Late in 2019, when the world was just starting to hear rumors of a new flu in China, Kurt Wagner of Lambchop had an idea. He was short on material and wanted to bring the band together. Why not make a covers LP where each of Lambchop’s six members chose a song, no holds barred, and determined how the band would perform it? As November wore on, the song titles drifted in—a couple of Motown tunes, a George Jones classic, an A-side from an obscure garage band, an unreleased tune from James McNew (Yo La Tengo/Dump) and finally, the Wilco song “Reservations.” The band gathered in Nashville in early December to record the tracks, one title per day for six days, with a couple of shows booked in for the end of the week.
Lambchop worked to capture something true about each song, whether it was an old jukebox favorite like Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady” or a collector’s obscurity like Mirrors’ “Shirley.” They brought their considerable skills in sophisticated, musician-ly country pop to each, but also tried to discover something new, whether about the covers or about themselves. At the end, they had a record called TRIP, made before the pandemic, but curiously resonant with it, with its quiet personal tone, its calm regard of mortality and its evocation of the enduring power of love.
I talked to Kurt Wagner on the eve of the presidential election about this LP, the songs it features and the nature of covers. He also shared his hope and dread for the future and told me how difficult he found it to make new music in such a tense and difficult time. And he explained how as a Nashville native, he could never entirely escape his country heritage, but doesn’t want to. What’s ahead for Wagner, for Lambchop, for us all? Not back to normal but to some new equilibrium that we may not even be able to imagine right now. | j kelly
Aquarium Drunkard: Why was it time to make a covers record? Seems like a lot of people are doing them right now.
Kurt Wagner: It’s crazy. It sort of became a thing, I guess. I’ve noticed that covers have been coming on for, I guess, I don’t know, at least a year or two. I’ve noticed a lot of people doing covers. In our case, it was a good way to call a last minute session to make a record without having a lot of material already made. I just wanted to figure out a way to represent everybody. Just represent who they are, what they contribute to the band and hopefully that was reflected in the selections that they made for the songs.
AD: You did this in the fall of 2019, before anyone had any idea what was going to happen next. I know you had everyone in the band pick one song. Did you feel like there was a theme when you put them all together?
Kurt Wagner: Well, oddly enough, as they started coming in, we were commenting to ourselves that, damn, they’re all death-themed. Which it wasn’t like we got together and said you’ve got to pick a song about death. It was more just a coincidence I guess as far as what the lyrical content was.
AD: I was asking because the collection seems to really resonate with the pandemic year in ways that I can’t pin down. As you say, there are a lot of songs about death and personal stasis and the redeeming power of love. I know part of that is it’s just what music is about. But it does seem to apply to what’s going on. Do you think that it fits with what’s happening now?
Kurt Wagner: There’s something I’ve noticed about the way people are responding to music that’s being released now, somehow, and this I think is true for how we go about taking in music anyway. But the context in which you listen to it, the place where you are, what’s going on around you definitely colors how you receive that information and what you get out of it. And because we have something so overly consuming as the pandemic, not to mention politics, but mainly the pandemic, I think that we tend to look for things in what we’re listening to. It’s the context in which we’re receiving it and how we respond to it.
AD: That makes sense to me. Tell me about the songs that your band members brought in. Were there any of them that surprised you?
Kurt Wagner: Pretty much all of them. It was just their choice. It gave them the chance to consider that aspect of the group, the choosing of the material, which is something I usually reserve for myself. But I thought, well, this would be an interesting opportunity to see what would happen if all I did was just sing, and let them run the session for the song that they chose and sort of experience that part of Lambchop as well. I think it shows. It made for a nice, diverse, interesting, fun record.
AD: There were no parameters at all? What if somebody brought in a Rammstein song?
