Toward the end of the writing process for “The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake,” Martha Redbone found herself wanting two more songs to round out the 10 she and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen had already created around Blake’s words.
Flipping through her anthology of Blake’s work, she came across “The Ecchoing Green” and was immediately struck by its second stanza:
“Old John with white hair
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
John McEuen and Martha Redbone
Where: The Eighth Step at Proctors GE Theatre, 432 State St., Schenectady
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
How Much: $28 (door); $26 (advance)
More Info: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say,
Such such were the joys
When we all girls and boys
In our youth-time were seen,
On the Ecchoing Green.”
“It was perfect; it was almost as though William Blake knew that John McEuen [would do this project],” Redbone said recently from her home in Brooklyn. “John’s got six kids, and grandkids and stuff — always on his shows, he talks about his kids a lot. He loves his sons and daughters, and has funny stories to tell about the kids and everything. He’s always marveling at children and shows a great appreciation for family, devotion to family, and this poem just talks about that — it talks about a day in the country with family, like a day in the park, or on the green called the Ecchoing Green.
“So I emailed him the poem and said, ‘Hey John, I think Blake knew we were gonna do this,’ ” Redbone continued. “I often introduce him — if he’s in town, I’ll invite him up to our shows, and sing that song to introduce him.”
McEuen will join Redbone when she brings her Martha Redbone Roots Project group to The Eighth Step, in Proctors’ GE Theatre, Saturday night. The two singer-songwriters will each perform separate solo sets as well as a set together featuring songs from “The Garden of Love.” The band will feature two members from Redbone’s larger R&B- and rock-based band — longtime partner Aaron Whitby on piano and melodica, and Alan Burroughs on acoustic guitar — along with Schenectady native George Rush on double bass (click here to read more about Rush).
HOW IT BEGAN
This is the only show McEuen and Redbone have planned together in support of the album, which McEuen produced as well as performed on, but the two have played together before. This is how the collaboration came together in the first place.
“Before we asked him to produce our album, we did a couple shows together,” Redbone said. “He did some solo shows and he invited me to sit in on his set, and we started getting a little repertoire of tunes together. That sparked us to ask him to help produce this project; that’s kind of how it all began.”
Initially, Redbone had planned to record the set of Appalachian coal mining songs she had worked out for her performances with McEuen. That plan changed when Redbone and Whitby rediscovered a Blake anthology they had in the house.
“Basically as soon as we opened it up, it opened up to the poem ‘A Poison Tree.’ I saw it and thought, wow, this looks pretty cool; this looks like it could be a really great song,” Redbone said. “At that time we had about seven classic tunes that we were going to have John produce for us, and we thought, maybe we should do this, a Blake poem, make a song out of that?”
She brought the idea to McEuen, who at the time wasn’t very familiar with Blake’s work. As the two began researching and learning more, they realized that they couldn’t stop at just one song.
“I didn’t know much about Blake other than, ‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright’ — that’s about it, that one line,” McEuen said from his home in Sarasota, Fla., where he recently relocated from New York City. “So I started reading about him, and he’s like the Jim Morrison of 1810 — that guy was a freak. He did these drawings — some of the artwork looks like Marvel Comics in the ’50s, and some of his words were 100 years ahead of what people were saying at the time — they stand the test of time in a great way. Our premise was, what if William Blake had immigrated to Appalachia back in 1810, 1820?”
The album’s rootsy folk and bluegrass is a departure for Redbone, whose previous records, 2001’s “Home of the Brave” and 2006’s “Skintalk,” mixed hard-driving old school R&B with traditional Native American sounds. However, it wasn’t much of a stretch for Redbone, who was raised during the early part of her life in the Black Mountains of Kentucky.
“I was born in New York but I went to school [in Kentucky]; I came back to New York when I was 11 years old,” Redbone said. “But it was very much a part of my childhood — my grandfather was a coal miner. ... And even with the R&B projects that I had beforehand, there was always a call to my family in the music, so I’ve always had Native American influences in the music.”
Family events leading up to the recording of the album also caused Redbone to look to these roots for inspiration. In the long gap between “Skintalk” and “The Garden of Love,” Whitby and Redbone had a child together. Around the same time, Redbone experienced a number of deaths in her family, including her mother’s.
“When you lose so many people back-to-back-to-back, you end up back home a lot for funerals, and when you go back home you’re surrounded by family and you realize what an impact these people made on your life,” Redbone said. “And so to me, I think that’s — even at the end of ‘Skintalk’ in 2006, I wanted to make an album that kind of honored home and let me do this music from our childhood, my childhood, to honor my mother and honor this amazing heritage that she’s given me.”
In order to capture the sound Redbone was looking for, McEuen brought in Nashville session musicians Byron House and Mark Casstevens — both also Blake fans — to play on the sessions. The majority of the album was recorded in four days.
“It was pretty darned efficient — wish the Dirt Band would let me produce an album,” McEuen said. “Instead of, ‘Oh, what day is this? It must be Tuesday, because we’re doing the snare drum over.’ ”
McEuen is no stranger to the producer’s chair — he recently worked on longtime friend Steve Martin’s 2009 album “The Crow — New Songs for the 5-string Banjo,” which won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.
ON TO BUFFALO
For McEuen, the stop at The Eighth Step precedes another solo show in Buffalo the next day. In addition to his extensive touring with the Dirt Band, which he first joined in 1966, left in 1986 and rejoined in 2001, McEuen likes to play as many solo dates as he can in between — last year he played about 35 solo shows to the Dirt Band’s 90-plus dates.
“I like doing that, and it’s a very unusual thing,” McEuen said. “A certain amount of confidence and excitement is still there, but going out solo is always more of a challenge, in a different way.”
The solo performances allow McEuen to loosen up onstage. He’ll perform material from his own solo records — last year he released “The McEuen Sessions,” his first album with his sons Nathan and Jonathan McEuen — and Dirt Band songs that don’t get performed by that group very often. With a 40th anniversary reissue of the Dirt Band’s classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album recently released, McEuen will likely focus on material from that album as well.
“It’s not like riding a dead horse, because this album is always somewhere on the Amazon chart,” McEuen said. “It’s like ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ of bluegrass — or of Americana, I should say; it’s not really a bluegrass album.”