song. Finally, I had unlocked this song, and found the right approach.
I fired up the studio and laid down the guitar. Then I sang a scratch track just as a reference for me. Matt Burgess had done percussion on the old version, so I took some of those tracks and brought them into the new session, comping them to fit the mood and new tempo. I added some percussion bits of my own along the way. Finally, I took some of the cello that Tim Lorsch had played on a song from DUST BOWL and "In This Twilight" on this record, and cut them up, pitched, bent and warped them to work in this song. Voila! But something was missing. I had left a hole for a solo after the second chorus, but there was nothing there. I sent the track to Jeff and he loved it. He immediately suggested harmonica, and a player Kirk Johnson who goes by the name of "Jelly Roll." He has played on records that have sold 50 million copies or something like that. He's an amazing harp player.
Jeff contacted Kirk about setting up a session for him. Kirk was eager to do it, but he had no recording equipment at his house. Luckily, it was October by this time, and a few studios had re-opened. Jeff found Sonic Eden just south of downtown Nashville, run by John Albani. He had a separate door that the artists could come in, and be socially distanced. It would cost more money to pay a second studio, but it would be worth it to kick this song over the top.
We set up a session with Jelly Roll for October 1st, and he played on both "The Coal Comes Up" and "Boone's Five and Dime," taking them both to the next level. He's a great player, and so expressive with that harp. Just what the doctor ordered.
Jelly Roll Johnson, one of the best harmonica players in the world
A short time later we were in the home stretch. But I had not sent Jeff the stems for my gospel song "I Found Faith" yet. Why? Because I had offered the Reverend Janice Brown to sing with me. She is an acclaimed gospel singer who had a huge Gospel hit in the 1980s with "The Rough Side Of The Mountain," which she recorded with Rev. F.C. Barnes. She is also a reverend and preacher with her husband, and my friend, Monte Stephens. They live near Knoxville, Tennessee, and I had visited with them several times over the years. They're older than me, but they're still playing, singing and preaching the Gospel every Sunday. They are people of true Faith and God, and I am proud to call them friends.
So I dismantled the essential elements of my studio, packed it safely in my car, and headed to Knoxville. It's 900 miles between me and them, so I spent the night in Winchester, Virginia, driving down the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I continued the next day, down Interstate 81 into Tennessee, and finally jumping onto I-40 just past White Pine. Janice was making some dinner by the time I got there and we caught up, since we hadn't seen each other in more than a year.
My equipment set up in Monte and Janice's living room
The next day I set up my portable studio in their living room, and we got to work. She did a narrative reading in the verse, because I wanted the feel of one of her sermons, then she sang with me in the final chorus. It was humbling to have a real gospel legend on my record.
The gas station chicken in Coxs Corner, Kentucky
The next day I headed north to just outside Louisville, Kentucky. It was definitely hundreds of miles out of my way, but I had to get a picture of a gas station in Coxs Creek there that had a big chicken statue by the road for the liner notes of the album. There's a song called "Gas Station Chicken" that absolutely needed that picture. The gas station was closed down, perhaps because of COVID-19, but I was relieved to see the chicken still there, so it was worth the huge detour after all. On the way down to Tennessee I had made a brief diversion into Abingdon because a local business there had a big sign with a chicken on it. That was my backup plan in case the Kentucky chicken was gone. As it turned out, I got both pictures.
The memorial in Monongah, West Virginia
There's another song on the album called "By And By The Way," which is about the worst coal mining disaster in American history. It happened in Monongah, West Virginia, about 70 miles south of Pittsburgh. I drove from Coxs Creek to Huntington, WV, just past the Kentucky border. The next morning I got up and continued up I-64 to I-79, stopping in Monongah to take pictures and drink in some history. There are some memorials to the 1907 mining disaster that claimed at least 367 lives on one Friday morning. There were more than 1,000 lives lost in mining accidents in that decade, which led directly to the formation of the United States Bureau of Mines in 1910, and more safety regulations to protect the miners.
So my trip of more than 2,300 miles was well worth the time and expense. I got Janice's vocals recorded, and great pictures for the book that I was writing to go with the album. It was also great to visit Monongah in person. The terrain reminded me so much of Hazard, Kentucky, where my family is from. Driving those hills and hollers is an eye-opening and sometimes white-knuckle event. The people who live there careen around the tight corners with no guard rails without a thought, because they do it every day. But for me, wrestling my Toyota 4Runner around the hairpin turns was an experience.
Kim Fleming (left) and Kim Mont (right), singing "I Found Faith"
After I got home and sent Jeff my preliminary mix of Janice and me on "I Found Faith," he was more convinced than ever that I needed to come up with the money to get some Gospel background vocal singers to come in and put this song over the top. I had been considering hiring Kim Fleming, an acclaimed gospel vocalist, but she'd need at least one more singer, and maybe two more, yet another expense. And we'd have to hire Sonic Eden studio again, which was great, but again, the expense. But as we were on the final glide path now for finishing the album, I could see that I had enough money, so we did it. I have to say that Kim and the singer that she brought in, Kim Mont, were simply amazing. They put together their parts singing around a single microphone. Then they doubled and tripled them perfectly. They cut tenor, alto, bass and soprano parts like a well-oiled machine, with passion and precision. Absolutely amazing, and wonderful women, too.
Finally, Jeff convinced me to hire Tim Hamilton to replace the B3 organ that I had played in "I Found Faith," because he was a real church player. He would play the way that this song needed to be played. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, so why not? Tim didn't have a home recording rig, so back to Sonic Eden we went on November 9, completing principle recording for the album.
We finished the mixes for this album in December 2020, and set the official release date to June 25, 2021. We delayed the release because of COVID-19: it's important to go out and make appearances, visit radio stations, and play shows. And I needed more time to raise promotion money.
In parallel with making the music, I was writing a book that would be included with every physical copy (CD or vinyl) of the album. You can flip through the pages here:
As far back as 2019 I offered the album for pre-ordering on my website, as a way to get some advance money to help make the album. To my surprise, more than 100 people did just that. Since I have the 40-page book and the CDs I have fulfilled those orders already. It didn't seem fair to make them wait six more months for no reason. APPALACHIA: AMERICAN STORIES is also available on 33 RPM vinyl records, which I will have in April. The official release date remains at June 1, but copies can be ordered directly from my website now. https://www.grant-maloy-smith.com/appalachia
So, How Did I Make a Record During a Pandemic?
Imagination. Patience. Perseverance. And some technology, of course. Would I like to do it this way again? No, it's much better to all be in the same room making music. But when the world is upside down, you have to think outside the box to get the job done. It came out great, and I can't wait for everyone to be able to hear it.
You can order it right now on my website, and you will get it before it is really released on the market. Please go to this page to learn more and jump on the APPALACHIA: AMERICAN STORIES train.