NINE POUND HAMMER – “We Had Enough Songs For A Double Record”
October 14, 2021, 6 days ago
Before there was Nashville Pussy, there was Nine Pound Hammer. Way before actually. Back in 1985 in the small Kentucky town of Owensboro, future Nashville Pussy frontman Blaine Cartwright was an aspiring “hillbilly Johnny Thunders” guitarist who formed a band with his friend and fellow college dropout, Scott Luallen on vocals. Although they weren’t the originators, the band became the “perfecters” of a style called Cowpunk.
In the early ‘90s, Nine Pound Hammer released some classic records including Hayseed Timebomb, for the German based label Crypt Records, which included their hit “Run, Fat Boy, Run”. The band found success in Europe playing to rabid crowds that were eating up American music, and even had BBC disc jockey John Peel as one of their biggest fans. It’s been 33 years since the release of the first Nine Pound Hammer album - The Mud, The Blood, And The Beers, in 1988. Their last album - Bluegrass Conspiracy, was released five years ago in 2016. Now, NPH is back with a brand new album, When The Sh*t Goes Down, and it just might be their best ever. Available on Acetate Records, When The Sh*t Goes Down is the sound of a great band hitting its creative peak after more than three decades. You can’t beat that.
Studio album number eight, When The Sh*t Goes Down, that title certainly applies to 2020. Nine Pound Hammer guitarist Blaine Cartwright wastes no time talking about the title track. “I originally wrote it when things hadn’t got too stupid. But I was writing it about a situation with everyone talking about some crazy sh*t happening; a civil war, something stupid like that. My thing was, I’m not going to be involved, that’s y’all’s deal. I’m going to hide out. We always make jokes, we think Ted Nugent’s a bit of a nut, but if sh*t ever goes down, we’re hiding out at his ranch. We’ve got plenty of friends and stuff, but I think they’re a little crazy. In the context of everyday life, they’re a little crazy for stockpiling food and weapons, all that sh*t; apocalypse survivor type people. We know people like that. So, I make fun of ‘em now, but if sh*t happens, I’m hiding out. I’m not fighting, I ain’t doing sh*t. I don’t think it’s going to come to that, but people talk a lot. I wrote that before the pandemic.”
“We were lucky we got to make this during the pandemic; it was a close call,” continues Cartwright. “Daniel Rey, our producer (Ramones, White Zombie, Misfits) came in from Germany. He had to quarantine, got tested and all that sh*t. We kept our circle really small. We had American Thanksgiving, we all cancelled that so we wouldn’t be around our relatives. We did what we could. I don’t want to get myself in trouble, but there was a couple of good things about it. When we did it, all the hotel rooms and Air B&Bs were not booked. They were totally open, and really cheap. Airline tickets were cheap. Daniel Rey had to stay at an Air B&B in Kentucky. We tried to ignore it, but Kentucky was locked down when we did it. We had one really good meal eating catfish, and the next day it was locked down again. It was pretty stress free though, to tell you the truth. I was glad to have fun during this, glad to get something done. I was going to go f*cking crazy doing nothing. God damn! I can’t just sit there and watch Netflix and order food from Grubhub, and think I’m in Heaven. When you love your job, you don’t want a vacation.”
Blaine has previously worked with producer Daniel Rey on the Nashville Pussy albums: Get Some!, From Hell To Texas, and Pleased To Eat You. “He’ll probably do the next one,” quirps Cartwright. “Hopefully I can make some money doing Nine Pound Hammer. I got unemployment insurance; I’ve never got money from the government in my life, and we got a big chunk. Instead of sitting there eating Grubhub, I’m going to pay for Daniel to come. It worked really well. He’s very song oriented. It’s really the basics – the energy and simplicity, and the hooks. Also, vocals. He worked really well with Scott (Luallen, singer). I knew Daniel would work well with the guys. We listened to everything he said, and we’d never really been told what to do in a studio. But Daniel’s got a way of working with people that’s just great. He’s also really good at song arranging. He didn’t do as much with Hammer as he did with Pussy, cause Pussy kind of jams and we get to make songs out of it. Nine Pound Hammer – he made sure the song arrangement was perfect. We needed a producer because we were all writing the songs and arranging each other’s songs; everyone had good ideas. We were trying four or five different ways, and they all sounded good. We needed somebody to come in and say, ‘This way is the best,’ so we don’t sit around and ponder or argue.”
Delving into some of the 14 songs on When The Sh*t Goes Down, Blaine begins with the opening track, “What Kind Of God”. Talk about a great intro both to the band, and the album, perfectly setting the stage for all that follows. It’s a lyrical gem with the catch phrase being, “What kind of God would wake me up again?”
