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Interview: Colin Linden talks Nashville and new album Amour

We spoke to the legendary singer-songwriter and guitarist ahead of the release of his album Amour.

Colin Linden Luther Dickinson
Credit: Bob Delevante

Colin Linden is a familiar face to anyone who’s been to one of the Nashville cast concerts in the UK in the last few years.

A fixture of the live band which accompanied the performers, he’s also appeared at Charles Esten and Clare Bowen’s solo shows, and worked on the series for its whole six-season run. Yet Nashville is just the tip of the iceberg for Colin, who’s been working as a singer, songwriter and guitar player for over 40 years. Now he’s back with his latest record, a collaboration with Luther Dickinson called Amour.

I spoke to Colin recently about the album, his work on Nashville and his experiences as a songwriter and performer over the years. Read on to find out more…

You’re just about to release your new album Amour – can you tell us more about it?

Well, it was our intention to get it out for Valentine’s Day. I don’t know how big Valentine’s Day is in the UK, but I was drawn to this collection of songs. I had made a list of songs that I thought had kind of a commonality to them, that I thought had melodies that expressed sentimentality and love. Without even hearing the words, you could hear those songs and get the feeling from them. And a lot of them were songs I’d know my whole life. And I realised that when I wrote down the list of songs that I thought were drawn together, that they really came from different places. Some of them were blues songs, some of them were folk songs, some of them were country songs. And they went beyond genre. And I thought, ‘this’d be a nice collection of songs to make at some point.’

And then working with Luther Dickinson – I actually worked on the Nashville television show from the first episode to the last episode, and Luther plays in one of the bands on screen for a couple of episodes. So we were hanging out on set, and I was telling him about this idea, and he said, “OK.” Because we wanted to find some way to do a project together. So he said, “OK, when you get around to doing that, why don’t we do that one together?” And it took a little while for us to find a way to do it, but that’s how it happened.

How did you find working with Luther on this record?

Oh, Luther is just… we have such wonderful chemistry, both as player and as friends. We get along great. He does stuff that amuses me in his playing and that thrills me in his playing, and I’ll throw some things in that’ll give him a surprise. We really enjoy playing together. And one of the real touchstones on the album is that we played through the same amplifier. There’s some places where I don’t know if it’s him playing or if it’s me playing [laughs]. It was like having this wild conversation, like a two-headed monster. [laughs]

Was it difficult to choose the songs you wanted to record for this project?

No, actually, with this the songs were chosen before the project. It really came from this list of songs that I had made, and Luther made some wonderful suggestions as to how we could approach them. He suggested having Rachael Davis on the record, which was tremendously transformative. And we both know and love Billy Swan so much that we thought, ‘man, do you think he’d come and sing on Lover Please?’ The songs actually told us what to do in terms of the project. I thought that Careless Love was sort of the id of the project, that tied it all together.

You’ve mentioned your work on the TV series Nashville – how has that influenced your own work? And did your previous work influence your approach on the show?

Yeah, I would say all of that stuff ends up happening. It’s not such a direct line from one thing to another. It’s being around certain kinds of musicians and playing music for a certain purpose, and having a certain effect. It definitely sharpens your ability to connect what a piece of music will do to someone’s emotions – how something is connected to making you feel a certain way. So that really helped a lot. And of course working on the show, I got to be very close with all of the cast who are musicians, and both Sam Palladio and Jonathan Jackson I thought did wonderful jobs on these songs. I work with virtually all of them in one capacity or another still, to this day. So the relationships and the friendships run real deep with all those people.

You also came over to the UK for the Nashville concert tours regularly over the last few years. Was there anything that particularly surprised you about the audiences here?

Well, I’ve been the band leader for all of the tours for them, so I’ve done all the American ones too and all that. The thing that was most surprising is how wonderfully open the audiences in the UK are. Here in America, it’s wonderful too, but it’s a different kind of thing. It’s almost like… not the definition, but the acceptance of roots music is so open-hearted in the UK. You’ll have people who love the Striking Matches and Gillian Welch, and they’ll also love Keith Urban and Brad Paisley. It’s almost like they don’t differentiate between mainstream and between classic and between alternative roots music. They love it all and they appreciate good music. And I wish the rest of the world was like that more [laughs].

I’ve heard that a lot of artists really appreciate how the audiences listen in the UK…

Oh yeah. It’s so fantastic. And they care about details. It’s so great. They listen to the words. There were times when we would play songs and the audience would sing along, which is a beautiful feeling, but they would sing along and they would be more in tune – an audience of 6,000 people would be more in tune than some great professional singers I know! [laughs] Some of whom you’re on the phone with.

Did you have a particular favourite song that you worked on during the series?

