Recently, I had the luck to be (re)acquainted with Kris Stuart, lead singer and songwriter for local band Root Jack, and actually get to write about roots music being made right here in my own lil’ backyard of Portland, Oregon.
Root Jack is a three-piece southern-roots-rock (or whatever) band made up of Kris Stuart (formerly of Moonshine Hangover), Kevin Cowan (dead-ringer for Jason Isbell) and drummer Chris Hutton (full disclosure: we made out at a barn). Their new album, In The Pines, was produced by Jon Burbank, of I Can Lick Any SOB fame, and sounds quite a bit fuller than you would expect of three dudes in a studio. That said, their live set also takes it up quite a few notches.
I was at their record release show with Truckstop Darlin‘ a month or so ago at North Portland’s Kenton Club. A few songs into their set, my friend K turned to me and said “this is an entirely irony-free zone”. If you’re not from Portland, you may not get how rare and valuable that is. And if you don’t appreciate songs with lyrics like “gonna drink your whiskey, steal your women,” well — stop reading now.
If you’re still reading, you might enjoy the following exchange Kris and I had recently.
So, lyrically, you start the album by talking about geography. Where are you from?
As an adult I have lived in Atlanta, GA, Minneapolis, MN, near Grand Rapids, MI, Las Vegas, back to ATL, back to MPLS and to Portland in ’02. I moved something like 13 times before the age of 18. It is something that has always been a great way to re-invent and leave behind things I want to change. There also have been times where I was just running from me, but it has mostly just been for adventure.
We moved here, having never been here, to get away from Minnesota. Horrible weather, and also, we found it hard to make friends. I don’t know if I would ever leave here now. It is mostly the people and the attitude. I love not being the freakiest guy in the room anymore.
I’m from Upstate NY and I love that only people from Upstate and Minnesota move to Portland for the weather. Also, there is value in not being the freakiest person in the room. I feel like a goddamn square sometimes in Portland, but I might be an anomaly elsewhere.
How has geography influenced your songwriting and music?
The south and “southern rock” is pretty evident in my music. It isn’t something I try to do, or even like that much, to be honest. I haven’t listened to “southern rock” much on purpose ever. I think I am writing punk rock and country songs. The fact that they sound like Atlanta classic rock radio (and I am just getting to the place where I hear it myself and admit it) must just be in me.
As my mom would say: Who is this Willie Pete character? Does he use drugs?
Glad you asked! It’s actually a weapon. The idea for this song was Chris Hutton’s. He called me one night and made me look up WP. It is a horrible weapon. It does horrible things. He said “what if the song was about WP, but written from the perspective of him be the baddest, meanest son-of-a-bitch that ever lived.” It is really a war protest song, but I realize it doesn’t come off that way. When I made the video, my idea was to put a bunch of text in it explaining what WP was so that nobody got the wrong idea, or thought that I was all “GO AMERICA!!”. I showed it to a film maker friend of mine (Tony Fulgham) and he said that would be too heavy handed. I respect him and went with it. I still think that it could be easily misconstrued if more than 10 people ever saw it. Seeing as how that ain’t gonna happen, I guess I got nothing to worry about!
The album is called In the Pines, one of the songs is “Pastor of the Pines” and that phrase comes up in at least one other song. Are The Pines a metaphor for something? What does that image mean to you?
All of the logging stuff is on purpose. None of it is literal, though. I am not a logger, and don’t even want to get into a conversation about de-forestation and the politics of tree farming, etc. The idea here is just that in this part of the country, there was a time when, if you were un-educated and needed to provide for your family, you worked “in the pines”. The logging stories are a way to frame a story that is universal to a man who has to take whatever work is available to him. That is me, but it is hard to rhyme “telecommunications” in a song.
I’m such a bad Oregonian, I didn’t even get the logging reference. My penance will be extra camping, I suppose.
What’s a Root Jack?
A logging tool. Kinda sounds cool. Looks good in print. That is all.
Sounds good in song, too. (See “30 Days” off In The Pines)
What have you been listening to lately that I need to check out?
Oh god… I haven’t found much current music lately that I like. I found out about the drug-fueled Chubby Checker record a while ago, and that is fantastic. I LOOOOVE 60′s and 70′s Jerry Lee Lewis when he plays country music. My (kind-of) brother in law is in Radio Moscow – heavy psychedelic blues… AWESOME live. That all said, I like the Maldives, I like Drunken Prayer, I saw the Two Man Gentleman Band last night with my 13 year old son and we both LOOOVED it. Jeff Marshall and the Law are a Seattle band, very Radio Nationals-ish.
Your hair is amazing. What kind of product are you using?
Um, conditioner? I don’t wash it very often, I think that might be the real secret.
Your live set is pretty great. Where can we find you guys playing whiskey-drinking tunes soon?
We’re playing free happy hours at the Laurelthirst in Portland with Morgan Geer December 15th and 22nd – 6:00PM.
We are playing Olympia and Seattle with Hillstomp on 1/27 and 1/29, with a TBD 1/28.
Below you’ll find a couple tracks off In The Pines. Kris and I are happy to share with you the complete album in exchange for drinks and/or tips on hair product (ok, that last one was all me). Email me (email@example.com) if you’re interested.