Mark W. Winchester (MW) and Milan Miller (MM) answer questions about the collaboration of “Songs From Haywood County.”
SMN: How was this project different for you from other CDs you have worked on?
MW: It was different in a lot of ways. Setting out with the intention to write it was exciting. Knowing we had these subjects to cover, reading the research, sitting down with a guitar hoping the songs would appear, and being amazed when they did, was wonderful. It was different for me in that I had to let go of my pre-conceived notions of what the final version of the songs I was making up would be. I would go over to Milan’s when I had one and just bang it down roughly as a guitar and vocal demo, and let Milan work his magic. A great example of that is “Maggie of the Valley” because I wrote the melody instrumentally on the guitar, then began to add the lyric, but I never even figured out what chords went with it, so the rough demo is just me singing it over those same notes being played on the guitar. Milan had a lot to do with how great that song turned out as he fleshed it out and built the tracks for it. When I went over one night to play bass on the track, I was blown away with his vocals and the whole backing track. So, the collaborative nature of it was different for me, and in this case wonderful.
MM: There were a couple of main differences. Here in Nashville, most of the recording is driven by hopes of hit records and broad commercial success. Secondly, it is almost a necessity to stay within a specific genre or format to allow for focused promotion and marketing.
With “Songs From Haywood County,” we knew from the conception of the project that outside of people from Haywood County, much of the material might not be of interest, or in some cases even make sense. When we were writing these songs, our main focus was to stick as close to the history books (and folklore) as possible. On the production side of things, we didn’t feel the need to commit to one specific type of music, which explains the blending of country, folk, bluegrass, and pop styles that make up the album.
Do you have a favorite song on the CD? Why?
MW: It is hard to pick a favorite. I know when I use to ride around listening to early rough mixes of the project, the next few days I always found myself humming or singing, “Henry Grooms was a Fiddler” or “The Government’s Taking our Homes” which has such an infectious chorus, I would bust out in that one a lot. What Milan did with “Big Gun” is amazing. That one makes me grin every time I listen to it, and hearing my children belt it out in the car fills me with pride and joy. Of all the songs that came through me, and I say that because as songwriters have always said, the good ones seem to just mysteriously appear, I was glad “Poor Child” came together like it did. That story affected me so the first time Buddy described it, that I knew I wanted to write about it and wanted it to be powerful. But it’s hard to pick a favorite.
MM: I can honestly say that I like all of the songs included on the project, but for different reasons. For example, I remember very clearly the first time Mark (Winchester) played me the song about the Nance Dude story (“Poor Child”). I couldn’t believe how he had captured the horror and emotion of the story in a 3-minute song. If I listen closely to the words, I still get a little unnerved, even after hearing it many times through the recording process. “Papertown” is more of a sentimental favorite, while songs like “Interstate” and “For The Pigeon River” are fun from a musical standpoint because we really get to step on the gas.
What do you want folks to know the most about this CD?
MW: What I want people to know most about this CD is a hard question. For one thing, it is absolutely a ride that is worth the cost of admission. I heard a famous novelist say once in regards to historical fiction that the broad understanding of a time, or an event, or a place is best arrived at by looking at the details of the individual lives and circumstances involved — or something to that effect, and I feel that is what makes this CD so appealing. The stories are real and true. I gave one to a friend to listen to, a Canadian whose lived in America for many years and her comment was, “Great CD!, I’m right there. It really pulls you in.” So. I want people to know — if you’re from up around there, It’s gonna feel like home. And if you’re not from up around there, this record will make you wish you were.
The only other thing I would add is that it was such a satisfying experience to work with Milan and Buddy on this in such a collaborative way. It unfolded at a natural pace, over time, and to sit there and just start talking about all the unique things that happened in Haywood County and knock around the idea that if we made up songs about all of them we could have a CD — to start that process, and then find out halfway through that it was the county’s bicentennial, (and the songs were turning out great by then) made it seem like fate. In the music business, it is so rare to have a project go so smoothly, and not bog down in ego. It seemed like the roles that fell to us, we were each suited to, and we didn’t have to force anything. It wouldn’t have happened without Buddy’s research, writin’, fiddlin’ and beautiful voice, and Milan Miller’s talent as a writer, singer, musician and especially producer. He wouldn’t put it on the CD that way, but he produced this record. He has a real talent for it. Anyway. I’m proud to be a part of Haywood County’s history now, too.
MM: It was a lot of fun to make this record, and I certainly learned things about Haywood County that I didn’t previously know. Hopefully the listeners will have a similar experience and find it both entertaining and educational.
I hold Buddy and Mark in very high regard, both as friends and musicians, and it was great to get to work with them again. I also appreciate the overwhelming support that we have received from the community since we released this project in late November.