Interview: The Doc Marshalls

October 18th, 2010, 5:00 pm by Greg

The Doc Marshalls: Jonathan Gregg and Nick Beaudoing

The Doc Marshalls: Jonathan Gregg and Nick Beaudoing

When you turn on country music radio or attend a country music concert these days, the music leans heavily towards a harder rock sound. If it weren’t for the fiddle player and/or the pedal steel guitarist somewhere in the back of the mix, you’d think you were hearing a Billboard Top 40 pop song or even some ’70s rock and roll (anybody still remember Loggins & Messina?).

The fabulous Doc Marshalls, lead by singer-acoustic guitarist-accordionist Nick Beaudoing, don’t plug into that commercial country music sound or hype. For Nick and the band, the musical pendulum swings the other way to incorporate roots-Americana, bluegrass, Cajun music and the foundation of all country music: traditional folk and honky-tonk.

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What makes Beaudoing and his band unique is the way they fuse together the country styles of the past with contemporary American-roots music. That sonic amalgam is truly original and refreshing because the influences of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash or Buck Owens are there at the heart of many of the band’s songs, but they are no cover band or old-school style imitators. They are continuing the music’s lineage by by-passing contemporary rock and centering on their original blend.

Following their third appearance at the hallowed Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs on Saturday, October 2, Beaudoing spoke with about the band, its evolving musical direction, the new album slated to to released shortly (their third) and an upcoming side project, as well.

Q: Were all the band members who played tonight – other than the fiddler, who was absent – your usual collaborators and the same as on the last album?

A: Guitarist Matt Walsh played on our last record, “Honest for Once,” but he was filling in for our fiddler, Caley Monahan-Ward. Caley joined us recently on our first European tour, but I wouldn’t call him a “usual collaborator.”

The core four of the band – those willing to follow me into the fire – are drummer Doug Clark, bassist Terence Murren, pedal steel and acoustic guitarist Jonathan Gregg and, of course, myself.

Q: What do you see as the biggest obstacles to get your music – a mix of country and bluegrass at the heart of it, with a bit of roots-Americana, folk and country blues thrown in – out to audiences?

A: Touring is expensive, even if it’s done in close proximity to your home base. Sometimes I feel like I’m at war with motels. All across the country, they’ve grown filthier in spite of raising their prices. Also, finding the time to tour is a challenge, especially as everyone gets a little older. I’m trying to make the most of everyone’s time.

Going forward, we’re focusing on doing a regular circuit of shows in New York and New England. A band has to find venues that treat them well and keep coming back, and cross the others off the list.

Q: Do you and your band have places in those regions where you do have a strong fan base?

A: We do well in the Hudson Valley, due to many years of touring and local festivals. People will often approach me and reference shows from years ago. The audience has a memory.

I’ve never drawn a map of our fan base, but I fear it would look like a gerrymandered voting district. For the new album, I want to develop a more consistent list of venues in the Northeast that work for us.

Q: You’re based in New York City. Is there a club or a concert hall there that features your band on a regular basis?

A: We play Hill Country in Manhattan on a regular basis. Mercury Lounge, Jalopy and Café Zebulon are also regular haunts. Over the years, we’ve played almost every venue in NYC that will host roots music. Eventually, you start to realize it’s more important to tour.

Q: So far the Doc Marshalls have two releases out, 2008’s “Honest For Once” (killer cover photo, by the way) and 2005’s “No Kind Of Life.” And you’ve got a third one on the way. What do you see as the band’s evolution through those recordings?

A: Many of the songs from “No Kind of Life” were written in the late ’90 when I was living in Montreal. I had a realization that I loved country music more than anything and wanted to join the ranks of those keeping honky-tonk alive. I’ve always hated seeing country music played ironically.

Cajun music is the genre that is closest to my heart. I grew up in a French-speaking household in Texas, so the idea of making records in two languages appealed to me.

By the time we released “Honest for Once,” the Doc Marshalls had developed more of a signature band sound. We’d been touring together for years, and that made for a more coherent album. Also, the songwriting was more oriented towards storytelling.

“Days Will Slow Down,” the one coming out, is where our story pivots. I think the record will be a departure for us.

Q: What have you concentrated more on with each album to differentiate one from the other?

A: Our first release was a heartbreak record, with Cajun and honky-tonk standing side by side. It’s the kind of album a guy makes in his 20’s with lots of tunnel-vision and less perspective. Whenever I put it on, though, I still hear the joy of making the music for the first time.

“Honest for Once” was very Texas-centric in theme. It felt like there were larger tales to tell, and the band seemed better equipped to communicate them. Even the Cajun songs were stronger.

“Days Will Slow Down” will have no Cajun songs and no straight-up honky-tonk at all. I like the idea of the songs speaking for themselves this time around, without the hang-ups that come with traditional music. Our live shows have been moving in that direction for a while now.

Q: Are their any special guests on the upcoming album, or is it the core line-up?

A: This is probably one of the most fun parts of recording: I have a wish list of possible players, but, truth be told, I need to ask them first.

Q: When you’re writing a song, do you have your audience in mind, or do you write for yourself? Or is it a bit of both?

A: I’ve always done it for myself, which, in my opinion, is the way to go. You definitely want people to like your music, but the audience is a bit of a moving target. Sometimes your songwriting will veer in a different direction, and you need cooperation with that change of course.

I do have plans to record an all-Cajun record in Louisiana later next year, but the new album will disappoint anyone expecting a dance party.

Q: How much is a collaborative effort with the band, instrumentally speaking?

