Country Fresh finds David Quinn in his honky tonk element, ramblin’, and racin’ between twangy guitars and deliberate fiddles with songs as full of promise as newly turned earth. Under the banner of Black Dirt Country, Quinn finds the balance between the jukebox giants of the past and his Midwest upbringing, tossing choice bits of Willie, Waylon, Haggard, and Prine into the mix while surrounded by the sharpest tools in Music City’s shed. Quinn’s open-air country music began in earnest with 2019’s Wanderin’ Fool followed in the fall of 2020 by the pre-COVID produced Letting Go, an almost prophetic collection of songs unintentionally foreshadowing David’s escape from Chicago and a stifling desk job to the contrasting freedom of rural Indiana and the honest inspiration of ranch work. Recorded in Nashville during the challenging winter of 2021, Country Fresh was engineered at the Sound Emporium by Mike Stankiewicz (Willie Nelson, Randy Rogers, Shooter Jennings) and features remarkable guest shots from Laur Joamets (Drivin-N-Cryin, Sturgill Simpson), Fats Kaplin (John Prine, Hayes Carll, Jack White), Micah Hulscher (Emmylou Harris, Margo Price), Miles Miller (Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers), Brett Resnick (Sierra Ferrell, Kacey Musgraves), and Jamie Davis (Margo Price).
AI- Chicago was your home base for quite a while? Growin’ up, what kind of music were you into? What did your parents listen to?
DQ- The city was still an hour away or so, but that’s where I would see most of my music, and then I was based there for a couple years ’cause most of my players lived out there. But I’ve never been a big city person– hence why I left! I’m out in Indiana now, out in the woods and where I’m supposed to be (laughs)! Growing up, I was exposed to everything! My dad plays a little bit of guitar, my brother plays guitar really well, and we heard just about everything. My dad played a lot of Willie [Nelson], Merle Haggard, a lot of the ’70s country stuff that I gravitated towards, but then also a lot of soul stuff– Delfonics and James Brown– and then also rock ‘n roll stuff– Skynyrd and Pink Floyd and all that kind of stuff too. So I love it all! I really love it all, but the turning point for me was hearin’ John Prine. He also grew up west of Chicago, he’s also from Illinois, and that’s when it all made sense for me, to hear somebody who grew up fairly close to where I did makin’ the kind of music he was makin’. I’ll never forget that! That was definitely life-changing for me! My dad played used to play that kind of stuff in the house.
When did you start playing music? ‘Cause you started out as a drummer, right?
I did, yeah! I was playin’ pretty young. I was playin’ even in my grade school for some stuff for school, you know, assemblies and things like that. My brother’s a couple years older, he’s probably three, four years older than me, and he was a guitar player in a band. I was kinda hangin’ out with people who were a little bit older than me, that were a little bit better than me musically ’cause they had been at it longer too. It always helps bein’ around people who are better than you. I think probably in the beginning of high school is when I was in my first band playin’ drums. I played in a couple bands with my brother, with friends– but meanwhile, I always wrote. I was big into poetry and lyrics and all that kind of stuff but just never felt like I could sing– still kinda don’t (laughs), but I do it now! That’s the only difference! I’d mess around on guitar, but I definitely was giggin’ as a drummer, so it didn’t really happen until a little bit later that I decided to just do my thing.
Well, what got you started playin’ the kinda music you’re doin’ now? What made you go, “Okay, I’m gonna do this country, honky tonk thing?”
It was always there. I started writin’ songs probably in about high school time, beginning of high school, and this was before the whole movement of Americana or whatever you want to call. Everything came out just kinda with the twang! All the music I liked, I really gravitated towards, like I said, John Prine, even like acoustic Neil Young, and then as I went deeper into Willie and all that kind of stuff, everything I always wrote just came out like real simple folk, country songs– even back then! I just kept writin’ and once I put a band together, it happened pretty naturally. I love bluegrass, I love southern rock– Allman Brothers, Skynyrd– that peaks its head for sure, especially in the live set, but yeah, it’s really been a pretty natural progression in terms of as a guitar player and songwriter. It’s just always come out that way. I don’t think I could really write many other ways!
