Interview: Jared Deck keeps his “Head Above Water”

Credit: Kriea Arie

How politics and songwriting are all about storytelling and red dirt.

Chatting with Jared Deck was probably a first for Americana UK as he is an elected Democratic State Representative in Oklahoma, he could also be said to be the epitome of a roots musician in that he was made by the red dirt of Oklahoma and his songwriting reflects his own heritage and that of his family, friends and neighbours. He also has released a new album, “Head Above Water” which sees his musical career starting up again after the pandemic shutdown. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Jared Deck in his office over Zoom to discuss “Head Above Water” and how he manages to combine life as a recording musician with being a local politician. What quickly becomes apparent is that his political activities are motivated by his concern for his friends and neighbours rather than any sense of personal gain. He also makes the point that in his musical career, he tells stories about himself and his family, friends and neighbours, and as a politician, he is giving a political voice to the stories of his family, friends and neighbours. He cites Woody Guthrie as a key influence and is comfortable that his music is classed as red dirt music and admits to writing a song called ‘Tulsa Sound’ on an earlier release that gives a nod to his musical friends in Tulsa but doesn’t echo the sound of Leon Russell and JJ Cale.

I think this is a first for Americana UK, we’ve never spoken to a politician before let alone an American State Representative. How do you manage your two worlds of singer-songwriter and politician?

It’s interesting, I find the roles very similar. As a songwriter, I’m telling stories about myself, the people I grew up around, and that tragedy that is inside the soil of Oklahoma. For me those stories, the humans behind those stories, all need to be told. As a songwriter that’s my goal, to tell that story. As an elected official my job is not dissimilar, my job is to listen and tell the stories of the people I live next to, my neighbours, and to make sure every decision I make, the things I come up with, and the things I say are representative of the humans I live close to. The stories that are their loves and made them who they are and the situations that they are currently in.

If you listen to some of the UK media, blue-collar Americans are too often lumped in with the MAGA movement. You are a Democrat, how do you see America today?

I think people are searching for an answer. Desperation from any perspective causes anyone to look for any fix they can find. Desperate times have put us in a situation where we will accept anything if it pays the bills, we’ll accept anything if we think it will help. That’s kind of where I think we’re at, I feel we, the United States, have put ourselves in a position where we keep rewarding people who no longer need our reward. People who have earned their keep, and are moving on to bigger and better things and I think we keep rewarding them rather than focusing on the ladder that helps people get there. We are losing our middle class, and that gap is widening every single day because of wage stagnation, cost of living expenses, student debt, and things of that nature. I think we are at a point now where people who are comfortable are very comfortable, and people who are uncomfortable are very uncomfortable. It is really about connecting the humanity that joins those two groups, and that is what we are missing right now. Just listening to and truly understanding and empathising with each other’s stories. We’ve got to find a way in our country to unite behind something other than culture wars and tribalism, something that lifts all boats.

How important is fellow Oklahoman Woody Guthrie to your own music and potentially politically?

Very much so. Woody was a populist by nature, whether that was political or musical, as a writer his focus was on the person who wasn’t necessarily at the top of society or the top of the economic scale. He understood that everyone has a story, and everyone has the right to stand up for themselves and that’s something that’s greatly influenced me. In 2007 I worked at a factory in Western Oklahoma, and our jobs were outsourced to overseas facilities and our company were receiving tax benefits even after they were laying us off. That was a moment for me when I understood that the systemic problems we talk about in politics and media when they apply to you they’re deeply personal. I feel that Woody Guthrie understood that, when they apply directly to you they’re deeply personal. It’s one thing to talk about things from an ivory tower or in an academic sense, but it is another thing entirely to experience those things head-on. In a state like ours from the Trail Of Tears to the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl, we’ve seen hard times and there is blood in our soil. Our dirt is red and there’s a reason we call it red dirt and it symbolises the tragedies we were all raised into, the generational trauma if you will.  I am doing my part to make things just a little bit better in a tangible way for the people I care about, the people I grew up around.

Is red dirt music a fair description of your own music, or is that a bit too glib?

No, I embrace the red dirt label. I came up through the Woody Guthrie Leon Russell tradition, and I’d love to consider myself as part of that lineage. As far as I’m concerned Jimmy LaFave is an icon of red dirt music and helped take the music to other cultures and that’s OK because that’s how music works. I embrace the red dirt moniker because it’s where I’m from and who I am.

How did you record your new album ‘Head Above Water’?

We recorded that in early 2020 in Oklahoma City at Classen Recorders the producer Dwight Hamlin’s studio, he plays in a very successful band called the Wight Lighters. It was one of the most relaxed recording experiences I’ve ever been in, I truly had a trust with the musicians and I was able to really sit back and enjoy the process. I brought in Chanda Graham and Myra Beasley to do a lot of the backup vocals, Kirk Palmer on trumpet and Floyd Haynes on saxophone, as well as Dan Walker on keys, Dan played for Heart in the ‘80s, you know. For me, it was a really relaxed experience, but for a while, I feared it would never release because I had to find other ways to pay the bills when our industry was shut down, but we are finally here and I’m grateful to be creating, grateful to be touring and pun intended, grateful to have my head above water.

