The Pioneering Nashville Country Outlaw
Interview by Dan O'Conor
Chris Gantry has lived an interesting 76 years. He had a recording contract in NYC before he could drive, he signed a publishing deal in Nashville at 21, wrote a huge hit recorded by Glen Campbell when he was 25, was onstage with Tim Hardin at Woodstock at 26, and played the Johnny Cash Show at 29. He has rubbed elbows and pissed off some of the finest songwriters Nashville has ever produced. He released three increasingly diverse records in Nashville and then stopped recording for 39 years. He is in the inaugural class of pioneers at the Outlaw Country Hall of Fame with Hank Williams, The Carter Family, Loretta Lynn, and Bobby Bare. What happened? Where did he go?
Let's start with the spoken word intro to the Kris Kristofferson song "The Pilgrim: Chapter 33."
"Started writing this song about Chris Gantry, end of writing about Dennis Hopper, Johnny Cash, Norman Norbert, Funky Donnie Fritts, Billy Swan, Bobbie Neuwirth, Jerry Jeff Walker, Paul Siebel, Ramblin Jack Elliott."
What a batch of artists to be clumped in with & look at the lyrics:
"See him wasted on the sidewalk in his jacket and his jeans
Wearin' yesterday's misfortune like a smile
Once he had a future full of money, love and, dreams
Which he spent like they were goin' outta style
And he keeps right on a changing for the better or the worse
Searchin' for a shrine he's never found
Never knowin' if believing is a blessin' or a curse
Or if the goin' up was worth the comin' down
He's a poet, he's a picker
He's a prophet, he's a pusher
He's a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he's stones
He's a walkin' contradiction, partly truth and party fiction
Takin every wrong direction on his lonely way back home
He has tasted good and evil in your bedrooms and your bars
And he's traded in tomorrow for today
Runnin' from his devils, lord, and reachin' for the stars
And losin' all he's loved along the way
But if this world keeps right on turnin' for the better or the worse
And all he ever gets is older and around
From the rockin' of the cradle to the rollin' of the hearse
The going up was worth the coming down
He's a poet, he's a picker
He's a prophet, he's a pusher
He's a pilgrim and a preacher , and a problem when he's stoned
He's a walking contradiction , partly truth and partly fiction
Takin every wrong direction on his lonely way back home
There's a lotta wrong directions on the lonely way back home"
Wait a minute- "a walking contradiction" might sound familiar for anyone who saw the 1976 Scorsese movie Taxi Driver. Betsy (Cybill Shepard) to Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro): "You know what you remind me of, that song by Kris Kristofferson: "he's a prophet and a pusher, partly truth and partly fiction, a walking contradiction."
Chris Gantry made his Chicago debut on February 22, 2018 at the Hideout in Chicago. It was billed as a record release for his At the House of Cash record released in November 2017 by Drag City Records. Gantry recorded the record at Johnny Cash's house and studio in 1973. It was rediscovered by John Carter Cash and the second coming of Gantry was underway. I had the pleasure to spend a few minutes with Chris before his show at the Hideout.
PSF: You've said you had an epiphany at a very young age, saying songwriting is a Godly gift the two of you could form a co-writing partnership. How old were you?
CG: I Guess I was about 12 years old, living in Queens NY, living in Jamaica in a shotgun apartment under an L station, I grew up with a lot of noise, a tough Polack father and there was a time in the world when young boys were looking to be liberated because of the Eisenhower era back in the 50's and then of course when Elvis came on the scene that was it man. That was like liberation day. Every guy wanted to be Elvis. He was on the Ed Sullivan show, and his "Heartbreak Hotel" nailed it to the wall. So it gave guys like me hope. I went to a pawn shop and bought a $25 guitar and started beating the shit out of it man, started beating on it and figuring it out, never had any lessons and I'm a real good guitar player now, after all these years. Back then, I was just like everyone else, trying to figure it out but I realized that I'd stepped into a new world and a world that liberated me and freed me from the shit I grew up in & being around my Dad.
PSF: When was the last time you were back in the Queens neighborhood where you grew up?
CG: I went back a long time ago, I have no interest in going back. I became a Southerner, I went to Nashville in 1963 and I ingrained myself in that culture and that music, sucked it up and learned it and got to be around, to me, best songwriters in the world and I just fell into it like a dummy, like a clown, I just fell into it and they accepted me.
PSF: You went to military high school. Did you have any inspiring writing or English teachers?
CG: No, just one person, a cadet who was like the Maynard G. Krebs of military school, he was like a beatnik and he played a guitar, so he was like the first guy I picked up on that I should get a guitar. And we started singing together imitating The Everly Brothers and we got a record deal.
PSF: How many songs did you have written when you got a record deal?
CG: We had written about 14 songs, I was 14 years old and got to into the city on weekends with budding singers from school, got to hang out at the Brill Building and got to meet a lot of people and it's never stopped since then.
PSF: How did you choose to go to Bethel College in Tennessee and how did going there inspire your songwriting?
CG: Just to get out of New York, just the South and the music that came out of the South. Hillbilly & Rock and Roll, Jerry Lee Lewis.
PSF: Talk about the music of your teen years.