Tell me about makin’ Wanderin’ Fool— what had you done up to that point?
That’s an interesting (laughs) time! I made a 6-song record, probably a couple years before that. I’m not married now, I got married pretty early, which is not the best decision of my life (laughs), and I was livin’, workin’, and playin’ music. I had a full-time job but playin’ on the weekends, and I met some folks who were in a band that toured and traveled. They were called The Giving Tree Band. They had a little bit of a following out here in Illinois, and they played pedal steel and mandolin and all that kind of stuff, so I talked ’em into lettin’ me record a record at their studio. That was kind of my big test. Before that, it was all drums! I played drums for people, I’d been on records playin’ drums, toured with bands playin’ drums– but it was always more on the rock n’ roll side. I finally decided, “I’m gonna do this! I’m gonna do my thing, try to play guitar, try to sing my songs!” So I tracked the record with those folks that I’d met, and it was almost just kind of a test for me like, “Hey, can I do this? Can I play and sing? Put these songs together if I find players?” ‘Cause I had the players at my disposal for that record, and I did it, and I was like, “I don’t hate this! I could probably do it better next time,” but it gave me hope like, “Okay, let’s do this!” I ended up getting divorced, I sold my house, I sold everything, and took off, traveled for a while, wrote a bunch of songs, came back, and then that’s when I went in to do Wanderin’ Fool.
What were you doing as a day job during that point in time?
Well, I had quit everything. I just had an office job. I was hatin’ my life (laughs)! It was not a good time! I was workin’ in office durin’ the day, and then I would play on the weekends with that group that was helpin’ me out. They let me open up their shows, but yeah, I was just workin’ in an office-type job.
Now with Letting Go, I’m sure that you’ve had time to appreciate the prescience of some of the songs on that album leading up into 2020– you’ve got the title track, you got “Ride On”, “1000 Miles”, “Maybe I’ll Move Out To California”, a lot of songs about leavin’ and goin’ and changing life. And then of course along comes the pandemic and that’s exactly what happens! You headed out to rural Indiana– tell me about the decision to do that. Where are you and what was the goal?
It’s funny how that all worked– it really just kinda happened! When everything hit, I was still in the city, and as I mentioned before, I’ve never been really a city person. I like bein’ outside, I like ridin’ horses, I like ridin’ motorcycles and dirt bikes and fishing and all that kind of stuff, so I just decided to do it! I’m out on the Indiana/Michigan border in La Porte, Indiana right now, out in the woods, right by a little small piece of water out here. When everything hit and I was in Chicago, I was sittin’ on that Letting Go record. I wasn’t quite sure what I was gonna do if I was just gonna put it out or what– and I’m just trapped in an apartment!
I couldn’t play with my players, which was pretty much the only reason why I lived there, and I couldn’t gig, couldn’t do anything! I just had had enough! It was the perfect timing. It was almost life telling me, “It’s time to do it,” and I sure am glad I did because it helped in so many different ways! I decided to make the move, came out here, and it was really nice. I get reminded of everything goin’ on, but in more rural parts, you’re not as reminded about all the bad news. I was helpin’ out on a ranch out here– and almost nothing changed on a ranch. I mean, when you’re out there, you don’t hear about anything– you’re just livin’. So it was a much-needed change, and then I think it was really clearly indicated on this new record of how content I felt out here– and still feel!
It’s funny that you say that, I was lookin’ at your social media. I saw you have some shows coming up with Jeremy Pinnell…
Yeah, Jeremy’s a buddy!
I talked to him last year when Goodbye L.A. came out, and you know, he had gone back to work as a landscaper during the pandemic. I asked him what he had done during that time to stay creative, and he was point-blank, matter of fact, like, “No, no, no, this is creative. This is part of my creativity. This is how I get to what I do on stage.” Is that how you feel bein’ out there in the country and workin’ on a ranch?
