You’ve Gotta Have Faith—And Know Your History


By S. Renee Dechert

Mike Ireland
Try Again

US release date: 21 May 2002

This story is about history . . . and it’s about having faith.

More specifically, it’s about Mike Ireland’s history, both personal and musical, and how he uses the past to understand the present . . . and has the faith to keep trying, despite the risks.

Ireland’s music has always been very personal. His first album with Holler, Learning How to Live (Sub Pop, 1998), recounted his recovery from discovering in 1995 that his wife was having an affair with the lead singer of the band he was in, the Starkweathers. The group, described by critic David Cantwell as “half Johnny Cash, half Clash”, had survived for almost a decade in Kansas City and was poised for national breakthrough when Ireland learned of the affair. He left the Starkweathers and then formed Holler with two other band members and Dan Mesh, using the experience as the basis for Learning, a lush, Countrypolitan album that saw critical raves and poor sales (about 5,000 copies.)

Four years later, Ireland and Holler are back with Try Again, an equally personal work that reconsiders relationships as well as the sudden death of Ireland’s father in December 2000. The sounds are as lush as ever with Michael Deming again producing, and legendary strings arranger/conductor Jerry Yester adding that Countrypolitan trademark. Only rhythm guitarist Mesh remains from the original Holler, but the new members, Spencer Marquart (drums) and John Horton (lead guitar), do a fine job.

The liner notes immediately illustrate how central history is to Try Again. The album is dedicated to Ben Ireland, and the lyrics and credits are printed on a picture of a house . . . nothing too special, though Ireland explains that it’s a picture of his childhood home taken by his father. So Mike has, literally, superimposed his musical present on his personal past. The album is wonderfully cohesive thematically and musically as the songs explore the narrator’s fear and isolation, though he decides to take a chance, to “try again”. Nothing’s certain, but “a life without faith is no life at all”, Ireland sings in the title track.

Right Back Where I Started

In a recent interview, Mike Ireland described the central role music played in the Ireland home. “Music was always part of what was going on in my household when I was little”, he says. “I’ve talked before in interviews about the fact that my dad played guitar, and he played flamenco guitar. My mom, for one of his birthdays, bought him an electric guitar to play flamenco on. It meant nothing to me when I was little, but as I got older, you know, you start looking at this guitar—apparently this was a 1952 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top, which is this ridiculously terrific rock guitar. But my memories are of him plugging it into, like, a high school record player and playing through that”.

Ben wasn’t the only family musician.

“My mom was actually a pretty good piano player”, Ireland says. “Mostly, we would hear her at night. We’d go to bed, and she’d be waiting up for my dad because he’d come home—he was a moonlighting worker at Montgomery Ward. [During the day, he taught art at a Kansas City high school.] So she’d just sit down there and play stuff on the piano”.

It was Ben, though, who taught his children to love harmonies. Mike remembers, “My dad was into singing harmonies. Things would come on the radio, and he would just, not making a big deal out of it, but he would sing a harmony with the chorus. As we got older, we picked up a lot of that from him. So by the time we were all old enough to sing, and there were four of us, we’d be working out harmonies. We did a lot of singing in the car on vacations, coming up with four-part harmonies for whatever song happened to be coming on the radio”.

Much of Ireland’s sound today is grounded in that “whatever was on the radio”.

“The albums that we had in the house were things like Glen Campbell and the Fifth Dimension”, Ireland laughs, “and Roberta Flack—really just pretty much middle-of-the-road AM radio artists. In fact, most of the things that I eventually came to love, like soul songs, I knew a-round-about by AM radio artists. It was years, years, years after hearing Glen Campbell do ‘Dock of the Bay’ on one of his albums that I ever realized that somebody else actually did a more famous version”!

Ireland recognizes the importance of his father keeping him from “thinking in genres”.

“When I was twelve years old, AM radio was just anything”, Ireland explains. “AM radio was soul music; AM radio was rock music; AM radio was complete bubblegum music; it was what people would call ‘adult contemporary’. You’d have any kind of singer next to Marvin Gaye next to the Rolling Stones, and that’s sort of how I came to hear it. My dad didn’t care what kind of music it was so much as he just cared about it being catchy”.

Ireland quickly adds, laughing, “If it got too repetitive, he would tell us about that. I remember him going on long tirades about the end of ‘Hey Jude’. He just couldn’t understand why it had to keep going on and on and on and on”.

