(North) Elementary Conversation at OCSC

John Harrison Missy Thangs North Elementary The Love Language

Missy Thangs of The Love Language and Soft Company joins John Harrison of North Elementary at the Orange County Social Club in Carrboro, NC to talk about writing and recording music, the new North Elementary record, and visual art.

MT: You just released a record called Southern Rescue Trails, and this is your sixth record with North Elementary right?

JH: That’s correct.

MT: I heard your interview on WKNC last week and it sounded awesome. I heard a lot of the songs, and also peeped them out online. Super cool record. Love it. So my first question: What are Southern Rescue Trails?

JH: Well first I just like the combination of different words together for lyrics and everything, but that one has special meaning because the subject matter of the record is me getting back in touch with southern music or where I grew up which is North Carolina. As a kid, I loved the Pixies and all this music was coming from so many other places. My mom likes Appalachian music and stuff like that and that was a turn off, you know? As I get older, I’ve been like, I need to be familiar of the music from my area. This record doesn’t sound like that, it’s just me growing up in the South, a lot of it lyrically and musically.

I’m getting married next year, which is super exciting. My girlfriend’s on the cover of the record actually, the dance party.

MT: She looks awesome. Like she’s partying!

JH: I think that was after a 506 show. The “Rescue” is about falling in love with somebody. A lot of the lyrics are about my time meeting her, in a weird cryptic way. I don’t really spell things out very much in my lyrics I don’t think. “Trails” is just the journey. It’s just sort of like falling in love in the South and my journey.

MT: Moving to your songwriting process: What is the first thing that you do when you start a song?

JH: I don’t even really know where a song starts, but, honestly, at this point it’s in my head most of the time. It’s something I hear while I’m walking around or maybe even I hear something in another song like a little piece and I’m like, oh that’s pretty cool, I’d like to expound on that. But I play guitar a lot and have my studio set up to demo all the time just so when that I happens I can go in there and do something.

MT: So a lot of times, you’ll start with a guitar as opposed to a beat or a vocal melody?

JH: Pretty much everything starts with an acoustic guitar. It’s what I play the most.

MT: What’s the last thing you do when you’re ending a song, when you decide “OK this is ready to go to production?”

JH: I have to be sold on the lyrics. That’s huge for me. Some songs will be waiting for that process. Like, the song’s done, it’s ready, but I have to get behind lyrics I might possibly be singing for a couple years. I think about that, like, “That lyric sounds really great. Can I get behind this, do this every night and feel semi-real about it?” You’re not going to be in the moment all the time, but I have to sell myself on it.

MT: That sounds like an experienced songwriter and performer talking.

JH: You’re already up there doing your thing and it’s cool and people are really into it, but some nights you’re playing for ten or twelve people and I’ve got to find ways to enjoy playing it myself as well. So my barometer is if I dig it. I can’t expect other people to dig it if I don’t.

MT: What ran through your mind when you realized Southern Rescue Trails was ready to go to production, or ready for mastering?

JH: Oh you know, out of money, out of time. I mean, I’m pretty methodical with that stuff. I have a way I do things that I’ve learned works well for me and actually I’m on a budget. I usually do it in three parts, like a tracking phase part, then I purposefully take of two or three weeks off, work on overdubs myself, then return to the studio and do the overdubs that are on the actual recording. Then I take a few weeks off and we go mix. I need that time away. But then it’s like as soon as possible, as soon as I’m done I want it out.

MT: So a little impatience and excitement?

JH: Well there’s something really fun about putting out a record. Every time it comes back in the boxes and you’re unwrapping the shrink-wrap. You know that feeling never gets old. But you know, I’ve usually written a lot of songs by time that happens.

MT: Which song from the record crept into your psyche during the recording process. You know, the one that followed you around the most, in your dreams, while eating dinner, alone time…

JH: That’s a tough one. There’s probably two that fall into that category. One that is the more acoustic song on the record, “Southern Elevators,” because I didn’t know what I wanted to do because it’s not sonically as expansive as some of the other stuff. Eventually I just decided I wanted to have my friends play on it, like Sarah Bell, and Margaret White who I used to play with in The Comas. There’s so many ways you can do every song. That one I really had trouble selling myself on how I wanted to present it.

