**Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted by Ken Morton Jr. He is a distinguished country music writer, and the Owner/Editor of That Nashville Sound. Ken is also the organizer of the Golf & Guitars charity event that just concluded another successful installment in May.
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Even if you’ve never heard Erin Enderlin sing, you’re clearly familiar with her work. She is the highly acclaimed songwriter behind songs “Monday Morning Church” by Alan Jackson, “Last Call” by Lee Ann Womack, and a number of other songs from Randy Travis, Terri Clark, Joey + Rory and Tyler Farr among others. You’d be remiss, however, in not going back and discovering (or re-discovering) her 2013 debut album, I Let Her Talk—an incredible record about emotional reactions to traditional country themes of cheating, love, alcohol, and loss.
This Friday (9/1), Enderlin will release her second project, a concept album titled Whiskeytown Crier. She’s enlisted a who’s who of friends and authentic country artists to assist on the project including Jamey Johnson and Jim “Moose” Brown handling producer duties. Artists assisting with vocals on the project include Chris Stapleton, John Scott Sherrill, Randy Houser and Ricky Skaggs.
The 13-track record is traditional at every turn, with a layers of steel, fiddle, and guitar. “I just love the steel,” Enderlin says. “If I could have a steel and fiddle just follow me around to make my own personal soundtrack, I would.”
Of the song themes, even Jamey Johnson—the mostly-dour-topic troubadour—was worried that this group of songs might be collectively too dark. “Can you believe that?” laughs Enderlin. She almost proudly exclaims, “Jamey thought my songs were too sad.” The stories only further exemplify Enderlin’s fantastic ability to carve a story out of the trials and tribulations of small-town America.
“I love story songs. It’s amazing to me how in just three minutes, you can create a whole character who wasn’t there before that you can really see and even understand.”
Enderlin was kind enough to carve out a little time for an interview with Saving Country Music to discuss the new project.
This is a bit of a concept album. Tell me about this fictional town of Whiskeytown.
Jamey [Johnson] actually had the idea. We actually ended up cutting 28 songs. So we have enough for two albums. But in trying to put together the right grouping for this album and how it all fit together, Jamey came in one day and asked what if all these songs were set in a place called Whiskeytown and this was kind of like a newspaper where people went and got all of their news of all the crazy stuff that was going on in this town. And obviously with a name like Whiskeytown, you know, probably not all good things happen there. I kind of have it from that perspective where the old town criers would tell the news from town to town before they had papers. You know, people would bring the news.
So for those that haven’t heard the album, how does that theme of the newspaper then carry out throughout the album?
The album starts with an intro introducing the town. And then in between the songs, there’s some different atmosphere going on like they’ll hear wrestling in the barn in the background or church bells or a paper being delivered. My favorite thing in music and reading is character development. I think there is a lot of characters in this album that jump out at you.
How much is real story in those characters and how much is fictional? Or is there a blend of everything?
That’s the amazing thing about being a writer is you don’t have to tell. You get to live some of your stories. You put some of your personal experiences with your own personal emotions too, but you don’t have to necessarily share the exact truth.
Is there a favorite protagonist in any of the stories for you?
I mean “Baby Sister” is definitely a favorite of mine. Just because it probably reminds me of my own baby sister even though she hasn’t murdered anyone.
That you know of.
(Laughter) That I know of. Anyway, she’s just sassy and there are elements of that story that remind me of our relationship. I don’t know. You know “Broken” is a song that is really close to me. It’s the only song on the record I wrote by myself. When I was growing up, I did a program that was peer counseling in high school and it really just had a huge impact on me talking to these different kids and their situations, their home situations, and how that was playing out in their own lives back then. I don’t know. It was kind of special and it was a kind of a raw song.
I think it’s very possible.
That’s exciting too. You mentioned Jamey’s involvement and Moose Brown as well. Tell me about their influence on this project.
Moose and I have worked together for a long time. I think we started working together about 15 years ago now. He is just one of the most creative and talented musicians that I’ve met in this town.
He’s a great writer. We have worked on a lot of my favorite songs together. He really took the time with this. I mean he played a lot of different parts going back on the tracks that seemed like they needed a little something else. He’s also really good at pairing the track down. Because I don’t really want to make just a raw sound. I want each of the instruments spaced out and to have their unique place on the album. He’s spent an enormous amount of time on this album. I can’t really stress that enough.
