In the last of a two-part conversation with CMT.com, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill and Michael Rhodes talk about the creative process as bandmates in the Notorious Cherry Bombs. Featuring a lineup of Nashville’s finest musicians, the group released its self-titled debut album Tuesday (July 27).
Explaining the luxury of the Notorious Cherry Bombs having never released an album as a band, Vince Gill jokes, “We had nothing to live up to.”
Gill and Rodney Crowell provided most of the songs for the album and co-wrote three of them, including the earthy “Dangerous Curves” and the lighthearted “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long.” Other songs explore dark emotions, most notably “Heart of a Jealous Man,” a song Gill wrote years ago with Max D. Barnes.
Not that the band members ever intended to formulate a detailed plan for recording their first album, but Crowell and Gill say the project took on a life of its own even before they entered the studio.
“There was no discussion about playing it,” Crowell explains. “We could write a song right here and go down the street to record it. We could get the guys together and we’d get it. … There was a valuable week to 10 days that Vince and I had to huddle over at his house and my house to talk about songs and how we were going to have not one lead vocalist, but to combine our voices to get a sound going. I think that became the direction. That and the songs.”
Gill adds, “When we sat down for the first couple of times together, I think what we talked about doing and what wound up happening were vastly different. Especially with the songs.”
The Notorious Cherry Bombs was approached as a new, unknown band recording its first album. Other early ideas weren’t implemented, including a direction that would find Crowell and Gill performing new versions of their older songs and covering other songs they had written for others. There was also talk about inviting friends — including Emmylou Harris (Crowell’s former boss) and Rosanne Cash (his former wife) — to make guest appearances.
“But then we went, ‘That’s going to pay homage to our past,’” Gill notes. “Let’s go this way. Let’s just go and be a bunch of wannabe flat-bellies. That’s me, anyway, and just say, ‘Let’s go write some songs and make this new again.’”
“It became better than the original idea we had,” Crowell laughs. “The first night we talked about it, Tony [Brown] said we ought to get Vince to sing “‘Til I Gain Control Again.” That would have been a good idea, but that would have been backwards. It went forward — and I think that’s important.”
Brown, an original band member, plays keyboards on the new album — and also adopts the vocal inflections of an evangelist to offers some personal testimony and encouragement on at least one track. And while the Notorious Cherry Bombs’ album would have been welcomed by any number of record labels, it’s not surprising that it’s being released by Universal South Records, a company Brown operates with longtime industry veteran Tim DuBois.
Crowell says, “One day we figured out, ‘Hey, let’s put a band together. It just so happens one of our guys had a record label!’” Rhodes jokes, “It was the equivalent of getting a gig because your parents have a place where the band can rehearse.” Crowell adds, “It was like, ‘Can you get a PA and lights, too?’”
When it’s noted that Gill’s guitar playing seems more muscular and aggressive on the band’s CD, he responds, “I don’t know what it is, but I probably downplay my playing a lot on my records just because I’m generally of the mindset that I’m trying to get on the radio, trying to have hits, trying to have all that A-to-Z mess. I don’t think guitar playing is what most people want to hear. I think they want to hear a great song. They want to hear somebody narrate it well, tell the story well. So I’ve purposely focused my career more on my career and my singing than my playing. I always figured playing live would allow me the flexibility to show people that I can play the guitar.”
In addition to Crowell, Gill, Brown and bassist Rhodes, the band includes guitarist Richard Bennett, steel guitarist Hank DeVito, drummer Eddie Bayers and keyboardist John Hobbs. Although every member can point to their individual accomplishments, egos have never been a problem. As Rhodes says, “There’s a mutual phase cancellation. They kind of disappear.”
“Oh, we’ve all got egos,” Crowell admits. “It’s just the chemistry of the egos together because you know that what’s going to happen is more important than that. I mean, I wouldn’t come into a session with Vince or Michael or Hank or Tony putting on some sort of airs about what this was going to do for my career and how cool I was going to be, and, ‘Well, let’s cut my song.’ And nor would they. That kind of posturing just doesn’t exist in this particular get-up.” Crowell laughs, adding, “And if it did, that individual would be excused.
“I don’t think we would have done it if we had to endure something like that,” Crowell continues. “Of course, there’s always the family members you have to be patient with for a moment and trust that they’ll get it and snap to where they should be. It’s safe to say that we all have pretty sizable egos, but I don’t think any of us lead with it.”
Gill has his own concerts booked through the middle of October, but the Notorious Cherry Bombs are open to the idea of touring — if the circumstances are right.
“There has to be some interest with the release of this record,” Gill says. “Some radio play, all kinds of things, are needed to create any kind of interest. Otherwise, people will be saying, ‘Now, who are these people anyway?’”
Even now, fans may be asking the same question after seeing Crowell and Gill dressed in drag in the video for the single, “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long.” It raises the questions: Who’s idea was this? And exactly how sick are they?
“It was Vince’s idea,” Crowell says. “And he’s damn sick.”
“I make a big ole ass woman,” Gill adds.
“It was actually Eric Welch’s idea,” Crowell confesses. “Honestly, I was having this discussion with Eric, and I said, ‘You know, we write a song like this and it’s funny, but I’d have a hard time asking any self-respecting woman to play the role of what we painted here.’”
Responding to an observation that men generally have no self-respect at all when it comes to embarrassing themselves in public, Crowell says, “And therein lies Eric’s response of, ‘I know what we’ll do: We’ll dress you up as women.’”
The single version from the album includes a humorous recitation from Crowell and Gill. Hidden within the album’s last track, however, a second version of “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips …” features them doing the recitation in the comical voices of two alter egos — Cousin Charles and Elrod.
“We’re working on getting a television show that we can host as those characters,” Crowell jokes
Not that either track will be lauded for its political correctness, Gill says their friends were quick to offer their opinion on which version should be released as the single and video.
“We’d always poll people that would come by the studio and go, ‘Which version do you like: Those guys talking or me and Rodney?’” Gill says. “Most guys said, ‘You guys don’t have a hair on your ass if you don’t do the talking.’”