In a career that’s spanned over 40 years and is still going strong, guitarist Robben Ford has done everything from playing it sweet alongside Joni Mitchell and George Harrison to getting down and getting out there with the likes of Miles Davis and Larry Carlton – hell, he even played a stealth session with Kiss once. He’s burrowed into the blues; pushed the boundaries of guitar jazz; been tapped for tributes for such legends as Butterfield, Bloomfield, and Hendrix; and he’s still out there getting it done.
Ford’s latest venture is his new A Day In Nashville – and, as we’re about to find out, the album couldn’t have a more literal title.
BR: Robben, first let me say it’s great to get to talk with you. I’ve had a few weeks to burrow in to the new album and it’s a fine piece of work – there’s a warmth there that flows through the speakers.
RF: Great to hear that – thanks so much, man.
No one could ever accuse you of going easy on yourself at this point in your career – this project sounds like quite a challenge for both you and all hands involved.
Well, initially we recorded some shows during our European tour last year and those were supposed to be the album. When my co-producer Rick Wheeler and I got together and listened to it, we just weren’t happy … we didn’t think it was worthy of being a record. That’s when we decided to go into the studio and record the thing in a controlled environment, you know? We could stop and we could start but still treat it as if it was a live show.
A cool concept.
That was Rick; he was the guy who suggested doing that in the first place: “Man, let’s just cut the whole thing over again in a day.”
My first thought was, “Well, that’s not going to happen.” (laughter) That was my internal response; I turned to Rick and said, “What?” (laughter)
And he said it again. Decisions like that are where a person earns their points. It makes a huge statement – things you would never even think of that are kind of … preposterous? (laughs) That was a real game-changer that I wouldn’t have thought of … maybe eventually I would’ve gotten there, but Rick just said it. And I said, “Damn – you’re right. Let’s do it.”
Rick’s so important to this record in so many ways; he recorded and mixed it, which I had little to do with.
Some folks in that role end up basically hanging on for dear life; others are almost like another member of the band.
Yeah – and that’s Rick. He’s definitely that guy. And a footnote: this is the first record he’s ever done.
Yeah. (laughs) I mean, he knows his way around the console, for sure. But Rick has never recorded an actual record before.
This isn’t good, Robben; he’s going to end up really busy once the word gets out and you’ll never be able to land him again.
Yeah, that’s very possible. (laughs)
So are the players on the album the same lineup that have been touring with you?
The rhythm section is – Wes Little on drums, Brian Allen on bass, and Ricky Peterson on organ.
I wanted to ask you about Barry Green, who plays trombone on the album. I don’t know as a lot of folks would’ve brought a single horn on board – and if they had, it might not have been a trombone. But it works really, really well. How did you happen to include him?
Well, the whole notion of using the trombone originated with our last record, Bringing It Back Home. My original idea for that record was a little different than the way it turned out. I usually write my own music, but in that case I quite deliberately did an album of non-original material. As it evolved, I started getting this New Orleans kind of sound going in my head – three of the songs on the record are from New Orleans artists. And the trombone turned out to be the perfect instrument to use with the guitar. If it had been a tenor saxophone, it would’ve just been a cliché and boring, you know?
The trombone challenges, but in a good way. It’s a great contrast.
Yes – the trombone has this wonderful warm, yet brassy sound that’s the opposite of what I was doing on the guitar. So when this album came around, I kind of wanted to keep that continuity. And Barry Green turned out to be the man.
We’d had a very brief introduction in Nashville a couple of months before we cut the record. It was the first time we played together, actually, but he was so highly recommended that I trusted my people, you know?
And guitarist Audley Freed?
I’d met Audley through a bass player who’d played with me a lot – Andy Hess?
I actually brought Audley in because I’d fractured my left wrist, which was a bit of a game-changer for making the record …
Oh, man …
Yeah – it was caused by acute tendonitis, not a fall, but nonetheless the tendon came off the bone and I was in bad shape. We had to cancel a two-week tour that was meant to be a warm-up for cutting the record.
I took that time off, went up to Nashville and stuck to the plan – and we cut all those tracks that day.
Did you have a cast or a splint?
I used a splint to some degree whenever it felt tired. I was actually told by a physical therapist that it was best to keep blood flow and energy flow – that’s how it was going to heal. The original prognosis was to go into a cast for a month and I wasn’t going to do that. It would’ve been a bad idea. So with just physical therapy, rest, and some supplements, I actually came out the other side of it pretty well.
So Audley’s role was to support you?
That’s right. His sound is very distinctive; he’s got more of a grittier tone, you know? You can really hear the difference between the two instruments on “Thump And Bump”, which is an instrumental. That’s Audley playing that rhythm part out front.
I can hear the contrast, but you complement each other well.
I could talk gear with you all night, but I promised myself that I wouldn’t. I did want to ask, though: knowing it was a one-day session, what did you bring for guitars?
Well, I had probably five different instruments available to me, but I used almost entirely a ’68 Les Paul and a ’66 Epiphone Riviera – the same one I used on the last record.
How about amps?
I’ve been using the same exact amplifier on every record I’ve done since 1983: a Dumble Overdrive Special. I have two of them. I occasionally use a Fender Super Reverb for a rhythm part or a Deluxe, but generally – about 95% of the time – I’m using the Dumble.
You’ve always had a great tone, no matter what the combination of guitar and amp has been. What do you use to get your leads out there without altering your signature tone?
The Dumble has an overdrive channel; it also has a 2db boost. Basically, it bypasses the tone circuitry and that just gives the amp a 2db boost. That’s generally what I use – it’s almost like just cranking the amp up, but it remains clear … and I like that. I like hearing the sound of the amp and the guitar sounding like the amp and the guitar.
When you crank it on, it simply sounds like the guitar takes a deep breath and lets loose – but it retains its voice.
(laughs) Thank you.
So what were the ground rules going in? You didn’t have the time to focus too long on getting any one song down.
Trusting each other. (laughs) We had nine songs to record in one day. As you say, we couldn’t spend more than an hour on any one song. We were supposed to do that two-week tour and play this music beforehand, as it was new music, but the tour was aborted because of the wrist fracture.
I just sent the guys little demos that I did – just acoustic guitar and vocals sitting on my couch – and charts. I charted everything. So they were able to listen to my little demos and look at the charts and have some sense of what was going to happen going in.
Once we got there, we just started playing. I’d make suggestions here and there, and somebody else might make a suggestion … but pretty much everyone was able to just start playing.
The drums were probably the thing that required the most attention, as whatever the drummer’s doing sets the entire table. But Wes is so good; so creative; and he brings so much when he shows up.
So, yeah – about an hour a song, man.
Keep on jammin’: click here to read the conclusion of my interview with Robben Ford on Jambands.com