By Terry Roland

David_Serby_-_Poor_Mans_PoemIn a few months, when looking over what were the best releases in Americana music during the year 2011 it will be hard to avoid David Serby's fourth independent release, Poor Man's Poem. In what is shaping up to be a fine year with new albums from Jim Lauderdale, Gillian Welch, Sarah Jaroz, Booker T and Levon Helm, this album stands in their company. Like the best of American folk songs over the last 150 years, this collection of songs and stories of the old west are pleasant, engaging tunes with lyrics as dark as forgotten gold mines. There's also a kinship to sea shanties and bluegrass songs that bring a melodic feeling of cheer while singing about death, betrayal, revenge and some occasional redemption. The nuance that has been added to this album is craftily weaving subtexts of current events into the ballads making them reverberate with a feeling of allegory that seems both urgent and timeless. What makes each song breathe with life is the conviction of the artist to convey both story and message. The songs can be experienced simply as they are written or as a commentary of the social, political and economic woes of the 21st century. At times, what the artist has accomplished is comparable to a short story by Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy translated into the medium of song.

With the exception of the title tune, each song's story unfolds through the eyes of a single character with the action unfolding through a cascade of melody, imagery and sparse, but textured musical accompaniment including acoustic instrumentation from guitars, mandolins, banjos and fiddles. The players including Rick Shea on guitar, Ed Tree on bass (who was also the producer), Tom Corbett on mandolin and a stunning, Debra Dobkin on percussion, support musically in a way that show an understanding of the material the artist's approach to his songs.

In the interview that follows, David Serby reveals how this record came to be. Along the way, we find him to be an artist who has committed himself to following his spiritual and artistic instincts rather than the pursuit of commercial success. With the release of one of the finest Americana albums of the year, Poor Man's Poem, allows the listener to follow David down into these goldmines of American song.

TR: What's coming up right now for you?

DS: I have a handful of shows and I'm still promoting the new record. I'm in the process of figuring out what I'm going to do next. That's the nice thing about being an independent artist. Even though I don't have anyone giving me chunks of money to record, I have the freedom to do what I want. I could do another album of story songs, but, I've never liked repeating myself.

TR: So you're writing new songs?

DS: Yes. I've been writing songs on electric guitar.

TR: So you're going Peter Case?

DS: Could be! (laughs) It's a great way to write songs. This different style and sound comes up. I have access to a studio through Ed Tree. he lives within walking distance of me. I can get inspired and walk over there, we lay down acoustic guitar and vocal tracks and see what happens.

TR: What got you into music?

DS: I loved music as a kid. I used sing. Eventually, I got into punk. Music was always my favorite thing. I never pursued it though. I did a bunch of jobs, went to college, got married. When I was 30 my marriage split up. Around then I felt like playing guitar. I couldn't play well. I took lessons figured out guitar. I was also a screenwriter years ago. I had a couple of writing gigs. I realized, it took months to write a screenplay, but I could incorporate the same thing into a three minute song. I started writing songs. I bummed around open mic nights. I was probably 40 by then. I had re-married. Around that time I hooked up with Ed Tree at Highland Grounds. I wanted to do some demos. My wife finally said, I should call Ed. I thought he'd have to have something better to do than to mess around with my dumb songs. I played him a batch of songs, we put down some basic tracks. We built my first album off of that. Once I finished, I put a band together. We did some shows. I found how cool it is to play with a band. It changed how I wrote. I started writing songs like I was bleeding. Tons of songs. That's how it's been going for the last six or seven years. You discover great musicians. You stumble into a scene with these great musicians and it's all so inspiring. The people I met were so generous with their time and talent. There was so much expertise I couldn't help but learn and grow.

TR: Who were some of the musicians who inspired you along the way?

DS: Well, most of my life there were those artists who inspired me before like Dave Alvin, Springsteen, Dylan, Prine and Buck Owens. But, there were these local artists. When I first started Mike Stinson was here and Randy Weeks. Also, I See Hawks In L.A. All of them are fantastic. The caliber of skill keeps you working. I hear something from any of the artists I've mentioned and I think, 'I want to write a song that good.'

TR: How did you get started performing in the scene around The Echo?

