These days, John D. Lamb views life through a clearer, wiser lens.
The Royal Oak, Michigan folk-rock singer-songwriter and guitarist revisits past relationships, experiences and lessons with gratitude on his latest album, Good Hart, via Mezzanotte Records.
“My executive producer [Bill Vlasic] said, ‘It sounds like you’ve reached a point now where you can look back,’” Lamb said. “And I thought, ‘I suppose, there are some cautionary tales.’”
Alongside those cautionary tales are 12 storied tracks filled with forthright lyrics, humorous and nostalgic reflections, and kinetic ‘70s-fueled instrumentation.
“When I was done with the record, I was trying to think of a title for it, and I was looking for whatever the overall theme might be,” said Lamb, who’s inspired by Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce, Warren Zevon and John Prine.
“I had thought about naming it after one of the songs … and I went through a bunch of different titles, but I thought Good Hart was really the only thing I could call it because that’s where we recorded it.’”
Lamb recorded his fifth album with co-producers Michael Crittenden and Jim Bizer last April at Good Hart Artist Residency in Good Hart, Michigan. They spent two 15-hour days laying down tracks for the album in a beautiful house located 35 minutes southwest of Mackinaw City.
“It’s built for painters and artists, and they recently started having songwriters and composers there,” he said. “I had use of the place for a few days, so I invited Michael and Jim to come up north … we were isolated and just had the lake out of our windows.”
Those picturesque surroundings also allowed Lamb to reflect on the album’s nostalgic sentiment and how time has shaped his own “good heart.”
“I felt that, too. At first, I thought it was kind of audacious to say that, but by taking the ‘e’ out and realizing it’s a town name, I thought, ‘Oh, OK,’” Lamb said. “It wasn’t my first choice, but several people said it has to be that, and I said, ‘OK, you’re right.’”
Lamb’s supporters were correct, indeed. Good Hart’s earnest thematic elements first appear in the warm, breezy opener “Spring Would Come,” which revisits a past love and features a garden metaphor to symbolize the relationship’s lifecycle.
Vibrant acoustic guitar, tender bass, soft drums and glistening cymbals transport Lamb back to that relationship as he sings, “Baby Cakes, at the end of the war / I’m not your Johnny Boy, anymore / Used to be we’d kiss, and we’d open wide / Just can’t brush it aside, baby, we tried.”
“It might have something to do with my first marriage, which was a long marriage that I had with the mother of my two kids. She was into gardening and plants, so I did use that situation [in the song],” he said.
“It also came from an assignment that I got from Chuck Brodsky, who’s a really fine songwriter. It’s sort of a breakup song but with a little bit of hope in it. Lately, somebody did say with the passing of Burt Bacharach that the song has a little bit of that feel, too.”
Next, Lamb trades romance for bachelor-filled adventures on “I Work at Wixom (But I Live in Detroit),” a Motor City tribute to Ford automotive plants, baseball players, musicians and local neighborhoods.
Turbocharged electric guitar, bass and drums rev alongside as Lamb sings, “I work at Wixom, making luxury cars / Hop on 96 – it ain’t that far / Working on my pension, lifelong pay / You can move to Novi, think I’ll stay.”
“My dad worked at the Wixom Ford plant, and it was when he got that job that we moved from Detroit to Redford so he could be closer to the plant. In the song, I was imagining, ‘What if he had stayed in Detroit after getting the job in Wixom?’” he said.
“That was my whole premise … what would that have been like in the late ‘60s? It was me imagining my dad not having kids and not having a wife, but having a job at Ford.”
After relishing the single life in Detroit, Lamb warns about the dangers of becoming a reckless, braggadocious musician on “This Guitar Kills.”
Steadfast electric guitars, bass and drums echo Lamb’s cautionary advice about becoming too competitive: “Think before you open your mouth / Don’t give ‘em a moment of Zen / If you speak ill of someone you know / Take a pill, chill, don’t slit your own throat.”
The bold track also includes memorable references to VH1’s “Where Are They Now?” show along with nods to iconic classic-rock vocalists and their lead guitarists, “Robert and Jimmy; Ozzie and Tony; Bruce and Nils; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and Roger and Pete.”