That’s a hard one to say. There’s a few that have really meant a lot. That’s a question I wasn’t really expecting, so I have to scan through the six years of working on stuff that really resonated. There was a lot of stuff that I did with Charles Esten that really… you know what though? As I think about it, with all of them. I felt so close to them all. And the songs – so many of the great songs from season one really set the stage for so many things.

I think maybe When The Right One Comes Along, if I was gonna pick one. That one was done on one of the first sessions that I played on, and we cut it a few different times. We cut it with Sam and Clare, and then I played it with Clare so much on her tours. It was written by Striking Matches and Georgia Middleman, all of three whom I’m crazy about. I would say if I had to choose one, it was that.

There’s another one that I thought was really great, and it was a season one song. There’s a couple that really strike me. One was a Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings song called Pappa Writes To Johnny, and that’s just me and Buddy Miller on guitar and Chip [Charles Esten] singing. And then the scene we shot was just me and Chip. That one I really loved. And there was another one that was called Casino that I felt was a really great song, that Connie Britton sang. There’s a version with Connie and a version with Sam and Clare, and it’s really great. There’s a lot of them.

What have you learnt from touring and being on the road over the years?

That what you get from getting in front of people and playing music is more than what people give you. What the audience gives you and what the other musicians give you, you can never repay. You really can’t. You just feel so thankful. And it’s something that actually grows as the years go on. I’ve been performing for 46 years now, I’m 58 years old and I first started performing publicly in real places when I was 12. It gives you a sense of purpose in life. The affection and the love that people have for music that they share with you when you’re playing is greater, and I hope that I can give back a fraction of it. Because it’s really incomparable.

How did you get into music, and what made you decide to pursue it as a career?

Well, really all my life I never wanted to do anything but music, and the things that made most sense to me and had the greatest impact on me – even as a really little kid, you know, two, three years old – were songs and music. I’m the youngest of three brothers, so my brothers were really great conduits towards hearing good music and that really made a lot of difference. And our cousin lived with us for a couple of years when we were little kids, and he was a little older so he had records by the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, and my parents were real fond of Johnny Cash. Those records I still really love, and Johnny Rivers a little later on when I got to be three or four. So it was always the thing that resonated more than games or sports or anything else. It was where I felt like I just wanted to be in music.

And then when I was 11, I met Howling Wolf, the great blues singer. And that was November 27th, 1971. He was 61 at the time and I was 11, and he said to me, “I’m an old man now, I’m not gonna be around for that long, so it’s up to you to carry it on.” And he was talking about my generation and all that, but that’s not what I heard. I heard he was talking to me as an individual. And that was my mission. And I just knew at that point that there was nothing else. And I’m just trying to make him and my other ancestors who have been so good to me proud.

What’s the one song you wish you’d written?

Oh, man! Careless Love. Because that’s the id of the Amour record. That’s a song that I’ve known for so many years – at least for closer to 50 years than 40 years – and it just touches me so much. It really does. That song and Stardust are probably the ones.

What does the rest of 2019 look like for you?

Well, I’m just in the very last stages of producing an album for Cad Meaux, which is very exciting. He’s a great friend of mine. I’m in the studio now working on something, just some demos – who knows where it’s gonna end up – for Lucinda Williams. Lucinda’s someone I love working with and produced quite a few tracks for her back in the early days of my wife and I living in Nashville. We became great friends with her. So I’m very excited to do that. Then I go back into the studio – I have a side project that’s pretty popular, especially in Canada, called Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. So we’re gonna start a new record. We’ll see what happens with it but we’re gonna start a new record soon. And then I’m gonna produce an instrumental album for Bruce Coburg, who’s a great Canadian artist who I’ve worked with for many, many years – one of the greatest artists i think in the world. So that’ll be the next few months.

Hopefully Luther Dickinson and Amy Helm and I – we’re trying to put together a little tour for my band, the North Mississippi All-Stars and Amy to support this record. And Amy worked on a record with Luther, the Songbird record – I forget the full title of it – that’s also coming out. And then Luther and Amy and I have started a project together. So hopefully there’ll be a bunch of live stuff too. But it’s very exciting. We’ve just built a studio – my wife was the one who basically designed it and did it herself at our place here in Nashville, and it’s been real nice. People have been calling me up and saying, ‘hey, let’s do some work there’. I’m really excited about spending a lot of time in the studio.

I hope we get to come back and play in London. We had such a wonderful time on the Nashville tour and all the tours we did there, and then we were there for a little longer – I was band leader for Clare Bowen, for her UK tour in September. I love her. Her and her husband are two of my favourite co-writers and two of my favourite people to work with.

Colin Linden and Luther Dickinson’s album, Amour, is out on 8th March.

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