Libby Koch

Quick Q and A with Chuck Hawthorne

Just the name Chuck Hawthorne sounds intriguing.  Chuck.  There’s something about a guy who goes by the names Chuck.  He’s not Charles or Charlie. He’s Chuck.  Darn, I forgot to ask him about the name “Hawthorne.”  Naturally, Nathaniel comes to mind, but Nathaniel is about as far away from Texas as one could ever imagine.  But I kind of like the vision of a cowboy riding his faithful horse through a New England village….  However, in this case, Chuck Hawthorne will be slinging his soulful songs to our audiences at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on Friday, October 11 along with fellow Texans, Terry Klein and Libby Koch.

To learn more about this very inspirational and moving songwriter, visit his website.

Take a listen to this song called “Post 2 Gate.” It’s about a little boy beggar on the streets in Iraq. The perspective of Chuck’s as a Marine based in this sad war-torn country.  Chills.

Here’s a taste of Chuck and Libby Koch playing together.

There’s so much and yet so little that I know about you from your bio on your website.  Let’s dig into your background.   When did you first “find” music? When did it first speak to you?
My folks were country music fans and took me along to see all the big acts that came through our town.  Getting to see Marty Robbins, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, Red Sovine – the list goes on – at a young age, hearing my parents’ music at home and in the car, and receiving hand-me-down records all shaped my music tastes.  My sister taught me to play a Magnus organ at age 5 or 6 and, later, taught me to sing off the radio at the XIT rodeo in Dalhart, TX.  I learned guitar when I was 19 or so while aboard the USS Iwo Jima in the Adriatic Sea.

Tell us about the pivotal moment of meeting Ray Bonneville at the airport.
I’d been visiting friends in St Louis and was flying back to Austin.  Of course, I had my guitar with me and had a plane change in Chicago.  Here I am in a cowboy hat standing with my old Martin guitar and up walks a cool looking cat in a fedora and carrying a slick Gibson electric.  He struck up a conversation and we ended up chatting about music.  About halfway through our talk, I realized who I was talking to and remembered reading an article years before in No Depression about Ray Bonneville.  As we were about to board the plane, he gave me his email address and asked me to send me some of my songs.  I’d heard that line before and figured he was just being polite, and I’d never hear from him again.  But I did send a few songs his way the next day.  He emailed me back a half-hour later and said, “Let’s meet for coffee and discuss your record.”  The result was my debut album, Silver Line which Bonneville produced.  I’ll always be deeply grateful to Ray. [Editor’s note: Ray Bonneville is an esteemed blues player whose music is deeply influenced by the sounds of New Orleans.]

In retrospect, was this the most pivotal moment in your music career?

That’s fair to say.  Though, there were many pivotal moments that got me there in the first place, including meeting Shawn T. Pabst who got me on stage for the first time over 20 years ago, got me into the studio, and cut one of my songs.  Those kinds of moments really are life-changing.

Did it make you see yourself as someone different?
I’d already made the, “I’m a songwriter,” declaration to the universe, but I’d approached the music business as a writer, not a performer.  Ray taught me that my decades-old strategy was probably never going to work and that if I ever stood a chance of having record cuts, the best approach was to take the songs out on the road and sing them for people.  So, adding ‘singer’ to the ‘songwriter’ label was new – though I’d played in little bars here and there all over the world courtesy of the Marines.

You have spent a pretty significant amount of your life in the military.  Okay, let’s see… how does the military connect to writing songs?  During your service to our country, did you write?
I was always writing songs because I had to – you get to understand that when you find yourself writing a song at the most inconvenient times to be writing.  “Post 2 Gate” was written in the basement of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Baghdad that we were using as the makeshift embassy at the time.

Did you keep journals?
Not consistently, but I did for a while when I was younger.

Did you share with your fellow service colleagues?
Sure, Marines and Sailors and their families were my audiences for many years.  Lots of living room and campfire sessions and ad hoc bar gigs all over the world. I was accepted to a commissioning program at the University of Texas in Austin.  So, four of the 21 years I was in the Corps was spent in Austin.  That’s when I discovered the music scene down there, met Shawn Pabst and played my first stages in front of strangers.

Did music mean a lot to you as a child/adolescent?

