If you’ve been to Santa Fe’s Violet Crown theater in 2016, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the title track of Greg Butera’s debut album Tell Me Now. While a slideshow of black and white photos gives a glimpse into Santa Fe’s rustic past, the song provides a fitting soundtrack. It wouldn’t be hard to mistake the song as a relic from that same dusty era.
Call it folk. Call it country. Call it americana. Call it whatever. Greg Butera is creating music deeply rooted in America’s rich traditional past. Following years as a supporting player in various bands around the area, as well as in Austin, Butera has taken a step forward into a led role in the past year or so. Recently releasing his debut album, Tell Me Now, Greg Butera is more than ready to establish himself amongst the excellent crop of up-and-coming songwriters who have recently revitalized country music.
Tell Me Now is as much the work of a talented songwriter as it is the work of a passionate student of music. It’s one of those albums in which it manages to sound like a smorgasbord of the genre’s roots while never falling into the trap of tracing the lines of the past. It’s not surprising considering that Butera has regularly played long cover sets which stray from the standards in favor of the deeper cuts. He’s spent the time necessary to explore the inner workings of what makes a song work. While there’s moments on Tell Me Now that undoubtedly recall the likes of Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings, its influences go much deeper beyond my own limited knowledge of country music. The ten songs manage a wonderful balance between drifting ballads (“Pauline”, “Nothing To Do”), rollicking foot stompers (“Glad”, “Yellow Lines”), and cheerful ditties (“Luck in My Cup”).
With his debut album fresh out of the oven, Butera has a handful of upcoming shows in the northern NM region as well as throughout Colorado. On April 11th, he’ll be playing a special Mecca Lecca-presented solo album release show at Zephyr along with Mishka Shubaly and Star Anna. And he’ll bringing along the band for second release show at Palace Saloon on April 16th.
I recently caught up with Greg to discuss the foundation of his musical roots, and the experience of recording his first solo record…
Growing up in Houston, was music a major presence in your house?
Music was a large part of my upbringing. The huge mecca of diversity as far as music in Houston is impossible to ignore, and to this day I believe there to be some of the most talented, passionate, and authentic artists coming out of that city. But it was not as present in my family. My parents were not musicians, but being huge music lovers, they did get us involved at an early age. My first instrument was the penny whistle, which I got for christmas at a very young age. It came with a short instructional book with some simple tunes charted out that I loved! When I entered first grade I was promoted to the clarinet, and loved it because it was called the licorice stick. We rented the horn from a local music shop some time before I began lessons, so I had time to teach myself how to assemble it all together and make a few squawks that I really could entertain myself with. I was pretty impressed with myself when I finally walked into my first lesson, but I was quickly shown that my clarinet was put together ass backwards and was doing it all wrong. It wasn’t the most motivating thing when my teacher left for a sip of water and left the door open, so I could hear him talking with the other instructors about how “I couldn’t play for shit” and how exasperated he was over it. I still studied hard, but quit the lessons after a season and never kept up with it afterwards. I didn’t pick up a guitar until high school, and the fiddle was shortly after. Definitely didn’t start writing songs until my early twenties. I also remember attending Siddha Yoga sessions with my mother, and chanting, meditating, music and singing are a huge part of that. It definitely had a lasting effect. My mother has always been a singer, and had a friendship with Lucinda Williams for a bit. They both worked at my fathers restaurant, where my mom ended up meeting my dad. I don’t know the full story, but I don’t think Lucinda’s job as a cashier nor her friendship with my mother ended on a very positive note. My mother is currently an avid songwriter and likes to attribute my love of music to her side of the family, which is acceptable. Her song catalog is easily twice as long as mine in less than half the time.
You’ve spent the bulk of your career as a musician as a sideman. What was the turning point that pushed you to taking the spotlight and fronting your own band?
I turned frontman out of necessity. I left Santa Fe around 2013 to move back to TX with a band called Treemotel, as a bass player. It didn’t pan out quite the way I expected, and I headed back to Santa Fe a quick year afterwards. Upon returning, a lot of my gigs had been filled—and by some really awesome players mind you—so I needed work pretty badly. I had learned a lot of new tricks hanging in Austin, and the combination of fresh inspiration and lack of work just kicked in. I had only just started to focus on singing that year—I had sang into a mic a couple times before then; the same tune over and over. I’m still learning a lot about what it takes to lead a band, which I think I’m finally ready to take responsibility for; the past two years i’ve kind of been shirking that role, trying to be a sideman in my own band, which you can’t really do if you want it to stick or be successful.
What has been your biggest takeaway/lesson learned from recording your debut album, Tell Me Now?
The biggest lesson from recording Tell Me Now, hands down, is to settle for nothing less than the best. If something sounds off, nip it in the butt. It will only get worse as the process goes on. Also, the only type of people to work with are those unwilling to compromise. If they have a commitment to quality, there’s nothing to fear. They will work hard to make sure they’re proud of their work, because who wants to put their name on something that’s half-ass? Never compromise quality, and surround yourself with like-minded people.
Are there any songs that turned out sounding much differently than you had originally envisioned?
