Capps has a junk cell phone and too much to say
GRIT AND GRAVEL: Capps’ scratchy voice gets him on down the road.
by Leslie Wylie
Grayson Capps is driving his truck around in Fairhope, a moss-draped seaside town in southern Alabama. “I’m about as far south as you can get without going in the water,” he says in a rusted-out drawl that could be a soundtrack to his geographic location. Capps’ words cut cleanly through the cell phone static, a dull white hiss that grows louder by the moment. Then, like somebody switching off a high-volume TV set with no reception, the line goes dead.
A minute later, he’s back on line. Then the phone cuts out again. Then he’s back, then gone, then back just long enough to promise that he’s pulling off the road. “There’s a coffee shop up ah…,” he says, intercepted once again by a flat-lining electronic hum.
In a sense, this stop-start conversation is a reflection of Capps’ own music career, a dusty boulevard of green lights and brake-squealing reds. His first band, The House Levelers, was signed to a label by the time he graduated from New Orleans’ Tulane University and was soon opening for the likes of the Wallflowers and Jeff Buckley. Then the label went bankrupt and the band lost everything, provoking Capps to quit music. A few years and a shattered romance later, he started up another band, which toured the States and Europe before it, too, dissolved.
Then he started playing solo, and things were going better than he could’ve imagined. His songs struck a chord with Southerners both real and self-imagined, who identified with his dark, raspy ballads. Full of gravel and whisky and dust, they spoke aloud the ugly details Capps identified as symbols of the deep South: day-old vodka and orange juice on the nightstand, a Bible facing up from the mud, ripped dresses, barstools and graveyards.
Even Hollywood, with its tinsel and chintz, took a liking to the backwoods musician. Six of Capps’ songs, including a namesake title track, were featured in the major motion picture A Love Song for Bobby Long , starring John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson, earlier this year. One of them, “Lorraine’s Song,” a bluesy love song set in Johnson City, was even considered for an Oscar. Then a whole new stumbling block threw itself into Capps’ path.
Hurricane Katrina left 36-year-old Capps, who’d been living in New Orleans since college, without a home—or much of anything else. He moved to his parents’ home in Fairhope to regroup, but eventually decided it was time to get back to music.
Which brings us to the present: Capps in his truck, running last-minute errands before he leaves town on tour. Now sitting in the parking lot of a coffee shop, giving his cell phone one last shot.
“We’re doing our first show since the storm tomorrow night,” he says, unflustered. “I’m kind of a nomad anyway, so all I really had to do (after the hurricane) was relocate the home base and just kind of take off again.”
Which isn’t to imply that the hurricane hasn’t affected him, or seeped into his songwriting. “Oh, it already has,” he says. He’s starting work on a concept album that tells the story of Katrina from several different characters’ perspectives.
The idea is reminiscent of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury , also relayed via multiple narratives, though Capps agrees that the South has undergone a paradigm shift since its identity was first engraved into 20th century literature. Faulkner’s prose was clapboard poetry, equal parts swampy and surreal. Flannery O’Connor, whom Capps also namechecks, captured the pulse of shadowy religion. But in the aftermath of recent events, Capps suggests the presence of a new kind of darkness.
There are so many new emotions swirling through his city, he says, describing the “unsettledness and tension” of New Orleans residents who lost their homes and feel they were abandoned by their government. Both are sentiments Capps can relate to. “FEMA finally offered me a trailer, two months after. It’s a nice idea, but a little late.”
He breaks into a laugh that thinly veils his frustrated anger. “There’s all kind of heavy stuff that’s come out,” he says, launching into a ferocious monologue about the media, apocalypse sensationalism, American complacency and, lastly, the role of the arts in the aftermath of a crises.
“The artists are the ones who have the power to enlighten and speak the mind of whatever everyone feels and can’t necessarily put into words,” he says. “More than any other time in our country, for my lifetime, for several lifetimes, that storm brought a lot of things to a head and a lot of important questions to….”
Then the line goes dead.
Who: Grayson Capps