Arthur Alligood makes me think of Hank Williams in his ability to take hurt and transform it into something beautiful and soulful and swampy. If you don’t own his album One Silver Needle, you really should. And just this fall he surprised us all with a new album called The Shadow Can’t Have Me. He describes it this way: “These are gospel songs for those in the valley—songs that confess the shattered nature of everything and in the same breath point to a hope that is real and eternal.” With characteristic honesty, Arthur talked with me about some of the mortifying moments of his career as a singer-songwriter.
Thanks, Arthur, for joining me on “Sad Stories Told for Laughs.”
Happy to be here.
In an earlier episode, Nick Flora and I were talking about the different categories of funny performance stories. One of the important categories, we agreed, is the “Odd Venue” category. You once told me about an unusual concert you played at a country club in Atlanta.
I was asked to play a benefit concert of sorts on a Saturday afternoon at this really nice country club in north Atlanta. The promoters told me it was a benefit for orphans in Africa. So, I get there and it’s essentially 10-15 ladies in a room knitting. Seriously knitting. Some of them were using knitting apps—which I didn’t even know existed—to help them stay on track with their stitches or something. I’m not going to lie, it felt a little odd at first.
A knit-in. That’s pretty rock-and-roll.
They were knitting for orphans in Africa, and I was the entertainment
So, did they clap between songs? Because I would think that would slow things down at the knit-a-thon.
I honestly can’t remember if they did clap. They were mostly silent. All I remember is that after thirty minutes of playing one lady comes over and says, “Come get you some food.” There was a huge spread of food and snacks to the left of stage—a brunch style buffet. I put down my guitar and stuffed myself and didn’t play another song.
Have you ever heard of the readers who used to work in the cigar factories in Tampa? While the girls rolled the cigars, a person would read to them—newspapers, novels, whatever—to keep them entertained (and, apparently, educated) while they worked. Sounds like you were doing the same thing for the knitters.
What? Really? Never heard of that. I guess I was. You know, the people that brought me down are sweet souls…just really good people and have been so supportive of what I do. I was up for anything really. Knitting, cigars…I would have been game.
That’s great. But that wasn’t an especially sad story. You were well-fed and, it seems, well appreciated. Do you have stories of mortification that might amuse Rabbit Room readers?
Do I? My first show out of town was also in Atlanta. There was literally no one there…even the guy running the coffee bar went on an extended smoke break. I was completely alone in the coffee shop.
Man, even the barista wasn’t there for you. The one guy who was being paid to be there.
Exactly. No one.
Did you keep playing?
Yes. I thought, “Well, I guess I’ll just practice.” So I plugged into their little sound system and tried to make the best of it. The only people I knew in town showed up two hours after my set. They took me out to some burger place and tried to redeem the trip for me. Burgers helped for sure.
When I think of humiliation typically I think of being embarrassed in front of a huge crowd. Sometimes you can feel utter humiliation all by yourself. I think the inner voices start to kick in and you just start to ask yourself, “What am I doing? What in the world was I thinking?”
Good point about humiliation and aloneness…the “What in the world was I thinking?” feeling comes from within you, not from outside you. You don’t need a public for that.
I’ve told you many times how much I love your record One Silver Needle. A couple of years ago, something happened to my iTunes account, and just about the only records left were that album that U2 gave away about a year ago, Handel’s Messiah, and One Silver Needle.
That’s pretty good company.
It is. I’ll also tell you that it’s a rare day when I choose to listen to U2 instead of Arthur Alligood. Here lately, however, during Advent, the Messiah has been beating you out on a pretty regular basis.
Anyway, would you mind talking about how One Silver Needle came to be?
Well, in 2011 I entered the Mountain Stage New Song Contest.
I looked that up earlier today. You were one of two thousand songwriters who entered that contest.
Yeah, everybody sent in recordings of their songs, and they chose twelve people to come to New York City to perform one song in front of the judges.
Like American Idol?
I guess—except it’s all singer-songwriters, and it isn’t nearly so glamorous. So I was one of those twelve contestants. Then from the twelve they chose three to come back and play two more songs.
And you were one of the three.
Right. Each of the three of us played a couple more songs, and they chose a winner.
Which was you.
Yeah. And the prize was that one of the judges, who was also a record producer, would produce an EP or a full-length album with you. So that’s where One Silver Needle came from.
And who was that producer?
Mikal Blue, in Los Angeles. I had two months between the contest and the time I went to the studio in LA. I went on a songwriting tirade. I’d write a song, do a demo, upload it to Dropbox, day after day. The producer was like, “Where are all these songs coming from?” I told him I felt it was what I was supposed to be doing. I felt the weight of it. I felt that I had to take advantage of this opportunity and make the best album I could make; I was only going to have access to these world-class players once.
Obviously this was a big deal, winning this contest. A couple of weeks ago Buddy Greene was talking about affirmation. Winning the Mountain Stage New Song Contest must have been some serious affirmation.
After working at it so long, so hard, trying to make some headway, it felt like a door was opening. Meanwhile there are voices around you—some in your head, some outside your head—saying, “This is going to be so huge for you,” and you start to believe it. So I had lots of high hopes. I’ve got this great producer, these great players behind me, a label that has credibility in the Americana world.
Fast forward to the album release. Essentially, nothing happened. It was tough.
As in, nobody bought it?
Nobody bought it, nobody seemed to notice it was out there. I felt this isolated kind of humiliation that nobody around me was feeling—only I was feeling it.
It’s like you were saying before; there’s public humiliation, and then there’s the humiliation of feeling like nobody cares or sees whether you’re humiliated or not.
I’m exaggerating to say nobody noticed. Gar Ragland, the guy who started the Mountain Stage New Song Contest, approached me about being my manager. We made an agreement, and he did everything within his power and within his resources to help get things off the ground. We got a song on a TV, which was nice, but in the end it just didn’t happen. You’ve got to go on the road to promote a record, but things were happening in my personal life where going on the road wasn’t going to work.
You can recognize that One Silver Needle is a really good record, whether anybody buys it or not, right?
Sure. I put everything I had into it. I don’t have any regrets as far as the quality of the work. I played with Leland Sklar—Phil Collins’ bassist is on my album! I get to tell my kids, “I played with Leland Sklar and Jim Keltner and Michael Ward. Look them up on Wikipedia.” I haven’t played that card with my girls yet, but I’m going to.
One thing I’m hearing here is that, as important as the music was, music wasn’t the most important thing. “Success” required that you go on the road, but there were things in your life that were more important.
Well, not exactly. There was a real battle in me. Music had become too important. Winning the contest planted a seed in me: “The contest proves it. Keep going in this direction, Arthur.” In fact, the contest didn’t prove anything. It happened, and that was good, but that didn’t mean it was a launching pad to anything else.
Now I can look back and say, “I put everything into this, and I did the best I can do.” I can look back on it with a lot more grace than I could then. I was so covered up in other stuff while all that was going on that I wasn’t able to enjoy it like I could have.
I don’t look back on One Silver Needle and say, “That was the thing that was supposed to do X, Y, and Z for me, and it didn’t.” I can look back and say “I was blessed to be able to do that.”
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.