The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

KORT In The Act: Kurt Wagner & Cortney Tidwell Chart Their Work Together
John Doran , September 24th, 2010 10:36

Nashville’s Kurt Wagner and Cortney Tidwell have teamed up to record an album of country duets inspired by vintage label Chart Records. The Quietus has the exclusives on their new video and a mini documentary, and chats to the two about its evolution


In 2006, Nashville chanteuse Cortney Tidwell teamed up with fellow ‘Home Of Country Music’ resident Kurt Wagner, of Lambchop, to record a song for her debut full length, Don’t Let Stars Keep Us Tangled Up. It still took two years for the duo to join one another on stage, though, performing their collaborative 'Society' and also the Don Willliams’ country hit, 'I Believe In You', at a party to celebrate the completion of Tidwell’s second album, Boys. A friendship soon developed, and the two began to discuss the possibility of further work together.

It was when Wagner learned of Tidwell’s family and its strong ties to Nashville musical history that the concept of Invariable Heartache began to flourish. Lambchop had always fostered a love for country music, with the artwork on their early records exhorting people to visit the city’s Country Music Hall Of Fame, and Wagner’s discovery that Tidwell’s grandfather had run country label Chart Records, with her father joining later on as A&R, set his mind racing. Further discoveries, such as the fact that her mother had also recorded for Chart and later ABC Dunhill, that her other grandfather had performed regularly at the legendary Grand Ole Opry, as well as the fact that Tidwell’s childhood memories included visits by the likes of Jack Clements and Townes Van Zandt, fuelled his intrigue.

The result is the snappily titled Kurt Wagner & Cortney Tidwell Present KORT: Invariable Heartache, released on October 18, is a collection of songs recorded for newly revivified Chart Records and one - by Cortney’s mother, Connie Eaton - for ABC Dunhill. It’s a major departure for them both, so The Quietus invited Kurt Wagner and Cortney Tidwell to explain the story behind the record, what it meant to them, and how it was made…

KORT 'Pickin' Wild Mountain Berries'

Kurt Wagner & Cortney Tidwell present KORT - Pickin' Wild Mountain Berries (Official Video) from City Slang on Vimeo.

Cortney Tidwell on Kurt: KORT just seemed like the next step for Kurt and me. We both work with the same talented musicians. It was a no brainer for me, as I have worked with Kurt before (on the Don’t Let Stars Keep Us Tangled Up album he sang 'Society' with me) and I respect both him and his work immensely.

We started kicking around the idea of a covers record. I wanted to do some straighforward and perhaps more obvious choices, but Kurt was having none of that! We were exploring old country duets and some of my mother's old records when the idea of doing the Chart Records stuff came about. I don’t talk much about my family history in music to great degree – it's very personal to me – but Kurt was intrigued.

We dug deep into the Chart catalogue and came around to choosing a lot of the same songs. The chart catalogue is vas: it was shocking to me to discover my father and his father put out some of this stuff. So MUCH of this music, some of it off the beaten path.

Country music is all about heartbreak. I’ve experienced that. My family lived it, with mental illness, the demise of musical dreams and the fold of Chart Records. So this record is bittersweet for me.

I feel very fortunate to be given such opportunities. To make music with people I care about, people I respect. I have total respect for Kurt. He has become a mentor to me. He, as an artist, is just mind blowing. I think he is one of the best songwriters of this generation. And the fantastic thing is that he doesn’t even know it. He just does what he does – being Kurt – but he demands respect silently. Does that make sense?!

So there it is. We made the record pretty fast. Country music, though I don’t explore much of it, comes very natural to me. It’s like walking. I grew up on it, then spent many years trying to get away from it. How ironic that it’s what I want to sing these days.

Bringing Chart Records Back To Life: A Mini Documentary

Kurt Wagner & Cortney Tidwell present KORT - Mini Documentary from City Slang on Vimeo.

Kurt Wagner on Cortney: Seemed like a good idea at the time, getting together with Cortney to make a record. We had done a duet of 'I Believe In You' at a club in town called The Basement and it seemed to have gone over pretty well. I noticed that Cortney really had a natural affinity for singing country music. Up to that point I'd only known of her abilities as a singer of more modern material.

So when the idea came up to do a duet record we started by trying other classic duet-like songs, but the notion of just singing random covers seemed a bit stiff to me. In fact it didn't really seem to be working. But around that time Cort suggested that we think about one of her mom's old tunes. I had no idea her mom was a performer. She informed me that yes, she was an artist on a label started by her grandfather (Slim) called Chart right here in Nashville. She also told me that her dad was an engineer and producer for the label, her mom an artist who eventually moved on to ABC/ Dunhill.