“The ‘Where Are They Now?’ episodes always seemed to be these sad tales in a way, like somebody was in a great band, but they partied too much. Then you’d hear about people mouthing off and bad-mouthing other musicians,” he said.
“The song was a little more caustic when I first wrote it, but I softened it a bit to make it more palatable in a way. It got better because I did that, and I wanted to have a little fun with it. I just imagined having someone on one of those shows who’s talking too much.”
Finally, Lamb shifts from rock stars to family members on the contemplative ballad “You Weren’t So Bad.” He sings the track from the perspective of his two sons, and they acknowledge his long-awaited birthday wish for the legalization of marijuana in Michigan.
While playing fingerpicked acoustic guitar, Lamb sings, “Your smile is legal now, so get high / It’s okay if you give it another try / Your smile is legal, wake and bake / Your smile is legal now, have some cake / Happy Birthday, Dad, I just had to call / You weren’t so bad after all.”
“I’m hoping that one day my sons will call me up and say, ‘Listen, we know you had all these problems, but you know, you weren’t so bad, Dad.’ Because all those things that happened in that song pretty much happened to me, but it’s a little bit stretched,” he said.
“The thing is that so many of us Boomers spent so many years hiding [marijuana], sneaking it, getting busted for it, paying fines for it, and doing time for it. We went through all that rigamarole, and now you can buy it anywhere.”
Good-Harted Beginnings and More
Lamb started compiling tracks for Good Hart during the pandemic and wrote a few during his songwriting retreats in Harbor Springs. He shared those dozen songs with co-producers and core collaborators Crittenden (piano, organ, percussion, vocals) and Bizer (guitar, bass, vocals) to ensure they would constitute an album.
“They had a couple of great suggestions on a couple of lyrics and a couple parts of the arrangements, but all in all, I had the songs all ready when we showed up and met in Good Hart during that weekend,” Lamb said.
“I was inspired because I had recently watched that Get Back special on Disney with The Beatles. After watching all the hours of that I thought, ‘I’m just gonna get these dudes together, and we’re gonna get into a nice, comfortable space and immerse ourselves … with no distractions for two-and-a-half days of intense music.’”
After recording the bulk of Good Hart in northern Michigan, Lamb added finishing touches to the album with Crittenden at Mackinaw Harvest Studios in Grand Rapids. They also recorded additional parts with Lexi Adams (vocals), Bill Newland (drums) and Kirby Snively (harmonica).
“We brought Lexi in to sing on a couple of songs, and Jim [Bizer] showed up in Grand Rapids and cut some bass parts and electric guitar parts,” Lamb said.
“Then I brought my drummer Billy from Harbor Springs … he was in my band for years, and I hadn’t gotten him on one of my records. This was a chance for me to ‘right’ something that had not been done in the last 30 years.”
After releasing Good Hart last week, Lamb will celebrate the album with an April 22 live show at Birmingham Unitarian Church in Bloomfield Hills. Bizer will open the show and join Lamb for his set.
“We’ll do most of the record, but maybe not every single song. We’ll do a few songs from A Movie Night and also Feel That,” Lamb said. “I really wanted Jim to open with a small set of songs … he deserves it, and he’s great. I had him close my retreat last year.”
Lamb also will host his longstanding Lamb’s Retreats for Songwriters Nov. 2-12 at the Birchwood Inn in Harbor Springs. Songwriters have the option of staying all 10 days or attending weekend workshops on Nov. 2-5 and Nov. 9-12.
“I’ve always had Springfed Arts, which is my nonprofit arts organization,” said Lamb, who started doing retreats in 1995. “I do the writers’ retreats and the songwriting retreats, and I also do a writing contest where poets and writers can submit stuff.”
Outside of retreats, Lamb is thinking about his next album, which will come sooner rather than later.
“I’m really excited for the next project; I’m already working on a few songs,” he said.
“I feel like I’m starting to get a little bit of a groove happening, and I want to continue using these wonderful facilities and friends that I have. It inspires me to keep working and writing more songs.”
John D. Lamb’s Good Hart Release Party with Jim Bizer
Saturday, April 22 | Doors 7 pm & Show 8 pm
Birmingham Unitarian Church, 38651 Woodward Ave. in Bloomfield Hills