This marks the 15th anniversary of Home For Orphans, a compilation of tracks by Reigning Sound. Ahead of the album’s June 26 reissue through Merge Records, singer and guitarist Greg Cartwright was playing concerts with the re-assembled Memphis lineup of Reigning Sound, including bassist Jeremy Scott, drummer Greg Roberson, and organist Alex Greene. Then, the planet-wide lockdown caused by COVID-19 put their tour on hold.
Cartwright talked with us about the reissue, life under quarantine in Asheville, North Carolina, his future plans, and more.
How’re you holding up in quarantine and the planet-wide lockdown?
It’s been a real mixed bag, you know? I do a radio show every Friday, and it’s a two-hour radio show for a local station here in Asheville called Asheville FM. The one big thing was that I was used to going into a radio station every Friday and doing a two-hour show with records. I’ve been amassing and collecting records for a very long time, and I’m a pretty analog person, so I really like records. I don’t mess much with digital formats, and I am pretty computer-illiterate, is what it really comes down to.
When the lockdown came, it meant that I either I had to stop doing the radio show because I couldn’t go into a shared space, or, I had to figure out how to do the radio show from home, and I don’t even have a computer. Luckily, my wife has a laptop, and I bought a digital audio transfer component called a Focusrite, and with that, I slowly figured out how I could basically record an entire set. I have a mixer and turntables and everything at the house. Plus, my whole record library is here.
I figured out how I could do a radio show prerecorded and then send it to the radio station, and I got proficient enough at it that I got a request from another radio station to do another radio show. It’s kind of forced me to dig real deep into my record collection and start to sift out things that I don’t ever really listen to, so it’s great.
Having two radio shows means I have my head in records most of the time, and I’m also culling out all of the stuff that I probably should have gotten rid of 20 years ago, things that I’m never going to listen to. Hopefully, on the other side of this, I’ll have a bunch of records to unload at a record store or record swap. I’m more familiar with what is really in my record library, as I’m looking through it more frequently. I might even start to get it in some kind of order.
So, that’s been really good, and the other good thing about it is time spent with family. I’ve got two sons. My oldest is 28; my youngest is 22, and then my daughter is my very youngest, and she is 16. It’s not the ideal way to get a better grasp on your family dynamics, because it’s an all-in situation, but at the same time, I feel like my family … we’ve gotten something out of being forced into the situation where we’re seeing a lot more of each other than we would choose to, especially with a 16-year-old.
My boys are grown, and we waited a month or so before we had them over at the house, but they were social distancing pretty hard as well, so after a while, we started making like everybody is doing a calculated risk about who you want to bring into your circle of people that you’re going to see periodically, and who to keep at a distance for a while, which is really hard.
But, I’m really lucky, because my wife is still working from home; we have income, and I still get checks from publishing and stuff like that. I can’t gig, obviously, and that’s been hard, because Merge is reissuing Home for Orphans this month, and we had a West Coast tour planned, and obviously that’s not going to happen. I ran it up to the wire, because the original band got together with some Midwest dates, which ran until March 3 or something. So, as soon as we got out on the road, people were getting a little spooked because it was towards the end of February, but by the time we were done with the tour, it was a little freaky.
Congratulations on the anniversary and reissue for Home for Orphans! How was reissuing it? Did it make you see the songs differently, or give you flashbacks to making it?
Yeah, it definitely made me think about when I put the record together because I put the record together right after Too Much Guitar, which was the last studio album for the original lineup of the band. We had several sessions in Memphis around that time, and there were things that got used and things that didn’t get used for Too Much Guitar, and right around that same time, as the record was about to come out, I moved. I sold my record store in Memphis and moved to Asheville, North Carolina with my family, and I was kind of in limbo. I was without a band, and the record had just come out. People were liking the record, and so, I scrambled to put a version of the band together that could go out to support Too Much Guitar.
Once I did that, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do as far as, was I going to put a new lineup of the band together, or put the whole thing to bed and start over again? As a stopgap measure, I went back through the previously unreleased material that I had and put together an album to hold everything over until I figured out what I was going to do. That was what the album was about. I hadn’t listened to much of that record for a while, and going out and performing the songs with the original band, as we did at the end of February, was definitely interesting because I hadn’t thought a lot about those songs in a long time.
