Interview : Don Gallardo on surviving COVID and writing his lockdown album

Nashville’s Don Gallardo was almost an honorary European for a time as his last tour coincided with the first lockdown.

If Don Gallardo has kept a diary of his plague year, it certainly has a riveting opening chapter, worthy of the hairiest spy thriller as he tries to keep one step ahead of the virus which is rapidly spreading across the globe. In February and March of 2020, Gallardo was touring the UK and Europe promoting his latest album when the virus struck. He was, almost literally, the last man out of Europe as he scrambled to get home, only to be struck down with the bug once he got back there.

Happily, he has survived to the extent that he has a new album released this week. ‘All The Pretty Things’ is truly a pandemic album. Recorded remotely (as many have been) but suffused with Gallardo’s thoughts on his recovery, a year of social isolation and the culture and political wars which are hindering the world’s recovery. Americana UK’s Paul Kerr spoke to Don via a Zoom call from his home studio on the outskirts of Nashville and kicked off by asking him about the current state of COVID events in Nashville.

Well, a lot of things here are basically back to normal although the Delta variant is running wild right now. Tennessee is only 38% vaccinated and yet a lot of people are just going out like it’s nothing. It’s pretty sad actually, as what is a health issue has turned into a political issue and the end result is that it is killing people. For myself, the places I go to, the people I know and hang out with, we’re all vaccinated and know how to stay safe, but the hospitals are starting to fill up again.

Of course, you have had first-hand experience of the virus as you caught it immediately after getting back from Europe. I remember reading on your social media at the time about how difficult it was getting home as the virus spread.

You know, I think I was infected on the flight taking me from the UK to Nashville. I’ve never been on a plane so packed. Basically, we (Gallardo’s band – Travis Stock, Jim Maving and Steve Brooks) had played two weeks of shows in the UK and Germany and the guys all headed back home but I had a solo show to do in Spain. Looking back it turns out we were the last band to appear in all the venues we played as they all had to shut down. Anyhow, I got to Spain but by then my gig there was cancelled. I had a couple of days before my flight back so I did a small house concert instead but I was getting worried about getting back. My flight back to the UK was booked for the Sunday but, just in case, I went ahead and bought a ticket for a Saturday flight which I got on. Turns out that was the last flight out of Spain, the Sunday one was cancelled. So if I hadn’t got on that one I would have been stranded in Spain for god knows how long. I was lucky enough then to get on a flight to Nashville, again, one of the last allowed but, as I said, it was packed to the gills.

A lucky escape then.

Yeah, but there was more to come. When we landed, we were told to stay on the plane and these guys from the CDC came on, in hazmat suits, with a list of the passengers and called us up one by one. When my turn came, they asked where I’d been and I told them, England, Germany and Spain, and they let me off. The guy in front of me, he’d been somewhere in Asia and was led off somewhere else.

Probably taken around the back and shot I reckon.

Ha! Anyhow, it was scary. I got home about three in the morning and by then I knew I was supposed to isolate so I went straight to our basement, which fortunately has amenities and planned to stay down there. My wife was leaving food for me on the stairs and it was around day five that I was eating a spicy buffalo chicken sandwich she made me. I like hot sauce but I couldn’t taste it at all, and that’s when I reckoned I had caught the virus. Soon I was really tired and my breathing was really off. I never had a fever but I was drinking water like it was going out of style and there was one night I was really struggling and I was wondering if I’d still be here in the morning. That lasted around five days until I felt a bit better but I was still really tired for another couple of months and I actually collapsed back in October. My doctor couldn’t find anything wrong and wondered if it was due to stress but then there’s that long COVID to worry about.

Well, having survived all of that you’ve recovered to the extent that you have a new album coming out. I believe that much of ‘All The Pretty Things’ is based, not really on your own illness, but on how the pandemic has affected all of us.

One hundred percent! I wrote every one of those songs about what I was experiencing, not just me, but all of us. Things like not being able to see your friends, having to stay isolated. It was originally going to be called Stories Of Love and Hope and the songs are reflective of what’s been happening. I mean, we are all trying to survive but that’s been kind of caught up in all the politics. I reckon we should drop all that and let’s get back to being kind to your friends and other people. All that political stuff has been destroying the world and it prompted a lot of the songs. It’s kind of like a, hey, this is where we we’ve been for the past year and even if it doesn’t get much better at least let’s be positive about it and take care of each other. It’s definitely a mellower record than I’ve ever done before and I’m hoping that, in the way we’ve put it together, that each song will kind of flow into the next. Each song was giving me a little bit of hope more and more as we got to the end of the album and I think you can hear that. It’s like I say in ‘The Urgency’, “You got to let go of the urgency… I’ve been pushed down, I’ve been let down…” That might sound negative, but out of that, there’s something positive, the thought that we’ll get back up and carry on.

