If you were looking for me the last few months and couldn’t find me, it’s very possible that I was off somewhere, curled up inside “Pick Me Up,” the title track of the new Truth & Salvage Co. album (Megaforce Records). Behind its “Like a Rolling Stone” organ figure, expertly placed melody modulation, and positivity-exuding lyric, “Pick Me Up” is a breath of fresh country air at a time when so much seems stale and stagnant. In a day and age in which hearing “You are not alone” usually provokes a bit of trepidation and a nervous backward look or two, Truth & Salvage wrap the listener in a much-needed cover of Southern sunshine.
I drank the Kool Aid for this band three years ago (it tasted like sweet tea and kicked like a triple Cuervo), after seeing them live and digging the fine songs on their debut (my album of the year in 2010, for those keeping track). I thought then and think now that what Truth & Salvage Co. is, is a classic American country-rock band, one we should celebrate and support, lest they fade away for lack of care and feeding. Pick Me Up has plenty to recommend it, from the turbo-fueled opening of “Silver Lining” to the soul balladry of “Back in Your Love,” to the country strum of first single “Appalachian Hilltop.” There are four songwriters in the band (guitarists Tim Jones and Scott Kinnebrew, keyboardist Walker Young, and drummer Bill “Smitty” Smith), each of whom bring to the proceedings something unique, and uniquely good. If you dig ye olde No Depression-style Americana—with plenty of harmony singing, expert picking, and a perfectly placed organ flourish or three— you will find plenty to enjoy here.
We all can use what Truth & Salvage Co. give us—the sun-kissed strum ‘n’ twang on Pick Me Up is a great start. If you need me and can’t find me, just follow the sound of the band’s voices; it’ll lead you right to me.
In mid-2010, I spoke with Smith about the band’s debut. Back in early August of this year, we resumed our conversation—he was in Oregon on a gig day; I was on vacation in Delaware. Our talk largely focused on the new album and related themes of family, songwriting, and rock & roll.
You got married recently—congratulations!
Thank you, thank you. I appreciate that. I’m a lucky man. I don’t know what she sees in me, but you know, hopefully I won’t mess it up, and we’ll live happily ever after.
Is she out on tour with you?
No, she’s actually in Los Angeles. I’ll see her in a couple weeks, when we pass through there.
Is that difficult, being a newlywed on the road, not seeing the wife?
Well, it’s not ideal, let me put it that way. I’d rather have her with me. I’d rather we be together.
It’s the life I chose, though. And she seemed to choose it with me. So we have to make the best of it. Do all the extra things on the road to keep in touch, you know—texting, calling, i-Chatting, and all that stuff. Make the best of it.
I hear you. Well, congratulations also on the new record. It’s a wonderful album—I love it.
Thanks man I’m glad you dig it; we’re proud of it I’m proud of it. It was a long work in progress, but we finally jumped all the hurdles and got a recording that we like the best. We are pleased with the outcome.
The first thing that struck me is how positive a vibe is going through this record. And I guess the first thing I want to ask you is was it your intention to make such a positive record, in spite of the fact that the world’s going to hell and all that?[Laughs] I don’t think we set out to do it intentionally; I think it’s just where we are right now in our lives. We recorded this record three times, and the third time finally stuck. When you’re thrown a lot of curveballs, you have no choice but to come together as a band and as a family. The songs were already there. I think there are a lot of positive vibes to the meaning, but I think the recording and the energy were as positive as we could’ve possibly made them. The record is 80 percent live. We did all the rhythm tracks live and then overdubbed the vocals and maybe a guitar solo or keyboard solo here and there. It has a good energy to it. I appreciate you saying that.
Tell me about having to record it three times—this is news to me.
The first time we recorded it, the label just didn’t dig it. That happens a lot in this business. You build a house that you’re proud of, and they’re like, “Tear it down! Build another house!” So we did it a second time and that didn’t work out, either. And so the third time they said, “Sorry we put you guys through the ringer. We’re sorry it happened this way, but we think it’s for the best.” They gave us one more shot. So we went to Ashville, NC, to Echo Mountain Studios, and recorded the entire record in seven days. It was one of the best recording experiences we’ve ever had. It was in the winter, snow was on the ground, and we recorded in this gorgeous church—Echo Mountain is an old church that’s been turned into a studio. It was a great experience. It was good to be back on my old stomping grounds. We were firing on all cylinders. It came out exactly the way we wanted it to.