“Yeah, man! I didn’t write those lyrics, Scott did. Scott wrote a lot of the lyrics on the record. Me and Scott had some tunes, and we didn’t know what to write about. It’s very important for us to have a cause. I called him one day, cause I was reading an article in Europe – in France, I think, about how there’s so many drug overdoses in Kentucky. Before there was fentanyl, there was oxycontin, and heroin overdoses. There’s this one restaurant in Kentucky, they had three people who worked there die in a month! So, we started talking about it. Scott works for the Overdose Crisis Center in Lexington; he had issues himself at one point. I was like, ‘Why don’t you write about what we’re talking about?’ And he did! I said, ‘Just write what Kentucky’s about right now.’ That was the whole concept. It’s not just about getting sober; you’ve got to have something to f*cking live for! He’d tell me, ‘I got this person sober, and I’m rooting for them. But their life now is totally straight, and they’re surrounded by people who are getting f*cked up. They get up every morning and take a bus to go to work at Wendy’s. I hope they stay sober, but you’ve got to have something to look forward to.’ Otherwise, the other side, oblivion, is preferable almost.”
“Mama Lied” is priceless! It doesn’t matter where you were brought up, whether it was Kentucky or Kazakhstan, “Sometimes in your youth, shouldn’t always hear the truth,” and there’s so many great examples including, “Come meet your new Daddy, this one might just stick around.” “Scott wrote that one, that was his. And ‘Your Daddy stopped drinking,’ that’s mine. Scott’s Dad left when he was 12 – this is back in the ‘70s and there was a lot of stigma around that. Also, his Mom would bring people around, and everyone potentially could be your new Daddy. The way I processed that was, I always turn around lyrics. Of course, there’s ‘Mama Tried’ by Merle Haggard. Famous song, I just wrote ‘Mama Lied’. And you know, Mama lied cause she had to. So, I went from that, and I was very, very happy with it. The song itself is just so simple. I was trying to write the most simple song in the god damn world, something like ‘Bad Moon On The Rise’ by CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival). I probably wrote ten songs called ‘Mama Lied’ and they were all good. Some of them had some cool riffs, but they were all too complicated. You’ve got to just basically talk the song out, like Johnny Cash. Originally, it was a Ramones type song, and Scott made it country. I wasn’t sure, but he had really good instincts on this. He’s on top of his game at age 57. It’s been good, cause he got sober, maybe nine years ago; but he’s come into his own here. He’s got a more durable voice than me – he doesn’t need a million shots at it now. I’m really proud of that song, it took forever.”
Speaking of The Ramones, “A Girl Like That” sounds like a hillbilly Ramones song. “Oh, thank you,” blurts Blaine. “It’s so weird cause I wrote that song after West Side Story, believe it or not. I was watching West Side Story on TV, and a friend of mine’s father-in-law is in it. I’m friends with a guy David Cross, the comedian. His father-in-law is Russ Tamblyn, who did all the musicals and sh*t. I’d never seen it, so I watched it. And they had a song called, ‘A Boy Like That’. I was like, I wonder if there’s a song called ‘A Girl Like That’? I looked it up online, and there’s f*cking not! How the hell did that one slip by? So, I sat on that title for goddamn two years before I told anybody. Those lyrics were kind of hard to write, man. I was doing Ramones, and you’ve got to go back. If you want to play like the Stones, you go back to the blues and Muddy Waters. If you want to play like the Ramones, you’ve got to go back to the Beach Boys. So, I listened to old Beach Boys hot rod songs non-stop, and I realized those women they sing about are kinda fictitious, man. But they’re not fictitious now, once they’re in the song; they seem real. I had to do that. I wrote about a girl that doesn’t f*cking exist, the coolest chic of all time, and everything goes great; everything’s perfect. She loves you just how you are, and she adds to it. You’ve got a corn dog, funnel cake, and beer at the drive-in, let’s hang out. I don’t know when it’s ever happened, but it’s in the song.”
