Interview: The Corduroy Road

You probably haven’t heard of The Corduroy Road yet. That’s okay, though. The five-piece band would rather get to know you on the road where they’re the most comfortable. Existing in some form since 2006, the Athens, Georgia-based Americana group has steadily built a following by relentlessly touring the southeastern part of the United States since its inception. Although bands linked to this genre are a dime a dozen in that region, The Corduroy Road stand out with piercingly honest songs that resonate even better live. Having previously released Love is a War in 2009 along with a Live at the 40 Watt and a few other EPs, the band released Two-Step Silhouette this past June. Although many might expect the band to take some time off, the album’s release has been followed by a few jaunts around the United States.

I had the chance to ask lead singers Drew Carman and Elijah Nee Smith a few questions about their new album, life on the road, and what it’s like to be from one of the US’s biggest music scenes.

Tell me a little bit about Two-Step Silhouette’s origin. Who recorded and produced the album? When were these songs written?

Carman: Two-Step is the band’s second studio album. After the band switched a few members and we got back on our feet, we needed an album that was representative of that we were playing and who we were as a band at that point. Most of the songs were written in 2011 and the start of 2012, as the band was starting to tour again and write a lot more after the hiatus. The record was produced by the band and recorded by our friend Jesse Mangum of Glow Studio, outside of Athens GA. He’s worked with a number of indie acts in the past [Black Kids], but had just finished building a new studio and we were the first band in the new shop to record.

The Corduroy Road features two lead singers (and used to feature three). Elijah seems to handle the darker songs about the American South and Drew seems to handle the more sentimental ones. Is this an accurate portrayal of how each singer approaches songwriting?

Nee Smith: That’s a pretty accurate observation from the album.

Carman: Many of the song I write are song that are helping me deal with situation in my life; love, loss. . .because the emotions I go through come out in a song, they tend to be sentimental type themes.  80% of the songs I write are approached in this way. The other 20% are typically bits and pieces of journal writings, one liners, phrases that I randomly compile into a somewhat coherent song.

 There are a few songs on Two-Step Silhouette that are really dark. A few of them are about murders, even! I’m thinking especially of “My Dear Odessa,” the excellent lead track on the album. Where in the hell do these dark songs come from?

Nee Smith: I mean, “My Dear Odessa” and “Seraphina” are made up stories. “Smokehouse Whip” and others not on the album are bits and pieces of my life’s experiences. Things I’ve been around or seen. “My Dear Odessa” actually comes from a place where I’ve know of people like Jimmy Sutton, who would shoot you for coming onto his land while he was cooking meth. Some bits of “Seraphina” have come from dreams I’ve had. Like ‘Whisphers in the kudzu and a message in the dust” was a dream sequence I had where I kept hearing all these whispers from the vines surrounding me.

All listeners want to know about a band’s musical influences, but I want to ask what other non-musical influences you have? Where do these songs come from? What films and other cultural artefacts does the band draw on to write songs? Many of the songs definitely seem to have a cinematic quality to them…

Nee Smith: Wow, I don’t know even where to start. It goes from Dr. Seuss to Casablanca to Quentin Tarantio to Mary Shelley. How about we start with comics, classic movies, fictional novels and really everything in between…

Carman: Our songs come from the garden’s we grow, the stories we tell.

Nee Smith: The food we cook…

Carman: The drugs we do, the old wood we smell…

Nee Smith: The shitty jobs we’ve had…

Carman: Everything we do influences our songs.

The Corduroy Road has gone through some line-up changes between Love is a War and Two-Step. How does adding a fiddle impact the songwriting process and the live performances of these songs?

Carman: There was actually a session musician who played fiddle on Love is a War, but never toured with us. Now we have Russell who is a full time member of the band, and he’s added so much to the way we approach songs.

Nee Smith: One of the main things is that we play a lot of old-time fiddle tunes. Like “Elzik’s Farewell” [an Appalachian traditional included on Two-Step].

Carman: Plus, Buckshot [fiddle player Russell McCumber] adds another melody player to the mix.  I play only rhythm guitar and Matt [Dyson, lead guitar and banjo] and Buckshot typically take the leads.

Bands like Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, and Old Crow Medicine Show have really brought Americana and folk music to a wide, international audience over the past few years. Your sound is a little more influenced by old-timey Appalachian music (there is even an interpretation of the traditional instrumental tune “Elzik’s Farewell” on the album); can you explain what is it about this kind of music that is so appealing to listeners right now?

Carman: In the past, much of the old time music was played by just that: old timers. With those bands, and ours, you have young, energetic folks playing this music, and people in a wide context can say “Hey, this music isn’t just for someone who is my grandparents age.” Then they listen to the songs and they represent themes that are current and applicable to thier own lives..

Nee Smith: Timeless joys, timeless struggles…

Athens, Georgia is known around the world as being a Mecca of sorts for music fans. What makes Athens so unique? Is it difficult to break out of the immediate area because it is already so saturated with bands?

Nee Smith: There are just a lot of people that participate in music, be it coming to a live show, or bringing and instrument to a potluck, or getting together after the bars close at someone’s house to drink, enjoy friends, and communicate through music and impromptu jams whether they are in a band or not.

The Corduroy Road and others played a tribute show in Athens for REM shortly after the band broke up last year. Can you say a little more about that experience? What was it like to interpret some of the songs from one of Athens’ most well-known bands?

Carman: It was a wonderfully intimidating experience. We covered “Electrolite” and “Pop Song 89” and we covered them in our own roots-y way. There were so many great bands there, all doing their own interpretation of REM, and we were using all of REMs stage gear. The show was packed, at the historic Georgia Theatre [in Athens] and was a just really great experience.

You’ve already gone on a few short runs around the eastern parts of the US to support Two-Step Silhouette. How have these shows gone and what were some of the highlights from the tour?

Nee Smith: The shows all went really well, especially in markets that we had never been. Chicago and New York were great.

Carman: The South is typically where we tour the most, so it was a really good for us to take our very regionally based music to a wider audience outside of the South. We had very warm receptions in almost every city we toured through. Plus, leaving the comfort of your home and getting in a van for a few weeks with your best friends, sleeping on floors, drinking too much, having fun, and playing music is the best medicine for any musician.

What’s next for The Corduroy Road? Are there songs in the queue for another release? A much larger US tour?

Nee Smith: There are definitely plenty of songs. Hopefully we’ll be recording another album this fall and winter. We have at least another LP worth of songs, if not more. We always aim to tour more and reach new audiences.

Carman: I’ve seen Elijah play his bass around a campfire for 8 hours straight, so I definitely don’t think there is a lack of material. Granted, much of the music we play in those situations are old-time traditional songs, but we have never had a lack of original material. Anyone can recall and tell a story of what happened to them last week, or a girlfriend they broke up with, or place they’ve been. We all have stories and experiences, we just put ours into songs.

For all the latest on happenings with The Corduroy Road, you can check them out on their website, Facebook, and Twitter.