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A Conversation with Tim Stafford

Puremusic: I see you guys played Joe's Pub in New York City last night.

Tim Stafford: We did, yeah.

PM: That's a favorite music room of mine.

TS: We had never played there before. It went over great. It's a really neat little place.

PM: It's a beautiful room, isn't it? It's got a good sound and a good crowd.

TS: Yeah. Some of the best sound we've ever, ever played. It's a great crowd.

PM: I bet that great bluegrass is kind of popular in that zip code. How did the show go?

TS: Oh, it went wonderful. We got a couple standing O's, so....

PM: Wow.

TS: It was great. And we sold good.

PM: Nice.

TS: Yeah.

PM: Did you have any time to trip around or eat out in the city while you were there, or were you just hanging out?

TS: Well, we were there for a couple days, but we didn't stay in the city. We stayed over in Newark. But we were around on Tuesday doing Relix, did a conference play there. And then we did one at Sirius Radio in between going over to Joe's. So we got a chance to go eat some really good Indian food.

PM: Ah, that's nice. There's so much good Indian food down in the East Village.

TS: That's where we were.

PM: Yep.

TS: So we went down on 6th and ate at the Taj Mahal down there. It was really, really good.

PM: So yeah, congratulations on your great latest and self-produced disc, Through the Window of a Train.

TS: Well, thanks man. I appreciate that. It was the easiest record we ever made, by far.

PM: Wow. Still climbing mountains, to coin another title of yours.

TS: [laughs] Yeah. Well, we're still trying. We're still there.

PM: So how was it easier, this one, than some you've done before?

TS: Well, it's our eighth record, and the very first one we haven't done in Nashville. Most of us don't live close to there. The only one who does is Rob. And we thought we'll just save a little money, and we'll trust--because technology has changed so much that it's easier to do better sounding recordings all the time.

PM: Absolutely. People are doing them on laptops all over the world. [laughs]

TS: Truly. And we found a great little room called Maggard Studio up in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. It's where Ralph Stanley does all his records.

PM: So the room is already bluegrass seasoned.

TS: Absolutely. Yeah, Keith Whitley recorded in there.

PM: It's unbelievable. There are so many good songs on this record, I don't know where to start. So let's talk about the title song, which I found very moving indeed, even more profoundly for me than obviously moving songs like "Homeless Man" or "Two Soldiers"--something about "Through the Window of Train" just really killed me, in a good way.

TS: Well, great, man. I really appreciate that. I like that song, too. As soon as we finished it, the idea was to have the imagery kind of do the talking, because obviously you know what the song is about once you get into it, that it's about this fellow who's an old man now, and remembering when he was kid riding on the train. But the images of what he saw, that's what stuck out in my mind, what it would have been like to sit in that train and see the world go by.

PM: Yeah, it's just so simply and poetically wrapped up there when you say, "I saw it all once upon a time through the window of a train." It's just really good.

TS: I appreciate that.

PM: Maybe you remember how that tune got written with Steve Gulley, tell us something about him.

TS: Okay. Well, Steve is a great singer and songwriter. He used to play with Doyle Lawson years ago, and then with Mountain Heart, he was the original lead singer.

PM: I see.

TS: He's in a group called Grasstowne now. But he lives about two and a half hours away from me. And we just get together and write every chance we get. And I think we've written close to probably 30 songs over the last few years.

PM: Wow.

TS: And that one there was just an idea that I had on paper. We just decided to flesh it out, like we always do. I was really pleased with the way that one turned out. I wasn't sure how he was going to cut it. We didn't know who to pitch it to, first. But I'm glad they wanted to do it.

PM: So everybody just brings the tunes they got lately to the table, and then just things get hashed through, and you pick some tunes.

TS: That's exactly how it goes. We just sit around a table, either with our guitars or with a boombox.

PM: With a boombox, that's fantastic. [laughs]  I can imagine, "Oh, here's something I wrote with Steve. Check it out." And throw your hat in the ring, there.

TS: That's exactly what it is.

PM: Unbelievable. And I guess you try and work it out so that if it's going to be a very original record, like this one was, that everybody gets a couple of tunes on, and I'm sure there's a democracy there, too.

TS: It's always a democracy. But the thing about us is we don't set out to make all original records. We did with Still Climbing a Mountain, because we had been writing a lot. And Jerry Douglas produced that record.

PM: Right.

TS: I thought it would be a great concept to have, so that was done beforehand. But this one here, we just threw out the best songs that we had. And there were some that weren't original. I think Rob had a Bob Dylan song, we almost did that one.

PM: Really? Which one?

TS: "Gotta Serve Somebody."          

PM: Oh, wow, that would have been an interesting cover.

TS: And somebody covered it right after that. It just was on a record.

PM: Covered it bluegrass?

TS: Yeah, yeah.

PM: Isn't that strange. I would never have heard that off the bat as a bluegrass cut.

TS: Yeah, I couldn't believe it. But we just decided we had 12 strong original songs, and that's kind of the identity of the group anymore, so we'll just go with that. It doesn't always work like that. Marbletown, there were two really strong songs that weren't original.

PM: There was the Knopfler cut, right?

TS: Right. The Knopfler cut, and then "Lazarus."

PM: Right. Yeah, you don't hear enough good Gary Scruggs tunes these days; he's just a really great writer.

TS: He is, man. He's one of those guys that I really want to write with more, and we haven't had a chance to do it.


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