Another prominent artist whose influence comes through loud and clear is Johnny Cash, specifically on “One Last Midnight”. “Oh, goddamn! Scott wrote the lyrics and the music to that. He’s like, ‘I’ve got this weird type of tune in my head. We played it and rocked it up, he’s like, ‘No, man. It’s got to be slower.’ That’s weird for Nine Pound Hammer to say, let’s make it slower. Then he said he heard horns on it. He was f*cking great! He found a horn player, a trumpet player, and booked that. He was inspired by the first season of True Detective with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson; it’s way better than what it sounds like when I say Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It’s a f*cking shining moment, it’s f*cking great! There’s a lot of metaphysical kind of stuff in there, it’s just a weird, otherworld type of song. And we’ve got our ace guitar player, Earl Crim, and we’ve got a mellotron; that’s what Led Zeppelin used for ‘No Quarter’. We were f*cking around with that. That was the best thing about having the extra time in the studio – why don’t we try this out? Nine Pound Hammer – our first few records are great, but we were very used to doing the punk rock thing – you’ve got four days, and whatever you come out with is what you’ve got, no remixing. So, it was good to f*ck around. We originally had enough songs for a goddamn double record, we really did. We had at least five or six more good songs, plus two or three more covers; but the workload was getting a little much. The last few songs we were doing, we were like, let’s just save these for next time, and record something sooner, as opposed to every few years. But we had so many f*ckin’ songs, and I like doing things that are different. But for every different song, I want two rockers on there. When I was a kid, I liked when people stretched out, but I did not like when hard rock bands were mostly other songs, like The Clash. I liked that sh*t a lot. First couple of albums, they had a couple of reggae songs in there – that’s f*ckin’ cool, mix things up a little bit. All of a sudden, it’s all reggae and a couple of rockers – what the f*ck happened there? I know we’re not getting close to that; I just want Nine Pound Hammer to be hard rock out of the gate, that’s the majority of the record – hard and fast. But the different songs we have on here, I’m really proud of them. Everyone’s a really good musician, it’s beyond punk now. Everyone’s been playing so long, they got really f*cking good.”
A cover tune closes When The Sh*t Goes Down, specifically “Best Of All Possible Worlds” by Kris Kristofferson, from his debut album, released in 1970. That song was inspired by Kristofferson’s experience of being arrested, and Blaine explains how Nine Pound Hammer relates to that. “Scott chose that one. When he was in trouble, he did a little time in a jail rehab. Nine Pound Hammer’s always been a moral band for the working man, the underdog. The last couple records before this were mostly drunken relationship songs, and I missed the working-class politics. ‘Best Of All Possible Worlds’ is about a guy who gets locked up in prison, and he ain’t got shit. All he’s got is his f*cking attitude. Basically, all he can do is sit there and take it with a smile on his face and say, ‘I’m gonna get out. I’m gonna get laid and get drunk again.’ Plus, Kristofferson was always a big influence on Nine Pound Hammer – not as much musically, but as far as lyrics. We always liked this one song called ‘Pilgrim Chapter 33’, but it just didn’t translate to being revved up. ‘Best Of All Possible Worlds’ is tailor made, and Earl gets to play guitar like a crazy maniac, so that’s cool to do too.”
The album cover for When The Sh*t Goes Down showcases an all-Kentucky version of Mount Rushmore. From left to right, it depicts: Bill Monroe, Daniel Boone, Col. Sanders, and Abraham Lincoln. Sanders – the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Lincoln – the 16th President of The United States, are instantly recognizable. People may not be as familiar with Monroe – who created bluegrass music, and Boone – who explored and settled the state of Kentucky.
“Once again, this was all Scott’s idea. Artwork takes f*cking forever, to the point where I just want to slap on a picture; especially these days. But I’m so glad about that. We were talking about who should be on Mount Rushmore – we had Bill Monroe, we had Abraham Lincoln, and we had Col. Sanders of course. Then we were arguing about Daniel Boone versus Muhammad Ali, which is a weird argument. It wasn’t getting heated, but we both had our points. Scott lives in Kentucky, I live in Atlanta. We were talking about the coonskin cap – I said the coonskin cap is Davy Crockett. Scott said, ‘Look it up on Wikipedia.’ So, I looked up Daniel Boone. I knew who he was, but only from the show with Fess Parker. And he settled Kentucky, so I yielded to that. We had some runners-up: Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Manson, Jefferson Davis – because Kentucky had both the President of the North and the South during the Civil War. We had a little back and forth about Daniel Boone; I don’t know what he looks like, there’s not a lot of pictures of him. Muhammad Ali was the most photographed person on the planet at one point. But Daniel Boone settled Kentucky, that’s cool. We wanted to make it like a postcard from the ‘60s. Bill Monroe, he’s from close to where we’re from – Owensboro, Kentucky. He was born 20 miles away on a farm. Owensboro’s a town of about 50,000 people; where he was from is a town of like 2,000. He didn’t get a lot of acknowledgment in his lifetime, he really f*cking didn’t. There wasn’t as much hoopla as you’d think. After he died, of course, the birthplace of Bill Monroe is all over Beaver Dam, Kentucky. You go there now, and you can’t miss it – Bill Monroe Parkway. I wish they had some of that sh*t while he was alive. But that’s the way the world is. He’s a big f*cking influence for sure.”