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You may not know his name, but you’ve likely heard him before. Phil Madeira is a highly respected Nashville musician who has led Emmylou Harris’ band, the Red Dirt Boys since 2008. He’s also written songs, performed with and played on numerous albums from artists as widespread as Alison Krauss, Garth Brooks, Toby Keith, The Civil Wars, Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, and Mavis Staples.
Madeira is out with a new album, Providence, a release that has already gained critical favor. It’s been previewed on major music sites including Rolling Stone and American Songwriter. The jazz inspired set is full of references to familiar locales, (the ballad “Barrington” and the New Orleans inspired “Back in the Ocean State”) as well as at least one place that doesn’t exist anymore. The funky “Crescent Park” (“listen up mister, you never ride the twister”) and “Gothenburg,” a piano based immigrant story in the style of Randy Newman, are two highlights. (See videos below.) We’ll have a full review soon, meanwhile, preview the release on Spotify here.
We interviewed Madeira last week in advance of his April 6th homecoming show at the Columbus Theater in Providence.
Tell us about the new album, Providence.
The concept of writing a song cycle about growing up in Rhode Island came to me from the apex of the Pell Bridge on my way to the Newport Jazz Festival in 2016. Once the idea came, the songs followed swiftly, and by October of the same year, I had all but one of the pieces written.
It’s really an homage to growing up in a wonderful place but knowing that you’re being summoned from far away – in my case, the South. All the music I love is rooted in the South, as is all popular American music. So, there’s that bit of tension of being a “Rhode Island Yankee On Jefferson Davis Court”, as one song is called.
How did growing up in Rhode Island affect your songwriting?
Honestly, the place the arts held in the school system in Barrington was partially responsible for my developing as a musician, both in regular band and in jazz band where I was a drummer. Being in the chorale and the jazz band in particular, gave me a sense of appreciation for harmony as well as what we know as “Standards” – classic songs from people like George Gershwin.
Of course, my parents were encouraging of my talents, if somewhat bewildered by them. But they encouraged me in my pursuits, and I’m grateful for that. Rhode Island’s one of the most beautiful places there is, and I suspect that beauty begets beauty. And of course, this record Providence wouldn’t exist without growing up in Rhode Island. Otherwise, my record might be called Des Moines.
Tell us a little bit about your role with Emmylou Harris? What’s it like being on the road with a music legend?
Emmylou is, first and foremost, a dear friend and a wonderful person. Those of us in her band Red Dirt Boys know that we are extremely fortunate to work with a person of such high principles; she’s just great. And yes, it is gratifying to get to sing harmony with her iconic voice. I can honestly say that it’s like touring with your cool older sister.
You’ve been in Nashville for many years. What are some other career highlights?
When Rolling Stone magazine did a feature on “Gothenburg,” one of the songs from “Providence” a few weeks ago, I was pretty stoked. I’ve had a few moments- recording with Mavis Staples, Taj Mahal, and so many others. When the Civil Wars and I wrote “From This Valley” in 2009, we had no idea that it would get a Grammy in 2014. That was certainly validating.
I’ve created and recorded two volumes of music called Mercyland: Hymns For The Rest Of Us– spiritual songs recorded by Emmylou, Shawn Mullins, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Lone Bellow, Buddy Miller, The Civil Wars, and many more. I think most folks are spiritual seekers, but religion in America is pretty off-putting; these songs were an attempt to acknowledge the idea of Love being at the epicenter of anything worth believing in.
As far as Rhode Island goes, I have to say that it was a thrill to close the 2012 Newport Folk Festival with Emmylou and with Pete Seeger on the main stage with us. Iconic, and certainly felt like “hometown boy makes good.”
You’ve been writing and playing “Americana” music since before it was even an “official” genre. What do you think accounts for the increased interest in Roots/Americana music in recent years?
So much of our music intake is computer generated; we hear vocals that are completely tuned by computer, beats that are made “perfect” by computer, etc. All the human elements have been removed. Americana music keeps it real; you can either sing in tune or you can’t. We are imperfect creatures, and while we want to give as perfect a performance as possible, it can’t literally be done, but why would we want it that way? Americana celebrates humanity and celebrates reality.
What can we expect at the Providence show?
I have Emmylou’s bassist and drummer, Chris Donohue and Bryan Owings coming up with me. They’re the original band from the record, as well as being fellow Red Dirt Boys. We’ll play at least 9 of the 10 songs from “Providence,” as well as some originals you’ve not yet heard, and just for fun, we’ll probably deliver some Thelonious Monk in a very off-handed, Nashville way. We are excited about playing at the Columbus!