Kurt Wagner: Well, we would have figured it out. It was pretty wacky when “Golden Lady” came across the table. Just because it’s such a well-known, well-covered piece of music. It’s very difficult to find your own way into something like that, particularly as a singer. But just in general, how do you put forth another “Golden Lady” into the world? I struggled a little bit with that at first. I think we found a way to do it. It was probably one of the more challenging ones we did, just from that point of view.
AD: You think the ones that are better known are harder to cover?
Kurt Wagner: I do. But it also makes that part of the process challenging and fun, too. To find, what can we do to it that makes it sound like ourselves?
AD: Whose song was that?
Kurt Wagner: That was Andy Stack from Wye Oak who brought that one in. Andy is, oh I don’t know, at least 15 years younger than me, maybe more. He has a different relationship with that song than I do.
AD: He didn’t hear it on the radio all the time.
Kurt Wagner: I remember when it came out. I was in junior high school. It was on the jukebox. They had jukeboxes then.
AD: Which one was yours?
Kurt Wagner: Mine was “Weather Blues.”
AD: That’s the James McNew one.
Kurt Wagner: Yeah, he never released it or anything. I don’t know when he wrote it, but he passed it along to me in the summer of last year, and it really struck me as a great song. I had made a little demo of it and sent it back to him, and it was a nice sort of pen pal thing going on there. And when it came time, I thought, well, it is a cover song. It just hasn’t been released. And I thought that made for another nice aspect to the concept.
AD: Do you think he’s going to release it now?
Kurt Wagner: I have no idea.
AD: Because then he’d have to fight through all the noise of it previously having been a Lambchop song.
Kurt Wagner: To me, it’s always a James song. Whether he does or not, that’s James. James releases a lot of music under Dump, and he’s one of my favorite kind of artists really. He’s a really pure, soul when it comes to his relationship with making music and writing songs. They always seem to have something in there for me, as a listener.
AD: It is interesting, though, about cover songs and how sometimes they become identified with the person that covers them rather than the person that writes them. For instance, you’ve got, “Where the Grass Won’t Grow,” which you’re crediting to the writer, but most people think of it as a George Jones song.
Kurt Wagner: Absolutely. Acknowledging the actual writer of the song is a nice way to acknowledge these songs. As far as what we did with it, I think initially when we started working with it, it was pretty country. For me, competing with one of the great singers ever, you know, George Jones, I had to find another way into it. So, once we started, we sort of changed the vibe. I was able to sing through it, you know.
Historically, that’s kind of how cover songs came to be. Prior to the 1960s, songs were covered, so to speak, by many artists. They were known by the artist, not the writer. It wasn’t until the advent of the singer-songwriter that that became a thing. And it was cool because back in the 1940s, different cover versions of songs would be released in regions. So, you’d have somebody in the south covering the same song someone in New York was covering and someone in California was covering. All those songs could find a way onto the charts and that was an interesting phenomenon. But it wasn’t about the songs being attributed to a particular songwriter. They were recognized as Glen Miller’s version of blah, blah, blah…
AD: I like the long cover of the Wilco song, “Reservations.” Is that two takes? It sounds like there’s sort of this song, and then a tiny glitch and then the long piano outro.
Kurt Wagner: Right. I think initially we did approach it in putting it together in two parts and then sort of weaving them together. It just seemed like the best way to do it without having everyone remain in a room and just standing there. (Laughs) Each song had its own process and its own way of coming about. In that case, that was picked by Matthew McCaughn, and he didn’t let us know until really the last minute, the night before. Which is cool.
AD: Did he have trouble deciding?
Kurt Wagner: I think that was part of it. He had several songs he was weighing out. I don’t know what the others were. He gave it a lot of thought. In my opinion, that song best represents what Lambchop was and has been and what we are capable of now. Which I thought was a pretty good example of the task in hand as far as approaching covers.
AD: Tell me more about that, what you were and what you’re capable of now?
Kurt Wagner: It just harkened back to some of the sounds we were able to create together on our earlier records. The voice wasn’t processed very much. The steel guitar stuff like that, those kind of elements are what Lambchop songs sounded like earlier on. And then the space-y weird stuff happening all throughout the second half of the song, which definitely incorporated a lot of the technologies that we are using now.
