Interview: Jesse Aycock on Tulsa, Neal Casal and his own eponymous third album

Playing in Leon Russell’s Church and Paradise studios and when a mellotron is not a mellotron.

Tulsa has a long history as a music city that goes back to at least the early days of the 20th century and while the white music of the city, which includes Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills, Roy Clarke, Leon Russell, and J. .J Cale amongst many others, gets the most press it also had a vibrant black quarter which helped shape the music of Bob Wills and the famed Tulsa sound that came to prominence in the  ‘70s and continues to define the city today. The vibrancy of the city’s music scene continues to this day and guitarist, singer-songwriter and session musician Jesse Aycock is a prime example of the 21st century Tulsa sound. While he is heavily involved in the music of his home city he has recorded and toured with Elizabeth Cook, toured with the Secret Sisters who took advantage of his pedal steel skills and he was a member of americana and jamband supergroup Hard Working Americans with Todd Sinder, Neal Casal, Dave Schools, Duane Trucks and Chad Staely. Even with all this activity, Aycock also has a solo career and he has just released his eponymous third full-length album. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson met up with Jesse Aycock over Zoom to discuss his new record, the serendipity of him joining Hard Working Americans and how a London girlfriend introduced Neal Casal to his music.

How are you coping with COVID and I hope your friends and family have escaped the worst of its effects.

I’m doing good, it is beautiful weather here, the flowers are blooming and it is just a nice time to be alive right now. I’ve just been vaccinated recently and so I feel a lot better now about being around other people and stuff, but I am still being safe and doing everything I should be doing. At least around here in Tulsa, it seems that things are sort of opening up a bit.

You come out of the Tulsa tradition, how important are Leon Russell, J. J. Cale, Steve Ripley and Roger Tillison, all sadly gone now, to your music?

Those guys just started this whole thing, and it is cool because neither one of my parents are from here and they met in Tulsa and then just liked it so much they decided to stay. I am a born and raised Tulsan, but it is interesting because they didn’t really have any idea when they first moved here of the rich musical history, that history just goes back even before Leon and Cale, but those guys really helped put Tulsa on the map. They were the biggest figureheads for that stuff but it goes back to all that Black Wall Street stuff, and the Greenwood District had a rich musical scene and then there was Bob Wills And The Texas Playboys and their stuff so it is just full of great music and always has been.

Not everyone realises that Tulsa had a very vibrant black culture as well.

Exactly, it gets overlooked, and it does everywhere to an extent, but it did here especially and I think that was some of the best stuff happening around here.

You have recorded at Leon Russell’s Church Studio and part of your new record was recorded at Leon’s refurbished Paradise Studios, you were also part of the ‘Back To Paradise’ album. What was it like recording in such iconic studios and going back 40 or 50 years?

Both of those studios feel very magical when you walk in the door. I’m a nostalgic person anyway, and I am more drawn to the music of that era. For me it is more like a dream come true to walk into a studio like that, all my favourite records were made in those studios or studios like that. A lot of that energy still lingers around, and you can see why these great records were made in those spaces because they were specifically built for that purpose. The Church was the first studio of that nature that I recorded in and it was a really interesting time because the Church was between owners at the time. It was owned by a gentleman here in town, but it was sort of in-between being a studio and a storage space and I loved that it was a little rough around the edges and we just sort of made it. It had gear in there and was functioning as a studio, but it wasn’t fully put together so my friend Jason brought a whole truckload of his gear from Arkansas and put that in with the stuff already existing there. We set up and it is just a beautiful space, I mean it is an old church, and it just has a lot of soul to it.

Paradise Studios is a similar kind of deal. Leon Russell made this documentary ‘Poem Of A Naked Person’ with Les Blank and it came out seven years or so ago, but it is a really beautiful film and it really captures what was happening around here at that time in the ‘70s. Much of the footage is shot at Leon’s Paradise Lake Studio and so going out there was really neat because I had seen that documentary before we went out there so it was real cool to actually be there.

So you weren’t overawed?

Yeah [laughs].

You have played on a lot of records, you have been in a couple of bands, you have toured with other artists and you have just released your fourth solo album haven’t you?

Yeah, ‘Jesse Aycock’ is the third full-length record and there is a fourth record in there that was going to be full length but we were just having trouble getting it that far so we stopped short with seven songs on it, I think, so it is between an EP and full-length record.

Do you see yourself as a fully-fledged solo artist or is it simply a case of you wanting to get some of your own songs out?

