Dane Clark: Uplifting Songs for Trying Times

The longtime Mellencamp bandmate and his Backroom Boys deliver twelve songs written to inspire and amuse us during these unusual times

Dane Clark 2020 (Art: Ron Hart)

The COVID-19 lockdown imposed by many American states and cities has had an big effect on everyone, especially musicians.

Drummer Dane Clark, known for his long association with John Mellencamp, found himself collecting unemployment insurance and sheltering at home with his wife. One afternoon, songs dealing with the current situation started coming to him, leading to a burst of creativity. The result is Songs from Isolation, credited to Dane Clark and The Backroom Boys. 

“I was taking walks around the neighborhood, safely socially distant from the other people on the street, and songs started coming to me,” Clark said from his home in Anderson, Indiana. 

“A few phrases came into my head one afternoon. ‘Six Feet Away,’ ‘When the Panic Sets In,’ ‘You’ll All Be Hearing from Me.’ I got home, sat at the piano with my Neanderthal approach to playing and they came pouring out. I wrote two in one day, which never happens to me. It was like I was supposed to write them.”

Dane Clark and the Backroom Boys Songs From Isolation, Thundersound Records 2020

“Working on the album project gave me something to look forward to every day. I wrote the songs, arranged them and got ‘em ready to send to the other guys. It was a crazy way to do it, but we could only record away from each other, in our own workspaces. I’d record a rough vocal, along with a keyboard or guitar part, then put a drum track on it. I left some open space for others to add their ideas. I also made charts for everything. I didn’t want people struggling to figure things out, but I was open to changing things up as we went along. The demos were a jumping off point. The only requirement was that everyone have a home studio, so we could send tracks back and forth.”

Just before the pandemic hit, Clark had put the finishing touches on Rebel Town, his fifth solo album. He was going to tour behind it, but fate intervened. “I had rotator cuff surgery, so I had to spend some time with my arm in a sling. I was already social distancing and then the pandemic hit. It’s almost been a year now and nobody’s heard it. I co-wrote a few tunes with Fred Koller, a Nashville guy who wrote “Angel Eyes” with John Hiatt. Carlene Carter came in to sing lead on the title track, a song about taking down the rebel flag that was still flying in South Carolina. 

 

 

“This time, we were all in our home studios, but we still went for a live feel. We put it together organically, no lining up, or fixing, or triggering. We didn’t over think anything. Some songs were done the first time around, first takes pretty much. I worked on the vocals a bit, but the idea was to be able to play ‘em live at some point, so we didn’t want to get too tricky.” 

Once the tracks were assembled, Clark mixed them himself. “We all played from the gut, and I couldn’t be more pleased with what we wound up with. It was a real team effort.” The players include Troy Kinnett, who plays keyboards in John Mellencamp’s band; Eric Scull, guitarist in Clark’s touring band; bass player Randy Melson, a session player Clark’s known for decades, Clark’s daughter Abigail on lead and backing vocals and John Sebastian, of Lovin’ Spoonful fame, on blues harmonica.  

“The only cover on the album is the Jimmy Cliff song, ‘Sitting in Limbo.’ I first heard it on an album Sebastian made. My wife suggested adding it to the record, so I did a Sticky Fingers era Stones style backing track, with some tribal percussion on it. I called Sebastian’s manager on a whim, and he called back in half an hour and said he’d love to blow some harp on it. He said he had so much fun, that he’d like to play on a few more things, which he did.”

 

VIDEO: Jimmy Cliff “Sitting In Limbo”

Songs from Isolation is a solid collection and may become the soundtrack for everyone’s coronavirus memories. It opens with “You’ll All Be Hearin’ From Me,” a solid rocker, driven by Clark’s big beat, Sebastian’s wailing blues harmonica and Scull’s sharp guitar fills. It’s an imaginary letter from God telling humankind to get it together before it’s too late. “Keep the Lights On” is a slow gospel-flavored blues, with Sebastian adding smoky fills to compliment Amanda’s Clark’s soul drenched vocal. “Your Heart’s Still Mine,” a mid-tempo, Stones-like rocker, has an anthemic chorus that praises the power of a close relationship to sustain us in times of crises. “Long Road Back,” is a hopeful glimpse of a healthy future, highlighted by Scull’s chiming guitar. 

 

Needless to say, Clark and his band won’t be touring to support the album, but you can listen to it, and download it, on his website daneclark.com. “Everything is up in the air,” Clark said. “Musicians are taking it as tough as anyone and who knows what the concert biz is gonna look like when this is all over? Musicians are all freelancers, as are the sound guys, the folks who work the lights and people who work at the venues. They’re all taking a beating. We’re hoping we can tour by the first of the year, but meanwhile we’re putting up socially distanced videos for the songs on YouTube. I’m still writing a lot of tunes, too, so there may be a Songs from Isolation, Part 2. I’ve got a couple of co-writes going with my daughter as well.”  

Did Clark ever think of leaving the Midwest and relocating to a music center like L.A. or Nashville? “I grew up playing in bands here in Anderson and I have a music degree from Anderson University. While I was in school, I did sessions for people making songwriting demos and played in bands. After graduation, I got a job teaching at the University and kept making music on the weekends until Mellencamp asked me to join his band, about 25 years ago. I’m married and have kids and still play sessions when I’m not on the road. It’s nice to be able to make a living and still live in the town I grew up in.”

 

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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