Then suddenly things seemed to click in my beer addled brain and I asked if she had any of the old records they made. She said, yes a few, but she would look into finding some more. I started thinking that this could be something deeper than just an old washed up indie singer and a young promising indie singer just making a record, but something with a bit of deeper reason behind it. My fascination with the old Nashville sound goes back to the inception of Lambchop and the sound we made is based loosely on the concepts of the Nashville sound.

Eventually, Cortney procured a hard drive of the entire chart catalogue and from that we set out listening to a lot of country music, sifting through hundreds of sound-alike knock offs and novelty songs and every now and then finding a song that some how stood apart from the norm and had some sort of resonance. These were the ones that we ended up recording in our own way, not so much a replication but more of a study in reclamation.

It was surprisingly easy once we actually got to recording, largely due to the quick and sure talents of William Tyler, Scott Martin, Ryan Norris and Adam Bednarik. Not your ‘go to’ neo country pickers, but great musicians Cort and I are familiar with as they play in both our bands, and all of them born after Chart had ceased to exist. They have no inherent nostalgia for the idiom. Some didn't even really like the original tunes, but found a way to make them likable despite the prejudice, a testament to their gifts as musicians. Adding Tony Crow (Lambchop) and Paul Niehaus (Calexico, Lambchop) to the sound seemed like the perfect embellishment as their gifts are of course the stuff of record.

I also found out that Cortney's husband Todd was from the same type of pedigree here in town, as was William also. They're "children of the industry" in Nashville making music in their own way. Todd is a gifted engineer, now working at Reba McIntire's studio in Nashville, Starstruck. His 9-5 is making contemporary country records. He was also into the idea of making a record of the type of country that we all seemed to hold in high regard, not for the kitschy-ness or the retro-ness, but for the beauty and simplicity it could impart on the listener. Beyond the goofy words of these songs was the essence that seemed to transcend to something I can only describe as cooly uncool. These songs were weird in a way because of the straightforwardness. They are so straight in some ways that they stand out as a new kind of ‘weird’. They're quirky ‘cause they are so straight. The subversive element of these songs is their simplistic beauty. Seems everything comes back around, but different, in music eventually.

To add to the mix, so to speak, we called on Mark Nevers to mix this as he has the same classic country background as Todd, having spent a decade-plus engineering in the Country music machine of Nashville, and he wanted to apply his own sensibility to a genre ripe with potential yet bloated with cliché. In addition to mixing, he contributed the addition of some exceptional young players from the live country circuit just to keep things honest, Billy Conteras from George Jones’ Road Band and Ben Hall from Charlie Louvin's.

The first song we tracked was 'Incredibly Lonely', and after that we knew that there was a potential to make something I can only describe now as unique. I’m not sure anyone else has really come to music from this angle, and it wouldn't ring as true with out this connectedness that seems to run through the entire process, this family connection through a genre and sound that is both old and removed yet oddly listenable and satisfying. I never would have thought this could happen... but shit, there it is. Cortney really taught me a lot about singing and though it may not show from my efforts, her voice has a quality that is so ingrained and original and yet true to this genre, astonishing in its maturity. It's something you can't copy - you are just born with it. I'm so glad she got a chance to sing these songs. It will change her world, and if I'm not careful mine as well.

Incredibly Lonely through the years... hear them for yourselves...

Incredibly Lonely by Kurt Wagner & Cortney Tidwell present KORT

Incredibly Lonely (Original Version) by Gene & Rod

Catch KORT live in November, including one date in London

04.11. Gothenburg, Pusterviksbaren
05.11. Copenhagen, Loppen
06.11. Hamburg, Knust
07.11. Berlin, Passionskirche
09.11. Leipzig, Werk II
10.11. Dresden, Beatpol
12.11. CH-Zürich, El Lokal
13.11. Ebensee, Kino
14.11. München, Feierwerk
15.11. Antwerpes, Arenbergschouwburg
16.11. Köln, Gebäude 9
17.11. London, Dingwalls
18.11. Paris, La Maroquinerie
19.11. Frankfurt, Brotfabrik
20.11. Den Hague, Crossing Border Festival

A limited edition version of the album with a bonus disc containing the original recordings of the songs that inspired Invariable Heartache is available from City Slang Records direct.