“I’m right with you man,” Russell deCarle laughs with regard to the 30+ year-old tape recorder being used for this interview. This is the same recorder that was used to interview him several times over the years while he served as front man for the legendary Canadian country band Prairie Oyster. The old school unit would seem to be appropriate in this case as Russell has just released a fabulous CD of vintage tunes, most of them of the lesser known variety, with his current outfit the Russell deCarle Trio.
“Yeah, as far as technology goes I’m getting dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century,” he says. “I’m not a Luddite or anything, but when stuff becomes obsolete you just put it aside so the sheer amount of waste is staggering. In terms of the tunes on the record, I’ve always had a pretty good ear for picking stuff that works for me. The other guys that make up the Trio, Steve Briggs on guitar and Denis Keldie on accordion, are also sensitive to what works well for me. We listen to such a great amount of stuff when we’re on the road…it’s like three lugs in a sedan listening to everything that’s out there. I have a large repertoire with them and we just kind of wing it rather than using a set list. I thought it would be great to record a bunch of these mostly obscure tunes and I think it’s the most fun that I’ve ever had.”
The record has a rootsy, southern feel to it with Keldie’s accordion strains punctuating numbers like “Down In Mexico”, “South In New Orleans” and “South Of the Border (Down Mexico Way)”. The listener is transported, alternately, from a smoky Mexican cantina to the French Quarter of New Orleans without missing a beat. Russell attributes some of the international feel and bluesy underpinnings to his former band.[youtube width=”600″ height=”338″ video_id=”LMkx83Kh9_k”]
“While Prairie Oyster was considered a country band it was also very eclectic and I think that’s why we had such a long history,” he says. “People used to say if you don’t like country music you should hear this band because we drew on so many influences. I’ve always been attracted to that kind of stuff, you know, the darker side. My first solo record Under The Big Big Sky was more blues/jazz than anything. I’ve also always loved the accordion so I added that to this record and it just clicked. You say accordion and a lot of people think polka, but Denis is the real deal. By the second tune people’s jaws are on the floor. He picks up the bass end of things as well so the sound is not missing a whole lot.”
What’s most remarkable about the Trio’s terrific sound on this album, as indicated by the title Live At loud Mouse Studios, is the fact that it was cut off the floor in fast fashion. There is an undeniable chemistry between the three members that turns songs like “Yellow Roses” and “Sweet Moments” into things of beauty. Russell’s voice is still as strong as ever and he remains a superb instrumentalist, although he has traded in his trademark bass for an acoustic guitar.
“About 10 years ago I really started woodshedding and writing, and playing more guitar,” he explains. “To me, rhythm guitar has always been at the centre of the music I love. It’s really the most important instrument in the band and it kind of drives everything. In the studio I was playing guitar and singing at the same time. Most of the tracks on the album are first or second takes. I really wanted to keep the quality high and I have a great engineer, L. Stu Young, who’s part of the deal. He’s done Prince records and on and on. I feel that a lot of records are suffering sonically these days with the bottom end literally disappearing, so I’m real happy with the way this one turned out.”
The album has a few songs that will be recognized by listeners, albeit older ones, including “The Gypsy”, which was a hit for The Ink Spots, and the Ray Charles nugget “I’m Glad For Your Sake (But I’m Sorry For Mine)”. Music lovers would be a little more hard pressed to recall “Sugar Beet”, which was recorded by Moon Mullican in 1952, or “Mean Woman With Green Eyes” by Sheb Wooley, a performer best known for his novelty hit “Purple People Eater”.
“Actually the version of I’m Glad for Your Sake that I was familiar with was by Doug Sahm which he recorded with the Sir Douglas Quintet. It’s a trip down memory lane every time I hear Doug and it’s so sad that he passed at such a young age. As far as Moon Mullican goes, I was a huge fan so I had collections of his. They’re just tunes that I like and it’s amazing the stuff that sticks with you over the years. Sugar Beet was actually written by Boudleaux Bryant who, along with his wife Felice, wrote Everly Brothers classics like Love Hurts and All I Have To Do Is Dream. Sheb Wooley was Roger Miller’s brother-in-law and he gave him his first fiddle. Roger began to play fiddle for Minnie Pearl and after that he started writing tunes like King Of the Road, and the rest is history. I tell stories like that about the songs when I play live and people come away with a whole other impression of me that they never had.”
Perhaps the most upbeat song on the album is a killer cover of Charlie Rich’s “Mohair Sam”, when he was a swivel-hipped belter long before becoming the Silver Fox, best known for crooning tunes like Behind Closed Doors. Mohair is the silk-like fabric that was used to make suit jackets that were all the rage in the 60’s. Russell has always been a cool cat and a Mohair suit might just raise his hip factor another notch or two. “Yeah, absolutely, I’d love to have one. Unfortunately I’m not on a major label any more so I don’t have a clothing budget.”
The two most sombre moments on the record come on the songs “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight”, a true country hurtin’ tune, and “Willie’s Diamond Joe”. The latter track is a particularly sentimental one for Russell as it was written by the late Willie P. Bennett, a Toronto roots artist who was one of his best friends and co-writer of several Prairie Oyster tracks. He describes Willie P. as an artist that was an ‘amazing songwriter and performer’, and the inclusion of the song on the album serves as a fine reminder of the man’s talent. I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight came from a more distant source.
“My buddy Chris Wall wrote that song,” Russell begins. “I was down in Nashville in the early 90’s and I heard him sing that song in a club and it just knocked me out. I asked him for a copy of the song and he said that he hadn’t recorded it yet but Jerry Jeff Walker’s wife, who was managing Chris, told me that Jerry Jeff had recorded it. She told me to come over to their place to pick up a copy so I drove over to Mr. Bojangles’ land and he gave me a signed one.”
With the new record Russell has maintained his Prairie Oyster fan base, which was reinforced when he first took his solo show to Saskatchewan and Alberta, two Oyster strongholds that accounted for two thirds of their record sales. The singer was initially nervous that people would be disappointed by the fact that he was playing only a few of the band’s numbers, but that apprehension was soon lifted by the warm response of his audiences. Does this mean that we’ll be hearing no more musical pearls from this Oyster?
“Anything’s possible,” Russell says. “I feel very busy and I’m a long way away from that in a lot of ways. I’m very proud of the stuff we did but I’m having a lot of fun doing this and I’ve already half-finished a new record which is done on more of a southern soul vein. We get offers to do Prairie Oyster shows but I don’t know if we could do it even if we wanted to. It’s so expensive to fly and tour, and it sure hasn’t become any easier.”