Caught by the River

The Black Swans on Larry Jon Wilson

16th May 2011

This article was originally published on the Aquarium Drunkard blog. It’s re-printed here by kind permission.

Diversions, a recurring feature on Aquarium Drunkard, catches up with our favorite artists as they wax on subjects other than recording and performing.

This week we catch up with the Black Swans Jerry DeCicca as he reflects on his working relationship with the late/great Larry Jon Wilson. Jerry has an interesting vantage point as he produced Larry Jon Wilson’s final album; the self-titled LP released in 2008 via Drag City Records. Unknowingly already a fan of his production work, I became aware of the Black Swans through their spirited rendition of Larry Jon’s “The Man I Wish for You” from the 2010 split 7” with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Sing Larry Jon Wilson. The Black Swans new album, Don’t Blame the Stars, is being released next month on Misra Records. DeCicca’s words on Larry Jon Wilson, below.

Larry Jon Wilson quoted Plato, Charles Baudelaire, and Mickey Newbury within the first ten minutes we met. Told me he hustled pool with Fats Domino in his teens, rode schooners and freight trains. His voice the sound of Georgia. That last part I knew from Heartworn Highways and 4 records from the 1970s on Monument. The rest—him being a ham and full of shit—I didn’t know.

Three years later, Jeb Loy Nichols, Jake Housh and I helped him make a new record. His first in almost 30 years. A label in the UK was giving us money to give him. Recorded in a high rise condominium overlooking Alabama’s Gulf Shores, it took 10 days.

He enjoyed our company and attention. People tried twisting his arm into recorded song before. Somehow we broke him with talks of music, history, books, guitars. Ate and drank together. Gave him cash. He trusted us and told us so.

His old records: chunky and funky, sentimental and sweet, a couple years too late from classic sounds, the production a hair too modern. If cut earlier, good people in the world would mouth his name alongside Kristofferson and Tony Joe White. But LJW never wrote a “Sunday Morning Coming Down” or a “Rainy Night in Georgia.” His songs are tough to sing, more detailed in how they’re personal.

When LJW talked about making a new record, his mind raced with names and instruments: french horn, Reggie Young, cello, Mac Gayden. He had been making it in his mind for decades. But I knew it would be bare bones, no clutter, Live at the Old Quarter minus the drunks and cue sticks. We lied to him a lot to make the record we wanted to hear.

Between our first hello and shopping for beach towels, LJW had a stroke and could no longer slap and strum his guitar like he did in the 70′s on “Ohoopee River Bottomland” and “Sheldon Churchyard.” He fingerpicked every song. Almost all at once, his songs were austere, funny, deep, weird, impressionistic, sappy, dark. He “Wilson-ized” others: Scott Walker, Newbury, Paul Siebel, a Dylan/Nelson co-write.

When I would call LJW, conversations lasted until he entered “cell hell” or I lied about supper. He liked to talk. A lot of what he said made my brain hurt and ears bleed, but I loved his voice and stories and the blurred truths they carried (“You were managed by George C. Scott’s brother?!?!”). Noel Sayre, my band mate back in Ohio, overdubbed some violin on 3 songs. When Noel died, Larry Jon called me. LJW knew how to turn his hot air into compassion and wisdom. He was never macho and he valued friendship.

The record came out in the UK and LJW was the toast of town. Told people it was the record he always wanted to make (smart bullshit). Word from the label was Rick Rubin and J. Spaceman were fans. He was a hit, then nothing happened. The label went bust. Will Oldham, a sweetheart and serious music fan, put in a good word at Drag City to release it in the U.S.

A couple years later, I called LJW to check in and tell him The Black Swans and Bonnie “Prince” Billy were recording two of his songs for a split 7″. He said he was “dodging bullets” and that Elvis cut “Ohoppee” but changed the river’s name and Waylon cut “Loose Change,” but no one’s ever heard them. I knew this story a dozens times over. That night, I was going to see David Allan Coe. LJW sang on one of his records with Guy Clark, then had a falling out, hadn’t spoken to him in years. LJW said, “You tell David, Larry Jon says hello and anything he says about me is probably true.” He never asked who Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy was or what songs we were singing, just “Good on you.” Larry Jon Wilson died two weeks later.

None of this sums him up. He’s too big for prose. His last record, self-titled, the one that calls me his producer, he wanted to name “Flaunting Obscurity.” An awful title, but I should have given in.

words: Jerry DeCicca (The Black Swans)

Click here to watch the film made by to accompany the LJW release of the record in 2008.