Some of the song titles on the album read like a political manifesto, ‘All Out of Answers’, Midamericana Blues’, ‘Fired Up’, or at least a personal, is that fair?

For me when I’m staring at a piece of paper wondering what to write, I try to look at that piece of paper as if it were a mirror, and I try to write what I see whether I like what I see or not. I might paint the story of somebody I grew up around, obviously I don’t name anyone. Again for me, it is important to tell these stories and to really place the humanity in them so that people can relate to them. ‘Fired Up’ is definitely a labour anthem for me, as someone who has had their job outsourced and who understands truly that blue-collar lifestyle. A lot of my songs are about hard work and hard luck, and as someone who comes from that background, it is important that I communicate with other people that you are not alone. I hope my songs imply that and I tend to hear my own story in other people’s songs and I hope other people can do the same with mine.

Why cover an old  Warren Haynes song, ‘Two Of A Kind’, on the new record?

You know, I grew up with that song. The funny story is that I used to have a residency and there was someone who asked for a  Garth Brooks song every week and I didn’t know any Gareth Brooks songs. They were a regular and I wanted to thank them for being a regular so one day I decided to do one off the cuff, and I played it incorrectly, I played it too slowly, it came out like that and everybody loved it and I kind of decided I loved it too. I like the fact it is not a song people expect me to do, I enjoy surprising people, giving folks a variety, something that tunes the listener’s ear a little differently. So for me, it was how do I take this seemingly happy-go-lucky song, and turn it in some way to something meaningful to me. So, that’s how we got that product. I would also say the original interpretation of that song would represent me as a younger person, hopeful for the future, and now it is how do I keep hope through the later stages in life, and that’s kind of behind my interpretation.

Tulsa has developed quite a music heritage industry with Leon Russell’s Church Studios open again, and the Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie Centers. What does that mean for the city and Oklahoma more generally?

The history behind Tulsa music is rich and authentic, and I think that is something that’s irreplaceable. I have a lot of music friends in Tulsa, and every one of them has a talent and they add a richness to the story they’re telling even if it is just through a drum beat or a guitar solo. There’s an authenticity there, and I think another thing that makes Tulsa special is its support from the community, I’m not saying they always appreciated Leon Russell but they do now, also JJ Cale. I have a song on my prior album called ‘Tulsa Sound’, and what’s funny is that it doesn’t actually sound like the Tulsa sound but it is my tribute to my Tulsa musician friends who are doing their work in the shadow of those legends.

How do your fans view your political activities? When you are playing your gigs are you thinking of the votes?

No, definitely not. I’d say the longer I’m in public service the more music I need to create. No matter what you are doing in life you have to have a balance. This work is difficult and even though I enjoy it, it is still difficult’ You have to be able to leave the building and even if you’ve had a difficult day and didn’t get your way, and find the resolve to come back in the next day fresh and ready to go again. This is because the person I disagree with today I may work with tomorrow on another topic that we agree on. For me, music is not an escape it is just another world, I enter a different life if you will. Like I said before, the role of the storyteller is similar, but for me when I’m on stage I don’t need to worry about representing anyone except myself.

Any plans to come to the UK?

I would love to, and I aim to in 2025, that’s my goal but a hard date is more than four or five months out. You never know where your audience is at, and I want the opportunity to connect with folks as a storyteller, as a songwriter, and also as a performer. I love being on stage, it is my opportunity to represent myself, and my own ideas. So yes, I do intend to get across there in the next eighteen months.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers. What are three of your favourite tracks, albums or artists on your playlists?

My favourite songwriter is currently Stephanie Lambring. Stephanie lives in Nashville but was originally from Indiana, and I relate quite deeply with her songs, and the stories she tells. In my opinion, she has a style of songwriting that doesn’t mask the story with poetry, she just tells the story in the way it happened. I find a lot of beauty in that. I listen to quite a bit of John Hammond, particularly the Tom Waits produced album, “Wicked Grin”, and I listen to a lot of Jimmy LaFave. For an unexpected one, I love D’Angelo, and I love all the neo soul era. There are plenty of classics out there but I’d say Stephanie Lambring, John Hammond and a little D’Angelo.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

All my life I’ve wanted to be part of something that is bigger than just myself, it’s why I’m a musician, it’s the opportunity to play more than one note at a time. When I was a child learning to play piano and I learnt that I could make multiple notes, I could make harmony, that felt exciting and bigger than just one individual. Then when you play in a band or an orchestra, you realise you are part of something much bigger than the individual musician. In my public service, I am one note that is being played and I do my part to make something sound more harmonious. I always say folk music tells us who we should be, or ought to be, rock & roll tells us who we wish to be, and country music and the blues tells us who we really are. Those traditions are like sawdust on the carpenter’s floor at the end of the day, and you might have a pretty product like a chair over there, but it’s the sawdust that is left over, and to me when we talk about country music and blues music that’s the sawdust.

Jared Deck’s “Head Above Water” is out now and is an independent release.

About Martin Johnson 414 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Alan Peatfield

Thanks for this article Martin. An absorbing read. Especially pleased that Jared name-checked Stephanie Lambring. The biggest talent no-one has heard of!!!