Then “Hillcrest 101” just because that was one of the earlier songs written. I had that song around for about two years before we recorded it. So the longer I have to think about something the more I realize there’s a million ways to do it. So the easiest song, and my favorite songs, are generally my last songs that I’ve made because I don’t have time to do anything with it. I tend to tinker.

MT: This one is probably something you could pass along to other aspiring songwriters, engineers, producers… What was the biggest lesson you learned in the making of Southern Rescue Trails, anywhere from songwriting process to mixing..

JH: I prefer going to studios to have designated space and time to do stuff. I don’t go to the studio (this is going to sound horrible), I don’t go there to be ultra creative, I’ve done all that stuff. It’s too expensive for me to be there with a song out of thin air. I think being prepared and being patient. You know, it’s a long process, it’s exciting when you first hear the basic tracks, but I feel you really need to be patient with stuff and let it come to you. Sometimes your ideas aren’t going to be the ones that sound the best, and you have to be open to that. I don’t know how that happens, but the longer I do it, the more open I am to it.

MT: What was another artist’s record you listened to the most while recording Southern Rescue Trails, or did you listen to anything else during that time?

JH: I’m always listening to other peoples’ stuff, but, and this sounds kinda crazy to say, but I’m always listening to my stuff too and not my past songs I’ve written, but just whatever demos or songs we’re currently working on. When I’m recording a song, I want to hear the demos before we went into the studio, the basic tracks after that, so I spend a lot of time listening to my own stuff. I know that sounds weird, but it’s absolutely true.

I think I was listening to a lot of My Morning Jacket at the time. There’s a song off their Z record that I based a lot of “Sharp Ghost Mind” off of. I do that a lot. I get a record and I think, oh I want to figure out how to write that kind of song.

JH: I’ll take a song I want to figure out, inevitably by the time I do, it’s not like I’m aping it completely because I don’t play cover songs really, I don’t know how to do that. But it’s an inspiration for my version of a song. Dinosaur Jr’s Farm came out around that time, and it’s sonically awesome. I was also listening to the last LUD record a lot, Kirk Ross and Lee Waters.

MT: Now I’m going to name a song, and you must respond with the first word that comes to mind.

JH: Oh nooooo.

MT:It comes To Everyone
MT:Midwest Bug
MT:Sons of Turbo Town
MT:Murder By Memory
MT:Sharp Ghost Mind
MT:Southern Elevators
MT:War For Kicks
MT:King of Sundays
MT:Hillcrest 101

MT: I love the videos of the songs you posted on your website. They’re the songs from Southern Rescue Trails and I notice they’re all done by colleagues, artists, musicians like Maria Albani, Nathan White, Billy Sugarfix, Zeno Gill and more. What inspired your idea for doing this?

JH: The last couple of years I’ve been getting into video editing for show fliers, videos of my own and stuff. For my glee and joy, I thought everyone would like to do this as well. I was, like, “This is so easy! Everybody can do it! Hey!”

I wanted the record to come out in the Spring but it couldn’t come out until this Fall, so I wasn’t sure what to do. It was sort of a way to just do something. So I asked a lot of my friends and people I know who did that stuff and everybody was so awesome about it.

I can’t believe more bands don’t do that. Maybe it’s a lot to ask; I don’t know the scope of what’s a lot to ask of somebody sometimes, or what’s weird or crazy to do. Lou Barlow did it so that gave me the idea. So it has been done, but I was just amazed that everybody was into it. They picked the songs they wanted to do. I didn’t realize until they started coming in that it was a lot to ask these people to do. I think it was received pretty well and we had fun doing it.

MT: Music is often as much of a visual experience as an aural one. I understand that you’re a visual artist. Who are your favorite artists that also lead lives as musicians?

JH: Honestly, Laird Dixon. Shark Quest took me out on my first tour in 1999 for more than two weeks, and I love Laird who does a lot of stuff with molds. Ron Liberti is another who is my go-to guru for screen-printing from Pipe, Ghost of Rock, Victory Factory and all the bands he’s been in. Honestly, I derive a lot of inspiration locally. Otherwise, David Byrne does some pretty cool stuff, and David Bowie, but mainly Laird and Ron.

