When Louisville's Hell's 1/2 Acre released their second CD, Under a Whiskey Moon in 2004, the reviews were just shy of gushing. They had perfected their brand of rootsy, alt-country on an album that veered smartly into straight-up rock, bright pop, and even a bit of jazz. Delivered with assurance, it garnered comparisons to everyone from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to Drive-By Truckers and the Rolling Stones. Possibly , someone even came up with a Beatles reference. They had arrived at that tantalizing moment in the life of a band when suddenly, improbably, anything seems possible -- signing with a big label, leaping from the regional circuit to a national tour, posing for the cover of Rolling Stone. Heck, why not dream a little? Of course, it's also easy to imagine the flip-side at that precarious juncture -- the crash and burn, the dissolution, the settling back into obscurity. And unfortunately for Hell's 1/2 Acre, the next big leap wasn't to be. The studio magic that helped make Whiskey Moon such a singular success proved harder to duplicate outside the studio. A revolving door of band members never quite gelled around mainstays Rankin Mapother and John Woosley, and pretty soon the band dispersed without recording another album.
Recently, I sat down with John Woosley, one of Hell's 1/2 Acre's founding members and owner of the honeyed twang-and-rasp vocals that were always singled out for praise, to talk about that experience and to find out what musical possibilities still linger for him.
Woosley described the heady ride of finding himself recording with and -- at least, for the space of recording session -- fronting a group that included two of John Mellencamp's long-time band members, Mike Wanchic and Andy York. The unlikely event came about after Mapother sent their debut effort, Blacktops & Blackouts, to Wanchic for feedback. It wasn't long before they got a call. "It was one of those deals, where the guy calls us back and says, 'I like your stuff, I want to work with you, and we've got next month open.'" Woosley then found himself having to write songs, literally, on-demand but found that the stress of that do-or-die timeline actually proved to be more creatively potent than one would expect.
Mapother had two songs that the band had already been practicing, but Woosley had only a couple of songs in progress, and they needed more -- quickly. So, a little happy chaos ensued: "A lot of the lyrics to the songs that I had written, I finished in the studio." Of his favorite song on the album, "The Kindness of Strangers," he admits that the last two verses were written on the spot right before going in to cut the vocals.
One of the most important things Woosley took away from that experience was an appreciation of a truly collaborative creative effort carried out by people who love music for its own sake and mostly manage to check their egos at the door. "It's hard for me to write music in a vacuum -- alone. That really kicked me into gear. It was exciting, it was new, it was just great. And Andy York, not only is he one of the best musicians I've ever been around, but he's one of the best people." It turned out that York was flying in from New York City, where he was the lead guitar player for the Billy Joel musical Movin' Out ,in order to record with Hell's 1/2 Acre.
"He loves the work, he loves the music, and he doesn't care whether he's in somebody's backyard in the 'burbs or if he's on Broadway -- it doesn't matter to him. I love that." This is the polar opposite of an attitude among musicians that is sure to get John Woosley all riled up if you ask him about it -- the propensity for pretentiousness, for an unwillingness to work with people who threaten your own status, and for a sense of rivalry where there should be community.
"There's so much untapped potential here, and with a few exceptions like My Morning Jacket, and a few other notables, there's never going to be a really great band coming out of Louisville because anyone with a measure of talent wants to surround themselves with people who are completely bland and boring....They would rather be a frontman in a mediocre band than to be a bit player in a really great band."
While he obviously has strong opinions on the subject, he's also quick to admit that some of the skepticism, or aloofness, that he's perceived toward himself could be the result of his own bad-ass behavior in his less sober days, a hard-drinking lifestyle that more closely resembled some of the characters in his old songs. Still, his ideal situation would be to put together a band of musicians better than himself, hole up in somebody's house for a month, and make music together.
For now, Woosley is settling for a smaller-scale approach. Working his day job, he is still writing songs and recording them with local musician and producer Steve McCabe, who owns a music and sound design company. McCabe also happens to be the original Hell's 1/2 Acre guitarist, and a guy who models the kind of passion and talent for music that Woosley most admires. He's one of those scary-good musicians who, as Woosley put it, "One week he wasn't a rockabilly guitar player, and then he sat in his house for a week and when he showed up for [WFPK] Live Lunch, he had a whole new skill set."
Woosley's songwriting approach is a little different these days too. He writes pretty much on his own, but will come to McCabe with the germ of an idea and let it develop from there. He has five songs in near-final form, a few of which you can listen to on Woosley's MySpace page. Ideally, he'd like to expand that to twelve for a full-length solo album, including some all-electric rockers. "I'll usually write the melody and the lyrics and then I'll give it to him and the whole thing changes -- for the better."
All in all, there's a little less swagger and a lot more introspection in songs like "Here Today" and "Closer":
And every time I think I get it right
I think that it's okay
I might be closer, but still a million miles away.
On the newest songs, Woosley contributes the vocals and acoustic guitar melody but with the exception of a few guests on tracks who play violin and mandolin, the rest is McCabe -- playing bass, keys, drums, whatever it takes. McCabe is also responsible for providing one of the most surprisingly fun and creative experiences Woosley has had in the studio -- writing and singing commercial jingles. When I brought up Barry Manilow, he good-naturedly sang, "The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup." (Apologies to the good folks of Heine Bros.)
Personally, I -- and probably a lot of other fans from the Hell's 1/2 Acre days -- hope that the solo album materializes sooner rather than later, propelling him back onto the stage and into the spotlight for good. For John Woosley, a musician who's in it now just for the joy of making music, there are certainly worse things than finding yourself with a day job that inspires you, a side job that's fun, and a dream job that keeps you striving.