Interview: Phillip Lammonds on “Cowboy Things”

Finding a voice to sing his own songs with a little help from his friends and supporters.

Unless you read track and album credits carefully you may not have heard of Phillip Lammonds, but those in the know recognise him as a songwriter’s songwriter with over 4,000 songwriting credits in his long career. For some reason, and he sheds more light on why he is finally making his debut as a recording artist in the interview, he has made his debut as a recording artist with a selection of some of his many songs, ‘Cowboy Things’, with the help of friends and supporters Lee Brice, Billy Gibbons, Darius Rucker, and a cameo by Pam Tillis. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Phillip Lammonds at his Nashville home to discuss why now is the time for him to come out of the music business shadows and become the frontman for his own songs. What is also very clear is that he is a songwriter through and through who was mentored by Paul Craft, and picked up tips from author Stephen King. While his own style reflects his upbringing in the Carolinas, he is more than generous in his recognition of the part that British artists have taken in shaping American music over the years, and the influence that Billy Bragg has had on him personally.

Why is now the time to make a solo album?

Lee Brice is one of my best friends, and he’s recorded a bunch of my songs that I’ve written and he’s been in the saddle a bit, and we were on his bus writing one day and he turned round to me and told me I needed to make an album. I was like, I do not need to make an album, but he was like I will make sure you make an album. He really made it his goal to do it, and a great friend of mine, Edward Cooper who we call “Eggs”, sold his business and said he wanted to do something fun like make a record, and it just fell together. A case of divine intervention, I think, or maybe satanic intervention, who knows. I’ve had the time of my life with it, it has been so much fun to do. There are a lot of things I hadn’t a clue were part of the process, but it is still mostly about recording what somebody does, what they say and do.

How did you select the songs for ‘Cowboy Things’?

It was mostly memory. I’m not a spring chicken, and I don’t want to be one again, but I’ve got so many things buried here and there that it’s like bones, and those songs on this record are probably a little bit more recent. ‘Cowboy Things’ wasn’t for sure because it’s the reason I got publishing deals and lots of other things. I don’t think I really attested to anything, except it’s just like picking out a puppy, you know, the one that runs to you first. That’s what I think about it, I don’t know how you figure it out.

What did you bring to your own songs that others maybe didn’t?

The songs are pretty true in the way I see things, though they are not necessarily about things that have happened but how I think they will. My input into any song is firstly not about me, I never write a song about me even if I sing “me” in it, and that’s because it’s not a great vantage point, you don’t really get much by looking at yourself because I think if you overthink anything in the songwriting business, that’s the death knell. I really look at things, and for instance ‘Cowboy Things’ just came to me as I was tucking my son in bed one night after he’d been a  Halloween cowboy for the seventh time, he said cowboy things were the coolest things in the world. That was a five year old’s vision, and I went to the kitchen table and wrote the song. It has nothing to do with a five-year-old boy, but it kind of does when you get on the other end of your rope you can get pretty happy about things if you think about it the right way. I don’t know whether that tells you any kind of thing because I’m pretty spacey and I’m thinking about songs all the time.

You clearly had the songs but where did the Phillip Lammonds’ sound come from?

I don’t know what I sound like and I don’t know how to recognise it, but I’m from North Carolina originally, in the mountains, and I grow up with a blue-collar thing, not an ignorant thing but there is a hillbilly context to it and things are said differently. You speak what you hear, and that’s what it was with me and still is. I think there is a lot of honesty in those old vernaculars, the way things ring and the way people hear words and things, those are sometimes more important than what the words actually say, the sound of a word. That isn’t so much wisdom it just happens that that is the case and whatever North and South Carolina have put in my work I am very happy about that even if I don’t consciously understand it. I think a lot of kids are trying to over-exacerbate the classic sounds. I’m just looking a a Stanley Broths record I’ve just got that is probably over 50 years old, and it came from West Virginia, Virginia, those tones and those sounds and all those harmonies. I think that just sticks with you whether you know it or not.

Who brought Billy Gibbons, Darius Rucker and Bill Murray to the sessions?

