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Interview with Vince Emmett
By Paul Moffett
In 1989, the Louisville-based pop band Shaking Family signed to a multi-album deal with Elektra/Asylum records by veteran A&R man Peter Lubin. That moved the band from its early phase as a studio band to a performing act and began what was to be an exhilarating and exhausting year and a half of recording and touring.
LMN interviewed Shaking Family co-founders and primary songwriters Barbara Carter and Vince Emmett in the (LOOK UP ISSUE).
In the Fall of 1990, Carter married Kurt Denny, who was with the Nashville office of BMI. Carter, Emmett and Shaking Family were then in the middle of writing new materials and talking about their next album.
Over the winter, unsubstantiated rumours began to circulate about problems within the group. Shaking Family was still rehearsing at Uncle Pleasant's and playing occasional gigs around Louisville. Barbara Carter had moved to Nashville and was commuting to Louisville.
Still the rumours of problems continued.
Then came a press release from Triangle Talent, touting the new group, Mr. Popular, featuring Shaking Family's Tim Chewning. The questions about the band's future intensified.
LMN finally caught up with Emmett at the log cabin in the southeastern corner of Jefferson County, Kentucky where he lives with his wife Mary.
The interview was conducted on the patio outside the cabin, which was built from two-hunder-year-old logs. A cat drank out of the birdfeeder while a red-headed woodpecker perched on a birdhouse in the terraced garden above the patio. After some discussion about the local music scene, Emmett began to talk about what he's been thinking about of late: making records.
VE: Mick Fleetwood has always been an unlikely inspiration to me. Here's a guy who is the drummer, he and bass player, John McVie, (they're the) bass and drums [in Fleetwood Mac] Usually in a band situation, they're the most replaceable parts.
[So] here they are, Fleetwood Mac, and they've been making records for over twenty years and I just admire that. There's (always) been a record coming out.
There've been the Peter Green years, the Bob Welch years, the Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks years - I admire that, that's what it's about. it's about making records.
It's putting out a record that has to do with making music. I lived this six months ago, here it is, my experience [on a record].
My grandfather said to me a long time ago, "You figure what it is you think you want to do, go do it. Don't aspire to do, do it."
So I don't cut demos anymore. I make records.
It's a certain mind set. I love to make records and I want to make records, I love the act of being in the studio and working on it and knowing it's going to be out, it's going to be presented. I live for that.
With demos, it's usually quick and a sloppy process.
I've always been fascinated by touring gospel groups, from junior high on up. I had a double life. I followed Led Zeppelin and like that, but I had a love of gospel music, the soul of gospel music. I have this collection of gospel records with the Blackwood Brothers, the Stamps Quartet, the Happy Goodman Family from Madisonville, Kentucky and all those groups.
Gospel is really big. There are more touring gospel groups than anything. Gospel groups make their living touring, so they must tour. They always have a new album out and they all have Silver Eagle buses.
They're like a little family gospel group and they have a hot four-five-six piece band, with steel guitar, electric and fiddle. They put on great shows and they tour a lot and they make records all the time. It's a great market.
I love Southern gospel music, I love the way it romps along, the way it bounces. Usually the bands were hotter than any country band in the area of Illinois when I was growing up. The band would be a family band with four singers out front and the band would be hot, playing all these harmonies together and they would be, like, cooking.
(I'd ask) Where are you all from and (they'd say) 'I live in Kentucky.'
They were better than any country band in Champaign County.
(Emmett has been doing session work recently at Alpha Recording, Inc. in Elizabethtown, Ky.)
Alpha just went twenty-four track and bought a lot of nice tube gear. It's really record-making gear. Tube pre-amps, tube compressors and what not. They're really serious about it.
I'm sure I'll be involved in the rhythm section. [Chief Engineer] Mark [Goodman]'s been having me play guitar (on big sessions) and Gary 'Bird' Burton has been coming up from Nashville to play guitar. That's been a real thrill for me, because in the 70s the Amazing Rhythm Aces were the one group that bridged my unusual musical upbringing.
I was really into rock 'n' roll, but as a kid, I played on a weekly country music TV show. Starting when I was 8 1/2, 9 years old, I was a weekly guest on this TV show, called Marvin Lee and the Midwesterners, (it was) like a barn dance show on Saturday. It was filmed on Wednesdays, live, and they'd show the tape on Saturday.