A: I always stop reading interviews whenever a musician says, “It’s an organic process.” I mean, decomposing in your rocking chair is also an organic process. Basically, I write in private and bring completed songs to the band, usually with fixed ideas on how their parts will go.

That said, it’s the band that brings them to life. I tend to think of the bandmembers as expert chefs who dip their fingers into the pot and have a taste. They instinctively know what’s needed afterward.

Over time, everyone starts finding his place as the song is played live. Inevitably, whatever I first presented to the band starts sounding better.

Matt Walsh, Doug Clark and Terence Murren

Matt Walsh, Doug Clark and Terence Murren

Q: Do you put down the lyrics and an outline of the song and then say, “Guys, I need a fiddle accent here, a drum line there, etc.” Or do you write it all out?

A: I have a little digital 4-track that I use to record the chord progression, melody and lyrics. Usually, a few solos are added for good measure. An mp3 is emailed to the band before rehearsal.

I think it would be tough to write out everyone’s solo note for note. More importantly, I don’t think many musicians would stand for that.

Doug Clark (drums) will often suggest a way to approach the rhythm, and that will set the tone for what comes next. Jonathan Gregg (pedal steel guitar) comes to the table with licks that beef up the sound without straying too far from the basic melody. I think our bassist, Terence Murren, has basically decoded my formula for songs. He probably has charts drawn up for the next 10 records somehow.

Q: I noticed that on some tunes you performed at Caffe Lena, there was an strong element of the improvising that’s at the heart of bluegrass and jazz. When you play the tune at different clubs and concert halls does the improvising change a bit? Do you encourage that?

A: I don’t do much improvising, unless it’s on the accordion. In a Cajun song, the fiddle and accordion have all the fun. For the country material, Jonathan builds solos based on the melody, but he’s always working on new tricks, so we don’t hear the same riffs over and over again.

Playing for a dancing crowd inevitably leads to more improvisation. You’re focusing on the groove and trying to make the songs last longer. But too much of that is a bad thing, though. It’s more interesting for the people onstage than those listening in the audience.

Q: You’re from Texas, and the scene is much different there then here. Do you go back home often? What are you seeing there that you would like to see happening here musically?

A: We tour frequently in Texas, and their dancehall scene is second to none. I love the way small radio stations support local artists under the banner of “Texas Music.” “Singer-songwriter” is not a slur down there, and there are many fantastic venues for artists to ply their trade.

People in Texas, even the young, love to dance. Whether it’s at an historic, rural dancehall like Gruene Hall (near San Antonio) or at an urban venue such as Austin’s Continental Club, you’ll always see guys and girls on the dance floor.

Up here in the Northeast, the older generation likes to dance, but the younger folks stand still. Sometimes you’ll see two girls dancing together, while crowds of dudes sip beer and just watch. It would be great to see cracks in that façade.

I’d also like to see local radio stations partner up with venues a bit more to support local artists. That doesn’t happen too much in NYC.

Q: What brought you up to this region to work and live?

A: I studied law in Montreal, and NYC was an obvious choice. It has the loudest ambulances.

Q: What was your initial goal at the time you formed the Doc Marshalls?

A: I wanted to perform country and Cajun music side by side. It was important to show that two types of roots music could co-exist, and that people sometimes live on both sides of the border. Some critics keep suggesting that a combination of both genres would be more interesting, but I have no desire to create a Cajun-honky-tonk Frankenstein.

Most importantly, I promised myself that the albums we would make would be all-original, with no cover tunes or filler. I figure if you’re going to the trouble to make a record, why not go all out?

Q: Has that initial direction changed?

A: We’re definitely switching gears. During the past few years, I’ve been influenced by songwriters who perform Americana in an indie rock context – A.A. Bondy, Phosphorescent, Josh Ritter and Bonnie Prince Billy come to mind. I love the idea of bringing a roots sound to the table without being cornered by traditional arrangements.

My songwriting had been heading in that direction for a while now. Frankly, it was reassuring to follow these impulses since they helped distance me from locals who were covering Hank Williams and Johnny Cash ad nauseum.

Q: Are there any musical or personal influences that you keep coming back to for inspiration?

A: I tend to drift back to my favorite albums, like one of Dwight Yoakam’s earlier records, “If There Was a Way.” It’s great all the way through. Also, Richard Buckner’s “Bloomed” is beautiful and sparse singer-songwriter fare. And I will add that Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys’ eponymous first record is the best modern Cajun release of all time. I can listen to “Eunice Waltz” and remember the exact feeling of falling in love with this genre 20 years ago.

Recently I’ve attended live shows by A.A. Bondy and Phosphorescent that had a big impact on me. Their music is less danceable, but the sound is lush and a bit more mysterious.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add that is important for the audience to know about you, the Doc Marshalls or the music?

A: I can’t tell you how much it means for me when an audience member purchases one of our CDs. We’ve never taken it for granted, but with all the opportunities steal or stream music online, it’s more appreciated now than ever.

I’ve also been pretty lucky to have a regular group of guys playing in the band. A solo artist flanked by a bunch of hired guns isn’t nearly as interesting. And probably much less enjoyable. Audiences pick up on subtle things, like the camaraderie between musicians.

Q: One last question. Where did the name the Doc Marshalls come from?

A: That secret will die with me!

If you like country music, Cajun or roots-Americana, Nick Beaudoing and the Doc Marshalls are tentatively scheduled to make a return appearance at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs in February.

Interview and photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk

Nick Beaudoin, Doug Clark and Jonathan Gregg

Nick Beaudoin, Doug Clark and Jonathan Gregg