Beneath the faint hint of a soft-spoken-southern-gentleman twang and a short brimmed Stetson sits a man who has had his fair share of heartache and hard times. A man who can take that emotion and inject it fully into verse with a two step back beat and the lonesome cry of a pedal steel. Zach Schmidt moved to Nashville around 3 years back and a lot has changed in that time. From sleeping on the floor of a friend’s extra room to a relentless tour schedule and finding a community of likeminded artists and friends, it just goes to show a lot can change if you nurture the time that you keep.
He is an artist that encompasses a charisma that can’t be learned or faked, a humble but confident nature forged by those experiences and that shines especially true in his live performances. Each time he takes the stage you know he belongs there and is grateful and happy beyond words to sing his songs. He just has the certain glimmer with each content smile that steals across his face when he is on stage. The upcoming release from the East Nashvillian (by way of Pittsburgh) manages to harness that presence, personality and energy in a recorded form in a very big way.
The first track off of it is what I have come to find as a crowd favorite, “Company Man”. In the songwriter’s words it is a song, “about growing up in a blue-collar town like Pittsburgh, the rust-belt town where the jobs are scarce. This song started when I was working a full-time at a job I hated and tried to play music full time as well.” For an artist trying to make it and scrap by working 8-10 hours a day and then heading directly to the dive downtown for some release in the form of a cold beer and a couple songs in a room who’s patrons can be just as scarred and indifferent to you as the scratched wooden bar top or dimly lit, dust riddled neon beer signs on the walls, well thats about as relatable a song as you can conjure up I would say. Thats part of Schmidt’s magic and talent as a songwriter, the ability to take something personal and make it so empathetic and engaging to a listener. You can project your own internal struggle on Zach’s songs and, even if just for a brief moment, feel a moment of relief when listening. That’s what songs are for.
This will be one of my absolute favorite records of 2016, hell its one of my favorite records ever…and it should be yours too.
Here’s your first listen of “Company Man”…
RLR: I was a big fan of Horse or Truck or Train and the stories behind the title, and the stories baked into your songwriting. I do have to say that, strictly speaking production wise, ‘The Day We Lost The War’ knocks it out of the park for me when comparing the two. It just feels HUGE and impacts a listener in a much heavier way. Was that a conscious decision you had before heading into record the project or did it just kind of play out that way while the process was happening?
Zach Schmidt: The processes and decisions on how to make this record were on my mind long before we got into the studio. I am the type of person who loves a good plan, and looses sleep worrying about the details of making that happen. When we had plans to record “The Day We Lost The War” I knew that I wanted to make this record with my friends. I wanted this record to be recorded in a way that was going to excite me and more importantly was going to excite the listener. So in order to do that we recorded everything live in two days, rehearsing a few weeks leading up to that and being ready to try to nail everything the first time around.
In my mind, that process gives the songs a certain energy that constant overdubs do not. It gave us a chance to read each other and work together to get every ounce of emotion out of the songs. Also, to be honest, I didn’t have the time or the money to stay in a studio for a week or two.
RLR: Comparing those two records again, both Dear Memphis and Waitin on Me were re-imagined and arranged on this new record after being recorded on the HOTOT EP. Why was that choice made to include previously recorded tunes on this album and was it a difficult decision to make?
ZS: To me it was a very easy decision to rerecord “Dear Memphis” and “Waitin on Me.” Those are two songs that mean a lot to me. When we released “Horse or Truck or Train” I had no idea about how this whole trying to make a living off music thing worked. So I made that EP and basically told my family and friends and some folks on Facebook and that’s it. I wanted those songs to have a chance to find new life and the arrangements of them had changed so many times since we recorded them the first time in 2013. Dear Memphis was the first song that I ever wrote and it means the world to me, I wanted people to be able to hear it.
RLR: Talk to me about the players a bit. I know you have a real tight knit group of musicians and a strong community around you in Nashville and beyond. You tapped them for this album with James Maple on drums, Adam Kurtz on the steel, Aaron Lee Tasjan on guitar and more making appearances. How important was it for you to have those folks involved in these songs? Also on that note, how did having them in studio and as your players effect the outcome of this album and how the songs were treated?
