The All Scene Eye: Tim Bluhm on Spirit Sightings and “Sorta Surviving”

For the 30-or-so years he’s sung and written songs for California rock outfit The Mother Hips, Tim Bluhm has been a quiet admirer of classic country music, idolizing the Bakersfield sound and shrewd storytelling of fellow Californian Merle Haggard.

His new solo record, Sorta Surviving, finally welcomes that appreciation to the fore. Recording at Cash Cabin studios in Hendersonville, Tennessee, Bluhm set out to craft a story collection of his own, adorned with honky-tonk piano and pedal steel.

Since the speed flying accident that almost cost him the use of his legs for good, Bluhm has accumulated plenty of story fodder in his own misfortune and recovery, as in the semi-triumphant title track. He’s just as likely to draw on historical scenes, though, as in the single “Raining Gravel,” where the plains of the wind-ravaged Dust Bowl critique more current kinds of environmental abuse.

With a heady blend of honesty and humor, Sorta Surviving rides the line between bittersweet fun and timeless country bardship. Shortly before the release, Bluhm spoke to The All Scene Eye about the song structures and spiritual encounters behind the scenes of the record.

Take me back to the beginning of this record, Sorta Surviving. When did you first start working on it as an album?

As an album, I first started talking to the producer, Dave Schools, who’s a Virginia guy like it sounds like you are. He’s from Richmond. We decided we were going to work together and then we just started talking about what kind of record we wanted to make. We sort of had a clean slate, an empty page. That’s what’s cool about doing your first solo record in–whatever it’s been. Five years, six years, maybe more. It felt like we could do anything we wanted to. What I’ve always wanted to do was make a record that sounds like Sorta Surviving, so we did, and it was really enjoyable.

The last solo album of yours I could find was House of Bluhm, which came out in 2008. Was there anything between then and now?

Gosh. You know, I think you’re right. I knew it had been a long time, but man, I guess it had been closer to eleven years. Where does the time go?

How has your perspective on making a solo record evolved since then?

I think, like a lot of guys that have been in bands their whole lives, who have been part of a specific band–which, I guess there aren’t that many people that have been in the same band for 28 years like I have. I’ve probably made six or seven solo records over the years, but oftentimes, you know, a solo record is what you call it, and you think, “okay, I’m going to play solo.” This time, I wanted to play with a band–like, a really good band–and try to get everything done on the floor of the studio.

When we recorded, it was more or less a full band in this little studio, and I sang all the stuff as we went along. I ended up replacing a lot of it, as will happen, but I was definitely going for it. I could have lived with the way that all those takes sounded. From the last time I made a solo record until now, it’s been a long time. I’ve gotten better at singing, better at performing, better at understanding what makes a good performance in the studio, so I felt like I was prepared for that task, and we hired an amazing band, which doesn’t hurt.

Tell me about working with that ensemble–Jesse Aycock, Jason Crosby, Jean Chrisman, David Roe. What was the energy like?

It was intense. Everyone was super nice, but I definitely put pressure on myself to make sure I do a good job. I wanted it to be really good, and I knew those guys were going to be awesome, so I just had to make sure I was going to do my best. We were in the Cash Cabin, which is where Johnny Cash recorded some of his later stuff. It was the real deal. I can only speak for myself–those guys know what they’re doing, they’re just casual–but it elevated my performances because I got to feel the vibes of that crew and that room. It felt like it was time to matter.

Tell me more about recording at Cash Cabin Studios. What’s the atmosphere like in that kind of room?

It’s residential, for one thing. It’s on a piece of land owned by the Cash family. I don’t know if Johnny and June ever lived on that property or not–I couldn’t quite figure out the whole story–but it’s not a commercial-feeling thing at all. It’s like a big ranch house, which is the main house, and down this little dirt road, there’s a very rustic-looking Tennessee cabin. It was probably there before Hendersonville was there, which means it had been there for a long time.

On the outside, it’s very rustic and it looks pretty old, but obviously, it’s a recording studio. Once you walk in, you see that it’s been sealed up inside and it’s been treated for good acoustics, but you definitely feel like you’re in an old cabin, because you are. The drums are recorded in the kitchen. It’s got the best of the home recording vibe, but they have lots of nice equipment and a really nice energy going on. It was super cold when we were making the record, but it was nice and cozy in there. You could look out the windows, and it was all icy and snowy. It was a good feeling.

You were label mates with Johnny Cash for a time, and on this record, you cover “I Still Miss Someone.” What was it like for you, having met the man, plus covering that song in that cabin?