CG: It changed. I started to see that songwriting was an art form. And then I became less involved in being a persona myself but I gravitated towards writing. I wanted to be able to express the most in the least which I didn't do but well because I'm verbose. Guys like Kristofferson & Mickey Newberry, Vince Matthews, Eddie Rabbitt they were masters, well budding masters, and we got to hang out together and learn together. I'm still on that trail wanting to write the perfect song.
PSF: You wrote for the same publishing companies as Kristofferson for 6 years. When did you know Kristofferson was a huge talent?
CG: Not immediately. When he first got to Nashville, he was looking for his voice & trying to figure it out. His songs were not his voice yet but in the end, what he did was draw on, what inspired him was William Blake.
PSF: You had a publishing deal within a year in Nashville and Glen Campbell had a huge hit "Dreams of an Everyday Housewife" within 5 years. Did you think you had made it?
CG: Publishing was quick but no, no I heard the Charles Mingus album The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady and all of the sudden I went totally crazy and began to incorporate that into my guitar style and my chords and things like that and so I became a pariah around Nashville. They wanted me to write more "Dreams." I could have but I didn't. I changed and went a different direction.
PSF: Did you tour behind your debut album in 1968?
CG: Yes, (we) toured outside of Nashville and the experience was OK but I became a reclusive person and gravitate towards the country and dogs and quiet. And then I met Shel Silverstein, he became my good friend & running buddy and he taught me how to write plays. I wanted to write children books and I have. Shel was one of my role models, he was a buddy.
PSF: Bob Dylan recorded in Nashville in the mid ‘60's. Was there a buzz among the songwriters?
CG: How that went down is, Dylan came to town to record Blonde on Blonde and Kristofferson knocks on my door at Midnight. He's working as a janitor at Columbia studios and he says "Bob is recording but he left his harmonicas on the plane" so I gave him all my harps. All the harps you hear on that record are my harps (laughs). So I go down to the studio the next day and a few days after that and I got to hang out for that record, so that was a trip
PSF: How did you originally meet Tim Hardin? How did you end up being helicoptered into Woodstock?
CG: I met Tim in New York when I was opening for Kristofferson in Greenwich Village and he invited me up to Woodstock and I went to Tim's house. Tim was heavily into drugs and we became friends. We flew into Woodstock and unbeknownst to him, I got onstage when he was singing the Bobby Darin song ("Simple Song of Freedom") and I got to feel that whole experience and that was it. Tim and I stayed good friends over the years till he passed away out in L.A.. PSG: Did you see any performers at Woodstock that blew you away?
CG: We stayed that night and then left. I always liked Richie Havens- he was totally gutbucket honest, the way he did his thing. He gave me good advice, talked to me when I was a kid. He was very tender.
PSF: You played your song "Alleghany" on the Johnny Cash show. Was it your first time on the Ryman Stage and how was it?
CG: Yes, first time alone on the Ryman stage, I was nervous, when I look at that video, I look like a wild animal. I can remember how primal of an experience it was. John was a primal guy. Back then, he was dressed up for the show and he helped me out a lot.
Chris Gantry's intro at the Hideout to "The Lizard" from At The House of Cash:
"Johnny Cash was one of my hero's in high school and here I am invited to come out live at the house of the King, so that was huge. I not only got to know Johnny Cash in a personal way but I got to see how he lives in everyday life, walking around the house in his socks & stuff like we all do. And other things, he told me "Chris, why don't you use the studio in Hendersonville, why don't you come and record some music and go have some fun."
Why the Lizard introduced me to the orange flying bird
and this one reduced me beyond the thought or word
PSF: Can you explain the influence of Mingus had on At the House of Cash?
CG: House of Cash record was a collection of songs that I wrote out of the country, partly in Mexico and partly in Nashville. I was waving my freak flag high then, and experimenting playing. John gave me the privilege of going in the studio and doing what I wanted to do. He was very gracious and let me spend whatever it took to complete the record. There were 18 songs that I recorded, 9 have never been located
PSF: When Johnny & June listened to At the House of Cash, he said I don't think the druggies will even get it?
CG: The record company said it was unreleasable.
PSF: Did you ever play the House of Cash songs live?
CG: Yes, I played them all the time in Nashville by myself and with an accompanist.
PSF: Were those songs hitting the mark in Nashville?
CG: I was the mark in Nashville then. The people who came to see me they liked anything that I did.
PSF: You released your self-titled record in 1975 and then 39 years before your next release?
CG: I moved to Key West and wrote poetry, novels, plays just took another avenue. Always earned a living from writing. Plus Shel lived there, we hung out every day & got to see each other all the time.
PSF: How did your book Gypsy Dreamers in the Alley come about and why did you start posting on Facebook in 2012?
CG: My publisher wanted me to do it. So I did I tried to remember it all in 11 months of posts. But I've also written hundreds of other things. I don't like Facebook. I've run out of ideas
PSF: How did you get involved with Harmony Korine and his VHS movie Trash Humpers in 2009?
CG: He's was in the hood, he lived on my block and we knew each other so I did that crazy thing.
PSF: The soundtrack for Trash Humpers was a 7" on Drag City as well?
CG: Is my song on there? I wrote a poem for the movie & wrote the theme song for it.
PSF: Who is your favorite songwriter of all time?
CG: All time, that's a heavy question. Let me think about that for a second... ME!!
Kris Kristofferson at Big Sur Folk festival, Oct 3,1970
"Hope you remember the name Chris Gantry. Get Chris Gantry back out here. He'll destroy the Earth."
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