ZS: Like I said earlier, I wanted this record to have my friends on it. People that I knew cared about these songs and wanted to help bring them to life. It is incredible to see how studio musicians work in their setting but I didn’t want someone to hear my song, get three takes on it and that it. These songs came to life because of the hard work that the guys who played on the record put into them. I have known James for a long time and it was an easy decision to have him produce and drum on the record. Adam has been playing steel with me for 2+ years now and knows these songs sometimes better than I do. These were the guys who have been on the road with me, who know the stories behind the songs and above all know me. They know what I wanted out of this whole process. Getting ALT to play on this was a real treat, he actually asked me if he could do it which is unbelievable. We were at The 5 Spot one night and I mentioned to him that I was thinking of recording and he flat out said that he was going to play guitar on it, which of course I was cool with. He has done a lot for me in the past few years, putting me on shows that he was playing and most importantly, being a good friend.
RLR: How about songwriting? What is your process like? Do you scratch out some lyrics on a napkin sitting at the bar one night and revisit them? Do you sit down with the intention of writing a full song and not get up until its done? Take us through how a Zach Schmidt tune is birthed into the world.
ZS: The process for me is always different. I don’t think there is ever a second in my life when I am not trying to write. That is just how my mind works, it is always moving in that direction. For me it is always in the details, to look and see something that no one else can. I carry a pocket notebook around all the time and will write something down if it comes to me and try and decipher it later. Or sometimes I get lucky and have a whole night to just sit alone and play guitar with the intention of trying to get something out. Sometimes a song takes 15 minutes to write or sometimes it doesn’t, it all depends on whether the song is willing to find me at the time. Like Guy Clark said, “Some day’s you write the song, some day’s the song writes you.”
RLR: As you know a big part of RLR is this community aspect and trying to support artists and foster some semblance of a group that can rely on each other. East Nashville is seen from the outside as a place that really encompasses that ideal, almost romantic to someone coming from another city and it shows by how many artists flock there. As someone who transplanted there how has that effected you as a musician? Do you see that sense of community changing at all?
ZS: I mean the community here made me who I am. I came here as someone with a handful of tunes that wanted to get out an play. Once I was here, I just hung out and did exactly that. People who had been around longer than me noticed that I didn’t completely suck and would ask me to do other stuff around town. So that got me playing a lot more, and the more you play the better you get, it’s that simple. I don’t know if it’s changing, I am not around as much because I am touring a lot but every time I come back I can still feel the same love and support that I always have. I don’t see it changing directly, I think we are all just starting to have cooler shit happen for us, which is the goal.
RLR: With the recent Sturgill rant hitting social media hard, the nastier side of Modern or Pop Country music is again in the limelight for fans of true classic country and Americana music. This record, in my eyes, deserves a spot in being named alongside artists like Sturgill and Isbell and the greats like Prine and Kristofferson. Being on the other side of the river, do you find it frustrating or difficult to deal with the Music Row style of industry operations?
ZS: That is some pretty lofty company to be mentioned in the same sentence with, I don’t know about all that but thanks for the complement. I don’t find it frustrating at all, Music Row doesn’t care about me so I don’t care about them. I’m just trying to get through the day with as little anxiety as I can, the music industry isn’t something that I need to worry about.
RLR: Also, when you first started out was it THIS kind of music that hit you hardest? Do you think the classic country sound was always kind of in your blood or was it something that came to a head as you learned to play and began to write songs?
ZS: I don’t know if it was always in my blood but it is what has found me over the years. It is what I have always loved, it is what my great uncle loved and he his the first person who turned me on to guys like Roger Miller and Kris Kristofferson. It has always been there for me, it is what I love and my life can relate to country music.
RLR: On a similar note, what are you listening to these days and who should we be digging that you want folks to know about?
RLR: Is there a particular song on the record that you feel speaks the most about you or you hold most personally? Tell us that story.
ZS: They all mean a lot to me but I think at the moment “The Favors That You Ask” always makes me think. That is the first song I wrote when I moved to Nashville. I was living on the floor of my friends office that was connected to his bedroom, I had like two friends in town and nothing going for me. I think it was a Tuesday morning and I got a message from one of my two friends to help move some stuff at her house, so I did cause I didn’t have anything else to do. So I wrote down “The favors that you ask will keep me busy, the favors that I seek will drive me mad” and left the house. Came back to the house later with a sense that my friendship was being used for manual labor, which I didn’t mind that much cause it got me out of the house. That song means a lot because that is about 3 years ago now and a lot has changed in my world. At that time I didn’t know if I wanted to stay in Nashville, but here I am still.
RLR: Bourbon or beer?
ZS: Both and keep them coming.
RLR: It’s 2 AM after a show, you missed dinner and have thrown back a couple…what is the food you are craving most?
ZS: I am a late night Pizza guy or a Patty melt. I hold myself as a high authority on a good patty melt. I have been to many late night diners all across the country, I know a good patty melt when I get one.