On “I’m Gone,” Matt Urmy expresses a preference for hearts that are uncomplicated and delighted. Urmy may not be the strongest vocalist, something he’ll readily admit, but the best americana spoken word performance from a young artist in years makes Urmy’s debut album Out of the Ashes an absolute delight, even if some of his lyrics are wonderfully complicated.
Time is Urmy’s fascination on this album. He celebrates its powers to hurt and heal in “Time Moves On” and uses it as a reason to live large on “Have You Seen Time.” Both songs are somewhat sad, but suggest a way forward and find some beauty in that.
Urmy also executes two thought-provoking tracks about other subjects in the bittersweet “Easy Train” and the semi-spiritual “Cup of Grace.” “Grace” and “Renaissance Rodeo” are both powered by the sense of childlike wonder Urmy is able to convey through his raspy spoken word stylings. The title track, a duet with John Prine, is a joyful track about rebirth that also tells the incredible story of the recordings of previous nine songs.
By far the most remarkable moment on Out Of The Ashes comes when Cowboy Jack Clement lends his voice to a remake of “We Must Believe in Magic,” a song Clement originally recorded in 1978. Urmy’s album is one of the last Clement worked on before his death in 2013 and this may well be the last time fans hear a new recording of Clement that he intended to be released. The Allen Reynolds-penned track has always been one of the finest examples of country music and its themes of bravery, spirituality and an ever-expanding frontier. If this is indeed the last we hear from Clement, it’s a gorgeous and optimistic farewell that’s equal parts forward-looking and nostalgic.
Because this is a pretty amazing thing, where did the title for this album come from?
Well, the album didn’t get titled until after we had rescued it from a fire. And by that I mean we had started working on the album and about six months into the project, the studio we were working in burned down in an electrical fire and we thought the album had been lost. All the reel to reel tapes in the studio and the board pretty much got melted. Then a few months later, a data recovery group was able to pull all the raw files off an old half-melted hard drive. Once we got the files back and we realized we were actually going to be able to finish this record, I wrote a song for the guy producing the record whose studio it was that burned down called out of the ashes and it just felt like a fitting title track after that whole journey.
When you say “the guy,” you’re talking about an honest legend.
Yeah. The guy. Cowboy Jack Clement. He was definitely the guy. Legend is an appropriate word. It gets thrown around with a lot of people, especially in Nashville. In the music world, this guy is the embodiment of a legend. He was a producer, he was a publisher, he was a business executive, he was a songwriter, he did it all and he did it all well.
How did you wind up getting to work with him?
I had seen Jack perform around Nashville and I had been a huge fan. I had discovered him as a younger guy watching the U2 documentary Rattle and Hum. That’s the first time I’d ever heard the name Jack Clement. They had a few clips of him in Sun Studio and he was working on I think the song Angel Of Harlem and some of those tracks. Then over the years I got to see him play and I learned more about his career, so I was just dying to meet this guy. I convinced the owner of an independent record company here in Nashville who I knew knew him to give me his home phone number after some begging and cajoling. I just called him up, not expecting much of it, just doing a moon shot hoping he would take me seriously. I called him and I invited him to be a part of a show I was producing at a local club and he invited me over to his house to talk about it. It completely blew my mind. After spending a couple hours talking about music, he agreed to do the show and that’s really how everything gets started.
He winds up producing your album and actually performing on it, reprising his role on “We Must Believe In Magic,” one of the great country songs of all time in my opinion, and that I just have to thank you for because four years on from his death it is an amazing surprise to get new Cowboy Jack recordings.
Oh right? I love it. I came away from that whole experience from him not only loving being friends with him but knowing that a part of whatever I did would always be about honoring his legacy and who he was and what he stood for. He was just such a rare being an he really represented a side of the music industry with his creativity and fun. He embodies that in a way nobody else ever has, at least I think. I’m thrilled to be keeping him in the conversation.
Why did it take so long for this album to come out? Obviously it was completed while he was still alive.
It was. He was 78 when I met him in 2010 in October. We did the show together in November and then in December of that year we cut the first tracks for this album. “Gotta Be True,” “New Year’s Morning,” “Renaissance Rodeo,’ “Cup Of Grace.” In May 2011 was when the fire hit. We thought the album was gone, so I went to work on a different project, which ended up being a company that I started called Artist Growth. A friend and I co-founded that together and it had nothing to do with the creative side of music, the idea was to build a software platform that artists and their managers could use to organize the business stuff and the tours and track expenses and all that stuff. So we weren’t even able to get back to work on the record until 2012 and 2013 was the year we finished it and that was the year he passed away. We finished the last recording in his new studio in the summer of 2013 and then he passed away that fall. And then I’ve just been so busy running Artist Growth that I couldn’t tour the album and promote it the way I wanted to so I just held onto it. Then after three more years I just decided I gotta get this record out. I want to share it with people, I want to tell the story, I want to talk about Jack and what it was like to work with him.
