What’s the guitar you’re holding on the cover of your new album?
It’s a Harmony Hollywood from the ’50s with the original DeArmond pickup. I used it for all the slide stuff except on the title track, which was a solid-brass Regal resonator from the ’20s. The Regal gives off these trashy overtones that seem to pitch in the opposite direction you’re sliding in.
My favorite guitar is a 1948 Gibson LG-7 acoustic. It’s considered a parlor guitar because of its smaller body size, and I find it easy to record with. The low end is clearer because it’s thinner and doesn’t overpower the highs. Dreadnoughts can get pretty muddy.
How did you get that vintage, Folkways Records vibe on the acoustic songs?
On “A Love Song for Bobby Long” and “I See You,” I recorded everything—guitar, vocals, and stand-up bass—live with one Neumann U57. On “I See You,” you can hear me thumping a kick drum in the background too.
Because my guitar parts intertwine with my vocals, it makes sense to track them together. That’s why I love old blues masters like Lightnin’ Hopkins. They wouldn’t play chords—they’d play melodies over a tonal center around their vocals. Blues is much more intricate than strumming a I-IV-V progression.
How do you amplify your guitars live?
I just mic them with an old Shure SM57. It’s got less high end than some of the newer models. I can’t deal with a direct sound because I don’t need some soundman trying to equalize the volume between my guitar and my voice. If I need to be louder, I’ll lean in. It’s like how Bill Monroe’s old bluegrass groups used to play around one mic. When someone took a solo, they would lean in.
Do you use any special tunings for slide?
I use mainly open D (D, A, D, F#, A, D) and open G (D, G, D, G, B, D).
Open G is like the Keith Richards tuning, except he removes the low-D string.
I know—he should have to deal with it like the rest of us [laughs]! Doesn’t he know he can drop down to the V chord that way?
Does your style change when you play solo as opposed to playing with a full band?
I write mostly on acoustic and I find I have to simplify my parts when I play them with the band. I tend to want to do too much. Usually I’ll be thumping a bass line on the low strings and it gets in the way of what the bassist is doing so I wind up cutting it out.
Your songs deal with emotionally intense situations, yet the feel of your music is languid and laid back.
That’s probably because our bass player, Ryan Donohue, pulls the beat by a hair. Generally, white music like punk and metal is ahead of the beat, so it makes people want to bob their heads, while black music is behind the beat, so it makes you want to grind your hips. And I’ll take hip grindin’ over head bobbin’ any day!