Once upon a time a boy in Texas wanted to play guitar. So his grandfather bought him one. The boy started writing songs and singing. But he also developed another passion and that was acting. And for a long time, the young man focused on one passion over the other – although he got to do music every now and then, sometimes even in his own movies. The moral of this story is that you can have more than one dream and you can pursue more than one passion. And Dennis Quaid is living proof.
Okay, so it’s one of the oldest clichés: an actor wanting to be a rock star … or vice versa. Quaid, a Houston native who started professionally acting in the seventies, got his breakout role as one of four buddies showing up some college kids in a bicycle race in the 1979 film, Breaking Away. When he filmed 1981’s The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia, as a wannabe country singer, Quaid performed some of his own songs. And it just continued happening. You can hear his songs in such films as The Big Easy and the recently released, I Can Only Imagine. Following his notorious over-the-top portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis in 1989’s Great Balls Of Fire!, he focused on music and was on the road with his band The Sharks having one heck of a good time. I saw them perform in 2002 and the crowd was going crazy for them, especially when Quaid ran through the audience, guitar in hand, sweating and rocking the house down.
So why has it taken them so long to record an album? With the November 30th release of their first record, Out Of The Box, Dennis Quaid & The Sharks have put together some rocking doozies that range from rockabilly hip-swingers to meaningful ballads to a few favorite covers. It is a fun effort, for sure, and Quaid has plans to tour with The Sharks through the rest of the year, entertaining fans with songs like “After The Fall,” “LA Woman,” “I’m In Love” and “Good Man, Bad Boy.”
Recorded in Los Angeles with Quaid and bandmate Jamie James producing, Out Of The Box, contains thirteen enjoyable songs that contain a lot of spirit. “We’re going to be the oldest new band to make it in rock & roll,” Quaid told me recently, laughing like he knew this was going to seem like a joke to some people but he’s going to have a hell of a good time making it happen. He has always believed in his band and their songs, so why not have a go with it. He’s been playing shows with them for something like eighteen years now, with fans always showing up to have fun alongside them. “I make a complete and utter fool of myself,” Quaid said recently. “I think that’s the only way to have fun onstage, instead of trying to pretend to be cool and all the rest of that stuff.”
With a long list of movie credits to his resume – Stripes, Wyatt Earp, The Right Stuff, Something To Talk About, Everybody’s All-American and a few new ones already in the can – Quaid is ready for everyone to spend some time with his music. With a greeting of “Laissez les bons temps rouler,” spoken like a true New Orleanian, Quaid chatted with me the day after Halloween, where a costume malfunction almost sidelined trick or treating for his kids, about music, songwriting, the encouragement of Jack Clement, the influence of Texas music and how those twins are doing today after a scary medical emergency following their birth.
Yesterday was kind of chaotic at your house. How was the trick or treating?
Oh, it was great! It was the first time I ever trick or treated on my own block and handed out candy from my house. I had my twins, which are boy/girl twins of eleven, and then my girlfriend has got two six-year-old girl twins.
And these are the twins that had the medical scare back in 2007? How are they doing?
They are doing great. We really dodged a bullet with them. They were twelve days old and they had developed a staph infection, which they probably got in the hospital at birth, and I had to take them to the hospital here in LA and they were given a round of antibiotics for the staph infection. They had to stay in the hospital for that cause it was intravenous and they used a medicine called Heparin, which keeps the blood from coagulating at the site where they put the intravenous needle in. They were supposed to receive like ten units of that for pediatrics, which was a light blue bottle; but they were given the dark blue bottle of Heparin, which is 10,000 units. So they basically got a thousand times more of the dose than they should have gotten. They got it three times, at least, and it turned their blood to the consistency of water and their blood’s ability to coagulate was off the measurable scale for like forty-two hours. The danger would have been a hemorrhage in the brain or the vital organs but they made it through. I think what saved them was the power of prayer, cause it became like a world news story, and since they were only twelve days old, they weren’t able to thrash about because they were infants and that probably saved them from a hemorrhage.
