The music world is full of prodigies whose obsession with music began in early childhood. On the other hand, Pennsylvania singer-songwriter Tom Flannery could be called a late bloomer. He waited until his twenties to plunge into music, but did so no less passionately than a prodigy. The results of that passion are evident on his impressive debut CD Song About a Train, an expansive collection of fascinating and varied songs presented in an intimate but eminently tasteful musical setting featuring guitarist-vocalist Neal Casal, keyboard man John Ginty and percussionist Pat Marcinko. Produced by George Graham, the album represents the culmination of an uncommon musical odyssey.
Born in Scranton, PA in 1966, Flannery grew up in adjoining Dunmore, the son of a respected newspaper journalist, and the descendant of Irish coal-miners in a region known for, and forever scarred by anthracite. Teenage years are when most proto-musicians begin their pursuit, but Flannery recalls, "During high school, music was never really that important." Like many who preceded him, he was taken early-on by the Beatles. But it took his older guitar-playing brother Pat, to push Tom, by now in his early twenties, toward "music that made a difference. All of a sudden, seemingly overnight, it became something I couldn't live without," he relates. "I was kind of ignorant, and then the floodgates opened."
Richard Thompson was an early favorite and remains a great inspiration. After hearing Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights, "I thought, my God, this is what I want to do." Not surprisingly, Flannery describes his early efforts as "really bad attempts at writing Richard Thompson songs." But, he adds, "Listening is how you learn. Immersing myself in his music was the best education I could possibly think of for a young songwriter. A year went by when I hardly listened to anybody else." But he soon took to absorbing the work of such current songwriting luminaries as John Gorka, James McMurtry, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, "guys who would never do the same thing twice." Interestingly, Flannery cites rock & roll pioneer Chuck Berry as another fount of influence. "You can't get much better than Nadine for a song." Outside of music, the songwriter names historians and social chroniclers as helping to shape his work, including David McCulloch, Shelby Foote and Charles Kuralt (celebrated in one of the album's songs).
Flannery soon plunged wholeheartedly into songwriting. "When I was living alone, that's all that I did for about a year. I went to work, came home and wrote songs. It was not uncommon to complete two songs in a day."
Around 1990, Flannery would meet producer George Graham, who somewhat inadvertently, would lead Flannery along the lengthy path toward Song About a Train. Graham is the producer/host Homegrown Music, regional-artist series Northeastern Pennsylvania Public Radio station WVIA-FM. After auditioning Flannery's music, Graham invited him to appear, and said Flannery could come back if he had some more songs. "It provided me with an outlet," Flannery relates, pointing out that he had few other opportunities to perform in public. "I would write another ten songs and call up to be on the radio again." Graham saw something in the developing songwriter. Flannery has appeared over 15 times on the series in nine years. "I think he was trying to set a record for most times on the show," Graham quips.
One day after Flannery asked Graham to book him for another live radio concert, the producer thought it would be interesting to put together a group of disparate songwriters to share songs and talk about their craft. Booked on that show along with Flannery were the Canadian-born Lorne Clarke, the female acoustic duo Kate & CJ, and reggae artist George Wesley. Little did Graham know that he would be forging a durable musical partnership. Clarke and Flannery now often work as a duo, and despite the unlikely combination of styles, Wesley (whose father was a country musician) has collaborated with Flannery on the latter's Anthracite Shuffle a suite of songs about Northeastern Pennsylvania's legacy of mining. Flannery especially looks to Clarke (whose album Graham is also producing) as a songwriting model. "If it weren't for Lorne I wouldn't have done this CD. I learned so much from Lorne and George Wesley."
Another piece was laid into place when Graham conveyed his enthusiasm to Flannery about Casal, whose debut album Fade Away Diamond Time was named one of the best of 1995 by The Washington Post and was a favorite of Graham. The producer had invited the New Jersey songwriter to appear on the Homegrown Music series, and lobbied Flannery to feature Casal in Flannery's newspaper music column. "With all the music George hears as part of his job, I knew that he didn't get that enthusiastic about an artist that often. So I figured this guy must be something special," recalls Flannery. "When I heard Fade Away Diamond Time I got blown away. I thought 'This is the best record I've heard all year.' So I became an instant fan."
Meanwhile Flannery had been making long-term plans for a CD and intermittently discussing backing musicians with Graham. A year after his first meeting with Casal, Flannery "sheepishly called Neal and sort of beat around the bush, wondering if he might like to play on an album with me." Flannery was delighted when Casal offered to help, knowing Graham would be involved with the project, and also offered to enlist his old friend and musical collaborator John Ginty (who had been part of Jewel's band in the Lilith Fair tour). "It couldn't have worked out better," Flannery enthuses. (Casal, though known as an artist in his own right with four CDs to his credit and considerable popularity in Europe, also recently lent his help along with Ginty to Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha on the latter's pleasantly surprising CD Let It Come Down.)
Most of the album was recorded in two days in the familiar surroundings of WVIA, where both Flannery and Casal had made their respective radio appearances. "I usually work alone, and I'm sometimes not easy to work with, but John and Neal seem to think about music the same way as me. We ended up even recording songs that we hadn't previously rehearsed."
