After some five decades in the music business, Grammy winner Boz Scaggs is enjoying true freedom as a musician. Having found the perfect groove with a current band lineup that features Steve Jordan, Willie Weeks, Jim Cox and Ray Parker, Jr., March saw the release of new album, A Fool to Care. A follow up to 2013’s Memphis, which was recorded with the same team, there’s already talk that this record will be the second installment of a trilogy. Featuring duets with Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, A Fool to Care is an eclectic mix of both covers and original tunes and exudes the sense of musical liberty Scaggs has been able to harness.
Recently in Toronto, I met with Scaggs to chat about the album and what it is that’s making his career so enjoyable these days.
50 years in the music business…you’ve obviously seen what works and what doesn’t. With this particular band that you’ve put together, what is it that makes it work so well?
It’s a shared musical background, and in the case of the players, just a very high level of musical expertise. It was actually put together for the last album that I made, two years ago. We brought the same team forward for this new project.
Steve Jordan – the producer/drummer – and I actually worked together a dozen years ago and we sort of promised ourselves that we would try to find a way to get together on a project…which we finally did three years ago when we started the Memphis album. Willie Weeks is a bass player who works often with Steve…Willie and I go back to about the late ‘70s, the Silk Degrees time. Willie was in my band for some time, we’ve known each other for a long time. The keyboard player, Jim Cox, he made a record with me in the late 90s. And then Ray Parker Jr, the guitar player, has also played on my records since the late ‘70s.
So this is a team of people who have known each other for a while and come from a similar musical background. They’re much more versatile than I am…they play well outside the realm of what I do. And actually I do things outside of the realm of what they do too. But we have a lot in common in terms of our musical tastes and styles. And we’re all veterans…that helps too!
Tell me about recording A Fool to Care at Blackbird Studio.
We wanted to take a step beyond what we did with the record before. In Memphis it was a very particular sound, we wanted a particular studio. It was the only place I think that we could have made that record the way it was. After having made that record, and feeling really solid with it, the next step for us was to give ourselves a little more of a sonic album. We wanted to be able to expand a little bit in that direction. Memphis was very tight and very concise. So that meant either going to New York, Los Angeles or Nashville, really, for the kind of studios, equipment and outside musicians that would be available.
Nashville is a place where I’ve never made a record; Jordan is familiar with it. Great studio, great team, great ancillary players and equipment. As to production, we were really sort of following up on a method that we started on the previous album. I’ve said before that this may be trilogy…there’s something that we’ve got going here that we want to carry forward with. We had a great experience with the first album and wanted to carry on with that.
We felt a little more license to experiment on this record…we went a little bit more abroad in our search for a theme. It originally started out with the concept being “well let’s do the music that I grew up with that was the most influential”. I grew up in small town Oklahoma and Texas, and the radio was my mentor. The radio was everything to me. And I was influenced by a lot of music of that part of the country around where I grew up, particularly the music of New Orleans. We started with that concept in looking for songs, but it jumped out of bounds pretty quickly. I feel like we kept something of a focus on that formative RnB but it moved around. And there are a few wild cards.
The doors just flew open and we did whatever we wanted to do. I feel a great deal of freedom in working with this section and I’ve said it before – it’s like any number can win. I’ve got the section and I just feel free. They’re songs that I want to sing and songs that we think we can recreate in our own style.
Let’s talk a little bit about your original song “Hell to Pay” and the social and personal commentary that it represents.
Well, it’s said by many writers, and many artists in different fields, that some stuff just falls out of a tree. You don’t look at it, you just write it down. That song has been lingering over in the sidelines for a long time. I keep a little notebook and I’ve been scribbling notes in it over the last couple of years along the theme of “Hell to Pay” and what it eventually came to be about.
It took more form in the making of this record…why, I don’t know. I was looking for a duet, a sort of Texas-y, guitar roux…and I just filled in the blanks. I played it for Jordan; he liked it and said “you’ve got to finish this one up”.
As to what it speaks to…Texas has become an iconic, symbolic place for a certain frame of mind. It’s sort of an easy pickings for me, having grown up there. I have this kind of alter ego voice in my head that is some sort of a Southern wisecrack. I’ve written several other songs with it – one was on an album called Dig. I’m speaking in another kind of voice – it’s an old Texas southern accent person who speaks from a very cynical point of view. And that voice was kind of in my head. Bonnie was particularly attracted to it – she’s a very political character and liked it a lot. It’s political, but it’s got a little cynicism and a little sense of humour to it.
You’ve said that you’re at a point where you’re having a lot of fun with music now, more than ever. What were some of the hindrances that you experienced early on that had an impact on that freedom that you’re now able to experience?
It was one very big one –having to write the lyrics. It doesn’t come easy for me. I’ve written a lot of songs, and a few of them, like I say, just fall off the tree and that’s easy. But mostly it’s a very arduous process for me. So I feel completely free, just to be a singer and a guitar player and not have to be a producer or co-producer. Just be a singer. That’s what I love to do – that’s my instrument, after all is said and done. I love to sing and I love working with Jordan and these musicians. It couldn’t be any more free and fun than this. People seem to like it. I like it. It goes well with my older material. I’ve been performing this stuff for a couple of years now, and it just feels right. It feels good. So maybe this will be a trilogy and I’ll get to have my fun.