I first met singer-songwriter Alex Culbreth in , when he was featured in a Woody Guthrie Folk Festival solo performance at the Brick Street Café. Although it was his 1st official showcase at the festival, he’d attended the 4 previous years, singing and playing around the campfires through the wee hours.
A veteran of the alt-country scene, Culbreth has opened for (among others) Rusted Root and Spirit Family Reunion. No Depression, Common Folk Music, Americana Music Show, and Ninebullets Radio have all featured him. Culbreth dropped in for a drink and a chat about his current 6-month solo tour, before playing an early set at JJ’s Alley in Oklahoma City. After spending Thanksgiving in Tulsa with some mutual acquaintances, he played a Black Friday set at the Bluebonnet Bar in Norman; the Bureau was on hand to photograph his set.
Mercury Photo BureauWelcome to Mercury Photo Bureau. I hear you’ve been on a mini tour?
Alex CulbrethYeah, [I’m] about 2 weeks into a 6-week tour. I’ve been through D.C., Tennessee, Ohio, and Oklahoma, now.
MPBHow did you become interested in music?
AlexGrowin’ up, my mom played me a lot of Patsy Cline and Louis Prima, so I was always listening to good music […]. I don’t think I started playing until I was about 13; I actually wanted to be in a punk band.
MPBI’ve met a lot of singer-songwriters, especially in the alt-country and roots scene, who started out in punk bands.
AlexAll throughout middle school and high school, all I listened to was punk. I liked the old L.A. stuff; X and the Dead Kennedys and the Screamers and the Germs , uh, the New York stuff — Richard Hell, Patti Smith, the New York Dolls. It wasn’t until I started listening to Billy Bragg that I got into the whole singer-songwriter thing. ’cause he kinda found a cool marriage between the punk world and the folk world. There are a lot of similarities between folk and punk. I think Woody Guthrie’s about as punk as you can get.
MPBWhat was your 1st instrument?
AlexGuitar. I picked it up for my 13th birthday, and I was just gonna try to play punk on an acoustic guitar […]. I tried to start a lot of [punk bands], but they never seemed to pan out; [we] never seemed to be able to get together and make it happen. So, all the more reason why I started playing by myself. It was listening to Billy Bragg, and another guy, Patrick Fitzgerald. He was around in the late ’70s; he opened for the Clash on a couple of tours, just playin’ punk on an acoustic guitar. He’d only play those 3 chords; he wasn’t a very good singer; but he wrote great lyrics, and so listening to him and Billy Bragg showed me that I could really do it by myself.
MPBDo you remember how you discovered those guys?
AlexI think I kind of worked backwards. I started listening to ’90s punk bands like Rancid and just found out who they were influenced by; started listening to Bad Religion and Minor Threat, ’80s punk, and kind of working backwards.
Alex[The Parlor Soldiers] started out as a duo project with me and a girl — Karen Jonas — who lived in Fredericksburg, Virginia. So we were both playing music in the same town, and we started writin’ songs together. She had more of a kind of folky, uh, Joni Mitchell influence to her. […] We did 1 album together […]. I met [the future members of the Dead Country Stars] in Fredericksburg; they were all playing in different bands. I started out playing with Eddie Dickerson on fiddle — he’s now living in Austin — Ryan Hale on drums, Joanna Smith on upright bass, and Jimbo Carrico on banjo. As far as the name [goes], some of the best country stars are dead.
I was born in the back of a ’57 Chevy
With my daddy doing 90, my mama breathing heavy / Her water broke at midnight in the grocery store / She yelled,Cleanup in aisle 4!
MPBIn your solo act, you play guitar and sing, but you also play a kick-drum, which you play standing in front of with your heels in the pedals. I’ve only known 1 other drummer to do that — Travis Searle of the now defunct Norman band Shi++y Awesome.
AlexFor some reason, that always seemed more comfortable to me — it seems like it’s easier to keep my balance when I’m on my toes with the kick-drum and the tambourine. I tried having them both in front before, and I just wasn’t able to keep my balance. There’s a couple of 1-man bands that I’ve been listening to recently that have made me want to expand what I do, and shows me how much can be done, how much noise can come out of just 1 person. They’re both out of Austin: Scott H. Biram and Shakey Graves.
MPBWhat’s 1 song you’re really proud to have written?
AlexI really like Mercy Me. It’s a song about travelin’ and playing music and tryin’ not to let your head get too big. That’s 1 of the few songs where I try to fit a whole bunch of words into a small amount of space. Some of my favorite writers are like, Bukowski and Hemingway, you know; those kind of “punchy” writers who say a lot in a small space. They can grab your shirt collar with just 1 sentence.
MPBYou have 1 album with the Dead Country Stars, Heart in a Mason Jar, on BandCamp — when did that come out?
AlexThat came out in . I’ve got pretty much enough songs for a new album; I’m workin’ on a couple of new songs — [I’ll] see what shakes out. I’m moving right now; in a couple of month I’m moving to Austin. […] I’m moving because of the music scene and because of the food. I love Mexican food. [I plan to] keep on playin’, keep on travellin’ as much as I can. That’s what I’m doing right now, pretty much; touring full-time. [I plan to] keep on playin’, keep on travellin’ as much as I can. That’s what I’m doing right now, pretty much; touring full-time.
MPBWhat’s on your iPod?
AlexShovels & Rope; they’ve been my favorite band for a couple of years now. The 1st time I saw them was in Charlottesville, Virginia; they opened for Hayes Carll and Jason Isbell from the Drive-By Truckers and they just blew me away. I mentioned to you earlier that I was listening to Nighthawks at the Diner, the Tom Waits album; so many great, punchy, beautiful lines; it’s like songwriter porn!
MPBThanks for coming.
AlexThanks for having me!
Gallery: Black Friday at the Bluebonnet Bar
Enjoy this gallery of photos from Alex Culbreth’s Black Friday performance at the Bluebonnet Bar in Norman, Oklahoma. Also playing that night was local songwriter Brad Fielder, who can be seen in the audience (4th image); we’ll eventually post pics from his set as well.