Monday, November 5, 2012

Producer Scott Pingeton Talks "Long Distance Salvation: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska"

Long Distance Salvation: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska is a song-for song tribute/ charity album to arguably one of the best folk albums of all time. Springsteen recorded Nebraska in 1982 with an acoustic guitar, harmonica, and 4-track recorder. It is an immediate, haunting, and sparsely powerful work that has inspired many artists over the years.

Long Distance Salvation is donating 100% of the proceeds to Project Bread. It is a great record for a great cause. LDS and is available as a $5 download on bandcamp and an extremely limited colored-vinyl edition. The album collects such artists as Trampled By Turtles, Strand of Oaks, The Wooden Sky, Joe Pug, Joe Fletcher, Spirit Family Reunion, David Wax, Roadside Graves, Jonah Tolchin, Adam Arcuragi, Joe Purdy and Garrison Starr, Kingsley Flood, Juniper Tar, and Kyle Morton (Typhoon).

I would also like to throw in that another one of my favorite covers albums across the board is Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. That has been a favorite of mine since it was released in 2000, and includes song-by-song interpretations by Son Volt, Hank III, Aimee Mann, Johnny Cash, Los Lobos, Ben Harper, and many more. That one set a pretty high expectation for me regarding another Nebraska-themed tribute, and I am happy to say that Long Distance Salvation really brought the goods. Highly recommended for anyone who treasures Nebraska and/ or any of the artists on the album.

I recently had the opportunity to interview producer Scott Pingeton on how Long Distance Salvation came together.

Hi Scott. Can you talk in some detail of Project Bread and how the idea for the project idea for the project came together?

Scott: To me, Nebraska is one of the great driving records. There are few things more perfect and haunting than a stretch of empty highway at night and State Trooper on the stereo. Appropriately, that's how the idea for the project came to me. I was driving from Boston to Cooperstown NY, listening to Nebraska on loop. Around the third or fourth time through, my mind started to wander and I began imagining what these songs would sound like through the creative lens of some of my favorite current folk artists.

Over the next few weeks the idea continued to develop and I started to casually mention the concept to some friends and artists. The whole thing really crystallized when I reached out to Joe Pug to see if he would be interested in participating, and minutes later I got a response back. It was a simple "I'm in brother". From that point on I knew there was something here, and that I owed it to everyone involved to follow through.

The idea for the album to benefit a local charity was a part of the concept from the start, and Project Bread seemed like a natural fit. Nebraska deals with themes of hardship, desperation and inequality through the eyes of vivid and human characters, so it seemed natural for the tribute to benefit a charity that helps people that are facing the same the same types of issues. Project Bread does incredible work to help hungry families across Massachusetts. It just seemed like a perfect fit.

Please describe the importance of sticking with the simplicity (recording-wise) of Nebraska?

Scott: Nebraska's raw, gritty sound is such a big part of what makes it so special. The tape hiss and ambient noise give the songs an intimacy and authenticity that would have been lost if Bruce were to have recorded these songs in a sterile, big-budget studio with the E Street Band. That lo-fi aesthetic is so central to the story and the sound of Nebraska, and I wanted that to be carried through on Long Distance Salvation.

The idea was for the artists bring their own sound and sensibilities, but at the end of the day, work more or less under the same recording constraints as the original. That said, each artist interpreted this idea of "home recording" differently. There are tracks on the album recorded on a four-track cassette recorder, just like the original, and there are other tracks recorded in churches, barns, backyards, and elaborate home studios.

How did you select the artists for the album? How did they get involved?

Scott: I reached out to artists I felt best captured the tradition of folk storytelling in their own music. To be honest, at the beginning it felt odd to ask these artists that I look up to and revere to devote their time to my pet project. But, it became clear very quickly that the artists were just as enthusiastic about it as I was. In fact, after a while, word of mouth had spread to the point that some of my favorite artists were asking me to be involved. It was pretty surreal.

What came next?

Scott: The artists each recorded their tracks on their own schedules, between tour dates or stints in the studio. My involvement and control over the "sound" of the record ended when I selected an artist for each track. At that point 100% of the creative control was in the artists' hands. I did not give them any guidelines for how closely a recording should stick to the original. I felt that was important because I wanted the covers to be organic and truly represent the way that the artists hear, interpret and relate to each song. I didn't feel like any good would come from me trying to influence the creative process.

I think some of the most magical moments on the record stem directly from fairly radical departures from the Nebraska arrangements, like the turbo-speed bluegrass stop of Trampled By Turtles' take on "Open All Night". Then there's Jonah Tolchin's amazing version of "State Trooper", which totally turns the original on its head. Also, Adam Arcuragi's passionate, gospel-infused take on "Reason To Believe", is another that comes to mind, just to name a few.

