Can’t Keep A Good Song Down: CJ Cain of The Wooks

On Flyin’ High, The Wooks temper the high lonesome with a lowdown groove, effortlessly spinning Americana-flavored bluegrass that’s smooth as silk and cool as spring water from a pump handle. It’s a sound drawn from Appalachia, barrel-aged, and finished with a full complement of strings courtesy of Wooks co-founder & guitarist CJ Cain and the band’s latest incarnation featuring Harry Clark (mandolin), George Guthrie (banjo), and Allen Cooke (dobro).

Cain, a native of Lexington, Kentucky, where he still resides with his wife and their dog, Fanny, enjoyed a childhood bookended by bluegrass festivals and family southern rock sojourns. Influenced as much by The Seldom Scene as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Cain began playing guitar as a teenager, finding success as a songwriter and performer with the band NewTown before ultimately forming The Wooks in 2014.

Flyin’ High colors classic bluegrass finesse with the songwriting sensibilities of individual members and an innovation that’s won The Wooks awards and recognition from fans– including fellow Kentuckian Tyler Childers. I caught up with CJ Cain to dig into the origins of the band’s style, and like an old friend, he answered the phone with a welcoming drawl, ready to go wherever the conversation took us!

AI- You got into guitar as a teenager, if I’m not mistaken, but at that point, it was mostly southern rock– as it usually is! We grew up in the South, that’s what we hear on the radio, and that’s typically what we all get hit with first. A bluegrasser from Kentucky is on the nose, but tell me how you got started in that arena.

CJC- Well, I guess the first thing I really got excited about guitar-wise was Stevie Ray Vaughan. My mother actually saw Stevie while pregnant with me. I thought that was funny, but that was the first thing that I noticed musically. I don’t know if there’s any science to that or just a coincidence, but it’s kinda cool!

Oh, I think that there is! I definitely think that there is!

But then along with the Stevie Ray Vaughan thing, I got into the southern rock because, mainly, I went down to see this show with my mom in a place called Rooster’s– I believe it was like south Georgia? I forget the town, but it was just like a little blues dive. This guy I knew that had a band called Big Jim and The Twins, Wendell Cox, who’s an awesome guitar player from Cumming, Georgia…

Oh yeah, I know Wendell!

He’s been kinda like a mentor. He’s given me guitars and tips through the years. But anyway, I was like 13, and the drummer in the band dated the lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s widow, Judy Van Zant. I think the drummer’s name was Jim? Judy’s daughter was dating Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and at 13, I was a huge Kenny Wayne Shepherd fan! He was gonna come in and sit in, so my mom drove me from Kentucky down there! At first, the club owner’s like, “He can’t be in here,” and then some people pulled some strings, and I got to sit in this booth– and next thing you know, I’m sitting next to Steve Gaines from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s wife, Teresa, and Judy and Melody Van Zant!

So I’m sittin’ there and I’m pumped about meeting Kenny Wayne, gettin’ an autograph, and he played a whole set of Steve Ray Vaughan! I have it on VHS somewhere– it was that long ago! They got into playin’ some Lynyrd Skynyrd at some point in time, and yeah, I liked those songs and my dad and mom were probably into that, but listenin’ to Teresa talk about her husband that died and the tunes that he played… They did this tune, “I Know A Little”, which [Steve Gaines] wrote, and she was like, “Wendell’s the only person I’ve really heard play this song right!” I went home and was like, “I wanna learn! If it’s so hard, I wanna dive into that!” I think it’s like the personal interactions that you get in life that really send you in different directions, and that was the one for the southern rock.

I still practice that song and try to figure it out. I’ve really become a huge fan of Steve’s. He was different and he was really changin’ that band and reigniting some really cool things that they had struggled with. They started soberin’ up and practicin’, not drinkin’ and tryin’ to take it more serious, like get their lives together so that they didn’t run Steve off ’cause he was so good. He was an incredible singer, really nice guy, just old school stoner, you know? He’s got a really cool flat-picking kind of thing, and I’ve been able to like transpose some of those influences into the bluegrass world as well.

I saw an interview that you had done many years ago during your NewTown days where you talked about how the language, the musical language in bluegrass is really universal, that you can step into it anywhere and everybody knows what you’re talkin’ about. Tell me about expanding that language with what you’ve been doin’ in your other outfits, and then specifically with The Wooks coming into this new album.

I’m hesitant to act like we’re doing somethin’ that hasn’t been done before, but I think we definitely do have such a different mixture of influence that it does make us unique. One thing that I think we’ve been able to do is take that cut time, southern rocker, even if you’re familiar with Levon Helm and The Band– that vibe– and play it within a bluegrass context without losing the driving notion of what makes bluegrass cool too. We don’t stay in that mode all the time, but that is something that we touch on. There’s a tune on the new record called “Mudfish Momma” that’s got that southern rock kinda beat, but the banjo’s still very present and rolling in keepin’ that bluegrass vibe goin’ as well.

