by Sheldon Birnie
Deep in the American south lies the small community of Silverhill, Alabama. Lush, green foliage surrounds a cabin in the woods. Dogs lay in the shade during the heat of the day, and howl by the light of the moon. Silverhill is a place where “moonshiners still bootleg whisky” from 106 year old recipes; a place where they don’t call the cops, and fire wood is hewn by hand. A beautiful place at once captivatingly unique, and yet also just like any other stop off a remote backroad.
Winnipeg’s long time traveller of the Hillbilly Highway, Scott Nolan, found himself in Silverhill one dark evening a short time ago, while touring with the legendary Mary Gauthier. They were performing at the Frog Pond at Blue Moon Farm, a concert series in the tradition of Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles.
“Every so often you’re in these moments where there’s so much happening,” Nolan recalls, as we sit in his sunny St. James studio, listening to the album he recorded this past spring with Willie Sugarcapps in Silverhill. “If you can tap into it at the right time, the job really becomes tapping into it as it’s happening.”
He’s talking songwriting, generally. But the story in particular relates to the title track of the new, as yet unreleased record. The song is a beautiful ode to the community, with many locals name checked throughout the little five minute ditty. The album itself is, appropriately, titled Silverhill.
“I wrote [“Silverhill”] very quickly after the first concert I did at this farm,” Nolan explains. “I stayed up late, got caught up in the moment, partied with some of the people who put it on. At some point in the night, it all started happening so fast I was like, I gotta get outta here! I grabbed a beer and went to my van and tried to get it as quickly as I could.”
Many of those locals name-checked are also those who make up the “supergroup” of sorts that backed Nolan on Silverhill. A veritable Alabama who’s who, Willie Sugarcapps formed after a particularly off-the-hook Frog Pond session where all the players had been on stage together. As local legend has it, someone in the audience was so impressed by the way they all worked together that they shouted out, “You should form a supergroup!” And so, they did just that.
Made up of Anthony Crawford, Savanna Lee, Will Kimbrough, Corky Hughes, and Grayson Capps, Willie Sugarcapps came together with Nolan and recorded all 13 tracks of Silverhill in two days. Such an endeavour might daunt many artists, but Nolan was excited about the prospect.
“There was such depth there. Their combined musicality was ancient,” he says, not without a touch of awe in his voice. Determined to get as far out of his comfort zone as possible — and recording without his musical partner Joanna Miller for the first time in 15 years — Nolan went down to Alabama armed only with the songs and an old Martin guitar that once belonged to his former road manager, the legendary Ernie Blackburn.
“I always have these conversations with songwriters, and we always lament the same records,” Nolan explains. “If we talk about Neil Young, we most often talk about Tonight’s The Night. Or a lot of what the Band did, those Basement Tapes. Just the beauty in that. The musicians really doing it the way that musicians want to do it. But even when we have budgets and stuff, we often shy away from that chance for some reason.”
And so, with the exception of a few string parts overdubbed later on by Anthony Crawford, Silverhill was put to tape just like those old sessions: live off the floor, warts and all. Nolan would distribute lyric sheets, then sit down and play the song once through. Then they’d hit record.
The result is Nolan’s strongest record, one that certainly captures that vibe of musicians making a record and having fun while doing so. And as the record is tracked from the first song they recorded through to the last, you can hear the band loosening up and growing closer as the record progresses.
“There were definitely things fueling it,” Nolan recalls with a wry smile. “I mean, we didn’t go bananas. But by track six,” the infectious “When Can I See You Again,” a song about letting go, “which was the end of the first day, I can hear what’s changed in me. A little bit of moonshine, a little bit of this or that.”
And Silverhill also contains some of his best songwriting to date as well. Nolan told Stylus when he was preparing for the record, that he wrote over 40 tunes, and whittled that number down to ten that he intended to cut. Then, he added three more, all of them co-writes; something he’s not necessarily known for.
“The first one is called ‘When You Leave This World,’ which I wrote with Hayes [Carll] at the end of that tour a few months ago,” explains Nolan. Winnipeggers should be familiar with Carll at this point, seeing as he’s a favourite of both the Winnipeg Folk Fest and Dauphin’s Countryfest. The Austin, TX based country singer had a hit with Nolan’s “Bad Liver and a Brokenheart” a few years back. He and Nolan have toured a few times together now.
“When You Leave This World” is a fine example of a character study of a loser “with no plans worth making.” The song provides for an introduction to the world the characters in Silverhill inhabit; a world of hard choices and heartbreak where beauty abounds in the small details.
“Trouble and Love,” written with Mary Gauthier, is the second co-write, and makes its appearance on Silverhill early on, at track five. Nolan and Joanna Miller spent over a year touring with the Louisiana based singer, who is a powerhouse among songwriters (check out “I Drink” if you’d like your heart ripped from your throat). Gauthier liked the collab so much that she chose it as the title track to her excellent new record.
“That was an interesting one to in that it was very personal for her, and very observational for me,” says Nolan. “When we finished writing it, I wasn’t sure I would ever do it. But then I realized it was different for me, [and] I wound up cutting it.”
The final co-write, and the final cut of the album, is “One Little Spark.” A collaboration between Nashville’s Jaida Dryer and Nolan, this tune is as catchy a songwriter’s song as can be. Detailing a botched attempt at co-writing between Dryer and The Only Guy Clark, the track at is once a hilarious account of the encounter and plain old elegant songwriting.
“When Jaida showed up [to write], we went into the backyard and had coffee, and she told me this incredible story,” Nolan recounts. “When she finished the story, I said, ‘That’s it. That’s the song.’ It was a very rewarding experience. Now, it’s her job now to get [the song] to Guy Clark.”
The other tales that populate Silverhill include a reworked version of “Twister,” from 2013’s North/South as a duet with Savanna Lee; a country noir portrait of the American dream in “Easter at the Waffle House”; and “The Last One,” which features perhaps the “most Winnipeg” opening line I’ve ever heard.
“Jets jersey and a Trans Am,” Nolan sings. “Season ticket and a flat tire.” The tale of “city punks in country bars” details how, all too often, “every other day is like the last one.” In his trademark observational manner, Nolan goes on to provide as much insight into the character of this town as the Weakerthans’ “One Great City.”
And while Nolan does not, as of yet, know just when the world will get to visit those and the other songs on Silverhill, he is very pleased with the result, and itching to get the songs out. He tells Stylus that “it feels like the records I’ve been waiting my whole career to make.”
And just like the apple moonshine, made from the 106 year old family recipe that helped fuel the sessions, Silverhill, is a fine piece of craftsmanship. It holds both the power to warm you up, and to intoxicate you with its musicality.
“This stuff you could drink pretty easily,” Nolan said of the moonshine. But he may as well have been talking about the songs themselves. “It was well made, real smooth.” Amen, brother.
While you can’t get your hands on Silverhill just yet, Nolan has been performing the bulk of the songs live as of late. Catch him this summer as he performs tunes from the new album at the Times Change(d) Friday August 22 and out at the Matlock Festival August 23.