Fabulous Flip Sides celebrates Emmylou Harris with an interview with Suzanna Spring of Mustangs of the West

After a quarter century break, Southern California’s Mustangs are back as Mustangs of the West with their new Blue Elan album “Time.”
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L to R: Sherry Ryan Barnett, Suzanne Morissettee, Suzanna Spring, Aubrey Richmond, and Holly Montgomery, courtesy of mustangsofthewest.com

L to R: Sherry Ryan Barnett, Suzanne Morissettee, Suzanna Spring, Aubrey Richmond, and Holly Montgomery, courtesy of mustangsofthewest.com

GOLDMINE: Let’s begin with one of your musical heroes, Emmylou Harris and a pair of songs from her White Shoes album, her “In My Dreams” single and its flip side “Like an Old Fashioned Waltz,” written by Sandy Denny.

SUZANNA SPRING: Emmylou Harris has been a big influence for me. I have listened to so many of her records. I remember “In My Dreams” very well and I love “Like an Old Fashioned Waltz” too. “In My Dreams” reminds me of some of the songs she has cut like “Queen of the Silver Dollar,” that were a bit more up-tempo for her. Listening to my music, you probably can imagine that I was really attracted to the Sandy Denny song. I love both sides of the single. What I love most about Emmylou are a lot of the ballads that she recorded, like this flip side. She has such a unique voice and is such a versatile singer. She can sing a lot of up-tempo songs too, but I always felt that where she shines is as a ballad singer. I lived in Nashville and had originally gone there to sing duets with a country singer who had been a rock singer with The Riverdogs, Cary Richard Beare. He was recording some country and country rock music and I heard that his producer was looking for a female singer to sing a couple of duets with him. I sent some of my music, they gave me a call, and that is what brought me to Nashville. Cary and I love all the Gram Parsons and Emmylou songs that they did together and in some ways we had that sound, so we learned and covered a lot of their songs too.

Mustangs flip side

Emmylou Harris

Flip side: Like an Old Fashioned Waltz

A side: Rock ‘n’ Roll Outlaw

Hot Country Singles debut: March 24, 1984

Peak position: No. 9

Warner Bros. 7-29329

GM: Susan Cowsill sings a beautiful cover of Sandy Denny’s “At the End of the Day” on the compilation album called True Voices. Now moving from Sandy Denny back to Emmylou Harris, on your new Blue Elan album Time, which is produced by Mark Howard who has produced Emmylou, the song that I think is most Emmylou-like is “Potter’s Field” with its traditional sound.

SS: Working with Mark Howard was pretty much the best recording times of my life. I think you are probably right about “Potter’s Field.” Many years ago, when we were called The Mustangs, Sherry, Holly and I played “Potter’s Field” in our first go round of the band. We played it differently then and it is one of the songs we submitted to Mark for the new album. The great thing about working with him as a producer is that he is very no nonsense. If Mark likes a song he would say so and if not, he would say, “That’s not good.” So it became easy for us to whittle down the song list. Mark liked “Potter’s Field” but he had us slow it down and lay it back, reminding me of a Bob Dylan song, with the mandolin overlayed on it. The lyrics are actually quite somber. When I wrote it, I was thinking about the arc of my life. It might be poetic, but for me it is autobiographical. Slowing it down gave the lyrics a chance to be heard.

GM: You mentioned mandolin. “This is Me Leaving” is a song that also features that instrument, written by Kerry Chater and Renee Armand, composers of songs that I enjoy, including “I’ll Have to Go Away,” that I learned through the Canadian band Skylark, which included a young David Foster and in recent years, learned of David Cassidy’s version.

SS: Renee is an acquaintance of Sherry’s. We had originally played “This is Me Leaving” in a traditional way but is was the genius of Mark to change the beginnings and endings of some of our songs. He suggested that we sit in a circle for the beginning, at Henson Recording Studios in Hollywood, with percussion instruments found at the studio, and told us to play whatever we want. We created a little rhythm part that he recorded and looped in the studio.

Suzanna Spring in the recording studio, courtesy of mustangsofthewest.com

Suzanna Spring in the recording studio, courtesy of mustangsofthewest.com

GM: Speaking about rhythm, “A Little Undone” is a bouncy and catchy song.

