BE GOOD TO YOURSELF
Liner Notes By Parke Puterbaugh
“How many people do we have to bury?
That was the question Ed Bumgardner found himself asking after watching too many fellow musicians succumb to problems with alcohol, drugs, depression and mental health in recent years. But what could he do? His answer was to help assemble this highly ambitious benefit album, made with assistance from an all-star team of North Carolina musicians.
Be Good to Yourself aims to address the situation by offering vulnerable musicians a way to help themselves. Through a partnership between the nonprofit Abundance NC and MindPath Care Centers, which offers everything from psychotherapy and counseling to addiction recovery, North Carolina musicians in need will be able to call a number and get help. All monies raised from the sale of this album – as well as from merchandise and performances related to it - will go directly to Abundance NC, which will make disbursements to MindPath, whose psychiatric professionals have agreed to provide their services for reduced fees.
Music is a balm and a salvation. It is why some of us play. It is why all of us listen. And it has been a huge source of charity and consciousness-raising in modern times. Think about it: whenever some worthy cause needs addressing and funding, the world reflexively turns to the music community. From the Concert for Bangladesh to Live Aid, Live 8 and Live Earth – not to mention countless benefits on a regional and local scale - musicians have shown up to raise money and awareness for countless good causes.
But what happens when the cause is musicians themselves?
Being a working musician is tough enough in the best of times, as it’s a lifestyle and an environment fraught with unique risks. As Keith Richards (who oughta know) observed, it’s easy to get one’s “long hair caught in the lathe” of long hours, late nights, endless travel, and the ready availability of drugs and alcohol. When you factor in all the additional challenges musicians have had to face in the digital age - including declining revenues and dwindling venues, not to mention a loss of recognition and respect from a culture with other priorities - it has, unfortunately, for some, reached a tipping point.
Be Good to Yourself brings together a large, diverse collection of North Carolina musicians on what can be fairly termed a concept album. Across two discs, the program takes listeners on a journey from excess and addiction to hope and recovery. Bumgardner handpicked the songs, intending Be Good to Yourself to follow an arc with a discernible story line. Having played bass guitar in bands since he was thirteen and written about music for many years at the Winston-Salem Journal, he was well-suited for the task.
As he explains, “I wanted all the songs to have something to do with romantic dissolution, musical disillusion, manic depression, substance abuse and drinking a bunch. Once you get it, if you’re paying attention, you’ll realize it’s about someone who’s having trouble at home, they’re having trouble playing, and the blues are taking over. The whole first disc is the fall, and the second disc is where it bottoms out and starts climbing back up.”
Like the best music, no matter how dark or blues-oriented, it sounds fabulous and works on the level of being entertaining and, ultimately, uplifting. Moreover, it coheres. Throughout its twenty-three songs, you’ll find an inspired conjoining of singers and songs, with each voice supported by the unifying, supertight backing of a crack quintet of North Carolina musicians formed expressly for the occasion.
They call themselves the DeFacto Brothers, because they are exactly that: five musical brothers who bonded around a good cause. They served as the house band for this project, recording basic tracks at Chris Garges’ Old House Studio in Charlotte, NC. As the Funk Brothers were to Motown, the Swampers were to Muscle Shoals, and the Wrecking Crew were to the West Coast pop scene, the DeFacto Brothers are to Be Good to Yourself.
Cloaked in modest semi-anonymity, the DeFacto Brothers arose from the ashes of Winston-Salem’s late, lamented Luxuriant Sedans, a bluesy, rootsy combo who left a trail of fine albums and memorable performances in their wake. The DeFacto Brothers include three imported Sedans – guitarists Rob Slater and Gino Grandinetti, and bassist Ed Bumgardner (Sedans drummer Larry Carman also plays on four tracks). Bumgardner and Slater point to Grandinetti as the core of the DeFacto sound.
“Gino and I were in each other’s first band; he essentially taught me how to play,’ Bumgardner said. “And through the years, he has developed a highly individualized approach to making music. His chord choices, his use of inversions, his skill at weaving among the other parts, is crucial. A lot of what he does is not immediately apparent, but remove it, and the foundational hole is enormous. He is a wizard.”
