The pandemic has inspired plenty of art, but it’s also given a lot of artists time to pause. Maybe that has been an excuse to release some old live recordings. Some have created entire new projects that would have otherwise never existed. And some have dug into the archives and found things that we should have heard all along.
For Fiddleworms, the latter gave Russell Mefford and company an opportunity to release the band’s first studio album in eight years. The record has eight tracks, with a bonus track on the download card, “Don’t Shoot the Prophet,” a tune that Mefford wrote with Scott Boyer.
As this collection has come from various recording sessions over the past decade or more, almost every member of the Fiddleworms family makes an appearance: there’s Mefford, Rob Malone [formerly of Drive-By Truckers] and Mitch Mann on vocals and guitars, David MacKay on bass (with an appearance by Matt Ross), John Tombyll and Scott Kennedy on drums, Tombyll and Jimmy Nutt on percussion, Clint Bailey and NC Thurman on piano and organ and a horn section comprised of Brad Guin on tenor sax, Daniel Western on baritone sax, Ken Watters, Shane Porter and Chris Gordon on trumpet and Chad Fisher [St. Paul and the Broken Bones] on trombone. There are also guest background vocal appearances from Donna Jean Godchaux [formerly of Grateful Dead] and Rob Aldridge.
I talked to Russell about how the record came to be and the unique ways that the art was constructed and the rollout has taken place in a pandemic. He and I talked at length about the history of Florence’s most important band in my first book, The Muscle Shoals Legacy of FAME.
Was this a “quarantine” project? Would we have gotten this record either way?
It was a total quarantine project. It was…maybe a sanity project. One of the pluses – or minuses, depending on how you want to look at it – of being a band that’s been around a while, is that we have outtakes from a bunch of different records. I always remember reading an interview in Rolling Stone with Mick Jagger. He said that when they released Tattoo You, he was worried that everyone would call them out on releasing a bunch of outtakes.
There was a song called “Southern Belle” that Clint Bailey [keys] has always bugged me about. He wanted to release it. So I tossed the idea out of us maybe releasing it as a single, and the rest of the guys started adding to it: “Hey what about this song?” “What about that song?” It just kind of fell out of the sky. Thanks to Jimmy Nutt, we were able to have it mixed and mastered. I went over and sang vocals on a couple of things, but it’s pretty much as it was recorded.
“Hometown Blues” and “Systematic Girl” – we recorded those at FAME. It was the first time we worked with Jimmy Nutt; that was in the big room at FAME. He was never able to find the tape, so those two songs are actually just rough mixes. We scrutinize over things so much when we make a record, I kind of feel like maybe it was a blessing in disguise that we weren’t able to do that. It feels good to me and the fellas seem to be happy with it and the reaction has been really good. We didn’t really do much to it.
This is the first studio record since 2012’s See the Light?
I can’t believe that much time has gone by, but yeah, I think that’s right.
“The Dealer” [a track on the new record that was co-written by Rob Malone and John Tombyll] was a song that could have been on that record, but at the time, Rob [Malone] wasn’t playing with the band and I thought it would end up on a Rob [Aldridge] record. John [Tombyll] was playing drums, Matt [Ross] was playing bass – it was basically the fellas with Rob [Aldridge]. So I had told them, if you want to use it, use it. That never materialized, so I feel really lucky that that song’s on this record.
It’s Rob doing his thing with some killer players.
“Southern Belle” and “Hats Off” were recorded during the Volkswagen Catfish sessions. Those two songs and [the cover of Donnie Fritts’s] “Memphis Woman and Chicken” were recorded when Jimmy [Nutt] was over at the old Muscle Shoals Music Hall.
“You Come to Me” and “Hold Her While You Got Her” were cut at Jimmy’s new place with Wayne Bridge [pedal steel] and NC Thurman on keys.
Do you put everything on hold until you can play live again? Is the next record already in motion?
We have about eight more songs that are ready to go for the next project. We always need more music, and we had that music that we could put out there.
We all kind of got together and tried to figure out how to release a record during a pandemic. As an independent band, I’m kind of proud of that. It’s funny how things work out with this band. They were pressing the records overseas, but they weren’t able to air freight vinyl from Europe. So the records had to come by boat. I wanted to get the record out quick, but that made them come a few months later than they were supposed to; I looked at the calendar and thought, “Well, they’ll get here the first couple of weeks of September.”
My dad’s 96th birthday was on September 22. So I just decided to release it on his birthday. And, like I said, Clint had been pestering me about “Southern Belle,” so I thought, “Well, what if we call the record Southern Belle? My dad flew B-17s in World War II, so I had the idea to make the cover in the style of a pinup you’d see on the side of a plane. I called Scott Campbell, talked to him about it and sent him a picture of my dad’s air corps patch. He designed the artwork for the record around the plane my dad flew.
Of course, instead of bombs coming out of the plane, it’s worms. [laughs]
On the back, he included the patch. It was neat that I was able to give my dad a rock record for his 96th birthday.
I really like what Corey Hannah did with the videos that you’ve been rolling out, too…
We couldn’t figure out how to do a release party right now, so we decided to do this video thing where we’re going to release a few videos – we’re going to release a video for every song on the record, two at a time, every Tuesday.
We hope that we may be able to do something outdoors after we finish rolling the videos out.
It’s been 30-35 years at this point. Did you think it’d last this long?
No. I didn’t think I’d be alive past 40 to be honest with you, man. [laughs]
You can pick up a vinyl copy of the new record around the Shoals area at Nu Way Vinyl, Counts Brothers, Muscle Shoals Record Shop and Mefford Jewelers. Or get it shipped ($25 to firstname.lastname@example.org). It should be available digitally soon.