Yeah, absolutely! I mean, it just totally re-energized me! Even creatively! You can’t sit at home all day and write good songs (laughs)! You gotta meet people, you gotta have experiences, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s ever said that! But absolutely, if I wouldn’t have done that, obviously I wouldn’t have this Country Fresh record that I have. I think those songs indicate that too– they’re all about exactly how I was living. I wanted it to sound like where I live, feel like where I live, specifically, that summer of 2020. I was ridin’ horses and just bein’ out here, odd jobs and doin’ what I can, but it was great and it just fueled me creatively. I’m just so happy about it!
Tell me how you found your way to the Sound Emporium. You did Letting Go there, you went back for Country Fresh, and largely, you got a wealth of the same great players that you had on the last record.
When I did Letting Go, a bunch of people had recommended Sound Emporium to me. I was talkin’ to a couple studios, and then I had a conversation with the engineer, Mike Stankiewicz, who did both Letting Go and this new one, and we had kinda hit it off. He seemed to understand what I was goin’ for, so that’s what originally had me go to Sound Emporium. A lot of those folks that played on Letting Go, I just became friends with, which was great! We all enjoyed bein’ around each other and I’ve stayed close with them. Like Jamie [Davis], the guitar player, I even run songs by him! I’ll say, “What do you think of this?” He’s been a good bud too. I’ve maintained those relationships, so when I was goin’ back in, since everything that was goin’ on at the time anyways with the pandemic, I figured this was the easiest way to do it. The only difference was the drummer– instead of Dillon [Napier], I used Miles Miller, who’s one of my favorite drummers!
And why wouldn’t you, if you could, right?
(Laughs) Right, right! It’s actually a funny story of how that happened! I went out to Nashville in February of last year. I had studio time booked– same crew– and I had Dillon on drums. The addition was Fats Kaplin. He was the addition that wasn’t on Letting Go besides Miles. But anyway, the day I get there, they got that huge snowstorm that was basically an ice storm! I think Texas got hit too! But I’m from the Midwest, so I have my 4-wheel drive truck, and I’m like, “Oh, I’ll be fine.” So I didn’t think of it– and then it’s like 11 o’clock at night and everyone was textin’ me, they’re like, “Hey, dude, I don’t know if we’re gonna make it in…” My engineer text me, “Dude, studio’s not opening. Let’s push a day.” I’m like, “Okay, it’s fine. We can make that work.” Next day they’re like, “Hey, I think we gotta push one more,” and then it became, “Hey, if we have to push again, it’s not gonna fit,” ’cause they had other people scheduled, you know? And sure enough, we had to push!
So I’m sittin’ there, I drove to Nashville, I was locked in a room for four days, didn’t get to make an album, and I just said to myself, “I am not leaving Nashville until I reschedule this.” I stayed there and everyone could do it except for Dillon, the drummer. I was like, “Well, I have to do it anyway.” I talked to some people, and I’m like, “Hey, does anybody know Miles?” And a lot of the guys knew and they said, “Yeah, he’s great! Just tell him we’re gonna be on the record!” He’s been a favorite drummer of mine, so I wrote a nice little note to him and he got back and he was real sweet! He said, “I’d love to,” and that’s how I ended up with Miles! I went back there about four weeks later in March and recorded the record with them. It was a trip though! I’m tellin’ you, after the whole year, the pandemic, and then to drive all the way to Nashville finally, ready to make this record, and then that happens? It’s like, “Oh man, it doesn’t quit!”
Who’s the woman singin’ harmony with you on Country Fresh?
That’s my friend, Alayne May is her name. She’s a singer around Chicago, songwriter. She’s on Letting Go and on the new record as well.
One of the things that stands out most on the album are the guitars and the rhythms and while you’ve got some sounds and some little runs in there that are certainly evocative, you’ve also got a lot of– no pun– fresh sounds and tones going on. How much discussion went into the amps and the guitars that you employed?
