If you put me in a spinning toe hold and refused to let up until I revealed my favorite album of 2020 so far, you wouldn’t make one revolution before I belted out, “Fill Dirt Wanted!” I’d seen the cartoon cover of Zach Aaron’s third album on the long table in the Creek’s lobby and stuffed it into my satchel as I made my way out the door on what would prove to be my last day of work for over two months. During that time, Zach Aaron’s songs became my quarantine soundtrack. I’d put on FDW while studying social media and websites for community updates or tapping out make-work day pieces that were as much about maintaining my own mental health as much as they were about providing content for this site. From the title track that matched my melancholy to the angst of “Animal of Burden”, the heartbreak of “Shelter of the Storm” to the dark humor of “Potato Salad”, Zach didn’t know it, but he’d nailed all my pandemic emotions to the wall with songs that captured the dusty hope of a depression I’d hoped I’d never see and a reality I could scarcely believe. Zach Aaron’s characters could be walking outside his window in Cleveland, Texas, marching in Washington DC, or waiting for the light to change on Cherry Street in Downtown Macon. Produced by Giovanni Carnuccio (Turnpike Troubadours, Parker Milsap, Jason Eady), Fill Dirt Wanted echoes the struggles of Woody Guthrie’s America without irony while following the Dust Bowl Troubadour’s mantra that’s just as true today as it was 80 years ago: “All you can write is what you see.”
AI- I’ve thoroughly been enjoying Fill Dirt Wanted, and I confess that it’s my first introduction to you. I spent the day divin’ into your back catalog as I was getting ready for this call. It’s been a few years since Murderer of Crows (2017) and that album was definitely honky tonkier, a little Guy Clark on the side. What led to the leaner folkier sound on Fill Dirt Wanted?
ZA- I really wanted to do more of a laid back, lyrical album. I don’t know if lyrical is the best word, but just not so much going on in the background to where the songs kind of stand out a little more, the songwriting anyway. Nooch– Giovanni [Carnuccio], I’m sure you’ve met him– the guy that produced it, he came to me with this whole idea for the sound. Since I was already kind of thinking in that direction anyway, it was kind of a no brainer. But Nooch had a lot to do with the arrangements and all that, the instrumentation for the sound. A lot of that credit goes to him.
When did you two first connect?
We connected through Kayla Ray, who’s another singer-songwriter out of Texas. She used to work for Jason Eady and she met Nooch while he was playin’ with Jason Eady. Actually, for my album release party for Murder of Crows, my drummer canceled last minute, and she hooked me up with Nooch. We stayed buddies and kept in touch and then decided to make a record.
And Kayla, you did a little writing with her for this record on a “Shelter of the Storm”. You wrote that one about a particular spot and a particular fellow there where you’re at, right?
Right. Yeah, it’s about my friend, Nigel Carey. He owned a bar called The Whiskey Barrel that closed down a few years ago, but it’s kind of where I cut my teeth when I first got out of the Air Force. I played their grand opening, I did my first album release there… It was like my local watering hole. But the owner Nigel, he got cancer after they shut the bar down and was sittin’ home on his death bed. There wasn’t anything more they could do for him. His wife had the lyrics to “Shelter from the Storm” by Bob Dylan on a sign over his bed. That was like their song together. When he passed, she called me over to ask me to be a pallbearer. She told me the story about as he was passing, how he felt like he was drowning. He was complainin’ about the water and she just got behind him and held him. And then he just went on with a smile on his face when it was all done. It was a pretty heavy hittin’ little story.
And the song as well. I mean, you’ve got some really hard hitters on this record. There’s so much of that spirit… You’ve evoked Woody Guthrie at times, and when I was a kid, they taught Woody Guthrie in school. I don’t know if they did when you were comin’ up. But they taught him in music class, about the travelin’ and the songwritin’ and the influence he had on music. I always appreciated that I got that little bit of education. I was just a kid– this was like in the fourth and fifth grade, “This Land Is Your Land”, but they would give you the whole background story.
Oh yeah!. Everybody’s heard that song too! And if people ask me who Woody Guthrie is, that’s the song I bring up. You’ve been hearing it your whole life!
You mentioned startin’ there at the Whiskey Barrel when you got out of the Air Force. When did you join up with the Air Force?
I joined up March 21st, 2006.
Had you been dabblin’ in music up until that point?
No, I got out of high school and I wanted to go to college, and then I found that I couldn’t afford it. So I started working construction jobs. I didn’t really know what I was going to do.
I did the exact same thing.
(Laughs) I bet there’s a lot of people that went that route! But a friend that I was workin’ with on a construction site played guitar. I always thought guitar was cool, but I was never real musical. We just hung out all the time, so I started pickin’ up guitar. He showed me some chords and at the time, we were listening to early Randy Rogers and Cory Morrow and stuff like that. I heard [Randy Roger’s] “Tommy Jackson”. I don’t know if you’ve heard that song or not, but it’s a story song about a fugitive on the run. I would listen to that song over and over and over again. That really intrigued me as far as songwritin’ goes, it made me want to write songs. I was really only playing guitar for about eight months before I joined the Air Force. I just kept playin’ and gettin’ better. I started writin’ songs and singin’ while I was in the Air Force. I never planned to be a lifer or nothin’, so I only signed up for four years. I was gonna get out anyway, but my plan was to get out and start playing music. And that’s what I did.
Do you think that it was beneficial to you to have waited as long as you did before you really tried to get into it? Like you had time to sort of build to it?
