Examiner.com – Kevin Yeanopolis
A chat with Country Artist Danny Griego: Man of Measure
Examiner.com – Kevin Yeanopolis
The uncommon man that is driven by it. Singer-songwriter Danny Griego is such a singular man. The talented country artist has crammed at least 10 lifetimes of experience into his short time on Earth, plying his trade as a Subway Restaurant operator, a Greyhound bus franchisor and a co-owner of an NHRA pro-stock motorcycle team, among others. And then of course there are the 3,000 plus live gigs that Griego has under his belt. Only the oblivious could trudge through that line-up without picking up an insight or two.
The country tunesmith that cut his songwriting teeth with Hall of Famers Hank Cochran, Red Lane and Max D. Barnes put every one of those insights to good use with his recently released album, Cowboys, Outlaws & Border Town Dogs. Though the intuitive artist has written songs recorded by Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and Michael Martin Murphey, this time around he kept the exceptional tunes for himself. After all, who else but Griego could astutely croon “Feelin’ Like A Three-Legged Border Town Mexican Dog” or “I Think She Only Likes Me for My Willie”?
The master songcrafter chatted recently with AXS.com whilst thrilling audiences with tunes from the new album as the official entertainer of the 2013-14 N.H.R.A. race circuit, along with his outstanding band – CMA & ACM award winning bassist Kevin Grantt, pedal steel guitarist Robby Turner, CMA nominated fiddler of the year Hank Singer, lead guitarist James Mitchel and drummer Chris Wood.
It’s mind-boggling to consider that after all of the twists and turns and shows, Cowboys, Outlaws & Border Town Dogs is Griego’s first solo album to see the light of day. That’s a lot of cool, clear, water under the bridge.
“Hank Williams, Jr. told me you got to be careful what you write,” declared Griego, “because you end up living it. A lot of the songs that I wrote 10 years ago I was scared to put a pen to paper, because you don’t want to live some of that stuff. And I lived it. That’s country music.”
“Johnny Cash just had another platinum album. People want to hear believability. They want to hear about a story from someone who’s been there and done that. And it’s hard to get that from a 16-year-old. That’s the one thing to look for in the studio; believability. That’s one thing I look for. If you listen to the tracks on some of the songs, he was real pitchy at the end of them. He wanted to go back and fix ‘em. Thank God his producer didn’t let him go back and fix ‘em. It’s believable.”
“My first album in Nashville was with Richie Albright at the helm and Richie’s a tough cookie. He’s from the school of, ‘You pay your dues.’ He’s pretty tough, so he didn’t cut me or anybody else a whole lot of slack because he didn’t get any. We put together somewhere in the ballpark of 40-something songs. I played him song after song after song that I wrote. I played them for him and he helped me weed out the ones that he thought were believable and had a common theme. He taught me a lot about putting an album together.”
Given Griego’s incredibly diverse background, it’s not surprising that he’s put together an album of incredibly diverse music, ranging from outlaw country to Americana to Latin and back. But even though he’s comfortable making any kind of music, the songwriter confessed to a favorite flavor.
“You know, I was a huge fan of Marty Robbins and I grew up in the West. I'm really into the outdoors and being surrounded by that. Like right now, the mountain I live on is 6300 feet in elevation and it’s been great being able to hike back here. I guess I'm coming the long way around the horn on this but the West is really in my blood. Country and western music is the story songs, about the West, and nobody’s doing that.”
“There’s cowboy poets and there’s some western artists, but it’s been kind of kicked out of the mainstream. And I think that’s really too bad, because I think a lot of people love to hear that kind of stuff. So that’s my favorite thing to do. I love doing those kinds of songs.”
“The other songs that I love doing are songs that make people laugh. They want to come out and escape. It’s the same reason why I go to a movie, you know? You’ve been working your tail off and you want to go out there and get away from that, cut loose and have some fun. It’s all about energy. It’s about keeping the level of energy up and taking somebody on a journey.”
