Seth James renders unreleased JJ Cale song “Raisin ‘Kane” ahead of new LP “Different Hat”
At first glance, Seth James – outfitted in a cowboy hat and a native Texas twang – fits into a universal archetype. Looking at an album cover, one would expect to hear something akin to the epitome of George Strait’s’ 90s country. But growing up away from anywhere on his family’s cattle ranch in King County, James had to dig for the musical influence that other teenagers have naturally encountered on TV or radio over the years. 90.
James, who jokes, “There’s no radio on a horse,” went looking for songs that sounded like they came from people who worked as hard as him. Here he found Muddy Waters and Lightnin ‘Hopkins, then Booker T. & the MGs, NRBQ. There was a groove in Delbert McClinton, Joey Lee, Frankie Miller that drove him to what he thinks is misconceived as “Texas Soul”.
“Living here with the background that I have was always confusing for someone who had never heard me because it was rather confrontational. A lot of times people listen with their eyes, ”James told American Songwriter over the phone. “But to me, Delbert McClinton was the most Texan thing I could think of next to Bob Wills. And, in my mind, there wasn’t a huge difference.
Reconstructing his lived experience, superimposed on his transcendent influence, James is preparing his third full album, Different hat. Due on August 27 via Tiny Ass Records, the record begins at the bottom of the well he drank from while digging deeper into the blues world. Produced by Kevin McKendree and recorded live with elite players, Different hat portrayed James as a torchbearer, claiming both the perpetuation and evolution of an endangered musical style.
“I always want to hear more of this music, and there isn’t a lot of it being made these days,” says James. “No one crowned me as the torchbearer, but it’s important to me that I carry on the sonic tradition. I don’t take myself too seriously, but I do take this part seriously.
James feels like he’s not “plugged into the music business” in a way that makes him come up with a lot of songs for his recording. But through her manager, Sam Siefert, the artist was connected to the JJ Cale estate and introduced “Raisin ‘Kane” – an original that was never cut or released, not even by the caption she -even. Featured today (July 19) ahead of the new album, “Raisin ‘Kane” features Lee Roy Parnell on slide guitar, lots of brass and lots of swing.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard JJ’s demos, but they sound a lot like his records – usually recorded at home with a drum machine from an old Lowery organ. The song was really simple, and nothing was missing at all. I couldn’t understand why no one had ever cut it.
Hearing “Raisin ‘Kane” for the first time, he said, “made you feel like you’ve found gold.” James feels the great honor of highlighting a song from Cale’s legendary catalog, but also a personal connection to the late storyteller.
“I don’t know his process, and I won’t pretend to know it. But it doesn’t seem like he would think too much and change himself. He looks like the kind of guy who would sit down and write a song without worrying about whether someone is going to understand exactly what he was talking about – that’s their job, ”says James. “And for me, if I want to sing someone else’s song, the language and the words have to match the way I speak. Even though I didn’t know JJ, it seems to me that we speak the same language.
His 2009 solo album This kind of man was acclaimed by music. The following year, James co-founded the roots rock group, The Departed, with his friend Cody Canada. James returned to his solo career three years and two albums later, hungry for that unique sound he had worked so hard to find.
Now, at “40 something”, James feels like he’s finally landed on something that feels like an authentic fusion of a non-linear experience. With “Raisin ‘Kane”, Different hat includes another Cale composition, “Wish I Had Not Said”. His rendition of the song, first released on Cale’s album in 1981, Nuances, features the voice of his wife, Jessica Murray, which adds to the soul-funk influence between Memphis and Muscle Shoals.
Another cover – “Ohoopee River Bottomland” by Larry Jon Wilson – follows suit, suggesting James’s responsibility to pass on the regional traditions that have shaped his art. With the utmost respect, he blends centuries-old traditions both in a borrowed heritage and original tracks to respond to a modern moment. The ease with which it gets here is the product of decades of means intentionally designed to pass on the stories James hopes to pass on to previous generations.
“Some people make their first record when they’re young and sound like them right off the bat. I don’t know how it goes, but it hasn’t happened to me, ”says James. “And so being here, it’s suddenly easier to put myself, my background and my experience in my music because I’m not trying so hard to do something else. It’s easier for me to understand my role, what I am.
In the past, the artist avoided sharing certain experiences or ways of speaking for fear that the listener would not understand or identify with the feeling. Over the years, James has discovered that it is not the specific content or details but rather the vulnerability that draws a listener into music with an open heart.
He adds, “There is a lot of comfort and ease in making music once you get to a place where you just know who you are as an artist.”
Listen to an exclusive Seth James cover of JJ Cale’s unreleased track, “Raisin ‘Kane,” below. His new album, Different hat, is due August 27 via Tiny Ass Records.