Doug Davis, another longstanding figure on the Winston-Salem scene, provided solid, seemingly boundless keyboard expertise. (Is there an instrument with keys he doesn’t play on this album?) Rounding out the quintet is Chris Garges, who played drums - although “played” is too weak a verb for the highly musical fury of his Keith Moon-like drumming.
Be Good to Yourself is likely different from any album you’ve ever heard. Here, in a nutshell, is how it went down:
Bumgardner picked the songs.
The trio of Garges, Bumgardner and Slater produced the album.
The DeFacto Brothers laid down instrumental backing, plus various solos and overdubs.
Approximately sixty other good souls contributed lead vocals and additional instrumentation.
The project’s many participants mainly came from the musical communities along North Carolina’s I-85 corridor – the Charlotte metropolitan area, the Triad (Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point) and the Triangle (Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham). A handful of “honorary North Carolinians,” including Bill Lloyd (from Nashville) and Danielle Howle (from Columbia, S.C.), were also drafted for the cause.
Numerous guests were drawn from what Bumgardner and Slater smilingly refer to as “Chris’s magical Rolodex.” Garges, who earned a degree in music from the University of Miami, spent many years producing and engineering sessions at Old House Studio, eventually buying the business in 2013. (Incidentally, he has also been the longtime drummer in Mitch Easter’s band.) Over the years he has worked with and befriended countless musicians, and his contacts helped move the project to another level.
“Originally it was mostly going to be Ed, Rob, Gino, Doug and me, and then they were going to get some friends of theirs to sing,” Garges recalls. “But then they started asking for recommendations, and I started thinking about people I really liked that I’d recorded.”
“At some point I also recommended trying to get Don Dixon to sing on it. He sang on two things, and that opened up another level. Then Peter Holsapple got involved, and suddenly it started to become this great, giant thing.”
“Everyone involved could not have been more accommodating,” says Bumgardner. “For instance, we were trying to find the right person to sing ‘Thunderbird’” – a wryly drawn Terry Anderson tune about wasting an afternoon drinking cheap wine – “but it wasn’t quite working the way we were hearing it. I sat bolt upright in bed one night and thought Southern Culture on the Skids!”
“As fate would have it they were playing in town the next night, so I just walked up, introduced myself and said, ‘You might not know me from Adam, but here is what we’re doing.’ And Rick [Miller] and Mary [Huff] just looked at each other and said ‘okay.’”
Likewise, “everyone on the Charlotte scene was so willing to help out,” Slater notes. “With many of them it was like, ‘When do you need me to come in? I can be there tomorrow at ten.’”
The perfectly unhinged punk vocal on “Pills” – a Bo Diddley song immortalized by the New York Dolls - was done on short notice by Bruce Hazel, of Charlotte’s Temperance League. In Bumgardner’s recollection, “We called him and asked, ‘Do you know this song by the New York Dolls?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Can you come in tomorrow?’ ‘Yeah, sure!”
“Given the circumstances, everybody was really great,” says Garges. “Surprisingly, if we were going to be faced with a worldwide pandemic, that was the time for this project to happen, in order to keep us all from going insane.”
Slater and Bumgardner are unflagging in their praise of Garges’ work and involvement.
“I would find the songs, and then Rob and Gino would come over here and we’d work out basic arrangements in my basement,” Bumgardner explains. “We’d send him these completely awful demo tapes [laughs], but he knew what we were trying to do and where we were going, and he’d add his own two cents. More than anything, Chris taught us how to make records.”
“Chris is not only a great drummer, but he is also so musical in other ways,” adds Slater. “He would kick around our rough, basic arrangements and come up with some amazing ideas of his own.”
Since the project was done during the pandemic, the core participants wore masks and maintained social distancing in the studio. They would then quarantine for two weeks after returning home. The basic tracks they’d recorded at Old House were sent over the ’net to various contributors, who would add their parts from home or a nearby studio.
“As soon as the pandemic kicked in, everybody started beefing up their home recording setups to be able to shoot tracks around,” says Garges. “So it was cool to be able to say, ‘Hey, can we send you stuff?’ And most people were prepared to do it.”