MT: With regards to your record, Southern Rescue Trails, I hear a lot of texture and collage in your music. Since you’re a print artist, doesn’t that have a lot to do with layers and textures? How similar is printmaking to recording a song for you?

JH: I think they’re very different. Printmaking you can do a lot quicker. It’s an individual sport rather than a team effort, at least for me. Even though I’m a songwriter, it’s important for me to have a band. I like communicating with other musicians. I need that.

In terms of layering, I think they’re a lot of similarities. I tend to latch onto something that is fundamentally good, a good song. All the collaging doesn’t matter if the song isn’t any good, it’s just a lot of cool noises, but it’s only interesting if the song is good.

It is the same with printmaking. I spend a lot of time trying to make something that’s definitive, but then you spend the rest of the time trying to make it interesting, or deconstructing it.

MT: You are one of the co-founders of The Sound Minus Research Project curating local musicians’ work. You’ve receive national press for this project from sources like Pitchfork, so you’re getting attention outside of the Triangle, which is really cool. You’ve featured works from artists in Superchunk, Bower Birds, Pipe, yourself and a lot of other folks from around here. You’ve been doing this with Maria Albani since 2006 — five long years!

My question to you is: What are the criteria for being a part of the collective beyond just being a musician? This is for people interested in participating in your project.

JH: Nothing really. It’s funny, we joke about the rules and how they’re subject to change at any time. Basically you have to have some affiliation with North Carolina music. You don’t have to currently be one. It’s very loose. We would like to include people who do R&B and bluegrass. We’re definitely curious to see what’s out there that we’re not familiar with in terms of musicians. Who knows what the future holds.

MT: Thank you so much for taking time with me for this interview today. [hug]

This is the visual art part of the conversation:

Southern Rescue Trails by John Harrison

missy thangs love language soft company

Missy Thangs by John Harrison

john harrison north elementary

John Harrison by Missy Thangs

north elementary drawing sketch illustration john harrison

North Elementary by John Harrison

Buy Southern Rescue Trails

North Elementary | The Love Language | Soft Company

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Robert Sledge Questions The Honored Guests

Robert Sledge (a founding member of Ben Folds Five, International Orange, and Robert Sledge & the Flashlight Assembly) sits down with Andrew and Russell of The Honored Guests in their practice/recording space to talk about their approach to recording and music and their excellent new release “Please Try Again.”

Listen to their conversation (and crickets) here:

Your Five Favorite Drum Tracks (Survey) »Buy Please Try Again »

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Andrew Whiteman Interviews Maria Albani of Organos

Andrew Whiteman of Apostle of Hustle and Broken Social Scene sits down at a computer to have a digital conversation with Maria Albani about her Organos project and the new Limbs EP.

Andrew: Percussion looms large on your EP. Poundy and goooddd…. Name your top 6 records that go THUMP in da Night. The first place I heard amazing hand / anything percussive was during my “Wild Honey/Smiley Smile” Beach Boys phase…. When did you know you were gonna make beats? When did you first first love rhythm?

Maria: I always knew I’d be “makin’ beats” since I was a tiny. I loved music and was always singing and trying to play things that weren’t instruments. My mom told me that I use to sit on the console of my grandfather’s Caddy and belt “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” by Neil Sedaka. Hmmm. Top 6 records that go thump for me would be…

1. Animal Collective: Feels
2. Welcome: Sirs
3. Boss Hog: Boss Hog
4. Talk Talk: The Colour of Spring
5. Juana Molina: Tres Cosas
6. 3Ds: Hellzapoppin’

Andrew: How deep into the drums do you like going? Er, Clipse & derty souf, anyone? Is there a difference between the drums you like on your own music and what you like at other times? I guess I’m askin’ how many times per week do you all Hit da Club? Do all southern peeps like ‘da club’?

Maria: The derty souf is in my soul, and I like to keep it there. I ain’t trying to be Trina. There aren’t full drums in many of my songs. I like a very tribal, yet elementary, aspect to drums. For me, it’s about finding the rhythm that immediately comes to mind, and making it work with whatever else has already been laid down. Drums are usually last when I record, so it’s really about what kind of room is left for them. Unless I’ve come up with other percussive rhythms using bottles or spoons early on in the recording process. I don’t think any of us go to the club. Carrboro, very sadly, lacks in Da Club department. Although the last time I hit a club in Chapel Hill, I got lifted off the ground by my crotch from an anonymous hand, so…no. I don’t believe ALL southern peeps like “da club.”