You can imagine, sort of. It was heavy. I mean, in a good way; I felt like it was a significant event for me, and as I said before, I wanted to make sure that I did what I came to do.

I always loved that song, “I Still Miss Someone.” It may be my favorite Johnny Cash song. I had this idea that we would change the chords a little so that the overall tone of the song was darker. A little more sad and mournful; the Johnny Cash version is kind of upbeat. I mean, it’s sad the way he sings it, of course.

Obviously, I wasn’t trying to improve it. I was just trying to re-imagine it. Jason Crosby, who’s the piano and the violin player on the record and a close friend of mine, he and I sat around one day at my piano and figured out how to pretty much keep the melody the same but put some chords underneath it that were still sympathetic but that were a little bit more sad, so it wouldn’t be a straight reading of the song. I didn’t see any point in that.

How do you get to that place of approaching songs from the theory side?

I get help from my friends that know more theory than I do, for starters. [laughs] My background was pretty rudimentary piano lessons. I had a great teacher when I was a kid, but I was never a real good student of piano. I had a natural ability, but I didn’t develop it the way I should have. I also sang in a lot of choirs in church and in school, so I was around harmony and that style of choral music quite a bit, but I never really dug into the theory part of it. I was always good enough with my ear to kind of fake it, which is cool, and it’s really helpful, but it also makes it easy to neglect that side of music.

When you make a country record like this, there are certain structures in the songs, the chords, and the way you write a verse. Were you playing a lot of that by ear?

Yeah, for me, the form that is country music–which is closely related to blues music and a lot of rock and roll and R&B–is so basic that everyone who knows how to play guitar basically knows the form in general. There’s certainly room to blow it up a little bit, or a lot if you want to, but for the most part, being who I am–I don’t really come from a rural part of the world. I come from Los Angeles. I’m aware of that, and I’m trying to approach the form with respect, but with my own take on it as well.

Do you have a favorite memory of those sessions in the cabin?

There are a lot of good memories, but probably the most interesting story is I was doing some vocal overdubs in the–I think they call it the fish room. It’s this little vocal room where there are all these taxidermied fish that Johnny Cash presumably caught. I was in there late at night doing some vocals, and there’s a glass window into the piano room, and there were these weird reflections. There weren’t a lot of lights on in the cabin at the time, and I saw this face of this old man looking through the glass at me from the piano room in the darkness.

I thought maybe it was just a reflection. It could have been, easily, but it was pretty vivid. It was this really old man looking at me. I was a little tripped out by it, and I didn’t say anything to the engineer or the producer because I was just focusing on singing the song, but the next day I told Chuck, the house engineer about it and he was like, “yeah, that happens around here. That’s Johnny Cash.” It was pretty thrilling.

Do you believe in ghosts?

I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. I want ghosts to be real; on a good day, I believe in them.

Where will people see your face in a dark room looking back at them one day? Where would you haunt?

[laughs] That’s a good question. I’m not sure I’ve come across a place I’ll be wanting to haunt yet, you know? I’ve got a ways to go still.

There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor on this record. The first track is “Jesus Save a Singer,” which is a great pun, and it’s very classic country. Can you tell me about writing that song?

As often happens, I just sort of bumped up against that one on accident. It made me laugh a little, and I thought, “oh, that’s a good name for a song.” I’ve heard some of the great songwriters talk about the same way where they actually come up with a chorus or a phrase and then figure out the song based on that. I don’t do that very often, but I always thought that was a smart idea. When I came up with that one, I just started thinking, “oh, that’s a good phrase. How do I write a song around that?”

You start from the hook and tie your line from there.

Yeah, and it’s interesting now that I look at it. That song–and this is something Merle Haggard does a lot–it’s just chorus-verse-chorus. It has less verse than it does chorus, which is unusual in my writing, but I like it. It’s very compact. I think that reflects that it started with that phrase, “Jesus Save a Singer.”

A lot of Mother Hips songs are of the stretch-out-and-add-a-lot-of-verses variety. What was that like for you, narrowing down?

I think it was a great exercise. My band is a much different kind of music, and we do some country rock stuff for sure, but I wanted this to be more pure. When you’re studying the form of–especially Merle Haggard, who’s my favorite of all, he does that very often. He starts with the chorus, there’s one verse, and it’s amazing how, when it’s done well, it’s so much more expansive in your head than when you actually go back and listen to the song.

If you can tell a story in three verse lines and one refrain–and Merle Haggard does that so beautifully. It’ll happen to me when I’m trying to learn one of his songs. I’ll get stumped and I’ll stop and go, “god, for the life of me, I cannot remember how the second verse goes.” Then I’ll go back and listen to the recording, and there just isn’t a second verse. If the words have the economy and the efficiency, you can evoke a lot of story in just a couple lines.

