Tones of Home
Jackie Greene spent his teens recording in his parents’ Cameron Park garage before graduating from high school and rolling down the hill to Sacramento, where he formally embarked on his professional music career.
He owned a cassette player with two decks on which he learned how to merge two recorded tracks onto one. That would free up the second deck so that he could repeat the recording-and-merging process again and again, adding layer after layer to his original songs—dirtying up the quality with each overdub.
His friend had a CD burner (the stand-alone kind, before they came standard on computers), which Greene used to burn five-song CDs. He printed out shoddy album covers at Kinko’s and sold the discs for five bucks at his café gigs in the foothills.
More than 15 years have passed since those first sessions, and Greene has left behind him a trail of acclaimed albums and incredible collaborations, but that free-flowing DIY spirit to continues to propel the process, with little regard to how his musical decisions will impact album sales.
Greene has played alongside legends like Phil Lesh and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead as well as Levon Helm, Joan Osborne and the Black Crowes, with whom he toured for more than a year.
In August he released his seventh solo album, titled Back to Birth, and is scheduled to ring in the New Year with a full-band show at the Crest Theatre later this month.
Cutting His Teeth in the Capital
Upon arriving in Sacramento, Greene began playing regular coffee shop shows throughout the city, but within a year or so, he secured gigs at the Torch Club and Blue Lamp every Tuesday and Thursday night. He would start with an acoustic set at the Torch Club from 4–7 p.m. and then head over to the Blue Lamp for a full-band set that lasted until 1 a.m.
He put himself out there, and in time locals began to take notice.
“We had a line around the Blue Lamp for a stand-alone Friday show,” said Greene of his earliest tastes of success. “It was such a cool feeling and I’ll never forget it.”
While living in Sacramento, he released his first two full-length albums, Gone Wanderin’ and Sweet Somewhere Bound, to wide acclaim. The new attention led to opening gigs for legends like Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and blues legends B.B. King and Buddy Guy.
Although Greene’s first two albums are chock-full of Dylan-esque strumming and free-form harmonica, the blues are thickly slathered across both, a nod to his earliest influences.
“When I was about 14, I found an old record collection I assume belonged to my parents,” he said. “Old Ray Charles and Lightnin’ Hopkins records. This was around ’94, so the popular music was very different than that. It was this whole world of other music.”
Greene became a “blues nerd” in high school, dragging his friends to B.B. King concerts and championing the music of his old-school idols. His early influences came in the form of that dust-covered record collection, but as he got serious about his own songwriting, Dylan and Tom Waits entered his life, and he invited them in with open arms. On Jackie Greene albums, those influences exist right alongside one another from one song to the next as he dips from genre to genre as he pleases.
“They’re like elements in a periodic table,” he said. “I like to take several of those elements and put them together into some compound. I’ve always just sort of followed my muse. I write the kinds of songs that feel good for me at the time and never really apologize for it.”
This is great for Greene and his diehard fans, of which there are many in the Sacramento area. But it presents a challenge for his record labels and the marketing folks who are tasked with selling his music to the masses.
“Every label I’ve been on has had a difficult time selling my records,” he said. “They don’t know what to call it. Folk songs? Straight up blues songs? Some are kind of jazzy.”
For concertgoers, he says, it’s an asset. But from a business standpoint, it’s kind of difficult. “Who do we sell it to?” is the recurring question he gets, but it’s not one he’ll linger on long enough to let it guide his sound.
“If you start doing things you don’t want to do, your career’s gonna be real short,” he says.
Back to Birth
A few years before Greene began tracking his latest album in the Portland studio of Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), he set out to record Back to Birth by himself at his home. He wanted a stark and simple sound, and he thought the truly solo experience would be the path toward making that a reality.
Turned out he was wrong.
“I became a little disillusioned, so I put it on the backburner,” he said. “The sounds weren’t quite what I wanted.”
He shelved those demos and jumped on a gig with The Black Crowes, spending the better part of a year with them on the road. He also cut an album with a collaborative project called Trigger Hippy, featuring drummer Steve Gorman of the Black Crowes and singer Joan Osborne, of “What if God Was One of Us?” fame.
After a year of collaborating with other musicians, it was time to revisit those demos and think about how to dial them in to his liking. He looked to Berlin and his Portland studio to set the project back in motion. Simplicity was still at the forefront of his mind.
“I find that a lot of the best songs are when something is stated in a very simple and pure way,” he said. “Often times it’s the hardest to write. On this record I try to do that with the music as well as the lyrics.”
In Greene’s own words, Back to Birth is “not a fancy record.” He points to literary works like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Catcher in the Rye—two books that can “kick you in the ass” but maintain a deliberate sense of simplicity and brevity. They make no attempt to be War and Peace or The Lord of the Rings.
“There’s a certain magic,” he said, returning the simplicity of the Back to Birth recordings. “We did the basic sessions in less than a week. There are no bells and whistles.”
A Full Album in the Age of iPhones
Greene says in his bio that he wanted to make an album that would “reward people who are willing to sit down and give it a couple of serious listens.”
It’s a bold move in the age of dangling ear buds and dwindling attention spans, but it’s one that Greene feels secure in making.
“It’s a little bit of a shame that music is so easily digested and spit out,” he said. “There was a time when you couldn’t wait for a band’s new record to come out and you’d wait outside Tower Records. A little of the magic is lost.”
Greene wanted to make an album that gets better with each listen—something that required top-to-bottom listening to get the full picture. He knows not everybody will grant him those 45 straight minutes of sequential listening, but many will, especially folks who have been following him in Sacramento for more than a decade.
New Year’s Eve at The Crest
Many of those diehards will be ushering in 2016 with Greene on Dec. 31 at the Crest Theatre.
“It’s a spirited event,” said Greene of the New Year’s Eve shows past. “There’s a fair amount of alcohol involved for sure. As a band, we try some stuff musically that we wouldn’t normally do. Everybody’s loose, so it’s a good time to do it.”
The band will play until midnight, at which point they’ll raise their glasses and lead a countdown to the New Year. After the clock strikes 12, they’ll launch into a closing set to punctuate the party and kick off 2016.
The past few years Greene and his band played their New Year’s Eve shows in South Lake Tahoe. Greene is excited to bring the party to the city where he got his start.
“We’ve never played New Year’s there,” he said. “It’ll be fun. Hopefully a lot of old fans will show up.”
Celebrate New Year’s Eve with the Jackie Greene Band at the Crest Theatre, located at 1013 K Street, Sacramento. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. for the 9:30 show. Tickets start at $35 and are available online at Crestsacramento.com