Music was huge to me growing up.  My first memory of me putting an album on a record player was a 45 of Tom T. Hall’s ‘Sneaky Snake’ when I was 5 or 6.  About the same time, I was learning to play that old Magnus organ.

Tell us about the experience of writing your first song.  When did it happen?
In the 90’s, country radio had gone in a direction I couldn’t follow and there was a huge resurgence of western/cowboy/folk music.  I say huge because Warner Bros went so far as to create a sub-label called ‘Warner Western.’  So, I turned off the radio and began listening exclusively to albums and the new music I was buying was almost exclusively cowboy and folk albums.  Nanci Griffith, Michael Martin Murphey, Tom Russell, Ian Tyson, and the like.  All that to say is that my first song was a cowboy song about Tom Blasingame – a guy from the Texas Panhandle who’d cowboyed all his life and into his 90’s spending a great amount of that storied life on the famous JA Ranch.  As I recall, Tom had been out alone horseback, of course, and they found him laying on the prairie, hat pushed down over his eyes, and hands folded across his chest.  I mean, whew!  The song was just awful and I later learned Ian Tyson had written on that subject and far better than I ever could with a song appropriately titled, “Tom Blasingame.”  I wrote my clunker sometime in the mid-90’s.

Your biography tells us that you have a love for cowboy heroes like Clifton Lowe and Alvin Hamrick.   Those names are not known in the Northeast.  Tell us about their influence on you.

Their names aren’t well known outside the Texas Panhandle – they’re in the bio to honor their life and memory.  These were men that were my cowboy mentors as I was coming of age growing up in Amarillo.  They both had a tremendous influence on me – everything from how to dress, talk, shake hands, speak the truth, honor your word, work hard, and…always try to have fun.

It sure seems that your time in the Middle East had an influence on your writing.   Did your perception of life change during that time and how did it translate to your music?
There were plenty of folks far more popular than I’ll ever be writing songs about this war that had themes ranging from patriotic solidarity to outright violence.  And I believe there is a time and place for that – music is ancient and there are plenty of examples of those songs going back thousands of years.
I write what I’m compelled to and I feel obligated to speak on behalf of the fighting men and women and their families that are dealing with the aftermath.  One of those records I was handed down at a young age was a Kenny Rogers and The First Edition album.  They covered Mel Tillis’ war song, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”  That’s a goddamn masterpiece.  Like John Prine’s “Sam Stone.”  That’s the kind of war songs I cut my teeth on.  I don’t write a lot about it, but when those songs come to me they’re more in the ‘Sam’ and ‘Ruby’ vein than the other.

Tell us about your entry into recording your own music.
I have no interest whatsoever in the technical aspects of recording.  When engineers, producers, recording artists, et al start talking Neumann mics and Neve boards, my eyes glass over.  Don’t get me wrong, I deeply respect it and anyone who thinks it’s just knobs and programs doesn’t get it.  It’s an art – it’s just not my art.  I write a song and I capture it however I can: phone, tablet…I’d love to go back to recording demos on cassette.  Plug in the damn mic and hit record…  My first foray into a proper studio was in the late 90’s when Shawn T. Pabst was showing me the ropes.  He brought me into Austin’s Bismeaux Studio and, later, Cedar Creek to cut a song of mine called, “Highwires,” as a duet.  That man is solid gold.  He later pressed a special edition of his debut album that included that song as a ghost track.  Can you imagine doing that on your debut album?  Shawn’s one hell of a man.

We need to know about your invitation to play at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.  What was that like?
A cowboy singer named Mike Beck is largely responsible for that and I was honored to get to do it.  He showed me around out there and introduced me to all these folks that I’d been listening to for years as did our Lubbock songster and friend, Andy Hedges.  It was surreal to be sitting on the couch with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Michael Martin Murphey trading songs.  Murphey later invited me to play shows with him in Austin and Nashville and at his shows in Red River, NM.  Murph has been very kind to me.  I met a fantastic artist from California while I was at the Gathering, Amber Cross.  Later on, Ray Bonneville produced Amber’s album, Savage on the Downhill. Great work.

If you had to choose only one song of yours to represent your musical legacy, what would it be?
“New Lost Generation.”

Do you have any career goals you’d like to attain?

We’re all into aiming for the sky here!
I’ll be happy to leave behind a body of work that is respected and covered by other artists.