What follows are the complete transcripts from my phone conversations with Michael Amburgey and Bobby Hanson in preparation for an article on the release of their second independent CD...
Michael Amburgey Q & A:
What’s different about this record, compared to your last one with Bobby Hanson?
Michael Amburgey: It’s new material, but it’s more of an extension of what we’ve been doing than something radically different. I guess I like the overall sound of this album more than our last one.
Why is that?
Michael Amburgey: Well, when you record acoustic music like this, the less you do to it in the mastering process, the better. Lots of bands compress the signal, but you wind up losing something. It’s hard to describe, but this record sounds very much like we do live. It’s much more of a natural approach.
How does the songwriting work in this duo? Do you write together, or does on person come up with a complete song and then present it to the other for accompaniment ideas?
Michael Amburgey: Most of the time, Bobby will provide me with some words, and then I’ll come up with music to fit them. Depending on the arrangement, sometimes I’ll add a few lyrics or change a few if need be, but sometimes nothing he wrote is changed at all.
What can folks expect from this CD Release Party at Silly Mad CDs on Saturday afternoon?
Michael Amburgey: It’s gonna be fairly informal, and the mood of the show will be dictated by the atmosphere in the crowd — or how big of a crowd there is. I must admit that I really don’t know what to expect from this show. We’ve never had a CD release party before.
I imagine there will be at least one big smoke machine.
Michael Amburgey: Of course! I’m sure there will be smoke machines, plus caviar and champagne backstage. (laughs)
Do you guys do many standards or covers in your show, or do you concentrate mostly on your own compositions?
Michael Amburgey: We do some, but not a lot. When we first started playing, that’s all we did, because we had not written any of our own tunes. But through the years, a lot of the songs we’ve written have no become “our standards”. We’ll still do a few traditional tunes in each show by people like Blind Blake or the Rev. Gary Davis, but we play so infrequently —just a few times a year at the Folk Music Festival or the Blues & BBQ Festival— that we try to concentrate on our originals.
Bobby Hanson Q & A:
First off, tell me a little about this new record. How is it different from the last record you guys made together as a duo?
Bobby Hanson: Probably not a whole lot, Jim. Maybe there’s a little more gospel in there. We do have a few songs where our friend Joe Nelson played mandolin and sang harmony and John Powers played bass. Seamus McGurgan, a friend of Michael’s who also mixed the record at his studio in Ireland added banjo on two songs as well — we recorded everything just sitting over at Michael’s house. Despite all that, It’s still pretty much our style of music.
Do you like what he did with the banjo?
Bobby Hanson: We liked it just fine. It added a real different touch. Mandolin and bass are one thing, but having a banjo on there put it into a whole different area.
Did you ever think almost 40 years ago when you two first started collaborating that one day it would be possible to record professional quality albums in your home, and then send them to Ireland to be mixed for practically nothing?
Bobby Hanson: No! We would never have dreamed that back in 1972 or whenever it was that we first started to play music. That wasn’t even a remote possibility. (laughs)
What is the recording setup at Michael’s house like?
Bobby Hanson: Jim, you’re asking someone who’s not as up on that technical stuff as most. (laughs) I know it’s an ADAT recorder, so it’s not the most up-to-date method of recording. But we just sit down there and do it.
Do you have someone who runs the gear for you, or is that handled by you guys as well.
Bobby Hanson: Michael does it himself.
That must take a lot of pressure off, when there’s nobody there but you two.
Bobby Hanson: Yeah. To be able to just go to somebody’s house and make a record does make it much easier. However, I know you’ve done a lot of recording yourself, so I’m sure you know there’s something strange that happens as soon as you know you’re actually getting it on tape.
Yeah, as soon as that realization sets in, things get a little tense. (laughs)
Bobby Hanson: Exactly.
So, if you didn’t have access to Michael’s house as a home-made studio, do you think that Amburgey & Hanson would have actually saved up and paid to go into a real studio, or is it more likely that these albums simply might never have been made?
Bobby Hanson: Well, it certainly helped. We all know lots of people these days that have some kind of recording setup in their house, though. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the JoJa Band, but we’re halfway through making a new record, and we’re doing that at (Veraflames guitarist) Skip Hinely’s house. For that band it’s a whole ‘nother scenario, but I’m sure Michael and I would probably have saved up some money and did it anyway, just to have something out there.
How did that first record do? How many have you sold?
Bobby Hanson: Probably not a whole lot. You know, we’re really off the radar screen. (laughs) These days, you pretty much sell records by playing out. We do the First Friday for Folk Music thing every once in a while and we’ll sell a few CDs there, and our records are carried at the Savannah and Hilton Head Barnes & Noble stores and at Silly Mad CDs out on the Southside. We’ve even sold a few off the internet! But most folks I know really move the majority of their CDs at actual gigs. People come up and they want a souvenir of what they’ve just enjoyed. Since Michael and I only play a few shows each year, it really hinders the number of copies we can sell. Plus, what we do is fairly off the wall, you know? We’re not a traditional blues duo like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and yet we’re not even like Cephas & Wiggins or somebody like that. I don’t even know what we are, to tell you the truth. (laughs)
How many of those copies have been sold online to folks who may not even know you guys or have ever seen you play live?
