The most heartrending story on Special 20 is “Everywhere Is Somewhere”, which was written about Kelly Scholl, a close friend who died recently of a heroin overdose (and to whom the album is dedicated). The lyrics are elusive enough that the details of the situation aren’t overtly apparent, but the seriousness of the subject is betrayed by Easton’s vocals, clearly his most emotional performance on the record.
Adding further poignancy to the song is a hauntingly enchanting harmony vocal track by Clare Surgeson, Easton’s girlfriend and the sister of bassist Matt Surgeson. “Clare’s voice on that just makes it so sad and so beautiful; it’s like a ghost or something,” Easton says. “That was one of those things, like a lot of the album, that was made spontaneously. Phil Park [a fellow Haynes Boy who plays slide guitar on the tune] was in trying to sing that part, and Clare was sitting in the control room and she said, ‘I could sing that part.’ And we just turned around and said, ‘Go in there and do it.’ And she did it.”
One other song on Special 20 also references a recently departed soul who left a significant imprint on Easton’s life. “Troublesome Kind”, an easygoing country-folk number, contains the following lyric in the bridge: “Curled up in bed one morning/Listening to the singer’s warning/’How much of your love is true?’”
The “singer’s warning” is a quote from “Pueblo Waltz” by Townes Van Zandt, who passed away in January 1997. “It’s one of those lines that, if you’re sitting there and listening to it with your baby, it just kinda strikes you. It just jumps out,” Easton says.
The line perhaps meant even more to Easton because he’d had the opportunity to open a show for Van Zandt a year or two before his death. “He was in pretty bad shape, but he did say a lot of nice things about me,” Easton recalls. “But, you know, that was his style. He was very nice to other songwriters. So it wouldn’t be unique to say that he was nice to me and supported what I did.
“It just so happens that I was really a big Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee fan, and he was playing a lot of that kind of style when we opened up for him. And later on that night, we proceeded to kind of tie one on, and played a lot of Hank Williams songs, which was great.
“So, yeah, that Townes line was — you know, everybody comments about that line, and the girl that sings on that song [Annie Light-Brown, another Columbus compatriot] was just like, ‘I love that line so much.’ And I was like, ‘I wish I wrote that line.’”
If he’s not quite up to Van Zandt’s level yet, Easton has nevertheless experienced quite a bit since he began playing music a decade ago with an outfit called the Kosher Spears. He formed the Haynes Boys in the early ’90s, but he also spent several extended stretches traveling throughout Europe and playing on the street, at one point even releasing a solo album on the Czech label Podulka.
“I went overseas like seven or eight times, and just kept staying over there, because it was so easy to get work and whatnot,” Easton says. He spent most of his time in the Czech Republic and Ireland. “Ireland is heaven for musicians, because there’s plenty of work, and plenty of good unpretentious musicians over there too,” he says.
His Czech Republic visits offered an entirely different perspective. “The first time I was there was when it was still Czechoslovakia — it was after the wall came down. It was a party. And then the hangover started; that’s what they call it now. All this Western stuff’s coming in, and it’s changing. Like, there was no McDonald’s the first time I was there. And now, last week I was there, and there were more than ten of ‘em.”
Easton’s most recent visit was a mixture of business and pleasure; Germany’s Blue Rose Records is distributing Special 20 overseas, and Easton played a few shows in Prague as well as doing some street busking (with Clare Surgeson playing washboard).
Such traveling is common for Easton, who says he spends more time away from Columbus than in it these days. He moved to New York City for several months a couple years ago, and still frequently makes extended visits to other places around the country.
No doubt his journeys will take him to Austin for another SXSW festival before too long. That initial experience four years ago has left him with a better perspective on such events, though.
“I think it’s not so much a thing to get worked up about as an artist,” he says. “It’s more just, maybe go there and have some fun. And hopefully see some really good music that’ll change you. And you’d never wanna pass up a trip to Texas.”
ND co-editor Peter Blackstock would never wanna pass up a trip to Texas, either.