Rich Mattson honors Paul Wellstone, Uptown Bar on Ol' Yeller's Levels
By Craig Planting
From 2001 until 2007, Americana roots-rockers Ol' Yeller put out five studio albums (including 2004's Sounder which won a Minnesota Music Award) and toured the country, especially Texas, over a dozen times. They became a favorite of Twin Cites musicians and local music scenesters, but never broke through to a larger audience. The band disintegrated when drummer Keely Lane moved to Nashville to become a session musician and bassist Dale Kallman dropped out of music all together. Singer, guitarist, producer, and songwriter Rich Mattson returned to the Iron Range where he converted a church into a recording studio and led numerous bands including the hard-rocking Tisdales, folk duo the Bitter Spills with Baby Grant Johnson and Junkboat with his girlfriend, singer/songwriter Germaine Gemberling.
Now, after some gigs backing Gemberling, Ol' Yeller is back and ready to take another shot. Last summer they convened at Mattson's studio and recorded their new album, Levels, in six days. The album alternates between folk-influenced acoustic tunes and barnstorming rockers. The moods are often darker then Ol' Yeller's first incarnation and there aren't as many obvious country influences. The album, like most of Mattson's music, rewards repeat listening.
"Rich reuniting with his old rhythm section gives the songs the feel of a fastball caught in the pocket of a perfectly broken-in-glove," says Belfast Cowboy Terry Walsh. "Dale and Keely play like they're ready to follow Rich down any path, ready to hoist him on their shoulders if he falls, but he never stumbles."
The album's centerpiece is "Silver Bullet," a song about senator Paul Wellstone, whose life ended near Eveleth, just down the road from Mattson's recording studio.
"About five miles away as the crow flies/There lies the blood of the teacher/You can believe your conspiracy/You'll never find the silver bullet."
The music is appropriately austere and sounds like a barely-updated murder ballad from Harry Smith's Anthology of Folk Music. I asked Mattson about the song via e-mail.
"It still freaks me out," he explains, "that Wellstone met his end just five miles from my home. When I heard the news I immediately thought 'conspiracy' and my mind hasn't changed. When the idea was mentioned on TV, somebody said: 'they'll never find the silver bullet,' meaning they'll never find the real evidence that he was murdered and that made me sad. I thought of JFK, too, and how different the world could have been if those two leaders and others like them hadn't perished before their dreams came to fruition."
A memorial has been built at the crash site where you can walk on a boardwalk and read plaques detailing Wellstone's accomplishments, political theories and hopes for our future. Then the boardwalk leads you out to the actual crash site and you realize that Wellstone, his wife and their companions crashed in a swamp. The site is desolate and undeniably lonely. It's fitting that an album about defiance, perseverance and living with hard choices contains a tribute to Paul Wellstone.
There are two types of relationship songs on Levels. The first can be categorized as the "I'm going to persevere despite you stomping on my heart and abandoning me" songs. On "Hangin,'" a classic kiss-off tune, Mattson opens a vein.
"Well, she gave me back my cat/Sent some papers and that was that/But those papers are unread and they're still unsigned...I'm just sitting in my lawn chair/Pretending that they're not there/Tearing at my heart/I wanna tear them apart."
Mattson's unpretentious, lived-in baritone is reminiscent of Gordon Lightfoot. It has the same masculine wrestling with heartbreak edge, similar to Willie Nelson singing: "And if I were the man you wanted/I wouldn't be the man that I am."
I ask Mattson if he had any qualms about being so honest in his songs about his past relationships. Did he ever worry about hurting anyone's feelings?
"I don't mean any harm to anyone," he replies, "and I never specifically direct any song towards any one person. All of the names and the stories have been changed to protect the guilty and the innocent."
At the risk of sounding gossipy, I wonder if Mattson's ex-girlfriends listen to his new music. Wouldn't they be tempted to try and decipher whether he was singing about them? Even if his songs made them punch walls, wouldn't their curiosity get the better of them?
The second type of relationship tune on Levels is the "I can't believe I've found a new love and I better not mess this one up" songs.
On "Comin' on Strong," an all-out rocker, Mattson sings: "I ate the forbidden fruit, it tastes just like they say/So sweet and succulent, but it isn't worth the price you pay/I looked around and I didn't see a soul in sight/Until you showed up, illuminated in a holy light."
Despite what Mattson says, it's hard not to assume that this song is about Gemberling. On "Tired of Feeling Good," a duet near the end of the album, Mattson and Gemberling harmonize beautifully as they sing: "That same moon hangs over Superior/And I'm thinking of someone tonight/Someone to love me tender/Someone to treat me nice/Someone who knows direction in this neck of the woods." Mattson's perseverance and hard choices appear to have paid-off.
The last song on Levels, "Love to Rock," details Ol' Yeller's past as well as their present. It's one last show of defiance as Mattson, Lane and Kallman continue to chase their dreams despite their albums selling many fewer copies than Purple Rain. They're back and having too much fun to consider trading in their brand of Northwoods rock and roll for straight jobs.
"We always had to jam down in the basement/From the land of Dylan to the home of the Replacements/We even got to party with Bob Stinson/Pool together two bucks for a pack of Winstons/Took forever to get a show at the Uptown/Call Maggie every day and slam the phone down."
"Maggie" is Maggie MacPherson, the former booking agent of the Uptown Bar and the song sums up why it's such a drag that there's a big, clean, excessively-lit Apple store where the Uptown Bar used to be. The Uptown's dirty checkerboard floor, the aging rockers around the bar, the gutter punks, the waitresses smoking and the good, great and terrible bands that played there all are missed.
"Love to Rock" continues with: "But, we never really got to the next level, friends/Keep making records and it never ends/Because here I go, I'll sing this new one for you/And when it's good, oh boy, it's pure euphoria/The gift just keeps on giving, it's pure magic/Let's hope it ends up sweet instead of tragic."
I ask Mattson how he stays true to his dreams. "I just love what I do," he says. "I've never managed to have kids, so I've never had to grow up and quit following the dream. I love playing music, recording bands and being around music people. I do have other interests, but I'm definitely an oddball up where I live. My boat is a canoe that I paid $100 for and I don't want anything else. I've worn the same shoes for ten years and I've had the same haircut since 1986. I plant a garden, heat with wood and think of my life as a game of 'who can spend the least amount of money while leading the richest lifestyle.' It's not for everyone, but I sure as hell enjoy it."
Ol' Yeller is as authentic as a wet, crumpled dollar next to a whiskey sour and Rich Mattson is Minnesota's cross between John Fogerty, Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer. If there's any concern, it's that there aren't any of Ol' Yeller's Waylon Jennings-influenced, Outlaw Country tunes on Levels. Perhaps Mattson will feel obliged to write one for their next album.
Ol' Yeller's album release show will be at Lee's Liquor Lounge on Friday, December 7. Brothers Burn Mountain and Germaine Gemberling will open the show and the cover is 8 bucks. Click here.
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