Lay It All Down

I wanted to release something to mark the 10th anniversary of Bob Welch’s passing. I loved the song from Fleetwood Mac’s “Future Games,” that Bob wrote. I liked the double entendre of the name of the song being the album name as in, we lay it all down for the recordings. See what I did there?

Probably spring 2021, I set out to track it with Joe Montague from Leeds, UK, but also wanted his bass player pal Jeff Marley on it, because I thought it would be cool to have a British bass player and drummer, like Bob had. They, of course, nailed the track and sent it back. I went back and cut another guitar track. Then I went to track the vocal. Well, oil beef hooked, I couldn’t sing it in the original key. I mean, you have thought maybe I would have checked that out first but alas, I did not. So, I was faced with two options, re-record the bass track and lose that magic of bass and drums recording together, or find a way to fix it. Fortunately, I found a plugin buried in my Waves Mercury Bundle collection that moved the bass track up a step without an artifacts, it is indistinguishable from if it had been played in that key. Whew, that saved that. Still, I was a little stalled with the end of the year 2021 coming up, distracted with other life things, so it kind of sat there another month or so.

Along came the Disney+ release of “Get Back,” the Peter Jackson Beatles documentary masterpiece. After soaking in all nine hours, it was inspiring to just go sit in my studio and think about what I could do with all this amazing gear light-years more advanced than the Beatles had. For some reason, “People Get Ready” was on my mind, and I started thinking of an arrangement that had kind of a “Don’t Pass Me By” drums and percussion part.

So, that is what kicked the album project off. I tracked the idea I had, sent it off to my “Ringo” over in Leeds, and said, “Think tea towels and Don’t Pass Me Buy,” and Joe, he just always seems to know what to do. Shortly after that, drums were back. I tracked my guitar part and vocal, and sent it to another Brit, Herman Ringer, for a proper McCartney-esque bass line, and to my delight, Herman also sent back a pair of trumpets for the end of the track, in case I wanted to use them. Naturally, it was then off to Scott Guberman for some electric piano, and I just say, “Give me some Billy Preston” here. I get it out to Denise Stewart Bates in Austin, my go-to for Clydie King and Tremaine Hawkins-inspired Black gospel background vocals. She has great recording chops, and is an awesome singer and vocal arranger. I love the energy she brings to each project.

I was thinking about the guitar solo, and wanted somebody with Beatles sensibilities to contribute. I wasn’t thinking at all in terms of a “Christian artist,” but who was around who really, really dug the Beatles, was a ringer, and might be able to bring some of that enthusiasm and channel a little George Harrison along the way. Besides, I don’t think of “People Get Ready” as a gospel song; I think it’s more of a civil rights song. Your mileage may vary.

I remembered that my old friend Tony Gerber had been doing some ambient music recordings with Phil Keaggy, who is an old school Beatle-freak from way, way back. He is a monster player I’ve had respect for since my teens. As it happens, he and Tony both just live about 20 minutes from me near Nashville. I called Tony, even though I had Phil’s email, and asked him to see if Phil was doing sessions now since he has retired from performing and touring. The answer quickly came back, “Yes” and with that, he was in.

It takes a different kind of musician to do remote sessions and make them sound like we are all in the same room, but most importantly, it takes one who can record. Phil was one of those guys who had a tricked-out home studio and had been immersed in recording his entire career, vs. being a pampered artist who showed up and played. Great musician, great engineer. That is the common denominator among everyone who plays on the “and Friends” projects. Keaggy turned the track in a day, and asked if I had anything else. I’m not sure he knew what he was getting himself into.

I said, “well, I’ve been doing a cover of “Every Grain of Sand” from Dylan’s “Shot of Love” album. I have wanted to record an arrangement of that song since I bought that album new as a teenager. Again, not a religious intent here, just a great song, a great group of players available, so I start putting the session together. Sent my arrangement to Joe, he sent the drums. I recorded guitar, and decided to break out the Fender Bass VI for the bass part, another homage to the “Get Back” documentary, where we see Lennon and Harrison playing it while Paul plays piano or guitar. Such a fun instrument to play. Phil knocks out a lovely solo, and next I get the mix off the Scott Guberman and he lays down his Hammond organ parts. Then I recruit Noah Wall, of The Barefoot Movement, to sing with me on it. She has a tender, angelic voices when she wants to (and yeah, she can belt, too), and I had her in mind when I was first thinking of covering this. She knocks out the harmonies, and the song was done. Coincidentally, the last Barefoot Movement album was produced by the same producer of Dylan’s “Shot of Love,” which I learned after she did her tracks. Nice.

