The Wooks’ CJ Cain on new album, Flyin’ High

As a follow-up to the Wooks’ recent single and video, I chatted with co-founder CJ Cain about their upcoming album release, Flyin’ High, dropping February 25 on their website and the usual streaming services. The Wooks have been described as a hybrid bluegrass, country jamband, which makes sense, as CJ counts Stevie Ray Vaughn, Tony Rice, John Prine, and Levon Helm as some of his biggest influences. Like many modern bluegrass bands, they have a solid bluegrass lineage, infectious live shows, fine chops, and great songs that they like to stretch out. The Wooks are perhaps best described as shredders with soul.

The lineup for Flyin’ High is different from the Wooks’ previous releases, though with talented, experienced players, the performance is in no danger of falling off.

  • CJ Cain – guitar and vocals 
  • Harry Clark – mandolin and vocals
  • Allen Cooke – dobro
  • George Guthrie – banjo and vocals
  • Nate Leath – fiddle
  • Jesse Wells – fiddle
  • Johnny Calamari – bass
  • Mike Bub – bass

Keeping the same band sound and audience could be a challenge, so CJ and I talked about how the personal changes have impacted that.

“Yeah, throughout the years, as any band tends to do—particularly in bluegrass it seems—we’ve had people come and go. Jesse was our original fiddler who went to work with Tyler (Childers), but you also hear him on the records even after he left the band. He still plays on Flyin’ High and Union Pacific though. When you operate as a band or a unit, it’s not necessarily as detrimental for change to occur as when you’re focused on one singer. We’ve always had multiple singers in the band, a lot like the Infamous Stringdusters. So depending on how you look at songwriting and how you put on a show, a little movement doesn’t change the band tremendously. It’s usually all right with the fans as long as they’re having a good time and they like the songs. We’ve definitely changed, but it’s more of an add-to than a taking-away type of thing.

It’s funny, you can go out and play older songs at shows, like Harry sings Atlantic City or Union Pacific, and you’d be shocked at how few people come up and say, ‘that doesn’t sound like the original voice.’ Musicians get way wrapped up in the details of the musicality and judging themselves and stressing about it, but at the end of the day, it’s the emotional connection that’s gonna make or break you. I heard someone say, ‘musicians are always looking for work but entertainers are always busy.’ That’s a hard thing to learn, and it’s something we’re still working on, but I think that’s kinda true. As long as you’re entertaining, people don’t notice the things you’re worrying about most of the time.

It’s not always easy for bands who don’t play a strictly traditional bluegrass repertoire to reach those audiences. This is nothing new, as change and acceptance in the bluegrass world has never come easy but rest assured, it does happen. We chatted some about if it gets tiring or is it just part of the landscape.

“Well, Jimmy Martin was probably tired of it too, because there were probably people who thought he was screwing things up sometimes. I don’t know if you know or not, but we’re considered to be a progressive band. We cut our second record in Clay City, Kentucky with Ricky Wasson, who was J.D. Crowe’s guitar player and singer for the last 20+ years, and a local, regional aficionado of that trad style. So we’re in there and we cut a couple tunes and he came out and said, ‘I thought this was gonna be a bunch of hippies, but this is about as bluegrass as anything else I’ve cut in here.’ So I feel like we touch those bases with a song like Butler Hayes, which I wrote with Eric Cummins on the new album, or even Nightbird or Union Pacific from previous albums. We play enough grass and we all have a pretty strong traditional music background, so we can get away with the stuff that isn’t so traditional.”

CJ is known for his well-thought-out storytelling style of songwriting. Scripting bluegrass songs can be a challenge, trying not to be either too cliche or abstract, and still keeping the audience’s attention.

“For sure, bluegrass writers sometimes can be a little bit too far from the abstract. You can get too far out there where you lose some people sometimes. I feel like Jimmy Martin was pretty cool about not saying everything in the same old way. Like the song Hold What Ya Got. A million people have written songs about wanting to get back to the person that they love or whatever, but that song is gonna be cool in fifty years cause he didn’t say it the same old way. I might think about it differently in ten years, but that’s what sometimes scares me about it—that you really never have it figured out. The same goes for the liner note that Tyler Childers wrote for the album. I asked him to write a poem or something instead of a review of the album saying how great we were, and that’s where he went. Every time I read that thing I get something different as an interpretation. That’s good, because sometimes it’s good for your mind to have to work through that.”

I mentioned that I’d heard mandolinist Harry Clark on the Mandolins and Beer Podcast, and how his song New Piece of Mind stuck me as really heartfelt with an underlying sentiment, not unlike that of Spanish Pipedream by John Prine. CJ talked about how the Kentucky music scene has helped develop people like Harry in their songwriting.

“That’s one of my favorite songs I’ve heard in a very long time. I was very proud of him because every line in that song is a doozy. You almost have to slow it down to listen or some of the lines will pass you by. If you listen to it four or five times, you start to put it all together and realize, ‘whoa, he really didn’t just mail in any line in the song.

We’ve been lucky to have some killer songwriters come in through our Kentucky music scene community. Not just Tyler (Childers), and Sturgill (Simpson), and Chris Stapleton, but there’s a guy named John R Miller who’s not from here but has played within this scene and is doing pretty well now. Harry really latched onto John R. and some of these guys, and when you hear other people writing good songs, you kinda know where the bar’s at. I think Harry’s an excellent writer and that’s an example of just how good he is.”

The album has a nice variety of songs, both originals and covers, utilizing the strength of each player. Harry and George shine on vocals, which they share on the first track, What the Rocks Don’t Know. CJ shared these insights on that one.

