Dustin Welch’s new Tijuana Bible album spotlights earthy protagonists who frequently search for better days under heavy clouds. “Mother, please forgive your son/That is my one and only prayer/I’ve got the taste of ash and iron on my tongue/Every word I let escape hangs in the air,” he sings on “Ash and Iron.”
Welch brightens his sophomore effort with an explosive rhythm section.
“It ended up feeling like a fairly uplifting record to me even though there are a lot of darker themes,” the Austin resident says. “Maybe it’s just because it’s loud and rock ‘n’ roll and empowering.”
CMT Edge spoke with Welch about the new album, his songwriter father Kevin Welch and the workshops he conducts with military veterans.
CMT Edge: How did Tijuana Bible take shape?
Welch: I had a lot of the songs even when we made [Welch’s 2009 debut] Whiskey Priest. It took me so long to get around to making my first record, I had plenty of material. Oddly enough, the title track was actually the last one to be written, which happened with Whiskey Priest, too. I think, in a way, getting those songs capped it off.
When did you start recording this album?
It’ll be almost three years ago by the time we release the record. All the sessions were done pretty quickly, but I didn’t have a way to put it out, so I ended up sitting on this thing for quite a while. It’s a huge relief to get to release it.
Was making the title track the closing song intentional or logistical?
It just happened organically like that. When I got the title track, I went, “OK, I think I’ve got enough for a record now.” I had a batch of songs that all kind of worked together, and I had a bunch that didn’t fit with this particular project for one reason or another.
Does the album have a common lyrical theme?
I don’t know if it does or not, just because the songs were written years apart from each other. There’s one song on there that I started when I was 18.There are probably lots of the same types of themes that I’m exploring in there. I typically seem to drag my characters through as much hell as possible before they see any sort of redemption — if there even is any.
Which song did you write at 18?
“Tango Blues.” I had a version of that when I was about 18 and went back and dug that back up a few years ago and rewrote it but kept all the melodies the same. That was a big thing to get to use the Astor Piazzola “Libertango” piece in the intro. I’d always dreamed about being able to do that. He’s sort of the nuevo tango master. I always knew that it’d work, but I didn’t know how we could pull it off. I’d learned that piece on guitar years ago.
Is “Ash and Iron” newer?
Yeah. There were a few components. I had this banjo line, and then the bass line was a guitar part I had in my head. Then all the components came together separately, and I wanted to use that West African sounding chant that’s going on in there.
I started that up at Steel Bridge, a song festival up in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., this cool thing that Pat MacDonald puts on every year. They take 30 or 40 songwriters and throw you into a hotel for a week and turn you loose on each other. Everybody sits around and writes together, and a couple of rooms are converted into recording studios. So I had that chant part in my mind, and I started writing that as an a cappella song. As we were doing it, I realized that it fit right on top of these other two melodies I had, as well.
The drums are heavy.
Yeah, these things went together in such an interesting way, and putting that big John Bonham drumbeat behind it is a very odd combination of styles that somehow seems to work. When I got back home, I went out to Wimberley, Texas, where my dad lives, and I was staying at his little one-room cabin he has on his property. I was putting together a demo for the song and realized that it still needed a little work. I was trying to write a chorus, and he came down and listened for about a minute and a-half and went, “Well, what if you said this?” We ended up writing the chorus right there.
Has having a songwriter father been a blessing or curse for you as an artist?
Well, I know a lot of folks complain because you’re automatically having comparisons drawn to you, but it’s been a total blessing for me. I still regard my dad as one of the finest songwriters alive. It’s always a true sign when within musicians’ [circles] I hear folks speak really highly of him. To be raised around some of the finest writers in the industry allowed me to have an incredible education.
And you were raised in Nashville?
Yeah, I’d just turned 25 when I moved to Austin.
How did growing up in Nashville shape you as a musician?
You know, I worked in tape rooms at publishing companies and ran the kitchen at the Bluebird Café for years and ran sound there. It definitely shaped the work ethic. It’s so competitive there and there are so many working songwriters and they treat it like a 9 to 5 job. Having that kind of work ethic instilled in me early on was really helpful. I’m primarily a co-writer, too, and co-writing’s the norm in Nashville. I enjoy that process so much more than just sitting there banging my head up against the wall on my own.
Do you miss Nashville?
Nashville’s actually gotten a lot cooler. It was really drying up when I split town, but I was there [in October] for the SESAC Awards, and there’s a lot of really great stuff going on there now. … But for my own purposes, it makes a lot more sense being here.
So Austin feels more like home?
Yeah. One thing I’ve noticed is you can get a song that you’ve labored over — and you finally get it, and you’re so proud, and you show it to some other musicians in Nashville — a lot of times, the person will go, “Well, I can write a better song than that.” I notice in Austin, if there’s a good song, everybody goes, “That’s amazing. The world needs more of those. What can I do to help?”
Also, the audiences in Texas really support musicians. Just this past weekend, I was playing in Nacogdoches, and some folks drove in from two hours away. You see that a lot. The real patrons get behind you and go to a lot of trouble to support the artists.
Explain the SoldierSongs songwriting workshops you do with veterans.
There was an album called Voices of a Grateful Nation that was released about three years ago, and they asked me to contribute a song for it. I’d written the song “Sparrows” that’s actually on Tijuana Bible, and it’s about a returning Vietnam vet, although I never really say that in the song.
After the record came out, they wanted to make an album that was kind of a “welcome home and thanks for your service” record. I realized that I was one of the only guys involved in that project that was the same age as the guys over there fighting. I didn’t enlist or anything, so I said, “Put me to work. Whatever I can do.” That got me around a lot of vets, and I got to know some of them really well and became friends with them and realized how much music was a part of what kept them going. It’s what they turned to in a lot of ways.
And these workshops are branching out beyond Texas, right?
Yeah, we met a guy out in Grand Junction, Colo., who was doing a real similar thing, and we started touring together. And now after doing it for a year, we’ve got five programs all throughout Texas, chapters going in Idaho and Colorado and Florida. Chelsea Crowell, Rodney’s daughter, is working on starting one in Nashville. We’ve got guys in Kansas City that want to get one going. It’s taken over my weekly duties. It’s remarkable that there are some great songs coming from it.
Do you find that the vets are grateful for the attention?
Yeah, soldiers have those protective qualities but also never ask for anything. They don’t want any kind of special treatment, but that somebody’s willing to sit down once a week and pick on a guitar, most of these guys love having this instrument they can turn to. For me as a musician, of course, I understand that, but it took this before I realized it kind of works for anybody. There’s a therapeutic quality to songwriting. Trying to help someone find a role in society is a heavy thing. Somehow, songs can communicate what they need easier than sitting down to talk to a psychiatrist.