I’m glad you put it out eventually. You amazed me with one moment in particular after talking about that passage of time when on “I’m Gone” you talk about a world full of my truth and your truth and everyone’s truth. That is a line you wrote in 2010 or 2011?
Yeah, that’s right. (laughing)
Did you have any idea that the redefinition of truth would be one of the major themes in the culture of 2016 and 2017?
I did not. It’s funny, I wrote that song because Jack said to me: “You’re so serious all the time. These songs are so serious. Go home, listen to a bunch of Roger Miller and come back with a happy song.” I was out on the road, driving around between gigs and I just started humming to myself out on a weekend run of shows I wrote that song. I brought it back in and I don’t know if it was technically a happy song but it’s got a lot of words in it and it’s an upbeat song. Some of the lines made him laugh so we put it on the record. I did not think we would be in a place culturally in the United States where the very nature of truth or even the idea of a fact would be called into question. It’s certainly something that I think about when I sing that song now. It’s a whole other layer of relevance. I grew up in Nashville and my family moved down there from New York. So I was being raised in Nashville in the 80s by a couple of New Yorkers and that was before Nashville broke out and became this super cool trendy city. It was a really small town. There’s a whole lot of religion and church down here. I grew up in that, and the older I got, even as a kid, the more I started realizing that all of these people had their own interpretations of what life was about. What was true and what was not true, who were good people and who were not good people. It’s always been something that I’ve struggled with is this idea that anybody can justify whatever they think is true anyway they want, especially in organized religion. There’s something about that that really bothers me. I hope that makes sense.
It does. You use a lot of spoken word on this album, and that’s really something you’d see in a time that’s gone by, so what made you lean so heavily on that?
There’s a couple reasons for that. I grew up writing poetry, so everything that I’ve done when it comes to writing songs usually starts with the language, so I sort of lean that way anyway. And as Cowboy Jack was quick to point out in several of our conversations about my music, I’m not what you’d call a classically trained vocalist. I don’t have a voice like Jack or one of those people he worked with. So it’s almost like taking a constraint and turning it into an advantage. If that’s not something I’m going to be great at, then I’m going to invest all my energy into writing really kick ass lyrics. Hopefully people might find some ideas in there and get their inspiration through the words.
Like I said in the [on-air] intro, you’re the best at spoken word I’ve heard in a very long time. It’s not classic vocals that you’re doing, but it’s still something you can do better than a lot of those songbirds.
Well, thank you. That’s very kind. There is certainly a tradition of songwriters who do sort of this recitative lyrics. That’s certainly a group of writers I’ve spent a lot of time listening to trying to understand how they did it. I hope that I’ve figured out and I’m getting better over time.
Speaking of time, that is one of the major themes on this album. You used time in quite a few ways, including to justify going out and having a good time.
The idea of time is a bit of an obsession of mine. I find it fascinating, the construct of time as tool to put some sort of order in our daily lives. The funny thing about that is that in creating that instrument, we’ve created this perspective around human life. What originally I suspect was a tool meant to create some sort of organizational structure now has a big impact on the meaning of our life and our experiences. Memory comes into play in a big way in that and the past and the future and the present are a dance that we do inside of our minds. It just fascinates me. It’s a deep rabbit hole to go down and I was thinking of all these things when I was working on this batch of songs. I was a new father so I was processing all of that. It just became a meditation of mine to try to figure out how time matters in our individual lives.
And finally we’ll talk about “Easy Train.” That’s one where you give an interesting description of someone leaving a relationship that really mirrors how a lot of things have fallen apart for me.
That’s definitely a leaving song. It’s a hard thing to write about because it’s always such a deeply personal thing and the circumstances are always so unique. Heartbreak has so many voices. I was trying to approach that song from a place where the tension has started to abate and the ease of what’s to come has started to appear. There’s so many heartbreak songs about the hard part or the tension or ruminating on the negative aspect of things falling apart but I really wanted to explore that little window of time where the ease of what was there fading away and this dance with what’s next brings this deep breath with it. There’s obviously sadness there, but the central theme is there’s open space now and that creates relief.
It’s nice to be in that place where you feel like you’re drifting away from all that chaos.
It doesn’t always have to be bloody. Sometimes you can just get on a train and ride away.