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Classic Vintage: An Interview With Jay Brown Of American Roots Band Lazybirds

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Jay Brown, the co-vocalist, co-songwriter, guitarist, and pianist of the American roots band Lazybirds shines a light on the long-running act’s classic appeal. Lazybirds has been going strong for nearly 20 years with its members well-versed in old-time bluegrass, blues, honky-tonk, and Appalachian folk music. The double-album Time Machine was delivered at the end of last year and it’s full of spirited and engaging vintage covers and original songs by the band.

Stereo Embers Magazine: Hi Jay! How are you doing? Before we go into your latest recording, the ambitious and accomplished double-album, Time Machine, can you please tell us who’s in the band and what instruments you play?

Jay Brown: James T. Browne is on drums and vocals, I’m on guitar, harmonica, piano, and vocals, Alfred Michels is on fiddle and acoustic guitar, and Mitch Johnston is on bass and vocals, although recently it’s been Don Rawson on bass and vocals.

SEM: How long has Lazybirds been active? Who founded the band and is the latest line-up the same as in prior years?

Jay: We’re going on our 19th year. James and I moved up to Boone, North Carolina in the early 1990s. We had been playing as a duo in Birmingham through high school. When we moved up to Boone we befriended Mitch, who lived next door to our rental. For a couple years he would hang out with us, listen to us practice, and listen to old records with us. Then one day he fetched his old cello that he’d played in middle school out of the basement and started playing along with us like it was a bass. That was the beginning of our band.

A few months later, our new-found friend Andy Christopher made the switch from my guitar student to our band mate, Mitch got himself a fine upright bass, and the 4 of us became Lazybirds. We played as a four-piece for about 6 years, and then one night at a party way out in the country we had the good fortune to play with Alfred Michels, who was sort of an underground legend at the time in the world of old-time and bluegrass music. Turns out he had a secret yen to play blues and honky-tonk, and he fell in with us and never looked back. Andy Christopher had to drop out a couple years later due to the sudden onset of a strange and life-threatening heart disease. We dedicated the album Broken Wing to him. Lately he has been sitting in on our practices and we’re all hopeful he’ll be able to jump back in with us sometime soon.

Don Rawson is the most recent addition. Mitch decided it was time, after 19 years, to hang it up for a while in order to spend more time with his family. So our buddy Don jumped in and is doing a fine job.

SEM: You released Time Machine late last year and it’s bustling with the engaging spirit and sound of traditional vintage American roots music where you travel through panoramic views of swing, country, bluegrass, folk rock, blues, and other territories. Mastering so many musical styles is quite a feat! Do you each have a specific genre you prefer to play?

Jay: When we get together we love to play all the old stuff, and we all like to mix it up. As long as it has the good old feeling we dig it.

SEM: From what I understand you’ve only recently composed original material, which is mixed in with several classic covers on Time Machine. Why did you wait so long to create your own songs?

Jay: I’ve been writing songs for about 25 years, and when we formed Lazybirds all those years ago, I was immersed in learning and absorbing all the great styles and sounds that we were just discovering together. I just wanted to be Big Bill Broonzy. When I would bring original material to the band it was usually instrumentals, but they fit nicely in our repertoire. Then in 2004 I recorded a double album of original songs called Protest Songs, Folk Songs, and Spirituals with Lazybirds. But we rarely played any of those songs at our gigs. More recently I’ve been writing songs that I felt fit with the Lazybirds experience. I think Broken Wing was the first Lazybirds album to have some originals that stuck in our repertoire. Mitch and James have written some great stuff for the band as well.

SEM: What was the experience like to compose your own material?

Jay: Writing music is about my favorite thing to do, though to see me do it probably wouldn’t look like much fun. Once an idea for a song comes, you just hold on and don’t let go till you have something that moves you in some way. So I may be driving down the road, or laying in bed at 3 in the morning, and I’m looking for that elusive last verse. When you find it, it feels like it’s been there all along, and you just finally saw it glistening in the corner of your eye. Most of what comes to me is more of a singer-songwriter style that I probably wouldn’t bring to the band, but when one comes along that will fit with the classic roots of the band, ideally it feels like some obscure old gem that we dug up somewhere.

SEM: Can you drop some details about the double-album, like the main differences between the 1st and 2nd record and why you chose certain songs to cover?