“I flatter myself, maybe, by thinking that I don’t really have any problems with bringing any particular kinds of influences together in songs”, he says. “It’s funny because people talk about me being this hard-core country thing, and I suppose that’s true, but, you know, I’d just as soon hear an R&B bass line under something. It just seems like what you’re trying to do is have a song that compels you emotionally and compels you melodically. I mean, I’ve never written any songs or arranged them thinking, Okay, for it to be a country song, it has to do this. I really think that came a lot from my dad”.

Ireland adds, “When he was alive, he was the person I would go to and play new songs—always—because I trusted his judgment. He would immediately respond to it, and he would have an idea of whether it was really catchy or not, and usually if he responded to it well, then it would go over really well with an audience”.

The Other Way

Ireland did not begin as a bass player, however, moving from family-mandated piano lessons to the saxophone, the instrument he played throughout his undergraduate studies. (He graduated with a degree in Music Education.)

Then, suddenly, Ireland found himself on bass guitar.

“I was living in a house with a guy who was playing in a band, and they practiced down in the basement”, he remembers. “One day, they just came up to my room, and they were, like, ‘Would you like to be in the band? Do you wanna learn to play the bass?’ I told them, ‘I don’t know how to play the bass’”.

But he was game, and someone in the band taught him the basics.

“The big thing was they had a gig in two weeks”, Ireland laughs, “so somebody had to learn how to do this soon. I learned, you know, fifteen songs in two weeks, and I’m sure played absolutely terribly and was absolutely terrified. We actually had a gig out of town—we were living in Columbia, Missouri, then—we had a gig in Kansas City opening for somebody. It was just the most bizarre thing. We drove our two hours and played this gig where all of us were terrified. I vaguely recall us all during the course of the gig retreating, so all of us were standing pretty much right in front of the drum kit!”

Thus began the Starkweathers . . . you already know how that worked out.

Welcome Back

Although his sound these days is very different from the indie-rock of the Starkweathers, Ireland still finds himself lumped in with alternative country.

“Yeah, because they don’t know what to do with you”, he laughs.

After all, this is an artist who’s very open about his love of harmonies and strings, the stuff of the cursed Countrypolitan that, supposedly, put an end to “real” country music. Then again, some fans have a selective historical memory.

“They’ve got a very, very narrowly defined idea of what real country is”, Ireland says. “It sort of varies, depending on what they’re hating at the time because there are people who would claim that real country music is only stuff that sounds like Hank Williams. But there are people in that same group who are true believers who like my stuff because they think it’s real country music as opposed to all the stuff that’s on the radio now. But the things that I’m emulating are songs that, when they were coming out, people were convinced this wasn’t real country music. You know, it was the stuff having strings sections put into it and steel guitars taken out of it—stuff that people were very, very suspicious of at the time”.

Ireland continues, “But eventually enough time passes that people become comfortable with that as country music, and the newest thing that’s being tinkered with in country music becomes the threat. It’s kind of funny because it seems like every twenty years, that comes up again. It came up in the ‘50s in the wake of rock and roll hitting, and then it was ‘Chet Atkins is killing country music’, and then it came up again in the ‘70s when they started having people like Billy Sherrill tinker with songs—or even worse would be your John Denver’s and Ann Murray’s. It was like, ‘Oh my God! They’re gonna kill country music!’ And now we’re in the ‘90s—we’ve come out of the ‘90s with this same discussion of the threat, that it’s going to kill it, and I just don’t understand how people think that country music is so fragile that somebody tinkering with the sound of it and experimenting is going to kill it”.

After all, genres evolve.

“If country music only sounded like Hank Williams, and everybody had really believed that”, Ireland continues, “then where would there be to go? There’d be no reason to have anything but the basic core works of Hank Williams, and there would be country music. It’s like anything: All music grows. People add their own ideas; they’re influenced by the things that are around them”.

I’d Like To

In terms of songwriting, Ireland says he’s “undisciplined”.

“I tried to be disciplined for awhile”, he laughs, “because you read about people who have an ethic about writing every day. When I write every day, I mostly write stuff that I don’t end up liking. So I basically just sort of wait around until things hit me. I mean, I play the guitar every day, so if ideas aren’t coming to me, I’m doing something. But songs just come when they will—to me, it’s hard to take a lot of credit because you’re not really doing anything. Something pops into your head, and it’s not like you can go, ‘Look at me! I sat around until something popped into my head’!”

