The theme of guitarist/songwriter Greg Spradlin’s life, he told Arkansas Times’ David Ramsey in 2012, is timing. “With my music, it’s always stuff like that. If I booked a gig tonight, it would come a hailstorm.” When legendary producer and pianist Jim Dickinson used to introduce Spradlin to his cohorts, he’d say, “This is my friend Greg, from Little Rock. He’s been through the L.A. grease.”
Despite a history packed with thwarted record contracts and wrong legal turns, though, the Pangburn (White County) native ended up making his dream record, mastered by Grammy winner Tchad Blake and tracked by a roster of musicians that includes the likes of David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), a good chunk of Elvis Costello’s backing band and a legendary but elusive B3 player, the late Rudy Copeland. We talked to Spradlin about “Hi-Watter,” available now online (and, for Central Arkansans, curbside by appointment at Control in Hillcrest, and coming soon to Arkansas Record & CD Exchange), nearly a decade after its inception.
So, this record is a long time coming. Like, a LONG time. Why now?
I was waiting on a global pandemic, and I thought it would never come.
No, seriously, the straight answer is: I wasn’t planning to make this record when I made it. And it was like a genie in a bottle washed up on the shore one day, and I had all the wishes to make any record I wanted to. It was this amazing thing that came true, and it happened so easily, and so fast. And then as soon as we were finished making it, we had a lot of life events, family events, things that happened that just derailed me personally for a while, and then it kind of became more important to take care of and focus on my family.
The other part of it was that I wasn’t ready to put it out. So it just kind of laid there for a long time, because I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t want to just throw it out. I felt like everybody who helped me out getting the record out, who put everything they put into it, I owed it to them to find the right time and the right way to put it out. And having finally found a label [Steve Howell’s Out of the Past Records] that wanted to see it born properly, that was what I’d been waiting for.
So you had a relationship with the legendary Arkansas musician and producer Jim Dickinson. You delivered the eulogy at his funeral, even. What moments, if any on this record, are like specifically Jim Dickinson? Like, what wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t been in your musical sphere?
The whole record wouldn’t exist. That’s the weird thing, and it’s kind of hard to explain. But basically, Jim and I, for years, played on each other’s projects. He played on my last record. I played on two of his records. He covered a couple of my songs. We’d known each other for a long time, and he really became my compass, my North Star, and was always there to encourage and help me navigate bullshit. And we talked about the kind of record I needed to make for years. Secretly, what I wanted, was to make a record with him and [sons] Luther and Cody [of North Mississippi Allstars fame]. …
What he’d always tell me is, “You need the right band. You need the right group of guys to play with you.” And then he died, and within a year of him dying, Jason Weinheimer and I were talking, and Jason was friends with Pete Thomas, from Elvis Costello’s band, and they’d worked on a Boondogs album together — coincidentally, a record Jim produced — and out of the blue he said, “What do you think about getting Pete to come to Little Rock and you do a day with him,” and Jason was doing a solo record with [his wife] Indy [Grotto], “and we’ll just make a week out of it.” … And I brought in about 3-4 songs, thinking we’d get through three or four songs, tops. And I think we got through with three or four songs before lunch. Because Pete is such a monster. He’s one of the best that there is. And he really got energized by it, and I just started digging, trying to come up with some more stuff, and we just ended up recording for about 13 or 14 hours straight, and did basically half the record in one day.
