Sarah Lee Langford and Will Stewart track desert grit and rich Bama dirt across the hardwood floor on Bad Luck & Love, a smoky collection of honky tonkers and heart wreckers ideal for lovin’, leavin’, and comin’ back home. Drawing on the same alt-ish country sound that drove her 2019 moaner Two Hearted Rounder, Langford trades the pen and the lead with guitarist Stewart to populate the duo’s debut with broken-in tales of hard times, nightlife, and nostalgia that walk the walk and howl the howl of classic country conviction.
“We’ve been playin’ together in some capacity for the last five years or so,” says Will Stewart from his home in Birmingham, Alabama during a recent mid-afternoon phone call. “That last album she put out, Two Hearted Rounder— which is fantastic– I played on that whole album, and from that point forward, I’ve played in her band.”
That band– stripped down to glorious basics for BL&L— also features bassist Keelan Parrish (Vulture Whale), pedal steel guitarist Ford Boswell (Early James), and drummer Brian Gosdin (Dexateens).
A stalwart of the Magic City scene as well as a relentless performer alongside Langford, Pony Bradshaw, and bands Slack Time and The Blips, Will Stewart’s ability as a songwriter gets the welcome spotlight on Bad Luck & Love, revealing an earned wisdom dressed in honest guitar tones that wastes no note or sentiment. Compelling and genuine, Will was keen to delve into the origins and songs from his collaboration with Sarah Lee Langford, his latest solo effort, and tease the next projects he’s excited to be a part of.
AI- This is not the first time that you and Sarah have recorded together, it is on the other hand, the first project you’ve released under the duo banner. What made now the time to do that?
WS- I think I had approached her. The title track “Bad Luck & Love”, I had written that song already on my own, at least the core structure, arrangement– one verse and basically the chorus. It’s kind of a story song. I don’t have kids– I was tellin’ it from the point of view of someone else. [Sarah] has kids, and I was like, “Why don’t you sing the lead on this one and we do a co-write thing?” She wrote one o’ the verses, I wrote one verse, the chorus, and so that was the impetus for us collaborating on the whole album and putting both our names on the title. From there, that sparked our interest like, “This is really cool– why don’t we just do a whole album where I write three or four tunes and you write the other half?”
Since you brought up the title track… It’s blue-collar, every day, one paycheck could mean the end o’ the world country music. That style of country music, I don’t know that it is as prolific as once it was, and to me, that’s what I think of when I think of country music. The word “trope” is used in the album bio, but the hallmarks of real people country music— is that what you were goin’ for overall?
I was, certainly. I primarily listen to mostly older music. I grew up listening to ’60s and ’70s music when all my friends were listening to whatever’s on the radio. I’m not sayin’ one’s better than the other but that’s just what I gravitate toward. I really started diggin’ into classic country in my mid to late twenties ’cause for a long time, I quite honestly rejected it! I always listened to Willie Nelson but I never really dug in too heavy beyond that. I’m a big Loretta Lynn fan, Kitty Wells, and George Jones obviously, and to me, the binding thread through all that stuff and the reason why people love that music so much was because of the stories. It’s real, it’s gritty; it talks about real life and the struggles of common people. That’s what I relate to anyhow in my real life. That was my tip o’ the hat to classic country songwriting. It’s always about hard luck and struggle, but also, through all that, there’s some sense of hope. Otherwise, everything’s just gonna collapse.
In that same vein, “All These Damn Things”… Nothin’ in the world satisfies me quite like a good, sad, beer-drinkin’ country song, and that is certainly one of ’em!
Thanks, man! And here again, I wanted to try to put my two cents in for classic songwriting– let’s try to be earnest and get straight to the point. It’s my version of a tortured love song, so to speak. I like to think that I wrote that and I was bein’ completely sincere about someone in my life. I’m not gonna name any names, but it makes me feel great to hear you say that because what I’m goin’ for in all this stuff is just tryin’ to be honest. I hope people through that honesty can relate to it.