He explains, “To me, the big challenge is once this thing pops into your head, it usually doesn’t pop in like an entire song . . . I have to figure out how to finish the song, how to finish part of the chorus, how to add lines, how to change it from there because if too much of me is doing it, the conscious me is not nearly as good a songwriter as the unconscious. . . . So as much as I can, I just try to stay out of the way and let the song do what it wants to do and go where it wants to go”.

As an example, Ireland cites “I’d Like To”, which was, he says, “Really sort of an unconscious song. There’s very little on that song that I actually had to sit around and tinker with. I had a flu when I wrote it, and there’s only so many days you can lay on the couch and watch TV and take medicine, so eventually I just got a guitar out and started fooling around, and it just sort of came out. I put it on tape, and then didn’t come back to it for weeks, and when I did, here I am singing in this croaky voice, half an octave below my regular voice”, he laughs, “so it had to be capoed halfway up the neck to even be singable when I was well. But most of it was already there, and it seems to have strange rhythms to it, and it seems to not be particularly symmetrical, and I think those are its strengths because my conscious mind would want things to be organized and symmetrical and make sense, and it just sort of does whatever it does”.

“Mostly”, Ireland laughs, “it’s just really hard to teach the band because they’re not used to hearing that stuff, either—and understandably. I mean, it took a long time to teach the rhythm guitar part to my rhythm guitar player, and he’s a good rhythm guitar player, but it’s just very idiosyncratic. But that’s it. I mean, that’s what you want—not you—it’s what I want in songwriting; it’s what I want in songs. You want things that are idiosyncratic—you get this feeling that nobody else would have done it this way or sung it this way or had this particular idea about the lyric”.

At its core, Try Again is about history, about the history.

“I think probably, at least on the most basic level in the wake of my dad passing, I think I had a sense of not letting that go unnoticed”, Ireland says. “That was a weird part of the process of his dying—I was the kid who was still in Kansas City, so I’m the one who had to pretty much clean out his house and then put it on the market and sell it, and it’s a weird feeling: Now it’s not his house anymore. It’s not my house anymore. There’s nothing there that marks my entire life happening. . . These things are all so impermanent. I guess I wanted there to be something still around that marked that”.

He continues, “I think that musically—and maybe this is true personally—it’s a sense of tradition, that you don’t move on without having some sense of where you’ve come from . . . . I know that the ways that I think and the ways I act and the ways I perceive music and the way that I perceive so much stuff in my world is because I spent forty years hearing my dad respond to those things, for better or for worse. And I think musically, that’s true, too. I mean, I’m not inventing music. Anything that’s come out of my head has come out of my head because I heard a million other things and a million other people do things in music. I’ve heard Otis Redding, and I’ve heard the Archies, and I’ve heard KISS, and I’ve heard Nat King Cole, and whatever it is you respond to in a song, that just sticks with you. So in a way, you can’t really make any changes in music. I can’t be contemporary in country music unless I also have some grasp of what it comes from and what it’s been”.

“I think that’s the actual idea of tradition”, he says. “Tradition isn’t like preserving something that is an antique, not playing like Hank Williams for your entire career; it’s having a real sense of what Hank Williams is about and then doing something that’s your own but still has that in it as the core. And I think that’s what I’m trying to do musically”.

Take, for example, one of the finest tracks on the album, “Life’s Little Ups and Downs”, a song first made famous in 1969 by well known Countrypolitan artist Charlie Rich, though Ireland’s version boasts a very un-country drum loop.

As he explains, “I wanted it to be startling to people who want everything to stay the same, but I also want there to be some sense of ‘Wow! This sounds old at the same time’”.

The experience was “completely intimidating”, Ireland says, “but that kind of speaks to my nature, too. As much as I’m intimidated by things, the thing that people would be most surprised at is the thing that I most like to do. So if it’s going to be some show of nerve to cover one of Charlie Rich’s most famous songs, then, okay, let’s do that. So it’ll really succeed, or it will completely fail. I’m into that—I like making those kinds of choices. Making that whole track was like that. The drum loop—I could not convince anybody, including the producer or my manager or my band that this drum loop was going to sound good. Everyone was just telling me, ‘I don’t get this. I don’t get it’”.

Ireland continues, “It’s like the discussions I had with people on the first record about the string section. They wanted to opt out on that at the end because of money, and they’re, like, ‘You don’t really need these. These songs sound fine like they are’. And I was, like [he speaks with mock petulance], ‘No! I want my string section’! It’s the riskier thing, and I’m into that because you take the risk, and if it works, it’s going to be fabulous; and if it doesn’t, then everyone’s going to think you’re crazy, but that’s okay. It may fail, but your riskiest things are going to be the things that will be the greatest if they work out”.