Bobby Hanson: It’s fantastic. We’ll sell something every now and then to someone who lives in Scandinavia or something like that! (laughs) So, there’s a guy sitting there and listening to “Cockroach Blues” in Scandinavia? I guess they go online and listen to little samples of the songs and then order it. Gosh, that’s just wonderful!
What are your expectations for this new CD in terms of not only sales, but also publicity for you two as a team?
Bobby Hanson: Not much. I mean, we don’t like to play bars, and there’s only so many First Fridays or those type of things that you can do around here. We’re certainly not the kind of group that I could see playing in a restaurant. I can’t imagine people eating while we’re doing what we do!
Yeah, I wouldn’t think any song with “cockroach” in the title would be appropriate for a dining establishment.
Bobby Hanson: (Laughs) You go that right! I do know that Skip Jennings has sent a copy of our CD to Shrimp City Slim, a blues artist who also books a lot of blues festivals and shows in Charleston and Columbia. Skip asked if we’d be up for playing festivals in those cities and yeah, we’d be totally up for doing something like that. We’d love to test this material in front of a completely strange audience that has no idea who we are. But we can’t really travel much. We do this on the side. We’re too busy with the rest of our lives these days.
I know you’re heavily involved with your church and that has influenced your decision not to perform in nightclubs or bars. Have you found that even with omitting those type of places where blues music is often heard, that there are still enough options for you two to play in this area, or do you often find yourself wishing there were more music venues that didn’t focus so much on alcohol as well?
Bobby Hanson: Yeah, I think so. We’d sure like to play more than two or three times a year, but there just don’t seem to be a lot of venues out there without alcohol. And, it’s not just my affiliation with the church that keeps us away from those type of gigs. I mean, you’ve played in bars, right?
Sure, all the time. It can get old pretty quick if that’s not your bag.
Bobby Hanson: Man, does it ever! Anytime I’m in touch with people who are still doing that stuff, like Gordon Perry or Skip Hinely, they tell me stories of what they have to deal with and I think, man, I’m so glad I don’t have to deal with that anymore. (laughs)
What will this CD release show be like in terms of your setlist - will it all be drawn from the new record?
Bobby Hanson: No, because we recently played for the Folk Music Society, and we did a lot of that stuff there. Hopefully, this show we’ll draw from the new record, but also from the first one. We really have no idea how this show is going to be attended. There could be a big crowd there or there could be four people! We’ll play accordingly — either for thirty minutes or maybe for two hours depending on what people want to hear. It’s totally informal on Saturday. If somebody wants to hear a request and we know it, we’ll just go with the flow. It’s cool for things to be so wide open like that for a change.
I understand that Joe Nelson will join you on this bill.
Bobby Hanson: Joe will do some songs first and then play with us on a few.
How did you come to hold it at Silly Mad CDs?
Bobby Hanson: The owner, Charlie Roberts, is an old friend who used to come see the JoJa Band a lot and he does what he can out there. I’m a customer. I still haven’t made the transition to an iPod yet. (laughs) So I want to support his shop out there. He’s been open for ten years selling used and new CDs and I still run into people who have no idea his place is even there! Hopefully this will draw some new people in his store and make it easier for him to stay open.
I have also heard that all proceeds from this gig will be donated to help the two young musicians who were seriously injured a few weeks back in the Ardsley Park shooting. What precipitated that generous offer?
Bobby Hanson: This thing has taken on a whole different meaning with the benefit aspect of it. I don’t know the fellows who were hurt, but they’re friends of Joe’s and hearing him talk about it, he’s really passionate for these guys. We’re just gonna pass a hat or whatever for their cause. I don’t want to deceive anybody. If we sell any CDs through Charlie’s store that day, those proceeds will go to us and him. But this is a free show. There’s no admission charge. So, we’ll spread the word around and perhaps folks from my church who may not even like the kind of music we play might want to make a donation just to help out. They can give it to me and we’ll add it to the box. I mean, anything we can do in that way is the right thing to do, you know?
How do you think people will respond to this latest Amburgey & Hanson record?
Bobby Hanson: If people have seen us and liked it, they’ll like this CD, because it sounds just like we do live. And really, that’s all you’re ever shooting for when you make a record — to sound like yourself.
What’s up with that JoJa Band record? How long till it’s released?
Bobby Hanson: Well, we’re all really excited by it. We’ve got some good stuff if we can ever wrap the whole thing up! (laughs) Everybody’s contributed some. We’ll have some brand-new songs on there as well as some things we played 30 years ago. We’ve already recorded an old song of Howard Jobe’s. This will be a different sort of record for us. It’s still blues based, but you know we were never strictly a blues band. There will be soul type ballads —which Chief (Dennis Hinely) really excels at, and some rocking stuff too.
Amburgey & Hanson with Joe Nelson
Where: Silly Mad CDs (7090 Hodgson Mem. Dr.)
When: 3 pm, Sat., July 19
Cost: Free (donations accepted for stattswilliams.com)