You cover “Kern River” on the album, and there’s a lot of weight packed into that refrain, “I’ll never swim Kern River again.” There’s a whole story there, and the rest of the song is drawing out what’s behind it.

That’s what it seems like to me too. It’s better not to know for sure, but I don’t know that that’s an autobiographical lyric for him. I hope not. God, that’s awful. But yeah, it’s such a good line to sing. Then you have to figure out what to say after that, but you’ve got that great refrain, and that’s the place to start.

There are a lot of story songs on this album, like “Jimmy West.” You have this refrain about a fight with a bully, but then you make it universal–there are all kinds of bullies and people standing up to them. Where did that story come from?

The story is more or less true. In real life, it was me that got in the fight; It wasn’t Jimmy West. I don’t remember why I decided to change it. It’s the only fight I’ve ever been, so I just thought maybe if I didn’t admit to doing it, then that kid had a zero record. Anyway, I kicked him in the face and the fight was over immediately. He really was way bigger than me or my friends.

How the song originated was trying to write a song like “The Gambler,” the Kenny Rogers song. Whether you like Kenny Rogers or not isn’t really the point–it’s just timeless. As a kid growing up in beach town southern California, that song even reached everyone in Manhattan Beach. It’s country music if you have to put a genre on it, but it sort of transcends anything; it’s just such a good story and it’s so well-told. Everything in that recording serves the story. I haven’t heard it since I was a kid, and I could probably sing the whole thing.

I wanted to make a song that was sort of the same thing. It’s specific. He’s on the train, they’re playing cards, and an old guy sits down, bums a cigarette, and gives him advice, and the refrain turns that advice into a universal message. All the elements of that song are in “Jimmy West.” I don’t know that I’ll have a giant crossover number one hit with it, but it would be cool.

Is John Dunn the bully named after [John Donne] the poet?

No, no. That was close to the guy’s real name, but I didn’t want to call him out.

That way, if it is a number one hit, that guy doesn’t start getting phone calls.

Right, I don’t want to stir up any trouble. I mean, I already had to kick his ass once.

[laughs] You’ve been building up to the rematch all this time. The whole music thing was just to get back around to that.

Yeah, but then I could have another song about the rematch. John Dunn 45 years later, or whatever. The sequel.

A song in a similar vein is “Raining Gravel.” There’s a tradition in folk songwriting of using that Dust Bowl, Grapes of Wrath imagery. Is that something you were thinking about?

For sure. Steinbeck is important for any writer, in my opinion, especially someone from California that loves California literature and history. Steinbeck is a formative guy in my writing, but the song “Raining Gravel” is actually based on a Timothy Egan book called The Worst Hard Time.

It sort of isn’t the same story as The Grapes of Wrath. Grapes of Wrath was about the Okies that actually–I’m not sure this is true, but I think an Okie technically is someone that left the Dust Bowl to come to California. Like, they didn’t call themselves Okies when they lived in Oklahoma; it was a derogatory term that, quote-unquote, Californians called them when they crossed into California.

“Raining Gravel” is more about the people that stayed in the Dust Bowl and Grapes of Wrath is more about the people that decided to split, but nevertheless, it’s of that era, it’s that same imagery, and I think the story of the environmental disaster that was caused by humans is even more relevant now than when it happened. None of that stuff has been cured or fixed.

When you write a song like that, alluding to these bigger political and social realities, what do you hope is the result?

Just that it can break the surface. Music can be for a lot of things; it can be for entertainment, it can be for social change, it can be for healing or exploring your emotions, and I like it for all those things. I don’t necessarily do it for all those things, but I like it when a song makes me think about something that I might not have ever thought about before–among other things. I like it when it makes me feel a familiar way that I’ve felt a million times before, or it evokes a smell from something that brings back memories, or things like that. All of those are cool, but because I like to read books and I like history a lot, I enjoy being able to integrate that into my songs.

Are you reading anything now?

I’m trying to think of what I read last. I was trying to read Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen. I like Alan Watts and I’ve read a lot of his books, but The Way of Zen is a little dry, maybe. The other thing I have on my bookshelf is The Dictionary of Cliches. A friend of mine gave it to me, and it was pretty fascinating. It’s not really good reading, but if you’ve got five minutes, you can pick it up anywhere, open it, and just–every cliche you’ve ever thought of in alphabetical order and their origins, or their supposed origins. It’s pretty cool.