So I had these country roots. My Grandfather on my Dad's side was a Doc Watson style bluegrass player, really well know in Illinois and a really good guitar player. I hear every now and then how good he was.
So I had this country side and I was in school in 70s and we were into rock 'n' roll. so the Amazing Rhythm Aces came through town and had these hit records.
Here is a country kind of Southern country sort of thing, but with rock 'n' roll musicians playing it. I used to take up to ten guitar-playing friends at times - (I'd say) 'You are coming to this show, here's what I'm talking about, ya'll."
(And they'd say) 'Yeah, your country thing and your orange Gretsch guitar, get out of here.
And I'd go, 'You guys are missing something, there's a soul in gospel and country music that you guys are missing completely. You are coming.'
So I'd get my Mom's station wagon and load 'em all up in there and we go off to the concert. I'd go 'Gary 'Bird' Burton, ladies and gentlemen, that's what I'm talking about. He's got soul.'
So they all probably still have an Amazing Rhythm Aces album in their collection.
Anyway, Gary 'Bird' Burton comes up to Alpha (Recording) and plays and I'm like, "I can't believe I'm sitting next to Gary 'Bird' Burton!
Usually I'm not a groupie but I was a groupie the first time he came in.
He's a monster player. He brought the guitar he played on "Third Rate Romance." I got to play that one.
I was always interested in the number of soulful writers and players who came out of the Lexington - Louisville area and all the little towns in between. I think that's why I'm still here. My ancestors came from Kentucky and they were players on both sides of my family.
Guy Willis, my grandfather, was always involved in picking parties and was a part of music in Adair Country, and Columbia, Kentucky, and I heard all his stories. Even though I grew up in Illinois, my musical heritage is here in Kentucky.
When I got here, I felt that there is a deep-rooted soul and when Shaking Family was out on tour and doing in-depth interviews, I always wound up talking about it.
We feel like we are a link in the chain and proud to be link in the Appalachian mountain music chain.
When I was with the Gospel Couriers, we were based out of a church in Lexington, so I found out about Lemco studios and Cecil Jones.
My experience at Limco studios was like, 'I can't ever leave here.' When the Gospel Couriers was off the road, I would run out there. Cecil was my buddy. I was trying to break into studio work, I was wrapping cords, sweeping up, and anything else he'd let me do.
When I got the traveling out of my bones pretty much, I wanted to learn about recording studios, [so] I started playing there full time. J. D. Miller was playing piano, Ricky Skaggs was playing most of the mandolin and fiddle, Phil Copeland was doing jingles there. There was Bela Fleck and there was Keith Whitley, and there was Jerry Douglas was playing dobro, J. P. Pennington was playing guitar, most of the guys in Exile doing their thing.
I was just hanging because everything that was happening was so good. I think that's why I like to produce things now [because} I learned about it there.
When Ricky Skaggs gets ahold of the console he uses these microphones and twists these knobs this way and it all sounds this way. Then when J. P. Pennington gets ahold of it, it's the same little studio, the same little MCI console, little sixteen, little twenty-four track machine, but, boy, listen to it change.
I wanted to be a part of that.
Cecil Jones called me aside one day, he said, "I've got something for you, put out your hand," and he pressed something in it and closed up my hand and said, "Take care of it like was your own."
I thought, what the hell has he given me, the key to the car, the key to doghouse or what? I opened it up and it was a key.
He said, "It's the key to the back door at the studio. Take care of it like it's your own, I know you want to get in there. Here's your tape," and he handed me a tape, and said "Have at it."
That night I recorded my voice sixteen times, going 'ahhhh."
Cecil was like that.
LMN: I keep running into people who ask me, when are you going to write about the Shaking Family story that's going around. I keep hearing all this stuff, in different places . . .
VE: Well, yeah. It's an awkward situation. I find myself in a awkward position in that I love Shaking Family so much.
When I was nine years old, I knew what a record deal was and I wanted a record deal. By the time I was eleven, I knew what a publishing deal was.
I wanted that.
So I've been working on one thing a long time, learning and making mistakes and the culmination was Shaking Family. For me, that felt like it.
Now I'm learning that things move and go on and sometimes it's out of your control.
I think that's the case here. It's something I have nothing to do with. There would still be a Shaking Family if it were up to me but it's just not going to happen.
I'm kind of in an awkward position, [as far as] talking about or doing an interview about it. I can do an interview about anything else but that, until, legally, some things get resolved.