Jay: We wanted to do a double album, with one of the discs being live, for a couple reasons. For one, we wanted people to be able to hear what we sound like at our gigs, without any overdubs. Usually the best we ever play is late into a gig, when the crowd gets a little more rowdy and we have the possibility of getting into some sort of old-timey honky-tonk trance. We’ve never quite captured those moments, but this disc comes close. We recorded the live disc at Pisgah Brewing in Black Mountain, North Carolina. George, the great soundman there, recorded us on multi-track, and my dad mixed it at his studio Higher Ground, in Birmingham. We recorded disc 1 at Higher Ground, where we’ve done almost all of our recordings.

The way we record in the studio is not too far off from our gigs, but we may add a few things like harmonies, fiddle or guitar solos, or Rhodes piano. As for which songs to record, it just sort of pops into place somehow. Half of the time it will be a song that we’ve been digging at gigs, and other times one of us will have the thought that an arrangement of one we’ve never done before would fit nicely, like “Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” for instance.

SEM: Out of all the cover songs you recorded for the album, which is your favorite? My fave is your rendition of “Way Out There” by Sons of the Pioneers. I love those yodeling vocal harmonies!!

Jay: Thanks! That’s one of our favorites as well. The first song on disc 1 is one of my favorites – the old Big Bill Broonzy classic “Mindin’ My Own Business”. I love the raw sound of the band, and James sings the mess out of it.

SEM: Can you give a brief rundown of your discography? I’m not exactly sure, but I think Time Machine may be your 5th studio album.

Jay: Lazybirds is our first album, put out around 2002, followed by my Protest Songs, Folk Songs, and Spirituals that I mentioned above; then Lazybirds Live a couple years later. Then it was a few years before we got back to record Broken Wing, which is the last album to feature Andy Christopher. After that was American Roots a couple years ago, and finally Time Machine. We’ve also been the backing band for some great records, including jazz and blues singer Kally Price, old-time musician Brian Yerman, and songwriter Matt Rue.

SEM: Are you all originally from the Appalachian region of North Carolina? How much does the natural environment influence your music?

Jay: We’ve been there for a couple decades, and it has felt like home from the moment we arrived. James and I came up from Alabama. Alfred made the journey from Germany. Mitch and Don are both from Carolina. I think the rolling, ancient Appalachian mountains have a wonderful effect on our music. And they’ve had their effect on all the old musicians who recorded some of our favorite music all those years ago. To me, if you want to hear the sound of the Appalachian mountains in the most pure form, you can hear it in the music of Etta Baker, who was from Morganton. To me, her music just sounds like the Blue Ridge mountains in music form.

SEM: It looks like had a CD Release Party on March 4th at Lost Province Brewing Co. in Boone, North Carolina. Was this to celebrate the CD-format release of Time Machine? Was your album only available in digital form before?

Jay: This was our Boone-area CD release. We had already had one in Asheville at Pisgah Brewing.

SEM: You’re admired as a live band and have played countless shows under your collective belt over the years. Which gigs have stood out the most for you?

Jay: Our first gig in Boone will always stand out to me – It’s a beautiful memory that I hold dear.  The LEAF (Lake Eden Arts Fest) is a great experience for musicians – getting to see so many great musicians from all around the world, in such a beautiful setting.  Not to mention all the great ethnic food.  Playing with Doc Watson at DocFest in Sugar Grove was amazing.  And to me, some of the late night gigs at Marty’s in Birmingham are memories I’ll treasure – just having that gritty, juke joint, slightly altered state of consciousness that comes around 4am after playing all night.

SEM: Did any of you have previous experience playing solo or in other bands before joining Lazybirds?

Jay: Yes, James and I had an acoustic duo and later a trio in Birmingham throughout high school, and then we had a good electric band called Java with some friends, which was fun but fairly short-lived. I’ve always done solo shows on the side as well.  Alfred used to play with The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers as well as The Morning Dew Band.  Don Rawson played with County Farm, Abe Reed, as well as several other bands.

SEM: The term ‘lazybird’ doesn’t seem to exist, with the exception of the good old Merriam Webster dictionary stating it’s a variation of ‘cowbird’, a North American songbird that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. Is that the origin of your band name or am making a stretch?

 Jay: Wow, I’ve never seen that definition!  Come to think of it, The Cowbirds would have been a good name.  I got Lazybirds from a jazz book that included the Coltrane tune “Lazybird”.  I just liked the look and sound of the word, and at the time we had more of a laid back, sittin’-on-the-porch kind of feel.

SEM: Lastly, can you please list your official site(s) where we can find out more about you and your music?