Nothing really sounds quite like I had originally imagined—but that’s okay, as well as something that I hope to get better at. It was my first try after all! That being said, I think “Tell Me Now” really surprised me in terms of how it turned out. I wrote it originally as a very personal “off” tune; just something that meant a lot to me, and I thought would be different, with no expectations. Listening back to it, and seeing other people’s reactions, I get the feeling that it’s the catchiest track. It’s easy to listen to, it’s got a hook, it’s got nice rhythm—all these things that I didn’t intend to put into it originally. I used to play it very differently. My solo performance of this tune has changed drastically to closer reflect the feel that’s on the record.
You’re a multi-talented musician. How much of the instrumentation did you handle on your own? Who else contributed to the record?
I definitely had a lot of instrumental help—Ryan Little, Karina Wilson, Sam Zickefoose, Honor Krump, Cyrus Campbell, Noah Martinez, David Schaffer, Mikey Chavez, Will Courtney, Kim Radcliffe, Benito Plaza; that’s a list of all the players on the record. I love having their unique voices- they are my favorite players in town. I could have decided to do all the fiddle myself, but who wants to listen to that? My least favorite part of it is listening to myself! That being said, I did write many parts for others to execute (fiddle breaks on “Luck in My Cup”, and the guitar/steel harmony break on “Yellow Lines”), and I had my fair share of guitar solos…
Whenever an artist finishes a project, they’re usually already moving on mentally, thinking about how to improve/refine their craft. What will you be doing differently next time around?
You nailed it. I’m thinking so much about the next time. I would like to dig into something more refined the next time around. More written parts, less improvising. More live recording sessions, less multi session stacking. Most importantly, I need more integration of songwriting and instrumentation. This is not only something that all of my favorite music has, but that I’m noticing is also very successful. It seems jamming is a thing of the past… and who would argue with that.
As someone who plays around town regularly, in a number of different projects, where do you feel most at home?
I feel most at home when I’ve got the right people by my side. Whether I’m fronting the band, or I’m a rhythm or lead player in a band, or just filling in as a sub, everything is better when I have my crew with me, which is a number of people—Ryan, Noah, Karina, and Schaffer for instance—not much can go wrong when you got these fine folks working with you. There are of course so many more, and I hope they know who they are.
Who are five of your musical heroes?
Michael Hurley is always my first answer. Just magical in the way he is able to create something entirely brand new and solely his own, while keeping it so simple and true to roots. Something so transcendentally human and off about that guy. Doc Snock.
Walter Hyatt is always always on this list as well. He had a band called Uncle Walt’s Band, a trio of three amazing songwriters that to me really defines the sound that people think of when they think about that Austin or Texas singer songwriter sound, despite the fact they were actually from South Carolina. Champ Hood, a band member, is an easy third. You can catch his son on tour or playing locally in austin still. These guys were the influence to so many others like Willis Alan Ramsey and Lyle Lovett.
Charles Mingus & Eric Dolphy. It’s not just for good measure I add these artists—their music has such a large role in my record collection, and has changed my way of listening and thinking about music forever.
Country music seems to be undergoing a revival of sorts with major music publications giving press to artists like Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton after years mostly overlooking the genre. Do you think this is the result of an increase in the number of quality country artists making music, or maybe just a shift in cultural trends?
I think the shift to these artists has a lot to do with production. While there is still plenty of over-production going on in the top charts, that late 80’s and 90’s feel that country had has kind of worn off. I like to think the artists just got tired of sounding too fake and all alike, and with the whole Americana scene on the rise, it’s really hipper than ever to swap the tele or stratocaster for the acoustic guitar or mandolin. The big money moving into Austin has probably had something to do with that refocus into country music as well. I wouldn’t go as far to say there’s been an increase in quality artists. There are always top-notch musicians around, always. Big artists like Vince Gill have been at that game for so long, blending immaculate songwriting with amazing playing, collaborating and experimenting with all types of production and styles. I think for a long time country music was doing its best to market to folks who themselves are ‘country’, but with new generations that whole persona changes. There’s room in the market for nuances in genre, for subtler subjects. Not everything has to be neon signs and big rivers anymore. This is all so beyond me though. I’ve never been the type to have a grasp on the overall scene of a generation or genre. Especially in country music!
Tell Me Now
Buy a copy here
1. Tell Me Now
4. Yellow Lines
5. Nothin To Do
7. Luck In My Cup
8. Night Life Man
9. Next Time I Fall
10. Frankly, Sir
April 1st – 7pm The Mine Shaft Tavern – Madrid, NM
April 2nd – 7pm Second Street Brewery in the Railyard – Santa Fe, NM
April 3rd – 8pm The Laughing Goat – Boulder, CO
April 6th – Brix Tap House – Greeley, CO
April 7th – Riff Raff Brewery – Pagosa Springs, CO
April 8th – The Globe – Denver, CO
April 9th – Avogadro’s Number – Fort Collins, CO
April 11th – Zephyr – Santa Fe, NM with Mishka Shubaly
April 12th – Zinc Wine Bar – Abq, NM
April 16th – Palace Saloon – Santa Fe, NM CD Release Show!