Jamey came in and I think he really helped me feel confident to just be myself and do whatever I wanted in the studio. I feel lucky for that. In Nashville—or anywhere in life—being yourself and really being able to be true to yourself is one of our biggest fights in life. This album I got to go all in. I used the money I got from my single on Lee Ann Womack’s “Last Call” and I got to do exactly what I wanted. I got to cut the songs that I wanted.
I’m really proud of it. I feel like at the end of the day no matter what else happens with it, I know that I’ve made an album that if I have left this world tomorrow I would still like with all my passion. Everything I love about country music, people can hear that in this album. I’m really proud of that and I think Jamey really helped me do that. He helped really keep the barometer for the feel and the emotion in the song and bring in a little bit more of that dark edge to life.
It was also his idea for me to cut a couple of my favorite songs that I hadn’t written, a couple of cover songs. I ended up cutting “Hickory Wind” and “Till I Can Make It on My Own.” Both of them were kind of daunting. I maybe wasn’t looking at it the same way that he was. I was like, “There’s no way I can do it better than they could do it.” He was like, “No, that’s not the point. You put it in your way. You show your influences and maybe someone hears your record and they discover Gram Parsons or Tammy Wynette through that.”
And that just kind of brings that other dimension which I love about country music. I grew up watching the Opry with Dolly [Parton], Roy Acuff, and Jimmy Dickens. One of my favorite things was it really seemed like it was a great community, a creative community that came together. They all supported each other. I mean back then, they hopped in their car and would drive eight hours and go play a show together.
You mentioned community. I know you can hear Chris Stapleton’s voice on a couple of tracks. I know you guys’ relationship goes way back as well. Maybe for those that don’t know that background, tell us about his involvement on the record and then how you guys originally met in Nashville.
Chris was kind enough to come in and sing some harmony. That’s one of the great things about this album taking so long to be able to get out is that these days I don’t know if he’d even have time to be in Nashville to do it. But when I moved to Nashville, Chris was already getting tons of crowds. In my eyes, he was already a star.
About 14 years ago or so I moved into a house in Green Hills that another songwriter owned and there were several different songwriters and musicians renting rooms out of this house. There was a bachelor apartment underneath the house. Chris lived down there and I rented a room upstairs and so we shared the living room and kitchen.
It was kind of funny because we’re both kind of socially awkward. We’d almost like spook each other if we came in the kitchen at the same time. But he’s such a great soul and when I would lay awake at night, I could hear him singing through the air-conditioning vent. I just remember laying there and being like, man, you know, someday I’m going to tell people [this], they’re not going to believe it, and they’re going to be super jealous because I mean I was like… man.
You have another guest on the album also with Randy Houser. Tell me how that came about.
Yeah, Randy is awesome. You know it’s so funny running around town and people will tell you when you first moved here that you’re not going to believe the different paths people take and all that. I remember playing a kind of mediocre crappy bar with Randy and Jerrod Niemann probably 15 years ago and being blown away by them.
We had this duet and we were thinking about who should be on it and Moose actually had the idea of Randy, and so we reached out to him and he was kind enough to come and sing on it. I just think it’s a good addition to that song. That lonely country mournful greatness.
Collectively, the voices that you have along with your own bring such a traditional authenticity with all of them. I mean it blends with the album amazingly well.
Thank you. I really want to mention that Marty Stuart is one of my favorites. His concept records that he has, especially The Pilgrim, were really influential on me. So when Jamey started talking about a concept record, that’s kind of where I went in my mind. I was like, “Yes. I can get into this.”
Since we’re talking about influences I know your guitar has a name. Tell me about that.
It does. It’s named Jimmy Dickens. Jimmy worked at the Opry for so long and I’ve always been a fan of his. Working at the Opry, he just came in every night and he’s in a great mood and ready to work and grateful to be there. He didn’t seem jaded at all. I mean I’m not pointing a finger at anybody, but some performers have been there a long time and they’re just focusing on the hard part of things. I don’t know. Maybe they’ve gotten a little jaded over the years but Jimmy always came in and gave it 150%. He was always excited to be there and to entertain folks and was able to keep that positive energy.