“That one kind of touches all the bases, and is one of my favorites on the album. It has the driving bluegrass vibe but there’s also the jam section. It kind of represents what we’re doing right now as a band musically—the best of any song on the album. George Guthrie sings lead on that song and got it from Willie Carlisle from Arkansas. He sings it a cappella with hambone. George converted it and made it work for us. It had all these places we could go on it and we worked it up. Mike Bub played bass on it. There are a couple different bass players on the album actually. He kinda set us in the pocket on that one with the breakdown on each verse, so Bub sent us in that direction for sure.

CJ mentioned that the recording process on this album was pretty loose, with no click track and very few overdubs. Only a seasoned band can make this work well and it can lead to some unexpected surprises.

“Sometimes when you record something, you get it down, you get the lyrics, and it sounds good but then something random happens. What the Rocks Don’t Know has a lot of randomness in it. There’s another song on the album, Little While, by Harry, that has this long jam at the end that was a major accident. We forgot to tell the guest fiddler Nate Leath how we wanted to end the song, and when we got to the end I just stayed on this one chord then things started happening and we ended up keeping it. Those kind of things are so much fun, you could never plan that.”

Little While, the last track on the release, has a great groove in the old-time vein. It’s very rhythmic with George Guthrie playing clawhammer-style banjo countered by an interesting mandolin strum pattern by Harry. Bands with banjo players that play both Scruggs and clawhammer styles are getting more common. Frank Evans of the Slocan Ramblers is another great example. I asked CJ about that sound as part of the band.

“Clawhammer has always been a part of the Wooks sound, and this tune just puts it out front in a big way. George has a way of playing clawhammer while allowing it to still have a driving element. That song is easy to listen to.”

The latest single and video from the band, Mudfish Momma, is written by CJ and Harry Smith, with a great dobro riff by Allen Cooke. It has that Southern swamp rock sound, but also lots of great bluegrass guitar and mandolin picking. The video by Garrett Casto, featuring Harry Clark’s lead vocals, realizes the lyrics with an unexpected heist story. CJ had this to say.

Mudfish was inspired by my favorite fishing hole in Florida. I can’t divulge too much as it’s my secret spot (wink wink). I wrote this song for the Wooks during a writing session with Ray. I sorta wanted it to have an Al Kooper /Curtis Lowe vibe, and Ray really brought a Bob Dylan style to the chorus with the melody he wrote. A friend in the area told me about Garrett and we filmed it in one day. Thanks to my buddy Steve for letting us stage the theft of his bad-ass fishing boat.”

While there’s certainly an emphasis on quality songwriting in the band, they do not shy away from covers. The Beatles’ Dear Prudence was on their previous album, Glory Bound, and in addition to What the Rocks Don’t Know, this album has a great treatment of a lesser-known John Prine song, Iron Ore Betty. Covers were something CJ’s bluegrass guitar inspiration Tony Rice was a master of. Here’s Cain’s take.

“Tony could take tunes and just make them bluegrass classics. Like Devil in Disguise. I know it has been covered before, but how many people even knew that was a Gram Parsons (and Chris Hillman) tune? JD did Fats Domino tunes. Once they did it, it was a bluegrass tune. All of the Gordon Lightfoot stuff—he had a knack for taking stuff and making it smooth. 

I’ve always wanted to do a show that was only Tony Rice, but it would be kinda terrifying—I’d prefer to do someone else who I’m not so engulfed in. I’m impressed by the Punch Brothers’ courageousness to tackle the Church Street Blues thing. That would just terrify me, but of course they have all the reasons to be fearless.”

There are many stand-out tracks on this album, but I wondered if there are any sleepers, to which CJ tells the story behind the song, Other Side. It was inspired by a friend he lost.

“There’s one particular song (Other Side) I wrote that means a lot to me. I was trying to write a Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter/Fish-style tune. I was just into that. I came to the Fish thing pretty late. It was kinda fun that way cause there was a time when that was all anyone talked about, but all I cared about was Tony Rice and Béla Fleck. I like the extended jams, and George, our banjo player, brought that harmony structure, but lyrically, I was struggling. I’d just lost a friend who had leukemia, and a lot of times when you write a song about something that’s bothering you, it helps give you a bit of peace. I didn’t want to make it a sad song. I wanted it to be sort of abstract. I like songs like that, and all of Robert Hunters’ songs are like that. Anyway, I once heard this guy say you die two deaths. The first time is your physical death and the next is the last time anyone says your name. So in the song, I say Steve’s name so maybe in like 100 years if someone digs up a hard drive and plays that tune, that’s kinda cool. I don’t know if I really accomplished the Jerry sound, ’cause to me it still sounds like a southern rock tune—an Allman Brothers tune, which is more of my wheelhouse. We took extended solos and some twin parts which is more of a Southern rock thing.

I’ve been listening to this album almost a week now and have yet to tire of it, hearing new things on each listen. It feels like a slight to say it has something for everyone across different styles because, really, it just has lot of really good, well-executed songs. You can listen, download or purchase the album, Flyin’ High from their website, Wook Out America, or other streaming services. The Tour starts February 24 in Louisville with a stop at the Station Inn on March 5. Get out and support it if you can, I’m sure it will be a hoot.

Here’s a video on their YouTube channel from a recent show at the Station Inn.

Copy Editing by Jeanie Polling

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is a California based author, mandolin picker, and composer who writes the California Report column for Bluegrass Today. He grew up in the Ohio Valley right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto rivers dump into the Ohio. His articles, Morning Walk album, and video are available on streaming sites and his website at daveberrymusic.net.