Andrew: What’s yer DJ name if you’ve got one? If not, tell the folks what it would be and what your first 5 tunes would be and where we could go check the vibes…

Maria: My DJ name is 9LIVEZ. My 1st 5 tunes would be remix jams of songs about/that mention cats.

  1. “What’s New Pussycat” by Tom Jones
  2. “Black Cat” by Janet Jackson
  3. “Stray Cat Strut” by Stray Cats
  4. “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin
  5. “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart.

And you could catch me throwing vibes in alleys with the strays, or inside of a Pet Smart near you.

Andrew: Onto the strings…all kinds of great riffage on the record. Very melodic, very pointed, and angular. I find that lotsa people these days are definitely not into the strum-thing. Why is everyone so down on strumming…. What? You dont like Velvet Lou?

Maria: I don’t know chords, notes, or how to properly play guitar. I think a lot of the angles come out of a lack of knowledge on the instrument. Perhaps I would strum more if I knew more, but probably not. It’s a style thing I think. Plus I write my songs on bass 1st. 90% of the time, when I have a song in my head, I will go to the bass to hash it out, not the guitar.

Andrew: I read a long time ago a blog that you wrote called “O Florida.” Your description of the place was like watching the summer heat wave up from the pavement and getting tar in yr toes when you’re young. Tell us about how Florida might be speaking thru you on this record.

Maria: I don’t think that Florida speaks through me on the record. Maybe it does, and I don’t know it yet. I think if anything, the heat and solitude of being a kid there helped gear me towards this music that comes out of me. Growing up as an only child with 1 parent, I entertained myself a lot. That often meant drawing and singing and then sharing it with whoever was around! Including the pets.

Andrew: I watched a recent performance of Organos on the YouTube: masks! Can you weigh in on the whole performance issue? Is it cooler to just come on stage and play the music and try to get out of its way (Wilco, Dirty P’s ) OR make it a thot-out entertainment for people — music is the focus, but there should be much more going on (Beck, Gogol Bordello, Gonzales). Again, do your opinions differ when it’s your own thing or when you’re going to check something new out?

Maria: The masks are worn by the musicians who help me when I play out live. My friend Theresa (who occasionally plays in Organos) came up with the idea for the very 1st Organos show. She created paper mache masks that resembled my face for the band to wear. It made perfect sense, because recording, I do everything myself, one instrument at a time. Obviously I can’t pull that off live, so the masks put my face on all of them who were playing my parts. We got a really positive response to them. I think that people like to be surprised once in a while. You go to see a show, and for the most part, you do just expect folks to walk out, pick up their instruments, and play the songs. There is definitely so much more beyond that that can be done, but I think it just depends on what people are shooting for.

Andrew: My favourite song is called “Wasted”…you fill the phrase up with intense reverberation of meaning by simply removing it from its usual party place, altho not entirely. How did this song come to be?

Maria: Honestly, I was battling some very heavy depression/anxiety stuff at the time of writing that song. I wasn’t meaning for it to come off like I was saying that I was “wasted on drugs.” I WAS wasted (felt spent) as in NO ENERGY, and feeling like I was so depressed that I was completely on something that was affecting my vision and my life. For the most part, I was just going through the motions of routine and whatnot, which is where the repetitive, drony bass line came from.

Andrew: Maria, you used to work at a pretty famous indie record shoppe…. Sometimes listening to new artists, the track can be great, but then when the vocals kick in, you get disappointed: the singer isn’t firing on your wavelength. How persistent are you with listening to new music? Do you give a thing 30 seconds and then into the trash — or maybe put away and come back? What makes you stay with a certain musician?

Maria: Working at the record store made it so easy to sample so many different types of music. I was surrounded by music and by people who loved music and/or played music. It was the best job I’ll ever have had. As far as giving things a chance, I usually do have about a 30 second bar. Sometimes I can tell sooner than 30 seconds whether or not I’m going to like something. I’m pretty impatient. The musicians I tend to stay with are those who I have a visceral reaction over their voice(s). Neko Case is a perfect example. She could sing Clay Aiken songs, and I would love it because it would be HER VOICE. And then there are those that I want to stay with because their sound intrigued me or changed my perception of the art of song-writing, but they haven’t done anything new with it! They are still doing the same shit they were doing in 2000. That is a very tricky thing for musicians; keeping their uniqueness while growing into new directions. You can’t do it too quickly, and you can’t do it too slowly! It’s all about timing!

