For every glitzy big arena show there are loads of gigs going on in less well-known venues. All over our world of country, roots, americana, there are hugely talented artists working their tails off for a reward that doesn’t necessarily hit the jackpot. They do it because they love it and through their efforts we get to discover new artists and see old friends. One such artist is Don Gallardo who over a twenty year career has released five full-length albums, two EPs and two live albums while constantly touring throughout.
Gallardo has been a regular visitor to the UK, playing gigs at least annually for the past decade. After a successful fifth appearance at the Maverick Festival last weekend Gallardo, his long-time Nashville bassist Travis Stock and from the home shores the equally hard working and seriously accomplished guitarist, Jim Maving are taking their blend of Americana around England’s highways and byways.
Compton is a beautiful little village on the edge of the South Downs in Sussex. At its heart is a village shop, a fine pub and the Parish Room, a compact hall with a welcoming ambience. The show was organised by WemFest, a local not-for-profit community organisation that brings a wide range of artists to the local community. Their schedule is well worth checking out (https://www.wemsfest.com).
Usually pre-show interviews are held in a cramped dressing room or loud bar. Not here, facing views across lush countryside Gallardo and I chatted while sitting on a wall outside the vicarage with the only interruption coming from a tractor heading home. To someone who once again has just unloaded his van, set up his gear and done a sound check thousands of miles from home the first question had to be why? Gallardo laughed and shook his head, “that’s a very good question! I’ve been doing this for twenty years, it’s almost become automatic. There are times when walking into a venue I ask myself the same question. For the past three or four years I’ve been telling my wife I’ll quit but it’s ingrained in me to keep on going. It’s hard leaving my family and home but I still enjoy it”.
As if the US didn’t offer enough opportunity, what’s the attraction of the UK? “Music is more respected over here. The audiences are so welcoming and people listen. You may get someone taking a picture but back home they can’t leave their phones alone. Also the US is just so big. Sure, I have my regional spots but there’s just so many people doing this. TV shows like The Voice make it look easy so people say I can do this no problem, but the reality is driving eight hours a day then lugging your gear up and down stairs. After that you get to perform!”
Gallardo’s songs are full of travelling, is that inevitable or a conscious decision? “I write about experiences so that includes what happens on the road. Hopefully my writing touches people. The audiences over here cracked up when they heard something I wrote while sitting on a train, “there’s not much smiling on the Northern Line”! But there’s also places and relationships, everything really.”
How did growing up in California influence your music? “I had a good start, my mom loved Elvis and my dad loved The Beatles. I got into Sam Cook, Creedence, Elton John, Queen, Willie then all those people who lived in Laurel Canyon, the Byrds, Emmylou all come to mind. Gallardo’s view of Nashville is interesting, “an unbelievable city, the fastest growing in the US. Do you know a hundred people move there every day? It’s a money making machine but as a musician the music world hasn’t changed much for me. Why? Because there’s a great community of musicians, especially where I live in East Nashville. People support each other. I’ve crossed paths with so many, some who are huge names now but we’re all still friends and hang out with each other. I love that”.
When talking about his new record In The Name Of Good Intentions, Gallardo lowered both his modulated voice and gaze as he admitted how close he came to packing it all in. “It had been so hard, it takes a lot of money to make money in this business, it’s not for the weak minded. Earlier this year I went to play a festival in Mexico with the Cordovas and John Osborne thinking this could be my goodbye to playing music. But after hanging out with all those people down there something clicked. When I got home I barricaded myself in my studio for six/seven hours a day then at night writing, recording, engineering and mixing the new record. Other musicians came over including my friend, Lilly Winwood. We’d agreed to do a song together but ended up doing four. The record sounds so organic, and the way I’d set everything up gave it a perfect balance between live and studio”. By now Gallardo was brimming with the enthusiasm of someone starting out as he looked down that country road with renewed hope.
I finished by asking how he would describe what a newcomer to his music might expect. Even for a man as vivid in song as Don Gallardo, his response knocked me off the vicar’s wall. With a chuckle he said, “you have Tom Petty and Johnny Cash driving in a car down the street and they pull over to pick up a hitch-hiker called Bob Dylan”. There’s no following that so we repaired to the Coach and Horses.
When empty the hall had a comforting feel but now full, its character radiated out the door. Gallardo’s opener, Daniel Kemish, showed once again what gems lie in store for those who turn up on time. With two albums of his own material under his belt, his charming and easy going manner, here is a young artist well schooled in country with a bright future.
The stage was a subtly lit alcove at one end of the hall. Gallardo, Stocks and Maving filed in one by one but stopped just short of the stage where they opened from the floor with a perfectly pitched acoustic ‘Down In The Valley’. Gallardo in the middle, together they sang, “Down in the valley we found a place that is covered in silver and in gold/We settled down with the wind and the starlight/ With the rain and the clear light/So the story’s told”. At one with their surroundings they created an immediate atmosphere of community. Then onstage, in the same formation and plugged in they upped the pace with ‘Carousel’ also from Gallardo’s 2015 album Hickory. Feeling every word Gallardo bobs and weaves his acoustic guitar between his compadres’ electrics. Stock laid down a firm bass line and with an early taster of solo Maving interspersed with harmonies this trio sounded like they’ve been together all their lives.
Though wine is taken in the Parish Room, probably not to the levels in ‘Burgundy Wine’, a song more suited to a honky-tonk bar. Being on the road is a hard life but already it was clear why Gallardo continues. He’s a natural writer, singer and entertainer. Between songs he introduces what’s next, a bit of context where required and keeps up a continuous stream of gags mainly at the expense of his old mate Travis Stock.
Maving communicates through his guitar, ‘The Golden Rule’ gave him ample opportunity to show why he teaches the instrument as well as play in various bands. From almost western swing he slipped into blues rock, and when the slide came out, perhaps his natural habitat, he let rip with some intricate fretwork. What comes across is how these guys blend then switch styles. As if maintaining the community spirit no-one dominates, the solo emerges, flies just high enough then descends back to join the others.
From the new record came ‘Shine A Light On Me’ where Stock shows he’s a pretty good singer too. Taking advantage of his turn as lead he returned a few one-liners with bone dry wit. Do these guys keep this up in the van between gigs? Gallardo offered the audience a cover or a song about his son. Unanimously the latter won so again from the new record came ‘Rhyder’, a song of touching and wise advice from father to a young son.
Even in a small hall in England ‘The North Dakota Blues’ painted a bleak picture of life, and death on the edge. “We are outlaws never in-laws/ we lived our days without a cause”, a tale of robbery, pursuit and their gloomy consequences, “never trust a woman whose name is risky, and make sure you don’t run out of whiskey”.
All three showed their chops in the final two songs; Gallardo switched to the blues on ‘How Many Days’ and ‘Down By The Banks of the Mississippi’ where on his bass Stock matched the river’s flow and Maving its swirling currents and eddies. It was a powerful finish.
As Gallardo said, life on the road is hard and you’ve just got to play the hand you’re dealt. I just hope the warmth and strength of the audience he found in this lovely place will sustain him. Till the next time, Don.