AD: I guess my question is why have such a long tail to this song?
Kurt Wagner: It’s just how it went down. (Laughs) It is a long outro anyway, in the Wilco version, so as far as our arrangement of it, it’s fairly faithful. It just went on a lot longer than his. That was fine with me, as long as he felt like going in there and seeing it through. We didn’t want to stop because it sounded so great. It could have been longer as far as I’m concerned.
AD: It strikes me that there are more Motown songs on this LP than country songs.
Kurt Wagner: Yeah! It’s interesting. I was surprised by that, too, but it was everybody’s choice, which direction they wanted to go, what they felt would be fun, and I’m sure they considered whether or not they thought we could pull it off. That was fine. It reflects everyone’s individual record collection.
AD: And not some hidden undercurrent in your music?
Kurt Wagner: We’ve certainly dabbled in, not so much Motown, but other types of soul genres, for sure.
AD: I’m not super familiar with Mirrors, what can you tell me about that band and the song, “Shirley?”.
Kurt Wagner: Matt Swanson brought that to the table. It’s a really obscure song. Mirrors was a group that was, I think, around in the late 1970s, and they only put out one record. An A side and a B side. I think this was the A side. So, I think there are collectors and stuff like that are aware of it. I was not. And mistakenly thought it was some New Zealand band. But it turned out to be these guys.
Matt took it upon himself to make contact with these guys, mainly because I think he’s a big fan. They were corresponding back and forth, calling each other. And I think it was a big thrill for both parties. That someone would take an interest in the song. And because of that Matt spent a lot of time on the details in the song. He wanted to make sure that we represented it in that sort of fashion. He was running the session. That’s why it’s different from the other songs.
AD: You recorded this all together in the same room and well before the shutdown. Have you been together as a band since then?
Kurt Wagner: We have not. Sadly. It was obviously unexpected. We did those songs, one day for each song, for six days, and on the seventh day we played a show, actually two shows in one day, in Nashville.
AD: You’re supposed to rest on the seventh day.
Kurt Wagner: Well, we rocked. It turned out to be the last time we got together in performance. Unknowingly. So, the whole experience now is sort of…I don’t know, kind of interesting. I don’t know. That pre-moment before we all realized what was coming.
AD: You mentioned sitting around the table together, and people don’t even do that anymore.
Kurt Wagner: It’s sort of …it’s just part of what’s weighing on us.
AD: How are things in Nashville now? I know you got hit pretty hard by COVID-19.
Kurt Wagner: Yeah, there’s plenty of cases and lots of idiots still running around. I think every day when I get up, I’m lucky to not be infected. But it’s a worry.
AD: Are you being pretty careful?
Kurt Wagner: Oh, yeah, I’m just hanging out at home. I don’t really get out that much. But everybody’s dealing with it. I do worry that there’s a lot more cases than there’s ever been. That seems to have been predicted. I don’t know. I’m just going to hunker down.
AD: There’s also been a pretty big Black Lives Matter push down there, hasn’t there?
Kurt Wagner: Yep.
AD: Have you been involved in that at all?
Kurt Wagner: Well, oddly enough, my wife and I and some other friends, we own a building that was an all-ages club. Because of the pandemic, it’s sort of now become a central area for organizing and activism. It’s not just Black Lives Matter, but food drives, all kinds of things. It’s like a conduit for a lot of the activism we have had in Nashville. So, in that way, I guess you could say I’m involved, as a landlord. But as far as getting out and going to things, I think I have just been cautious about this, being out. I certainly have done my share of contributing to causes, but I’m in my mid-60s. I’m not exactly a going out kind of guy.
AD: How are you feeling about the future these days?