SS: “A Little Undone” is one of those songs that I played live so many times and is one that people want to dance or sing to. When I was in Nashville, and even when moving back to California, I joked that when you write for a publisher they want up-tempo positive songs and I developed the idea that I would write up-tempo negative songs, where the lyrics were a little darker. I wrote “A Little Undone” with one of my long-time Nashville Bluewater publishing co-writers John Reynolds. Mark wanted to change it so that it wasn’t a country shuffle. Our drummer Susanne came up with a different rhythm that reminds me of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain,” with a jump to it.

GM: For the gentle title tune “Time,” you co-wrote that with another person, Steve Nelson.

SS: Steve is someone that I had met through writing in Nashville and was an independent writer at that time. I had the idea for the chorus for “Time” and he and I wrote some verses around it. I think I had some pretty powerful lyrics, “Time doesn’t hear. Time doesn’t care. Time doesn’t wait. Time isn’t fair. Time is a healer. Time is a thief.” Then Steve added, “And everything it steals it keeps,” which to me is one of the key chorus lines. We had some success with that song. Doug Stone recorded it and was one that I wanted to record with this band, too, and give it an intimate quality. Steve is a great, great guy, who is very versatile and has also written some of the Winnie the Pooh songs.

Mustangs Pooh

GM: My favorite song on the new album is “Dancing on the Moon,” which reminds me of Stevie Nicks.

SS: Oh my gosh. I am a huge Fleetwood Mac fan too. I am glad that you say that is your favorite song because it is my favorite song that I have ever written. I had a room in my little house in Nashville where I would write in the evenings. I would have a microphone, a way to record, and my guitar and strum through and see what I would come up with and that song came through that pattern. The song is about walking away from a relationship and is probably the most personal song I have written. I remember another writer telling me that the most personal to you will be the ones that will speak to other people the most. It means a lot to me that you would say it is your favorite song, Warren.

GM: Thank you Suzanna. I do feel that way, although I’ve got to say about the finale, “Seven Summers,” oh my goodness, what lyrics, “Seven summers, six months and twenty days,” and the imagery with the memorial service. I love everything about this creatively unique song. Wow!

SS: Thank you. That song, like “Dancing on the Moon,” was one that I was really hoping would make the album. Mark and the band really wanted to do them. “Seven Summers” is one that I brought late to the table for this record. My natural inclination is to write introspectively and I wasn’t sure about that song for the group. I always loved The Marshall Tucker Band’s song “Can’t You See,” and asked, “What if we changed the ending and added a bit of a round at the end and have everybody contribute vocals?” Mark wanted to keep the verses sparse on the instruments at the beginning of the song so that the words could come out on this autobiographical song.

GM: Thank you for sharing this song. I find it absolutely beautiful, yet powerful, for a mighty finale. The more I listen to the album the more songs I want to discuss, so let me squeeze in one more, please, “How Blue” that you and Sherry co-wrote with Kathi Taylor.

SS: Kathi was the original drummer for The Mustangs. When Sherry, Kathi and I originally wrote it, it was one of our fast songs, which is what our tendency was then. For this album, Mark liked the lyrics but not the style. After a few different style possibilities, Sherry and I tried to go after a Byrds-like sound and changed some of the chords to give the song a minor feel. Sherry played twelve-string guitar and we slowed it down a little bit and it gave room for the words. When the original band broke up, I moved to Nashville and Kathi moved to New England. She lives in Cape Cod and is a talented artist, printmaker, textile designer and was part of an exhibition at Hynes Convention Center in Boston. Kathi also was selected to create a piece of art for Children’s Hospital in Boston. In addition to her art, she still plays drums and performs in a group with her husband, Bob Dunlap, in the new England area.

Mustangs Time

GM: Congratulations again on Time, a wonderful new album. I am sorry that your touring to promote it has been interrupted, including the SXSW festival in Austin, due to the coronavirus.

SS: It has been really tough. We are trying to reschedule shows for later in the year and will continue to update our website. On the Blue Elan website we have CD and t shirt packages. Thank you so much for including us in your Goldmine series.

Related links:

mustangsofthewest.com

www.blueelan.com/artists/mustangs-of-the-west