Leaving behind a landscape of shuttered venues, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Melissa Carper and her partner/bandmate Rebecca Patek, both of Sad Daddy and Buffalo Gals, fled Nashville in September of 2020 for more modest digs on a vegetable farm in Texas. There, the pair of sometimes-Arkansans have weathered the last several months of the pandemic — and last month’s record-breaking snowstorm — playing outdoor venues when and where they can, tending to vegetables and creating the likes of “Daddy’s Country Gold,” out March 19. The album is real deal country music, the kind that dabbles freely in blues and jazz and swing, and it funnels every ounce of charm and honeysuckle that Carper lends to her ensemble work and amplifies it exponentially — with the help of both seasoned and up-and-coming Nashville players like Chris Scruggs, Lloyd Green, Brennen Leigh and Sierra Farrell. Catch Melissa Carper and her outfit The Blue Hankies at Fassler Hall, 5 p.m. Friday, May 21.
So let’s talk first about the obvious, which is the album name. How’d you earn the nickname Daddy?
Daddy? That was a long time ago, actually. When I moved down to New Orleans, Gina Gallina of the Camptown Ladies was living down there, and me and my girlfriend at the time moved down there and lived with her in her one-bedroom efficiency shack, and somehow during that period of time they started calling me “Daddy.” It was a joke that just kind of stuck, and a lot of friends and bandmates started calling me that. My girlfriend — well, you know Rebecca.
She was the one who said, “You gotta do a ‘Best Of’ album one of these days, and put all your good songs on there, and you should call it ‘Daddy’s Country Gold.’ ” [Laughs.]
I do feel like, even in the first notes of the record you hear, you’re like, “Oh, yeah. This is daddy’s country gold.”
[Laughs.] Aw. I’ve had people ask me if it’s about my dad’s old record collection or something, and I like that it can have that second meaning, too. We did grow up listening to all kinds of records. My dad loves his records. We’d always go out and buy 45s, and it’s nice that it has that feel to it, too, for someone who’s like, “Who’s Daddy?”
Can you describe your family dynamic growing up? I know you’re from a family that not only made music part of your home life, but who played music together.
Well, as far back as I can remember, they had all of us kids singing and performing songs. The first ones we had were at churches and rest homes, retirement homes. And I can remember doing that when I was 5 — gospel songs and Christmas songs. We even have a recording of us doing a whole Christmas album from that time period, and it’s really sweet to go back and listen to that. A few years later is when we started up the family country band. My mom was a singer, she loved singing, and she always wanted to be in a country band, so she made her family her band — two brothers, and me and my mom. My dad wasn’t really musically talented, but he came to every show, of course. We would play the American Legions and Elks and Moose and those kinda places, and we would travel, you know, two or three hours outside of the town we lived in — North Platte, Nebraska. And we would play gigs from 9 ‘til one in the morning. It was crazy. I mean, I was 12 and my little brother who played the drums, was like 8 or 9 when we started. I remember, too, those old clubs were very smoky. There weren’t any rules about not smoking.
It was pretty sweet. I remember a lot of my friends in school thought it was cool that I was in a band. And our parents paid us, too, as an incentive. They paid us more than they should have; they didn’t keep any money. So I majored in music performance and went to the University of Lincoln, Nebraska, and studied upright bass for a couple of years.
So when I heard the record, I wondered whether it would surprise people that there’s a lot of jazz influence. Do you feel like maybe there was a time — or maybe the time is now! — when jazz and country and ragtime mingled a little bit more freely?
For sure. I started realizing that I liked jazz, I remember, when the movie “When Harry Met Sally” came out. I loved the music on that movie, and I bought the soundtrack. I think on the soundtrack it was Harry Connick Jr. that did all the songs, but on the movie it was the original people who sang all those standards. And I bought a Frank Sinatra album, and from that point on I started discovering jazz vocalists.
As far as jazz and country and ragtime mingling, of course there’s Western Swing. Bob Wills. I think I was exposed to that through my dad’s records, but not as much as, say, Hank Williams. Patsy Cline, for that matter, had some jazz influence. My dad bought me a Jimmie Rodgers collection when I was about 20. Jimmie Rodgers really mixes jazz and blues into his music, and has recordings with Louis Armstrong, and he’s known as the father of country music. So there ya go.