Pete said, “What do you want to do with this?” And I said I’d like to bring the record out to L.A., where there’s this B3 player I really wanted to get to play on it. His name’s Rudy Copeland. And I explained that Rudy was this blind B3 cat, from the ’70s, who played with Johnny Guitar Watson. That was kind of his big deal, but I discovered him through Solomon Burke, on one of Solomon’s solo records he did with Joe Henry. And Rudy just dominates that album. He’s so integral to that record. But we couldn’t find him. I tried, and just ran into dead end after dead end. So I told Pete this story, and the next morning he texted me, and he’d called Joe Henry and gotten Rudy’s number. … That’s kind of how Pete is. He’s an instigator. … I ended up finding Rudy through his church, and Rudy became the reason we went to L.A. And then once we get to L.A., Pete says, “Well, who do you think should play bass on it out here?” And I said, “Well, I really love David Hidalgo’s bass playing — he’s one of the greatest guitarists in the world, but I’d love to hear him play bass.” And Pete said, “Well, let’s call him up and see what he’s doing.” And I was just dumbfounded. I can’t imagine this happening. And not only did that happen, but it was like I had a genie in a bottle; it became, “Well, what if Davey Farragher [from Elvis Costello’s band] played on some stuff?”
So to answer your question, I don’t know how to explain it cosmically where it doesn’t sound crazy. But that’s why the record is produced by Jason, but produced by Jim Dickinson in absentia. Because this is one of those things where it literally fell out of the sky. I wasn’t looking to make a record. And then I made the record with the greatest band I could possibly ever assemble, just by asking. There’s no doubt in my mind Jim had some role in that. I know that sounds hoodoo and whatever else, but I firmly believe that.
Not many people know this, but Jim came out of theater. He was a theater major at Baylor. And that’s key to the way Jim produced records. In theater, you have to know a little bit about everything. You have to know a little about stagecraft, a little about lighting and direction. And that’s what he did when he made records; he set the stage and served as director.
With the way that all happened, the tracking of the record is also sort of a sprawling thing, right, and I want to ask about the production. It started here in Little Rock, and then to a place called Manny’s in LA, then to Red Star Recording. How do you keep the sound consistent as these songs traveled from room to room, or did you not worry about that?
Jason [Weinheimer] gets all the credit for that. He’s basically responsible for lighting this fire, and getting this rocket lit and then landing it on the moon. I don’t know what I would have done without him. I mean, what’s funny is when we went to L.A. to record — I mean, Red Star is where Janet Jackson records — and we went in the studio and Davey Farragher and everybody else was like, “Oh, man, the drums sound great, y’all do that here?” And we were like, “No, we did that in Little Rock.” In L.A., because there are so many studios and whatever else, the consistency is not exactly what you’d expect, so Jason made sure that no matter what we were faced with, gear-wise, engineering-wise and whatever else, he was able to carry the sonic signature throughout and also be prepared for whatever we ran into.
So 2020 is a weird time to be doing basically anything, and that probably includes supporting a record you’ve just put out. What sort of impact, if any, have the pandemic and the demands for racial justice in 2020 had on your plans or thoughts around releasing a record?
As you can imagine, it’s almost impossible to work around all these guys’ schedules, and Rudy passed away a little over a year ago. My hope had always been that even if I could never get these guys in the same room again, I could go out and play some stuff with Rudy, because he’s just a joy to be around. … But it’s everything. All of it’s off the table. We don’t know what we’ll be able to do even in 2021. Obviously, the guys have full-time gigs, so it’d be really tough. And for someone like me, I really needed to go out and play some shows.
But I’m not questioning the timing of it. It could get really ridiculous in this line of thinking along the “unluckiest guy in the world.” Pete said to me right after we finished the record, and David, too, that records come out when they need to come out. And I firmly believe that. And even though this thing has been way overdue and has been sitting for a really long time, I don’t really see any missed opportunities. Thanks to Steve Howell and his label, he’s been the savior of this record.
You have had this waxing and waning with a music career, and — despite the fact that most of us here in Little Rock, I think, know you as a musician — this question of whether you were destined to make music at all. And it occurs to me that waxing and waning is probably something a lot of musicians go through, even though the music business world sort of wants to tell their story with a little bit straighter line to it. Is that something you’ve experienced?