“And those songs like (‘Feelin’ Like A) Three-Legged Border Town Mexican Dog’ and ‘I Think She Only Likes Me for My Willie’? Those things really work live and people like them. Because people like them, I love doing it for them. It makes me happy to be able to make somebody else happy.”
That stands to reason for an artist that has made others happy to the tune of several thousand gigs. But though Griego is supremely comfortable in front of a live audience, he also enjoys working in the studio.
“I love working in the studio. I absolutely look forward to it. It’s a totally different animal. I struggled with it when I started. Red Lane told me, ‘You have to sing in that.’ ‘That’ is the microphone. ‘That’s a million people. When you’re singing it, that’s who you’re talking to. You’re telling your story.’ That’s one of the things that helped me, because I tend to visualize when I'm singing in a microphone. It takes your mind off a studio being under that microscope. You can hear every nuance.”
“When you’re working live, you’re entertaining people, so you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing. You’re just doing it. In other words, you’re getting out of your way. And the tough thing in the studio is learning how to get out of your own way. I love doing it. I love playing in a studio. I still track on two-inch tape. Two-inch tape is a recording of somebody’s voice. It’s not an interpretation of X’s and O’s. It’s real.”
As much as he enjoyed recording the tunes for the new record, there is one song that was a bit more real to the songwriter – “He Was An Outlaw,” Griego’s ode to the life of Jesus Christ. “Oh yeah. I'm real passionate about that,” he professed. “That’s close to the bone for me. When I first wrote it, I had a hard time getting through it without losing it.”
“I tracked that thing twice. The first time, we tracked it a lot lighter and it wasn’t so heavy. And the second time I tracked it, it scared some people out of the room. They either like it or they don’t. There’s not a whole lot of middle ground on it. And I'm okay with that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I kind of wanted to tell that story which is a true story in that way. I never heard anybody tell it like that.”
Truth be told, that applies to most all of Griego’s work, whether it be as a businessman, a performer or insightful songwriter. The gifted artist has the rare innate ability to serve many different masters and be successful at them all. But Griego admitted that there is a secret or two to making it work.
“When creativity hands you that song, if you put on that editor hat, you’ll get in the way. You need to let the whole thing come out before you start carving it up and deciding where things go. The side of my brain that edits is totally different from the creative side. I can switch gears into the editor side real quick, but switching into that creative side is a lot harder for me.”
“So as a general rule, on show days no one discusses business. If we have a 7 o’clock show, you won't catch me talking business with anybody after noon. I follow the Johnny Cash rule. I’ll take a 30-minute nap before the show. When I come out, the ‘artist’ walks out the door. He goes and does the show. Like (Merle) Haggard does, I go put on my big cape and step on the stage. The last thing I want to do is talk about business with anybody because it messes me up. I have a hard time switching back.”
As far as the down-to-earth songwriter’s fans are concerned, Griego has worn a cape since he astoundingly survived a lightning strike while in college, rehabbing his arm and motor skills by learning to finger pick classical music. But as with anyone that has experienced a life-changing event, the physical rehab is the easy part. The emotional and spiritual recovery can be much more difficult.
“I have a hard time going there without losing it, you know? It was a lonely road on that deal because nobody was really around me at that time. I was up in Flagstaff, Arizona and we were getting ready to start a semester at college. All of the instructors were great about it except for one of them because he didn’t believe me. I had to bring my hospital records (laughs). The guy felt really bad once he found out what happened.”
“When you’re sitting there staring at your hand that doesn’t work and you’re trying to play something, it’s really frustrating. It makes you ask yourself a lot of questions too, why you’re here? And you realize how fragile we are and how many more days we have promised to us. It wakes you up with a different attitude.”
After spending a fortunate few minutes with the perceptive tunesmith, you realize just how special Danny Griego’s “different attitude” is. And that should be enough to wake us all up…