There is a definite flow to the album and a kind of circularity. The opening ‘Lost Hope’ finds you questioning your identity before you go on to lament the loss of contact with friends and kinship on ‘Dear Friends’ and then go on to find some inner strength on ‘All The Pretty Things’. The album ends with ‘Gypsum’ which kind of relates to the first track being a song about drifting aimlessly.

That’s the one song on the album I didn’t write. It’s by Virgil Shaw who was in a band called Dieselhead. He’s from the same town as me, Fairfax in California and we went to the same high school although he’s a couple of years older than me. He has an album called ‘Quad City’ and it is absolutely amazing. He’s got this voice like nothing you ever heard. I can’t explain it, you really have to hear him. Anyway, near when my record was finished I was in my back garden and ‘Quad City’ came up on rotation and  I thought, I want to do one of the songs on this so I reached out to him and asked if he was OK with me recording ‘Gypsum’ and he was cool with that. It’s my favourite song on that album and it fitted in with what I was singing about.

Like many albums recorded in the past year, I believe that ‘All The Pretty Things’ was concocted via internet connections and song files flying back and forth.

Well, I started recording the songs just solo in my basement studio and I sent them to my buddy, Andrew Sovine, in Savannah and asked him if he could add a steel guitar to this song, a mandolin to that one and such. It was supposed to be quite a simple, acoustic, live-sounding album but Andrew sent me back ‘Dear Friends’ and he had put like, five or six instruments on it and it sounded great, so we thought, well let’s just do the whole record that way. I mean, we were all in quarantine and had nothing else to do so we just took our time and built it up. Andrew plays all the other instruments. By the end, he had added electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, keys, Omnichord, lap steel, banjo, synth and percussion with the songs going back and forth between us. Like, I’d say to him, can you put a little guitar lick in there or maybe drop the bass here and he’d sort it out. Then, once we had reached a real sweet spot, I sent the songs to my friend Darren Nelson in California and asked him to add vocals here and there and again it was going back and forth between us and also with Andrew who mixed the vocals in. And then, once we had all that done, I thought that maybe we needed a fresh pair of ears to listen to this as we’d been at it for months and we were maybe a bit too close to it. So, I sent all the songs to David Pinkston who produced my record, ‘Hickory’. If you want an extra pair of ears then he’s one of the best. He was one of the original engineers at Capricorn music in Macon, working with The Allmans and Delbert McClinton, he did the Cher and Gregg Allman record! Anyway, he listened to the songs and did the final mix.

Was this the first time you had recorded in this fashion?

Just about. When I made my record with  Lilly Winwood, I pretty much engineered and produced it so I had some experience of that and then on ‘Hickory’, I had several guests who sent in their contributions remotely. Like, I was wanting to get harmonica on a couple of songs and I thought, why not ask Mickey Raphael to do it. So, I contacted him and he was gracious enough to get involved so I sent him the songs and he sent them back with his harmonica on. But on this record, it’s pretty much the first time I’ve done that all the way through. I really don’t like recording by myself, I like some others to be there. Doing it this way kind of takes away that organic feel, some of the musical nuances you get when playing with others. The best part of it mind you was that there was no pressure like when you’re in a studio. I could listen to something Andrew had sent back to me and think, oh, I don’t like the way I sang that so I could redo it and send it back to him.

You have an album launch gig at Nashville’s City Winery. How’s that shaping up COVID wise?

It’s a pretty small venue, around 75 seats, and I went to see The Cordovas there recently and they did a pretty good job of separating the tables, making sure people had a mask on when you leave the table and such, so it should be as safe as possible. I’ll be playing with Travis on bass and I’ve got Adam Kurtz on pedal steel and Laur Joamets on guitar, you might know of him from Sturgill Simpson’s band. It’s exciting but it’s also scary. I have no idea how many tickets we’ve sold. With this Delta variant running around I don’t know if people will come out. I might end up playing to 10 people!

Well, hopefully, the gig works out for you, sounds like a great band you have there. Anyhow, ‘All The Pretty Things’ is going to be available digitally. Any plans for a physical release?

It’s only going to be digital-only for the time being. Like a lot of musicians I sell most of my discs these days at the merch table at my gigs and right now there are no tours planned. Unless someone like Margo Price invites me to tour along with her there are no plans. At this point, I’m just kind of floating along a river and seeing where it goes.

About Paul Kerr 405 Articles
Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.
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