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Chris Stamey taps into California country on new album 'The Great Escape'

Daniel Coston
Courtesy Chris Stamey

Chris Stamey is back on guitar. The North Carolina musical icon has spent the past couple of years pursuing music inspired by the Great American Songbook, largely playing piano and leaning into jazz. Before that, he led a troupe of musicians paying tribute to Big Star's Third album in shows from Australia to the UK.

On his new record, The Great Escape, Chris is putting his own spin on the southern California country sound of the 1970s. He gets help from Eric Heywood on pedal steel along with Libby Rodenbough from Mipso, Dave Wilson and John Teer from Chatham County Line, his dB's bandmate Will Rigby and old friend Don Dixon.

Chris stopped by WUNC recently to talk with Eric Hodge about the new songs.

This is an excerpt of an edited transcript of that conversation. You can hear the full interview by clicking the LISTEN button at the top of this post.

I've read that this project was partially inspired by a tour you were doing with Alejandro Escovedo back in 2017. What was it from that experience that got you going in this direction?

We were doing a play the album concert of a record called A Man Under the Influence that he cut here, mostly at my place. And on one side of the stage, we had Eric Haywood on pedal steel. And on the other side, I was at the piano with a string trio. And I'd written a lot of string arrangements for the various songs. And you know, it's kind of back and forth between the two and I realized how you could orchestrate with pedal steel in the hands of a good player.

And I kind of got the bug, and Eric was still in North Carolina for a while. And I had him come over and I had some songs written with that sound in mind. So it wasn't really a reverence for bands like Poco and The Flying Burrito Brothers so much as an exploration of the sounds I heard Eric making.

Is "The Great Escape" a road song?

It's not really about touring. And I have done relatively little of that. Mostly I sit at home and write music. But what happened with this song is I was talking to a good friend of mine. [This] guy, he does have pretty much everything, great family, incredible house, lots of money in the bank. But he was saying every time he gets to the crossroads here in Carrboro, and he has to turn right to go into town. He thinks about turning left and disappearing. And that really stuck with me as an impulse that maybe a lot of us have had of just abandoning everything and seeing what's out there.

And in the song, it feels kind of jaunty and euphoric, and it's trucking along. But then it hits the chorus and it's like, a little more reflective. And as it continues, you realize that he's trying to call home, but he can't quite do it. And he's sleeping at the Walmart and maybe things haven't exactly turned out the way you planned.

"Dear Friend" is a change of pace. You're offering words of encouragement, but is this song also about loss?

I have to say the last 15 years have been very sadly informed by a lot of suicides in our musical community and at large.

And I think I was just thinking that we all need comfort at a certain time. And you write songs from any number of impulses, but I liked the idea that a song might help at some point — if that doesn't sound too bold. I wanted it to be a song of comfort.

Why did you decide to write what can be described as a more realistic take on a wedding song in "I Will Try"?

I am really fortunate in that I've had a very happy marriage and continue to. But you go into it on your wedding day and it's a little bit of fireworks and pie in the sky but it's actually something that grows every day and requires work and careful attention.

Chris Stamey's The Great Escape is out Friday wherever you buy or stream music. The Chris Stamey Group is playing The Cat's Cradle Back Room on Saturday night with Skylar Gudasz.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. Call 988 to speak with a certified listener.

Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
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