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Lowrey gets personal

By Henry Carrigan, May 2014

Levi Lowrey is best known for co-writing "Colder Weather," a number one hit, and "The Wind," both for his friends, Zac Brown Band. Lowrey also wrote "Day For The Dead," from last year's "The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1." In fact, Lowrey is often on the road opening for the group, but he also has his own career going. Lowrey just released his third disc, a self-titled effort on Brown's label, Southern Ground.

Lowrey began as a fiddle player, following in the family footsteps. His great-great-grandfather, the late Gid Tanner, was also a fiddle player with Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, one of the most prominent string bands of the Twenties and Thirties. Lowrey went with the family instrument, playing in school orchestra, bluegrass festivals and weekly jam sessions in his hometown of Dacula, Ga. and with various relatives.

Lowrey released his first disc in 2008 and later joined the bluegrass band Cadillac Sky in 2010, staying until the band split only three months later.

Country Standard Time recently caught up with Lowrey by phone at his home in Dacula to talk about his new album and his life.

CST: Tell me how this album came about.
Lowrey: Well, we'd been working on these songs for a while, and many of them were going in the same direction. We wanted to start sharing them on a bigger scale. I was in a good positive state when I was writing these songs, not like the last album.

CST: How long did it take you to record it? Did you record it live in the studio?
Lowrey: We went into the studio and laid it down in two weeks; we just stayed in the studio until we finished; the backbone is live. I felt like we were making a record at home. It was really nice…I just want to knock the record out and get it done as soon as possible as opposed to spreading it out for a year.

CST: How did you select the songs for the album?
Lowrey: Well, some of these were old songs. Most were written shortly before we recorded them; I had about 14 originals, but I chose 4 out of them, and then I co-wrote the rest of the songs on the album with some great songwriters.

Levi Lowrey sings

CST: When did you start playing, writing and singing?
Lowrey: I started writing short stories when I was in elementary school. When I was 12, I started learning how to play violin, but it's hard to write songs on a violin or to play out with just a violin. I'd be trying to get some guitarists to play with me, but I had to wait on their schedules; I got kind of tired of waiting, so I got an old Ovation guitar and learned how to play guitar the hard way. I learned how to sing harmony by using the Baptist hymnal.

CST: Who are the musicians and songwriters who've influenced you the most?
Lowrey: There's s trinity of songwriters: Kristofferson, Darrell Scott and Mac McAnally. I met Mac at the Ryman when we played with the Zac Brown Band. Mac is such a great writer, and some people need to know about him. As for musicians, Mark O'Connor: I never achieved that level of ability when I was playing fiddle; I went to his fiddle camps when I was young and just sat in awe at his playing. Tony Rice: I'd like to play rhythm half as good as he does. Butch Walker: after seeing him live for the first time, his guitar playing changed me. Mac McAnally: His rhythm is incredible. In fact, one of these days I'd like to make an album of Mac's songs, especially the ones that aren't so well known.

CST: Tell me a little about your approach to songwriting.
Lowrey: You know, I used to chase a song, but I'd never find one I liked that way. I like what Tom Waits says about songwriting: it's a lot like laying a trap. I try to get as quiet as possible and listen - you have to listen and to be observant. It's different every time; sometimes I start with a melody. It's up to the song. Songs are already written, and it's the people that can listen that can get good songs. The songs you like are the ones that stay with you.

CST: What are the elements of a good song?
Lowrey: I want to be moved to tears, whether happy or sad. If I can make people feel what I felt like when I wrote a song, then I've done a good job. Honesty is key; you can tell when a songwriter's not being honest in the words or music or the lack of emotions they express.

CST: On this album, there are several songs that deal with religion, such as "Before the Hymnal Died." What's the source of that?
Lowrey: There's always an element of that in my writing. It's a part of me, so I'm being honest about who I am and where I'm coming from. "Before the Hymnal Died" is a song that expresses nostalgia for great writing in American Christianity. The hymnal used to be a book of great sermons, and when you'd hold it in your hands and sing those songs, you'd be learning lessons. Once churches took hymnals away and started projecting words up on a screen, we lost that connection, I think.

CST: How did Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" end up on the album?
Lowrey: We do that a lot in our shows and have fun with it. I really like the message of the song, too, so we decided to put it on the album.

CST: How do you think you've grown or evolved as a musician?
Lowrey: I think most of my growth has been in the past. My wife was diagnosed with cancer, and going through that process with her was hard, and it taught me so much about life. There's a direct correlation between my growth as a writer and musician and those events in my life, and it's evident on this album in the song "December Thirty-One."