Try Again

It took awhile for Try Again to come together.

“That was mostly because the first record sold really terribly, and nobody wanted to put out the record”. Ireland says. “Well, actually, a few people wanted to, but it always came with lots of provisions”.

Some were budgetary (why spend money on the string sections?); some had unrealistic scheduling; and another wanted Ireland to revise the songs with the label’s songwriter. So Mike Ireland and Holler waited until they joined up with indie label Ashmont Records.

And then, about a year-and-a-half ago, just before they planned to go into the studio, Ben Ireland died.

“When my dad died, I pretty much shut everything down”, Mike says. “I was pretty heavily depressed, wasn’t really communicating with anybody. I’d put this new band together, we’d done a few gigs, and then that happened, and I just went out of touch”.

He was uncertain of what to do though both his manager and his therapist keep asking about his plans. Finally, Ireland decided to make the record: He had the songs, and he knew it’s what Ben would have wanted.

“I started making plans, I guess in the spring of last year to go into the studio and do this thing”, Ireland says. “I pretty much knew that I was going to work with Michael Deming again because he’d done the mixing on the first record, and I’d been really happy with what he’d done. He liked what we were doing and was going to be reasonable in terms of price”.

But it took a while.

“The funny thing about it is that it got done very, very, very piecemeal because we couldn’t afford to lock out a studio for any amount of time. So we went out for, like, a week and did the basic tracks”, Ireland laughs, “and then everybody went home. He’s out in Hartford [Connecticut,] and we’re all here in the Midwest, so every time we went out, it was, like, a flight to spend a few days out there. So I’d fly out there with my rhythm guitar player; we’d overdub rhythm guitar tracks and do vocals or whatever. Then we’d fly home. Then we’d go out, like a month later, and I’d take my lead guitarist. So from August through the end of January of this year was pretty much the recording time”.

Ireland adds, “In some ways, it was really tedious and frustrating . . . but in other ways, you can figure how these things affect the songs. I’d go out a month later and have some other idea. So maybe the record wouldn’t be the same record if I hadn’t have had all that time”.

There is on Try Again an incongruity, a fascinating tension between the lush arrangement and Ireland’s twangy Missouri tenor . . . it’s a tension Ireland fought to keep.

“People always want to do things to the vocal”, he says. “It’s sort of an engineer-producer thing that people want to sweeten it, or they want to get it just so. And I’m pretty much a fan of keeping the vocal as direct out of your mouth as you can get it. I think because I respond to that emotionally in records that I love”.

As an example, he cites Frank Sinatra’s “In the Wee, Small Hours of the Morning”.

“It’s just fabulous”, Ireland explains, “because when he is singing low, it is actually low. There is a voice sort of whispering over the microphone. And when he belts, that same voice is just getting louder—no one’s doing anything; no one’s double-tracking it; no one’s softening it up. It just has someone who’s very, very much controlling their voice and responding to the emotions in the song. To me, that’s what it’s all about, and on this particular record, I try a lot more to use my voice and the microphone in that sort of way. I think the first record is much more me belting; I think in this new record, I’m trying—I don’t know if it’s successful or not—trying to use the microphone in that dynamic”.

Further complicating the tension is John Horton’s lead guitar, which creates a very intentional call-and-response throughout the record.

“It’s something that in our rehearsals, I kind of had to go over and over again because it’s not necessarily the way that all guitar players play”, Ireland says. “A lot of guitar players see their job as sort of filling in space all the way through the song, and to me—when I’m not singing, the guitar’s responding to it in some way, and not responding by playing anything that will fit in the chords. There’s a lot where he echoes the melody that I’m singing, and that, to me is what I wanted, and it seems very much like a rhythm-and-blues kind of thing”.

He adds, “It’s also funny, too, because I had to do a lot of talking to the producer about that in terms of levels because, again, people make these songs, and they want the vocal to be the loudest thing, and everything else is not as loud. I kind of had to keep going, ‘Guitar! Lead guitar louder! It needs to be equal. Your attention should always be either on me or on that lead guitar. That’s what’s going on here’. And we even have to do that in clubs—they want to do the same thing”.

For Ireland, though, all roads lead to melody.

“Part of it is getting back to that idea of melody”, he says. “To my mind, in the songs that I have loved growing up, it tends to always be about a hook and a melody and a hook and a melody, and somebody is constantly taking your attention. I really think great recorded singles are like that. You are never given a chance to get distracted by anything. You’re constantly pulled in a direction by something going on in the song”.