Tell me about the origins of The Wooks and how the lineup has evolved to become what it is now.

I started this band as a duo with my friend Arthur [Hancock], and inevitably through the years, people come and go. We’ve been able to keep it goin’, I think, mainly because we never tried to really overhaul our philosophy about putting on a show and we’ve all just kept writing songs. Whoever’s in the band has been writing songs. I think that’s important– the original material being stable. The song to me is always more powerful than the individuals in a group. Sometimes there’s people that are superhuman singers and maybe they can sing any song, but a really good song, you can’t hold it down, you know? If you listen to Townes Van Zandt or John Prine, a lot of those records don’t have high-flying vocal acrobatics or shredding solos. But they’re legendary tunes that’ve been covered by tons of bands! I think as long as you got good tunes, you can withstand change.

Do you write together with the other guys in the band or do you come together individually with the things you’ve done on your own?

Arthur and I wrote together early on some. With this last record, none of us individually wrote with each other, but I did co-write two songs. There’s a really good musical community here in Kentucky, and I’ve been lucky to go from being a fan of some of the guys around here to actually getting to work with them. And that’s something that’s pretty cool! “Mudfish Momma” was a co-write with a guy named Ray Smith here in town that was in a band called Tula that actually had Jesse Wells from Tyler Childers’ band in it at one time and I think J.T. Cure from Chris Stapleton’s band. Ray’s like this killer musician. He happens to be an English teacher but totally could be on the road if he wanted to be!

I like writing with these guys ’cause it puts their music out. Ray’s never been in a bluegrass band, but he’s writin’ with us! And then my guitar teacher growing up, Eric Cummins, who was the first to show me Warren Haynes (laughs)! We write together some. He wrote a song that did well on the last record called “Union Pacific”, and then we co-wrote a tune together called “Butler Hayes” for this album. And Eric, he was my guitar teacher growing up! It’s cool to write songs with him now! Hell, I just wanted to be his friend when I was 13, you know?

Well, let’s talk about “Butler Hayes”. Is that a general look at folks who are just angry at the world– ’cause there is a lot of us out there– or is that coming from a personal place for you?

When you go through life, you have friends, and sometimes it’s not even your friends, there’s just people that are havin’ a hard time– and some of it, they bring on themselves, and then some of it’s just ’cause life can be hard. I put all those experiences of aggravatin’ people or situations into one character. At the end of the day, you’re still rootin’ for ’em, you know? You’re not completely condemning Butler Hayes. The chorus is you’re kind of rootin’ for him, and that was the point of that tune. That song actually started, I had the first few lines of it before The Wooks ever even got off the ground. During the pandemic, [Eric and I] were trying to do ZOOM writing sessions early on with quarantine and everything, and honestly, I just didn’t have any ideas. I wasn’t in the greatest state of creativity, but I didn’t wanna show up to this writing session online with nothing to work on, so I dug that out! That was cool to finish something I had probably written off or almost forgot about!

From left to right: Allen Cooke, George Guthrie, CJ Cain, and Harry Clark.

Tell me about making the album with Jake Stargel. You went to his home studio, and I believe somebody said– you or one of the other members– that it was the most live the group has ever recorded. Which I thought was a little strange only because when I consider bluegrass and recording bluegrass, I guess in my mind, I just have the idea of everybody being live in a room together all the time.

Well, that is the case, technically speaking, on all of The Wooks albums. We went in, played together, everybody at the same time– but then you might say, “You know, I didn’t like my part of that, and I’m gonna fix that.” The first two records we did, some of those songs weren’t really done. We were in the studio and tweakin’ ’em and changing things. So that in itself kinda puts you behind the 8-ball because maybe the singer’s gotta re-sing it because those words got changed and you’re just not comfortable with it and you need a couple more passes at it. What really happened with this one that helped us is there’s a whole lot less overdubbing. There’s only a few little things that’s overdubbed. We wrote the songs and got everything together and then did a week-long rehearsal in Tennessee at a cabin on Lake Cherokee. We were not in the studio overhauling tunes and stuff. There was one song on there that we did where we went in and we didn’t have a clue how we were gonna really play it. ‘Cause we had tried it a few different ways and it wasn’t right for the song. It’s a song called “Black And White”, and that tune, we kinda did just go in there, put the cans on, and hit record to just see what happened. A lot of the solos on the new record are all one pass live. It’s not “punching” is what they call it, like where you’re goin’ in and fixing like a phrase.

Do you like that challenge?