Talk about making lemonade during what was otherwise a very sour, trying time.
As a listening experience, because of its thematic architecture, the whole adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. But the individual parts all stand up so strongly, too.
For example, Brett Harper Uzzell – a.k.a. Snüzz, the beloved Triad-area singer-guitarist who’s been a member of Bus Stop and International Orange, played with Ben Folds and Jeffrey Dean Foster, and established himself as a solo artist, too – delivers Peter Holsapple’s “Away With Love” with the fiery ardor of a wounded romantic as Who-like volleys of guitar and drums thunder around him. Don Dixon takes the wheel on Snüzz’s own “Getaway Car,” with its earnest, Springsteen-worthy promises of deliverance. Peter Holsapple sings “There Was a Light” with poignancy and conviction, and Mitch Easter adds a chimerical guitar solo. The song was written by the late Chris Bell, a founding member of Big Star, which was a touchstone band for Easter and Holsapple as they forged their musical identities as power pop-smitten teenagers growing up in Winston-Salem. “There Was a Light,” like many other tracks on Be Good to Yourself, looks forward and backward in time, with neatly plotted elements and canny references that take the listener on a trip drawn with intentionality and purpose.
There are youthful singers, such as newcomer Elena Rogers and rising stars Maya Beth Atkins (who assimilates Lucinda Williams’ world-weary “Essence”) and Faith Jones (who drills deep into Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”).
There are also wizened older voices who draw from deep experiential wells, yielding such standouts as Mike Strauss’ eerie, half-spoken recitation of Robin Trower’s “Dreams That Shone Like Diamonds”; John Howie Jr.’s haunting, country-balladeer reading of David Childers’ “Ghostland”; and the quiet drama that Justin Faircloth (of Charlotte’s Houston Brothers) invests in the broken-hearted, bottomed-out blues of “Barstool.”
On a fragrant note of psychedelic time-travel, Rod Abernethy and Robert Kirkland – members of Chapel Hill legends Arrogance – join voices on Pink Floyd’s “Fearless,” a song about rising above impediments and limitations to soar beyond the clouds. Then there’s the amazing “Frankenstein” monster a pile of musicians make of Edgar Winters’ over-the-top instrumental, upping the ante by interpolating another proggy composition from the era – and I’m definitely not going to spoil that surprise.
One of the most impressive acts of musical rescue and repurposing is the affirmative title track. Bearing a 1975 copyright, “Be Good to Yourself” – not to be confused (at all) with Journey’s self-penned 1986 hit of the same name - was written by former Free bassist Andy Fraser and recorded by both him (on a solo album) and Scottish singer Frankie Miller. Neither version dented any American chart. But the song was a favorite of Bumgardner’s, and Doug Davis delivers it in a soulful rasp that would do U.K. belters like Miller, Steve Marriott and Paul Rodgers proud.
Suffice it to say that Be Good to Yourself is both a spirited and spiritual listening experience. At this point I will refer you to Ed Bumgardner’s track-by-track notes for inside information and deep insight. Just one more observation:
Way back in 1985, a trio of cassettes showcasing North Carolina artists was issued under the title Welcome to Comboland. It served notice that the state’s talent-rich music scene was ready for broader exposure on the national stage. Be Good to Yourself demonstrates that three-and-a-half decades later, North Carolina is still a veritable “comboland” teeming with skilled, creative and committed musicians. Moreover, it’s heartening to see so many of them unite behind this album and its mission.
“The North Carolina musical community showed up,” says Rob Slater. “They got the concept. Everyone knows someone who’s had problems with drugs, alcohol or mental health. It might be a bandmate or a friend; it might even have been them at some point. So they understood the value of what we were trying to do. All I can say is look at what we were able to accomplish with this project during a pandemic.”
“As has always been the case, North Carolina has an incredibly high caliber of musicians, all of whom have vision and voice,” says Ed Bumgardner. “But the great thing about NC musicians is that they don’t mind donating their most viable means of currency – their talent – to help somebody else.”