Tumbling down

Over the last 20 years, millions of people have experienced Pink Floyd’s The Wall and heard only the psychedelic strains of that progressive concept album, helped, of course, by soaring electric-guitar waves, thunderous drums and full-on, powerful rock ‘n’ roll.

For Luther Wright, it was obvious the album was hiding yet another identity — rescued only with the help of backwoods banjos, weeping pedal-steel guitars and a drastic old-time country-and-western makeover.

But Wright didn’t opt simply to replace the album’s rock instruments with country ones — he fully razed The Wall’s urban-industrial bricks and started over with hay bales, mud and string.

Rebuild the Wall is Luther Wright and the Wrongs’ barnyard reconstruction of the entire two-record, 26-song rock epic, released this year to growing critical acclaim in the U.S. after enjoying the same attention in Wright’s native Canada. In what could only be labeled a musical epiphany, Wright discovered the album’s hidden country tendencies while picking along to The Wall in the back of his band’s van a couple years ago.

“It just came out of the blue and it fit us so perfect, we just went after it,” Wright says over his cellphone, fresh from a soundcheck at Detroit’s Freedom Festival. “We were too naive to think about what ramifications it might have on our career if the album flopped. We just wanted to go out and prove to ourselves that we could do it.”

Now, with the success Wright is enjoying from his maverick take on the classic, he’s able to mix his previous original material and growing base of new songs into the Floyd-filled sets.

“Also, it’s exposed people who may be into Floyd but don’t know about roots music, or alt-country, or whatever you want to call it, what that music is all about,” he says, though he admits there probably won’t be another full-length re-working of Floyd — or any other artist — in the band’s future. “I don’t think so, unless it just comes down to a question of paying the rent. It’s so much work to cover other people’s songs, and we’re fairly prolific, so we don’t have to rely on covers. We’ve got a lot of songs.”

While Floyd fans are notorious for being somewhat protective of the band’s legacy, Wright hasn’t seen much backlash for his undertaking, and even received a letter from Roger Waters stating he enjoyed the record while offering his blessing. “There haven’t been many detractors at all, it’s been real good. Except for one or two who just decided they weren’t going to like it long before they heard it,” Wright laughs over the offstage shuffling audible behind him.

“It shows [Floyd fans] if they really love the songs, and it really shows how great they are, that they can stand on their own and be interpreted in so many different ways. It really opens up a lot of the buried and overlooked songs, especially on the second record. They’re coming through now in a whole new light.”

That’s for sure. While you will surely be able to recognize the galloping bassline in songs like “Another Brick in the Wall,” you won’t find much else that comes close to the original. Altering song tempos and lyrical emphasis (even placing scattered farm-animal soundbites throughout the disc), Wright changed just about everything except the actual order in which the songs arrive, which mirrors that of the Floyd record.

But the band’s fans won’t find too much contrast between the re-worked Floyd tunes and Wright’s original songs. “There’s not much difference. I mean, it’s all hurtin’ music, old-school country. We’re still comin’ at it from the country-western point of view,” he says.

Two previous albums, Hurtin’ for Certain and Roger’s Waltz, propelled Wright into the thick of the alt-country movement, while Rebuild the Wall has been picked up for U.S. distribution by Back Porch Records, the roots-rock wing of the massive Virgin Records, adding testament to the genre’s swelling market. Wright’s upcoming album, titled Broken Heart, is a concept album based on the phenomenon of the three-month relationship. Recently recorded, a release date has yet to be set.

Wright, ex-Weeping Tile bandmate of Canadian breakthrough singer/songwriter Sarah Harmer, shares the concern of many wary of alt-country’s drift to a seemingly apocalyptic marriage with chart success.

“Well, it seems to be a common theme, doesn’t it? You saw it with grunge music, which was supposed to be honest, and it was, but the minute that starts to go away. … It’s like the ‘new country’ boom of the ’80s hit, and record companies started dropping artists like Waylon Jennings.

“I used to be in a punk-rock band, and there are a lot of similarities,” Wright continues. “Old-school country is really just early punk. Hank Williams was the first punk-rock star,” he says. “It’s all live-based music, played by people who like to play, who are into the music, the show, the people.”

Riding the strength of his brave re-styling of The Wall, Wright has broken his name and his music across the Canadian border and will soon find himself deep in the heart of Appalachia.

“The music scene is just much more lively in America. I like the intimacy we’ve had in the smaller venues we’ve been playing in the new markets. Not that I would shun the stadium shows,” he confesses.

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