This Is Your Life: Greg Cartwright

Stephen M. Deusner

By Stephen M. Deusner

on 07.02.13 in Interviews

[In 2013, Stephen M. Deusner met Reigning Sound frontman Greg Cartwright at a hotel in Memphis to talk about some of his most memorable songs. In honor of the release of the group's sixth album, Shattered, we present their conversation. — Ed.]

When I walk into Greg Cartwright’s hotel room, the first thing I see is a pile of 45s spread out over the bed. There must be hundreds there. Most are in old sleeves, some of which are worn, creased, or water-stained. None appear to postdate 1979. Right away, I see singles by Love, the Stones and the Cyrkle, but the collection appears to be in disarray. Cartwright points to a small stack at foot of the bed. Those, he explains, are the ones he’s keeping for himself. The rest will be sold at Harvest Records in Asheville, North Carolina.

Cartwright bought the entire trove of records at a mom-and-pop store in Athens, Ohio, where he has arrived to play a late set at the Nelsonville Music Festival. There are some treasures in the haul, and he produces a travel turntable to play an early Conway Twitty single called “I Hope I Think I Wish.” “This is the best part,” Cartwright says, and sings along with Twitty’s aching vocals. Then he spins a few promo spots from obscure flicks from the 1960s: “Do you remember your first time?” “The feds want him alive; the Hells Angels aren’t that particular.” “We have your daughter…” He tosses the last one into his personal pile.

As a record collector, Cartwright has a vast and seemingly endless knowledge of American country, soul, R&B, blues, rockabilly, pop and everything in between. As a musician, he has found ways to integrate these various traditions without sounding beholden to them. With the Oblivians and the Compulsive Gamblers in the 1990s, he developed a potent brand of R&B-inspired punk that breathed new life into the Bluff City’s long and thorny musical history. With the Reigning Sound — his most popular outfit — Cartwright has refined his songwriting to balance raw emotions with raw energy. His output at times seems inhuman: In addition to releasing a handful of solo albums, he has worked with the Reatards and the Detroit Cobras, has produced albums by Mr. Airplane Man and the Ettes, and has formed the Parting Gifts with two-thirds of the Ettes and about half of Nashville.

Cartwright could have spent the afternoon spinning one 45 after another — a haphazard course on rock history for whoever’s in the hotel rooms on either side of his. It was only reluctantly that I pulled him away from his stash to get him talking about a few of his own classic cuts.

Oblivians, “I’ll Be Gone”

I heard a rumor that this song is about Jay Reatard.

It’s one of two or three songs where his passing was in my mind. None of the songs are directly about him, but they’re kind of the result of me thinking about his death. Not long after Jay passed, my best friend for years passed away of cancer, and then right after that my mother-in-law died. And it really hasn’t stopped since then. You live with blinders on when you’re young, and death and all that shit is just old people stuff. And then all of a sudden you hit this magic age and it’s not later. It’s now. All your friends are dying. And so that’s what this song is about. One thing I was thinking about is how much you miss all these people when they pass. Sometimes I wonder if there is some place after this life, if it’s possible for them to look at us still running in the same circles and doing the same stupid shit and they can see it for how silly it all is. The lyrics are from the perspective of someone who’s not here anymore: I’ll be gone, so I don’t have to watch you do blow. I don’t have to watch you fuck up your life. I’m done with all that.

Is it difficult to sing that song every night? Those are some heavy ideas.

They’re heavy ideas, but to me it’s almost easier. The heavier the subject matter, the easier it is to get right where I want to be. I’m a pretty emotional singer, because I’m trying to get into a trance state when I’m doing it. If a song can be built in such a way that it makes it easier for me to get there, then that’s good.

Did you write this song with the Oblivians in mind?

I didn’t. I have written songs with people in mind, but it’s not the norm. Sometimes I’ll write a song and think, “This will be perfect for this or that.” Or, “I wish I had Dolly Parton’s number. I’d send her this.” But I almost never actually go in with the idea of writing for one particular band. I just have an idea for a song and just try to get the song finished.

Greg Cartwright, “Stop and Think It Over”

The Compulsive Gamblers folded in less than a month after recording this song, so I almost never played it with them. What happened was, we recorded that Gamblers record in Detroit, and from there we started to tour. That tour was jinxed. The van broke down every night. We missed show after show trying to repair it. I had sunk all my money into buying the van because nobody else had any money. And then we were in the middle of nowhere, and the other guys were like, “Hey man, we’re just going to get a rental and go home.” Okay, I guess I’m going to get this van that was breaking down with all my equipment in it home. The next project to come along was the Reigning Sound, so that was the first band that ever tightened the song up and played it live. Even though it’s a Gamblers song to most people, to me it’s a Reigning Sound song. I’ve played it in almost every incarnation of Reigning Sound. It’s become a staple.

It seems to work so well in so many settings, even a solo acoustic setting like this version.

