Garth Hudson on the Band’s influences, Basement Tapes, tragic losses

Garth Hudson, who celebrates a birthday on Aug. 2, was the glue that held the Band together. His musical contributions provided both structure and a canny flamboyance. His calming influence worked as a center point for the group through decades of change. His careful, professorial nature meant that he took on the role of curator, too.

It’s not just that without Garth Hudson, there would be no “Chest Fever,” no Basement Tapes. There might not have been a Band at all. In this exclusive Something Else! Sitdown, Hudson discusses the Band’s early days, his own love affair with the keyboard, the tragic loss of their three principal vocalists, and what he heard anew upon returning to those old recordings with Bob Dylan for last year’s reissue, The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11. Garth’s long-time wife and musical collaborator Sister Maud joined us, too.

NICK DERISO: The Basement Tapes document a group coming into its own. How much did living in close quarters at Big Pink contribute to the deepening of musical bonds?
GARTH HUDSON: We started to develop the three-part harmony, to see which goes on top and what section they would add harmonies to — the whole arranging part of it. Singing the harmonies together, we had to pay attention. It had to be safe. We approached the whole experience with caution. I think everyone anticipated a chord, and they could move into it very quickly. You get to be very swift; a millisecond after you hear something, you can chime in or lay out. We knew how not to infringe on one’s personal endeavor, while living in the same structure.

NICK DERISO: Returning to those recordings for The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 must have given you a chance to experience these things in a new way.
GARTH HUDSON: Now that I look back, and I have my favorites in there. I think the some of the best writing was in “Yazoo Street Scandal.” That really does create an atmosphere. I liked the piece; that was one of Robbie [Robertson]’s finer pieces. Of course, some of the things I did, I wasn’t aware of until recently just how appropriate they were. The lines were well spoken musically, so I was happy to hear that I did a good job.

NICK DERISO: Let’s talk about the voices of the Band, now gone. How did you find a way to continue forward, after losing Richard Manuel to suicide while on tour in 1986?
GARTH HUDSON: What else could we do? I would guess as far as the art of putting on a show, and gathering repertoire and presenting oneself as a solo artist — that was not fully developed when Richard passed. We had to return to it, and go on. All of it is a credit to Rick [Danko] and Levon [Helm]’s determination and spirit. We had families to support and also fans. I would think that fans would rather see us out there than sitting at home in rocking chairs waiting for residuals, right?

NICK DERISO: Then, in 1999, Rick Danko passed, and that — for all intents and purposes — ended the Band.
SISTER MAUD HUDSON: It’s something we still haven’t gotten used to. It still seems like he’s going to call, or pop his head around the corner and say “hey, you gotta a minute?” (laughs), and then have so many wonderful things to say, every single day. What a positive guy. Everybody knows Rick. He has friends all over the world. No matter where you go, there are people there who are his best friends. He had almost a photographic memory, and so he could remember everything about all of these jillions of people and places. He would always help people. He’d help anyone. And he was so funny.
GARTH HUDSON: More than once I heard him say at the end of the show, after the encore: “This is a beautiful town, great people. If there are any real estate brokers here, please leave your card at the door.” (Laughs.) I used that line somewhere recently.

NICK DERISO: Garth, you continued to perform with Levon Helm as part of his legendary Saturday night barn dances. What are your memories of the Midnight Rambles?
GARTH HUDSON: There’s no other venue like the Ramble. You’ll hear accounts to describe the place, but it’s more than words can say. Levon and I used to drive around the Woodstock area here, looking for property. This was before we built. We would be talking about the design, with the home studio in mind. It was pretty well set in his mind what his building would be, even back then. I, of course, didn’t want anything quite that big. I had my own ideas. But we did drive around looking for ideas and locations, and he found that location for him. His is secluded. You might miss it, if you drive too fast — but it’s back there. I don’t think you’ll find another situation quite like it, unless somebody replicates it with those 50-inch beams.

NICK DERISO: I was thrilled to see Levon’s family and friends continue forward with the Rambles, and the early successes of their Keep It Goin’ foundation in support of the shows. In a way, it sounds like that was also part of his life’s work.
GARTH HUDSON: At that time, this was early 1970s when we were building, he already had the idea of the show that would be going on there. I know he had thought of TV cameras, so we could do video pieces of a group — or a concert. He had all of those concepts in place. And he just went through with it and really did an incredible thing. He left a heritage, for sure, for all of us to carry on with what we are doing.

NICK DERISO: The Band’s first few albums seemed to come out of nowhere in the late 1960s, cutting right through the psychedelia and acid rock of the day. How did you arrive at that fascinating amalgam of sounds?
GARTH HUDSON: The basics of it included rockabilly, and that gradually changed when Robbie [Robertson] came in the group. Then you start to hear more of the Delta guitar players, like B.B King. Robbie was instrumental in changing us from rockabilly to rock blues. Richard [Manuel] and I got our education from Alan Freed, because we were closer to Cleveland. Over there in the east, where Rick and Robbie came from, they picked up “The Hound” from Buffalo. We were tutored by different radio announcers.

NICK DERISO: Together, you created something that hadn’t been made before. They call it “Americana” these days. But back then, it didn’t even have a name — much less a radio format.
GARTH HUDSON: At first, we played what you would call cover material, but the very best that could be found — from Delta blues through the guitar and harmonica tradition and up through the uptown players. I think that puts it briefly. Richard admired Bobby “Blue” Bland as a singer, for example, and Ray Charles. We had all our sources. I admired Charles Brown as a singer and piano player. He was very smooth. I found out later on that he played stride and pop songs, or “AABA” songs, very well and had a considerable repertoire. As you think back, during the period he was playing, Nat Cole was also playing. Remember that Nat Cole took the guitar player that was playing with Charles Brown – Oscar Moore. So, there was overlap. All of it blended together.

NICK DERISO: By the time of the Band recordings, you had begun using a Lowrey. It gave your music such a distinctive feel — primarily because the Hammond B3, at that point, was standard.
GARTH HUDSON: Early on, it was all on the Lowrey FL, then later on the Lincolnwood, and then the big one — the H25. All of the textures and so on are from Lowreys. I’ve tried to describe why a Lowrey fit right in with our guitar work, and the singing — it complements the voices. One reason for using an organ other than the Hammond is that the Lowrey has a wider harmonic structure. It has, I think, 27 different harmonics at various levels to get a sound, while the Hammond has eight or nine. A Hammond always sounds like a Hammond. And of course, the Jimmy Smith sound — that percussive sound — it’s obvious, when you hear that, this is a Hammond organ. The newer digital organs that have the Hammond name on them, a friend of mine told me they sound very close — almost like a digital clone, but I don’t know. The Lowrey was always a lot more interesting to me.

NICK DERISO: Of course, “The Genetic Method” became a clinic on the Lowrey’s versatility and power.
GARTH HUDSON: I know I stole something from J.S. Bach there. But we needn’t mention that, right? [Laughs.]

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
  • Scott Lyons

    Great post. Thank you for sharing.

  • Ouch Joust

    Well done. Thank you.

  • Joey

    Wow. Even now, even in 2015, by simply uttering a handful of words Garth can cut through all of the clutter and the entire history of North American music comes rushing forward and overwhelms you in all of its richness. I’m not a particularly nostalgic person, but it does sadden me to know that there will soon come a day when we won’t have anyone who can share such experiences from a personal history that is so connected to American music all the way back to the early days of the 20th Century. Garth Hudson is a treasure. He always has been.

  • MiddleAgedKen

    Very good story.