I love doing all of those things and so it is really difficult for me to focus my energy too much on just one thing. Right now because I have a new record coming out more of my energy has shifted to being the artist side of things. I prefer doing all of that stuff and if I can make it happen because I enjoy all of those things for different reasons I will, maybe it is sort of being ADHD or something, but I get bored really easily if I do just one thing for too long so I kind of need all those outlets. I really try to make it all work if I can, and right now I have been able to because we have had a pandemic that has slowed everything down, and so there is only so much we can actually do. I try to go with the flow as much as possible and one thing always seems to bubble up to the surface over the others which then take the backseat for a little bit. That is what I try to do, do it all.

Tell me about your friend Jason Weinheimer and what he brought to your new record?

I have been working with Jason for a lot of years now and working out of his studio in Little Rock, Arkansas, and it kind of became a second home for me because of the time spent there over the years. Every time I walk in the door it just feels so warm and welcoming and I just felt it was time to make my own record in that space, because it is an important space to me, and it just seemed like the right atmosphere for this album in particular. That is kind of why we did it there, it just made sense on so many levels. Jason came to Tulsa to help me work at the Church so he is just somebody I work well with and most of the stuff I have done at his studio is as a side guy for others, just being a studio musician. He also made a great new record that I played on a couple of its tracks so we have always had this sort of partnership.

You included mellotron on your new album, where did that come from?

The mellotron [laughs].

Do you have one?

No, I don’t but I have a fake one [laughs]. Don’t tell anybody [laughs]. Having a real one would have been amazing but we just sort of had a mellotron mellotron.

What was the idea behind including it?

I love the way those sound and on that song, ‘Wreck Like You’, in particular, it just called for a part that wasn’t guitar or anything. I don’t know, it is one of those things that are just sort of are inspired ideas in the moment. I never go into the studio with a plan necessarily that is so mapped out that it is going to be a guitar or slide here, or it is going to be this and that, it is usually we are just going to play the songs and then all that stuff will present itself naturally. The mellotron was like that, it just sort of was a pretty instant idea, this would sound really great on this section. We did it [laughs].

How old are the songs on the new record, were they written for the album or collected over the years?

A little of both. I had put off doing another album for several years [laughs]. I would say the majority of songs on the record were written fairly recently, the music and the lyrics. There was a good handful that I have been sitting on for a while, and on a lot of those ones I had a song structure melodically put together and I just couldn’t get the lyrics down. I think the oldest song is maybe ‘Under The Gun’, and I had the song sitting around for years and I have re-written the lyrics to it over and over again, and I couldn’t settle on anything for some reason. I then finally just got something together that just felt right, and so it ended up making it.

Your new record is fairly eclectic in terms of the music, quite a broad range.

Yeah, that is kind of why I kind of really ended up at the last minute deciding to make it just a self-titled record, even though I have had a few others out. I felt it was like this combination of taking all these little pieces, it has elements of all the other albums put together plus it also has its own new sort of overall feel. It just seemed fitting, in that way, and I purposely try and do that a little bit with every album to kind of break it up but this one is definitely a little more extreme in that way.

Do you think that this is the real Jesse Aycock?

They are all really me [laughs]. It is where ever I am at the time, I don’t know, this one seems to represent where I am, or at least where I was when I recorded it [laughs].

How would you classify yourself? Are you a performer, a guitarist or singer-songwriter, is it all of them? How would you pitch yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?

Well, I can tell you I am a terrible salesman [laughs]. I always just sort of consider myself as just an artist, because I feel it is not such a blanketed statement and it means one who creates art and that could mean making records, performing solo or with a band, or contributing to someone else’s art on stage or in a studio. That is just what I feel my role is and I enjoy the performance part, I enjoy the studio and I just enjoy all those pieces. I have a lot of musician friends that have never loved the studio, for instance, it is an uncomfortable environment making a record and being recorded to tape, and that is something I really enjoy, I really like that world. I guess everyone kind of has their own cup of tea, but I like it a lot.

Hard Working Americans were a great band. What was it like working with those guys, particularly Neal Casal?

That was a surprise because it kind of came out of nowhere. I was out on the road with the Secret Sisters out of Birmingham, Alabama, and we had just finished a tour and we were driving back to Tulsa and it was super late at night, 3:00 AM or something, and I got a message from my friend Neal Casal and he was like can I call you real quick? I was like sure, and he said “I know this is last minute and so late but I have made this record with these guys and we want to do some shows, I thought it was just going to be a record but now they want some touring around this and we need another guitar player to cover all these guitar parts and I thought of you, are you into it?”. Without any hesitation, I was “Yes”, and he was like great, but here’s the catch, can you be in Boulder, Colorado, in four days?

