by Jordan Green
Stephen Murray had just finished a rehearsal with the Backlot Collective in preparation for a concert to celebrate the release of his inaugural solo album, The Backlot Sessions.
He lit up a cigarette and reclined in a chair on a concrete pad behind On Pop of the World studios. Weeds sprang somewhat unkempt around a gravel parking lot, and a stray cooler or two studded the scenery. The sturdy bungalows of Glenwood rose on the other side of an unpainted picket fence in the back lot. Yes, the setting and the backing band are intimately connected. Hence, The Backlot Sessions.
Around the corner, an auto-repair shop where Spanish is spoken does brisk business in this most multicultural of Greensboro’s neighborhoods. Cars parked next door and along the curb sit in various states of disassembly.
In the past couple years, On Pop of the World, housed in the former headquarters of the Red Devils Motorcycle Club, has assembled a stable of extraordinarily talented players whose compatibility and creativity lends distinctive sound to a dizzying series of recordings produced by studio owner Randy Seals. Right now, Crystal Bright & the Silver Hands are recording their next album at the studio. New recordings by Ameriglow and Matty Sheets & the Blockheads are in the can. Jack Carter, who plays upright bass in the Backlot Collective, released his new album, Billy the Kid, in March.
Murray had worked before with Seals, who produced the most recent album for Murray’s regular band, Holy Ghost Tent Revival. Sweat Like the Old Days marked a bold transition from ragtime and bluegrass-inflected throwback act to horn-driven rock and roll. The band finished up recording its next album, to be titled Right State of Mind, in Philadelphia last year, logging regular workdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The band is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to pay for the album’s release.
In the meantime, Murray had accumulated a handful of mid-tempo songs that were a bit too slow for Holy Ghost since 2009. Murray approached Seals about booking some time at On Pop of the World, and Seals pulled together a backing group, primarily comprised of himself on drums, Carter on bass, Liz Grubbs on piano and Kasey Horton on viola, with Jacob Darden of Ameriglow also contributing psychedelic guitar and lead-vocal manipulation. They finished recording the album in six nonconsecutive days in December.
The recording experience and the loose collaborative effort starkly contrasted with the more disciplined process undertaken by Holy Ghost in Philadelphia.
“These dudes will wake up at 3 in the afternoon,” Murray said. “They taught me how to late-night it. Lots of nights at 4 a.m. they’ll say, ‘Let’s do another one.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, let me crack open a beer and smoke another cigarette.’ Randy is a believer that at a certain time in the night, if you’ve worked six to eight hours, if you push through the next five some really incredible s*** will come out, whether you’re doing drugs or not.”
Murray brought the songs to the studio, written on acoustic guitar, more or less intact with lyrics and melody. But he credits the members of the Backlot Collective as co-writers for bringing musical ideas to flesh the songs out.
The Backlot Collective’s loose, organic sound — a kind of warped Americana with a warm halo — turned out to be a perfect fit for the varying moods and sensibilities of the songs that Murray brought to the project.
The revelatory collection includes low-key meditations such as “Happy Little Family” and “Tears in the Mornin” that suggest the sensitive, orchestrated late-’60s folk of Tim Buckley and Lee Hazlewood. Songs like “Sweet Stephanie” and “EIL” romp with the perfect balance of rawness and smarts, with controlled bursts of wildness, none of which would sound out of place on a Wilco album. The latter track, laden with bracing bursts of Murray’s rhythm-guitar playing, is as fitting an update to Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” as one could ask for. Lines like “Don’t take before you give, don’t live another minute forgetting to forgive” accumulate in a compendium of wise nuggets of advice.
Horton’s viola meets Murray’s brittle voice and gentle picking like a bittersweet companion. Grubbs’ piano rollicks against his textured riffing in just the right way. Carter’s playing intuitively roams the fretboard of his instrument. Seals’ drumming expertly propels the songs forward. Countrypolitan backing vocals of early-’60s Nashville vintage, blasts of sweet horn-playing and passages of distorted oddity complete the palette.
Murray’s solo project is but a brief interlude. He’ll be back on the road with Holy Ghost Tent Revival for much of the next four months, and their new album is due for release in September. All the same, the lessons of the back lot will likely carry over into Murray’s work with his regular band.
“I’m a pretty big stickler about right notes at right times,” he said, “but this process has allowed me to let people do what they feel is right and express something beautiful of their own.”