There’s not a lot of rockers on the record; it’s a pretty moody record. Sometimes, you think that when you’re in a live situation, you need to give people just rockers and keep everybody excited, and it’s kind of a tricky, questionable idea to go out and just play a bunch of ballads because sometimes people don’t like that. But, I found that when we did that for this tour, people loved it, so I was super happy with it.
How were those shows with the lineup? Do you think you’ll continue to do that when this is over?
I hope to. We had to planned on promoting this record all through the summer, and we had to cancel all those plans because of coronavirus. I’m hoping that once things start to calm down, we can book some more shows with that lineup and continue to promote this record. I think that’s going to be tricky because even once things are open, I don’t know if people are going to want to hang out with people in a big room with a bunch of other people for a while.
On top of that, a lot of the venues we normally deal with and work with, some of them won’t be open. Some of them won’t ever be open again. I do feel like probably, some venues are going to fold. We’ll just have to see what the lay of the land is in a couple of months.
Do you see stream concerts in the works?
I don’t. I think it’s an interesting concept for a way to move forward. It doesn’t interest me. It’s not something that interests me. Maybe my mind will change after time, and especially if this goes on a lot longer than I hope it will. Then, it might be part of the new reality. I think that it’s part of the new reality, but I have to say, it doesn’t interest me much personally.
You have the reissue coming out next month. What are your plans for when it drops?
That’s a really good question. There’s a record store here in town called Harvest Records that I work at part time, sifting the used 45s for them, pricing them, cleaning them, getting everything record to sell, and curating the 45 section there. They’ve been closed since early March. They don’t have any plan to reopen anytime soon. Most record stores at this point … there’s probably more record stores now than there were in the early 2000s because that was a really hard time for record stores; a lot of people were downsizing or going out of business, or just moving from a brick and mortar store to a more online presence as a record store, but there’s a lot of record stores now, and I don’t know if all of them are going to be able to reopen.
Most people don’t have a large space to put that record store. It’s pretty close quarters as far as far human beings coming in and going through records, and also, you’re touching things that other people are touching. I think that’s a big question mark, how record stores are going to reopen, but also, how record stores are going to continue to order? For sure, their ordering habits are going to change because if they sell online and also sell in their brick-and-mortar store, they’re ordering enough to sell for both, but now, they’re probably not going to be ordering as much for the record store itself as much as they will be to sell online.
There obviously won’t be any concerts to promote the record. There’s not going to be any in-store [performances] to promote the record; I just don’t see it happening, and I don’t really know how much record stores will be ordering the record. I think pre-sales have been pretty good so far, so that’s really great, and I’m happy about that, and I’m happy that everybody that I know that’s selling records online that this is a very good time for selling records right now because you have a captive audience.
People are at home and bored and looking for entertainment. People are buying records just to have something to listen to and something to do because they can’t go to the record store and flip through the bins anymore. They’ve got to find some other way to get entertainment, whether that’s Amazon, or going directly to a label or distributor’s online site to order records. The pandemic has been a game changer for entertainment, and I’m really curious how it’s going to move forward, but right now, I think it’s tricky to say how you plan to address the situation when you don’t know what’s going to happen in two months. You don’t even know what’s going to happen six months, and you definitely don’t know what’s going to happen in two weeks
. Making plans at this point… the gigs that we had scheduled for March that I had to cancel, a lot of the promoters wanted rain dates, and we gave that to them, and some of those dates have come and gone. I feel like it’s really tricky at this point to try to continue booking engagements when I don’t know if they can be fulfilled. It’s really tricky right now.
Are you currently writing or recording anything?
Yeah, I am. I’m currently writing more material. It’s been a great time for wood-shedding and trying to hone your skills as a songwriter or a player right now because you can’t go out and play for people, but you can certainly practice a lot, probably more than ever. My wife and I had just started a band the year before in 2019. We’ve been practicing a lot at home because we have all our gear here, so we can practice pretty regular, and that’s been really great. M
y wife has also been taking drum lessons from somebody regular, and she’s now taking those lessons in a Zoom meeting format, and that’s been working out great for her, and she loves it. It’s definitely a good time for musicians to think about playing for the sake of play and becoming a more proficient or better at what you do, better than what you were before, not necessarily to become a virtuoso or anything, but just to be more conscious of how you’re playing and what you’re playing and what you’re writing about.