Tell me about Robby Amonett and writin’ that song. Bull rider turned painter– and a friend o’ yours I’m assuming?
Oh, yeah! As a matter o’ fact, we got to play that song live for Robby at one o’ my favorite venues down in Mobile called Callaghan’s. It’s become a really great venue over the years and a great stop on the small club circuit for folks like us. I’ve known [Robby] as a friend for the better part of ten years. The first time I played down at Callaghan’s, he did a live painting of us. That’s his thing– live, on-the-spot paintings. That’s how I met him, and the more I got to know him, he revealed to me at one point that years and years ago back in his youthful days, he was a bull rider! I couldn’t get over it! I thought that was the coolest thing in the world, but also, you rarely ever encounter a former bull rider who’s now an accomplished painter! Maybe there’s some others that I don’t know about, but that’s a pretty unique, odd thing!
I didn’t really set out to write a song about Robby, I was just playin’ that chord progression and with some songwriting, it’s not magic or anything, sometimes things just come to you. I started hummin’ the line about Robby and I was like, “Man, I’m gonna write a damn song about Robby bein’ a bull rider!” (Laughs) I texted him that and I sent him a little demo o’ the song I was doin’. I was like, “Hey, man, I didn’t set out to write a song about you but it kinda came together like this. I want it to be about your tenure as a bull rider– can you give me some little anecdotes about certain things, certain towns, or lines, or whatever that you want to be included?” He gave me two or three lines I ended up usin’ in the song. As a matter o’ fact, he’s a co-writer on that.
I consider Robby a friend and it was really special for us as a band. We played it live for him, and I could tell he was really touched by it, so that meant a lot to us too. I’m really proud o’ that one!
I was curious how he had reacted to it.
Oh, he loved it! But he’s a very modest fellow, you know?
Did he paint ya’ll that night when you performed it?
He did! And I bought it! I have it with me in my house! It was a real special night.
I was divin’ into some o’ your other work– you’ve actually released another album this year. Slow Life came out this past summer, and I totally missed it the first time, so I was thrilled diggin’ into it! It’s jangly, angsty rock n’ roll, exactly the other kind of thing I like. You talk about bein’ into ’60s and ’70s music but on that, I really felt a Replacements vibe and some Tom Petty thrown in there as well. If I say to you that Bad Luck & Love does not feel like what many people are doing these last couple years with the “pandemic” record, I would say that in many ways Slow Life does feel like a pandemic record– that pent-up frustration coming out on the record.
First of all, thanks for listening to it! All this stuff kinda came together at the same time, so I was like, “Aw, man, I’m gonna have to release these in pretty close succession…” But that’s a good problem to have! I’d had that title even pre-COVID ’cause it kinda sums up the way that I’m here in Birmingham and if I’m not on the road playin’ music, I’m just here at my house with my dog, playin’ my guitar, and workin’ in my yard and doin’ everyday stuff. I thought it encapsulated my lifestyle and what I do and generally my philosophy toward life. That’s just a broad way of diggin’ into that title, but when I hear you mention the Replacements and Petty, that really warms my heart (laughs) because those are two of my favorite all-time bands! I’m a huge fan of early REM and The Byrds and the pioneering jangly guitar stuff.
Musically, I wanted to tip my hat to that sound and I think we did a good job in capturing that. There’s a song where I do my version of some o’ that harmony slide, George Harrison stuff. I try to pepper in all o’ my references and influences of that kind of stuff that I really like to listen to. I’m really proud o’ that album too! With the Sarah band, it allows me to have an outlet for my love of country music, and with the Slow Life stuff, it’s on the opposite spectrum and more of a rock kind o’ thing.
When you’re playin’ with Sarah, does it also offer you an opportunity to step back and not be the front person? To be the guitar player, to be the sideman? ‘Cause I know that is also a fun part.
Yes, a hundred percent! Sometimes, I would like to just be the guitar guy. In a lot o’ ways, it takes a lot o’ pressure off. You have someone else to lock arms with and go to battle with, so to speak, but I think that’s pretty spot on. And beyond those two bands, I’m a guitarist for about three other bands, you know? I play with this dude named Pony Bradshaw…
I don’t know James, but we’ve spoken and met briefly once when he was in town. I’m really lookin’ forward to the new album– dare I ask, did you play on North Georgia Rounder?
