There’s an Alligator: A conversation with Grayson Capps

grayson-capps-by-chad-edwards-61.jpgI’m in Philadelphia, and I have an appointment to interview Grayson Capps at 1 p.m. EST, although he is in Alabama, noon there.

Grayson Capps is a musician/ singer-song writer from the South. His travels have taken him to Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana. His father, Ronald Everett Capps, was a writer but wasn’t published until much later in life. Just as the Capps are, the book made its way onto bookstore shelves in an unorthodox manner.  The movie (“Love Song For Bobby Long”) came out before the book  (“Off Magazine Street”) was even published.

When Capps answers, he has a voice of experience that is rugged yet calm. He has a bit of Southern accent, but is a true Southerner; both sides of his family go back four generations in Alabama, dating back before the Civil War.


Despite the family background, Capps had an unconventional Southern upbringing by a genius father and practical mother, who taught him the art of words. They taught him not just how to write but what words can do for the soul, the mind and the heart. A father who read poetry and brought friends over to read Shakespeare out loud in, what this Northerner imagined, very thick Southern accents. Capps talks like he’s reading a novel, full of literary references and imagery, and he has the ability to sum up the conversation with a quintessential Southern phrase.

His talent, background and his innate ability to write made its way onto his recently released fifth studio album, The Lost Cause Minstrels. When I first listened to it, I went to my fridge, pulled out a beer, and played the first track over again. Listening to the album made me want to call my friends, drink beers and laugh. During the interview, he’s on his way to drop off friends at a bus terminal.

I talked to him as they drove along, through tunnels and passing alligators.

Honest Tune:  You’ve talked a lot about your father in interviews, what was your parent’s background?

gc-live-by-chad-edwards-5.jpgGrayson Capps:  Both of my parents were schoolteachers.  My mother taught 2nd grade, my dad taught high school and wrote during the week, Monday through Friday. My father never got published but he tried. He wrote profusely for 15 years and then gave it up. Susan Hudson and William Gay – people close to him were getting successful. He spent 5 years locked in the attic with clinical depression. He still has the rejection slips in some piece of luggage somewhere. Then through happenstance the movie happened and after that people said, “Oh there’s a book?” That was one of the best things that happened to him.

HT:  You majored in theatre in college. Did you have an ambition to become an actor? Or act in a play or a movie?  

GC:  Well, actually, I fell in love with a girl in theatre – she was beautiful, and I tried out and got the part. Well, the love affair with the theatre started with my Dad, because he was always recording people. They [friends] would ride around with a tape recorder and a beer and do a dialogue.

{In what sounded like something that happened to him yesterday, Capps described a moment with his dad that had a serious lasting impression on him.}

I was in high school in a play, and my Dad said to me, “Lay down on the floor, put your arms and legs up in the air, act like you are a dying cockroach and I’m not coming back until I believe you.” My father leaves the room, and I just start saying, “I’m a dying cockroach, I’m a dying cockroach” and then it overcame me, and I started crying and screaming, “I’M A DYING COCKROACH, I’M A DYING COCKROACH!” My father came back into the room and said, “Now you are ready to act.”

I had to do it; to destroy your ego because you can’t do shit until you become a total ass of yourself. It’s sheer magic when you disappear and complete bullshit when you don’t. The truth is that I’m scared of acting, scared of being in front of people, kind of introverted, but there is a thrill in getting through it.

HT:  You talk a lot about your dad, and, if you don’t mind, was your Mom around?  

gc-live-by-chad-edwards-2.jpgGC:  My Mom was around, and I’m a good combination of Mom and Dad, she gets me to focus enough [on getting stuff done]. She was real practical, while my Dad was a genius.

HT:  You have a lot of religious references in your songs. Do you consider yourself a religious person? 

GC:  I was taught every religion that existed, I am a very religious person, but I’m not a Christian, not a Buddhist, and any one that claims that they are one thing are full of shit. There are similarities to [philosopher] Joseph Campbell; you see a lot of hypocrisy in people and people that claim they are one thing. I mean, a Buddhist will never say he’s a Buddhist. I was raised by my father and his mission in life was to meet God and Jed Clampett.

HT:  Ah, yes, I think I have read that before in an interview.

GC:  Yeah, but it’s true! I mean, God is in everybody, the relationship between two people, the magic is not you and it’s not me, it’s the forces twisting around each other.

HT:  Sorry, do you realize that you talk like you are writing, in prose?

GC:  Ha! Yes. There these guys I’m friends with, Earl from Georgia, and Zach a dissertation away from a Ph.D. in philosophy.  Zach can expand on John Dewey for hours, and Earl will say, “A hit dog will holler.” And Zach will say, “That’s what I’ve been trying to say the whole time!” It’s the beauty of southern language. I grew up with people reciting Shakespeare in a southern accent.

There’s an alligator.

HT:  Sorry, what did you just say?

GC:  There’s an alligator. There was an alligator on the side of the road and I was telling Earl.

gc-live-by-chad-edwards-4.jpgHT:  That is one southern phrase that is not said in Philadelphia, I can assure you.   

