Josh Watson has heard his group the Grand Ole Uproar’s music described as a “psychedelic po’ boy.”
They draw their inspiration from what he describes as the “fertile crescent of American music,” a stretch of Gulf Coast running roughly from Houston all the way to Florida. It’s a blend of zydeco, rock, even a bit of Mexican conjunto.
“That music has been such an influence on the types of things we want to do,” Watson said. “And when we’re down there on the Gulf Coast, people encourage us to come back. We’ve made good friends down in New Orleans, found some good places to play in the French Quarter. We’ve been really fortunate.”
In a recent interview, Watson spoke about the mix of styles that make up his music, about how the Grand Ole Uproar came to be and about trying to play when college kids are running up onstage.
How did you get your start in music?
I am from Marion, S.C., went to high school at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts. I began creative writing with workshops when I was 16. I then went to the University of South Carolina in Columbia, then went and got an master’s of fine arts in creative writing at UNCG. I focused on writing poems for about 10 years or so. When I finished with the MFA, I met Emily Stewart (who would later play banjo in Grand Ole Uproar), and we started singing some songs together. I always played guitar. But I started writing songs around that time. And the Greensboro music scene was ripe with all kinds of musicians and places to play, and Emily and I sort of jumped into a band called Our Horse Jethro.
I have taken some lessons here and there, but I have little formal training.
Who are some of your musical inspirations?
Bob Dylan is a big one as far as writing songs. He’s both a hero and someone who makes you go, “Why bother?” He’s so good, he makes you wonder, “Why am I even bothering to do this?”
I love west Texas and Texas music and Louisiana music, and I am a huge Deadhead, so The Grateful Dead is a huge influence. The Band is a huge influence. Terry Allen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings, Doug Sahm.
How would you describe your music?
Well, long ago we called it “hippie talk,” which was sort of a joke, but we thought it kind of fit, because we were adding the jam and improvisation aspects. It has sort of shifted into being Americana. It’s a bit of Louisiana, a bit of New Orleans R&B, a bit of zydeco. There are influences of Merle Haggard, Taj Mahal, Tex-Mex, conjunto accordion.
What’s your creative process like?
A lot of times, it comes from a phrase. You overhear someone say something and go, “Well, that’s a song.” A friend of mine at one point said, “A problem never had no problem finding me.” I said, “Well, that’s a song.” But, I changed it to “Trouble never had no trouble finding me,” which is a little bit easier to sing.
And he also said, “One day, you open the door and the devil walks right through.” And, again, I just changed “the devil” to “trouble.”
So, people will often give you the ideas for songs. But, I typically begin by banging out a riff or a chord progression on an instrument, and start with that, and I usually don’t know where I’m going to go, which is fun and difficult at the same time.
How did Grand Ole Uproar get its start?
Emily and I started playing together in Our Horse Jethro, and we wanted to do other things, and started a band called the Grand Ole Uproar. We recorded an EP. It had a little bit of the banjo but had the influence of Waylon Jennings. He had a line, “Hear the grand ole uproar from Nashville, Tennessee.” I thought that was a great band name.
And, it’s sort of been a collective. (Bassist) Dan Bayer and (lap steel guitarist) Wake Clinard have played in the band for six-and-a-half years, and have been all over the southeast with us. But, at times, it’s been three drummers, or three bass players. Whoever could do the gig would do the gig. They would know my songs and the pool of songs that we pull from. That’s how they used to do it in Austin, back in the ‘70s. Jerry Jeff Walker’s bass player would play with Doug Sahm one night, and then Doug Sahm’s pedal steel player would play with Willie Nelson. So, it hasn’t necessarily been this group of people who set out to be a rock band. It’s been a bunch of different people who believed in these songs and what we were up to.
Right now, we’ve had a pretty consistent group of people (which also includes drummer Mazagan Sietsma and keyboardist Mark Dillon).
How do you feel your background in creative writing has helped you in your music career?
A lot in the sense of revision, and how important revision is to a song. I think some people write a song and go, “This is it.” I’ve always been one who makes many drafts of things and rewrites things a lot. I think that definitely has always helped me. The real writing is done in the rewriting, whether it’s a poem or whether it’s a song.
I think it has also helped me in steering away from cliché, which is a hard thing to do. I fall into cliché like everyone else, but it helped me to recognize it. And, if I do write a cliché, it has helped me figure out how to be like Guy Clark by turning the cliché on its head and turning it into something new.
If you could open a show for any artist, who would it be, and why?
Other than Bob Dylan or The Rolling Stones, Taj Mahal would be a good candidate. He, to me, just embodies what I want my music to embody, which is a whole lot of different influences that just sort of pull from the roots of the music. And, he’s just a great songwriter, a great singer, a great storyteller.
Or Shinyribs (a side project of Kevin Russell, singer for Austin band The Gourds). It’s funky, and has a good combination of country music and blues.
Do you ever sing karaoke or sing in the shower, and, if so, what do you sing?
I have sung karaoke, long, long ago, but I steer away from it. When I go to karaoke, people usually sing pretty well there.
When I sing in the shower, it could be anything. For the last year, my family has been listening to the album by Terry Allen, “Lubbock (On Everything).” And if I end up singing anything during the day right now, it’s usually some song from that.
What’s the funniest or weirdest thing that has happened at one of your shows?
Playing over in Chapel Hill at He’s Not Here. You have college kids, you have girls on their birthday jump up onstage with you. It’s hard not to say no to four beautiful women jumping up onstage with you. Or you have people jumping up on stage to play percussion. Sometimes it’s kind of off-putting. But the drummer just hands them a stick or a cowbell and it’s on. You might have people yell, “Can I sing a song?” And sometimes, it’s classically trained musicians who can play the heck out of the violin.
But, most of the time, it’s funny and laid back.
What’s your favorite song to perform?
Even though the band gets maybe a little bit tired of it, “Tangled Up in Blue,” the Bob Dylan song, is one we can do on any given night. Something about the lyrics and the character of that song, you can climb into that character and just phrase the song differently every night, you can play with the lyrics, you can reinvent it every night. It really lends itself to a lot of different phrasing interpretations, changing the lyrics around.
There’s also “Isis” (which is by Bob Dylan as well). I really like the long story songs. You can bring it up really high and loud, start a rumble, then bring it back down.
Of my songs, I like “Open Road” a lot. I think the progression works really well. But, when it comes to your own songs, they’re a little bit like your babies. There’s a song that I just wrote called “Big Daddy’s Quesadilla Kitchen,” which is about a Tex-Mex food we didn’t get to eat in Houston, because we blew a tire. That’s one we really like playing.
What’s next for you?
We have a ton of songs that we have been developing, been wanting to record. We have been talking to (live music venue) The Ramkat in Winston-Salem, and I think our plan is to record on some Tuesday morning in the empty Ramkat. I’ve always loved live music, rather than just, “Here is our click track and everything is played to that click track.” We’re just trying to iron out the date to do that.
We have so much music we could do and that I want to record, and I think there will probably be an EP or two hopefully by the end of the year or the early part of next year.
— As told to Robert C. Lopez, email@example.com