Tim Easton has been making music for pretty much all of his adult life. He’s made records that, while shifting and eclectic, have mostly hewed to sometimes poppy, usually folky, singer-songrwriter fare leavened with some bracing roots rock. He’s toured relentlessly in support of those records, and he also lays claim to being a modern troubadour of sorts, even as he acknowledges that the word has a pretentious air to it. “I did spend a good seven years of my life drifting around Europe, playing music in the streets, and in clubs, and wherever they would have me,” Easton elaborates, speaking by phone on the way to his hometown of Akron, Ohio, for a break between shows; his tour comes to Cambridge next Thursday. “I’ve been writing it down a lot more, the stories; I kept journals. So I can call myself a troubadour.”
Or, perhaps, a onetime troubadour. The recent birth of his daughter has brought some changes in Easton’s peripatetic ways, and has also led to a move with his family from Joshua Tree, Calif., to Nashville. “After she was born, I realized we needed to get a little closer to the core of my family and the region I came from — closer to rivers, and mountains, and shade trees, and water, and to where there were loads more kids, and also kids of musical parents. And that’s what’s going on in Nashville.”
That change in locale in turn precipitated a musical change: His new record, “Not Cool,” is unlike anything he’s ever done before, full of something he calls “modern vintage.” “The music is inspired by the origins of rock ’n' roll and country. That’s kind of the core of American rock ’n’ roll,” he explains. “I wanted to make a vintage rock ’n’ roll record with a modern bite to it.”
The idea for the record hit Easton hard on the heels of his relocation to Nashville. He was absorbing the town, he says, and trying to figure out what to do; he felt like he needed to get to work, but didn’t yet have anything to focus on. He went to the Americana Music Awards, and afterward, headed across the street to renowned honky-tonk Robert’s Western World, where he saw a couple of locals tearing it up. And, he continues, “it clicked. I saw those guys playing and I thought, ‘That’s what I want. I’ll hire those two musicians, and we’ll do it Tennessee Three style, and then we’ll add drums when we need to.’” He walked out of Robert’s, went to his car and immediately started to put his plan into action by writing one of the record’s songs, “Little Doggie (1962).”
Easton says that he thinks of albums in conceptual terms, and so it was with “Not Cool”; he planned out the whole record, from the title to the artwork to the track sequence. And he hired the players — guitarist J.D. Simo and bassist Joe Fick — he saw that night at Robert’s to make it. Brad Jones, who coproduced the record, points out that the approach that came to Easton in his honky-tonk revelation enabled the singer-songwriter “to be the engineer of his own train,” because there was no drummer in the way. “All of the record got cut with Tim leading a drummer-less trio. So Simo and Fick could sense his tempo; he was setting the tone and the pace on every single take.” The result, Jones avers, was that “a couple of the songs rocked super-hard without a drummer, so we didn’t even [overdub] drums on a couple of songs. And even with the others, it was almost like an afterthought.”
“Not Cool” is certainly suffused with the throwback sound that Easton was after, from the Sun rockabilly swing of “Troubled Times” to the Johnny Cash/Tennessee Three gait of “Little Doggie (1962)” to the feral rock ’n’ roll of “Crazy [Expletive] From Shelby, Ohio.” But it isn’t simply a retro exercise. In that regard, Easton notes, “there’s always tribute going on, and it’s great to reference the past, but when I listen to the record I hear the present as well. It’s not locked in a time capsule; it’s able to breathe today.” Easton also intentionally throws a curveball at the end of the record, by closing with a completely different kind of song (the rootsy, shimmering title track), and then winding that song into a fiddle tune that stands as an instrumental tribute to Levon Helm. “That leads in a new direction,” reasons Easton, “which is back to folk music and acoustic music.”
Whether “Not Cool” itself is a change in direction or just a detour for Easton is not clear. He says that some folks — his wife among them — have indicated their preference for more “of the singer-songwriter acoustic introspective guy. Which is fine, he’ll be back, no worries.” But he’s also discovered that “there hasn’t been a dude in his 40s or 50s that knows the history of rock ’n’ roll a little bit who’s heard the record that hasn’t enjoyed it very much.” And for his part, “I feel like this is my best record, and I’ve never said that before.”Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.