Developing the rootsy edge that inhabits Jackie Greene’s latest album (and first in five years), Back to Birth, has been a long time coming. Though Greene was once hailed as the “new Dylan” for his acoustic guitar/harmonica soirées during the coffeehouse period that informed much of his teenage years, his initial albums displayed a wider stylistic range, from 1970s pop to classic rock to soul and blues. The seeds were there, but it was only after being drafted to play with The Band’s Levon Helm, and later the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir (in separate projects) and his time in the final iteration of the Black Crowes, that Greene has hit upon his most fully realized and deeply centered project to date. A laid-back, earthy California vibe full of lush harmonies and strum-along chords bolsters Greene’s work. Add the richness of honest, homespun tales and Greene’s music unconsciously shades toward The Band, Jackson Browne, Black Crowes, and even one clearly B.B. King-inspired number. At the core is a simplicity that recalls the purity of songwriting, the kind that doesn’t require anything more than a back porch to reproduce — though Greene’s stage performance only strengthens the music’s resolve.
Greene recently departed Trigger Hippy — a rootsy supergroup featuring Joan Osborne, Steve Gorman, Tom Bukovac, and Nick Govrik — to concentrate on Back to Birth and the subsequent tour. Up on the Sun connected with Greene to discuss the development of the album, his history development related to performing with other well-respected musicians, and his start as a self-taught guitarist.
Jackie Greene is scheduled to perform Friday, August 14 at the Musical Instrument Museum.
New Times: You note at the start of your bio what a fast-paced hectic world we live in and how you wanted create an album that would allow people to “step back” a little. Have you succeeded, and how so?
Jackie Greene: I certainly hope so. I'm hoping people will give it a serious listen because many of the songs sort of require that. It isn't background music for a frat party. If you want to find out what's really going on, you'll have to give it some attention. To get the nuance and subtext. Hopefully, people will sit with it for awhile.
What’s at the heart of the album, the core that holds it all together?
I'd say the simplicity of the songs themselves. There's an honesty to the whole project that I hope is compelling.
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Your world too has been pretty fast-paced in the years since your previous album. You’ve worked with Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, the late Levon Helm, the Black Crowes and others. Is this album also your chance to step back and relax into a more familiar place?
Not necessarily. I'm always pretty at home with every project I get into. I don't always start out that way, but I end up putting a lot of myself into whatever it is I'm working on. In that respect, I'm just as comfortable as a Black Crowe as I am in my own band.
One thing that stands out is the cool, breezy, relaxed feel in most of the songs here — like you’re sitting on the back porch on a cool summer afternoon. Am I on the right track with this notion?
Absolutely. It goes back to that notion of simplicity and honesty in the songs. There's nothing fancy about them. Anyone can play them. Easy to learn!
Most of the tracks have an earthy, rootsy tone, but there are hints of blues, gospel and soul as well. What brings these songs to life for you?
Well, I feel that earthy and rootsy go hand in hand with blues and gospel. They all seem to come up from the dirt in that way. It's just the stuff I really like to listen to. Stuff that has its own identity and soul about it. Often times, that music is simple, but full of life.
This is your seventh album. Certainly, it’s a lot more realized than earlier efforts. How has working with someone like Bob Weir or Levon Helm — both noted songwriters — helped shape your songwriting?
I absorb just about everything in some way or another. Levon was one of my heroes, so it was wonderful to get to play with him before he passed. Bob is a great student of old blues and soul music, so he's a handy guy to learn from. I just absorb all the lessons and use what I can and what makes sense to me.
Did the experience working with the Black Crowes as a guitarist in 2013 also shape your songwriting — a couple of songs show an amazing parallel to that sound?
I'm sure it did, but more so as a guitar player, since that was my job. Playing with Rich was quite a lot of fun. He's a unique guitar player. His voicings are interesting because of his tunings. It was very cool to learn from him.
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You’re quoted as saying a lot of these songs are cyclical in nature. It’s an interesting idea. Can you explain this idea and the personal connection? How has the circle come back around for you?
The idea is that nothing has a beginning or an end. That's what I mean when I refer to a cyclical existence. Perhaps dying is sort of like being born. Perhaps hellos are not that different from goodbyes. It's awfully trite to put it in those terms, but that's the basic idea. From there, you can extrapolate a much deeper meaning and it becomes much more personal.
Stepping back, you are a self-taught player. You’ve achieved plenty of critical acclaim, both from press and peers. What was the original goal when you first started learning music and how does it play out today?
My first goal was to just learn how to play the rock songs I heard on the radio as a child. Even in the most basic sense. As I became more aware of what I was doing, my tastes changed and I learned how to play other kinds of music. Just by listening. Tinkering. Screwing around. I listened to Doc Watson tapes over and over until I figured out something. I did the same thing with Ray Charles and his piano. And Tom Waits songs; and Bob Dylan songs. Nowadays, I'm obsessed with Ravi Shankar recordings. I'll probably buy a sitar at some point and become frustrated. It's how it goes. Music is supposed to be an adventure.