You seem to walk the line between commercialism and artistic integrity better than a lot of musicians these days, without losing your fan base. Is it a constant effort?

GC:  I was interviewed by some girl that said that she wanted to be a musician, but didn’t want to be famous. I said, “If you are not famous no one will come to your show, so don’t do that!” You have to embrace it a little bit. Lansdale {author Joe R. Lansdale}, the guy that wrote Texas Riders, was interviewed [about how he made great music but didn’t have a lot of commercial success] and said, “If I could sell out I would! I’ve been trying to do it for thirty years!” You don’t want to repel people, you want to offer something palpable and offer yourself. I mean, you can’t come out shooting quills at people.

HT:  Do you think by staying true to yourself others will follow?  

GC:  I had been landscaping for 18 years, and playing music for 15. I was not concerned in my 20s and 30s in pleasing people. I was able to make a living and then played music because I loved it. I love discovery and the writing process, and they were both successful, but I was getting older and couldn’t do both. I was making money with music and I would have hated myself if I didn’t jump to music.

HT:  So you are one of the lucky ones?

GC:  Yes, definitely one of the lucky ones.

grayson-capps-by-chad-edwards-5.jpgHT:  In some of your interviews you’ve talked about being raised in an environment where it wasn’t just a family, it was a community of people that raised and inspired you. You’ve also talked about not being accepted by the music scene in one place.  

GC:  Are you talking about New Orleans? Yeah, I didn’t study music; it’s not in my genes to be a musician, like musicians in New Orleans have it in their DNA. I listened to lyrics intensely, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, the music part is the hardest thing, I’m a wordsmith, I mean… I am not a musician’s musician.

I like Woodie Guthrie’s style; most of the time I play 2 chords and then play 3 chords to impress the ladies.

HT:  Could you talk about the recording process of your latest album, what changes were made from the last one?

GC:  We recorded in the barn, finished the tracking in the barn, a large barn, like 5000 square feet.  Downstairs [there] is the studio, upstairs is open where the drums were recorded. I mean it is a big ass barn.

Wait, I’m gonna lose you, going through a tunnel. [one minute later] What were we talking about?

HT:  Random question, but what’s your favorite beer?  

gc-live-by-chad-edwards-3.jpgGC:  Beer, New Castle. I went to New Castle, England and realized it was made for the bottle. I also really like Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale.

HT:  I ask because when I first listened to your album, all I wanted to do was have a beer with some friends and laugh with your album in the background. I mean, did you guys have fun recording? Cause it comes out on the album.

GC:  Great! We recorded around a mountain and a cave, a creek and a fire, and it felt more like a social record that you could play with a group of people, whereas some records, some records are more moody. The record and the songs were just fun to do. The spectrum is all over the place. I don’t write the same song over and over.

HT:  Who is John the Dagger and why write a song about him?

GC:  John the Dagger was a guy that lived next door [in New Orleans]. He had jailhouse tattoo of a dagger on his chest, and a tattoo of a naked woman with no head and no feet. When asked why the tattoo, he said it’s the perfect woman because, “it won’t talk back to him and will never leave.” John the Dagger is an African-American, Irish, French, Native American and can be profound. I just saw him two weeks ago, driving down the street, and I yell at him, and all John the Dagger says is, “I’m Hungry, let’s go something to eat.”

HT:  “Paris, France,” (off the new album) is that an ‘ode to Hurricane Katrina?  

GC:  Oh yes. I was in Paris right after the hurricane, and that’s all that people wanted to talk to me about. It was also about breaking up with my daughter’s mother. You think you are impervious to something like that. That it won’t happen to you and then bam. Do you have kids?

HT:  No, I don’t know if I ever will.

GC:  Well, if you can survive first two years then you are okay. It’s the end of narcissism. Like the thing with the dying cockroach, losing narcissism.

HT:  I don’t think I want to lose my narcissism.

GC:  Yes, but until you love [a child] like that, the love supersedes your lover and yourself.

gc-live-by-chad-edwards.jpgHT:  “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” could you tell me what that song means to you? I could be wrong, but I feel like it’s a very personal song to you.

GC:  My fans are very [loyal]. I get in a situation when I play and my fans are intense. One woman told me a song saved her from committing suicide. The song was “Mermaid” [off Wail and Ride]. She kept following me thinking that I was this savior-type person. There is another woman, her husband died recently in the last year and she comes to every show within ten hours of her home. People look to me [like that], and I’m just trying to rise above and maintain hope and have epiphanies and see the light. The answers are not me and will never be, its people themselves, but people are searching for the answer outside of themselves and people fail. I mean, it’s what capitalism is based on, an outer stimulus and it destroys everything. The money is an allusion and doesn’t exist. I need to look within to find the beauty and depth. I always correlate nothing with everything.

The beauty of a cup is the emptiness in the cup and the value of the cup. If a cup is full of coke, and then a good red wine comes along, you are shit out of luck.

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