It’s funny—you go through all that crap, and two full iterations of the record, and you wind up recording the whole thing in a week.
It’s crazy. And, literally, each prior attempt took three to four months. Lots of time in the studio, overdubbing and all. It’s funny how it all works.
Well, now I’m seeing how it took three years to get the thing out.[Laughs] Yeah, we thought it was coming out a year ago. We thought it was coming out. We even had a presale—
Yes! I remember that!
We sold a bunch of presales, and then we can’t release it, and our fans are like, “What the heck is going on?” And we had to apologize—”We’re sorry. We’re jumping hurdles; we’re getting thrown curveballs; we’re swinging and missing.” Sometimes, though, it takes a while. You can imagine how all that can wear on you and make you wonder what’s happening with your life, with your band, with your career, with this business that we’ve put our hearts and souls into. And all of that really made a great record; because we put all of that energy into this record.
So all the guys in the band stuck together through the whole thing?
We sure did, man. We sure did. Not a lot of people would go through all that and stick together.
Particularly not with just your second record. Some bands would just say, “To hell with it.”
We’re not 21, either. We’re not spring chickens. It’s not like, “Hey, let’s try this rock ‘n’ roll thing.” We’ve been at this for a while. But we believe in this more than we believe in most things.
When I read that “Appalachian Hilltop” would be the first single, the first track people would hear from the album, I thought, “That’s got to be one of Smitty’s songs.” Just the title alone gave it away.[Laughs] Yeah, it is one of my songs. I started writing that song a couple years ago, at my mom and dad’s. I grew up on a dairy farm on southern Ohio, and I started writing it on this hill. My neighbor, who was kind of a mentor of mine, passed away from stomach cancer. I was just on the top of my favorite hill back there, reflecting, and started writing this song. And I was on my way to Ashville, and when you drive from Wellston, OH to Ashville, NC, you take Highway 23 practically the whole way. It just goes through the topography changes from the Appalachian foothills, into the mountains—it’s a beautiful drive. One of my favorite drives. So I was writing it then, and cut to last year—we’re all trying to figure out what we want to record, so I brought it to the boys, and they helped me finish it, helped me rewrite the chorus, and helped me make it sound like it does. I’m very proud of it.
I like the line “Forgive every stone you throw.” I’ve got a 14-year-old—you and I have talked about this before—and I’m waiting for the event that I’m going to have to correct him on that will allow me to tell him, “Son, forgive every stone you throw.”[Laughs] Well, that’s funny—that line comes from my friend who passed away, Rich Davis was his name. Like I said, my mom and dad had a dairy farm, and he was a goat farmer whose farm bordered ours. And as a teenager and as a man in your twenties, you’re growing up and you might have, like, a fight with your dad and you just don’t know how to deal with it, and you need to talk to somebody. And one time he was just like, “Bill, you’ve just got to forgive him. You just have to forgive everything that has happened up until now.” And that piece of advice really has helped me through my life, 25 years later, or however long it’s been. And I was thinking about those moments when he would tell me certain goldmines of advice.
Was he the “wise man” in the second verse?
He was the wise man, yeah. He sure was.
The other songwriting contributions you have on the record are very location-specific—”Shady River,” “Middle Island Creek.” They’re very evocative. Where does the inspiration for those songs come from—from being there, or looking back on there, or what have you?
“Middle Island Creek” has a neat story. I was born in Sistersville, WV—that’s where my father’s from, too. My mother is from St. Albans, WV. When I was 18 years old—my freshman year of college—my mom said, “Billy, I found this cassette that you need to listen to.” And it was a recording of all of us driving around during a Sunday afternoon drive, after church. I was two years old, and I have four siblings. And there’s this recording of all of us singing church songs. And we were driving along this creek, called Middle Island Creek, that my dad grew up on. And he started singing this song about Middle Island Creek. And when I was 18 or 19 years old, I took this bit of an idea and wrote “Middle Island Creek,” around the idea my dad came up with when I was two. And it was the first song I ever wrote.
That’s where “Middle Island Creek” came from. I still have family that live there. It’s a very special place for me, too. I’d forgotten about that song. I was living in Los Angeles; I was roommates with my good friend George Stanford and his wife Nicole—we all shared this little house together. And George had a studio that encompassed the whole house—mics in all the rooms and everything. And told George, “I want to record this song for my dad, and give it to him for Father’s Day.” So we made a really cool recording of it. And that’s kind of how it got back into my world. And other people heard the recording we did and told me, “Hey, this is a pretty cool song. We should do something with it.” So we started playing it and it kept evolving, and it turned out to be a pretty cool song to play live. People seemed to dig it and liked dancing to it.
