For Mark Jewett, Jan. 24 elicits feelings of sadness and appreciation.
The landmark date carries personal significance for Jewett – the 18th anniversary of his father’s passing and the 74th birthday of the late Warren Zevon. The coincidental intersection of those two events inspired Jewett to reflect on both and the lingering impact they’ve had on his life.
“They had a lot of similarities – the dry, dark sense of humor was probably the biggest one. They were both pretty hardcore drinkers, and they were both fascinated with unconventional things they could do with words. They would put them together in different ways that made people stop and think about them. And to a degree, I think they were both a little misunderstood. It became the impetus for a song,” said Jewett, a Plymouth Americana singer-songwriter.
That impetus ultimately produced “Warren Zevon’s Birthday,” a nostalgic, introspective folk rock ode to influential, supportive fathers past and present. Spirited organ, reflective electric guitars, pounding drums, soft cymbals, calm bass and glistening piano accompany Jewett as he shares fond memories, warm feelings and irreplaceable moments.
Jewett sentimentally sings, “Dad served his country in the second World War/When he was only 20 years of age/He kept it all inside/A place where he could hide/Secrets he carried to his grave/Warren had an appetite for living/Living large, a thing he did so well/Like a feral buckaroo/Some alcoholic Xanadu/He rode the Double E straight through hell.”
“I started thinking about the two of them, and there were some similarities and radical contrasts. I thought, ‘Well maybe that’s worth structuring a song around.’ And the song has kind of an odd structure,” said Jewett, who shared the track with Gurf Morlix and sought inspiration from Crystal Zevon’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon.
“It’s an intro, a chorus, three verses in a row, no bridge, a solo, another verse, another chorus and an outro. It was necessary to build it that way for continuity of the story. Sometimes rules are just meant for breaking.”
Throughout “Warren Zevon’s Birthday,” Jewett eloquently breaks the rules with producer-drummer Billy Harrington, Michael Harrington (guitar, bass), Dale Grisa (piano, organ) and Amy Petty (vocals). The quintet intricately constructed a solid cinematic foundation to support, build and evolve Jewett’s thoughtful paternal tribute ballad.
“It was a challenge to decide if this song was supposed to be huge sounding. It’s a very sensitive subject; does it need to be more subdued or heartfelt in that way? Or is it more heartfelt when there’s a blazing guitar solo? What do we do with it exactly? We had talked about doing two versions of it, a stripped-down one and one that’s more rocking with a full band,” said Billy Harrington.
“I didn’t want this song to fall in the middle. If we wanted to go big, then we really had to go all the way there and then some. I didn’t want it to be 50 percent on both sides. If this was gonna be a big, epic Pink Floyd stately sort of ballad thing, then we did it. I really think we got that on this one.”
St. Clair to Snow Shovels
“Warren Zevon’s Birthday” is one of nine refreshing new tracks Jewett and Harrington have recorded at Ann Arbor’s Big Sky Recording with Michael Harrington, Grisa, Petty, Ken Pesick (bass) and Geoff Michael (engineer). The duo started recording tracks in spring 2019 for Jewett’s forthcoming third album, tentatively titled The Lucky One, but briefly halted their work last year due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They returned to Big Sky Recording in mid-2020 to resume recording and have released a series of singles, including “Saint Clair’s Promise,” a twangy, torchy ode to beauty, mystery, faith and hope; “The Lucky One,” an emotional folky anthem about gratitude and friendship; and “Guilty,” a haunting, sinister murder ballad co-written with Petty.
Solemn electric guitars, wailing pedal steel, thumping drums, eerie organ, light cymbals and ominous bass collectively threaten to reveal Jewett’s dark secret in “Guilty.” Together, Jewett and Petty chillingly sing, “You will never be … completely free/You will remain forever chained/You will never wash … away the shame/From a soul forever stained.”
“Mark and I had worked on that demo for ‘Guilty’ a little bit and talked about the arrangement of the tune. And then we played it, and it was the last thing we did that day. We did a couple of passes of it and wanted to see where it was gonna go. I remember Ken said, ‘I loved the one take; I got chills.’ We really got that creepy, dark feel,” said Billy Harrington.
Outside of spooky murder ballads, Jewett playfully slams Great Lakes winters and cold weather life on “Michigan Snow Shovelin’ Blues,” which dropped earlier this month. Shiny pedal steel, intermittent drums, bouncy acoustic strums, exuberant bass and serene organ melodically push Jewett through mountains of snow, ice and slush.
Jewett facetiously sings, “Oh, from Detroit to Niles up to Epoufette/A little farther north up to Marquette/‘Cross the Gitche Gumee shore to Grand Marais/Somebody’s gonna shovel snow today.”
“I’ve lived in Michigan all of my life, and I’ve been through a few snowmageddons. This was not the first song I’ve written that was inspired by snow. I think it was winter of 2014 when it was relentlessly cold and snowy, and I remember watching the weather forecast on the news. They reported the Detroit area had just experienced its 77th consecutive day of snow cover. This one was more muscular aches and pains inspired,” Jewett said.
While recording “Michigan Snow Shovelin’ Blues,” Jewett and Harrington included a funky, groove-filled sensibility to the quirky, pro-mitten anthem. In snow-funk fashion, the track rhythmically flows from one wintry shovel load to the next and briefly extracts listeners from blustery, frigid snow removal chores.
“The acoustic guitar becomes an upbeat reggae sort of thing, and the pedal steel, the way it’s played sometimes in country music; it doesn’t get its due for being a funky instrument. But it really is, just the way it sounds, and the way you can articulate those kinds of things. It becomes very percussive, and because of that, it can make it really funky,” said Billy Harrington, who also added “helpful dialogue” from Petty as well as actual sounds of cars dragging through the snow.
With four singles currently under their belts, Harrington and Jewett will return to Big Sky Recording to finish The Lucky One and release a fifth “tacos and tequila-themed” single soon.
“This is a relatively new concept and partly COVID-driven where people are dropping a larger number of singles. But some pretty successful people have been doing it, including Norah Jones. I remember reading an interview with her a couple of years ago, and she said, ‘I’m done making albums for a while. I’m just gonna do singles,’” Jewett said.
“A bunch of singles came out and pretty soon there was some momentum, and it was like, ‘Maybe these are an album.’ But we’ll see; there’s another one. I don’t want to give it away, but maybe Cinco de Mayo might be a good drop.”