Zach Schmidt’s Raise A Banner is an impressive collection of heartworn Americana and Rust Belt balladry that has been simmering on the back burner for far too long. Completed two years ago, Schmidt’s planned follow-up to 2015’s The Day We Lost The War absurdly struggled to find a label home before facing down a pandemic that threatened to shelve it permanently. The Pittsburgh native was able to avoid bad deals and go the distance despite such obstacles and this April released Raise A Banner on his own Boss Dawg Records imprint. Produced by guitarist Sadler Vaden who brought along his 400 Unit co-conspirators Jimbo Hart, Chad Gamble, Derry Deborja, and boss Jason Isbell, Schmidt is also joined by his wife and singing partner Jackie Berkley and longtime pedal steel ally Adam Kurtz.
AI- Let’s talk about this new album! I say new… You’ve had a pretty rough go with Raise A Banner for about two years. This thing was wrapped up back in 2019, right?
ZS- Correct. We recorded most of it in 2018, finished it in the early part of 2019, and then I just couldn’t figure out a good way to get it out there. Had a couple of record labels commit, then pull out, and the runaround with a couple of other people who wanted to put out the record, but also wanted to own everything I did for the rest of my life, seemingly!
Yeah, that doesn’t sound like a good deal. And I have to wonder why? Because Sadler Vaden, producer of note for the album, but this is really Zach Schmidt and the 400 unit. Solid songs, Jason Isbell appearing, 400 unit backing you up– seems like a slam dunk of a project! You’ve gone ahead and begun your own imprint, your own label with Boss Dawg to make this happen.
Yeah! Havin’ those guys on the record definitely didn’t hurt my case (laughs) in any sort of way. They really brought all that they had to this project, and I’m incredibly proud of the record that we made! Basically, when we were gettin’ the runaround from a bunch of other people and no one wanted to put the record out, we decided we were going to put it out in the early part, mid-spring 2020. We were rampin’ up gettin’ everything together for that and then we were getting ready to take off for SXSW– and that’s the first thing that got canceled last year! So we and everybody else just hit the pause button on everything just to kind of wait it out and see what happens. And here we are!
What have you learned so far puttin’ together everything for Boss Dawg to happen and then getting ready for the record to come out now? Well, I guess it’s out now, but leading up to the release?
I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is to try to be patient! I generally am not at all, so this was definitely a test and a lesson in patience and trying to be grateful that we have the record and we still own the record, and back then, that the time will come when it was out. And now I’m just grateful that it’s out! I’m thankful that people are diggin’ into it and enjoyin’ it, and people like you who want to call and chat with me about it. I think that’s pretty cool!
Yeah, I hope you’re not tired of talking about it just yet. ‘Cause I think you’re probably going to continue to do it for quite a while!
Oh no, I love it! I’m happy to do it.
Before the pandemic, you were predominantly making your ends meet as a full-time musician, right? Full-time performer?
Yeah, I was tourin’ around pretty much everywhere that I could, as much as I could, and when I’d be back in Nashville and needed some extra dough, I’d pick up some side jobs doing carpentry or workin’ in a warehouse, whatever I needed to do. But yeah, for the most part, livin’ on the road was how things were going for me.
But this past year, you’ve been back to the normal grind– and you’re not the only artist that I’ve spoken to that’s gone back to work. I spoke to a fella named Zach Aaron— I don’t know if you’re familiar with his work? He’s got a great album out called Fill Dirt Wanted. We had a real late in the evenin’ interview, and he was like, “Yeah, man, I’m sorry about that. I had to work. I’m puttin’ in septic tanks durin’ the day.” He was in Texas, in the sun puttin’ septic tanks in! I was like, “Man, you need to get back on the road!”
I know how that goes! When the pandemic hit, me and a buddy, who was a guitar player, were both out of work. We started buildin’ fences together and that took off. And so that’s what we’ve been doin’.
Buildin’ fences. That’s a little on the nose for a songwriter, isn’t it?
I know, right (laughs)
You also got married! A year ago? Not quite a year ago?
Not quite a year ago. We had a pandemic wedding in October with just a small group of family up in Rhode Island back when there was kind of a lull in between all the peaks. We got kinda lucky because a couple of weeks later everything shut down again.