I’m two songs in… I’m over at Keaggy’s studio listen to “Every Grain” and as was being typical, we digress into Beatle fanboy talk about gear and guitars and tones… He pulls out a Hofner Beatle Bass, one of a couple he owned. Said he was thinking about selling it. That day, I owned a new Hofner bass. We seem to be developing a good working relationship for tracking, and shared a lot of influences. I take the bass home, and I can’t stop playing the thing to the guitar and keyboard parts I’d already done to “You Can Just Walk,” and start laying down a new bass line. Off it went to Joe to replace my “writing drums” and shortly after, back it came and Joe took it another direction during the “mad” instrumental part at the end. Brilliant. Off it went to Phil, who knocked out dueling guitar solos to the song. I had some kind of cross between the indie post-punk new wave era of my teens and The Kinks when I was writing this. I scare up another frequent vocal collaborator, Tyra Juliette, she’d know just what to do with this. She did. Finished.

We seem to be on a roll at Keaggy’s place, and we’re having fun. We had conversations about more than the Beatles, and naturally talking about the blues, Michael Bloomfield came up as a favorite of his. Turns out he has a Bloomfield hand of his own. I had decided to track “Next Time You See Me” for the 2022 “Dead Covers Project” on YouTube, this annual fun thing were people cover songs recorded by Grateful Dead. They had a theme this year for the 50th Anniversary of Europe ’72, and this song was on the “Vol. 2” edition they released. It was a Pigpen staple, and one I’d sung for years in live gigs. Same drill, “Hey Joe, need some drums. Hey Scott, need some piano and organ. Hey Denise, need some backing vocals.” I played guitar and a Fender P-Bass on it. Phil got three solo passes in it because I wanted to let him have some fun and stretch it out. It’s got swagger. I put a video together featuring a dancing skeleton, and put it on YouTube a week after I mixed it. It shot up to over 25,000 views so far. Nice.

The Hofner was still sitting in my hands a lot, and within a day of tinkering around again, I had written “To Stay Today.” I put down the MIDI drums to write to, and played a piano, guitar, Hofner bass line, and Mellotron parts for it in addition to vocals. It was then out to Joe, who tea toweled it up for me, then back to Phil for some really great Harrison style guitar parts that brought it all together. Finally, Tyra Juliette was the right vocal choice and she knew just how to write the arrangements for it. Done. In about ten days, it went from a bass line in my head to mixing. Bloody hell, I’ve got an album coming together now.

With my bass track tweaked for “Lay It All Down” and Keaggy adding his guitars to mine. I send it to Albert Margolis, and old friend from Los Angeles, who dialed in the Hammond organ energy needed. Then, I brought over Jill Michaelson for an afternoon of backing vocal tracking, and the title song was set aside for mixing.

Phil and I have out usual wandering digression of mutual musical influences and he says, “You should cover “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” by Bob Dylan. Wonderful idea, not the most-covered Dylan song, and I had some ideas. They varied a bit from what the original arrangement, I went into more of a Byrds style thing. Joe on drums, Scott on Hammond, me on bass, guitar, vocals and backing vocal, plus harmonica, and Phil gets out a couple of electric-12s, including a baritone one (I didn’t even know that was a thing). I start thinking of my late friend Doug Dillard’s Byrds era with Mr Spaceman and all, and I think I want to put a banjo on it, but who could really dig into it, ala Doug Dillard. Well, I mean, there is only one guy, really, and that was John McEuen. I hit him up, he says yes, next thing I know, I’m ready to mix.

Next up, another new song I had written on that Hofner bass, “I Can’t Wait for Saturday Night.” Thinking of the excitement of the courting phase with my new wife Shannon, and a Dr. John meets Leon Russell groove, the song kind of pours out of me at midnight, next thing I know I’m cutting the bass, VERY rudimentary piano, vocal, and guitar, and get it straight away to Joe. Two days later, drums, bass, guitar, vocals are done. I enlist Phil Madeira again for piano, because he has some serious chops, being the longtime piano player for Emmylou Harris’s Red Dirt Boys, a group he is in with old friends Brian Owens and Will Kimbrough. Madeira was, coincidentally in Keaggy’s band decades ago, this may be the first time in a long time they were on a track together. He sent me a lovely, groovingly understated piano somewhere between Leon and The Band’s Richard Manuel, then it was off to Denise. Another song from concept to mix-ready in about a week. Fun!