Damn. Definitely. It’s funny you’re talking about family like that. We’re down here in Delaware on vacation, and yesterday I took my father-in-law for a drive up the coast a bit to have lunch, and I was playing the record in the car. And one of the tracks that I’ve gravitated to, and that he gravitated to on the drive, is “Pick Me Up.”
I love that song.
I love it, too. It features something that I consider to be extraordinary. There’s a key change in the third verse—
Ah, yeah, the modulation.
Not the second chorus, not the solo section—[Laughs]
—but the third verse, which is perfect. Now, I’ve followed your live videos on YouTube and all, and that modulation wasn’t always in the song. Was it something that evolved by playing it live, or was it a decision that was made in the studio?
It’s something that just evolved. There was some discussion of when we should do the modulation, or whether we should do it at all. We used to do it into the outro chorus. I forget who had the idea to do it on the third verse. And it was so awkward at first, but it got to be so cool. I always fought for that third-verse modulation. [Laughs]
Good! Because it’s perfect.
It was so different, and some of us just kept fighting for it. And in a band with so many singers, you have to believe in it. If you believe in it and keep fighting for it, you can make it happen. If you’re like, “Well, I could go either way,” it might not happen. But I think it’s a really cool place to pick the song up. It’s like one of those classic George Jones or Merle Haggard country modulations; we just do our modern interpretation of it.
There’s a difference between the George Jones modulation and the David Foster modulation.[Laughs] Right.
Which begs the question of how your songs change over time. Over the course of three years, I’m sure most of these songs have gone through something of an evolution. How do they change over time?
It just kind of falls into place. The drum beat finds its comfortable groove; the guitar licks find a comfortable groove. The arrangements—somebody will have an idea, like, “I think we should start the song this way.” You just build the song over and over and over. And we’ve done it so much together as a group, that it kind of all works out naturally. It becomes tighter and tighter. You trim the fat here; you trim the fat there. You add a lick here and there, and all of a sudden, you find what you like and you go with that. I think that’s how it evolves.
As the drummer, you have to keep up with a lot of different things, from a song like “Silver Lining,” which to me sounds like an arena rock tune, to a ballad like “Back in Your Love,” to a country song like “Appalachian Hilltop.” Do you help mold the songs, or do you sort of react to what’s given to you?
I’d like to think that I help mold the songs. I know I’m very opinionated about what I like and what I don’t like. I love music; I’m a student of music. I’m a big believer that the drums do help create the song.
Whether you write a chord change or a lyric, the feel of the song has a lot to do with how the drummer wants to approach it. And you know, a lot of the songwriters in the band will have an idea, and they’ll present it to me, and I’ll take their idea and put my own thing on it. Like, for “Sliver Lining”—that was somebody else’s idea for me to approach it that way, and I went with it and added my own thing. As an artist, as opinionated as I can be, I have to be as open and modest and humble as I can be, too, for the betterment of the song, and not let my ego get in the way. I can’t say, “No, this has to be done this way.” Maybe it shouldn’t, you know? You need to be open as an artist for other people’s opinions. That’s why it’s good for us to have a producer, to have an objective voice in there.
Which brings me to John Ashley—I’m totally ignorant of who John Ashley is and what he brings to your music. Tell me a little but about him.
I didn’t know who he was until I met him. He’s a young gentleman out of Ashville, NC, and he’s kind of the main engineer dude over there at Echo Mountain. He’s a really cool guy to work with. And he started out just being our engineer. We went in wanting to produce this record ourselves; we knew exactly what we wanted to do, which songs we wanted to do. We were just going to go in and do what we do. And we would be playing, and John would, very modestly and very politely, say something like, “Maybe you could try this idea here,” or “Try this over there.” And he’s a drummer, as well.
Oh, that works.
So I really respected his opinion. I like engineers and producers who are drummers. They think like a drummer. He would give me some cool ideas and some objective opinions, and I listened. I took some of his advice. He really helped. He had some cool ideas for the record. So, we gave him partial producer credit on the record as well.
Why did you feel the need to produce this yourselves this time around?