Yeah, I played on the whole album! I’m really happy with it!
Everything I’ve heard from it is fantastic! I’m hopin’ to talk to him right after the holiday.
I’ll tell him that we talked!
Back to Bad Luck & Love… You chose a John Prine song for the album, “Aimless Love”. How’d you land on that one? That period o’ John’s career in the ’80s, I feel like that gets overlooked a lot. How did that song become a part of the record?
I agree, it does get overlooked. If I remember correctly, it’s the first album he put out when he started Oh Boy, his own label. I really got into that album maybe six months before we started trackin’ [Bad Luck & Love]. I was like, “Man, this would fit nicely with the narrative of the album!” I think I’ve recorded one other cover on a proper album, so I never really delved into that too much. That’s always an interesting thing to me because I think that interpreting songs can be an art in and of itself also. It’s like a personal challenge in that sense, but beyond that, I thought that the lyrical content really fit into the narrative. It spoke to me in a personal way at the time. It still does! I don’t have to say that I’m a huge Prine fan– I mean, he’s really one o’ the best, you know? I didn’t read into it too much as to like, “This has to be on the album,” it just felt right so I followed my intuition, and Sarah was into it.
On “Dark Rooms”, the line, “Dreams die, but the guitars shine bright…” I love that line. It puts me in the mood of how it doesn’t matter what’s going right or wrong in your life, that once you can sit down with the guitar and play it, it’s alive and happening right then. That’s what keeps you going.
Yes. I think that sums up the general idea behind all that. “Dark Rooms” is a reference to bars, obviously, so it’s also a bar song about “come through those doors and see the neon signs and forget everything for four or five hours.” That’s what I was goin’ for with that kind o’ narrative. It’s about bein’ in a band and using music as an escape. It’s also kind o’ Buddhist– the only thing real is literally what’s happening right in front of you. I was touching on that narrative as well. I was really happy with the way that turned out. I wanted it to be ethereal and have reverbed out pedal steel in the background. I think we captured a pretty cool vibe with that one.
You’ve got this record out now, you just filled me in on playing with Pony Bradshaw and North Georgia Rounder comin’ out next month– tell me what you’ve got on tap next? Or will you be entirely too busy (laughs) to concentrate on anything else?
I’m definitely gonna be busy jugglin’ five bands or so– but that’s how I like it! Like I said earlier, it allows me to have an outlet for all of my different musical interests, which are plenty! I’m just gonna be busy playin’ live shows, really. I’m doin’ a big album release tour with Pony, and then in the midst of all that, I’m going to be playin’ with Sarah, and then I’m gonna be playin’ all the Slow Life stuff.
I do have a really exciting thing… This fella in Birmingham that runs a label called Earth Libraries [Bryant Saxon] approached me about doing a covers album of a long-forgotten songwriter from the Birmingham area named Baker Knight. I’m sure you know some of his famous songs– his most famous song is probably “Lonesome Town”. Ricky Nelson made it famous…
That’s one o’ my all-time favorites! When I used to perform, I used to do that song! And I didn’t know that was Baker Knight! That’s fantastic!
It’s been covered now by everyone from Paul McCartney down the line! It’s just a legendary song, as you know. I didn’t know who Baker Knight was until Bryant approached me about doin’ this project. I recorded about ten Baker Knight songs– including “Lonesome Town”– over in Water Valley, Mississippi, which is about thirty minutes from Oxford. The old Fat Possum label used to be based in Water Valley and they had a studio connected to that. It’s called Dial Back Sound now and that’s where we recorded the ten songs. Matt Patton, the Dexateens bass player who also played bass for Drive-By Truckers, he’s a co-owner of that studio. There’s a lot o’ cool history there! All that bein’ said, that album is being mixed currently, and I’m very, very excited about it!