He’s such an incredible life and story from the different cities he’s worked to and songs that he has. I mean he probably would have said life just turned out that way. I mean like I’ve done my life’s work now. But I was really inspired by that and by him so I started calling my guitar that. The night that I got to play the Opry, I was kind of bummed because he’d been really sick and he hadn’t been at the Opry a couple of weeks. But that night he wasn’t able to sing on the Opry but he came out to visit. And so I got to know him in the dressing room and get him to sign the guitar.
I have some really great pictures from that memory. It was really cool and his signature doesn’t even look real. It’s like the most perfect thing I’ve ever seen.
He was a super human. Of course, it would be.
I know. I think maybe he hides a little cut out like stencil in his pocket.
Like one of those stamps that he just whip it out of his pockets and throws them on there. Although he was so little, that stamp would never fit in any of his sparkly pockets.
Man, those jokes. I mean, he could tell the same joke every night and I would still really laugh forever.
I could not agree more. My wife would say, “We heard this joke the last the time we were at the Opry,” and I always thought it was still funny as hell.
One time he looked at me when he did the joke where he’s like, “I see you taking the picture. I know what you’re going to do with that. You’re going to put that on your dresser and I’m here to tell you I’d come to the dresser myself to put it on.” I thought, “Yes. Finally. I’m part of this legendary story.”
That’s very funny. How would you compare this project to I Let Her Talk, you know sonically and lyrically for someone who had heard that first project?
Yeah. You know it’s kind of funny but I actually started recording this album before I did that album.
But I ran out of funding and some other things. It took a little while to get to finish I Let Her Talk. I’m really proud of that project and Alex Kline and I worked really hard on that. But we had no budget. Alex literally called all of her friends to get some players to agree to come into the studio for $50 each and cut the entire album. We didn’t even meet them until they showed up at the studio. It turned out really well, but it was a little more like flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-type project. I’m really proud of it. I think there were some great moments on that. But on this album, I got to take the time that I wanted. That’s such a gift to have in the studio.
The magnitude of these players and the fact that they’re able to lend their creativity to you, I mean that’s true on both albums. But I feel like this album I feel really blessed that I got to take the time. It took a lot more time than maybe I would have liked. You know like seven years. But I just feel lucky that I got to do exactly what I wanted, and have that time and talent.
More important to get it right than get it on time, right?
Yeah. But I think this album—it’s kind of funny because it almost made sense for it to come out now because I feel like even just in the process of doing this album, I’ve grown a lot and developed. In this album, I just take that country broken heart to the next level. Sorry, but it’s really sad. I think that’s kind of my goal in life to make country songs. I’m really proud of those albums and I feel lucky to be able to be here and follow my dreams making country music. I mean it’s kind of crazy. Sometimes I still drive down Broadway or Music Row and I’m like I like, “I talked about this forever when I was a kid and I’m actually here.”
I’ve been telling people since I was little that I feel like a kid in a country music candy store and that’s kind of like sums it up. If you had told 12-year-old me that I would be doing this I would have been like, “No way.”
Are there any additional Erin Enderlin songwriter cuts we might be hearing on other albums anytime soon?
Well, Tara Thompson. I’ve got some stuff in the can with her. But I don’t want to jinx anything else though (laughter). But there is some other cool stuff happening that I’m excited about. Knock on wood.
I got one last question for you and this one is kind of meant open-ended. What is country music to Erin Enderlin?
It’s my life load. To me, country music is like this magical other universe where all your life, there’s this thing that you can plug into and it lets you in and you’re not alone. It holds you through these difficult times, and trials that you go through in life. It’s full of colorful characters and all the steel guitar and fiddle that you can handle. I don’t know who I’d be without country music.
I mean I guess that’s kind of silly to say and sometimes I wonder if I’m a little one-dimensional. I get asked as an artist, “What are your hobbies?” A huge part of it is learning country music history and listening to country music. I feel those are different even in my own work. I have a bookshelf in my office here that’s full of books by Robert Oermann and Charles Wolfe and other historians that I can’t get enough of. I love the record stores and listening to the music and everything. I don’t know. It’s magic to me.
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