Andrew: Tell us what kinda circus you’d curate given the financial freedom. Please include 3 bands/muses, 3 animal acts, 1 clown, one MC, and the location.

Maria: Good lord. Ummm. 3 bands would be Duran Duran, Hall & Oates, & Stevie Nicks. 3 animal acts: Keyboard Cat, Mr. Winkle, and Toonces the Driving Cat. 1 clown? I wouldn’t have a clown because I HATE HATE HATE clowns. I would MC my own circus. I will have this circus when I am in heaven.

Andrew: Who would be on your ultimate rock tour and play with Organos?

Maria: 3Ds, Polvo, and Swirlies. But I would probably have a heart attack and throw up everywhere.

Andrew: Well, I did get to hear some of these track in an earlier form, but i gotta say: your album still ExHalts the 4Track old styles so well! It’s like the White Stripes’ song where he sings about being “in yr little room, and workin’ on somethin good”…. Was the transition a) easy b) not easy) c) difficult d) damn near impossible) for you to make.

Maria: You were the first to hear many of these songs, and that was when I was fumbling with trying to figure out how to even record! I am soooo happy I was able to keep a lot of that feel when I went into Pox to record “for reals” with Nathan Oliver. That was something that both Nathan and I were very concerned about. We literally did everything pretty much the same when we got to recording together. Recording each instrument one at a time, with the parts pretty exact to how they were on the demos. We were careful not to embellish on anything just because we had the opportunity and easiness of being in a studio with many different instruments and effects. We went in with the same goals and clear communication about it, so in this instance, it was very easy.

Andrew: Finally — sorry, but gotta ask, being that I’m a Canuck— wow, but Obama isn’t turning out to be the leftie we’d hoped for up here. You?

Maria: I’d say no, but considering the political climate in the States, you can’t really expect much more from the man. He’s passed major legislation (health care, financial reform, stimulus) during a recession, and though the bills aren’t quite as progressive as I’d like them to be, at least he’s getting things done. One man can’t change the culture by himself.

Take a survey inspired by this interview »Buy The Limbs EP »

Organos | Broken Social Scene | Apostle of Hustle

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Django Haskins Chats with Anna Bullard

Django Haskins, the creative force behind The Old Ceremony, takes a few minutes to IM with Anna Bullard about her debut record Split Heart.

Django: Let’s talk about your album! First of all, congrats on putting it together — it sounds great.

Anna: Thank you! I’m so excited! It’s finally come together.

Django: I didn’t get track names from the CD. What’s the third track called?

Anna: “The Problem.”

Django: To me, that’s the centerpiece. Halfway through, when that rich, thumping orchestral sound comes in, it changes the whole game.

Anna: That is actually the last song written for the album.

Django: Huh. Did you have that arrangement in mind when you started recording that song, or did it build on its own?

Anna: I just knew that I wanted to experiment with textures. That song, like the entire album, is really a collaboration between Zeno, Nathan and myself.

Django: Did you record it at Zeno’s studio in Durham?

Anna: Yes. I started recording there in 2007 with “I’m Sorry” for the Pox Compulation Volume III. Then Zeno invited me back to record for an album.

Django: Got it. It’s a beautiful old house. Doing it there rather than in an airless studio allows some ghosts to creep in.

Anna: Definitely. The space is very comfortable and inspiring with all the old cameras, trinkets and records everywhere. It was a long drive, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do it anywhere else.

Django: There are a lot of really nice textures in the record, but your voice comes through as the guiding force. Have you always sung? It seems like it.

Anna: I wrote my first songs at about 15. Then I started writing a lot of songs about ten years ago when I was 20. I never really considered myself a “singer” or “musician.” It was just a hobby — something I did when I had to get something off my chest. But I guess I have been singing for the last ten years pretty regularly, to answer your question. Unwittingly.