I think about that a lot– and sometimes I think yes, and sometimes I think no. I mean, I see people who’ve been playin’ music since they were three, four years old and it just doesn’t mean much to ’em anymore. I’ll meet some people that have been playin’ their whole life and that’s all they ever want to do. It’s hard to say. I’m sure I would have been a whole lot better if I started earlier (laughs), but I don’t know if it was beneficial to me or not. I wonder that same thing too.
With the album, a lot of it sounds very immediate, very live. Were you guys able to track a lot of what you were doing just in one take?
Yeah! Well, not just one take (laughs), but a lot of it was live. We did some overdubbin’ and whatnot, but it was a pretty interesting process. Giovanni and Steve Boaz, the engineer, really worked together on gettin’ everything lined out and it’s pretty interesting to watch ’em work. I did a lot of nappin’ while they were working!
It’s you, it’s Giovanni, you got Dave Leach in there, and Kevin Foster who was all over the place with so much instrumentation. I was just talking about him with Kyle Nix, who’s also a great admirer. Had you worked with Kevin before?
No, that was the first time. Well, no, I take that back… I met him one time when he was playing with Eady and I went up there to watch the show. When he showed up to the studio, that was only the second time I’d ever seen him. But, yeah, he blew me away, man. That guy? He just gets it. I don’t know how else to put it (laughs)!
There’s a lot happening in America right now. Political upheaval, you got the pandemic still goin’ on, there’s rioting, protestin’ for racial equality… How are you processing all of that right now as a writer? I mean, I know you’ve just got this album out, but you as a self-proclaimed folk singer, you have to be lookin’ at this as, “This is the world that I am writing within now.” How is that affecting you?
My main problem is… I got a terrible memory anyway, but trying to remember details and follow different stories about stuff that’s goin’ on gets tough for me. Just findin’ the truth seems to be really tough for me too. Like some people say don’t trust Fox News and some people say don’t trust CNN. I really just try to listen to both sides of everything and put myself in as many other people’s shoes as I can. You know what I mean? I don’t know if that makes sense.
It does. No, it does. And I think the heart of what you just said is trying to find the truth, which is something that I struggle with daily trying to keep up with everything that’s goin’ on.
Yeah! There’s just so much information out there and it’s so hard to trust anything and that’s what bothers me most about this whole social media era. It’s a good and a bad thing, you know? ‘Cause the truth’s out there, you just got to work a lot harder to find it.
There’s also the argument that it’s the folk singers and the artists who are there to distill that truth and find it and provide it.
Yep. That’s pretty much a folk singer’s job– but it’s hard to go out and do that when you’re supposed to stay home (laughs)!
So what have you been doin’ while everybody is stuck at home? Are you back out working in the sun?
Heck yeah! The humidity, the sun, all of it!
Well, if it’s already as bad there as it is here…
I’m just thankful to be able to work. I worked for this guy before I started workin’ on this album and committin’ to music full time. I gave him two weeks notice and all that, and right when all this happened, he got really, really busy and he had one of his guys leave. I called him. I was like, “Hey, I can’t play music… Kinda need do somethin’ for money?” He said, “Come on!” And I’ve been working with him since.
What are you doin’?
He installs septic systems.
Oh my goodness.
Yeah. I worked for him for like two years right after I left the oil field because he lives just down the road from my house. It’s a real close job. I ain’t gotta be on the road with the oil field workin’, so I can stay home and travel where I want to.
Tell me about the leather work. Is that a hobby or do you do custom pieces? Have you got like an Etsy store or anything?
I don’t have the Etsy store yet. Everybody keeps telling me I need to get one, but it’s pretty much all custom orders ’cause I haven’t really got set up to make a bunch of different stuff and then go set up a booth. I’m actually workin’ on a briefcase right now for somebody, a custom tooled briefcase all hand-sewn and everything. And I got another order for a guitar strap for somebody I gotta have done by next week. I stay pretty busy at it and it gets hard to keep up with, really, with work. But it’s fun. I love doing it. I’m not really doin’ it for the money. I really enjoy it. But the money’s pretty nice too!.
Where are there pictures that people can see that?
I’ve got a Facebook page. It’s Buffalo Scooter Leather.
I haven’t seen that page, but I have watched your [Facebook] promo videos for Fill Dirt Wanted (laughs). Those have been hilarious! That’s another great thing about the album is that as powerful as some of those songs are with the emotion, the humor that you have included is equally powerful. I think it adds for a decent balance. Where does that dry sense of humor come from?
Man, I have no idea! I don’t know. I’ve just always had a real dry sense of humor. I couldn’t even begin to tell you ’cause I think I’m the only one in my family with a dry sense of humor. I don’t know if I inherited it, but I picked a lot of it up probably just bein’ in the Air Force, bein’ around a lot of different types of people from all over the world. Catchin’ up on different folk’s senses of humor.
Since we’ve gotten back to work here, which has only been a short period of time, I’m starting to get back to talkin’ to people who’ve been releasin’ albums and are startin’ to release albums. The only single consistency with everybody that I’m speakin’ to is that no one has any idea what’s gonna happen next. Do you have any predictions? Do you have any plans, any hopes of what’s gonna happen when you’re able to get back up on stage with a guitar in front of people?
I think it’s going to be at least a year before anything resembles normal. Texas kinda opened back up but bars are at, I believe, 25% capacity right now. There’s people going out playin’ music, you’re seein’ some folks wearin’ masks, some aren’t… It’s been about four months since it all started, and it still hasn’t really died down that much. I just figure it’s going to be at least another year. And I really don’t think the music business will be back to normal at all. ‘Cause it opened up this hosted live-streaming thing. I feel like a lot of folks will probably supplement their travelin’ costs with a lot of those live tip jar shows.