Interview: Music obsessive Ben Vaughn on his world and Rambler automobiles

Unsure whether he wanted to be a recording artist, songwriter, record producer, or DJ he became them all.

Ben Vaughn is just a music obsessive at heart, but an obsessive who has established his own songwriting and recording career, a producer of such legendary roots artists as Charlie Feathers and Arthur Alexander, and recording partner of Alex Chilton, who found time to establish a career in Hollywood writing theme tunes based on his love of Duane Eddy’s music. If all that wasn’t enough, he has his syndicated radio show and podcast, ‘The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn’, that allows him to indulge his obsession for music. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Ben Vaughn over Zoom to discuss his Record Store Day one-man-band album, ‘The World of Ben Vaughn’ which completes the circle with his one-man-band 1986 solo album ‘The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn, where he first got his obsession for music from, and how he managed to have multiple careers within the overall music business. He also discusses his similarly intense passion for Rambler automobiles. He also recalls having to play the legendary Reggie Young one of his own guitar licks to remind him of what he had done. In case anyone thought Ben Vaughn was just an American artist, he recounts how he used to stand on the Jersey Shore wishing he was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean so he could see the great ‘60s bands and that he has been an Anglophile all his life.

How are you?

Getting there with the long COVID, a song I definitely don’t want to write is ‘I’ve Got The Long COVID Blues’, haha.

We are here to talk about your new record ‘The World Of Ben Vaughn’ but before we get to that do you want to tell our UK readers who Ben Vaughn is, or at the very least, who he thinks he is?

That is a very good question, haha. I guess a career artist at this point because I’ve been doing it long enough to be able to claim that, whether you like my music or not, I’m still here, haha. I’m a music fanatic and I’ve been a fanatic since I was a kid, but I didn’t start my music career until I was in my thirties, I was a late bloomer. I got a record deal in 1986 and I put out a few records, and I went on tour a lot, and then started producing other artists during that time as well. Then I went to Hollywood and I had a ten-year career scoring TV shows and movies, and now I’m on the other side of that and I now have a syndicated radio show. Throughout all of this, I’ve been writing songs and putting out records.

Music is very clearly a common thread in your career, who are the biggest influences on your music?

Originally it was Duane Eddy. When I was six years old my uncle gave me a Duane Eddy album, he worked at the pressing plant in Camden, New Jersey, where they pressed the RCA Victor records, and he brought home the ‘Twistin N Twangin’ album and gave it to me. I was only six years old, but I  already knew that is what I wanted to do, I wanted to play guitar like that guy, haha. I also listened to a lot of radio, and in Philadelphia, it was an amazing time for Philadelphia radio and I grew up across the river from Philadelphia, so all the doo-wop and Bandstand stuff that was happening, ‘Mashed Potato Time’ with Dee Dee Sharp, all that stuff was just everywhere you went in my neighborhood. Doo-wop, Rhythm & Blues vocal groups. The Cameo-Parkway and Philadelphia sound was everywhere, and so I never really knew any other environment and I heard music everywhere I went, and it was all great music, it was rock’n’roll. So it was the early pre-Beatles stuff that was my first taste of it, and I fell in love with it before The Beatles came out even though I was really young. I was tuned-in in some kind of way even though I was really little at the time, I felt like I had been abducted by aliens or something, haha.

I couldn’t resist rock’n’roll and I had such a curiosity about it that I would stay up all night and tune into different radio stations all around America. I even dragged an old short-wave radio up from the basement, my dad was a TV repairman and he had a bunch of junk in the basement, and I found this radio and plugged it in, and at the age of eight or nine, I’m listening to Radio Luxembourg, and BBC London, and hearing a completely different top Ten than we were hearing in America. So I was so hungry for it, it was like an unstoppable thirst for more rock’n’roll and more pop music. I was obsessed, and I didn’t do well in school because of it, I couldn’t relate to school because Leslie Gore was not in my class, haha. I really knew what I was made to do from an early age. The world I lived in, the environment, and the life I lived until I started making records were not really conducive to the obsession I was possessed by. I was born to play rock’n’roll, or at least be involved with it in some way. When I was a kid I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a DJ, a songwriter, a record producer, or the actual artist, any of those would have been fine, as long as I could be around music all day long, haha.

I think you’ve managed to tick all those boxes.

I have, I have.

You have worked with some legendary indie and roots musicians including Charlie Feathers, Arthur Alexander, and Alex Chilton. Who did you enjoy working with the most and why?