I think it sounds more like you’re sittin’ around listenin’ to us. Now sometimes, you might take a solo from the fifth take and put it on the fourth take, like cut and paste kinda, but that solo in itself is still one thought versus a really micromanaged, picked-clean perfection kind of thing. I think Harry [Clark] was probably most adamant about pushing me in a direction of tryin’ to leave a little more grit on there and just tryin’ to do it a little more like our heroes, like Tony Rice and the Bluegrass Album Band and The Bluegrass Sessions and just tryin’ to get that a little bit of the reality. You want some dirt in there. If you listen to the old Flatt & Scruggs records, they didn’t have the money to do 25 passes at a song. That just wasn’t a thing! Also, physically, the whole recording process back then, you had to leave stuff. I’m glad that they pushed me to do that. You can fall into that like, “It can be better…” The guy who mixed the album, Sean Sullivan, who’s done some incredible work…

I just spoke to Tony Logue, who had a record finished with Sean!

Sean recorded the first Wooks album and then mixed this one. I’ve stayed in touch with him from the get-go from meetin’ him. He’s a great dude, but he told me one time, he was like, “You know, I can mix this thing ’til we’re all dead and gone. You can always find something else to do. Sometimes you gotta let it be.” And it’s true!

Let’s talk about the title track “Flying High”. You had a friend who came into possession of a World War I biplane– a dogfighter! I don’t know how you could not write a song about such a thing!

It’s such a weird thing how a song can happen. The last few songs I’ve written have come from this random thought, like a strange sentence that’s come to my mind that I think is intriguing enough that it doesn’t leave your mind immediately. With that one, I was drivin’ back from that rehearsal in Cherokee and I felt like we were still missin’ a song or two for the album, and the phrase, “Sometimes the plane goes down in the middle of the Johnson grass,” come to my mind. At the time, I was like, “I don’t know if that makes a lick o’ sense?” Johnson grass is this invasive stuff up here. I don’t know if you guys have it in Georgia too, but you can find it in pasture fields or whatever. But then I got to thinkin’, and I was like, “I know a guy who crashed in a field full of cows and horses,” and I was like, “Okay, Allen, is this cool character, so maybe there’s something I can write, a real song around this abstract sentence that’s come to my mind.”

Allen’s cousin Pam, her husband, Jim Bob– they’re known as Pam Bob and Jim Bob– are like the coolest people you’ll ever meet in Appalachia. Jim Bob worked on the train and Pam’s an artist, very involved in, in the community and just really great examples of what’s awesome about Appalachia. So I was like, “Okay, there’s a couple verses. I’ll write about those two!” And then I thought o’ my dad’s buddy, Chubb, and his wife Rose, who are in the same community in West Liberty, Kentucky, and I was like, “There’s the other two verses!” I started pokin’ around, talkin’ to Pam and Jim Bob, and puttin’ some factual things in there.

My wife always gets on to me about not writin’ love songs, so I was like, “I’m gonna write sort of a love song.” I felt like their relationships were good examples to others that were embarking on like marriage or love or whatever you wanna call it. I feverishly interviewed Pam about how she met Jim Bob, and then it just kinda came together! I’m really proud of that song. A lotta times I’m hard on myself, but I think it’s cool to document real people. The music video turned out really good. Josh [Clark, the video’s director] was able to really capture their personalities, and it was a fun process for sure!

You say your wife gets onto you for not writin’ love songs– how did she feel once that one was done, but it wasn’t a love song for her?

Well, she really helped with it! When we were talkin’ about getting married, I think men, in particular, can sometimes be a little bit jaded about marriage ’cause you see so many of ’em in today’s world go awry or it’s something that can be a little intimidating. She was like, “Who are couples in your life that you would want to be like if you were to have a relationship gettin’ married? Who would you wanna turn out like?” And Pam and Jim Bob and Chubb and Rose were at the top of the list! (Laughs) So she was definitely a part of the tune, but I’m never gonna write one… I don’t really like a biographical song, you know? About myself anyway! But she likes it, and she’s certainly influenced a lot of my songs. She’s a really sharp individual and that always comes in handy when you’re tryin’ to write!

You brought up John Prine earlier, and on the album, you do a cover– a great cover, man, I loved it– of “Iron Ore Betty”. Tell me how that one came into the mix– who brought that to the table?

We were doin’ a John Prine tribute at Master Musicians Festival here in Somerset, Kentucky, and I brought this ’78 version where he’s playin’ in cut time to try to do with the band– and the guys didn’t really like it. And then I showed them the album version off of Bruised Orange, like how he played it on the album, and then everybody’s light bulbs was goin’ off! Harry was like, “Now this is the way we can do this tune.” It’s got a different vibe– it’s not a rock n’ roll beat, it’s not like a complete cut time beat, but it’s not a straight bluegrass beat, but there’s this time in the song where we’re pretty much playin’ drivin’ bluegrass over the solo section. It’s kind of unique that it straddles those two worlds. It’s a cool tune too because it’s not the John Prine tune that everybody goes to. To me, it’s not overplayed. And then we didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out Sam Bush played electric guitar on that cut! So I guess it was meant to have some bluegrass connection from the get-go!

Flyin’ High is available to order now and lands across all your favorite digital platforms on Friday, February 25th! Like & Follow The Wooks for LIVE performance updates, news & more!