Led by their virtuoso trumpet player, vocalist and band leader, J. Earle Ford, The Earles of Newtown have finished their long-awaited, self-titled, first CD and will officially launch the album later this month at the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley.
The record release party happens Sept. 20 and promises to be a joyous dance-fueled event celebrating the work of one of the most dynamic musical outfits this region has ever spawned. The band, composed of Ford, drummer Karl Chelette, stand-up bassist Doug Bianchi, trombonist Joe Fajen, saxophonist Jim Trefethen, Guitarist Bob Woods, pianist Jacob Aginsky, Banjo player “Texas” Dave Wilcox and vocalist/percussionist Chad Conner Crow, took more than a year to craft its debut release and the extra time and attention to detail has paid off handsomely.
The album, most of which was recorded at Tom Menig’s studio in Chicago Park and mastered by Grammy-winning engineer Oz Fritz, sounds spectacular. The CD’s packaging is equally impressive, featuring photos by Waking Crow. I had the chance earlier this week to sit down with Chad Conner Crow and Wilcox at Sierra Mountain Coffee Roasters in Grass Valley to discuss the project and future of a band that has raised the musical bar dramatically with its new release.
TK: When discussing the Earles of Newtown’s music, in the beginning it seemed very genre-specific, but has evolved over time, incorporating other influences as well.
DW: When Earle and I started playing together, we were doing lots of bluegrass and old-timey folk, which, starting with “Oh Brother Where Art Thou,” became popular over the last decade. Modern bluegrass was essentially created in the ‘40s with the Grand Old Opry, Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe. So the Earles was a way of going back even further to the ‘30s, ‘20s and even some late 19th century minstrel music, medicine show type stuff.
TK: What you were doing stopped being string music and started becoming horn music?
DW: Yeah, that was the twist on it, staying in the old-timey realm, but just having a different presentation of it, having more of the early jazz, Dixieland, ragtime, southern style, early swing. Being from Texas, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys have been a big inspiration for us in our music. He himself was one of the original white Southern band directors. He used to use two fiddles to play melodically the same thing, matching each other. We don’t have a fiddle player, but it works out the same with a horn section doing the melodies instead…It’s Texas meets New Orleans.
TK: When the band began, you were doing a lot of covers, but then at a certain point you decided to begin writing your own stuff. Talk about that process.
CCC: Lately, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. About a year and a half ago, we started recording this album with one original and a traditional, that we had put our own twist on and that’s the only song on the album that isn’t our own. Once we recorded those two songs with Bruce Wheelock at Flying Whale (studio) It propelled us to want to write more original material. Ford started coming up with instrumentals and I started throwing lyrics on them and the next thing we knew, originals were just pouring out of the guy. We then realized we would need to hurry to learn the songs, so that once we went into the studio, we would be comfortable with them.
TK: So over the year and a half, did you record a few songs every month or so, or did you have a period near the end of the process, when you produced a bunch of songs?
CCC: We were more or less, trying to record three at a time and then the process definitely accelerated. At the end we recorded five in a day.
DW: We started originally with drums, bass, myself, and Earle. Once we were able to get on Jacob’s schedule and have him be there, It was all five of us laying the ground work. Then Bobby came back to add guitar and Jacob redoing the piano where needed, adding the horn section and adding vocals.
CCC: We ended up going to Tom Menig’s studio and it helped that he had a real piano there. We wanted to preserve a live sound, so drums, bass and piano were all recorded in the same room. Then we built upon that.
TK: What were some of the highlights for both of you, while making this album?
DW: For me it was tooling the songs and essentially cutting out the fat. Playing live, you want to try and have people go off with their instruments, trying to control the fun and the presentation. In the studio you have to sit down and take it section by section, deciding what’s going to be in the song, deciding which verse goes where, who takes what solo when, how you start the song, how you end the song, stuff like that… Finding the tunes is really the highlight for me, because they will reveal themselves.
CCC: It’s one of those you’re exhausted while smiling experiences. It’s a lot of work in the studio and you always have that heat about not taking too much time so it will be less expensive. Those magic moments are that first take. A couple of my vocals were done right away. Being in that element and becoming just that much more familiar will help prepare us to go into that really big studio in LA or New York when we can record our second album, if we get sponsored or signed in some way.
TK: This album is obviously a big step for The Earles of Newtown. The CD sounds great and promises to propel the band to a different level. What do you think that process might look like?
CCC: I’m hoping that next year we will be doing a lot of festivals, get some touring in and get picked up by a small label. I’ve been told by friends and family that we would do really well in Europe and other parts of the world. I would love to do that kind of traveling, playing music. That would really fulfill a dream for me.
DW: We all have dreams and are encouraged about where this could go, but it’s not like something we write on the wall “this or bust,” or whatever. I’d be happy if we could tour and make some money and get our name out there, or maybe do a run opening for a bigger, more national band. That would be a good first step.
CCC: We talk about the possibilities, but it’s still mostly about the momentum and the music. We want to get the music to a level where it is so undeniably good that it speaks for itself.
Tom Kellar is a freelance writer in Grass Valley.