Bring back cheerful music: English guitarist Nick Lowe keeps writing cheeky lyrics

Photo by Dan Burn-Forti

who: Nick Lowe, with Chuck Prophet
what: The Grey Eagle
when: Wednesday, Oct. 10 (8 p.m. $20/$25. thegreyeagle.com)

Nick Lowe has been known as many things: the Stiff Records producer who earned the nickname “basher”; an originator of pub-rock; a leading light of new wave; a hit songwriter; Johnny Cash's son-in-law (for a time); and for the last couple of decades, a country-flavored singer-songwriter. It's in that current guise that the English guitarist brings his solo show to Asheville (the night before appearing at record label Yep Roc’s festival in Carrboro).

Lowe explains that country music has long been near to his heart. “My mother was pretty musical,” he tells Xpress. “She had a pretty good collection of records that I used to play all the time.” In addition to the popular artists, Lowe recalls that his mom “quite mysteriously — she couldn't tell me how she had acquired these — had two 10” albums of music by Tennessee Ernie Ford.” Lowe describes Ford's sound as “California country,” a sort of C&W “with a jazz element to it. And I just loved this stuff.”

“Like everyone of my generation I loved The Beatles, The Kinks, all those bands,” Lowe says. “But when I got older, I got more interested in where The Beatles got their influences.” And that led Lowe toward country. “When I heard that stuff, there was no going back for me.”

The enduring appeal of that American style of music would inform much of his work. While he was a mainstay of ‘70s “pub rock “(a sort of British version of country-rock, not unlike the band Poco) with Brinsley Schwarz, and then a key player in the British New Wave scene (as both producer and performer) the acoustic-flavored country sounds were always there, sometimes just under the surface in his music. Even his most rocking songs — the 1979 hit single “Cruel to Be Kind,” and his “(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” later a hit for Elvis Costello and now regarded as a standard – were built on a subtle foundation of country music.

By the time punk and New Wave hit in England, Lowe had established himself with Stiff, producing albums by Costello, Graham Parker and others. He collaborated with like-minded roots-rocker and producer Dave Edmunds to form Rockpile. That group released only one album under its own name, but served as the backing group on a number of Lowe and Edmunds “solo” albums.

Afterward, Nick Lowe's music went in a more C&W direction. Deftly blending rock, country and wry humor, he went on to record a long string of solo albums. Last year’s The Old Magic is the 14th long-player under his own name. “I still love American music, and it's obvious that I do,” Lowe says. “But I love what happens to it when it comes to this side of the Atlantic. We're in a fabulous position here on this island, because we can choose the bits we want, like making a stew: 'I'll have a bit of New Orleans here.'”

Speaking of humor, Lowe admits that “I used to overdo it when I was starting out.” He may be thinking of his early solo singles “Bay City Rollers We Love You” and its sort of follow-up, “Rollers Show.” Or perhaps “Marie Provost,” a jaunty tune from 1978's Jesus of Cool about a woman who died at home, only to have her corpse nibbled upon by her orphaned dachshund. (“I do like to shock a bit,” Lowe chuckles.)

His goal — then and now — was to deflate the “serious and portentous” conventions of much of popular music, by writing lyrics that he describes as “cheeky.” While he insists he's toned things down, solo numbers like “All Men Are Liars” (covered by Americana sensation Robert Ellis on the new tribute collection Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe) and “I Trained Her to Love Me” show that Lowe's wicked sense of humor remains sharp. 

He's happy when his music, as he puts it, “raises a wry smile” on the lips of the listener. “I'm actively engaged,” Lowe says, “in trying to bring back cheerful music,” Lowe says. “I've looked around, and I've decided that everyone's writing stuff which is gloomy.” He laughs and adds, “Since the music business is in freefall at the moment, this is a project that will keep me busy.”

Bill Kopp is an Asheville-based music journalist whose features and reviews can be found at http://www.musoscribe.com and http://blog.musoscribe.com.

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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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