"Twenty-five years, hundreds of thousands of miles, and over 3,000 live performances; what a dream it's been!" said Robert "Big Sandy" Williams. "When I first got together for a garage rehearsal with a group of musician friends in the spring of 1988 in Anaheim, California, I never imagined that I would someday be celebrating the silver anniversary of the rocking little band that formed that afternoon"
Big Sandy's latest disc, What A Dream It's Been on Cow Island Music, is a collection of the band's favorite original numbers - all acoustic, reinterpreted with fresh new arrangements, rhythms, and instrumentation.
"Here I am, looking back at a wild ride that has taken us around the world countless times and put us in front of national television and radio audiences," said Big Sandy. He and the band have made three appearances on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, featured on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, as well as All Things Considered with Melissa Block. "Putting together this new record has brought back a flood of memories. It is our way of looking back at everything that has led us to where we are now. I feel like we're sounding better than ever and experimenting musically. While it's a reflection of our past, this album is really a hint of things to come."
All of the albums are represented here, and the new arrangements happened organically. "Often during sound checks and rehearsals, we'll get to messing around with songs," Big Sandy explained. "I Know I've Loved You Before was originally recorded as a slow, jazzy number. But one night at band practice after a few drinks, I started strumming the song with ska upstrokes and tried singing it in a more soulful, rocksteady style. The rest of the band fell in together and it started to sound like something that (Jamaican legend) Ken Boothe might have done. We all knew in that instant that we had to record the song that way as soon as possible."
"The last song on the album and title track, What A Dream It's Been, (a duet with acclaimed voice actress/Grammy Award winning vocalist Grey DeLisle) is a love song, but not in the conventional sense. As Big Sandy explained, "I wrote and recorded this song in 1998 after a couple of the Fly-Rite Boys told me they had to move on. Unsure if I would be able to continue on without them, this song sums up and pays tribute to the wonderful times that we had together."
Despite Big Sandy's uncertainty about the band's future at that time, a new generation of Fly-Rite Boys emerged. Performing on these recordings are Jeff West on bass and harmony vocals, Joe Perez on drums and backup vocals, and Ashley Kingman, a 20-year Fly-Rite veteran, on guitar and mandolin.
Since forming 25 years ago, Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys have toured continuously and become torchbearers of American roots music. As a singer, songwriter, bandleader, and entertainer, Big Sandy has few contemporaries. With the release of What a Dream It's Been, Big Sandy is at once acknowledging and celebrating the successes of the past 25 years, while setting the stage for further exploration and interpretation of the musical forms he is most passionate about.
The Very Last Day is the anticipated follow-up to his 2014 eponymous record, which netted him high-profile praise from NPR, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and others, as well as a nomination for Americana Emerging Artist of the Year. Millsap is young, but he isn’t green. He has been playing in bands since junior high and recording since he was 16. “For a long time, we’d go play gigs around Oklahoma and Texas, and there was not a lot of press,” Millsap says, reflecting on recent accolades. “I just thought, ‘I like doing this more than I like working construction.’” He laughs and pauses. “When people started noticing, there was this new, weird pressure.”
Millsap responded to the pressure by assembling a cast of new and old friends and heading to the studio. “We got to go make a record that I didn’t think I’d ever have the opportunity to make,” he says, before adding with characteristic sincerity, “I got to make a really cool album with my friends. And I’m grateful.”
Produced by Gary Paczosa (Alison Krauss, Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton) and Millsap, and engineered/mixed by Paczosa and Shani Gandhi, The Very Last Day was recorded at Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana. Millsap recently moved to Nashville from Guthrie, Oklahoma, but while recording, he lived at the Louisiana studio with musicians including fiddle player Daniel Foulks, drummer Paddy Ryan, and bassist Mike Rose, the latter of whom has been his best friend and bandmate since middle school.
Millsap wrote all but one of the eleven songs on The Very Last Day. The album demands serious solitary listening even as it begs to be the soundtrack for a weekend road trip with friends, and clearly delights in having it both ways. The trio of devilish fiddle, poignant acoustic guitar, and thundering upright bass that originally won audiences over is now joined by a chorus of instruments including percussion, piano, and Millsap himself on growling electric guitar that until this record, he’d only dreamed of incorporating. And of course, Millsap’s haunting voice is on magnificent display: it’s wickedly guttural but can turn on a dime to hypnotically soothe listeners like a songbird.