I find that it works almost anywhere. You could play it several different ways and it still works. Some songs are like that. A really good song shines almost any way you play it. I’m no great judge of what my good songs are and what my bad songs are, but I know that that is a song that people always want to hear. I think it’s probably one of the strongest songs I ever wrote. I don’t know if it’s one of the best. But it has the strongest appeal for the audience than almost any other song in my catalog.

What did you think of Sarah Borges’s cover?

Oh yeah, she does almost a rockabilly thing. I first heard it in a movie theater. I was waiting with my daughter to see a movie and it came on, and my daughter was like, “Hey dad, this is your song! But this isn’t you!” I thought she handled it in a really cool way. And then the Hives did it. I’ve heard a lot of people do it, mainly in a live context. There was a band the Sights from Michigan. They did a 45 of it. And then I did it with Mary Weiss. That was one of the first things she said to me: “I wanna do the record with you guys and I wanna do this song.”

Greg Oblivian & the Tip-Tops, “Bad Man”

This actually predates the Oblivians’ version. This is the original, which I wrote on my son’s toy piano. It wasn’t even a piano. It was a xylophone. I was sitting in the floor with him, and I started playing around with it and I wrote the song while he played. I came up with the lyrics and put it all together very quickly. I don’t know why it occurred to me to try this with the Oblivians, especially when you hear this version. There’s nothing you would really think would work, but it did work out okay. This one has stayed in the set, too. A lot of people have covered it, and people still want to hear it. Any band I play a show with has to know how to play this song. It’s a good one to have in the wings.

Your setlist seems to be comprised of things you don’t necessarily pick out yourself.

It’s really about what the fans want to hear. That’s how things stay in the set. People ask for things. And it changes over time. As I’ve gotten older, my audience has grown. There are young people and old people, people who knew the records and people who are just discovering something I’ve done. They’ve dug out the back catalog and found some song that nobody ever asks for. And they want to hear it. If I get that request a couple of times, I sit down with the band and learn the song. It’s good to listen to the fans, because they know what moves them. And I like to be the person who will go out and play what they want. I always appreciate that when I go see somebody. I went to see Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham one time, and they were in between songs and tuning their guitars, and Dan said, “Is there anything anybody wants to hear?” I yelled, “Tear Joint!” And he goes, “‘Tear Joint’? We haven’t played that one in 30 years, but we’ll try. And they did. At one point he forgot some of the lyrics, but still he tried.

Oblivians, “Viet Nam War Blues”

Sometimes I just get totally obsessed with a certain kind of record, and I try to get as many of them as I can. For a while, I was all about Lightnin’ Hopkins. I just love this song. People think San Francisco hippie bands were the only people talking about all this topical stuff like Vietnam. Everybody was talking about it. Nobody’s got dibs on that stuff. When we put that record out, people liked it but were like, “Why is he singing about Vietnam?” There were wars going on that I could have transplanted. I could’ve said “Iraq” or whatever, but I didn’t feel there was anything that needed to be changed.

Reigning Sound, “Goodbye”

I almost never play this song with Reigning Sound, but I do it whenever I do solo shows. And sometimes I’ll get together with friends in Ashville and play sometimes. We just do it for fun — just buddies playing in a bar. And this is one that I always bring to play. It’s a fun melody, and I’ve never written anything with a chord structure that does what this does.

I’ve always associated this song with Memphis, partly because you moved away from that city not too long after this record came out.

It did have to do with that a little bit. The city was a metaphor. It’s really about leaving a part of my life behind. But it became a very physical reality, because I did leave. It had become too hard living in the shadow of the Oblivians and the Compulsive Gamblers. At that point the original version of the Reigning Sound was folding. Memphis can be such a petty town. There’s so much gossip and there’s so much backstabbing. It’s a small town with small-town rivalries, and I had made my share of enemies. I had to shrug that shit off and go somewhere else. It was a game changer. I didn’t realize how much it would change my outlook on life.

It seems like a huge jump to go from that rawer Gamblers sound to the slightly more melancholy vibe of Break Up Break Down.

It was a big change. My idea for Reigning Sound was for it to be my all-purpose unit. With Reigning Sound, I could do anything. I could do bombastic and loud and nasty, and I could do pretty and sad. The Gamblers and the Oblivians tried to be live entities. They were touring bands, and that lends itself to being fast and loud because it keeps you working. The problem is getting people in the door to see a band that plays sad songs. Maybe if they came in and sat around for a while they’d enjoy it, but they don’t want to take the night off work to go watch it. It’s too heavy, so it took a while for the Reigning Sound to click with people outside of Memphis, mainly because people wanted one thing and I wasn’t prepared to give it to them.

