Texas singer Ronnie Fauss released his third full-length album earlier this year, Last of the True. Any long-time fans of the Americana genre are sure to find plenty of touchstones throughout the album. A bit of Whiskeytown here, a touch of Parsons there, and a well-done Uncle Tupelo cover for good measure. For all the obvious influences, Last of the True is an original, eclectic album that gives proof that Fauss is a skilled songwriter and a singer who’s at home fronting a full-fledged rock band or a back-porch bluegrass group. And he writes a darn good polka tune, too. We asked him to talk about the songs on the new album, and he graciously put together this article for us. -Sam Gazdziak
Track by Track: Ronnie Fauss, Last of the True
By Ronnie Fauss
BIG LEAGUES: Every once in a while, a song just comes to you…lyrics, melody, and all…in a flash, and before you have a chance to over-analyze what you’re writing, it’s finished. That’s what happened with “Big Leagues.” I was ready to go into the studio to start making this album, but felt like it was missing one song that would serve as the linchpin to hold it all together. I went to SXSW with some friends just to take in some music for a couple of days, and the first thing I did when I got back home was to take out my guitar and write this song. It was just my natural reaction to that trip. And when it was finished, I knew I had found the final piece to the puzzle for this album.
22 YEARS: I wanted to go for a pure Tom Petty or Whiskeytown type vibe on this track, with prominent B3 organ and electric guitars. The rhythm section is what really stands out to me here – I think the drumming by Matt Pence and bass by Mark Hedman (both long time bandmates in Centro-matic and with Justin Townes Earle) sound fantastic!
NEW MADRID: My band and I have been closing our shows with this song for the last few years. I have always loved the original Uncle Tupelo version, and for some reason one day out of the blue I got the idea to play this song at twice the tempo, with a double barrel of electric guitars replacing the mandolin and banjo of the original. Essentially, to play this song in the style that most of Uncle Tupelo’s other songs were played in. We have a lot of fun playing it live, and it feels good to get this version down on tape as well.
BEING ALONE: At its core, this is a simple folk song. But for years I heard it as a symphony in my head, with very specific parts for the violin, piano, pedal steel, and guitars. Usually when I bring a song to the studio, I just turn the crack musicians loose to develop their own interpretations of the song. It always works, because the musicians are so good. But not on this one…thankfully all the guys were good sports about it as I walked each player through the exact parts I had been hearing in my head. Specifically, Paul Niehaus, whose work I had admired for years in Calexico, really stole the show here…he played pedal steel along with multiple guitar parts that fit together perfectly, thankfully just as I had imagined.
I THINK WE’RE GOING TO BE OK: The road can be a magical and lonely place for a musician. I wrote this one while on the road, but wasn’t sure about it at first. I tested it at a couple of gigs, and that’s where it came alive for me – on the stage. It just felt right and people seemed to respond to it. I stayed true to that simple interpretation on the album, and it ended up as one of my favorite tracks.
SAGINAW PAPER MILL: I’ve been sitting on this song for the better part of a decade now, but could never wrap my head around exactly how to record it. Then it hit me one day – this tune lends itself to a collaborative effort. So I shone a light on a number of good friends, to turn them loose and let them do their thing – Devin Malone on electric guitar and Chris Tuttle on upright piano…I gave each of them extended solos to interpret as they saw fit. Then as the kicker I brought in Ben Kweller to take over half of the lead vocals. All 3 of them were fantastic, and they make this song kick!
THERE IS AN IRRIGATION PROBLEM IN GILROY: This is a tune that has been bouncing around in my head since the nineties, but I had never been able to put words to it. For this album, I finally came to terms with the fact that not all songs have lyrics! So I threw it out there as an idea in the studio, and everyone seemed to run with it on the spot. I like to think it may be the start of a new sub-genre – “hillbilly polka”.
BIG UMBRELLA: Don’t ask me where the line “You were making out with a one-eyed guy / He said that your beauty brought a tear to his eye” came from…I was just sitting there one day and there it was. So I plucked it out of the ether, and it turned out to be the jumping off point for a song that was pretty fun to write. As with a lot of my songs, the story itself isn’t autobiographical, but a lot of the sentiments woven into the lyrics are. I intentionally kept the arrangement simple – a rock-n-roll 4 piece, and have been told the final product sounds like an ode to my hometown heroes and friends The Old 97s. I’ll take that.
IT’S A CHOICE: I had been working on 2 songs for quite a while, and wasn’t getting anywhere…on one of them I liked the verse but not the chorus, on the other I liked the chorus but not the verse. Then one day it hit me – stop banging your head against the wall, just take the good parts of each and combine them into one song. It turned out they worked together well, almost like it was meant to be that way all along. My goal with this recording was create a kind of Americana symphony – no set limit on the number of instruments, and no one instrument featured above the others…piano, violin, steel, accordion, guitars, etc. The finishing touch was to add some Laurel Canyon-esque layered harmonies…Camille Cortinas and Sadler Vaden both did an excellent job singing on this one.
THE VELOCITY OF SAUL AT THE TIME OF HIS CONVERSION: I have been covering this Okkervil River song live, in solo acoustic settings, since I first began playing in coffee houses ten years ago. I think it’s a beautiful song and was anxious to put my own twist on it – with a simple arrangement of pedal steel, upright piano, and female harmonies accompanying me and my acoustic. I encourage everyone to go check out the original version as well!
BRIGHT LIGHTS OF LA: I wanted to keep this track very simple and pure, with melodic pedal steel licks carrying the whole thing from stem to stern, supported by a steady rhythm section and some B-3 organ. I think that arrangement worked well here.
NO ONE TO BLAME BUT YOURSELF: I’ve had this bluegrass tune stuck in my head for a couple years now, and was excited to flesh it out with a bunch of talented folks in a studio setting. Devin Malone played a bunch of different instruments until we found the mix that worked best…as a finishing touch, my friend Deryl Dodd stopped by the studio and added some smooth layered harmonies that rounded it all out and took it where it needed to be.
DON’T THINK TWICE (IT’S ALRIGHT): I had this specific idea for a cover for each of my first 2 albums, but for some reason it never materialized. This time, I was sure to make it happen. The first 5 days of recording were taking place at The Echo Lab in Argyle, TX, and there is this beautiful grand piano in the corner of the studio…every chance I got during those 5 days I would go practice this song. By the end of the fifth day I felt somewhat comfortable with it, and asked the fellas to roll tape. Later we added accordion from Derry deBorja in addition to some beautiful female harmonies from Camille Cortinas…it was an honor to record a song of Bob Dylan’s with what I think is a unique approach.