You know, obviously all our philosophies change the older we get as far as life and why things happen and why we do what we do, and growing up in a Baptist church in a black and white, God and the devil, saved and not-saved binary, that was beaten into my head. And there’s no question in my mind — as long as I have memories of being alive — music and playing music is what I was supposed to do. I never even questioned it. And I got swept up in it from the beginning … the first time I was on a plane was to fly to L.A. for a Warner Brothers record deal. And I was like, “My God, I’m living the dream. This is how it’s supposed to happen.” And then that fell apart, and right after that, another record deal, same thing happened. So I got disillusioned very early, and kind of beat up. And I talked about it to myself internally way too much. And it got to the point where it seemed almost comedic, … where it seemed like, “You know what? Maybe this isn’t my hand. Maybe I’m trying too hard.” Maybe I should have just let things be.
…When I was working at Heifer [International], I was in Ghana, and having that kind of “God and the devil, what am I supposed to be doing.” And I was thinking, “there’s not one thing that I can do to help these people that I’m an expert in. There are plenty more people who could and should and are doing this kind of work, and I’m not the one.” And I was standing out in the middle of nowhere, and there’s no electricity, just grass huts everywhere. And I just kind of zoned out and forgot where I was for a minute, and I realized I was hearing music, and it was coming from one of the grass huts. And I was like, “Where did they get electricity?” And then I was like, “I know that song.” It was “I’ll Take You There,” by the Staples Singers, written by Al Bell in North Little Rock, Arkansas. And that hit home immediately. Like someone was hitting me over the head with a gong. Like, “THIS, you idiot. You don’t know anything about raising cows in Ghana! This is what you do. You know the bass player that plays that lick.” So that’s been the journey. At the end of the day, [music] is the thing that calls me back home.
You’ve mentioned the voice of God in this interview, and there’s a lot of religion in this record, not only just the gospel organ and vocals, but the themes, like in “Stainless Steel,” the speaker is saying, “Like a lamb lost at the gate, Please hold my hand while I’m away.” And I know your musical moniker is Rev. Greg Spradlin. What is your personal connection to a life of faith?
It’s changed over time. I grew up Southern Baptist, and I took it very seriously, and I thought about it a lot. Maybe too much. And I was full of questions, and I couldn’t really ever get answers that I was satisfied with. I thought about God and about spiritual stuff more than most kids I knew. I think if they’d offered it in college, I could have had a major in religious studies, because I just wanted to know.
I say [I went] from Southern Baptist to Southern Buddhist. One of the last conversations Jim and I had was, he wanted to ask me about my spiritual beliefs. And we basically 100 percent agreed that for us, the real feeling of faith and whatever’s out there and what our connection to it is, is most strongly present in the music. And I struggle with this, because I love gospel music, but I struggle with the lyrics. But it’s the sound. The sound, the melody is rooted in something that goes way beyond us.
I’ll give you an example: Jason and I were working on this documentary feature, and we had to go to Cambodia. We were in the jungle, near the Vietnam border, and we were exhausted, and we pulled over on the side of the road to just stretch our legs, and we get out and I hear music. I hear singing. And it had this longing, Kentucky kind of gospel sound. And I said, “What’s that?” And our interpreter said “There’s a little village over here,” and I said, “Can we go in there?”
There was a guard tower and a lookout, and they came running. I don’t know how much I’m really acting, but I have a great dumb act, so I had a camera and I was like, “Hey!” Like Gomer Pyle. And I knew that Southern churches, when their hymnals got old, they would send them with missionaries. And there are places in Southeast Asia where communities of people sing old Baptist hymns, published out of the old Stamps-Baxter [Music Company] hymnal, where the publishing office is in Pangburn, Arkansas. …
There’s something about that sound, and those melodies, and we all know where those melodies came from — and were stolen from. It’s on a higher plane. And the words are superfluous to me. The music is the gospel, and the rest of it’s just church. The church is a political body, and it’s fraught with all that stuff. But the music is pure. The sound of pain, and people struggling, and people wanting to be happy, and people expressing themselves, it goes beyond the language barrier. And that’s where it’s at for me.