I’m leaving Keaggy’s and he says, “What else you got?” I sheepishly offer that I was tinkering with “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and had tracked an extremely rudimentary demo, and he said, “Yeah, let’s do that.” So it went off to Joe to make use of his jazz studies schooling, then off to my old friend and producer Fred Bogert, who owns the Steinway this needed, then I give it to Keaggy, who goes and channels some Wes Montgomery jazz guitar parts that made me want to go home and light my guitars on fire with gasoline for not behaving how his do for him. Lastly, I had never asked my old friend Jack Casady to record for me. Not sure why, just didn’t have the right vehicle. I had recorded four songs with Jorma Kaukonen on Ticket to Fly, and known them both since they were, well, more “my age” currently. Jack said yes! Long story short, I went to Beverly Hills to his home and retrieved the track in person in June 2022, and had a lovely visit with his partner Debra and their adorable King Charles Spaniel, “Chester.” Chester is such a good boy. So now, I’ve got Casady, Montague, Bogert, and Keaggy on this. Jack insists I keep my scratch vocal track. Who am I to argue? And with that, a song I have wanted to record since I was a teenager was done.

In another conversation that drifted into Beatle-land, I told Keaggy I was working on “Beware of Darkness” and that lit him up. He definitely wanted to play on that one. I had Jeff Marley and Joe Montague record the bass and drums together in the UK and send them over the following week. I tracked guitar, electric sitar, and sang a rough vocal. This song has a deceptively hard-to-sing vocal line and I probably cut the final vocal a dozen times. I have Madeira play Hammond on it. I give it to Keaggy with the rough vocals and other parts, he tracks the most Harrison-like stuff he’s probably done in his life. Nails it. It soars! I had some arrangement ideas for the backing vocals. I had met the lovely Lindsey Elam, a native Kentuckian singer of traditional bluegrass, folks, and more, when she performed a song at the 2021 Jerry Garcia Birthday Celebration show I’ve done the past five years at The Basement East in Nashville. Lovely voice. She took the first round of backing vocals. I ask Gillian Demarius to add more backing vocals. For the very last line of the song, I wanted a lot of voices, so for the last three words “beware of darkness” it was me, Gillian, Lindsey, David Gans, and Dianne Davidson. Done!

One more, “I Got What I Wanted.” I wrote this one overnight again, sent it to Joe, played bass, electric 12, acoustic guitars on it and sang the vocal. I recruited Gary Talley, from The Box Tops, for a guitar part. I called on Denise again for backing vocals. Then I asked old friend Pete Sears to play piano to go with the Hammond parts that Guberman laid down. Just before production, Keaggy was recovering from a shoulder injury, so I wasn’t sure it he would make it. I sent him the work the rest of his did, and he said, “I’m in…” and we were done. What a lineup on that one.

Ok, so now I am up to eleven songs, and I’m already over time limits for a vinyl release, so I wanted an even dozen. That would make for 40 songs in total released since 2020 between the four albums. I love “Mighty High” from The Mighty Clouds of Joy. I knew how to play it because Jerry Garcia covered it, so my tribute to Saunders/Garcia of course covered it. I pulled up a disco drum loop at 125BPM and start tracking guitar and bass. Wow, that was a fun bass part! Send it to Joe. Turns out he was home from tour, and 36 hours later I had drums. I send it to Scott Guberman, because he is probably uniquely-qualified for this song given his playing the in the SF bay area with some many Garcia-related projects, and he brings top-level energy to the Hammond parts. Straight away it is off to Denise Stewart Bates, because nobody brings the Black gospel boogie like DSB.

“Hey Phil, you got your bellbottoms ready? I got one more the finish the album.” He was digging on the recording and arrangement, and knocked out the guitar parts to go with mine. And with that, it was finished. A lot of mixing after that, and I’m not a great engineer, but I tried to keep it very retro 70s sounding across the album. I sent it to Gene Paul, of G and J Audio, who is Les’s son, for mastering. And here it is. Mike Lawson and Friends, Lay It All Down…

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