That's probably the story. I can sit here and tell you, but to let the whole world know the details, that's kind of awkward.
Like Peter Lubin, our A & R guy said, we ran into every business problem and hitch that most groups experience in ten or fifteen years, we ran into [them] in a year and a half. You're a band, and you're writers and you're doing the best thing you can and you're concentrating on your music. You should be aware of the business and you meet people who look like they're above board and smart. articulate, sharp, they see your vision, their vision runs along with yours, they want to be a part of what you're doing.
A band is multi-faceted thing, it's not just a big drinking party. There are many bases to cover and you need people to cover some of the bases for you.
You want to be aware of everything but physically, you can't do it. You can't make every phone call. At a certain point, you can't negotiate every business deal.
Sometimes you have to make music, otherwise, you're in the management game. You should be in the management game somewhat, but you have to be able to make music, you can't hinder that, otherwise the music suffers and then what are you marketing? What are you managing? A bunch of bad songs.
So we worked really, really hard. Barbara (Carter) and I were really, really, aware and tried to protect the music and it became overwhelming at times. Maybe it was a fault of our own, or taking things too seriously and not letting it run off our backs, like water off a duck's back.
You've got to eat. You've got to be able to justify what you did this week and next week and last week.
It's faith. Some people are more willing to live on faith and continue a vision and stick with their guns than other people are.
I feel like a band that has a vision for what they do and they're willing to learn and take criticisms and see a growth within themselves will eventually find an audience and the audience will find them.
There are victories and there are defeats all along the way and you either decide to take those victories and defeats - more importantly, the defeats - and continue on or you don't.
And that's basically the situation with Shaking Family. There were several defeats business-wise and it began to affect the music for one reason or another.
I didn't want to stop, I didn't see any reason. We had a great thing started. For anyone to be disappointed that our first album was not a smash success is naive. They're not living in the real world, especially for a band concept. [It] sometimes takes longer to move forward.
When you make the decision early on - it's the kind of music I have to be part of - which Barbara and I both agreed and strived for that, something you hear and go, "Wow, it's different, that's not like..."
When we started and Daddy's Car [their previous band] was over, [we said] we're going to make this record. We talked a lot more about production values. I was concerned about production values, about what it wouldn't be.
It won't be Bon Jovi, it won't be Sheena Easton, it won't be this, and sometimes through that discovery, you find what it is you are.
I will not have a stock, straight ahead guitar sound like you hear on the radio all the time. I want my own sound and you strive and work for that.
We did that and that kind of a group and that kind of a sound and that kind of writing will sometimes take longer to find an audience because it's not going to be exactly what's on the radio. You have to balance commerciality with vision. [You say} Is our music commercial and do people get it? It's that alternative line, that new music line, you can step way over it, knowing that people won't get it and there's an audience for that. too.
Or if your goal is that you'd like a lot of people to listen to your music, which was our goal, but we wanted to be different, there are a lot of fine lines that you have to be aware of along the way.
I think that we were doing fine.
The way the [first Elektra] record was received, maybe the sales weren't there all across the country, but there were certain spots, for instance, WMMS radio in Cleveland just jumped all over us. For seventeen years, they were the Number One rock 'n' roll station in the country, they were a huge station and they loved Shaking Family.
We played their Festival of Lights on the river and we were the headliners. Jude Cole and all these other label acts with regional hits opened for us.
The Festival drew half a million people. The stage was on the river, in an old shipyard. it looked like the Pink Floyd album with the pig on the cover. Lights, lasers on the tallest buildings shooting down to the stage and we're looking at this, sitting in our dressing room trailer with our name on it and thinking, we must be the headliners.
It was like Pink Floyd was going to do the gig and couldn't make it, so they called us and said, 'Here, you can use our stuff."
That was a market that jumped all over Shaking Family. We even cut a live version of "Hold On" in Cleveland, in the Westwood Radio network's remote bus for that radio station so they'd have something else to play. They'd already played "Hold On" and "Tic Toc" off the record and they'd done real well and they wanted something special to play, so we recorded that. They couldn't get enough of Shaking Family.
Right down the road in Dayton, it was "Who's Shaking Family?." We were in the record store but nothing was happening.
A station in Denver was all over us, there were hot spots around the country but there was only one overall connection,[and that was that] there was a buzz around the country about us.
