In ninth grade, I had a well-worn 90-minute cassette dub of two albums: R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People and, on the flipside, Grant Lee Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon. A typically jaded high school freshman, I spent many a homeroom, lunch hour (and, secretly, study hall) glued to my Walkman listening to both albums. Back then, this pairing of bands made perfect sense (and not just because they toured together in 1995): Both acts were mysterious and timeless, adept at creating albums devoid of modern influence but full of smart lyrics and masterful storytelling.
Mighty Joe Moon, Grant Lee Buffalo’s second album, especially felt like it came from another planet—one committed to dusting off an alternate version of American history where the West wasn’t won and the characters were weathered by love, loss and life. Each of Grant Lee Buffalo’s four albums had a similar vibe, from the barnstorming Americana vibe and clever hucksters populating 1993’s Fuzzy to the lush, reflective comedowns of 1996’s Copperopolis and the harder-rocking, glam-tinged 1998 swan song, Jubilee. The throughline was vocalist and songwriter Grant Lee Phillips, whose detailed vignettes reflected meticulous research and a poet’s eye (and ear) for history’s most colorful characters.
After the band dissolved in 1999, Phillips continued to carve out an impressive, varied career—from playing the Stars Hollow troubadour on Gilmore Girls to co-writing with comedian Margaret Cho. As a solo artist, Phillips has tended to gravitate toward more acoustic, folk-edged tunes—a style that suits his slightly-wrinkled tenor and fluid guitar style—on several studio albums, an ’80s covers album and last year’s lovely Walking in the Green Corn. Strident and reflective, Corn matches resonant acoustic guitar with only the softest hint of other instruments.
Writing on the album’s PledgeMusic site, Phillips explains the stark and intimate nature of the album. “This collection of songs was born out of a longing to understand where I come from, the meaning of our traditions and what it means to be a mixed blood Native person today. The Native story is one of incredible perseverance, a rich and diverse history that is still being written. A proud tribal member of the Muskogee Creek Nation, these songs are my way of honoring my ancestors and to stand and be counted.”
In May, Phillips came to Cleveland for a solo show at a club called the Winchester. An attentive crowd showed up to watch the bespectacled musician as he spent 90 minutes running through all facets of his career (in between some of the wittiest stage banter this side of). A true gentleman, he also spent time before the show talking to me and my podcast comrade, Matt Wardlaw, and playing several acoustic songs. Phillips touched on crowdfunding, touring, Grant Lee Buffalo’s legacy and the process by which he made Walking In The Green Corn. We hope you’ll give it a listen.
– Annie Zaleski
Our thanks to Grant-Lee Phillips for spending some time with us (and also playing a few songs live) during today’s edition of the Radio Hour. Visit his official website for information on all of the latest happenings. We’d like to send additional thanks out to our friends at the Winchester for lending us their backstage area to do this interview!
On the next edition of the Radio Hour: Matt and Jeff will speak with singer/songwriter Joy Ike.