It’s completely wild and delightful that Chris Scruggs plays on the album.
Yeah! Chris Scruggs and then, Lloyd Green. He’s a legend steel player. Dennis Crouch got him in on a couple songs. Dennis, of course, on bass and then he helped produce. And the piano player was amazing, too. Jeff Taylor. Brennen Leigh and Sierra Farrell on harmonies. And Rebecca’s in there, too, playing some fiddle. And she did the arrangement for “The Stars Are Aligned.” Then there’s another fiddle player on there, too, Billy Contreras. He’s incredible. He overdubbed four of five fiddle tracks to get that rich sound, like on “I Almost Forgot About You.” The way the musicians played, I thought they brought my songs to life in a completely new way. It wasn’t something that I could have even imagined. They’re just that good, and they understand how the old music should be played.
So someone reading your bio would probably get a good understanding of the older influences on your sound. Who are some contemporary or living musicians or bands that you dig?
A lot of ‘em, I guess, are friends of mine. Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay. They live in Nashville now, but I met them when we were all in Austin a long time ago. I love their songwriting and singing and playing. Also, we’d go out and listen to Chris Scruggs. He played every Sunday night at a club in Nashville with his band, the Stone Fox Five. And Sierra Farrell, her voice is just insanely good. She’s got a record coming out this year. She just can naturally sing the heck out of jazz and country. She’s an improv singer, too. She’ll hardly sing a melody the same way twice. She’ll always throw in something new. And I’ve always loved Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings.
In the band Sad Daddy, because Joe and Brian are such personalities, you kinda in a comedic sense, play the straight man, if you’ll pardon the expression. Do you feel reluctant to take the spotlight now, or does it come pretty naturally after all this time?
No, I really am reluctant. I think that’s one of the reasons I haven’t done more of it. This is my second solo album. I did make an album back in 2014 or ‘15. But no, I’m not comfortable with it. And I’ve always been the person in the band where, I might say a few things into the microphone, but especially when I’m in a band with someone who’s so good at that, I just let them take it. It’s a skill unto its own, and I really admire people who do it well. It almost makes me more shy, like “I can’t even keep up with this person.” So I don’t know. I just gotta get out there and overcome it. You know, there are a lot of people who don’t say that much between songs, and I think that’s gonna be me.
This is really making me miss live music. I see this Little Rock show on your schedule here in May. Melissa Carper and The Blue Hankies? [Laughs.]
Yeah! I just came up with that name this last fall, a reference to Hank Williams, but also, there’s an old song I do called “Seven Lonely Nights.” Patsy Cline used to sing it. And one of the lines in it is “seven hankies blue,” and I thought, “Well, why not the Blue Hankies?”
I love it. So, one sort of lyrical space that you occupy is bringing queer identity into your music — and I’m thinking of the Buffalo Gals’ “Pray the Gay Away” — I wonder how you think about this particular time in country music, and how you feel about being characterized as an ambassador for making country music more inclusive and maybe more reflective of the queer community that’s been listening to country music for a long time.
I certainly hope I can be a part of that. It feels good. Feels like people’s minds are opening, and the general population is more accepting of gay people. It’s strange that it’s taken so long for country music to get there. I know as I listened as a young kid to country music, I would relate to the Hank Williams love songs because he was singing from a man’s perspective. I found myself covering the men more than the women, even. Then, of course, writing about women in my love songs. There are a lot of country music artists, and maybe Americana, who are out and doing well. And of course we see it in movies and TV, that gay people are being represented, and I think all that is making people accept it more. I grew up in the ’80s, and I remember when K.D. Lang came out, and my parents, who had liked K.D. Lang, were like, “Now we can’t listen to her anymore.” And I was just, like, “Whoa.” I’d known that I was gay since really young, maybe 8 or 9, when I started having my first crushes on girls. So it was a real struggle for me to know that it wasn’t accepted. I think I was 23 or so before I started telling people. Growing up now, it feels like it might be easier for kids, and it feels good to be a part of broadening people’s minds by being open with it in the music.
Pre-order Melissa Carper’s “Daddy’s Country Gold” here.