I leave a lot of that up to the guys and to Mike, the engineer. Before every song, we would listen to my demos, which they had already heard, but it was pretty much just me playing into my phone this time because of the pandemic, so I was pretty much alone. It was pretty much acoustic guitar and me singin’, but since I play drums, I knew how I wanted the songs from beginning to end. I knew what kind of drums I wanted on it, I wrote a lot of the electric guitar melodies, but in terms of tones, I’m not so good at that stuff. We’d listen through and I gave maybe an example song of like, “Hey, here’s, sonically, what I’m goin’ for,” but I let those guys do what they like and put trust in them to understand. I think it worked out, so they’re much more responsible for the sound of the record than I think I am!
On Country Fresh, two of the songs on the album, “I Just Want To Feel Alright” and “Long Road”, they really shake things up and come across as some of the darkest and most personal songs that you’ve recorded so far. Did that come from the basic isolation during the pandemic?
What’s interesting is that “Long Road” was actually an older song of mine. Not too old, but I had written that before I’d been out here, and I knew I wanted it to be on this record. “I Just Want To Feel Alight” was right around that time, and it certainly contributed, but what I think is even more relevant is that those feelings were definitely there again, and I think that was because of the isolation and the not knowin’ what’s happening and all that kind of stuff from the pandemic. Certainly, that contributed, whether I wrote it because of that or the feeling was at least relevant again.
You close out the album with “Hummingbird’s Song”. I know that not every song that gets written out there in the world is a true story, but that one seems like it is. Did you write that one for your grandfather?
I did, yeah, definitely. The story on that one is we had tracked the record, all the songs, but that one. I told Mike, my engineer, I said, “Hey, I got this song. I just wanna sit in there and play it. I’m not gonna put it on the record just don’t worry about it.” He’s like, “Okay, cool.” So I just went in the vocal booth with the guitar and a microphone and sat in there, played it, and came out– and kinda forgot about it! He was mixing the record, and I was goin’ over for a listen-through ’cause I stayed in Nashville for a little bit, and we were just about ready.
We listen to the whole record and I made my notes and we were pretty happy with how everything sounds, and then he said, “Hey, you know what? I forgot about that other song you did, and then when I was mixing, it popped up! It almost brought me to tears! I thought it’s a great song. It’s obviously up to you, but people might wanna hear this song. I just mixed the guitar and the vocals together, and I just wanted to let you know.” So he played it for me and I was like, “Oh, okay. Yeah, I do like it!” I had no intention of putting it on the record, and then it changed and I ended up keepin’ it on there. I’ve gotten some really warm messages from some folks who have heard it and that makes it all worth it!
You know, often, I waffle back and forth sometimes on ending upbeat albums like that with lower-toned songs, but I do think it works for Country Fresh.
Well, I appreciate that. It was a tough thing. Another friend of mine, Connie Collingsworth, she works at La Honda Records, she had also told me the same thing, that she really liked that one and I should consider putting it on the record. It was tough! I’m like, “Well if I’m gonna put it on, the only place for it is the end!”
A very Chris Knight thing to do.
(Laughs) Yeah! Chris Knight’s great by the way! But I appreciate the kind words!
Last but not least, let’s talk about Black Dirt Country, the label that you have placed on all of this. What comes next for you and Black Dirt Country?
I hate all the genres and every time I put out a record or a song or whatever it might be, I get that question a lot. I always lump things together as country, but I also understand where people are comin’ from. There are different genres and things, but as I mentioned, even in the beginning of the conversation, bein’ exposed to so much different music that I love, I don’t only listen to country. I mean, I probably mostly listen to roots-based country bluegrass kinda things, but I think livin’ in the Midwest is the same thing– you get a little bit of everything. You’re not in the south, you’re not in the west, but you get a little bit of influence from everywhere, so it seems like an all-encompassing thing for me to have this Black Dirt where it’s Midwest music. It’s workin’ people’s music and it has a little bit of everything, so that’s where that came from. I’m gonna keep pushing that ’cause it’s somethin’ I believe in. You don’t hear a lot about Midwest music categorized by that, so it’s somethin’ I wanna keep pushin’ along. I know some other folks have used that term before, too, so I’m hopin’ that it becomes somethin that people believe in and talk about and more people use and it just becomes a little bit more of a thing ’cause we can use some representation out here in the Midwest!