Don’t let the name change throw you: The Firehearts are the same Ten-Toed Frogs you know and love.
It has been five years since Alberta songwriter Dave McCann released his last studio album, 2004’s Country Medicine, which was the followup to 2000’s Woodland Tea. While five years might seem like a long time between albums, McCann did release an acclaimed live album, Shoot the Horse, last year. During those five years, also moved from Calgary to Lethbridge, got married to wife Shannon Little and celebrated the birth of his son Kieran. Oh yeah, and during all these minor events, McCann and his band travelled to East Nashville’s Toybox Studio and recorded an album, Dixiebluebird. In the past year, everything seems to have changed in McCann’s life, even the name of his band, from The Ten-Toed Frogs (“too much of a tongue-twister for drunken people who wandered up to me in bars”) to The Firehearts.
Well, not quite everything. The 11 tracks on Dixiebluebird are pure, vintage McCann — gritty shelter for sensitive melodies, acoustic music seasoned with fearless guitar laid bare, staying out of the way of uncluttered phrases containing a universe of truth in a handful of words. McCann creates the kind of music that has a habit of finding its way back to the top of your CD pile, back into the console of your truck years after you first fell in love with it.
One of the first things that hits you is how the musicians — longtime guitarist Dave Bauer, bassist Pete Loughlin, drummer Tim Williams and steel player Charlie Hase — seem to breathe as one beast, reflecting the uncountable years and miles the band has travelled.
“We have never had a rehearsal,” McCann says. “We have just so many years of playing together and just doing shows. And really, my favourite music doesn’t sound rehearsed. When I think about my favourite songs, there is that spark of spontaneity to them. When we recorded our last album, it was live, and I talked to one person who said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t make this sound like The Eagles, man. It will sound like a bland studio recording that has clapping in it.’ We didn’t really spend a lot of time fixing anything. That’s part of making it work — just record it and don’t spend a lot of time fixing it.”
That’s just how the band made Dixiebluebird, by finding producer Will Kimbrough and laying down what they had lived for during the past 10 years. While McCann considered locations like New York and Los Angeles for recording, Nashville-based Kimbrough signed the deal to make the album. McCann says that frustratingly, Canadian producers wouldn’t even return his phone calls and when they did, they priced their studios out of the market.
While McCann was offered the cream of studio musicians to use on his album, he chose to go with his tried-and-true Firehearts. They drove and flew to Nashville, a town haunted by its legends and failures, but fat chance of the band finding the time to suck up a little history. Instead, for two weeks they were in the studio from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. daily.
“Essentially we were stuck in East Nashville for the whole time just in the Toybox studio,” McCann says. “But the music history alone in Nashville, all these strange obscure bands that I love and great albums that I love were recorded in Nashville,” he says, citing Doug Dillard and Gene Clark’s The Fantastic Expedition, Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Neil Young’s Harvest. “It was good to go and see it and have that sort of history rub off on you.”
“That’s what was great about Nashville. In East Nashville, where all the artists and writers live, it’s this cool little obscure hip side of town. Then you go to Nashville itself and it’s the history of country music and it’s all these people who don’t write the songs but are standing in the spotlight singing other people’s songs. It’s the illusion.”