Interview with Big Shoals

There’s a reason that Big Shoals named their sophomore album Hard Lessons. I got to talk with singer Lance Howell about that as well as other inspiration behind the album and what the Florida trio is up to now that their newest album is out in the world.

Why don’t we start off with a quick introduction for all those that aren’t yet acquainted with Big Shoals.

Lance Howell: We started playing together in 2012 after me and the bass player, Jacob Riley,  met at an open mic one night. We released our debut album STILL GO ON in 2014 and began touring as much as we could handle after that.  Here we are 2 years later releasing our second album and are pretty excited about the way things are going.

I know you experienced some major losses and gains while recording the album, how did those events impact the album?

Lance: It’s hard to pin point exactly. Most of the songs had been written for a while before we started recording. Lyrically everything was done, but I think it definitely impacted things sonically in ways that I probably didn’t realize at the time. Listening back, it’s easy for me to spot the loneliness and chaos in certain songs.

What was the writing and recording process like for Hard Lessons?

Lance: I’m constantly writing or at least trying to write (laughs). Usually they fit into different categories and I sort of pile what batch of songs fit together into an album or overall idea from there. The recording process, more or less became therapeutic and the one constant thing I had to hold on to during that time.

Within the year or so we were working on and off in the studio, my whole life was turned around in every way possible. I had my son in October which, as a first time father, is one of the most exciting and scary things you can imagine. A month after that in November one of my best friends passed away. He was an older blues man that I’d known since I was 15 and had become a mentor of sorts through the years. He left me his guitar and I’ve played it at almost every show since.

Roughly 6 months later, I got a call while I was on tour in Alabama that my Mom was sick and things weren’t looking good. I canceled the few remaining shows we had and went home. 2 weeks later, she passed. By the time November rolled around again, my Grandpa passed away.

All of that within a 12-13 month period had me not knowing where to turn or what to do sometimes. The only thing I knew I could focus on to keep sane and occasionally distract myself from everything that was changing and out of my control was, focus on the songs, tour and get back in the studio any chance I had.

What I really love about the album is how it’s not just straight up Americana, there are a lot of other genres kind of layered into each song that you really don’t hear until you listen to the album a few times. Are there any influences that people might be surprised to know about that inspired Hard Lessons?

Lance: I tend to like a variety of things and get bored pretty quick if every song sounds the same. I like for an album to have dynamics, so I tend to go back and forth between rock and roll, country, folk, or whatever else I think we can pull off (laughs). As far as influence I’d probably say there’s more Tom Petty and Being There era Wilco to me. Both of those bands have been a huge influence on me in how I approach songwriting, structure and recording. I’m not sure if anyone would be surprised by that, but it’s certainly there (laughs).

Is there a track on Hard Lessons that you feel could be the gateway song to falling in love with Big Shoals?

Lance: I think if you’re wanting a rocker, “You Ain’t Nothing Like The Girls Back Home” is the way to go.  If you dig songs with strong lyrics and are a bit of a history nerd like me, “Union Son”. 

I myself am especially fond of “Union Son” and “Amelia” because of the narrative aspect. Where did you get the idea to tell these particular stories?

Lance: I’ve wanted to write a song about the Civil War for years. Being from the south, I felt like I had to write it from a southerner’s point of view. People often forget about the young boys that fought just because their fathers enlisted, so they did too. I have a hard time believing they had any idea why they were even fighting. Families were torn apart.

Also, writing about a confederate soldier, the listener could sympathize with was a challenge that excited me (laughs). It’s not exactly something just anyone would try to tackle I don’t think. After I came up with the first line, I worked pretty steady on it for 3 days and it became “Union Son”.

“Amelia” happened pretty fast. I’ve always been fascinated with her story and even wrote a paper on her in when I was in high school. She wrote a letter to her husband before they got married that was part of a prenup that said, and I’m paraphrasing, that she wouldn’t hold him to any code of faithfulness and she expected the same. I’ve always wondered if there was someone else that had to deal with her disappearing that no one knew about that maybe just had to live with that secret. Back then people didn’t exactly proudly advertise that they were secret lovers.

I know Big Shoals has upped their touring schedule quite a bit in the last few months. What’s your favorite part about touring?

Lance: On the road is when I usually find and get into new music. Driving for hours with a new record that I love is one of my favorite things to do. That and just meeting new people that become friends all over the country. You won’t get the kind of stories you get from touring doing anything else (laughs).

What’s been your favorite show so far?

Lance: I have a handful of favorites. The two that stand out the most right now are when we played with James McMurtry in Tampa at the end of last year and a show we played in a small town outside of Atlanta called Hartwell, Georgia. There’s a venue there called the High Cotton Music Hall that’s just great. We were wrapping up a tour with our pal Matt Woods and our buddy Chris Stalcup was on the bill with his band too. The night sold out, the crowd was incredible and we had a blast.

What’s up next for Big Shoals?

Lance: We’re playing the Sing Out Loud festival Sept. 11 with Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s and I’ve got some cool solo shows coming up too. As of now, I’ve got half of the next band record written and a solo album I’m getting ready to start tracking in the next few months. We’re pretty excited to see how everyone continues to accept Hard Lessons. So far, so good.

Make sure to check out my review of Hard Lessons. You can pick the album up on Amazon, Google, or iTunes.