For an accurate preview of what awaits in Asheville-based artist Warren Givens’ Rattle the Cages, look no further than its cover imagery. The split portraits of the Mississippi native, painted by local artist Melanie Norris, are a window into the duality of the 11-song, two-part collection, which was released on Aug. 7.
The first five songs are full-band rock ’n’ roll, which marks new territory for Givens. Following a single “median” track, the final five songs are acoustic iterations of the front five — an ode to his background in bluegrass. The songs are products of Givens’ past five years, in which he “did a lot of growing” — namely falling in love with his eventual wife and moving to Western North Carolina.
“I wanted to take a step in a new direction with the rock ’n’ roll versions of the tunes, but wanted to still display my roots and where this all comes from, because those tunes weren’t exactly written with full-band rock ’n’ roll in mind,” says Givens.
While the rock versions were all recorded pre-pandemic, the acoustic reworkings were born during the nationwide lockdown. Givens — who also regularly tours with the Steep Canyon Rangers and has recorded backing vocals for the likes of Miranda Lambert — tracked the vocal and guitar parts of each song using the voice memo feature on his iPhone, then sent the snippets to Black Mountain-based producer Seth Kauffman (Floating Action; Jim James), who overlaid drums and bass.
“We had always kind of had the idea to do acoustic versions of the tunes, so it seemed fitting to do that then since I wasn’t able to go into his studio or anything,” Givens says. “I don’t know of another record that’s ever been recorded straight to the voice memo app on an iPhone.”
The middle track falls into its own category, as it’s the only one on the album that features outside vocals. Givens wrote them specifically for his younger sister, Ivy. “We flew her down from Brooklyn and got around a big dynamic mic, old-school bluegrass style like we used to do it back in the day, and just kept it really simple,” he says.
Givens moved to Asheville four years ago from Nashville, where he studied music business at Belmont University. Rattle the Cages marks his first release since relocating, and he wanted the project to reflect the joy his new home has given him.
“Moving here, I just wanted to get North Carolina people involved and make it superfun,” he says. “There was a lot about the Nashville scene that was superrigid that I wanted to let go of and just have some fun making music again.” warrengivens.com
Working under pressure
While the quarantine period directly influenced Givens’ recording process, the shutdown forced part-time Burnsville resident Matt Walsh to sit on his LP Burnt Out Soul for six months longer than intended.
In late November 2018, Walsh had just released his album The Midnight Strain when he got a call from a connection at famed Columbia Records Studio A in Nashville with an offer to record in two weeks.
“I didn’t have any songs ready, but I just said yes because I wasn’t going to pass up that kind of opportunity,” Walsh says. “So in the middle of trying to promote a brand-new album that was only 2 weeks old, I had to come up with a whole other album on the spot.”
He wrote eight songs that week, throwing together a solo demo of just his vocals and a telecaster. After a single day of practice with Greensboro-based drummer Chuck Cotton in High Point — where Walsh spends his Thursdays-Sundays working on the livestream variety show “The Friday Nite Gamble” — the pair hit the road and arrived in Music City with just enough time to grab a bite to eat before what amounted to a 14-hour recording session. Walsh’s musical associates Mike Salley (pedal steel guitar) and Jerry Sherron (piano/organ) also play on the album, as does Benjamin Fox (mandolin), a friend of the record’s producer, Michael Fohn.
“[The tight turnaround] put a lot of pressure on me, but it was good because it made me have to step up to a higher level,” Walsh says. “That’s what it’s all about for me. If I am not challenging myself, if I’m in my comfort zone, then what’s the point?”
The grind paid off, as evidenced by the beautiful production quality for which the legendary studio is known. Walsh says the new album is “by far” his best, sonically speaking, thanks in large part to an old 1970s API console that had previously been used as a live recording unit for, among other projects, The Band’s The Last Waltz and Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive.
After tracking Burnt Out Soul, Walsh spent six months promoting The Midnight Strain before turning his attention back to the other album. But by the time he and Fohn had the project where they wanted it, the pandemic was erupting. Unable to tour in support of his new record, Walsh waited a few months to see if live music would return to its pre-COVID status, and when it didn’t, he decided on a Sept. 25 release date to put the new tunes out in the world. “It’s been a huge test of patience,” Walsh says with a laugh.
Though known for his blues-inspired guitar, Walsh says Burnt Out Soul allowed him to work on shaping other elements of each track. “It’s a lot different from my other albums in that I really let the guitar take a back seat as far as the instrumentation,” he says. “It’s definitely not a guitar album. There are only eight songs, so I had to make sure they were all stellar songs that each had their own atmosphere.” mattwalshmusic.net