It's said you have your whole life to write your first album.
Tucson songwriter Billy Sedlmayr would probably laugh -- one of the distinct, wheezing chuckles the Tucson songwriter punctuates most of his statements with -- at that sentiment.
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Sedlmayr's lived his life in music: He played drums for art punks the Pedestrians in the late '70s, and when that band fractured not long after opening for the Ramones, he formed Giant Sandworms with Howe Gelb, Rainer Ptacek, and Dave Seeger, which would morph into Giant Sand. He spent time in Minneapolis in the '80s, fronting a band called Stagger Lee and palling around with the Replacements and the Jayhawks. Later, he'd team with Rich Hopkins of the Sidewinders and Sand Rubies.
But it's taken the 53-year-old Sedlmayr more than three decades to make his solo debut, a stunning new album called Charmed Life. The album is the work of a consummate songwriter, but it's also a document of Sedlmayr's scars, both physical and psychic. Sedlmayr's story is a desperate one: years filled with heroin and cocaine, shuffling among New York, Minneapolis, and Phoenix, but always back to Tucson, the town where a robbery attempt at a Dairy Queen resulted in a high-speed chase and a wreck that nearly killed Sedlmayr and the Tucson officer holding a gun to his head (the harrowing story is recounted in "Billy's Blues," by Brian Smith in the November 12, 1998, issue of New Times). And then incarceration; he spent most of the late '80s and the '90s in lockup in the state prison in Florence.
It's all on the album, Sedlmayr says over the phone on a balmy night with monsoon clouds sweeping over Tucson. He's in the midst of finishing handwritten lyric sheets, rewards for Kickstarter backers who chipped in to help record the album. The idea of crowdfunding an album was a new one for him. "It's not like the old days at all, and I was gone when the good old days were here," Sedlmayr says.
The album is the result of a partnership with producer Gabriel Sullivan, a member of Giant Sand whom Sedlmayr met at the Red Room, a now-defunct club Sedlmayr describes as "not gross [but] funky." The two began working on songs, paring down Sedlmayr's massive back catalog of prose and story-songs into an album. Sullivan put together a band, including drummer Winston Watson, a veteran who's performed with Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, and Alice Cooper, Thøger T. Lund of Giant Sand on bass, Connor Gallagher on pedal steel, and Jason Urman on accordion and keys. The band accompanies Sedlmayr's reedy tenor with Sonoran flourishes of horns and percussion, alternating Latin noir sounds with lush country. It sounds like Tucson, and Sullivan credits the tightknit community in the town for recognizing their goal organically.
"We all recognized what we were there to do," Sullivan says, "which is basically to paint a simple backdrop for Billy, something that wasn't distracting but could take your mind to where his lyrics and attitude were."
Though Billy's loath to talk about his time in prison -- "It's ugly shit, man. It's really some ugly shit" -- many of the songs take root there, and the time he spent in writing workshops headed by author Richard Shelton, a "cool cat" who helped refine his poetic voice.
At times, Sedlmayr addresses his time in the pen directly, like on "Monsoons, Florence." An improvised jam that began with Sullivan sketching out haunting melodies on a baritone in the studio's live room, it features some of Sedlmayr's most haunting lyrics: "The rain comes slow at first / And then descends /A cool, pure sheet of relief / Echoing against these tears / Drowning out all sound of human calamity / Monsoons, Florence."
His words sprawl on Charmed Life, from evocative travelogues like "Pan American Highway Blues" to hushed incantations of "Two Angels." He closes the album with a personal narrative, "Tucson Kills," hissing, "Tengo miedo de perder/No te resistas/Goddamn it I swear/A very empty bar and every empty chair /Well, I left a dozen times and I always crawl back." It's a love song with tinges of hate, the sort of song that it takes years to know how to sing, how to blend such elegant resignation to such strident melodies.
But those are lessons Sedlmayr has learned.
"I'm old, man," he laughs, a laugh that seems to indicate he's talking about more than years. "But there's older. There's older than that in the business . . . I don't think I'll do it that long."
Billy Sedlmayr is scheduled to perform Saturday, October 4 at the Lost Leaf.
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