Was there an artist that set the course for the album, specifically how the roster rounded itself out?

Scott: Joe Pug's enthusiasm and support early on was huge. It set the bar high and gave the project credibility. From there, things fell into place quite organically.

Can you discuss song selection?

Scott: As much as possible, I let the track selection process evolve organically. I avoided giving out songs like homework assignments and left the song selection up to the artists early on. As a result, you can feel the artists' personal history with the song come through on some of these tracks, as if living with the characters and internalizing their struggles and stories made them their own in some way.

Tim Showalter's gorgeous version of "Used Cars" and Joe Pug's deeply moving take on "Highway Patrolman" come to mind as two examples. As the number of options dwindled, it obviously became harder to accommodate each artists' first choice, but I think that's where some of the more interesting and creative arrangements came into play.

Jonah Tolchin stepped up to take "State Trooper" and recorded it somewhere along the way to a music festival he was playing. I still don't know where it was recorded, somewhere along the side of the road in a barn or factory in the Midwest I think, but he totally turn the song on its head in a good way. The original is this dark, suicide-influenced acoustic dirge.

Tolchin and his band start out with the same feel with vocals over a droning organ before breaking it down into a menacing folk stomp.  It's one of the biggest surprises, and one of the highlights. You can check out Jonah Tolchin performing it with Ben Sollee backstage at Newport Folk Festival

Which song-artist pairings surprised you most and/ or yielded the most unexpected results?

Scott: As I mentioned, Jonah Tolchin's take on "State Trooper" was definitely one of the surprises and highlights. Trampled By Turtles' take on "Open All Night" is another track where they took this chugging, acoustic 12-bar blues with mile-a-minute vocals and actually sped it up even more. The result is a speed-bluegrass tour-de-force with frenzied banjo plucking, screeching fiddle and strummed guitars. I was talking to TBT's Dave Simonett at the Long Distance Salvation release party and he said that taking one of the more obscure songs on the album freed them to take more liberties with it, which I found interesting. It's an incredible version.

Why bonus tracks? Can you discuss some examples of artists-songs pairings?

Scott: First, selfishly, I wanted more than ten of my favorite artists to be a part of the project! But more importantly, as a Springsteen fan, I wanted to expose people to the darker origins of many of the synth-heavy mid-80s pop hits that many people associate him with. Many of those songs were originally written and recorded as part of the Nebraska sessions, and I wanted to draw the line between Nebraska and Born In The USA.

In the end, the only track from Born In The USA that was included was Roadside Graves' chilling reinvention of "Downbound Train".  "Pink Cadillac", an outtake from Nebraska that was later re-recorded during the Born In The USA sessions and released as the b-side to Dancing In The Dark, is covered by Joe Fletcher, whose grizzled drawl and greasy guitar playing suits the song absolutely perfectly.

Kingsley Flood, a great band from Boston, gave a brilliant performance of "Shut Out The Light", a fairly obscure track that was actually recorded after the Nebraska sessions (later included in the Tracks box set) is a perfect fit thematically. I just love Kyle Morton and Danielle Sullivan's version of "Atlantic City" and even though it wasn't recorded specifically for the project, I asked them if I could include it as a bonus track.

Please discuss some of the record release benefit shows.

Scott: This album was a long-time in the making, so I wanted to do something to celebrate the release. A chance to kind of sit back and appreciate how it all came together. A few of the bands happened to be playing a bluegrass festival out in Western Massachusetts, about 3 hours from where I live in Boston, the weekend after the release, so that seemed like the right time and place to put something together.

I worked with Doug Hacker, a friend who puts on an amazing house concert series in the area, to plan the show. We did it up blue collar Springsteen style and rented out an Elks lodge, complete with 4 Elk heads, lots of neon, and plenty of cheap beer and had three fantastic bands play to 150 or so friends and locals. As the show was winding down, the guys from Trampled By Turtles stopped by to check it out too. It was a great time and a great culmination to nearly a full year of work.

How has the release benefited the cause so far?

Scott: We're still getting orders every day, but we've already made back everything we invested and have raised a few thousand dollars for Project Bread. Every dollar that comes in from now on goes directly to the cause so please spread the word!

What's next for you?

Scott: Once I finish packaging up vinyl orders to ship out I'll start thinking about what's next. I hope to do more projects in this vein, whether that's charity/ tribute tribute albums or backing unsigned artists I believe in and helping to release their material. Sharing music is what I want to be doing.

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