DS: I was a lucky enough to meet Kim Grant while I was doing a show at Ronnie Mack's Barn Dance. She took a copy of my record. She told me about this Sunday afternoon gig called The Grand Ole Echo at the Echoplex. I thought I'd love to be a part of that. I met so many folks through Kim. She's a great facilitator of relationships.

TR: Let's talk about your latest album. While listening, it becomes clear there's some cloaking going on. It seems you're taking issues that are current today and framing them in stories from the past, in this case ballads about the old west. Was that the genesis of this project?

DS: Yes, it was. At first, I was struggling with what I was going to do. My first record was kind of singer-songwriter with electric honky-tonk. Then, there was my version of a soul song and my version of pop country. I worked my way through doing what i loved about Southern California country music. The kind of stuff I really loved in my early 20s like the Blasters and Dwight Yoakam. Then, I went back to the music that inspired those guys like Buck Owens. This time I wanted to do something else. So, it was kind of what next? I love history, current events, and politics. Well, love is probably not the right word, but I invested so much energy into this stuff that it was draining. Finally, my wife said, 'stop listening to the radio and watching TV!' I was obsessing about current affairs.

TR: So this led to writing songs in a different way for you?

DS: Yes. I wanted to write about what was going on in the world, but I didn't want to write some leftist statement. I thought at that point, ''How can I make music about this?" Around that time, somebody close to me got themselves into a financial bind. He was in a situational hole that became an emotional hole and he ended up trying to kill himself. He almost lost his house and family. That had a big impact on me. I started really thinking about that story and how what was going on in the world and contributing to that situation. So, I wrote this song about a guy lost in a mine, "Virginia Rail." It's the first song I wrote on the record. It's about a guy lost and struggling in a world where a man is not worth anything but the money that's in his bank account. The original concept of the song had Virginia Rail as a bird who called to the guy from the mouth of the mine he was lost in and it would keep calling him until he made his way out. By the time I finished the song I realized I had worked myself into my next record by taking these troubling things of today and setting them in the 1800s. The more I thought about it, the more I realized things in history are a mirror and it became apparent that history just repeats itself to a sickening degree. That's how I came up with the record.

TR: The session musicians sound like a single unit that really understand the songs and the style needed.

DS: Yes. One thing I don't ever do is tell people how to play. Music is a conversation with the song or the audience. I would not muzzle that. I just gave them the freedom and everybody brought so much beauty to their work. I had worked myself into my next record x. The more I thought about it, the more I realized things in history are a mirror and it became apparent that history just repeats itself to a sickening degree. That's how I came up with the record.

TR: I see a similar story in the message of I Just Stole Back What Was Mine.

DS: Yeah. I had just read Michael Lewis' book, The Big Short about the mortgage scam and what a racket that was. I mean, rather than helping people who were in trouble save their homes, congress gives the money back to the banks that stole the money in the first place. Also, Lay Down My Colt, is about domestic terrorism. It shows how the government breeds terrorism. The government can strangle the American family and the consequences are there are people I know struggling because of what is happening in the world. There are people in other countries who experience the outcome of American foreign policy through violence and war. How can these children not grow up to hate? The more I read the more I stumbled on these kinds of stories.

TR: One of my favorite writers, Fredrich Buechner says his stories come from the same places where dreams come from. I think the same could said of these songs.

DS: That's a good quote. I don't spend a lot of time listening to my records after they're done. But, I've stayed with this record and I've remained happy with it. There were so many talented people behind it. Ed Tree's production was just right. We sat down to make a record and I said I wanted it stripped down like Nebraska. Maybe not as stripped down as that. We picked the folks to play on it and everybody played magic! Carl Bryon's accordian was just right. Then he came in with pan pipes for Evil Men. The percussionist on that Debra Dobkin, came up with this part that sounded like spurs jangling in the background. It was chilling. All of the musicians brought so much to the record. The beautiful mandolin work and fiddle playing by Luke Halpin. He played so great. So many great musicians. Rick Shea came in and a did nylon string guitar part for Miguel.

TR: Well, thank you for taking the time to interview. I know the FolkWorks' readers will appreciate your music.

DS: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Thank you for your interest in the record.

Terry Roland is an English teacher, freelance writer, occasional poet, songwriter and folk and country enthusiast. The music has been in his blood since being raised in Texas. He came to California where he was taught to say ‘dude’ at an early age.