I don’t really use cliches if I can help it. It’s pretty hard to avoid, but I would seldom ever base a song around a cliche. That market is deeply cornered already. What I like to do is find a cliche and flip it over. Yesterday, I thought of this one, you know, “I’ve got friends in high places.” I’m not talking about the Garth Brooks song, but long before that, “friends in high places.” I was thinking you could write a country song called “I Got High in Friends’ Places.” I get a kick out of stuff like that. I use cliches, but I turn them on their heads.

You do a bit of that on this album. “Squeaky Wheel” is a twist on “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Yeah, that’s kind of the same trick–playing off a common cliche, but with the opposite. You might have a squeaky wheel, but it might just mean that you don’t have the money to fix it, rather than that you’re looking for attention.

That song was also on your last solo record. What made you want to re-record it?

I felt like it was a solid song, and it might not have gotten a fair shake the first time I released it, for whatever reason. It was a good recording. Jackie Green played on it, and it was pretty awesome, but it sort of got popularized as a live song later on. Other bands covered it, and it got more popular many years after it was recorded the first time, so I figured we could probably record it again. I’m not averse to doing that anyway; I’ve re-recorded quite a few songs. I mean, who’s going to stop me?

[laughs] Right. Can you tell me about “Sorta Surviving,” and how that became the title track for this project?

Again, it was a phrase that I came up with that sounded pleasing, and I wrote the song from that phrase forward. The verses don’t really have much to do with it–they’re more or less stream of consciousness, sort of talking through your day, but the chorus is more specific to that concept of how we survive life. It’s not like either you survive or you don’t. It’s like degrees of surviving, and how well you do–or don’t do–affects the quality of life, and there are some people we know and love that aren’t around anymore.

I wrote it at a time when I was pretty messed up. I got in a bad accident, and I was reflecting on if I was going to make it through, and if I did, how was it going to be for me? That seemed like a good theme for this group of songs.

It seems like there’s also some frustration with the life of a musician.

I think that’s a common theme for almost any musician. I was watching the remake of A Star Is Born on an airplane yesterday, and it’s funny how in all those live shots, the performer sings one line, and the whole stadium starts roaring, like, after every line. It makes you feel like, “oh yeah, that’s what it’s like,” but in real life–I guess it’s like that sometimes, but you go see Willie Nelson at The Fillmore in San Francisco, and people are chattering so loud that you can barely hear. And that’s Willie Nelson.

You see the movies and it looks so perfect, like you can sit down at a grand piano and play a new song that no one’s ever heard before, and people are just freaking out. It’s just not really the way it is. People can do it, but it’s pretty hard to capture the attention of a big crowded room with just a song. It happens. It’s happened to me, but it oftentimes does not happen, and it can be pretty deflating. That song deals with that a little bit, but I’m not trying to be rude to people. I’m trying to make them laugh and give a little levity to that.

Have you had a moment where you played that song live and someone realized they were the one talking in the middle of the song?

[laughs] Of course, of course. Usually someone I know. I’ve gotten less aggravated by it as I’ve gotten older, but it depends on what mood you’re in. If you’re taking yourself seriously, it can piss you off, but I try not to take myself too seriously most nights.

I heard an interview you did about a month ago where you were saying you didn’t want to put out music unless there was a need for it.

Yeah, that’s right.

What was that for this project? What was the need you see it filling?

That could be answered on a couple different levels, but as we said before, I hadn’t put out a record in 11 years, so no one is going to be like, “oh, god, that guy keeps putting out every other week. You gotta stop.” It seemed like it wasn’t too frequent, and there is a demand for it. There are people that want to hear my records, for sure. I’m super lucky that way.

I don’t know if I would do it, honestly. Of course, the thing to say is, “I will always write songs, whether people want to hear them or not because it’s in my blood and I love it. I wake up in the morning and it’s what I was born to do.” When I do write a song, I always feel really good; It’s a great thing to happen, but I don’t know. If no one ever listened to my songs, I think I would be pretty discouraged. It would be hard to spend a lot of time doing it. That hasn’t happened to me, but I’m lucky.

What can you tell me about your sound from here on out?

Well, I’ve already recorded two other solo records since this one. I used some stuff from Sorta Surviving, so there’s an element of that sound, for sure. I love that kind of music, but I also felt like I had to search around and find where the next step was going to be, so I have. That record isn’t going to come out for a while, but it’s there, and I’m writing a new one too.

If I had to give a final answer, I’d say I probably wouldn’t make another record that was quite as country as Sorta Surviving, but you never know. If it comes out and, say, there’s a song that’s reactive, or a lot of people like it, maybe I would say, “oh, let’s do that again.” It was certainly fun. I love doing it, but I’m not really a country guy. I just like it.