Kurt Wagner: It’s just going to be different. I don’t think we’re ever going to quite have a return to what people are calling normal. I think normal is not really a word right now. It’s yet to be defined again. I think eventually things will become something else. What that is, I don’t know. I think a lot of it depends on what happens tomorrow. (We spoke on the eve of the Presidential election.)
It’s strange. I try not to dwell too much in the past or the future these days. I try to focus really on what’s going on today. Mainly for my own sanity, you know? Because like I said, I am in my early to mid-60s, and I wasn’t going to have a whole lot of time left to get out there and perform anyway. And now that has been definitely stalled. So, depending on how long this all lasts, I’m hoping to be able to return to that aspect of making music. I’m certainly creating music, that’s for sure.
AD: What are you working on now?
Kurt Wagner: More Lambchop stuff. That was started around the time of when we made TRIP. So luckily I’ve had that to sort of focus on creatively and it’s kept me going.
AD: Are you just working by yourself or are you trading files with people?
Kurt Wagner: Yeah, I’ve been doing both, which is fine. I think that the point I was trying to make was that a lot of that stuff was started prior to this. So, I had something to go by that wasn’t influenced by the pandemic. You know the actual words that I was writing weren’t colored by what was going on. That was nice. I’m currently trying to create more content for more stuff, and I’m finding it more difficult. I kind of don’t want that to be reflected or memorialized in some sort of piece of music that hopefully has a life outside of COVID-19.
AD: It’s also so boring now. You get on the phone with people and you don’t have anything to say. I don’t know what the arts are going to be like. It’s going to be people who live in their own heads who are able to continue to create.
Kurt Wagner: Yeah, I’m hoping to get through this week and hopefully that’ll be one less thing that’s filling up my brain with dread. I don’t want to be write a bunch of stuff about how shitty I feel or how shitty things are. That’s what’s at the top of my head, so I don’t really have the …I can’t find a way around that right now. I don’t know. I think if we’re all just a little patient, as far as getting back to stuff, I think we’ll be better served, and we just have to focus on making things better for people.
AD: I hope that happens. I hope we don’t sink further into whatever we’re in. The selfishness that’s become permissible now is just unbelievable.
Kurt Wagner: Yeah, but you know, I’ve been concerned about that for a while.
AD: I think it’s always been there, but you didn’t always have a president advocating for it.
Kurt Wagner: Yeah, and that amplification is really at a peak right now. I’m just dumbfounded by these truck rallies… It’s like a horde, and they’re angry, and they’re yelling, and they’re scaring people. Scaring me.
AD: And you know a certain percentage of people always felt that way, but they used to be a little more reticent about showing it.
Kurt Wagner: Absolutely. Now it’s just full bore. Does that happen in New Hampshire?
AD: I live in the part of New Hampshire that’s right next to Vermont. It’s very liberal. It looks very rural, but there are a lot of people who come up from New York and Boston to retire. It’s not bad. People wear the masks here, and our transmission rate is super low. It’s nice. We do have people like that, but it’s not the whole culture. And Vermont and New Hampshire still have a high degree of social trust and trust in government. People feel that the schools are their schools so they don’t mind that the teachers have health insurance, which I think is different from the rest of the country.
Kurt Wagner: Yeah, I’ve never been there. I just know what I’ve read.
AD: Anyway. So, I was looking at William Tyler’s twitter and he posted something on your birthday. He said that you had told him about 20 years ago that if you play guitar and you’re from Nashville, you make country music. Just accept it and push the edges.
Kurt Wagner: It was an interesting comment from William. I’m certainly sure I probably said it. I don’t recall the exact thing about it. But I think my feeling was in general being from here. William’s from here. And finding a way into music, being from here, is something that colored by being from Nashville. When I was growing up, I was not into country music. It was the 1960s, and I was anything but that. When William was growing up, 20 years difference, his dad was a country songwriter. It was part of who he is. And he was probably trying to find a way through it.
William and I made a country record together, one of the funnest thing we ever did. It was this record called KORT. With another woman who’s also had a country music background.