Man, I don’t even know Billy Gibbons who is an all-time hero of mine, just his work ethic and sense of simplicity, he is coming in the backdoor all the time and he’s somebody I’ve always admired. I said something to Lee one day, and he said I could make a phone call and get that to happen, and apparently, he liked what he heard on the record before so he was OK with putting himself in that situation. I’ve known Darius forever, and Darius has been a great, great friend of mine. I’ve got memorabilia he’s just handed me over the years out of friendship. I’d written one of their singles back years ago, but we knew each other in the Carolinas just through bands. We’d come out of college, and he’s maybe five years younger than me, and he’s always been an advocate. Bill Murray moved to South Carolina and I was playing a show at The Charleston Music Hall with the Blue Dogs, which was my band, and it was their annual Christmas party show and I did ‘Love Is Love*, and Bill Murray was standing backstage when I came off stage and asked me if I thought we could write a song. I probably suggest it to him somewhere but I didn’t really know him that well, and we got to know each other better through this. He was very alert, very serious, and very respectful of the whole process. So, when we sat down it wasn’t hard for me, you just had to take his idea which was ‘Supposed To Fall In Love’.

Frankly, I’d had that idea a number of times, it’s not like some mystical vision and in our business we get a little jaded and we can say that’s not good enough to make it anymore, we’ve got to beat the last thing we did instead of going back and looking at what you’ve done and thinking maybe I could do what I’ve done better. That’s where this happened, I’d had that idea a few times,  and I knew other people who had and I pitched it to other guys, I’d just never settled on how to write it and he and I did and it fell into place. He had this manilla folder that he carried around with him that was just rag-tag, and it was like his entire life of skits, gags and things he’d done, ideas and whatever else were all in this folder, and on the outside of the cover he’d written “There’s no explanation, easy way out or a clue, I’m overcome with consumption like I’m broke down with the flu”. I just saw that pop out of the rest of the scribble, and I told him I don’t care what we write, that’s the first line, and that’s what happened.

It was really very organic, everybody did what they normally do when Billy Gibbons came and played one note back to back, back to back, it reminded me of how many times I’ve heard him do that with ZZ Top, and how easy and hard at the same time that is to do. Everyone was in there, my best friend in the world, one of my heroes, and all my heroes are younger than me for the most part, but the thing I admire about most of the people I work with is that they have this open door policy and sensibility of we are all going to try and float boats. That’s what we do, and I was thinking about you and me talking about americana and the irony of the fact that the UK has americana and I think the UK should have a little more standing in that because when you look at British musicians and British performers there is such a dedication to a sound and an effort, and nobody treats the rest of the world better. When Keith Richards and all those guys were digging into the Delta just to find out what makes all that work, that’s the thing americana is, and sometimes the word americana almost falls flat for me and it should be another word that splits it or something., because it’s laying there it seems the British have to be second in line with that. There’s a lot of British influence in popular American music, for sure, and that’s forgotten. I’ve been singing ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ since I’ve been standing up, and if you listen to that it’s a straight blues song, just like R. L. Burnside or somebody like that sets you down with a groove and did not give up, you don’t give up.

That’s what I tried to do with this record, to understand what is important and not lose that. Pam Tillis is probably the one I’m most enamoured with than anything, she is country music royalty, if there ever was, and she is also one of the most kindest unbelievable humans I’ve ever met and has done more and bent over backwards to help me, for no good reason, through this process. I’ve just been asked to do The Grand Ole Opry, I’d never dreamed of that, and as a songwriter, I never sat around and dreamed of being a performer or an artist, I didn’t know what it meant. Now I’m getting a little taste of that I’m OK, I like playing my songs for people but when The Grand Ole Opry called I blamed Pam. I called her up and told her she’s got to be kidding me, and she told me she was going to but she was mad because somebody else beat her to it. It is a fraternity that is deeper than most people realise, and I think the British have enhanced that and verified it. If you think about Billy Bragg and Lucie Silvas, and all those people who are not copying, and the British have always been very attentive to something someone else has done, and in most cases elevated it.

They are not afraid of being influenced is the other thing, we are not creating anything that’s going to cure cancer, let’s put it like that, but we are creating things people want and need and I want to come over there and play for you guys is what I want to do. I’ve got to make a living, don’t get me wrong, and Rebecca would like for me to do the same thing, and my kids are in this game with us a little bit. My son has decided maybe he wants to be a road manager, and he’s a real bright kid and I couldn’t afford him if he weren’t my son, and my daughter’s the same way, let’s go Dad we’ve got this. I wasn’t really worried about being in this situation where it was a mid-life crisis or a late-life crisis or whatever else, I don’t know how long I’ve got so I’m going with mid. I work with a lot of people already who are thirty years younger than me on a daily basis, and maybe even younger than that. Travelling over there with the audiences and things I think we’d get some cover rights, beat the drum and tell them I need to come over there.

How important was Paul Craft to your songwriting?