Graham, who also contributed to several of album's distinctive musical arrangements and helped shape the song selection, found the sessions friendly and relaxed, and was quite impressed by the tastefulness of the musicianship shown by all. "One of my goals was to give each song a different sound. Previously, Tom's songs, though differing in mood, had just been performed in a solo 'folkie' solo guitar-and-vocal setting. Neal's very tasty guitar work, especially on slide, and his always-amazing vocals, along with John's remarkably expressive use of the Hammond B-3 organ, which is a distinctive sound to begin with, and his inspired piano work, really gave the album a lot of colors that cast a new light on Tom's songs, and helped to underscore his literate lyrics."
At Graham's urging, versatile percussionist Pat Marcinko was brought in to add further sonic colors. Flannery was soon impressed, enlisting Marcinko on far more songs than originally planned. "His enthusiasm was infectious," says Flannery of the percussionist, who brought a trunkload of sound-making curiosities to the studio. "He took something that I thought was really strong and made it stronger."
The results "came out entirely differently than I expected. I never thought I would have musicians of that calibre." Flannery modestly adds, "I feel like a small fish in a big pond with these guys. I wouldn't feel more grateful if Springsteen played on my record." But the feeling was mutual. Both Casal and Ginty expressed their enthusiasm for the results of the project.
"I hope this is not my last record. I have many more songs and ideas," says the author of over 300 compositions, "and I know I'm going to want Neal, John and Pat on that record, whenever that happens."
Marie's Song is about the Irish potato famine, which affected so many people and caused the great waves of emigration to America. The goal was to personalize the story. It was written from the perspective of a young man whose love died because of the famine, and who then is forced to make the journey to America.
Blame It on the Death of Charles Kuralt. Kuralt was a real hero to me, he did so much for "small people." When he died on the 4th of July , it really ruined my day. I cried. I wrote this song on the 5th.
Johnson Station was inspired by a strike at a bottling plant. The strike started with great fanfare, but after a while people lost interest. One day I was driving past the plant and saw two strikers with their placards huddling by a fire in a barrel, and the idea for the some came to me. I leave it to the imagination to figure what happened at Johnson Station.
Cindy's Around. Just a little love song about my favorite time of the year, the fall.
Clarksdale Whistle Blues was written after reading a biography of Muddy Waters, how he was forced to leave the plantation in Mississippi, board a train and never look back. He's one of my heroes.
Feel Like Comin' Home. I can't imagine not having a place to call home. The song is written from the perspective of someone who spent too long away, and how a small town will greet you with open arms.
Gonna Fade Away. This was written the morning after a show at my "home" folk club, the Rainforest Cafe, on which Neal Casal and I each played a set. I thought he was so much better than me. Musicians tend to be competitive. I was feeling really sorry for myself and wrote this self-pitying little song. I felt this guy came in to "my club" and kicked my butt. I got some redemption by having him play on it.
Angeline is a song about blind faith, and how it can be a powerful and dangerous thing. This girl is stood up at the altar and won't accept the inevitable. There's that line about his working pants waiting. It's probably the saddest song I've ever written, and I would sometimes have a hard time singing it, though people would hear the nice melody and like the song on that basis. John's almost church-like piano accompanyment, suggested by George, captures the sadness in the lyric.
Song About a Train. I grew up by railroad tracks and still live next to them. I love songs about trains, and I was trying to think of a new approach not aleady done before. I was driving home one day thinking about needing a song about train, and that became the basis for the song. I probably wrote it in 15 minutes and didn't change a thing afterward. I'm really proud of this one.
Steve Earle Blues started out being about the singer-songwriter. But after I had written it, I realized that it had nothing to do with Steve Earle at all. It was much more personal, dealing with a combination of people other people I had gotten to know. You think you're writing about one thing, and when it's all said and done and you step back, you realize that subconsciously you're driving at something else. This happens a lot for me.
Pettigrew. When I first met Lorne [Clarke], I got an an education on farming, getting to know these people, how hard they work, and how they are always getting dumped on. I came up with the image of a veteran, putting everything including his GI loan into the farm, having a really hard time and finally just lashing out. Who are you going to retaliate against? The people who are to blame are probably 1000 miles away in some boardroom somewhere.
Moshing with David Crosby came out exactly as I intended it. I got the image from seeing Woodstock II on TV, and there was the image of somebody from the original Woodstock facing a new generation.
Rescue Me. An excuse to go for that "back porch feel." Pat Marcinko obliged with stomping his feet for the percussion.
When You Pass Me By came out of a difficult time for me personally, and it's a real favorite. I did a version with my brother Pat that for me was the definitive performance, and I have never been able to duplicate that. I had a hard time recording this song, thinking about that version with Pat. I was ready to give up. George urged me to forget that version and re-invent the song, and Neal and John really stuck with me, offering to keep doing take after take until we got it where I would be satisfied with it. John and Neal really impressed me with their enthusiasm and the way they really cared about my music.
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