But because of that, they wound up saving the lives of a lot of kids. There was an incident the year before that killed three kids in Indianapolis and a couple of kids down in Texas. They changed the labeling on the bottles because of the kids and we went out on a tour about it. The hospital invested forty million dollars in like barcoding for in hospitals, like how when you check out in a supermarket, you scan the medicine, scan the bracelet and you make sure. It was quite something.
Now this is not new to you, you’re not a novice at playing music, so why did it take so long for you guys to get in a studio and make a record – you’re not lazy guys at all.
(laughs) That’s true! I really started out with music. I started when I was twelve and it took me a long time to decide if I was going to be an actor or a musician and acting kind of took over at some point. But music kept coming into my life. Like, I got a movie called The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia and I wrote two songs for that that were in the movie. A person had knocked on my door there in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and said, “How’d you like to be a Country & Western star?” (laughs) And that guy was Jack Clement. He had produced the Dreaming My Dreams album for Waylon Jennings and it was my favorite album, even before I met him, met Jack. And Jack was also the original engineer at Sun Studios. He produced Johnny Cash and was there at Sun Studios and they wound up having a long relationship. But I was lucky cause he was one of my mentors.
Then I wrote songs for other films as well. So it was always there and I had a band in the eighties called The Eclectics, which was basically Bonnie Raitt’s band – Johnny Lee Schell, Hutch Hutchinson and a couple other guys – and we got a record deal. We were touring around and we got a record deal and the night we got our record deal, we broke up (laughs). Just like in that movie, The Commitments. It was just like that. The night of our success we broke up. And I was in cocaine rehab the next day.
Why did you do that, Dennis? You could have been a rock star long before now.
(laughs) I know! I had a good way of blowing it back then.
Ooh, you said that, not me.
(laughs) Yep. I really had a really great way of blowing it back then (laughs). You know, success was just too much for me to handle, I guess. So I spent ten years away from music in the nineties and then a friend of mine was a mentor as well and that was Harry Dean Stanton, the actor and musician who did a lot of old Mexican folk songs and stuff like that. But I would see him and his band over at the Mint here in LA in the year 2000. I was getting a divorce or whatever and music was kind of calling me back. I went to see him, and the guys in the band are basically the band that we have today, the Sharks. Harry gave us his blessing and we started playing. It was Jamie James, in particular, who I started a relationship with, and we became the Sharks and started playing around and then started touring.
We had a few hiatuses during the years but two years ago, I really decided to do this for real. I’d been on a songwriting spree this last two years and we cut like twenty-five tracks and ten of those tracks are our first album. It took me a long time but this time we are doing it for real cause I guess I’m ready for it now (laughs). I’m not going to blow it this time! (laughs)
I actually saw you with the Sharks back in 2002 and I remember the crowd having a lot of fun and I remember you guys having fun. And this record seems to attest that you are still having fun making music with these same guys. And I think that shows up on the record.
That’s what it’s all about for me is when we go out and do our show: it’s about people having a good time. Everybody works so hard, they paid their good money to come there and we like to get people up and moving and to have a good time out there. In 2002, we were still basically kind of like a bar band, I would say. It’s gotten, I guess, more sophisticated or maybe it’s sort of aged well, but it’s really a show when we go out there.
Are you going to have time to do a full-scale tour?
Oh yeah, for sure. This year so far we’ve done like forty dates. We’re playing mostly in the middle part of the country because I feel like that’s where we fit best. I’m from Houston and the guys are from different places in the States but I guess you would call us Americana. They used to call us a junkyard of American music (laughs). But I guess we’d be classified as Americana because we do all different kinds of music. And I think we fit in best there in the middle part of the country, from like Chicago down to Louisiana and the south. And we’ve done a lot of Texas too.
