And she invites Rock & Roll Globe to hop onboard the Americana Railroad
Carla Olson could be considered a wunderkind. That’s one reason why she’s achieved iconic status within the realms of Americana, a lingering reputation she’s managed to retain for the better part of the past 45 years.
She made her initial impression as one of the founders of the late ‘70s roots rock outfit known as The Textones, prior to partnering with the late Gene Clark and later after that, former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor. A string of solo albums followed, but to her credit, her career also found her behind the boards, paving the way for other women who broke he glass ceiling to make their marks as producer.
Her latest project, Americana Railroad, finds her exceeding on all fronts, once again as both a player and producer overseeing an extraordinary cast of collaborators that includes John Fogerty, Dave Alvin, Rocky Burnette, Dom Flemons, Stephen McCarthy, Peter Case, Paul Burch, Fats Kaplan, Gary Myrick, Robert Rex Waller Jr. and James Intveld among the many.
While Olson’s achievements clearly qualify her to be on an upper plateau, speaking to Rock & Roll Globe courtesy of a late afternoon phone call, she comes across as both gracious and humble. When this writer express his abject admiration for her efforts, she replies with a sincere thank you, adding, “Those kind words are always appreciated.”
So too, she says she’s simply grateful that the new album finally got its belated release, given that it was in the planning stages for some thirty years according to her estimation.
“It was certainly a long time coming, especially with COVID,” she explains. “Everybody was struggling to get into a studio somewhere if they needed to send us a file or record something additional. So it was a tough time. But we’re so glad that it’s out and people are becoming aware of some of the people involved in it that haven’t made a record in a while. Likewise, there are other folks involved that are relatively new to the business and just kind of getting their feet wet.”
Olson insists that the idea for the idea came from her love of trains as a child, and that it was originally intended to include the participation of Gene Clark, whose seminal standard “Train Leaves Here This Morning” was originally recorded by Dillard and Clark and later by the Eagles on their debut album.
“He had had so many great songs about trains that we loved,” she explained, noting that the final song on the album,“I Remember the Railroad,” was also a Clark composition. (Notably, Clark’s son Kai is also one of the featured artists on the album.) Stephen McCarthy had also written a song called ‘Here Comes That Train Again,’ so yeah, we had a few songs in our quiver to put this in motion. But you know how it is. Life gets away from you, and you just start to do other projects, or you have a band and you’re doing a tour, or you’re doing a record. And with me, I started producing in 1999. So that kind of took up some more of my time. Rather than doing my own recordings, I was producing other artists, and I love producing and playing live.”
Nevertheless, the thought was always there. “We always intended to do something with those songs, she insists. That last song was one Gene wrote with the intention of recording it himself. So the idea goes all the way back to the mid 80s, but we just never were able to do it. However, once we actually set the idea in motion, and set up the sessions, we said, ‘Let’s get the musicians together, let’s get a good crew of people, let’s bring in the artists and have a rhythm section that’s all set up and ready to go and knows the songs or at least knows what they are expected to do. Then we’ll know if we can have it all charted out or not. So we started to plot it out in 2019, and that was when we started pulling the songs together and having a plan. And then of course 2020 came around and we all know the rest.”
Olson admits that the album does include some unlikely choices. She cites Dustbowl Revival’s take on Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Marrakesh Express” in particular.
“It’s got nothing to do with America,” she suggests. “But it does kind of find a fit. “I mean, like when Brian Ray to do a track and he suggested the Procol Harum song ‘Whiskey Train’ so we did that one together.
He asked me to sing it, but I didn’t know how to sing it till I got to the studio. I thought we were gonna do it together but he thought the song was really a metaphor and I should do it. Another song that I was really love of course is Gary Myrick’s take on ‘Train Kept A’ Rollin.’ We’ve known each other since he was 16. When I lived there, everybody in Austin played ‘Train Kept A ‘Rollin’ and we used to play it like the Yardbirds. If you were in with the group of musicians I was in with like, Jimmy Vaughn and his rock band, we all kind of grew up with the Yardbirds. John Mayall’s Blues Breakers sure group of musicians, and that’s the that when he came in, So he said, ‘I want to cut this like we used to play it in Austin.’ And I said, ‘Fine with me,’it just turned out everybody loves that one.”
Still, one has to wonder if there were any after thoughts regarding songs that maybe could or should have been included.
“There were three or four songs that hit me after we’d already finished,” Olson concedes. “We were done with all the recording and we thought that what we had was going to be a double album. We had no thought of doing vinyl, but BMG wanted to do vinyl and they wanted to do it for Record Store Day, originally in April of 2021. And then that was cancelled because of COVID, so then they decided to schedule it for November of 2021. They said it was going to be a double album. They only made a very, very limited pressing, and at that point everybody’s trying to get stuff pressed, but with COVID, we were having to get in in line. It actually did come out ,but only for one day. Then it was gone and it didn’t come out on CD, so that’s why we had to cut some songs. I was thinking, ‘Oh god, why did we cut that one?’”
Nevertheless, Olson has no regrets in terms of all she’s accomplished, especially considering the impressive list of artists that she’s had the opportunity to work with. “Every once in a while, I have to slap myself,” she maintains. “Before I came to LA, I had a very wonderful childhood and grew up seeing people like Jimi Hendrix for $3.50 in San Antonio. And I had a chance to see him a second time when he came through in ’68. And my folks were great. My dad was a musician. Before the war, he was a classical pianist and organist and played with big bands up Upstate in New York State. We went to a lot of shows together.”
VIDEO: Carla Olson and Brian Ray “Whiskey Train”
It’s noted that she formed a particularly tight bond with the late Gene Clark, but when it’s mentioned that he had a reputation for being troubled, she insists that wasn’t the case.
“He was a funny guy,” she recalls. “He was a jokester. And a constant prankster who was always pulling, little pranks on everybody. He used to do impersonations. He used to do like a Rasta man, and he’s pretend he was from Jamaica. He’d spent an hour talking like that, and we’d all be cracking up laughing. He never ever said a curse word to me, or had I never had anything bad to say to him. He taught me a lot about singing with just an acoustic guitar instead of screaming above a band. He was just a beautiful guy. I’m so pleased and happy that I’m able to keep his legacy alive. It’s a difficult thing in this day and age, but back in the ‘90s, we did try to keep things going a bit so that people would remember him. He was the writer in the Byrds, as much as McGuinn. Chris Hillman will fully admit that Gene was the guy that with the gift.”
In addition to Americana Railroad, Olson oversaw another tribute, Ladies Love Lightfoot, which found a number of significant female artists who lend their voices to the songs of Gordon Lightfoot. It’s another forward step in Olson’s quest to bring women the recognition they deserve, especially when they step into the role of producer.
“I’m just trying to raise the awareness for the fact that women producers need to be recognized,” Olson acknowledges. “There isn’t that much recognition of the fact that there are women producers. They don’t get the horns tooted for themselves.”
As for Olson herself, she says her next project will likely be a duets album with Stephen McCarthy. “It’s buttoned up,” she says. “It’s mastered. We’re waiting to try to figure out who’s gonna put it out. There’s a lot of country stuff on it, but then there’s some other stuff that kind of rocks. We started it last September, and we finished it about three days ago. So now we’ve just got to find somebody to put it out. I also did a record with Rob Waller from the band I See Hawks in L.A. We’ve already finished all the tracking and now he’s finishing up the vocals and trying to decide which take he likes better. That will probably come out hopefully later this year.”