Part of the way a pop star draws a massive audience is by promoting a consistent, immediately identifiable image, not unlike the makers of this type of shoe or that type of sandwich using ad campaigns to build their brands. But the performers who are the most rewarding to watch decade after decade are those who never close themselves off to growth and reinvention.
Charlie Peacock is just the type. He made ‘80s new wave albums. He co-wrote an early ‘90s Amy Grant pop juggernaut and wrote a book that revolutionized thinking about contemporary Christian music. He helped Switchfoot crack mainstream modern rock. He embarked on several experiment jazz excursions. And he produced a sparse, folk-pop album that just went gold for the Civil Wars.
The latest chapter in Peacock’s career is the nimble roots-pop album, No Man’s Land. (Check out the video for “Death Trap.”) There’s quite a bit of back story, as you might expect of the work of a ruminative songwriter-producer-author, and he was kind enough to hit the high points via email from the road.
CMT Edge: You’ve dedicated No Man’s Land to your grandparents. Do you look at this as a roots album not only in style but in the sense that you’re retracing your own roots?
Peacock: The ancestry roots and influence theme is definitely the engine that’s driving No Man’s Land. Out of that came the idea to lean into the Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma musical roots. Even still, I never meant for it to be a throwback or knock-off of styles — instead, more of a “here I am now in my musical journey, letting these good stories, sounds, and riffs influence me in fresh ways.”
Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma figure into several of the songs — “Mystic,” for instance — and receive a mention in the liner notes. How did that sense of place alter your creative process? I wonder, too, what a focus on geography does to a discussion of spiritual matters, which can often be pretty abstract in modern songwriting?
I suppose place gets featured because it’s so much of the way I put reality together — always hanging on to these three important anchors [of] God, people and place. I don’t think the place you’re born to or the family you’re born into is a neutral act. I think it makes you one kind of person and not another. So, yeah, I would definitely link place, as in a particular 40 acres on the planet with the Spirit, which is as they say, like the wind.
In your varied pop, rock and jazz catalog, there are slight hints of folkiness on an acoustic volume of the West Coast Diaries and on Kingdom Come. But did plunging into making No Man’s Land feel like a new and different thing?
I’ve been playing so much over the last seven years or so with the great country and bluegrass players in Nashville, in one way or another, that it just felt really natural. Ironically, my very first pop recording, Lie Down in the Grass, had a banjo on it. So the instrumentation isn’t totally new, but I’ve certainly never put it together in these combinations before. And I’m planning to continue down this road, even as I look at going back toward the instrumental music I made over the last decade. When you find sounds that echo your heart and soul, you have to stick with them.
The result doesn’t sound like any other roots album I’ve heard this year. With the punchy studio pop and inventive jazz and groove elements, there’s more going on in the musical framing than on a lot of solo singer-songwriter albums. Was the idea to make your version of a roots album?
We just jumped in the studio during three open days I had in my producer schedule — not a ton of planning except in the dreaming and research part with respect to the family stories. A lot went into that. For me, it was all about remembering my grandparents and grandparents’ speaking voices. The sound of their voices and their look, too, was my compass. Plus, I have an old tintype of my great-grandfather from Louisiana holding his fiddle. I looked at that photo a lot, and it kept me inspired and on course. Musically, though, you know, I don’t know much, but I know the DNA of American music. It’s like breathing to me and to the musicians I play with. We were just being who we are as people and musicians and leaning into the blues.
You’ve been adventurous in groove, melody and lyric-writing arenas, as opposed to being known strictly for confessional songwriting or for instrumental improvisation. What shaped your expansive notion of what it looks like to be a singer-songwriter?
I suppose I’m one of those people that sees songwriting as a grand and noble vocation, one to take as seriously as you hope an airline pilot or surgeon takes their work. I’ve been working on my songwriting now for over 40 years since I wrote a little song called “Hey Lady Love” for my girlfriend, Andi, who I married and still sing for. Another thing that might be of some merit is that I love the beauty and power of a well-placed word. I love a great lyric like I love a great conversation — always looking for some beautiful combination of intellect and soul.
During the Civil Wars keynote interview at Americana Music Festival last year, you talked about how energizing it was to work on their Barton Hollow album. Did that experience in any way inspire this album?
The Civil Wars and Barton Hollow is still inspiring me and a lot of other folks, too. I think it was a big wakeup call to all of us to focus on making something you want to listen to yourself and close off any of the “please the gatekeepers” thinking that pervaded popular music over the last several decades. I’m sure I learned things making Barton Hollow that I slipped into No Man’s Land. John Paul White and Joy Williams [of the Civil Wars] are nothing if not crazy inspiring.
Working with the Civil Wars must have given you a glimpse into the Americana world. Do you see this more as a chance to draw that audience into the mix or to show longtime listeners a different side of you?
I’m just making music looking for anyone, anywhere to get on the train and ride with me for a bit. No agendas but love, but I don’t want to discount the idea of the good people in the Americana movement taking notice of the work either. I welcome all genuine interest and friendship.
Is anything on No Man’s Land completely new for a Charlie Peacock album — say, pedal steel?
I do think the pedal steel is the one new sound, but I’ve been working with [steel guitarist] Bruce Bouton on demos and records for a long time, so I guess it was more about having a friend that played the hell out of a unique instrument making my music sound a little more heavenly. I love the high lonesome sound that instrument produces. It’s ache in a box, is what it is.
Do you see yourself taking on more Americana projects in the future?
Well, I just finished Holly Williams‘ new record, which is clearly a folk/Americana project. So, yes, I bet I will produce more artists who want to lean into the great roots music of our country. If so, I’m all in. I have no problem being the guy with arms wide enough to hold Merle Haggard and John Coltrane. That works for me.