AD: Oh yeah, she was the scion of some record label in Nashville.
Kurt Wagner: Yeah, her name was Courtney Tidwell. It was a great record. It was all covers from the record label that her grandfather had started. Her dad was an engineer and her mother was an artist on the label. It was so much fun to be able to embrace country music in a family way. And that maybe is what I was talking about with William as well, that there’s a certain thing about saying you’re from Nashville. You have to deal with that question. Not so much anymore.
AD: There’s a big garage rock scene in Nashville, too, isn’t there?
Kurt Wagner: Yeah, that’s all changed. But back when I was doing it, there was a …It wasn’t even garage rock, well in the 1960s it was, but in the 1970s and 1980s, there were bar bands who played cover bands or they were pure rock bands that dressed like rock people. It wasn’t very …it may have been a reaction to being from Nashville, but there was a time when this band Jason and the Scorchers came out. They were one of the first band to break this curse of being from Nashville that were recognized nationally. And what did they play? It was some sort of twisted country music.
When we started, it was around that same time, and basically found out that we could be more in the world and not rely on Nashville in getting signed to a label. Do our own thing, make our own records and get them out into the world. We found we were more embraced in Europe and places like that. But we had to make a choice back then whether or not you were going to focus on the U.S. or Europe. WE just went to where people were more interested in what we were doing.
AD: So, you can’t really get away from country, but that’s okay?
Kurt Wagner: I love it. I think I grew up watching the cartoons on Saturday and then when they ended, there would be all these country music programs, like Porter Wagoner, etc. and I would continue to watch those. So, it was part of what I was listening to, but as I got older, country music represented this sort of establishment thing I was railing against. It wasn’t until somebody like the Burrito Brothers made it okay to be a hippie and like country music that I sort of came around to it. And realized, well, you know this is where I grew up. I did see Johnny Cash at Shoney’s. It’s fine.
AD: Is there a lot of blues in Nashville, too?
Kurt Wagner: There was a cool scene of that on Jefferson Street. R&B and blues.
AD: You think of Memphis more.
Kurt Wagner: Absolutely. Nashville had a vibrant R&B situation happening in the Jefferson, North Nashville area of town, which was pretty well known, with established clubs on that circuit. Nashville’s always been a pretty segregated town, culturally, and that has changed somewhat, but it still lingers. I’m not really proud of that or anything. I would like to see that change. And hopefully it’s becoming that way. I think what happened over the course of the summer was very important for Nashville. That and Nashville was struck by a tornado, that devastated that part of town in a way that was significant. And that certainly was tied right into what was going on across the country and the world.
AD: What do you think makes a great song a great song?
Kurt Wagner: Wow. I think everybody has their own thing. It’s something that speaks to the individual that’s listening to it. And that can be very different from one person to another. But I do think it has to speak to you, and you know it when you hear it. You also know a bad song. And I think that it’s like what makes a good painting. One person can go, that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and another person can go, oh, that’s terrible. It really has to speak to you.
I also think that changes through the course of you being you. I think what you thought was a great song when you were a teenager, maybe you don’t like now. What you thought was a bad song when you were a teenager, maybe you think is incredible now. It goes back to that idea of the context in which you received this information. It’s such a big part of that.
The fact that now everybody has ear buds or pods, that allows music to be even more personal. You’re not just having to share with everybody in the house anymore. You can create your own environment with this music, and I think it makes it even more powerful, that kind of experience, that kind of context. Prior to all of that, we were just listening to it in our living rooms, bedrooms or whatever on our stereos. That could be a group listening experience or a solitary one. It was out in the air. It wasn’t beamed directly into your skull. Which I consider a lot more now as I make records. Realizing that the primary ways people are receiving information has changed.
AD: You can definitely hear more of it when it’s on earphones versus driving in your car. You can hear the bass and all the little subtleties.
Kurt Wagner: Yeah, and that I think has made everyone consider that a little more and upping their game as far as the way music is produced and recorded.
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