AMEN FOR OLD FRIENDS ~ biography of the album by Tim Ghianni /award-winning Nashville journalist, author, Kentucky Colonel
"I've never made an album like this one before," Kacey Jones says of Amen for Old Friends. In fact, “Amen for Old Friends,” the late Mickey Newbury’s melancholy-yet-grateful salute to friends and friendship, wasn’t even on the list of songs Kacey had considered for her new album. It didn't occur to her that her old pal's tribute to those rare souls who provide each of us personal shelter would be a perfect fit for this record—until it was nearly completed.
But not only did she decide to add "Amen" to the record, Kacey made it the title track because it captured perfectly the mood of the album—which had been constructed around friends, alive and gone, who contributed to the record and, more importantly, who have been there for Kacey when she needed someone to lean on. Even though the song's somewhat introspective celebration of friendship describes the motivation for this new collection, Kacey begins the conversation about this recording by proclaiming “Laughter is still the best medicine.”
The cheery woman’s body of work is ample proof of that prescription. After all, some likely still think of her as “Ethel,” since she was the front-woman of the over-the-top “Ethel & The Shameless Hussies.” A couple of decades back that trio, with its not-ready-for-the-Bible-belt humor, packed them in at Nashville clubs, but, to put it mildly, was not so joyously received in the small towns of Dixie.
Then there’s her sideline as leader of The Kacey Jones Laughter Wellness Songwriting Workshop --one of many ventures this music entrepreneur guides from her spacious digs on a Music Row alleyway.
She’s the same singer whose live album – recorded at The Bluebird, Nashville’s hallowed music venue – is titled Every Man I Love Is Either Married, Gay, or Dead. Others landmarks in her storied career include Nipples to the Wind, Never Wear Panties to a Party and The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Box of Music. And that’s not even to mention her seriously funny 2009 release, Donald Trump’s Hair.
An old-fashioned elbow-to-the-ribs (or grab-for-the-crotch) mentality has helped Kacey Jones concoct a career from a unique recipe that blends humor with melodies that generally would be at home on Music Row … even if the lyrics bend the bar of corporate acceptance. But she’s not always laughing. In fact, she approaches each project with deadly serious intentions. “I’m not in it to get rich, I just want to make enough to pay for the next project,” she says, inviting the visitor to sit down at a dining room armchair, with the right arm knocked off. “That’s my guitar-playing chair,” she says, with a laugh, as she settles down on a couch to begin discussing the new album — Amen for Old Friends — that’s far from what she envisioned at the outset, but which she believes turned out just right.
“I had planned to do a more typical ‘Kacey Jones album',” she says. Essentially, another batch of songs like “Dressin’ Up for the Pizza Man,” “Christmas in Rehab,” “I Wanna Be Up Front Like Dolly” and “But I’m Not Bitter,” songs for which she has a built-in audience and which make her a favorite on the house concert circuit. And, as everyone with any sweet potato-flavored sense knows this too-serious world needs plenty of good old-fashioned Kacey Jones-formula albums to swipe — with a take-no-prisoners, manners-be-damned brush — at all flavors of lovers, liars and icons. So she figured it was time to go back in the studio and put together another slightly-bent collection. But as she was getting ready, she began to think…and she’ll admit that’s not necessarily always a good thing….but listeners will rejoice at the result.
“I started thinking about my friends,” she says. “And then this project evolved into an entirely different album than the one I thought I was going to make.”
First there was Chuck McCabe, who had written, among many others, the song “That’s What I Like About My Baby.” “Chuck was the best unknown songwriter ever,” she says, her smile fading momentarily. “He died of pancreatic cancer. He was one of my earliest influences and a close friend. I hope my recording of his song will inspire people to discover the rest of his incredible catalog.”
