Brooklyn based Americana roots group "Greg Cornell and the Cornell Brothers" has just released a new full length CD titled "Come on Home". The album features something for everyone with a mixture of roots, bluegrass, old time country music that will seemly take you from Smokey Mountains of the south right straight to Brooklyn. When I asked Greg how the group from Brooklyn developed its sound, He explained "I think it's because Brooklyn still has echoes of the 19th Century in parts of it, certainly in Red Hook where beautiful old warehouses on the waterfront take you back in time". The group is comprised of Greg on guitar, Adam Moss - Fiddle, Amanda Homi - vocals, David Moss - cello, Dave Speranza - Bass, and a few other talented players. The group can be seen at fine Americana venues throughout New York City, and major festivals in the eastern United States. I recently asked Greg about the making of the new album and the history of the band.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your new album release "Come on Home". The title track seems to be a love song... do you think a love bond can be stronger is someone leaves for a while and then returns?
G.C. - You mean as in "absence makes the heart grow fonder"? Maybe. Leaving and then coming back is no guarantee that the reason for leaving in the first place is going to be solved. It can also give a false sense of falling in love again. In my humble opinion (and I must be an expert because I've been married twice and had many failed relationships!), sticking it out together, always putting the other first is the most important thing. That allows each to grow and tends to put focus on what's important, as opposed to petty things. And yet, if the love is real (and how do you figure that out is a whole 'mother discussion!), it can conquer any issue.
R.V.B. - Was there a theme for the songs on the album or is it a collection of pieces that you've been working on for a while?
G.C. - I didn't write the songs thinking, "This album must have a central theme that all the songs must adhere to!" But a funny thing happened on the way to the studio: At some point producer Adam Moss and I realized that ALL of the songs shared the feeling of coming home. Broken Wings is about a wounded bird finding safety and healing. Come On Home is about a man who can't stop fighting and the woman who provides him a a place to come home to after he's done fighting. Liars, Betrayers and Hellhounds is about finding refuge from betrayal. Trail of Tears describes a horrific journey that a young girl is forced to take, then her courageous return home. I Had A Pony is the story of a man who meets his mail-order Irish bride at the port and how they work through adversity to make a home together. Heavenly Rain is really about a spiritual form of coming home. O Captain! My Captain!, which is a poem by Walt Whitman is a tragic twist on coming home: the victorious captain safely brings his ship home to port after the battle, to the cheering of adoring throngs, but he has been mortally wounded in the fight. It's a metaphor for the victory of the North in the Civil War and the subsequent assassination of President Lincoln.
G.C. - Justin Guip engineered and mixed the record - and contribution was immense. The fact that he engineered (and won Grammy's for) Levon Helm's last two albums (Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt) made me confident that he could get the sound we were looking for: organic, clear, with a minimum of production, with space between the instruments and vocals that let the songs speak for themselves. Getting this sound was extremely important to me, and Justin did it. There is so much overproduction out there today, because the technology makes it easy. But we were on the same page from the beginning. Plus he's a great, down-to-earth human being, a real mensch, so he made it easy.
R.V.B. - There seems to be a nice mix of ballads, straight ahead bluegrass and down home countryside songs on the album, did you plan for this variety?
G.C. - When I sit down to write a song, I don't really think, "Wow! I have to write a bluegrass song!" I love all forms of American roots music, from bluegrass, to country, to old time, to blues, and that's the music that I listen to and have been playing for many years. The style the song ends up in tends to reflect what the song is about. So a fragile song like Broken Wings came out as a ballad, while a song about fighting injustice like Song for Nick required a harder rock rendering. Really, the variety of styles on the album have in common that they reflect the raw side of American music.
R.V.B. - Where did you record the record the CD and were the songs basically complete prior to entering the studio or did some song tracks evolve there?
G.C. - We recorded in March 2016 at Brooklyn Recording near Red Hook, Brooklyn. Andy Taub, the proprietor, has collected an amazing assortment of equipment and musical instruments, from antique analog microphones to state-of-the-art digital stuff. I knew when I walked in for the first time that it was the place where I wanted to record. Some great musicians have recorded there, including Punch Brothers and Keith Richards. The song lyrics, music and arrangements were all set before we entered the studio because, unlike the Rolling Stones, we didn't have the budget to make it up as we went along. It put pressure on me to have all the songs written before hand, but I found that the pressure really shortened the time it took to write a song! That was the case with I Had A Pony, which I finished the day before we recorded it. I had to rely on stream of consciousness writing for the first time, and the story kind of just emerged out of the first couple of lines: "I had a pony, dappled and gray. I called him Apples and Hay, because he liked them." Pressure can be a good thing.
R.V.B. - How did you meet the people in the band?
