"Sixteen Tons" released off Special Edition Reflectere
Reflectere was conceived shortly after the completion of my last release in 2018, Manifest Refugees (Philville Records LP-015), with the original concept being a simple stripped down record featuring mostly acoustic guitar work, reflections on narrative songwriting from my favorite artists, and instrumental numbers. The tracking began in Ventura, CA in March of 2018, and the final tracking/mixing/mastering wrapped up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin in March of 2020.
At the beginning of the project, I was unaware of my pending move back to the upper mid-west after nearly sixteen years on the west coast. As the move became a reality, the album took on a deeper personal meaning and began to feature cameos from Ventura/Portland friends, reworked originals, and several songs that were a reflection on returning to roots and remembrances of songs and times past. With some of the album being tracked in Ventura, and the remaining parts being tracked in Eau Claire, the album became somewhat of a self-fulfilling reality in both concept, and emotion. The cover photograph was taken by Kenyon Hansen in 1999, using a 35 mm film camera, near Little Presque Isle in Marquette, Michigan in the frozen ice caves that sometimes form on Lake Superior. The rear cover photo was taken by Clovis IV in May of 2019, in Montecito, CA.
The first track being released today, Sunday, April 5th, is "Sixteen Tons" written by Merle Travis in 1946. I first heard of Merle Travis in my late teens when I discovered the guitar player Doc Watson, as Doc was also a huge fan (he named his son "Merle" after Merle Travis). Doc made a name for himself as a pioneering flat-pick guitar player in the 60's, but Doc also played a bunch of great tunes by Merle in the same thumb-picked style that came out of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. (Mose Rager, Ike Everly, and the true pioneer, Arnold Schultz, all played thumb picked guitar, with the style taking off and becoming so iconic, it's now simply known as "Travis style" picking, as Merle's success and skills became renowned all over the world).
Back in the late 90's early 2000's, there was no Youtube, and the internet was still limited in what music you could discover, aside from file sharing sites like Napster, etc. So I searched out record shops for anything by Merle Travis, and picked up as many CD's as I could--mostly compilations at that time. The first CD I found with Merle's music on it was a 4 disc set title"Best of the Kentucky Pickers" (or something along those lines--I lost the CD's a long time ago), and it had a few tracks off Travis's legendary 1946 Capitol Records 4-disk 78 rpm box set Folk Songs of the Hills. I was hooked.
Travis had been asked by Capitol records to write an album of traditional folk songs, and he did, but added a few original songs based on the stories he'd heard from his father, brother, and other coal miners back in Kentucky. Two of those originals are now some of his most famous songs, "Sixteen Tons," and "Dark as a Dungeon."
When I set out to make Reflectere, I knew I was going to play a Merle Travis tune, as he is hands down one of my biggest influences. Since this album became (in part) an ode to my favorite songwriters and players, it's no surprise he's on the opening track.
As I began mixing and the song, I had the idea of trying to capture a bit of the feel of being in a mine.
[ I'm also a huge Sam Cooke fan, and I've always loved how he worked in the sound of a hammer onto "Chain Gang."]
So I visualized the opening of "Sixteen Tons" being from the audio perspective of someone venturing into a mine shaft, where the miners are chipping away at the rock. A small radio near the workers kicks on, the song starts, and they eventually sync up their pick-axe, hammer swings, and shoveling with the tune. As the song ends, they go back to mining, and the listener returns back to the surface.
To create the sounds of the axes and hammers, I dragged a hatchet across the brick of my basement fireplace, then used an old railroad spike to tap on the brick as well. I overdubbed the hatchet striking some old metal bars too, and then lastly--to capture the sound of coal being shoveled into a cart--I recorded the accordion-like opening and closing of a Slinky (yep--the toy) into a large diaphragm mic. With enough of the right reverb, I think it ended up being a pretty good audio mimicry of what I was going for.
The guitar I used on the track was a 1964 Gibson L-48, the Dobro is a early 2000's prototype Gonstead spider-cone square neck resonator, and aside from the hatchet/railroad spike/and Slinky taking up a few extra tracks, the whole song ended up being just 8 tracks.
Hope you enjoy, and thanks for listening/downloading! This Wednesday, April 8th, I'll be releasing the second song on Reflectere, "Song For June" by J.J. Baron. More on that tune in a few days...