Arthur Alexander, definitely, a beautiful guy, and I still miss him. We became very good friends when we made that record, and we were getting ready to make another record together when he died. As a songwriter, I could relate to the economy of what he wrote, almost more than any other pop songwriter. My favourite Beatles song was ‘Anna’, and I didn’t know they hadn’t written it for quite a while, and ‘You Had Better Move On’ when the Stones did that it was like my favourite Rolling Stones song, and when I discovered that Arthur Alexander had written both of those songs I went looking for his records and became a huge fan. So working with him was probably the equivalent of a dream come true.

He never really got his just recognition, did he?

Right near the end, with the record I produced, he was beginning to get recognition and he was really happy about that, and really surprised because he wasn’t aware that many people loved his music. It was really nice for him to get a chance to see some of the recognition that was long overdue.

You had Dan Penn on that record, and all those guys, didn’t you?

Yes, Dan Penn, and we had the Memphis rhythm section with Gene Chrisman and Mike Leech, and we had the great Reggie Young on guitar, another hero of mine. As a guitar player I sound a lot like Reggie when I play because when I was a kid and learning guitar I would play along to whatever was on the radio, ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ or a Box Tops tune or whatever. So working with Reggie was really cool, because at one point I was asking him to play a certain part that he is known for, and he wasn’t understanding what I was saying so he handed me his guitar and said play it for me. I did, and then I realised wow, I was playing guitar for Reggie Young, and I had to remind him of a lick that he played on ‘True Love Travels on a Gravel Road’, or something, and I played the lick for him and handed the guitar back to him, and of course, he played it twice as good as I just did, immediately, haha, because he was Reggie Young.

It was a real thrill, and with all these projects whether it is Charlie Feathers, you know, people who may be considered difficult artists, or maybe distrustful people, they trusted me because my enthusiasm for music is completely obvious. I am so into music, I’m so happy when I’m making music or involved in making music, that it disarms some people who might not be that trusting of the recording process. Charlie Feathers, for example, he really was determined to be a difficult person, but after a few days, we were getting along great because he just knew I was sincere about making a great record, and I didn’t care about anything else.

What did you feel like working with people of that calibre?

I felt like the luckiest guy in the world, I also felt protective of them, as well, because I could manoeuvre the record business side of things and leave them out of it. I knew how to take a meeting, I could talk to A&R people, and put budgets through at labels, while at the same time, setting up a safe environment for the artist to do their best work in. I felt like I was the right guy for the job, but I also felt I couldn’t believe it was really happening because it was like a dream come true, haha.

Is ‘The World Of Ben Vaughn’ your pandemic record?

It is. I was writing songs and getting ready to go into the studio and cut some of them with musicians when lockdown happened. I took a look at my home studio, and I thought, you know what, it is time for me to become Emitt Rhodes, haha. So I plugged everything in and tested all the equipment and I was ready to go. The songs were coming to me really fast, and I was recording them as quickly as I could because I kept writing new ones, and before I knew it I had a full album.

What was it like recording the album yourself after you had originally planned to use musicians, how did you approach the tracking?

I pay attention to the song the whole time. I don’t allow myself to get sidetracked by minutia, which is a real danger of doing a one-man-band record, you can really get bogged down and forget what song you are working on because you are doing something over and over again. How I did it was that I would record myself singing the song and playing an acoustic guitar, and I would add all the parts to that performance to make sure I was always playing the song, always complimenting the song. I would then redo my vocal and acoustic guitar at the very end to get a cleaner sound. It works great for me, a lot of people work with a click track and start with the drums or bass and work their way up, but I work backwards on the song. I have to know the song at all times because that is the most important element of a record is whether the song is any good, whether it is being portrayed properly, is it being communicated successfully.

How old are the songs on the album?

All brand new songs. I wrote them all in like a six-month period.

Did they come easily or did you have to fight with some of them?

Songwriting for me is a very interesting process. I usually write songs when I’m driving or walking, and then I come home and get my guitar out and figure out what chords need to go to what is already completely written in my mind. I write in my head, not with an instrument, and I’m never actually trying to write. When songs come to me I just have to capture them and remember them and figure out what the instrumentation is going to be once I’m in my studio. I’ve always written that way, I’ve never really sat down and tried to write a song. Well actually I have, in co-writing situations in Nashville in the early ’90s and I was taking a stab at the Music Row style of writing. I was writing with guys who had gold records on the walls in their studios, they had number one records and everything. It was an interesting process, so it was fun, but I never really took to it. The way I really write songs is through inspiration, not deadlines or pre-conceived notions of what I think I should be writing, I’m in a less conscious place, more instinctive, I’m really like an animal I suppose, more than a human, haha.

The way you have described it, it sounds as if you don’t really write your songs, they just appear.