I know you two have been together for a little bit, but once you say the vows and do all that, it really does take on a whole different sheen. When I got married, I was a roadie at the time, so the first year of my marriage, I was gone. I wasn’t even home. You’ve been able to enjoy that. That has to be some small blessing throughout all this.
Yeah, it’s been great. And Jackie has sang with me for a couple of years now, so we’ve always made it work and we try to tour together as much as humanly possible.
I was gonna ask if you two perform regularly together. I know she’s on the album.
Yeah, we do. We tour together as much as we can and we can definitely both agree that touring together prepared us for living together 100% of the time when the pandemic hit.
That does become a different thing! I did an interview down at Capricorn Studios here in Macon with Charlie Starr and Brent Cobb and Adam Hood, and they had all been home. And it was the first time that any of them had been home for any length of time. In Charlie’s case for years. I said to them, I realized about two weeks into the pandemic, I was home on unemployment, my wife was home not workin’, and she and my daughter had a whole different dynamic that I did not exist within. And I totally threw it off for a while. It took a while for us all to get our sea legs, so to speak. They experienced that same thing having been musicians and been on the road. I like that you say that that being on the road with your wife has prepared you for this.
Yeah, it definitely has. When you’re in the car, in the van together nonstop, you don’t have much space. At least in the house, we can go into different rooms if we need to (laughs). Touring? You have to be ready for anything, and I feel like that’s one of the things that helped us through this past year.
You’re startin’ to book some shows now? I think a week ago, you had two. Is it still sittin’ at two or are you starting to add more?
Still sittin’ at two, and I’m workin’ on gettin’ more! Yeah, I’ve been talkin’ to people this past week and just like everybody else, my booking agent was one of the first people that got laid off throughout the last year. We’re trying to figure it out ourselves at this point and trying to get it all together. I’m hopin’ that come fall, we’ll be back on the road. I got my two shots, so I’m ready to get back out there!
Musically, have you been staying in shape?
I am very out of guitar shape (laughs)! It’s kind of funny! I’ve been playin’ my piano so much. That was one of the things I set my mind to during the pandemic was to work on playing piano. I got together with a buddy and played [guitar] for like two hours the other night and my arms were so sore! So I definitely need to do a little bit of guitar woodshedding before I get back out there. But I think it’ll all come back pretty quick!
I only hesitate just a little bit to ask this next question because even though Raise A Banner was just released, you’ve lived with it for a couple of years now. What’s the project you’ve been working on recently? I would imagine there has to be one. I also know that you’re a big Woody Guthrie fan, if I’m not mistaken, and I wonder if this spiritual Dust Bowl that we’ve been living in has crept into your songwriting.
Yeah, I would definitely say that that’s the case. I’m one of the types of people, I never really stop writing. You know, some people kind of have spurts of inspiration, I always just try to keep goin’ no matter what. So I’ve got a ton of songs that I could get in and record at any time. At the same time, I’m trying to write a record or an EP for my wife. So we’ll see if I can get goin’ on some of those songs, but that’s been somethin’ I’ve been workin’ on that’s been fun. And as far as what you were sayin’, the spiritual Dust Bowl, I definitely think this next batch of songs that I have comin’ are leaning in that vein, challenging my spirituality and my view on politics. I’m excited to get the next thing goin’ whenever that may be, but for right now, I’m just excited to get out and play these tunes for people.
You say writin’ songs for your wife, an EP or an album for your wife– as in writing them about her or for her to record?
For her to record.
That’s cool. Is that a joint effort between the two of you?
No, she doesn’t really write that much and she doesn’t really care to either. But she is a fantastic singer and performer. We’ve been talkin’ about it for a little while and who knows if it’ll ever really fully come together, but for right now, it’s one of those projects that’s fun to work on. And actually one of the songs off of Raise A Banner was a song I wrote for her to sing that I stole back! So I owe her!
Which one was that?
That’s an interesting challenge for a songwriter– to specifically write for someone that you are already so close to.
It is. And I think it is just a good exercise mentally for me. Although in some of the songs I create characters, a lot of what I write is written from personal experience because for me, it has to be. You have to dig deep into what you’ve been through to get the gold out. But it’s fun to sit back and try to write from somebody else’s perspective. Especially from the female perspective. I always think of “Angel From Montgomery”, John Prine’s song, and just like, “How did he do that?” You know, writing from that woman’s point of view. It’s just so beautiful! I’ve always wanted to challenge myself to do that.