I thought the record sounded very Texas, very Austin-ish. How early did the music and musicians of Texas, those hometown artists, become relevant to you?
To me, that’s kind of my first memories of music growing up in Houston, was Hank Williams and along came Elvis. But I guess when I was in my teens, I remember my family being in Bandera, Texas; we’d go there on vacation at a dude ranch or whatever (laughs). But in Bandera one night, I was like twelve, and there was this guy and his name was Willie Nelson and he was just back from Nashville. He was playing at this place that I went to with my dad and he had like short hair, big sideburns, and that was the first time I saw Willie. Then there was like Jerry Jeff Walker at the time, Michael Murphy, Joe Ely and eventually the Thunderbirds. Then I got to know these guys in my thirties and late twenties. Jimmie Vaughan, he and I became really good friends and Austin was a place that everybody went to back then. It was about 250,000 people in that town and now it’s like three million! But it was a very small collegial place when it came to music and I used to hitchhike up there and sleep on dorm room floors (laughs). And that was the music we would play back then.
I saw Joe Ely for the first time earlier this year and he was great.
Yeah, he’s a fantastic guy. I just saw him a couple of months ago at the Country Music Hall Of Fame. They were doing the Outlaws and I was there for that concert, backstage, and it was like homecoming over there. And he was there playing one of Waylon’s songs.
When I was a kid and a teenager, I listened to a lot of stuff that kids around me never really heard of, like Joe Ely.
Yeah, it sounds very familiar what you’re just describing cause that is kind of what I had. Looking back, it’s very eclectic the type of music that I was attracted to and it sounds like you were the same. I was of course into the Rolling Stones but then there was Ray Charles and my favorite album of all time is the Dreaming My Dreams album by Waylon Jennings that was produced by Jack Clement and Jack Clement turned out to be my mentor. Like I said, I was doing a movie called The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia. I was like twenty-six in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and there was a knock on my door and this older dude was there going, “How’d you like to be a Country & Western star?” (laughs) For some reason he’d heard about the movie and came there to Chattanooga and just moved into the room next to me. And we played all those songs. He wrote “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen” that Johnny Cash did. But back in the day, Jack was the original engineer when Elvis and Jerry Lee and Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins were at Sun Studios. So I fell into a lot of relationships, musically, that I look back and go, wow, how did that happen? (laughs)
You have some New Orleans style boogie woogie piano on this new record and you have a long association with New Orleans and the Neville Brothers. I wanted you to talk a little bit about that for us.
Well, I had always loved New Orleans. I have cousins in Eunice, Louisiana, just south of Mamou, and growing up in Houston, which is really Western Louisiana in a lot of people’s minds (laughs). So when I did The Big Easy, I got to go there for two months before we started shooting and go around with a homicide cop, cause that was what I was playing, and in the process Jim McBride, the director, was very musical and he was really like a music historian in a way. But anyway, he knew the Nevilles and was going to use them in the film, part of the music in the movie. And I just called him up and I wrote the song, “Closer To You,” that was in that film, which is kind of based on that kind of zydeco sort of influence in a way.
We wanted to record it and Art Neville and I became really good friends. He was like fifty at the time and I think I was thirty-two or thirty-three, and he said, “Well, let’s do it.” (laughs) So we went to the studio there in New Orleans and recorded it over two days. That movie really opened me up to a lot of music that I had really never focused on before, like the Nevilles. They kind of stand apart, don’t you think. They are so jazz, New Orleans Caribbean, funk and it’s a fantastic sound. I want to get a hold of Art and connect with him again. He’s such a beautiful person, he really is.
When you do a movie nowadays, since you’ve had songs in a number of your movies, do you automatically think, hey, I got a song for this.