To illustrate his point, he cites a Countrypolitan classic, Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden”: “From the very beginning when you get those strings, they’re going [he hums the opening]. One, you know what song it is; two, rhythmically, you’re yanked into this thing; and then as soon as that gives up, you’ve got the bass drum smacking, and you’ve got her singing. You’re constantly being pulled in a different direction. When she stops singing, the entire string section comes in play that [he hums chorus string movement]. You are never given a chance to even breathe and just go, ‘Okay, now people are just strumming chords or something’. You’re constantly moving, and I feel like that’s what I’m trying to do here. If I’m not singing, then something’s pulling that song along—it’s not just a guy strumming, and it’s not just depending on the fact that the song is still going, so you should be paying attention to it”.

All this brings us to the songs. Try Again starts with “Welcome Back”, a song, which came out of a trip Ireland took with his father that included a detour through Ben’s Missouri home in Warrensburg. Ben took his son to places that had been significant in his own childhood: his home, the local market, his high school. And they were all gone.

“The thing that struck me about most of it was that nothing was there. He told me where everything was”, Mike explains. “It seemed to me just very weird to back to a place, and nothing of your life is left. . . . It’s weird to me that nothing remains. So a lot of that is what the beginning of ‘Welcome Back’ is about. This is how the song turns into something you don’t expect. The last part of the song is more about me than about him, and it just takes that turn”, he laughs. “It’s sort of how I feel about the whole thing. It’s a bit more spiritual in the last verse and less concrete about a place and more about your life and what’s going to be going on after it, and it sort of has religious overtones. So in a way, it’s about my dad, and it’s about me in the same song in having similar experiences”.

Or there’s the string-free honky-tonker “Sweet Sweetheart”, which also provides a thematic pivot on Try Again.

“I think it might be the happiest song on the record, and it actually is happy, and it sounds happy, except that the verses aren’t particularly happy”, Ireland laughs. “I’m kinda happy about that, actually. You know: In the midst of this up-tempo, sort of slight-sounding thing, the verses are constantly sort of downbeat, sort of expecting-the-worst meditation. But I think in the end, it’s a hopeful song. It made sense that it would be the turning point in the record. Like, this is the most hopeful thing; even musically you feel the shift. It’s definitely a contrast with pretty much anything that’s come before on the record”.

And there’s the album’s title track, the oldest song on the record, which predates Ireland’s Starkweathers days and goes back his previous band, And How.

“It’s funny”, Ireland says, “because that’s actually—we’re going to start talking about tradition again. . . . Back in those days, it was a waltz. I’ve always had it sitting around, and sometimes we’d play it, and other times we wouldn’t, and I hadn’t thought about it in a long time, and as the record started to come together, it made more and more sense”.

After a few changes, it was clear that the song has found a home, raising what is, ultimately, the thematic question.

“In the end”, Ireland says, “there’s, ‘What do you do? You’ve been hurt in love, so you just don’t love again’? Do you do that with friends? Do you do that with everybody”?

This brings us back to history.

“You take the shot”, he explains, “and you take the shot just knowing that it can blow up in your face. But to me, that’s like living; that’s all there is. When you try and protect yourself, you’re not any safer. If you try for less, it doesn’t mean that it’s any less likely that things will blow up in your face. It just means you didn’t really try for what you wanted. That seems like too great a loss. I’m not going to really try for this relationship because it might hurt me; I’m not going to really try and do what I want to with this song because it might turn out wrong. So what do you wind up in? These sort of lukewarm relationships and not very good songs that you’re not actually happy with when they succeed because you never actually tried to make them what you wanted”.

An added perk for this record was noted country music historian Bill C. Malone’s offer to write the disc’s liner notes, a ringing endorsement of Ireland’s music. “Even though, in reality, I have two records out, and I’m not sure that it warrants liner notes”, he says.

While Ireland understands his past, his future is less certain, though he and Holler hope to tour to support the new album . . . and take fewer than four years to put out their third.

And Ben’s guitar—what happened to it?

“I have it”, Ireland says. “It’s safe and sound here. I’ve had some of the hardware changed out because it was hard to keep it in tune, but I’ve saved all the original hardware and everything. But I’m a terrible guitar player, so it sort of goes to nothing. Every once in awhile I get it out and kind of look at it and go, ‘There’s his guitar’”.

But in the end it’s about more than Ben’s guitar. The father lives in every song the son writes, in every word he sings. He is home.

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