Because we felt like the producers previous [on earlier iterations of the album] didn’t want to listen to the kind of band we were. They had their own ideas. And we couldn’t afford to hire another producer. We knew these songs, though. We knew how we wanted to approach these songs. The biggest blessing, I’ve learned, is knowing what you don’t want, and I think by this point we had learned what we didn’t want and what we did want, and we applied that to the new recordings.
So Chris Robinson wasn’t considered for this time around?
He wasn’t, for some reason. He’s been busy with his solo band, the [Chris Robinson] Brotherhood, and the Black Crowes are back on tour. He’s just too busy. But he did such a great job with the first record. It just wasn’t an option with this record.
It just didn’t align this time around.
Yeah, it didn’t align.
I follow you guys on Facebook, and you had asked fans about what cover songs you should do. I submitted an entire set of cover songs—[Laughs]
—and you guys chose to do “Games People Play” for this record. And that’s a great song. I’m curious as to why you chose that one, and were others considered?
Well, first of all, Chris Robinson, when he produced our first record, had us over to his house. The pre-production sessions would start with him playing some music. He had an amazing record collection.
And he said, “You know, you guys should cover ‘Games People Play,’ by Joe South.” At the time, I’d never heard the song; I didn’t know it. And then as he’s producing the record, he says, “You guys should really learn that song. It’s a good cover for you.” And then we did 50 shows with the Black Crowes, and halfway through the tour, he’s like, “Did you guys ever learn that Joe South song I wanted you to learn?” [Laughs] And we hadn’t learned it; we’d been so busy on the road. Turns out, it’s just, like, a three-chord song, and we learned it two years after he suggested we learn it. And it turned out, he was right. We each take a verse, and the vibe and energy of the song and the way we approached it, really represents the band well. It’s a perfect song that represents the personality of the band. And that’s why we chose that song for the record; we got a lot of positive feedback from it from our label and the people in our camp. And there wasn’t any other cover considered for the record, you know. We’ve got a lot of other covers we’ve been working on, but that was the only cover we considered. A lot of people walk away from our shows now singing, “La-da-da-da-da-da-da-da.”
[Laughs] They probably think it’s one of yours.
Yeah! That’s a great song.
The packaging of the record’s really nice. I love the artwork on it. Who’s responsible for the design of that?
Scotty is our art department liaison. His wife, Katie Crawford, did an amazing job on the first record. She hand-wood-burned all the artwork for that record. That’s real wood . That’s many, many hundreds of hours put into doing each of our portraits, doing the badge on the front cover. Those are big pieces of wood. So the second record was done by an artist [Melissa-Lou Castellano] Scott met. Scott met her, and she’d done a watercolor, and he liked what she did. And you have the watercolor stuff that Melissa did, but on the inside, Scott did all that. He embroidered the jean jacket with the designs on it.
Which is way cool, by the way.
Yeah, he’d be sitting in the back of the van with a needle and thread, putting these stars on his denim jacket. It’s really cool.
What are you listening to these days?
I’m listening to a lot of Bill Burr podcasts. [Laughs]
Do you know who Bill Burr is?
I have a friend who thinks Bill Burr is the best comedian working right now.
You should check his latest podcast out [August 11]. We wrote a little Bill Burr jingle for his show, and he used it at the top of the show. He hyped the record up a little bit in his funny way, and it was great. A great plug for us. Music-wise, I’ve been listening to a lot of Jayhawks lately. And a friend of mine recently gave me 150 songs that came from the Muscle Shoals Recording Studio. There’s a documentary out on Muscle Shoals, and my friend had the inside scoop on the guys who created the documentary. She gave me a bunch of recordings that were made at the studio through the years. I’ve been listening to that.
I saw Jason Isbell play last week, and he mentioned that documentary from the stage.
I’ve seen the trailer and I’ve listened to the songs, but I haven’t seen the documentary yet, and it’s supposed to be amazing. The things those guys did for music. Everybody recorded there, from Paul Simon to Michael Jackson to Skynyrd to the Stones, to people you’ve never heard of. Julian Lennon, crazy Eighties artists. There’s a huge piece of history there.
So next up for you guys, I’m thinking, is a double live album, followed by you, Scott, Walker, and Tim doing solo records, like KISS in ’78.[Laughs]
How far off am I?
You never know. You might’ve hit that on the head. We’ll just have to see. [Laughs]