Do you feel like the same guy that made Raise A Banner? Would you want to make another record the same way?
I would! I had a blast goin’ in and makin’ it the way we did. We did it quickly because we only had a weekend with Chad Gamble ’cause he still lives in Alabama. The rest of the guys are in Nashville, but Chad was comin’ up for the sessions, so we had a short window to lock in all the drums. We went in and just did everything live– and some of the stuff we got on the first take! I think I thrive in that sort of setting, just not thinking about it too, too much, playing it out, and working it out together. I would love to go back in if I get an opportunity to work with those same guys again because when we went in and made Raise A Banner, I didn’t really know them well. Now, they’re all friends. So I think it would be a completely different experience working together.
Let me ask you this, you talked about tryin’ to get it out there with different labels, finding deals that weren’t gonna do anything but take advantage of you. Do you think that with the pandemic and the effect that’s had on the music industry and independent artists that it’s going to change the way that those deals are coming about in the future? I’ll give you for instance– your own situation, starting your own label to release this album. I dare say that lots of artists are considering or have done that and have actually had that experience where they were beholden to a label in the past. I’ve spoken to several just this year alone that are still in brand new stages of their career because they’re fighting that old deal. Do you think that’s gonna change the way artists are dealt with and choose to deal with labels here in the next few years?
Yeah, I think it’s a lot easier to put it together yourself, to find a distribution company or all these independent pieces to make it work for what you need. There’s a lot of different companies and a couple that we were talkin’ to for a while are people who do album distribution and Spotify and will do all your digital distribution, those kinds of things are great and you don’t have to sign any sort of long-term deal. They’re in for this record and if you decide you want to work with them again, then you can talk to them about that then. I think that’s just great. It gives people a chance to piece together the things that they need for the release at the time.
I think with labels, it’s only gonna get harder to get a label deal at this point because labels are trying to recoup from a year taken off of live music and people out buyin’ merch and stuff like that. So I think it’s only gonna get harder for people to get an actual label deal because the labels themselves are gonna not want to take the risk. We’ll see what happens. I can’t really speak to what is going to happen, but that’s kinda what I envision.
As you may or may not know, I am sittin’ here in Macon, Georgia, and if I’ve got this right, you’ve got a pretty fantastic Little Richard, Architect of Rock n’ Roll, Georgia Peach story.
I do (laughs)! When I first moved to Nashville, I was working at the Omni Hotel being a valet. My boss came over to me one day and said, “We need you to go over to the Hilton,” which was right down the road, “They’re a couple of guys short and they’ve got a big lunch crowd comin’.” Or something like that. So I jogged over there and helped those guys and we did what we needed to do. I’m just hangin’ around with those guys and there’s a call down to the valet stand that they needed someone to go up to the sixth floor and help that guest down. All those guys who had been workin’ there for a long time knew exactly who it was and didn’t want to do it. So they sent me up there! I head up and I knock on the door and have no idea what I’m about to walk into– and Little Richard opens the door!
I was just shocked! And he still looked the same! He had a wig and he had makeup on and he looked exactly the same as a picture you would’ve seen of him from 40 years ago! It was just absolutely incredible! I got to push him in his wheelchair, down to his car that was waitin’ and while I was doin’ that, he started askin’ me a bunch of questions. He asked if I was a singer, then he asked me to sing him a song! I froze! And then I started singin’ a Ray Price song! He was askin’ me all these questions about music and then I just dropped him off at his car. He thanked me and he was on his way!
What Ray Price song did you sing?
“Heartaches By The Number”.
(Laughs) How was that the first song that popped into your head?
I don’t know! We usually would do this weekly gig at this little bar called Santa’s Pub. The band is called Santa’s Ice Cold Pickers– doin’ that good old country music every Sunday, 7 to 9– and it was just like a pick-up gig of a bunch of our buddies. We’d go in there and you’d never rehearse and you’d play cover songs from 7 to 9. It was a pretty fun gig! Richard Bailey, who plays banjo for the Steel Drivers is in the band, Brett Resnick, who plays steel for Kacey Musgraves is in the band, and it’s just these great musicians that we’ve all become friends with over the years. I think this was a Monday morning [when I met Little Richard], so if I remember correctly, I was a Santa’s the night before. I just remember hearing that song or playing that song. And I don’t know why, it was just in my head!