Covering one song to remember a friend, of course, doesn’t necessarily become an album theme…. But then she got some horrific news from “one of my best friends in the world,” singer-songwriter Rich Fagan, a pal since their early-’80s LA days. “Rich got a Stage-4 liver cancer diagnosis,” she says. “Rich, his wife, Rose, and I had written three new songs: ‘One Click Away,’ ‘I Feel a Sin Comin’ On’ and ‘I Swear I Got the Blues.’ “I thought to myself: ‘If Rich has only six months to live, I need to get this project in gear because I want him to participate in it as much as possible.’ "
So she not only recorded those three songs, she enlisted Fagan to sing with her on “Tell Me Why,” one of his co-writes that is a repertoire staple of PHILLYBILLY, a somehow Philadelphia-flavored hip hillbilly/country humor outfit. PHILLYBILLY, birthed in 1994, is another of Kacey’s side ventures, with musical partners Fagan and Joe Collins. Either the music was great medicine or doctors are miracle workers or both. “Now, eight months after his initial diagnosis, Rich has been downgraded to Stage 2 liver cancer and continues to improve.”
This personal trek through her list of old friends to celebrate led her to Freddy Powers and his song “I’m Free at Last.” And again personal melancholy played into her song selection. “Freddy, who wrote so many hits for Merle Haggard and is a big friend of Willie’s, has been battling Parkinson’s. He’s in his 80s. One of the reasons he’s still around is he likes to get in his RV with his wife, Catherine, and go all over the country. “Freddy is one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met. When I played him the final mix of 'I’m Free at Last,' he gave me the best compliment ever…tears of joy. “
Mood and direction of the album established, she started thinking about her friend X. Lincoln, a crony from the annual Mickey Newbury Gathering, a celebration of her late friend and mentor, in Austin, Texas. During last summer’s gathering, Kacey and Waylon Payne got together on stage to perform Lincoln’s “Goin’ Down Hill,” because they figured it would be good medicine for the cancer-stricken writer. After Payne and Kacey recorded this Texas swinger, she made sure Lincoln “got to hear the final mix. He gave me his signature smile and a thumbs-up.” He died last October. She shakes her head. “I have several friends represented on this album who have either left or are facing serious challenges. This is my chance to honor them.”
One friend who is alive and well is California folkie Russell Brutsche’ and his song “Climbed a Hill.” “Russell and I have been friends a long time,” she says. He’s enjoyed international success as a painter and he’s a great songwriter, too. I called him up and said I was thinking about using one of his paintings for my CD cover and asked how much it would cost. He said, ‘A guy just commissioned one of my paintings for a book cover for $5,000.’” She laughed and asked: “How about if I record one of your songs and put it on the album in exchange?’ “I got the better part of that deal, and I got a chance to honor one of my dearest friends.”
She stops to note that in addition to Brutsche’, there are other writers on this album who are “alive and well,” including Larry Book, who with Rusty Budde wrote “There’s a Song in There Somewhere.” Book was one of the backers of her standout 2006 Kacey Jones Sings Mickey Newbury collection. “Larry’s been a close friend and supporter for years and when he first played me this song I said, ‘I’m going to cut that someday.’ I’m glad to finally have this chance to say, ‘Thank you, old friend.’”
She co-wrote “I’m the One Mama Warned You About” with Mickey James, “You’ve Tried the Patience Out of Me” with Denise Stiff and “We’re All in This Alone” with Doug Gill — and topped it off with her own solo concoction, “Cold Turkey.” “The whole impetus to get this album recorded was Rich Fagan’s liver cancer,” she says. “It was a call to action like no other I’ve experienced prior to going into the studio.” And this is where Newbury – who died in 2002 after lengthy illness--entered the picture. The man who some regard as Nashville’s greatest-ever songwriter, had befriended Kacey when she first hit Music City. There was only one way for her to finish this record off, even to find its title. And she figured that out as the album was nearing completion. A Newbury song she recorded on her tribute album in 2006 offered the perfect end-piece for this recording to honor friends.
“Old friends, old friends / That’s what matters in the end,” is just a snippet of the lyric of the song that gave its title to this album ... Amen for Old Friends.
May, 2014 ~ Nashville, TN