Featured Record: King Earl (2004)

Charlie: I’d been playing the songs that made up King Earl for a while, they were culled from a failure of a short piece of fiction of the same name and the rest of the songs mined from that little book were used later for the Rooster album. So I’d been playing them for some time live and they were as familiar and realized as they could be at that point in time. The session was a show with no audience, we recorded live to the microphones and tape machine, barely letting the room go quiet before we started the next song. Every single step of the process (mixing, mastering, artwork, what have you) took longer than the actual recording session. I haven’t strayed too far from that model to this day, preferring to capture a moment rather than create one and let the listener use this captive, this shadow of an evening, to create their own moment.

Mikkel Beckmen (washboard/percussion): 2003 was winding down. Sometime between Christmas and the New Year, Charlie called me and let me know he had another record in him. His 3rd. Some of the songs required basic percussion so he was hoping I could help out on them. Since I was just waiting around to turn 40, I was pretty sure I was free.

I was to await further instructions but a recording session was imminent.

Sure enough I got another call. A space was found and was ours on Friday night, January 2nd 2004, for a while. Charlie told me to drive from Minneapolis to Duluth. I was to go downtown and find the corner of 2nd street and 2nd Avenue. Around 8 pm. He told me to go down the alley look for a small door with the sharpie-tag, “fatty pants” scrawled on it. Knock. Loudly.


2004 live in studio session

Friday rolled around and I took the 2+ hour drive up Interstate 35 from Minneapolis to Duluth, hurtling through a cold dark winter night. I found my way downtown to 2nd and 2nd. The snowy streets were deserted. I walked around until I found the right alley and slowly walked down it, scanning the buildings for a small door. Sure enough, a short metal door with Fatty Pants scrawled on it loomed. I pounded on the door and after a brief wait in the dark, the door opens and Jake Larson greeted me quietly. I go in and find myself in what is essentially a vault and sometime rehearsal space for the band fatty pants. All concrete, no windows. There was a small room containing the recording equipment and a not-so-small room containing a couple candles and Charlie, sitting in a chair in front of a microphone on a Turkish rug. There was a chair and microphone for me.

Well prepared and knowing the sounds, energy and form he wanted the songs to incarnate that evening, (because no song is ever formed the same when played live), Charlie briefly explained the songs, occasionally consulting his notebook and we rolled into them, moving through them with ease. Everything went so well that we only recorded one take of each song, no second takes at all, until we got to the final song of the session. This was V8 Ford Blues part 2.

Charlie explained the song briefly and in trying to describe it, included the description that it was sort of like ‘Special Streamline”, a Bukkah White/Washboard Sam recording from the 1930’s that we had played live fairly often. Being heavily influenced by those early recordings, I got a particular framework in my head and we tried the song once. It didn’t work. We tried it again. It still didn’t work. We both realized at the same time that the song was not like Special Streamline at and once we verbalized that, the 3rd version worked and the session ended. I walked back out the into the frozen night and drove home to Minneapolis.

The entire atmosphere around the recording remains mystical to me. The physical space, the space in my head from the journey north, the time of year and newness of the year, all combined in an alchemical magic that produced an incredible record.

King Earl was the record that would bring Charlie’s music to a wider audience and to send him on down his critical path, and out into a world that needed to hear some good songs.

Recorded live at the Green Lantern Coffee House in Winona on the King Earl tour. Download the 20 song performance HERE.

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Christian McShane (theremin/album design & photography): King Earl was my first experience performing and recording with Charlie, which was to be the template for every time I've recorded or performed with him ever since.

At the time, I was helping Charlie redesign his website. We both worked in downtown Duluth about a block away from each other, so it was easy to grab a quick lunch and talk about stuff. One day he came up with this idea that I should play my theremin on his new recording. This was the first time in our friendship (but not the last) that I thought he was nuts. I argued that the theremin was too electronic for what he was doing, and he said it would fit perfectly because the invention of the theremin was was actually older than the age of his guitar. I still don't understand the logic of that one. Either way, I said "ok" because no one up to that point had recorded a theremin with a National resophonic guitar anywhere near the style of Charlie's music – and hasn't since – probably because it's a bad idea to begin with. Tom Waits hasn't ever even gone there, and don't even start with me about that “Mumford & Sons” band. Theremin + National + 1930's-inspired music was such a clash of instruments and ideas, I took it on as a challenge.

