SONG PREMIERE: The Contenders Balance Vocal Harmonies and Honky Tonk on “Hills of Caroline”

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Lady luck had introduced singer songwriter Jay Nash and singer and drummer Josh Day in Los Angeles over a decade ago when they bonded over a shared love of The Band, roots music, and a sacred admiration for the great American songbook. As their paths continued to cross over the years, collaboration, they concluded, would be inevitable.

Jay Nash’s music is like the river that raised him—strong and deep, with a little bit of lullaby and a big damn current. Twenty years ago, he played loud in bars along the Saint Lawrence River, in the reaches of New York so far-flung they’re almost Canadian. For the last decade, he’s journeyed the U.S. and Europe solo, selling over 60,000 records without ever putting ink on a conventional record deal. Now in the Green Mountains, the quiet cold of winter rarefies wit and musicianship into the kind of Americana that knows where it comes from.

Together as Americana/folk rock band The Contenders, Jay Nash and Josh Day make the sort of music found in the intricate and varied tapestry that is real Americana—full of grit, with a steady heartbeat and a hint of honky-tonk—writing songs that speak of wanderers and highways, lovers and losers, good times and missed chances, all of it with a ferocity born of hard work and honed skill. All of this can be heard on their new album Laughing with the Reckless, which is out November 3rd via Rock Ridge Music.

Today Glide is excited to premiere the song “Hills of Caroline”, a rollicking country tune with plenty of honky tonk swagger that can only come from one too many nights spent in dingy beer bars. It’s a saloon-ready song that is as good for dancing as it is commiserating over a beer with the pals. Ultimately it beckons you to dive deeper into the work of these talented country singer-songwriters.   

Listen to the tune and read our chat with Jay Nash and Josh Day…

What prompted you to write this song? It sounds like a bit of a love letter to North Carolina, where band member Josh comes from. Is that the case?

Jay Nash: There is certainly a good bit of that. I think that the original seed of lyrical inspiration came from the idea of taking the notion of “home” with you, wherever you go. There’s also a nod to my home place, the St Lawrence River, in the refrain. The actual story in the song is a bit of fiction informed by a collage of real life experiences, as I think is often the case in songs. The discourse that led to this one was a conversation about the how our experiences form who we are and how some relationships (and places) leave an indelible mark.

Josh Day: The real story here is that Jay started playing a guitar lick that sounded like an old Hank Williams Sr. song. I thought, Oh yeah, let’s write something real country. When I think of country, I think of the Hills of North Carolina where I was raised. I just keep trying to pull out more of the “country boy” in Jay, who hails from upstate New York. I think it’s working!

I’m sure you had an idea of what you wanted this song to be before you went into the studio. How do you think the finished version compares to the idea you had of it before you went into the studio?

Jay Nash: I have to say that the record sounds a whole lot like I imagined it would and could on the day that we first wrote it. (For better or worse!) I guess that is both the strength and handicap of self-producing. We didn’t have anyone else around to tell us that we couldn’t chase a particular idea down or pressure us into doing something that we weren’t excited about. The song started with the notion of being something that could be sung by the campfire, and we juxtapose that idea with a bit of the template of songs like the Stones’ “Sweet Virginia,” where a simple country tune gradually grows into a barreling and rollicking barn burner sort. That was what we were going for at least.

Josh Day: I agree with Jay on this. I really enjoy the arc of this song. I honestly thought it may end up being more acoustic, but the song kept wanting to build, so we just went with it. And by the end, it just turns into a party of sorts!

Where did you record the album? What do you think you both brought to the mix by producing yourselves, as far as bringing things out of each other that you didn’t expect?

Jay Nash: We recorded the basic tracking at my house in Vermont, and then we recorded the overdubs at our respective home studios. Seth Atkins Horan (four-time Grammy winning engineer) joined us for the basics session and did a beautiful job of getting great drum sounds in my simple little studio. In lieu of having a producer on board, I think that we both stepped into the role of producing each other’s contributions to the record. It’s important to have a set of ears, other than your own, to evaluate your own individual performance. Once the basic tracking was complete, we had a lot of fun taking the tracks back into our own respective creative lairs and adding additional elements. I’d come back after a couple days and say, :Hey Josh! Check it out…I played slide guitar and mandolin all over the entire thing…what do you think?!” And he’d say, “That’s terrible.” So I would stay up all night for the next four nights, until it sounded good.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but we did have a fun time bouncing ideas and sounds off of each other.

