When I first discovered Jefferson Grizzard back in 2011, he was out in support of his freshman record, A Crack In The Door. That record was important as Grizzard used it as a thumbnail sketch look into his evolving thought process as a composer.
Grizzard has returned with an even more focused foray into the world of soul-drenched, gritty, rock and roll Americana drive. If he has learned anything from the last several years kicking around in clubs and on the road, it’s that a smooth compositional accuracy and continuity can only come from a willingness to open up and soak in knowledge from the musicians that came before him.
His new record is titled Learning How To Lie, and it takes the listener on a whirlwind journey through the heartlands of America’s traditional and groundbreaking sounds. Ben McRee is back in the production chair on Learning How To Lie and he brings his trademark “Road Dog” savvy with him.
Learning How To Lie also features a bevy of well-known Nashville kingpins, and I’m happy to see the familiar names of Mike Caputy and Dennis Wage on the album credits. Both players are seasoned vets of the Tennessee scene, and their list of studio and stage credits are enormous. Wage and Caputy have played with country rebel kings such as Hank Williams Jr. and T. Graham Brown just to name an illustrious two. Add Dow Tomlin (Brooks & Dunn) on bass, and the vocal assists of The McCrarys and the Ocean Way Crew, and you’re ready for a hell of an A-list ride.
But the interesting development on Learning How To Lie is the team-up of Jefferson and the legendary Willie Nile. Willie Nile is someone I’ve had the pleasure of writing about several times and his rebel-rousing attitude shines bright on disc closer, “When Levon Sings.” With the 2012 death of Levon Helm, another legendary performer I’ve had the distinct honor of documenting, this song hits home on many different levels for fans of Grizzard, The Band, Nile, Helm and just about everyone between that Woodstock haven and music row.
Grizzard and company kick out the jams from the get-go with “Long Time Coming.” With a gnarly, snarled influential mix of Cheetah Chrome, The Smithereens and the four on the floor moxie of Black Oak Arkansas, Jefferson launches raw, stripped-down growls and yowls straight into his netherworld lyric of the luckless femme fatale. Caputy and Tomlin lay it down thick and tasty as McRee jabs bone-crunching bar chord down strokes straight through the heart of the song. Special backing magic from The McCrarys (Bob Dylan, Michael McDonald, Eric Church and Mike Farris) adds good ol’ traditional ’70s hard rock moxie to the overall mix.
“Plastic Lady” blows off of the disc with “London Calling” guitar vamps and hypnotic bass and drum rhythms before Grizzard jumps into the verse with an eerie, old school David Lee Roth-styled tone. Caputy utilizes tom-tom communication like nobody’s business while Wage and McRee tumble into Hammond and electric guitar tangles of harmonic bliss. McRee winds up in the back eight, pulling off a Harrison double harmony riff and steering the song to its conclusion.
“Lorelei” promenades in with stately, two-step grace under the gritty tutelage of Jefferson’s ode to unreachable love. The piano work of Dennis Wage reminds me of the great, analog warm work of Jim Gordon (“Layla”).
“New Location” caterwauls into the number four spot as Grizzard peels vocal paint and waxes frustration with his current funky destination. Lyrical tales of claustrophobic dirt permeate the compositional space as Jefferson looks to pull the cord and bail on the whole damn neighborhood. Surging brass raises skyscraper high to top off at dramatic accents of pure, jazzy accents throughout. Caputy fires 1970s rhythm hits as Tomlin holds the whole thing like an anchor at the bottom of a very frothy sea.
The disc focal point and namesake is “Learning How To Lie.” Grizzard and McRee pick the best as the song kicks with the mega soul moxie of The McCrarys and vocalist Jessie Watts. McRee throttles some bodacious tube-fueled guitar grit into his riff, ushering Grizzard into the center ring of a very unusual song. This is the definitive marker of Grizzard’s growth as an artist.
“Rough Time In Paris” is a free tumbling romantic rambler in the laid-back charge of Dylan, Don Henley and the melodic magic of Ry Cooder. The holy trinity of Caputy, Tomlin and Wage add so much icing to a very robust cake, contributing intricate chords, easy, breezy patterns and back porch tone for days, carrying this bright and airy tune like a leaf in the current of a rain-filled brook. I find his lyrical spin on life to be rather dark and realistic in a world of pop nonsense.
Jumping around, I came upon a dirty, country-tinged gem called “So Far Down.” The horn arrangements on “So Far Down” showcase the funky metered Tower Of Power horn arrangements of Jerry Yester. Grizzard pulls out some ultra-swanky ninth-chord vamps as he preaches the gospel of the deep dark blues. Caputy, Tomlin and Wage pump soulful jabs into a Percy Sledge pocket as Grizzard peels the proverbial paint off of the church house steeple.
“Rose” is a barrelhouse roll through the influential fields of Tom Waits. Combining strings with sea chantey-tinged acoustic guitars, Grizzard tells the tale of an incredulous subject and her difficulty accepting the simple fact that life is immediate and fleeting. Grizzard’s voice pauses to make way for the ethereal soothing of The McCrarys before stepping back in to toss extra gravel on top of this salty and winsome tune.
“Can’t Knock ‘Em Out” is good old-fashioned rock and roll in the leather clad vein of AC/DC. Simple, three-chord actions, tom-tom thunder and growling bass slash and burn under pentatonic guitar bends, pulls and trills. Grizzard wails his frustration into the verse as he says, “This chop block city, it’ll split your skull. Your eyes wide open, while your rot skull rolls.”
But the left hook you’ve all been waiting so patiently to feel is Grizzard’s co-write and co-vocal performance of “When Levon Sings” with New York’s very own Willie Nile. Nile is a rock and roll legend and a hard-working son of a bitch in the world of competitive entertainment. Known for his introspective combination of punk rock rebellion, organic Americana muscle and switchblade-sharp imagery, Nile leaves no opinion unformed when it comes to proving he’s done it all his way, and made it work from day one.
A longtime Nile fan, Grizzard crosses a path most of us only dream about. The co-compositional effort of “When Levon Sings” pulls onto the track with the outlandish, two-step over-twang of Billy Bob Thornton’s Boxmasters, and the gritty, hoedown salvation of Drive-By Truckers. Caputy signals the engine with his shuffled machine gun snare and tom report, bringing all the boys to the barn on four and heralding McRee’s Warren Hodges-styled bends, while Danny Dugmore (Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor) twists steel till the cows come home.
Grizzard and Nile take turns with verses before joining with the fabulous McCrarys for a genuine, Smoky Mountain sing-along chorus. McRee shucks and chugs in Don Rich chicken pickin’ mode as Dugmore wails with enough sizzle to make David Lindley sit up and take notice.
Grizzard rasps in raw Waits fashion as he takes his first turn at a verse, running the listen through Levon timelines legends of lore. This is a good time, hallelujah back porch jamboree, and I swear, when Nile winds up and fires his verse down the center, he sounds like a reincarnated version of Levon himself, grinding out his best Arkansas drawl as he waxes salt of the country-tinged earth. Nile says it best as he sums up with the line, “When the lightning cracks, that’s Levon’s snare!”
It’s funny, I’ve read other writers that say, “Jefferson’s music is hard to categorize.” That’s extremely lazy and I disagree. Like Nile, Grizzard is a student of the old school, rock and roll syndicate, and he joyfully embraces the cranked up slash and burn excitement that can only come from American rock, because he is American rock. Learning How To Lie shows a unique songwriter on his way to becoming a rising force for a whole new generation of music fans that still believe that real music comes from a human voice and a guitar.
For more on Jefferson Grizzard and Learning How To Lie, head over to the website at jeffersongrizzard.com.