The one tricky thing about writing right now is it’s hard for your reality that you’re in not to seep into the songs, and I think that’s a good thing. Musicians and artists in general are always reflecting on what’s going on around them, but this is a very strange thing to be reflecting on, and I think it’s a tricky thing do it because you don’t want to make something that is dated in six months.
You don’t want to write a bunch of songs about the pandemic, but you can write songs about isolation. You can write songs about how much you love other people and how much you miss them. There’s all different kinds of ways to reflect on what this is doing to people’s lives that you can put into music and that people will relate to now, six months from now, or a year from now. That’s kind of a goal for me, is to find some way to talk about all this but in a way that won’t be completely dated.
You’re talking about how the times we’re in affecting what direction you’ll go. You have so much eclectic music. Do you see the times we’re in this influencing this one way or another?
I definitely have tried to be versatile and be able to follow whatever idea I’m having to its logical end. I think that during all this, I’ve had more luck at writing all different kinds of songs. Usually what happens to me is, especially when I’m playing with other people, like a band, the dynamic of that band dictates what direction the sound goes in. If you have a bunch of players that, when they get together, they can really lean into a hard rock sound and make it really believable and intense; well then, as a songwriter, that’s what I’m going to lean into.
Whatever the strength of the player is, that’s how I’m going to try to write because it’s just like any other tool. A good band, when working and it’s tight, you want to use it to its fullest potential. If I’ve got a bunch of guys that play great as a real rock band, then that’s the way we’re going to go, and I will write song that will best utilize that dynamic. The same thing goes for when I’m with people who have better feel for ballads or country, or kind of a more acoustic sound. When I’m by myself with wife to provide the drums behind me, then I can kind of write in any style, and I can stay more inside my head more than I worry about the dynamic of the band or what fits the band best.
Right now, I’m writing all kinds of songs, and maybe that’s a good thing because I’m not stuck in any one dynamic.
You mentioned your radio show earlier. What are you listening to these days?
The show that just I started with WFMU’s Rock ‘n’ Soul Ichiban is a streaming service that WMFU out of New Jersey does, and that’s my new show, and it’s called Little Records with The Big G. Little records means 45s. I’m mainly focused on 45s right now. For the show, what I really want to do is have the show be about 45 records themselves. RCA started the whole 45 thing in 1949 or so. They were trying to move people away from 78s and into a new, single format. My idea for the show is that everything I play will be out for 45, but it could be any genre. It could be rock or soul or punk or garage music. It could be current or be from the ’30s … well, obviously not the 30s; generally, the 45 stuff starts in the early ’50s and goes from there.
My idea is to play all mixed genres and find a way to make them to fit together. That takes a lot of time. If you’re doing a radio show and it’s all country, well then, it’s easy. You pick the songs you like, and they all sit together nicely because they’re all the same genre. When you’re doing mixed genres, it’s a little bit harder, because you actually have to make the tempos fit together and the intensity of the songs fit together, even though you’re jumping from a blues into a garage song, and after that country, and after that soul.
It takes a lot more work to make all the pieces fit together in a way that doesn’t seem jarring. I don’t know if that makes sense. Most of the time, when people ask, what’re you listening to, they name a band or a couple of bands, but in any given day, I listen to 300 or 400 singles, so it’s just all over the place, but that format is actually where my head is at right now.
Is there something you’d like to add or plug in that we didn’t?
I don’t really have anything. The only thing I’d like to add is, for any people out there that are reading the interview that are musicians and really having a hard time with this, the coronavirus, and not being able to play gigs. There are a lot of people out there who are working musicians that this is really affecting their livelihood, how they live, and how they support their families.
I would like to say to them, use this time to write, to become more proficient with your instruments and to find any way that you can to forward your music, whether that’s like what you were saying earlier, whether that’s doing the online concerts. If you’re driven, don’t let that stop you; it’s just another roadblock, but musicians have been dealing with that all along. You knew when you got into this life, if you’re a musician, things are never easy; you’re probably never going be rich. Don’t let it bring you down; just keep doing what you’re doing.
Pick up a copy of the Home For Orphans reissue here.
Photo Credit: Dan Ball