I know it is a cliché to say I’m being visited by the muse, or I am just an antenna and I am picking up something out there, but it really is kind of true in my case. I don’t really feel like I have any control over when a song idea comes to me. Sometimes it is very inconvenient when I know I have to stop and write down the idea or sing it into my telephone or something. I used to pull over and run to a phone booth and sing it into my answering machine, haha, but now with a cellphone, I just sing it into the cellphone. I grab them when they’re hot, and then I fire into them a little bit when I get home, but usually, they come to me lyrics and melody all at once.

That is a bit surprising, the fact you get lyrics and melody at the same time.

I worked as a landscaper for five years because when I got out of high school I didn’t go to college I went straight to manual labour, and that is when I became a real songwriter because when you are shovelling mulch, or mowing a lawn, or trimming a tree, your mind is free to think about whatever you want to think about, and you can still get the work done. I would just write songs in my head, and I would go to the truck and write the lyrics down in a notebook I kept in the truck, and I would just try and remember the melody because this is before answer machines, haha. I didn’t have technology to help me, so I began writing and it was basically professional daydreaming. I was a daydreamer my whole life, in school I would be writing songs in my head rather than listening to the teacher, fantasising about being in a band that looked like Manfred Man, I really wanted a black turtleneck sweater, the whole thing, haha.

Is there a difference between Ben Vaughan singer-songwriter and Ben Vaughn TV theme music composer?

There is. Around the mid-’90s I’d probably put out about 6 records at the time, and I wanted a reason to write music every day because when you are in the record business you only need about twelve songs about every year and a half for an album, and I had a backlog of songs because I was writing, and writing, and writing. I was frustrated because I wanted a reason to write every day and deliver it and have something happen to that piece of music. So a friend of mine convinced me that I should go to Hollywood and see about scoring films. I came out here for a visit and the week I was out here for the visit ‘Pulp Fiction’ came out in the movie theatres and the music supervisor told me that he wanted that sound and the director wanted that sound in their movie to make it edgy. I had dedicated a lot of time to surf guitar and Duane Eddy was my first influence, and I’ve always been that way, it was never just a retro talent in my mind even though the market didn’t want surf music for a long time. It was like a dead language and I was proficient at a dead language. ‘Pulp Fiction’ was such a huge influence at the time and I started getting hired right away to play guitar on film scores, which lead to me getting a job as a composer for TV shows.

It was great because I always knew I was an artist but I wasn’t sure I was a craftsman, and writing on deadline you will find out very fast if you are a craftsman, because the deadline is there and you have to write and hand it in and it goes on TV immediately. I loved it, it was a great experiment and I became successful at it and I ended up doing it for eleven years I think. It is a chapter of my life that seems bizarre to me now because I’ve gone back to living the life I was before Hollywood, but I really was in Hollywood with all the perks that come with it, haha. I always felt detached from it, and a little amused by my success in it, and never really related to it because I was more of a musician than an entertainment business kind of artist. I think that detachment really helped me a lot because you can start thinking things are important that aren’t really important. The world of Hollywood is very self-promoting, so when you are in there everybody is convinced that what they are doing is incredibly important, and I always felt a little off to the side of all that intensity because I was only providing music, I wasn’t acting, I wasn’t writing scripts, I wasn’t trying to sell anything, I was just helping them do their thing. It was great for me, and I witnessed quite a few nervous breakdowns, but I never had one, haha.

What did you learn from working with Rodney Crowell?

It was great. Rodney sought me out when I was in Nashville visiting, he found out I was at some function, and I’ve forgotten what it was, and he introduced himself and told me that he owned my records, which really shocked me. I wasn’t really aware of who he was that much, and it turns out the year I met him he had five number one country hits, but I didn’t know that. He was like hey man do you want to write together, and I was like sure. I called the people I was writing with and they were like are you kidding me, haha. Being in the same room as him writing a song I could see he was a very intense guy, very serious, and really, really, a great teacher as well. I learnt a lot from him, he’s a really phenomenal writer. He also has a great singing voice, I love his voice.

What is your approach to the music on your radio show ‘The Many Moods Of Ben Vaughn’?

I miss the days of free-form radio in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, as I’m sure you remember, haha. In America we had some amazing stuff going on, and in Philadelphia underground radio was really, really great for a while. The DJs could play whatever they wanted, and they jumped around from bluegrass to Iron Butterfly, to Louis Armstrong, or something, and it was an amazing period to be listening to radio. It went away in the mid-‘70s, and I always thought that it could be revived. A radio station in Memphis, WEDL, asked me to guest DJ when I was down there visiting, and I did, and the response was really good, and they offered me a show and said I could do it long distance, just pre-recorded it, and send it down, which I did. This was about fifteen years ago now, and they started airing it every Friday and it became a hit, so I decided to see whether I could make it a syndicated show. I did, and it is now on 28 stations, and it is available as a podcast. The podcast is more popular now because people want to listen to it on demand, and I actually have an audience of people who binge listen, haha, which is great. I play everything, I play bossa nova, bluegrass, country, blues, garage rock, folk rock, British invasion, instrumental music, just everything. I just love all music.