That’s really kind of what I’ve been doing with music my whole career, starting with The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia. I wrote two songs that got into that. And then The Big Easy, I wrote “Closer To You” for. For Tough Enough, there was another song I wrote for that. So I’ve had songs in films as I’ve gone along. And doing these Esurance ads, they bought a song that I wrote just out of the blue. I wasn’t even asking (laughs). But they like to put me and my personality or whatever in these commercials, which is really fun to do, and they bought the rights to a song that I wrote called “In Harm’s Way,” which I guess is perfect for an insurance company (laughs). I had a ball doing that, actually.
I know the song “On My Way To Heaven” is from your movie I Can Only Imagine but I understand that’s not a new song. Is that correct?
It’s only partly new. I wrote that song thirty years ago after that night that we broke up and I wound up in rehab. I wrote that song a few years later for my mother and she is this great Baptist lady and I wrote that song for her. I guess it’s about me and my spiritual journey after drugs. But I only had the verses of it and then two years ago when I did I Can Only Imagine with Bart Millard – it’s about that song, “I Can Only Imagine,” which was the biggest-selling Christian song ever, and he wrote that for his father, who he had a tumultuous relationship with. So while I was there making it, I finally finished the bridge and I finished the song there and then we recorded it with The Sharks after I finished the movie. And I gave it to my mother for her 90th birthday. We put it in the set and I think it comes off as a Christian song, and that’s fine too, but it doesn’t matter what faith you are. It’s really about your relationship with God or your spirituality inside yourself.
Did you start songwriting before or after you acquired a guitar?
I immediately started songwriting when I first picked up a guitar. I was twelve and my grandfather bought me a guitar from Western Auto (laughs). It was like a $15 guitar and I tried to learn “Light My Fire” and it didn’t work. I realized early I was a rhythm guitar player, cause leads just didn’t make sense to me, you know, being a lead guitar player. I didn’t really have a natural affinity for that. So songwriting was kind of a great defense. If I couldn’t really be a great guitar player on leads, at least songwriting was an alternative to that. So I started songwriting early. It just came natural to me and it’s something I’ve always done.
Do you find that writing about very personal situations and feelings easier or harder to write about?
Well, I think all songs need to be personal in a sense, cause they come out of personal experience. So what can you write about except for personal experiences to really relate to people, because people are people, we have the same feelings, we go through the same things in life. At first, it’s kind of embarrassing or you feel like you’re revealing yourself too much. A lot of my songs are personal but they are disguised in fiction. That’s why we call them fictional truths (laughs) or a fictional autobiography of my life. That’s what songwriting is.
You end the new album with a song called “After The Fall.” What can you tell us about that one?
That song really kind of comes out from the way I feel about the world – I think the way a lot of us feel about the world. It’s a different world now and it’s about keeping things fresh and still going on and not lamenting about the past, that things aren’t the way they used to be or whatever. You know, you die as an artist or you lose relevance in life. So it’s about staying relevant and also following your own heart. I wrote the song in pieces and of the whole album, it was kind of created in the studio, cause I changed the juxtaposition and I tried to have the music itself kind of mirror what the words were about. There’s a little classical music interlude in it, with the boys choir that I got for that, and I sort of based the song on “A Day In The Life” from The Beatles. So this would sort of be our “A Day In The Life” song.
What kind of guitar did you use primarily on this record?
On this record, I have a gold Strat from 1971 and then I found this Taylor acoustic electric that is the main guitar I play. I just really love the sound I get from it. Jamie James is one of the great guitar players around and he stands on his own and I think it sounds really good with Jamie’s guitar.
You mentioned The Doors and you cover a couple of Doors songs on Out Of The Box. Your version of “LA Woman” in particular has a little different vibe to it, you make it not so heavy. So when you’re doing these covers that you enjoy, how long does it take for it to feel like it’s your song? Is that mainly through experimentation?
