Yellowjacket is a record I’m not as familiar with as I should be. It won a Juno for Traditional Roots and is littered with talented players and stone cold, classic songs. Stephen Fearing has been writing music I’ve loved for years, as a solo artist and as a part of Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, but this record feels like one we all need to spend more time with.
Stephen offers up some fantastic insight into the origin and process behind these songs. Listen, I hate to make anyone learn on Summer holiday, but this is a musical history lesson you should be grateful to receive.
Stephen will be playing Yellowjacket in its entirety for the first time ever on July 31st at 9pm EST and you can see the whole thing via LiveStream.
The song, is about running away to join the circus and living to tell the tale. In many ways the whole record could be seen as a series of vignettes from that little story. My sincere and heartfelt thanks to Scott Merritt who recorded this and brought so much more to the table.
I drove with Tom, from Nashville to Hamilton On. at the end of the Bark sessions… it’s maybe one of the most boring drives in N. America. 14 hours of grey stubble punctuated by the odd Starbucks. Maybe it was the end-of-recording-blues, but I remember the drive as being dreary… it rained the whole way. We stopped for gas at a truck-stop/oasis near the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green. I was driving, so I ended up pumping the gas. Wilson went in to the truck-stop to pay (and not pump gas), emerging ten minutes later with a big paper bag and uttering the immortal words “I’ve done something for us”, we drove off. Tom started pulling things from the bag: a Maglite, mystery-meat sandwiches, caffeinated-bottled-water (!), chocolate bars, and a packet of Yellowjackets… Red-Bull in a pill… over-the-counter trucker’s friends. The packet said take two I think, we opened one of the capsules to see what was inside… talked non-stop for hours, cruise control and the relentless bump ‘n grind of the interstate. We started listening to rough mixes of Bark… mixed emotions… the buzz wore off. We hit upstate NY and all those towns off the highway, boarded up and desolate. I started thinking about being a teenager here/there… cornfields and corn dogs at the new mall… I figured you’d get out of town ASAP and… follow the jam-bands for 10 years all over the country, couch surfing… smoking weed, lying on the grass at outdoor shows. Tom and I wrote the gist of the song, but he wanted me to sing the whole thing in a falsetto, so I took it home with me.
The Man Who Married Music
My Mum lived in Ireland up until a few months ago, she’ll be 80 in a year. I would always begin or end a tour over that side of the pond at her house in Dublin where I grew up. There’s something about sleeping in your childhood bedroom that makes for deep sleep and strange dreams. I dreamt that my then-wife was pregnant, woke up in a lather… disoriented. The whole song started from struggling with the idea that some things are not song-fodder.I got over that.
One Flat Tire
I can’t listen to this recorded version without missing Richard Bell my friend, band mate, and the great musician who lifted this tune with his Hammond playing. The song was inspired by seeing a guy at the side of the 401 in Ontario in the wee hours, changing a tire in the rain. I think I’d been listening to Joni Mitchell’s Wild Things Run Fast – “you dream flat tires….” And I was definitely enamored of John Leventhall’s production on (Shawn Colvin’s masterpiece) A Few Small Repairs.
Love Only Knows (Fearing/Finlayson)
I had the melody and the first line. I asked my friend Josh Finlayson (Skydiggers) to come and write with me. I gave him what I had at the end of session and he came back the next day with the title and first line of the chorus. We sat there staring at each other trying to figure out who was singing to whom and why… started talking about kids growing up, cutting the apron strings… We both love The Beatles… and The Beach Boys. The horns are care of David Travers-Smith who played them all at his studio in TO and flew them in as wav files. Colin Linden came by through town and played the dobro.
Like Every Other Morning
I lived in Guelph On. for 14 years. There was a shed behind our house… my office. I wrote much of this album in that shed. Late August nights when the air would start to cool and the humidity lift… I could leave the door open into our backyard and play until dawn. One of my neighbours was suffering her way through hard-times and I wrote this song for her.
When My Work Is Done (Fearing/Finlayson)
Josh Finlayson brought the germ of this idea. We wrote it for our Mums. (When I played it for her, my Mum said “that’s lovely dear, but does it have to be about death?”) Josh sings on it and Dan Whitely plays the shit out of his mandolin.
Initially written for a DROG charity recording called 60 Second Songs (the album featured songs under a minute only). I chickened out and wrote an instrumental… The tune was recorded on my friend Charlie Ferguson’s 1950’s Martin 00018. I believe I am at the end of a very long list of people who want to buy that guitar.
This Guitar (Fearing/Finlayson)
I have been lucky to own a Manzer Cowpoke for most of my adult life (had a Guild D28 before that). I love guitars and felt that they deserved a song. When I was a kid, I grew up in Ireland driving around the countryside with my family, walking in fields, picnics, scones… endless cups of tea… we sang in the car a lot “backseat harmonies”… the Irish Von-Trappe family.
“Sometimes at night, when I hear the rain, I wish I was crazy again”
The first line of this song comes from a song Johnny Cash sang, though I first heard him say these lines as a quote in an interview later in in his life…. He was talking about the early days… the pills and the craziness. After a long pause he quoted this line and kind of grinned at the camera. The quote faded up on the screen. I paused the film and laughed, because it’s not the way most post- rehab celebs talk… love that he wasn’t playing the penitent. I wrote most of the song in one long night. Came back into the house from my shed at about 4 am to find the DVD still on pause… took a picture of the TV set so I would know I hadn’t dreamed it. Some day I will get the chance and the nerve to play this for Rosanne Cash.
Ball ‘n Chain
After my marriage of fourteen years ended, I had a clearer view of this song (if not the entire album)… Ball and Chain is cockney rhyming slang for wife after all… It’s not pretty but I’ll wear it. Josh brought the chords for this one, after that he bears no responsibility. Richard played the “honky-tonk” setting on a keyboard through my Deluxe Reverb.
This is Will Kimbrough’s gorgeous song. I came across it on an Oxford American sampler disc (great music issues), I loved the song instantly. In some ways it sums up all the themes on this record. We tracked a couple of different guitars including my Hammertone through a leslie. Scott turned on his old tube echoplex and we did a bunch of cut and paste, backwards-loops. I wanted it to sound like you were just drifting off into the night sky like a balloon. Gary Craig (drums) and John Dymond (Bass) are the rhythm section for this whole record. I’m blessed to continue working with them.