Reigning Sound, “Mind Over Matter”

This is one of my favorite Nolan Strong and the Diablos songs. I just love him. Detroit has always been a second home to me. Nothing is more Detroit than Fortune Records, and nothing says Fortune Records more than Nolan Strong & the Diablos. His voice is so incredible, and the recordings are so terrible. These smaller labels were just people with little record stores and radio shops who just said, “Hey, I can just buy a tape recorder and we can make records here in the back room.” They didn’t know anything about mic placement. They weren’t engineers. They just saw an opportunity to make an extra bit of money and they learned as they went along. Some of the charm of the early Diablos stuff is just how raw it is. It doesn’t sound like the Platters. It sounds like the Platters in a gutter. But it has character, which makes it stand out from the pack. And that’s Fortune Records. What’s the other big soul label in Detroit that everybody knows? Motown. I love some Motown stuff, but for the most part the production style gets so samey after a while. Most of it doesn’t do anything for me. I love Smokey Robinson. He’s one of the greatest singers in the world, and pretty much everything on the Going to a Go-Go album is fantastic. But some of his other albums, it’s just song after song with no character. So Fortune is the anti-Motown. Everything sounds bizarre. There’s no set style from record to record.

The Parting Gifts, “Keep Walkin’”

I can’t remember when I wrote this. Sometimes when I write songs, I make a little four-track demo, and when the cassette gets full, I just throw it on the pile. When we were doing this Parting Gifts record, I was going back through some old tapes looking for another song, but I found this one. It’s a good fuck-you song, and I thought it would be a good song to play with the Parting Gifts. Whenever we do Parting Gifts shows, this one always gets played. We’re about to do a new record. In fact, I really should already be working on it, but things got put on hold.

The liners for that album reads like a who’s who of Nashville musicians.

We were making the record in Nashville, where the Ettes live. That was the easiest place for us to work. The great thing about Nashville is that there are players everywhere. One day I said, “This song could really use strings,” and the engineer was like, “I know some girls who play strings.” Ten minutes later, these three girls on mopeds show up with a cello and violins. Dan Auerbach was just in town with his wife and daughter, driving around looking at houses. He was thinking about moving there. We called him and said, “Hey come by the studio.” He came by and we said, “Hey play on this record!” It’s a weird record in that no two songs feature the same group of people. It’s three main collaborators and whoever might be there at that time. There’s one song that’s just me. “Don’t Wanna Hurt Me Now.” I got to the studio really early one morning, like 10 o’clock or so. And I thought, “I’m going to go ahead and put the drum track on this.” I finished it really quickly and thought, “I’m going to put the guitar in. And now I’m going to put the bass down. Now the vocal. Okay, we’re done with this thing.”

Reigning Sound, “Drowning”

Did you ever go to Channel 3 Drive in Memphis? That was part of the imagery that was in my head when I wrote the song. That’s what I’m talking about — “under the bridge to Arkansas.” I was always loved that bridge. We would go down there when I was in high school. From the time I knew anybody who had a car, that’s where we went. We’d sit and watch the river, drink beer, screw around, whatever. It was like a lovers’ lane. Anything that you weren’t supposed to be doing, you could do it there in the safety of Channel 3 Drive. Channel 3 is down there, and that’s it really. There’s nothing else down there. The song is about a girl I knew in high school, but it’s not just a straight story of who you were in high school. I’m not sure what it’s about. I know what it started off being about, but then it took some twists and turns that I wasn’t expecting. I’ve had a lot of people tell me, you say in the song “let me tell you what I saw.” But you never really say what you saw. Well, I don’t know what I saw. It’s a mystery.

One of the lines that sticks out to me is, “She’s only 17, but she knows talk is cheap.” That’s a great line, but it comes from a much older point of view, one that can appreciate this kind of no-bullshit youth.

That’s what it’s about. You become so jaded as you get older, and you think you know everything, but kids can sniff out bullshit. They haven’t been trained to believe certain thing or follow certain ideals. They can see things in that immediate moment.

Oblivians, “Live the Life”

I don’t know whatever possessed me to sing like that, because it’s not something that I’m very good at. I wanted to sing really high and let my voice crack. This song has been done a million times by gospel people. Every version is good. But there’s one in particular…I wish I could tell you who it is. The name escapes me. She does a killer version that’s just vocal and piano, and that was what I was trying to imitate.

Do you still sing it that way?

Pretty much. It’s the only way I can sing it. If I try to sing it any other way, then I just think it’s boring. There’s definitely something unhinged about it, and that makes it exciting. When we called up Quintron and asked him to play on the record, he was a little cautious. He said, “I know you want to do gospel songs and stuff, but are you doing it to be corny or funny?” No, no, no. This is all I’ve been listening to for the last four or five months. My head is in it, and this is what I want to do. He was down with that. I started playing the songs I wanted to do, and “Live the Life” was the only one he knew. He had always wanted to do that song. He’s got a couple of versions, and there was one that’s an organ version that’s really strange. I think his organ part may have something to do with that version that he had in mind. But yeah, it’s one of my favorite organ moments on that record.