Yeah, that’s exactly the way it is. We’ve been doing “LA Woman” since 2003 and we picked it up because we loved it, for one thing, and also nobody does it anymore and it’s a hard song to do. And we picked up “Riders On The Storm” about three years ago. But it is just about doing it. I’m kind of a lighter person, in my point of view, in life than Jim was so I just have to do it from my point of view rather than try to be Jim Morrison, and at the same time stay true to The Doors. It’s sort of evolved over time and I wound up at the end of the song, I add my own words to it, which was this kind of story of he’s picking up this girl and they’re going to go out on some highway somewhere and just going to nowhere and we ain’t ever coming back (laughs).
In fact, I had the opportunity of a lifetime recently where Jamie and I played this charity benefit here in LA for St Jude’s Hospital and I got to sing “Light My Fire” with John Densmore and Robby Krieger, and Jamie was up there with a guitar as well. The son of the bass player on that particular track was playing bass. It was really quite something to have that experience. We had soundcheck the day before, which was great because there wasn’t an audience there, and we were just talking and I was just trying to be cool (laughs) and just to treat them as people, you know, and not the gods that they are in my mind. And they were just fantastic. Robby said it was the first time he’d played with Densmore in over a year, I think it was. So to have the two of them onstage was just amazing. Densmore wasn’t at the soundcheck. He just showed up at the show.
We never stop being fans
Hopefully not. You know, I like to keep that excitement about meeting my heroes. I like to be in awe of people. They inspired me, you know.
I would like to ask you about one of your costars, if I may, and what he was like to work with and what he was like as a person cause he is one of my favorites, and that is Sam Shepard.
Oh wow, you’ve got good taste! The Right Stuff, you know that was, what, 1982, and Sam was already a legend as a playwright. I think he was like forty-two at the time and Philip Kaufman, the director, was also a San Francisco based guy and wanted to make Sam a real movie star. And Sam was perfect for Chuck Yeager and Chuck Yeager was on the set of the movie every day. We were playing astronauts and it was my dream movie, and actually my favorite movie I’ve ever done because, personally, an astronaut was the first thing I wanted to be growing up in Houston, which was space city, and Gordo Cooper was my favorite astronaut.
But anyway, Chuck Yeager was on the set and he was like John Wayne, as far as being an icon, an American real hero, and he and Sam just got along instantly. They bonded over cars and engines, because he’s a pilot, and they bonded over fixing the engine on Sam’s truck (laughs). You know, Sam didn’t fly. He was afraid of flying. He had had an incident, I guess years before, a couple of incidents flying, so he drove everywhere he went. And I think that’s where a lot of his plays came out of, cause he’d drive through the desert in his truck, alone a lot of the time, and that’s the way he would write.
We hung out at this place called The Tosca, which was, I wouldn’t call it a bar; it was more like where you get coffee, run by this lady Jeannette, who was Castro’s interpreter when he came to the United Nations and was also instrumental in getting Nureyev and Baryshnikov when they defected from the Soviet Union. She was very involved in that and she had actually been born in Russia herself. Anyway, she owned this place and it became our Pancho’s – if you know the movie, there’s Pancho’s Bar where all the pilots hang out – and it became our Pancho’s. We were there every night. And Sam would be there every night, of course, and he was just always himself. And he would carry around this 3×5 spiral little notebook that you can flip and he would always be taking it out of his pocket. I didn’t know but he was writing a play at the time and that’s what he would do. He would just take snatches of things that he heard and write them down and then, I guess, put them in his plays.
Sam was a really quiet type of figure but deep. And he was comfortable with uncomfortable silence (laughs).
With Out Of The Box almost ready to come out, how would you describe you and your band?
We are going to be the oldest band to make it in rock & roll (laughs). I mean it. There are a lot of bands that made it back in the seventies or eighties or whatever that are still out there playing their stuff and that’s all great and everything. But we’re like the new guys on the block (laughs). We’re going to be the oldest new band to make it in rock & roll and we’re going to be on the road with this and I want to do venues where we can kind of do acoustical stuff, like just me and Jamie, and also do the whole band.
Portrait by Greg Allen; live photo by Leslie Michele Derrough