Sign up for newsletter
 

The Backsliders forge forward

By Andy Turner, May 1999

"I coulda been a saint and not a rank backslider," Chip Robinson sings on "Abe Lincoln," the blazing opening track on "Southern Lines," the new Backsliders album.

But backsliders have always been more interesting than saints, and Robinson and country rockers The Backsliders are no exception.

The process to get "Southern Lines," a record that is a wonderfully dark and rough trip through lives and places, released is no less interesting.

With the critically-acclaimed "Throwin' Rocks at the Moon" under their belt, Robinson, guitarists Steve Howell and Brad Rice, bassist Danny Kurtz and drummer Jeff Dennis, along with producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel (Blue Mountain, Bottle Rockets) left Raleigh and headed to The Dockside in Maurice, La. in January 1998 to record a new album.

They had no idea that it would take close to a year and a half before the album was released and that Robinson would be the only one of them to remain a full-time Backslider.

Or maybe they did have an idea. "The songs, in many ways, you can hear a precursor to a band imploding," Robinson explains. "There was a lot more optimism when the first album was made."

Despite the dark nature of the album, partly attributed to the breakdown in relationships between band members, the recording's setting did its part. Maurice was "gorgeous" and a "whole different world," Robinson says. So pleased with the town, the band considered paying tribute to Maurice by calling the album "Hicktopia."

But that ­ and a lot of other things ­ changed before the album was finally released.

The band took about a month to record and then did a brief Northeast tour.

But shortly afterwards, when Robinson went back to New York to assist in remixing the album, he found himself alone.

Howell quit the band and joined Chapel Hill honky-tonkers the Two Dollar Pistols, while Rice and Kurtz decided to tour with Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown.

After a little rambling around, doing a few solo shows with former 6 String Drag front man Kenny Roby and generally "getting things in place," Robinson eventually enlisted members for a revamped lineup.

And nearly a year to the day after the initial recording process started, Robinson headed back to the studio, with help from producer Don Dixon, to recut one song, remix a few others and add new vocals.

Robinson says he was glad to get the chance to add new vocals, because the initial recording found the songs "early in their life."

"It takes me a while to actually learn how to sing a song," he explains. "There is a difference in what the song means to me now and when it was written."

The making of "Southern Lines" and the Pete Anderson-produced "Throwin' Rocks at the Moon" were two entirely different scenarios, Robinson says.

"(On Throwin' RocksŠ) we had been playing some of those songs for five or six years," he recalls. "We pretty much had them together arrangement wise. We went in and knocked them out."

The songs on "Southern Lines," however, were a lot newer to the band when they initially went in the studio, and Ambel was able to give them a little more direction this time around.

"Roscoe was really instrumental in getting the arrangements down. He was more open to some experimentation," according to Robinson.

Robinson and the new lineup, Terry Anderson on drums, Roger Gupton on bass and Rob Farris on keyboards, don't have the "tightness" that The Backsliders had before the other members went AWOL, he says.

"The band keeps progressing. It's a natural process," he says, before adding, "It's not something I'm worried about."

Robinson says the new members "all can sing" and are talented songwriters. Anderson, according to Robinson, says the band's new rhythm section is "almost" like a soul band. The soul influence is not hard to detect. Robinson says he's a big fan of old soul stirrers like Otis Redding and Al Green.

If you're familiar with Robinson's raw vocals and down and out lyrics, it shouldn't surprise you that his tastes lean more towards the hard-edged Stax Records than the Voice of Young America. "My aunt had all those records lying around the house ­ Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett," he says.

Robinson spent a good part of April doing a small solo tour of the West Coast. He said the experience was mostly "hit or miss," but he was pleased to be able to do a show with Rice, who now lives with his wife in Los Angeles, at Jack's Sugar Shack in Hollywood. The Backsliders plan to support "Southern Lines" with a tour beginning in mid-June. Rice will rejoin them for the tour.

As for his former bandmates, Robinson says he only keeps in touch with Rice and Kurtz.

"There's still some animosity and anger," he says. "But everyone has their own thing."

The Backslider fans shouldn't worry. If they are familiar with the Raleigh/Chapel Hill music scene, they know it's customary for bands to break up, reform, and trade members. Robinson is looking forward to what the future will bring for the new Backsliders, he says. "I'm really enjoying playing with the guys. They're great musicians and a lot of fun to be aroundŠThere's still something every time we play that totally blows your mind."