G.C. - The producer and fiddle player Adam Moss I met at his fiddle class at the Jalopy Theatre and School of Music in Brooklyn. I have since given up my fantasy of being a fiddle player, but luckily have had the privilege of working with Adam ever since. He's a regular in The Cornell Brothers and his playing is superb. He also convinced me to attend Miles of Music Camp in New Hampshire, an experience that helped immensely with my songwriting and performing. As the producer of the album, he hired the musicians, arranged a bunch of the songs, co-wrote the lyrics to Song for Nick, and played some killer solos. His contribution was great. I met singer Amanda Homi through a mutual friend, and she has been singing with me for two years. She is such a great singer because she is an amazing musician, has great taste and knows how to blend her voice with mine, all of which makes me a better singer! Cellist David Moss is the twin brother of Adam whom I met at Miles of Music Camp, where I also met recorder player Alec Spiegelman. Zack Bruce (mandolin) I met through Adam, and he has played with us several times over the last year. Bass player Dave Speranza I first saw play at Barbes in Brooklyn with the renowned Gypsy Jazz guitarist Stephan Wrambel, and when I heard he was available, I signed him up. Many of the other musicians I had never met until our first rehearsal for the album, but who are well-regarded Brooklyn folks: Jason Nazary on drums, Will Griefe on electric guitar, Sam Reider on piano, Philip Sterk on pedal steel and Grant Gordy, who is one of the best bluegrass guitar players in the country. Justin Guip is responsible for bringing in Marco Benevento, who is an award-winning organist.
G.C. - It may be surprising to some, but Brooklyn is one of the centers of roots and Americana in the country. I think it's because Brooklyn still has echoes of the 19th Century in parts of it, certainly in Red Hook where beautiful old warehouses on the waterfront take you back in time. And there are lots of bluegrass and old time jams going on in several venues, and many venues are dedicated solely to Americana, like Jalopy, Barbes, Pete's Candy Store, Sunny's and lots more. The Americana scene is very big there, although it may be on the wane because Brooklyn is becoming as expensive as Manhattan, which is driving musicians out to other cities...like Nashville, of all places. Go figure!
G.C. - I love playing outside, so two highlights have been playing at Henryfest in Yarmouth, ME last fall and at the Norwood Village Green Concert Series this summer in way upstate NY. The Norwood show was notable too, because it was our first public performance of Song for Nick, and the venue is about 10 miles from the site of the murder of which he has been wrongly accused. And only two people walked out in the middle of the song! I consider that a victory. Playing last winter at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah was fun. There's a crazy energy around film festivals, a kind of hyper need to meet people and see everything that was interesting to be around.
R.V.B. - The Song "Heavenly Rain" has a nice "D minor" deep sound to it. Does it have any symbolism in the fact that never reaches the ground?
G.C. - It's based on a time when I missed the opportunity to do some good, and the song came out of dealing with my regret at missing that chance. Heavenly influences are always raining down, but it takes some effort, some desire, to get it to reach the ground. So it requires reaching up and pulling it down.
R.V.B. - Is a median in on a roadway - with things moving in different directions - a good place to reconcile?
G.C. - Hmm, good question! This song actually came out of a songwriting class at Miles of Music Camp. The exercise was to take a dictionary, open it at random, close your eyes, then point to a word--and write a song about that word. At first I was like, median is a terrible word! But then I realized a median (yes, a place between roadways with things moving in different directions) could be a metaphor for the need to compromise in a relationship. And what better place to meet than on a peaceful island with a cup of coffee as noise and chaos flows past. Like an oasis.
R.V.B. - It is very touching that you wrote "Song for Nick" to try and help him with his legal issues. I gather he is aware that you did this and how does he feel about it?
G.C. - Nick Hillary and his four sons were in the studio the day we recorded the vocals to Song for Nick. It really brought home the reality of his plight, not just to me but to the other musicians and Justin Guip. I sent him the lyrics before we recorded it just to make sure he was ok with it, and he was. He's fighting for his freedom (his trial starts Sept. 6 in Canton, NY) and he was very grateful that we went to the trouble of writing and recording the song. His case is getting a lot of national attention, with a front page story in the New York Times and an HBO documentary being produced by Academy Award nominee Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?). A friend asked me before the recording started if I was going to write a song about the case, and my first reaction was, "No way! Who am I, Bob Dylan writing about Hurricane Carter? No way do I want to invite that comparison." But then I realized that it wasn't about me, it was more important to get Nick's story out in any way possible. Because he's my friend. And because his character has never wavered; he has not become cynical, bitter or hateful despite the racist assaults on his character that he has had to endure. So he's my hero, an inspiration. I can't let the opportunity go by to ask people to look into his case and contribute to his defense if they can. There is a fund-raising website Here that spells out the injustice of the accusation against him.
R.V.B. - What are the plans to support the new release?
G.C. - We are touring through the fall in NYC, Long Island, upstate NY, New England and Baltimore. And we've engaged publicists at Behind The Curtains Media to cover the radio, blog and social media areas, as well as Mike Kornfeld, who has worked with us for over a year, to specifically cover the folk radio stations.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Greg Cornell and the Cornell Brothers visit their website www.cornellbrothers.com
Photo credits - Kevin Bloom, Matt Bogosian
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