Fifteen years and seven studio albums into a career hovering at the edges of the music business, fighting for a seat at the table, Ron Pope is now in the midst of flipping that table over. It took a decade to become an overnight success. Hundreds of millions of streams, millions of singles sold, concerts packed out into the street all over the world; all of a sudden Ron Pope is part of the discussion. “At the very least, now I don’t really have to give a shit what anyone in the business expects from me. That’s pretty liberating. It’s like ‘Everyone’s making music that sounds like such and such this year’ and I can say ‘Cool. I don’t give a fuck; my fans just want me to do something good and they’ll stick with me as long as what I record is real and honest and full of songs that are worth listening to. So I’m just gonna keep doing what I do.’ That’s the freedom that holding onto my independence for so long and finding real success has bought me” Pope says from the East Nashville office of Brooklyn Basement Records, the label he runs alongside his wife and manager, Blair Clark.
For his newest album “Work,” Pope once again co-produced with Grammy Award winner Ted Young (The Rolling Stones, Grace Potter, Sonic Youth). The duo decided to record in Nashville at Welcome to 1979, an analog-centric studio. For Pope, this album marked his first recorded to tape. “It forced us to make choices. Digital recording allows you to do a limitless amount of takes. In the past, we could do five or ten takes of everything and pick and choose, but on this record, if we wanted to record another take of something, we often had to erase what was already there. Those decisions influenced us to play like we meant it on every take. Our friend Charles Ray, who’s my favorite trumpet player, came in to help on the record and what you hear on ‘Dancing Days’ is his first take, no editing, no fixing, no reconsidering. That’s just what he played and we all just yelled ‘Next’ and moved on! The spontaneity and looseness flavored this album in a way that feels really exciting and new to me.”
“On some of these songs, you can hear Nashville. On others, we’re walking down the street in New Orleans giving away beers to strangers, or I’m down on the Florida panhandle at 19 arguing with a frat boy when my blood ran a little hotter than it does now, or I’m back home in Georgia playing the bars I grew up in or singing quiet songs in my bedroom, looking back and looking forward; you find us a lot of places on this record.”
The concept for this album came into existence one afternoon in Texas. “The boys and I were playing a daytime party in Austin, packed into the corner of this little bar on the east side of the city. Everybody was on top of each other, sweating through our boots, amps turned up, day-drunk. The horn players were almost touching the drummer; the stage was so small that the guitar players and the keys were on the floor. We only played for about an hour, but we murdered that gig! I was playing guitar solos on my tiptoes, dancing with the people who were standing in front of me; they were sweating on us, we were sweating on them, it was madness! It felt like when I was back playing the bars as a kid. The only difference was, we were just playing my songs (and people actually wanted to hear them). I wondered what it would be like to make a record that was driven primarily by those kind of songs, tunes that your favorite bar band could play, that felt new but somehow also familiar. And that’s what this new record ‘Work’ is all about.”
“All of the best characters from my own life pop up on this record; girls who burned me down and threw the ashes out the window as they drove away, the 7th grade teacher who told my mother that I’d end up in prison, my father who usually speaks in parables like the Bible, Grandpa who’s taught me a lot about how to grab life by the throat, different versions of me, both from today and as a much younger, more dangerous version of myself, my stupid friends of course, my brother who keeps me honest…the gang’s all here. Some of it is serious, some of it is playful, but all of it is honest. Whether I’m screaming over booming Memphis flavored horns or whispering an acoustic love song, I’m just trying to tell you who I am and what’s on my mind without any bullshit.”
“We ended up using a bunch of the rough mixes that I put together in the studio; they just captured the vibe right and I didn’t want to over-mix and ruin it. Sometimes ‘better’ is the enemy of ‘good’ or whatever that expression says,” Ted Young commented.
“Paul Hammer and I sat down to write but we’d gotten as drunk as two shithouse rats the night before and were the worst versions of ourselves that morning. He looked like he might cry or fall asleep at any moment and I could barely sit upright. We started talking about how we can’t really drink like we used to, but we’re not ready to hang up our dancing shoes just yet and before you know it, ‘Dancing Days’ was born. There’s lots of little snapshots like that, from different moments in my life all over this record. Like the song says, I’m just gonna keep on dancin’. I’m dying to put these songs on wheels and get out on the road to work up a sweat with the fans every night.”
“I had a teacher, she told my mother that she better find me a trade/because boys like me well, we all grow up to be long term guests of the state,” Ron Pope reveals to us in the title track from his upcoming album Work. From that inauspicious childhood memory, Pope was inspired to take up songwriting and has established himself as a soulful force in the Americana scene, even creating his own record label, Brooklyn Basement Records. The album’s title track, while touching on the dire predictions of his teacher, is a testament to Pope’s refusal to be trapped by the expectations of others. “Sometimes at night I wake with a shiver/sweat soaking clean through my sheets/but then I remember I am who I am, not who they said I would be,” Pope sings with his trademark velvety voice, tinged with sadness but brimming with relief.
While Work is inspired from an emotional turning point in Pope’s life, he refuses to allow the album to be a dreary soul-searching endeavor. Instead, it’s an unabashed celebration of his life, which is full of sentimental memories, yearning, troubles avoided, and a few confessions. On “The Last,” Pope reflects upon a fleeting romance and only remembers the best. Knowing that his lover will one day leave him, but refusing to be heartbroken, Pope embraces the beauty of his partner and the thrill of passion, all glorified over a toe-tapping beat and jaunty banjo. On “Can’t Stay Here,” the romantic tables are turned when Pope pushes an ex-love out of his life. With driving guitar and resolve in the voices of Pope and guest artist Katie Schecter, it’s more a statement of freedom than a mournful breakup song.
Reflecting on where Pope is in life, “Dancing Days” recognizes that he has aged a few years, but he’s not going to let that slow him down (even if he might regret some of his decisions the next morning). Drawing instant comparisons to Beggars Banquet-era Rolling Stones, “Dancing Days” features a bluesy rock growl in Pope’s voice, and lively acoustic guitar, jangling keys, and jazzy horn. In album opener “Bad For Your Health,” Pope channels his dangerous side as he rails against fake cowboys, loves wildly, and lives on the edge. You can’t help but wonder if the song’s anti-hero is Pope’s alter-ego—maybe the person he might have been if he hadn’t focused on songwriting. Downright infectious with its Bruce Springsteen vibe, “Bad For Your Health” is a bold departure from Pope’s more stoic pieces—full of horns, southern rock swing, and powerful vocal grit.
Work is a lyrical celebration of Pope’s life—where he started, the missteps he avoided, the whims and beauty of love, with some hell-raising thrown in for good measure. Having rolled up the sleeves on his blue-collared shirt at a young age, Pope has deliciously defied those early expectations and built the creative life he envisioned for himself.