For each show how do you program the tracks, is there a theme to them?

No theme to it, every now and then I will do a themed show, but what I do is pick three songs per hour which I feature and talk about with a little back story, and the rest is just whatever feels right. If Bobby Darin feels right coming after The Stooges then that is what happens. Again, I’m not really using my conscious mind that much, it is more of an instinctual thing, following what feels right to me. A lot of times there will be musical themes just where something is the same key as the song before, or there will be a motif in a song that reminds you of the song you have just heard, and all of that is accidental, maybe not accidental but I’m not thinking about it when I’m putting it together, but when I hear it played back I realise I kind of created a suite, unintentionally created a suite of three songs that musically relate to each other. It is a lot of fun doing the show, I tell you, haha.

Were you surprised it is as successful as it is?

Not really because I always felt that is what was missing from the radio landscape. Why did that have to be abandoned so totally back in the mid-‘70s, why couldn’t there have been a version of that still around? Even college stations got kind of slick because they needed the money that comes from subscribers. So even public radio wasn’t loose anymore, and I thought with the right host, or the right curator, the right intention is what I’m getting at. My show is very user-friendly, and we are really trying to reach out to people who have never heard of these records because the people who know can stay at home and listen to their record collections and be as weird as I am all day long, you know, haha. I would love for somebody who doesn’t have a record collection on their way to work to hear a song by Fred Neil and realise it might be their favourite piece of music they have ever heard, even though they had never heard this before and they weren’t familiar with it.

I don’t know whether it is an educational approach because that sounds rather clinical, and unfun, but sharing music I guess. You are probably the same way, when I hear a great piece of music the first thing I think of is who can I share this with. We are even evangelical about it, and sometimes it is really annoying for people, you have to hear this, but I’m kind of busy right now, I don’t care you have to listen to this, it feels like life and death, haha. When you are that excited about music nothing else matters, and you need to share it because it will improve the world, it is really a crusade. Again, my authentic enthusiasm for music is probably why the show is popular because I’m really happy playing these records.

Recognizing most of our readers are from the UK, can you explain your obsession with Rambler automobiles?

Haha, my parents had a Rambler when I was a kid and it was my favourite car, when I was in high school I got my first car and it was a Rambler and it cost me $200, and it had an eight-track deck in it. I drove that for a few years and when it fell apart I bought another Rambler for $300, and up till now I’ve had six Ramblers. I kept replacing them with another Rambler, and if I needed the parts I would tear down the previous Rambler. My garage was full of Rambler parts, haha. I just think they were great cars, and they were an independent company at the time of Ford and Chevrolet, and all that. Rambler were a small motor company in Canotia, Wisconsin, and they were kind of like the indie label of automobile manufacturers, and so I related to them in that way. They were the Stiff Records of the auto industry, haha, without the drugs, unfortunately, haha.

Do you have plans to visit Europe and the UK?

I haven’t been over to London for probably about ten years now. I love it there, and I’m Welsh-American, so I go to Wales to hang out and I’m a big Dylan Thomas fan, so I need to get back over there. I’m going to Spain in three weeks for a tour, we are playing ten shows in ten days, and one of them is going to be on the island of Majorca. I’m really looking forward to it and we will be hitting Majorca around June 1st so the weather ought to be perfect.

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

I grew up on the East coast of Jersey, and we spent our summers at the Jersey Shore, and I would stand and look at the Atlantic Ocean and I would think why am I on this side, why aren’t I with The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, Herman’s Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, they are all over there why am I here. I would always look across the Atlantic Ocean and wish I was in England, I was really blown away by the British Invasion, it was a huge thing for me and I love all the music that has come out. Also British folk music as well, Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Pentangle, all that stuff, Fairport Convention. I love so much music that came from the UK and I am basically an Anglophile in a lot of ways.

And a lot of English musicians are the exact opposite.

I’m such an Anglophile I almost started singing in a British accent just so you guys would like me more, but I decided that is probably too patronising, that would be the word for that, haha.

Ben Vaughn’s ‘Ben Vaughn’s World’ was released on 23rd April as part of Record Store Day, and is out now on all formats on Relay Shack Records.

About Martin Johnson 402 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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