I hadn’t even got home, I hadn’t heard the songs and our first show was is in a week and we needed to rehearse [laughs]. I got home and I think I had a day, maybe two, and I just repacked my bag and flew to Boulder and we had the rehearsals. I was under the assumption that I was originally just brought in as sort of a hired gun to just do these shows, which I was totally cool with, and we did these rehearsals and about day two, or so, we took a break and stepped outside and our bass player Dave Schools just said “By the way, you are in the band, you are not just a hired gun”. At that point it was official and I could tell my friends and family that I was in this band, and we ended up doing a lot more than just the one record and playing some shows. It was a really fun little moment in time.

Was Neal your friend from a while back?

I met Neal through a friend of ours, who actually lives in London believe it or not, and she kind of linked us together because she had heard my first record, ‘Life’s Ladder’, and she really liked it and she instantly thought her friend Neal would like it, and she also thought I would like Neal’s music, whose albums I already had and I knew who he was. I was thrilled she was sending him my music and I got an email from him after he listened to it and he basically just said this is a great piece and we have to make music together sometime. He was somebody who I already admired and so it meant so much to me because that was my first record, I was still young and just having someone like him say that meant the world to me.

We didn’t keep in really close contact, but then when he joined Ryan Adams’ band the Cardinals and they were touring around he came through Tulsa, probably about five years after he wrote me that email, and he just hit me up out of the blue and said I’ve got the day in Tulsa, and as well as being a great musician Neal was a great photographer, and he wanted me to take him around and show him some spots in Tulsa to take photographs of. We spent the day driving around different spots, and this was the first time I really met him, and while we were driving around we just started talking, about music of course, about records we liked. We both found we had kind of the same taste and we both shared a big love of British folk music. He then came back to my house and he just thumbed through my record collection for an hour, and we were pulling stuff out and going oh my god you’ve got this. We picked around with our guitars for a bit and then I took him back to the theatre he was playing here in town, and that was it.

A couple of years after that I got a call from my friend George Sluppick who played drums with Chris Robinson’s Brotherhood who Neal ended up joining, and it has a bizarre twist because George is a Memphis guy in Little Rock, Arkansas, in Jason’s studio and Jason is the one who put us both together like “You’ve got to meet my buddy George, you guys are going to get on great.”. I had been to Little Rock and sort of just jammed with George just to see how it would go, and it went great. We were already talking about the possibility of putting a band together and just doing some more musical stuff and it was a few weeks after that, that I got the call from George and he said “Jesse, you are not going to believe this, but I am sitting here with Neal Casal and we were talking about Tulsa and your name came up and I had to just call and tell you I have just tried out for Chris Robinson’s Brotherhood and I’m in the band now”.

It was a really, really bizarre turn of events, and that is how those guys ended up playing on 2014’s ‘Flowers and Wounds’, the record that came out before this latest one. They are two guys I already would have wanted to make music with individually and they happen to be in a band together, so it was kind of a no-brainer. That is the long winding story of how I met Neal and our friendship developed so when the Hard Working Americans thing came about it was because of that. When we made ‘Flowers and Wounds’ it was the first time we played music together, and we got deeper into it and I think we played really well together with our guitar weave. It was the perfect situation for Hard Working Americans to have the two guitar part thing.

It certainly worked. Did you get to meet Guy Clark when Hard Working Americans recorded his song for ‘Rest In Chaos’?

He came in after the fact and unfortunately it is one thing I really wished I had been there for, but I did not get to meet Guy. I know Neal got to meet him because he was still in Nashville when they were doing that and I had already left. I think that was one of his last recordings.

You mentioned the Secret Sisters, what was that like touring with them?

It was cool, it was a fun little tour and when I was with them it was pretty brief because the Hard Working Americans thing came up halfway through, but it was really fun touring with them. Before playing with them I had toured over the years but it was like piling in my friend’s van and driving to Colorado [laughs], and it is fun when you are younger and don’t know any different, but then once you have been on a bus it is what the hell were we thinking of [laughs]? It was a really great learning experience playing with them, I learnt a lot about just how bigger stage shows go and stuff like that because we were opening for Nickel Creek for a lot of those shows.