Django: Was there a turning point where you started realizing, “Hey, I can do this professionally!” or has it been more of an easing-in?

Anna: It was definitely a wake-up call when Tripp Cox told me Zeno was going to ask me to participate in the Compulation. Past Compulations had been full of my favorite bands from NC, and I was so honored. I guess it was then I realized that some people actually enjoyed my songs and might want to hear them.

Django: Well, you’re a wonderful addition to the NC music world. The track “Bear’s Eyes” kept reminding me of a Russian folk tale. Where did that one come from?

Anna: Well, that song came in the morning as an exclamation of freedom from a situation I had felt chained to for some months. Writing it on the keyboard was one way to express that freedom as I wasn’t held back with my limited guitar knowledge. When I brought it to the studio, I can’t remember if it was Zeno or Nathan who had the idea to call Scott Phillips with his accordion, but it gave it that Eastern European folky vibe that I love. It became its own animal.

Django: A bear.

Anna: For sure. But that song is the perfect example of why I enjoyed working with Zeno and Nathan. They just had the vision from the beginning. They are not afraid to step out and do exactly the thing you’re not supposed to do while at the same time showing incredible restraint.

Django: That’s a great asset. You also create visual art, right? Your photography is striking as well. In fact, The Old Ceremony is using your photos for our new album art, and I didn’t even know it was yours until later. Do you think visually when writing or arranging?

Anna: I do. It makes me so happy that someone else is getting some use out of those photos. I have taken thousands of photos with that film camera and have yet to print a single one. (Just process straight to disc.) The ones you’re using are some of my favorites. Um, yea, I think visually when writing — like, depicting a picture in my head or a feeling in my heart. Although, many times I urgently jump right into the song without thinking ahead one note, but things tend to balance out in end.

Django: Speaking of jumping directly into a song, a lot of the songs seem to be very direct, emotional stories directed at specific people. I’ve had songs where I’ve written them about/to particular people where it just felt like I was calling them by name, so they stayed in the vault. But others I’ve sung for years and hardly think about the person who inspired/required it. Lyrics like yours obviously come from pretty personal experiences. What’s your feeling about writing about your friends/family/exes? Are you able to separate yourself from the initial inspiration, or do you still feel the association when you sing them later? I’m thinking specifically about “You Were a Good Friend” here….

Anna: Excellent question. Well, I do write songs about specific people and events; I have a hard time hiding my feelings, anyway. Honesty is the most important element in my music and art. These songs — they come when I have no other way of expressing myself — the emotions and feelings — to the person. Writing a song becomes my relief. Sweet release. Then I’m able to move on. I feel so lucky to have this outlet!

Django: That makes sense. It’s just that sometimes you have to see these people regularly. It’s like my friend’s TV show pilot, “Craptown,” which was about a writer whose first novel talked about everyone in his old hometown Craptown and then he had to move back there and face them.

Anna: That would be tough. Hopefully he was honest with everyone before he went off writing his book.

Django: Okay, last question — this is something we always agonize over — how did you choose the closing track? Were you thinking about how it would leave the listener, or is that whole album idea antiquated in the age of iPod Shuffles? If the former, what is the last thought, image, feeling, color, animal, flavor that you’d like your album closer to evoke?

Anna: Nathan Oliver came up with an idea for how to sequence the songs early on, and I thought it was right on. We all agreed that “Seasons” was the perfect way to close. I think Nathan said it best: “I’m moving on, seasons pass, time is moving (knowing that I’m growing.)” It’s all about going through the ringer and coming out the other side stronger.

Django: Perfect. Great idea. It’s been fun talking with you, and I’m looking forward to seeing you play sometime soon.

Anna: Thanks, Django. See you soon!

Anna Bullard | The Old Ceremony | Django Haskins

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Coming Soon

Brad Cook of Megafaun interviews Mac McCaughan of Superchunk. Aimée Argote of Des Ark talks to Renee Mendoza of Filthybird. Andrew Whiteman of Broken Social Scene and Apostle of Hustle converses with Maria Albani of Organos. Django Haskins of The Old Ceremony chats with Anna Bullard. Reid Johnson of Schooner chews the fat with Stuart McLamb of The Love Language. Jeff Crawford gabs with Dave Wilson of Chatham County Line. And more, of course.

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