There was an audience out there. Find your audience and keep making records and the audience gets bigger That was one thing I always loved about the Elektra philosophy: you guys keep up quality songwriting and keep up a good live show and we would keep expanding.
You gonna run into brick walls [in] everything you're involved in. We did.
[For instance] When we were recording at Allen-Martin [in Louisville], we had no budget.
LMN: Who financed that Big Ole Records project?
VE: David Blythe and John Allen [owners of Big Ole] on the actual recording, but there was much money spent by me and my wife, Barbara and [then husband] Mark [Rosenthal]. Checks were written for expenses for the [other] guys to come from Lexington and like that. Probably the same amount of money was spent on that as was paid to Allen-Martin for recording time.
They [Blythe and Allen] financed recording and pressing and tracking the record that to CMJ [College Music Journal].
They were excited, they wanted to be a part of it and we needed help. It was two guys and an Apple computer and they had never done it before and we just wanted our project to get out there.
Keeping with the philosophy of 'making records,' the first thing Shaking Family did was make a record. It's what I wanted to do and that's what we did. [I said] 'Hey, I work in a recording studio, we make a record. The songs are good, make a record.'
We wanted it to get out there and have people start to see it and it looked like a project that they'd want to carry around in their car and keep putting back in the tape deck.
And that yields the best results. You made the best music you possibly could at that time. You go on, you write more songs, you make the best music you possibly can.
LMN: What did Blythe and Allen do with the record?
VE: They had never done it before, so they didn't know what to do for so long. We all had never really been in the record business, we'd all been playing and recording for years but no one had ever actually had a product and put it out there.
One of the things that they did was get a tracking company that followed the record. It was a company out of Atlanta and it was really just a few guys with computers and telephones but that was a good thing. They spent some money on that, a couple of thousand on that]
[The record] got promoted to college radio. Then it got a legitimate, small but legitimate, alternative reputation.
College radio was what we were working. College radio can play what they want to play for the most part, although that's beginning to close up a little.
LMN: How was Big Ole selling it?
VE: They were trying to one-stop it everywhere they coul, but distribution wasn't going well. That's the big thing they ran into. Any independent or band runs into that.
Your record stores deal with distributors, they're not going to deal with an individual, unless you're from their town. [Louisville record store] Ear X-tacy will take in a record from around here, but if you've got a band in Kentucky and you're trying to get a record into a store in LA, there are only so many slots in that store and the owner's trying to keep the best things, the most visible things in there to keep selling records, so he's not going to take a project he's never heard of from some guys from Kentucky.
So you have to go through a distributor. Basically, they'll take the record, but they're not going to pay you anything for it. They'll see if it sells and eventually you might see some money from it.
They had few of those guys who were doing it.
It was exposure for us and it was good exposure. The next thing I'm involved in, we'll do the same damned thing.
Big Ole probably lost money and [so] did Shaking Family, but we got great exposure. CMJ picked it as their pick hit of the week. It was on the front cover of CMJ. It just so happens that the guy that owns CMJ just loved Shaking Family and still does. He wrote about it and it charted at this little station and that little station.
That's where the majors heard about Shaking Family was through that and they came knocking. It was nothing any of us ever did [except] we made a record and somebody wrote about it.
LMN: Did any major finally buy that project?
VE: We re-recorded some of them but, no. I'm not sure we bettered any of them. Sometimes that live sound was best. We were a good live band.
VE: Back to what we were talking about [earlier], I'm in an awkward position. I can't talk about Shaking Family until [a] pending suit is filed.
Our lawyers advise us, "Don't speak." So there are some things I can't talk about.
Still, Shaking Family had good deals. So it's problematic. I want to talk about it, but I can't.
LMN: What can be said? The primary question people want answered is, is Shaking Family defunct?
VE: I've been thinking about this for the last few months, actually.
LMN: Barbara's in Nashville, [Tim Chewning's new group] Mr. Popular is out working . . .
VE: Tim's started a Top 40 band, that's cool.
LMN: What's Brendan [Lewis] [Shaking Family bassist] doing?
VE: He's playing with [Lamont Gillispie and] the Homewreckers every now and then, he likes to play the blues. Charles Ellis and I are writing together and performing some.
I don't know, but no, we're not going on.
It's been difficult for me but I've learned a lot.
I'm not going to stop making records. It's my new motto: "I've got a record coming out." I love producing records.
That's what I'm going to keep on doing.