We did some shows on our own and we did some with them and with them we were playing bigger rooms. It was cool just learning how to navigate a big stage and figure out how to get monitor mixes and get comfortable in a place. Every little thing is a learning experience and my friend Paddy Ryan, a Tulsa drummer who played on my record, he was also in the band and he was part of the reason I ended up with the Secret Sisters because he joined first. They are so talented and I am a fan of that style of stuff, and I got to bring my pedal steel and it actually made sense because I was playing it on more than two songs [laughs], I set that monster up every night.

You don’t have to carry your pedal steel yourself do you?

I have to, I have a case with wheels but it doesn’t make a big difference. You know you don’t meet any old pedal steel players [laughs].

You toured with Elizabeth Cook for a while as well.

Yeah, yeah, it was again a lot of fun. I worked on an album with her, she has a new one out that is really good, but it was the one before that ‘Exodus Of Venus’. She brought in Willie Weeks and Matt Chamberlain as the rhythm section which was ridiculous, totally ridiculous. It was amazing, Willie Weeks has played on everything and the guy is insane. That was a really cool experience, being involved with that at all and that record turned out to be really good. We did some touring and that was a blast because the band was really good and they were just really good people to hang with. Brad Pemberton was on drums, and he was in the Cardinals with Neal and they were really good buddies from way back, and that was really fun.

Tell me the story behind Horton Records who are releasing your new record. They are based in Tulsa, aren’t they?

Brian Horton who is sort of the gears in it all, is a friend of mine and we have been friends for years, and he is someone who can just multi-task better than anyone I know. He has a passion for music but he still works a regular 9 to 5 gig so I don’t know where he finds time to do all this other stuff, but he somehow manages to keep this label rolling and all the musicians who have releases on it are kind of connected. It is sort of a passion project I think, Brian is a music fan first and foremost, and I think the label came about because he used to come out and see us play years ago in the pubs around here, and he had a little camera and he filmed everybody. He started by just hosting videos of people playing before Facebook and all that. He was a really important person in getting the names of people who are local Tulsa artists out there into the world because none of us were doing it [laughs]. He also organised a couple of events that were really fun and the more we thought about it we decided we really needed a label for all these artists when they are ready to make albums and do more things but we don’t have any infrastructure in the city as far as the label business side goes.

We talked about it a bit and then said we should start a record label and it was like a group discussion and it only made sense if it was run by Brian Horton [laughs]. He was into it and the idea of doing this non-profit record label seemed cool because no one had any extra money sitting around and it was like what is a label without some form of financial backing? It was launched as a non-profit label and over the years it has just continued to grow in a very organic kind of way and where it’s at now is really good. When this thing started it was just Brian and us and then we got some board members that help with other aspects of the label and who help with organisation and keeping things running smoothly. Within the last two or three years, we now have a PR situation we worked out with Jeremy Verrall who does At The Helm and is working the UK and Pati DeVries of Devious Planet media covers the US. Everyone is super easy to work with and it has been a really cool thing to watch, and also be part of.

What are your hopes and plans for the rest of 2021?

Obviously the new album, and just because of the pandemic and the way things have been I have talked with some folks about doing an album release party but with the way things have been, I just wasn’t comfortable with committing to that. It seemed rushed, so I decided to sit back and just not do that. I play in another bar here called October and we also made a record over the pandemic and that is going to be coming out fairly soon so we decided to possibly do a joint release party. We will play one record and change shirts and come out and play another round [laughs]. That will be in late June at Cain’s Ballroom and it feels like a way better plan on multiple levels. Hopefully, we will get some shows in the books and I think that we will be kind of starting small, booking things down in Texas because they are our neighbours, and I would really love to get back over to the West Coast and see some friends. I’m hoping by Fall that will be a possibility. This year is more hopeful, but it is still a little bit like putting your toe in the water and testing it.

At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share your current top 3 tracks or artists on your playlist?

I listen to so much it all just spins around [laughs]. I’ve been on a huge Gene Clark kick for the last few months and they put out the ‘No Other’ Deluxe Edition and it is really great, that whole record is great but the Deluxe edition is just amazing. Some of the songs they recut in a more stripped-down way with dobro and stuff, it is a really beautiful album. I have my whole stack of records here, I’ve been on a bit of an instrument kick with Phil Upchurch and every day is kind of different. Yesterday I was driving around listening to some King Tubby dub type stuff because it was just such a beautiful day and it seemed like a day to roll the windows down and turn up the bass [laughs].

Finally, is there anything you want to say to your UK readers?

Thanks for hopefully listening to my music and reading my interview. I hope things will finally begin to open up and you guys finally get the chance to listen to live music.

Jesse Aycock’s ‘Jesse Aycock’ is out now on Horton Records




About Martin Johnson 355 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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