Noted bluegrass/Americana songwriter Louisa Branscomb is set to release her 9th album on April 26 for Compass Records. I’ll Take Love combines Lousia’s compositions with some of the finest vocalists in bluegrass (Dale Ann Bradley, Claire Lynch, Steve Gulley, Josh Williams, John Cowan), in a perfect pairing of singers and songs.
You can hear samples from all 13 tracks on the Compass web site.
Louisa spent some time with us recently to discuss the album, the tunes, and all the talented people who assisted in bringing I’ll Take Love to light.
How did the deal with Compass records come about?
The dialogue with Compass began in 2009 when I realized I wanted to do another songwriter album, my 9th with original music, and I really wanted to pair the best singers I know to each song–including some friends I had known since the 1970s. I had already spoken with Dale Ann and Claire Lynch, who were excited about it, and everyone surprisingly just kept saying “yes!” I knew I could not do the distribution that such a project would deserve, so I contacted Alison Brown to see if Compass might be interested in a songwriter project like this.
One reason I contacted Compass, besides the respect I have for Compass as a label, is that this CD is a coming full circle for me in many ways. It represents coming around to where I am now as a musician after 40 years in bluegrass, it represents working with some of my incredible peers and old friends who have dedicated themselves to this music (Missy Raines, Alison Krauss, Alison Brown, Alan Bibey, and others). Alison Brown was on the original version of Steel Rails, as well. I also felt that Compass represents an open approach to good acoustic music and that they really support anything they take on. I felt that musically speaking, it would be a good match if I could be so lucky.
Then, my father is playing blues harp on the project, and he is heading toward 90, and we’ve played since I was a child so I wanted to take advantage of the chance to have him play– and he jumped in right up to riding the Greyhound from Birmingham to Nashville to play the blues on the harmonica (because it saved gas!!!). I didn’t know Mom would leave us during the project, and that was the final event that made this CD feel “meant to be”, a full circle. I’m ready to do the next one, mind you! But this one definitely felt like, well, sort of like wrapping history up with love.
Tell me a bit about the songs on the CD; over how long were they written?
There are only one or two older songs — Stormy Night was recorded by Dale Ann about 20 years ago, but we turned John Cowan loose to arrange it to his power house singing. Wearin’ the Blues is also about that age and we selected it for a straight ahead bluegrass song for Josh Williams. But most of the rest of the songs I’ve written since moving to Nashville two years ago, and one of them, That’s What Texas Was For, was written the week it was recorded by the Whites! – we were still working on it when they came in. I had to really be nice to Missy because we had way too many songs on our list, and here I was writing another one! She didn’t pull all her hair out, though!
Surrender is another example of what can happen when writer and performers work together and you stay open to the song finding its way, up to the last minute. I wrote that song about a veteran who was having a difficult time coming “home” after war, but its really about anyone who has a broken heart that makes it hard for those they love to reach them.
I’d asked Dale Ann to help with co-writing on the melody. Well, it was time for them to come downstairs and do the track and I had to go find her and Steve Gulley. There they were, upstairs, singing, and Dale said, “How do you like this?” She and Steve had tweaked the lyrics so that the man and his wife were singing back and forth to each other. I don’t cry much, but the way they had re-arranged the song, with the husband and wife talking directly to each other, got to me. So we went downstairs, and the song took shape in a way that made it ever so much more powerful – with an arrangement still being created when Dale Ann stepped up to the mic.
Which songs are the most pleasing to you and why?
Each one represents a mood, or side of me – so it’s kind of like with your kids – you can’t pick a favorite. I think Texas is the best ballad I have written, because of how touched I was watching my Dad pack all my Mom’s things — but my friendship with Buck and the Whites came into that song too, because Buck is from Texas — plays that style of piano– and he too has lost his wife. Buck is one of my earliest friends in bluegrass. So I knew they were coming in to record, and somehow all those elements — loss of two “moms,” the idea that waltzing across Texas was really a dance into forever more, the role of the fiddle in our lives and music (Stuart Duncan was amazing on the song), all came into the song. Then I wrote the song in a way I thought the Whites might like to sing it. So I wrote it the same week they were coming in, and it was a great honor that they did like the song and worked with it so quickly. Sharon suggested a chord change on the chorus that really raised the song a notch too.
So once we matched songs with singers, there were situations where I actually was writing or editing the songs to match that particular singer’s style, voice, and approach.
The lyrics and negative space in Extra Blue, to me capture an edge that I hope to continue to develop and have continued into newer writing. Musically, the dialogue between the players on the swing song, State Line, with Dave Peterson’s singing, is great, and super fun – with Buck White on piano, Dad on harmonica, Dave on guitar, Rob on slide, and Robert (Crawford) on drums – it’s totally cool. I wanted Missy to take a bass break but the whole song is like her bass break — just amazing.
And some of the best “moments” — when everything sits around a word or note just right… and the silence sets that note, or that word off — some of those moments happen in I’ll Take Love. The interpretation by Dale Ann and Alison Krauss, and the playing, are exquisite to me, and all I’d hoped for. Same thing in Your Amazing Grace — Claire is a perfect match for a song that achingly revealing. I write in many different styles so the songs are different, and hopefully represent their style well. A favorite is Closin’ Nashville Down, (Steve Gulley) which is a style of bluegrass that’s also straight ahead country. But since it’s an album, the flow is also important so every song has a very important place, and I love them equally.
What about the recording session(s) …. who is the producer, and did he/she select the musicians etc?
After I started evolving the idea and had spoke with a couple of the artists, I met with Missy Raines and asked if she would co-produce the project with me. I felt Missy would be perfect to help coordinate and select the artists for each song, and she was! Missy has known me for 30 years and she herself is extremely careful about the sound she wishes to create, and I knew she would make it about the “songs,” and go for a clean, powerful sound. She helped select the musicians – we discussed that together for each song, and she was the studio producer — as she put it, she wanted to capture the “love affair between the singer and the song.” All of the musicians were so gracious and enthusiastic, it made our work easy.
Ben Surratt was the perfect engineer for the project as well, since he knows how to put up with a lot of crazy girls at once!!! lol! And also because he is patient, and extremely skilled and focused, and this was a big project in terms of number of tracks and players. We had the challenge of having diversity but also wanting a consistent flow. We recorded mostly at Ben’s studio, the Rec Room, and also at Compass.
What was so pleasing about working with these musicians in the studio?
The studio becomes a magical place when the musicians are playing from their heart — even though these guys do this day in, day out. And I felt so honored at the level of excitement and positive energy each musician brought in — everyone we asked was enthusiastic and seemed to love the songs we matched them with. It is a joy to watch each musician want to figure out how to compliment the vocals, and the other musicians, to make the song its best. Alison Brown was a wizard — we kept throwing unexpected tracks and instruments her way — guitar on this, banjo on this, and she just sort of glides through it all like breathing. But the biggest thrill for me as a songwriter to see a song take shape in the hands of musicians in the studio–to let go of the song and surrender to that process. I just tried to stay out of the way! and not go “awesome!” before Ben stopped rolling the tracks!