Josh Day: A bit of an exaggeration, but not TOO far off! Ha ha. Truth be told, Jay would come up with tons of ideas on different instruments. Some were not appealing in the least to me, but most of the time, there would be an entire line or even a little nugget that would make the track come to life. It was definitely a new experience making a record this way, and there were pros and cons for sure. Most of the time, you’re your worst critic, and that can cause so much second guessing that you start to stifle the creative flow, if you will. It is nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of for sure. And in these situations, you just swallow your pride, and listen with an open mind. That’s how this particular project has been able to work, and I’m thankful for that.

Who are your biggest influences, individually and shared?

Jay Nash: For me, Jerry Garcia is a huge influence in his approach to music — not so much in his role as Captain Trips, but in that he was such a complete scholar of music and so completely dedicated to the craft. He lived, breathed, and felt music in such a soulful way. I think that all five member of The Band are a huge shared influence for us, too. I also grew up on Dylan, Cat Stevens, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Eric Clapton — a random scattering of artists, I know. Every once in a while, I will hear an recording of one of these guys and think to myself, Oh… that’s where I got that from! I listened to countless hours of all of their music when I was a kid and I think that a lot of the phrasing and approach worked its way into my musical DNA.

Josh Day: I honestly have so many folks who have influenced me as a musician, it’s pretty hard to narrow it down. But, I would have to say Levon Helm is overall my biggest influence. His sense of musicality, whether it’s behind the drums or singing, is pretty incredible. He was born with “the thing, the gift, the touch.” And what I am talking about is something that sits deep down in the soul that you can’t learn in school. It’s something very few people are born with. I have always been a huge fan, and try to come from the “school of Levon” when thinking about my approach to music. I also call this my Levon litmus test. What would Levon do?

How do you think the two places you live (Vermont and Nashville) inform the music you make?

Jay Nash: I’m still relatively new to Vermont. I’ve been here for seven years, and you need to be a seventh-generation resident to call yourself a Vermonter! In all seriousness, having moved here from Los Angeles, I think that the open spaces and natural beauty of Vermont have been a great creative environment. There’s lots of old stuff here, which I think is really soulful and cool. In Vermont, you experience each of the four seasons in its fullest form. The winters are bitter cold and silent. Spring is impossibly lush, although often late to arrive. Summer is perfection and fall is an otherworldly explosion of color and harvest. There’s space and time to soak things in and contemplate it. It’s a good place to come to and for me, it’s nice to have that space along with creative trips to Nashville, where the musical community is obviously like nothing else on the planet.

Josh Day: I love Nashville and all it has to offer. As a young man in high school, I always knew I would end up here. Life took me from North Carolina to Los Angeles, California, where I met so many great musicians who are still some of my closest friends. Moving to Nashville, I finally felt like I was home. And fortunately, I’ve had a ton of friends move from Los Angeles to Nashville, so we just continue to be able to create music, and hang in a super-special, creative environment. On the other hand, I do love going to Vermont and spending time writing with Jay there. He lives in a special place. It is quiet and laid back. Kind of country living of sorts. It is very comfortable there, and I feel like the creative juices just start to flow when we focus there.

If you could have any performer in any genre cover this song, who might you choose to do it and why?

Jay Nash: I guess I’m on a little bit of Garcia kick right now, but man, I would love to hear the Jerry Garcia Band (circa 1990) cover this tune. I know it’s not possible, but a kid can day dream, right? I also think that Ryan Adams with his band would send this song into the stratosphere. That would be fun to hear.

Josh Day: Wow, good question. I would obviously love to hear Levon perform this song. That would be absolutely otherworldly. The main reason is that I definitely thought about him throughout the recording process, and would love to see/hear what he would do with it. I guess we’re gonna have to wait on that…RIP Levon. I would also like to hear what Gillian Welch and David Rawlings might do with it. And lastly, Chris Stapleton. I’ve been a fan of his since the early Steeldrivers days, and would love to hear him belt this one, with his band slaying it!

The Contenders release Laughing with the Reckless on Rock Ridge Music November 3rd. For more music and info visit wearethecontenders.com.

Photo credit: Stacie Huckeba

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