He’s put out a handful of solo albums in his day, but for much of his multi-decade career in Nashville, Phil Madeira has been more than content standing in the background. “I mean, I play with Emmylou Harris, man,” says the no-nonsense musician, who since 2008 has been the bandleader for the folk icon’s backing outfit, the Red Dirt Boys. “That’s a pretty great thing to say,” he adds with a laugh. But now with Providence, the Americana singer’s forthcoming solo effort, he’s making himself vulnerable like never before.
“This project, in its own crazy way, has really been brewing in me for my entire life,” he says of the 10-song LP, recorded with the Red Dirt Boys, that explores his Rhode Island upbringing, the complex emotions he felt when arriving in Nashville in 1983, and, on album closer “Gothenburg,” premiering exclusively on Rolling Stone Country, his Swedish family’s immigrant roots. Says Madeira, “The album is not so much me saying, ‘I’m a Rhode Islander’ as it is saying, ‘Hey, we all come from someplace.'”
Providence is also a sonic departure for Madeira. Where he’s spent the past 30 years principally focused on the guitar – that is, when he’s not writing songs for artists like Alison Krauss, Amy Grant, Toby Keith and the Civil Wars – Providence, due March 30, is anchored almost entirely by piano and leans heavy on the musician’s longtime love of jazz. It also finds Madeira singing in a conversational everyman timbre recalling Randy Newman at his most jovial. Most significantly, it allowed the 65-year-old to peel back the curtain on his feelings toward his East Coast upbringing.
What was the turning point for you to finally start writing Providence?
In the summer of 2016 I had a solo date as a guitar player outside of Providence and I was staying at my cousin’s house in a little place called Jamestown, Rhode Island; it’s a teeny little island and that is actually where the long bridge is that connects one half of the state to the other across the Narragansett Bay. So I’m driving across that bridge, pretty early, because I was going to have breakfast with my friend John Scofield, who was in town to play at the Newport Jazz Festival. As I’m driving across this bridge … I’m at the top and I look to the north and all I see is blue and green. Blue water. Green trees. I thought, “Man, you grew up here.”
It hit you that you grew up in a beautiful place?
Well, it’s that thing the writer Thomas Wolfe said: “You can’t go home.” People say “Where you from?” and I tell them I’m from Nashville, Tennessee. Because it’s really where I’ve spent my adult life.
So I go over to the festival and catch John’s set and I start thinking about being a kid and going to Newport Jazz Fest and seeing Ella Fitzgerald and Roberta Flack and Buddy Rich and then of course going to the Folk Festival as well. The idea just struck me right there at the festival: You need to do a record about Rhode Island.
You clearly have a love-hate relationship with Rhode Island.
I think the trend for most people, especially in our exceedingly mobile society, is to leave home. It’s almost an expectation now that you leave home. Whereas 100 years ago you stayed home. You all lived in a house together. You took care of your grandma. And we don’t have that paradigm anymore. The thing about leaving is you almost have to eschew the place you came from. I tried for a few years to do music in Rhode Island and I worked in a discount store, literally stacking toasters. Every word of the song on the album, “Wicked Job,” is true. I’m thinking, “Man, what are you doing with your life?” So you leave home because all of a sudden you find a pasture that you can really make hay in as it were. With me I’ve been sentimental about very little about Rhode Island. I’m sentimental about fried clams.
Well, your saying that you are from Nashville is quite telling.
What’s really funny though is that Emmylou, she goes through different phases of how she introduces the band and usually she doesn’t say where we’re from. But when we’ve played at Newport Folk Festival, she’s said, “From Rhode Island, here’s Phil Madeira!” And of course it works [laughs]. But do I think of myself as a Nashvillian? Nashville gave me a career.
I’m thinking this record is something you could never have made at an earlier point in your life. It required wisdom and maturity, contemplation and reflection.
Absolutely. And it goes back to Thomas Wolfe: “You can’t go home again.” While I’m not sure it’s entirely true, I do understand it. “Barrington,” which is about the town I grew up in, it’s about how I either had to take up the song and go, or lay it down and stay. Or it’s just like the last song “Gothenburg”: my grandfather came here by himself from Sweden, went back and tried to give it one more go and not have to leave everything he loved and understood, but in the end he wound up in Providence. If there’s a point to the record, it’s wrapped up in that song, and in how in our crazy America now, we forget that unless you’re a Native American, you came from someplace. Something forced you here. Either great hope or great despair.