I showed up at Fatty Pants "studio", which wasn't actually a studio, but instead the practice space of an all-female local garage/punk band named "Fatty Pants". Once you were in the space, you could tell why Charlie picked it for recording: it had a very "soft" sound to it, very warm. There were all sorts of rugs and carpets and pillows and things and it was heated by Duluth steam – all of which dampened everything on the ears like a natural compressor. It was very cozy, probably thanks to the simple fact that it was inhabited mostly by women. When it was my turn to play, Charlie & I played together live – there was no overdubbing. We never rehearsed the song. I just asked Charlie what he was looking for and that was that. He was interested in one extremely solid note for most of the song which would climb up a short scale and back down again during the chorus. Since "Miner's Lament" is about miners, and the chorus is "there ain't no way out...", I wanted to give it a creepy, scary, siren type of sound – like "If you're deep underground and you're hearing this, you’re probably dead.”

king earl lyrics If you don't know what a theremin is, google it. If you've ever been lucky (or unlucky) enough to play a theremin - you'd know that holding one solid note for any length of time is very difficult to do. I had to balance my arm on a table and remain perfectly still for the bulk of the song or the extremely solid note would waver and change pitch. Charlie started playing and I thought "Oh good, a practice run-through of the song..." I looked over at Jake Larson, the engineer, and saw the tape reels on his recording deck were moving and thought, "Oh shit, here we go….” And that was it. When the tape stopped recording, I looked over at Charlie and said, "No way! That actually worked really well!"

We've been playing or recording music together ever since, most likely including one of my strange instruments under the same type of duress.

About the photo ... Charlie had this loose idea about the album cover. He wanted a photo of someone who looked like the physical embodiment of King Earl - a grizzled-looking older guy who looked unapproachable, yet honest. I had what I thought was the perfect model – a old friend of mine from Duluth named Randy Jorgensen, an artist who worked for the railroad that I’d known for many years. All the local artists and musicians knew Randy and still talk about him to this day. He was definitely one of a kind. Randy was an aging hippy who was pissed off at the world, yet loved it at the same time. He considered himself an outcast, yet a man of the people. He looked like a gothic biker. Little kids in his neighborhood called him “The Grimster”. He scared the crap out of most people, which was his intention – that way, he said, no one could really hurt him. Deep down, Randy was a gentle, intelligent artist with a lot of internal demons that fueled all kinds of self-destructive behavior throughout his life. Eventually, the demons won.

I talked Randy into doing the shoot, because he was always interested in participating in anything artistic. He wasn’t into the type of music that Charlie played, but he respected him as a fellow artist. On the day of the shoot, I expected things to go fairly lukewarm between the two, because Randy viewed Charlie as one of those “new hippy kids” which were somehow different than his own brand of hippy. Happily, I was wrong. Right off the bat, they got along like they were two old friends. Problem was, it was messing up the whole photo shoot. Randy was supposed to be a pissed-off looking guy, but he was having such a great time hanging out with Charlie - every shot was a failure. This went on all afternoon.

prairie home companion Finally, as it was nearing dusk, I had an idea I hoped would work because the shoot was becoming useless. We drove to the west end of Duluth and found a beat up building down an alley that had a bunch of metal and junk lying outside. I told Charlie to park his truck in a certain direction, then get out and start looking around at stuff. I remember him saying, “What am I suppose to look at?” and “What am I suppose to be doing?” and I just said, “Keep looking!” I stepped back from the truck and told Randy to look directly into the sun and snapped the picture. That was how I got Randy to finally look like how Charlie wanted King Earl to look. There’s a slightly winsome look in Randy’s eye, because he was enjoying his day with Charlie, but the sun is hurting his eyes. Charlie is looking at me trying to understand what the hell I’m trying to do. Just before I clicked the shutter, Charlie looked over at me and said, “I can’t see a thing!” and I said, “Good!”

I’m very proud of the King Earl photo. 5 years later, Randy went into hyper-destructive mode and died from drinking himself to death. He was only 56 years old. I’ve always felt that the photo immortalized him in a way that he was never able to achieve through his own art – but via Charlie, he’ll always be part of a now classic album that many, many people love all over the world. It’s the best gift I I think I could have ever given to my old friend. I didn’t know it then, but now that I look back, Randy was the physical embodiment of King Earl. They're one and the same.