Charlie Peacock has been the man at the helm, so to speak, for a number of artists for the better part of 30 years. From his recent title as producer for the Grammy Award-winning Barton Hollow for The Civil Wars to his work with Switchfoot and Jon Foreman, Peacock continues to hold tremendous influence in Nashville and beyond.
What some folks may not know, however, is Peacock is also a fantastic songwriter and performer. His album Secret of Time album warranted a Grammy nom in 1990 and his subsequent jazz releases earned him critical acclaim. Now with the biographical No Man’s Land, Peacock, the singer/songwriter/performer, has stepped back into the spotlight with some of the most moving and personal music of his career.
Stereo Subversion: Has it ever bothered you that people may think of you first as a producer, and only secondly as an artist and a singer/songwriter.
Charlie Peacock: I think the upside of it is that I’ve had so many aspects to my musical career that it’s understandable that they might know me from one period and not another, maybe when I emphasized my artistic career over my producer career.
Having said that, I mean, the artist in you, you want to be understood. You want to be known correctly and have people have a pretty comprehensive idea of who you are artistically. But when you are as interested in as many things as I am, it’s really hard to keep it focused and keep it in front of people so that they understand, ‘Yeah, I know he is an artist/producer. He’s not just someone who was an artist – he is an artist, an artist/producer.’
SSv: Can you tell if there was a moment in time when you realized you wanted to make the album that’s become No Man’s Land?
Charlie: Yes. Definitely. It was probably about a year-and-a-half ago when I realized that a lot of genealogy study that my aunts had done and passed on to me and I kind of followed through on was matching up to where I wanted to go musically. I remember very distinctly: it was a flight from Nashville to Sacramento, California. I wrote two songs on this flight. As soon as I started thinking about my grandparents and my great grandparents, music started coming.
SSv: Has this been something you’ve always wanted to do, but never quite got around to?
Charlie: No, not at all. In fact, this took me completely by surprise — particularly the country elements of the music and the rootsier elements. My dad was an educator and a trumpet player and I was sort of raised in our home to feel like folkier, rootsier elements were not quite sophisticated enough.
My parents – I didn’t realize it – they were trying to be more sophisticated than their parents before them and nobody really picked up on all the really cool and wondrous and vibrant aspects of the great grandparents and all of that. They were more about, ‘Hey, we escaped Louisiana, Oklahoma to move to California and the land of opportunity. This whole world is ours to explore.’
I remember my dad teasing my uncle, who was a big Merle Haggard fan. Whenever they were playing cards or something, my dad would have some snide remark about country music. So it was kind of under those conditions that I sort of left my family past behind and wanted to be more cosmopolitan, I think.
So it wasn’t until I got into the genealogy side of it and saw the really interesting stories in our family and that, wow, there’s this rich narrative there, you know, and when grandpa sang me, “Froggy Went a-Courtin’,” it was because that was a song that was known by Dust Bowl immigrants that came to California, and at farm worker camps and it just kind of opened my mind up to the history there, to go back and mine that a bit.
SSv: Has living in the Nashville area helped you to appreciate roots music more?
I mean, I knew about bluegrass because I’d recorded with Béla Fleck before, but I didn’t realize, I don’t think, until meeting Andy just how deeply linked the kind of jazz aesthetic that I grew up under was a part of the bluegrass tribe, as well. It was just a different songbook, you know?
But the kind of athleticism of the music, the visceral part of it was very much similar. That was a big part of it for me in doing this record, to just have the best instrumentalists in the world play on it and make it the fun of being in a room together making music.
SSv: Would you say that working with Civil Wars helped rejuvenate your desire to create music?
Charlie: Um, no. I think probably around 2000 I imagine is when I took some time off, went to seminary for a year and came back and started working on the jazz projects that I did. And I think it was probably more around that time that I got rejuvenated.
Business-wise, I mean, how the music gets out to people, that was probably another five years later, five to six years later really getting involved in the music scene here in Nashville, being a part of Ten Out Of Tenn, supporting them and producing the film on them.
I began to see how my dreams and desires for music could marry with more of an independent mindset for getting the music out there, and that there were a lot of people younger than me that were pioneering that and doing a great job doing it. All of that coalesced and came together with Civil Wars. Then you had the music I wanted to be a part of, with the business model I wanted to be a part of, with the production style I wanted to be a part of and it just all came together.
SSv: Do you see yourself as kind of a mentor to younger artists these days?
Charlie: Well, when I think about mentoring, I’ve always seen it as the mentor’s the one that names that, and I don’t hang that shingle that says I’m a mentor to anybody. But if they feel that being with me and hanging with me and time spent with me is helping them to grow, just as people and as artists, then I’m grateful for the opportunity to hang with them.
SSv: When you look at the new album, are there any songs that stand out as particular favorites?
Charlie: Yeah, definitely. I love singing “Deathtrap.” That’s going to definitely be one of the highlights of the live show.
SSv: What inspired that song?
Charlie: Oh, I don’t know. It’s just part of the plight of every relationship. It’s not strictly men who can’t keep their mouths shut, but it seems to be that in those heated discussions and heated arguments where the man says three more words that he ought not to say. So I wanted to write a song about that.
So far, I’m loving singing “Ghost of the Kitty Cat.” That’s really fun live. I also love one of the more sleeper cuts on the album, called “Till My Body Comes Undone.” That’s turning out really good live, as well. Probably my favorite to sing at this point is “Voice of My Lord.”
SSv: And why is that?
Charlie: I think it gave me an opportunity for me to explore a songwriting style that I had done before on other records. But to do it in this context, it feels really good coming out of the mouth when you’re singing it. It’s real natural because it’s that story. It’s cinematic. It has repetition of phrases, but no one section of the song – except for the chorus – is ever the same. There are several other songs I’ve written in the past that do that. I like playing with the song form.
SSv: You sound like you’re really excited about touring. Is that something that’s enticing to you?
Charlie: Oh gosh, yeah. I’m very excited about it. But I’m scared out of my mind, too.
Charlie: Yeah, you know. You get holed up in the studio and it becomes your life. If you don’t play something right, you just run it again, right?