Georgia-based singer-songwriter Chris Stalcup recently released his new album, Downhearted Fools, a passionate ten song project that weaves personal experience through tales of family, love, and life on the road, that are intimate, relatable and ultimately, hopeful. During a break from touring, Stalcup kindly took the time to talk about pursuing music full-time, the album, and more.
Prior to this release, you were working a full-time job and pursuing music on the side, but then you quit your job to concentrate on fulfilling your dreams. Why did you decide to go all in when you did?
We were getting good responses with the release of the two prior albums [one with Stalcup’s old band Chase Fifty-Six, and 2014's Dixie Electric Company with his current band, the Grange], which led us to be able to do some light touring. All the while, I was writing on the road, and I felt like the quality of my songs, and the reception when we played them live, was getting better. So, I decided that if there was ever a time I was going to do this, it should be now. I’m fortunate to have a pretty carefree lifestyle - I’m not married and have no kids - so I can pretty much do my own thing, but I’m also coming down to the last amount of time where I can do it in this capacity. All of that, combined with the fact that I'll be 44 this year, influenced my decision to just go for it and see what happens. On the backside of it all, I want to be able to at least say that I did it; I don’t ever want to have regrets and wonder what might have been.
I have a phenomenal band with guys who are willing to go on the road and kill it. I love playing with them and they feel the same – or at least they say they do (laughing). We have something that feels like fire and energy and I want to capture it while it's happening and ride it as far as it will go.
Your latest album, Downhearted Fools, was released in September. Did you write everything on the project?
I wrote all of the songs on the album. I have so much material that a friend asked me why I don’t write for others, but I like my songs I don’t want to give them away (laughing).
Until this record, I was writing songs that were acutely personal with deep emotion, and sometimes I wish I didn’t write so personally and so relatably because it can be both a good thing and bad thing. Good in that a lot of people relate to it, and bad because sometimes I wear myself out by wearing my heart on my sleeve. With this album, I tried to open up a little more and instead of writing about things in the past, things that were mostly negative, I was writing about things, well, that were still probably negative, but I was trying to put a positive spin on them and make them hopeful.
You open the record with "Ogeechee River" and close with “However You Want Me.” Why did you choose to bookend the album in that way?
"Ogeechee River" is a tale about being alive that I wrote one morning when I was sitting on the edge of the river. I was writing about something in the moment, which was kind of a first for me, and I felt like I was turning a page. That song was like the guiding light that kicked off the direction of the record and it just had to be the first song. Honestly, the album was going to be named after that song, which had an entirely different name to begin with too. There’s a line in the chorus, “where the devil don’t dare stay” which was going to be the name of the song, but people kept asking us to play that “Ogeechee River” song, and as we were going to master it, I found out one of my favorite bands and greatest influences [Drive-By Truckers] have a song called “Where The Devil Don’t Stay” which was too close to my title. I struggled for a few days trying to think of a name and ended up calling it Downhearted Fools, which was also the lead track. In the end, everything worked out for the best.
“However You Want Me” was supposed be on the last record, but it really didn’t fit in in so many ways. We played it out quite a bit though and it really progressed to a song that people loved. It just felt like the perfect uplifting ending to this story especially with the way it goes out with its jammy ending.
The video for the title track “Downhearted Fools” recently premiered. Can you share the story behind the song and video?
I feel like the song is about one of those things where you move on, but you always wonder what life would be like if things had gone differently. In the video, we tried to show a story where one-minute life is grand and then things fall apart without knowing why or how. The guy in the video is frustrated by the relationship ending, but by the end of the video, we see him thirty years later as he goes to this metaphorical place where he locked away emotions. He pulls out the necklace that he gave to her when they first started dating - hanging onto the time in his life when he remembers feeling great. It’s this weird juxtaposition of sad and hopeful and I think each person [who hears the song or sees the video] hangs onto a different section of that.
The older guy that pulls up in the car is my friend, Cary. Cary's the best luthier around, and early last year he was going through a divorce the same time I was going through a breakup. We were talking and he says, “I guess we’re a couple of downhearted fools.” That line stuck with me so much that I knew it had to be something. So I put it in the song, "Cary says we ain't nothin' but downhearted fools", and had Cary in the video. Not only is the car - a 1968 Chrysler Imperial- that Cary pulls up in his father's, but the necklace in the video is the necklace he gave his new love. It was the perfect symbol of his own resurrection and hope that translated in the video. I love it when things come together and I’m able to weave in real life so that the whole thing becomes that much more authentic and tells a greater story.
That's incredibly special.
How did you come to choose the album artwork?
Dixie Electric Company’s album cover is the photo of an old Airstream that my friend, Kevin Sartain, took. I met him in 1996 and he had that photo framed alongside some others; I asked him if I could buy it...and he just gave it to me. I love the way his photos capture moods that match very well to the overall tone of the music I make, so when this album came about I was going through old photos of mine to use as the cover for Ogeechee River - and wasn’t really happy with them. I reached out to Kevin and asked him if he had any river-type photos to use, and he sent me some, but I still couldn’t find anything. Now, when we changed the album from Ogeechee River to Downhearted Fools, I reached out to him again and he sent me gobs of negatives from 20-30 years ago. I was somewhat overwhelmed, but pared them down and found the hotel photo which ended up being the cover. He later told me he was driving down Highway 41 and stayed at that hotel, taking photos of the pool and lobby, which ultimately I ended up putting on the interior flaps of the cd. What was neat about the whole thing was that the photo of the Airstream on Dixie Electric Company was also taken from Highway 41, probably a mile away from the hotel. So, four years apart, these two records have a connection that I had no idea bout. It was one of those things that was meant to be and I only hope I can use Kevin Sartain photos for all of my albums from here on out.
I think you probably have to!
You’ve played with the likes of Lucero and Shooter Jennings, and as the year comes to a close, do you have any touring plans for later this year or early next?
We’ll tour, but I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be yet. Hopefully we’ll be able to get to Europe for a week or two and of course, we’ll tour around the Southeast as much as we can. My goal, and hope, is that we’ll be able to connect with another band and land a spot on a tour to get us out of the barroom scene we’re accustomed to and into more listening rooms and venues. We’ve been slogging it out in bars for a few years now, and nothing against the bar scene, but I don’t feel like it does the music any justice. I think when we play in front of an audience who are there to hear music, it’s that much more rewarding on both sides. We’ve proven to ourselves that we are able to get out there and grow a fan base based off of this music. And I have faith that we can continue to grow it. With the small measures we’ve been able to do, I feel like we’re turning it into something bigger and better every day.
Finally, I always like to know if there is one recent release that you cannot stop listening to and recommend people check out?
It’s hard to name one in particular. I’m a big Hiss Golden Messenger fan and have the new album in the queue. I haven’t listened to it all yet, but I’m pretty sure that’s going to be the answer. Whenever I need to listen to seething, I run to those albums – they’re beautiful, well-produced, artful music. The song “Blue Country Mystic” is one of those that just transcends time. Outside of that, my two good buddies Justin Wells and Matt Woods just released records that are full of some fantastic songs. I’ve had the good fortune to be there when they played the songs for the first time and to see they’re now on records…it’s phenomenal.
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