Very, and Shaun Camp too. Paul was very methodical, you get a graduate and MENSA member and all those things, I could maybe mop floors at UVA, but Paul had a sense of volume about what a song was before he started. He did a little exercise with me when I came back to his house one day after writing a couple of songs that day and I was kind of whipped, and he had this room with all his paraphernalia in. He had this clear wall where he had taped up all these handwritten lyrics on the wall, Kris Kristofferson, Dallas Frazier, Harlan Howard, just all these great writers, and from the other side of the room I couldn’t tell what they said but they all had a shape. When you started looking you saw that Harlan Howard had a certain shape, it might have a little bulge in the middle of it where a little bridge was because he was big on that, and you could see those physical shadows of what people wrote just by writing it out long hand but you couldn’t see what it was saying.

I didn’t get locked into that, but if you looked at a Kris Kristofferson song it would start out really light and short and then bulge right out and then come back down and land again, and then probably be back out. He could carry a rhyme for just days, and now we have colleges involved in telling kids how to write songs, and there is beginning to be a sterile effort coming to it where there are rules like you can’t repeat that. I had a little trouble the other day when a kid was in the room, and he was like, we’ve already said that we’ve already used that word here before,  I said “Let me just mention this to you, we are getting ready to have two, and maybe a third chorus in this thing, and all those words are going to be repeated, every one of them”. They get a little glassy-eyed around that because that’s not what they’re taught by one professor at songwriting school.

I think Paul Craft’s offerings to me were you have to be you, say what you are going to do, and see what the masters do, look at what the masters do, there are just a lot of secrets in the chorus. That’s where Paul took me, and that’s where I like to take people that I’m writing with because I’d like to write with most of them again. Paul was so bright, and a lot of people, including me, couldn’t always understand him. He had a toilet on the second floor that would run all the time, and one day he’d gone to somewhere and I was like I’m going to fix his toilet. So, I got the guts of it out and went to the store and put it all back, and I’d gone out again and got back a little late that night. When I was putting the guts back in the toilet I knocked a coffee cup over and it broke. Paul had probably 300 coffee cups no exaggeration, and he got back when I was asleep and in the morning he was gone, and there was a letter on the steps when I was leaving and it said, “Phil, our friendship may be strained somewhat, I think we should part ways for a period of time, and I probably will never know the story of the coffee cup”. I still have that note, and he was precious but an enigma at the same time. Just brilliant, it would make my head hurt to think as hard as he could. I loved him, he introduced me to a lot of folks.

How do you approach songwriting, do you have a routine?

I think I stay pretty busy with it. I average four or five songs a week probably, and that’s because I go in and I’m ready. This isn’t new to anybody, but there’s a book Stephen King wrote called ‘On Writing’ and a lot of songwriters have gone to that book, not so much for his discipline, but his technique. I think the thing he said that resonates the most is that you have to train your brain, and you have to go to a spot which for me is around 6:30 in the morning and I come here into this room, it’s got guitars and pianos, and blah, blah, blah. I come in here and pick up one of these guitars and very likely it is tuned completely differently to the rest of them because I keep different tunings on all these guitars. He said you have to do this on a regular basis, whether it’s daily and I said that’s probably too much so let’s do it on average every other day. He said you have to give it 15 minutes but you have to write into something which means I’m going to come up here and write a melody, I might get a hook out of it, I might get some push into that but then I quit after 15 minutes.

That takes me about what a cup of coffee takes me, and once I’ve done that I figure out what I’ve done, I might have said something but don’t push it too far because at 11:00 I’m getting ready to meet with somebody who is an equally capable songwriter and we are going to flesh something out, and it might be a great idea for that. What it does is that it allows you to open up the process, and it also allows you to tell your brain we are going to do this now and get your mind off everything else. It’s pretty standard, and a lot of folks use that now, I don’t know whether they all give Stephen King the credit but I do. I’m old enough now to know it’s nice to get credit for something.

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

Just keep it all going, I think about Mumford & Sons’ influence, and I mentioned Billy Bragg. Lucie Silvas is a neighbour of mine here, and I just think about a dedication to a sound and process that they’ve taught a lot of us to do. I just want to come over there and get some cover rights and hang out, and have whatever you have like fish and chips, whatever it is, and immerse myself in it a little bit, and play some shows. I actually have some friends who are talking to me about it who do that regularly. My manager, who has just had a baby and is as busy as can be, but he’s trying to think about some of that stuff too, I just want to visit, bring my wife and maybe one or two of the kids. The British are amazing at keeping it going and keeping the sensibility of americana, they hold the line, and I really appreciate that.

Phillip Lammonds’ ‘Cowboy Things’ is out now on Freestone Records.

About Martin Johnson 401 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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