I had to read the press release twice, thinking, “did I read that right?” A new song from Nashville singer and songwriter Mike Younger, featuring Jim Dickinson and Levon Helm?? Yes, it’s true and I had to know the story behind this song, “Lord of The Fleas”. The song began in 2001 and is finally seeing the light of day in 2021. Like the artists that inspired him, it’s a socially relevant, mid-tempo blend of blues, rock and country. The timeliness of this song and video are partly why Younger decided to release them now; a full length is coming this year. I asked him about this song, its current relevance and the forthcoming album. Younger was also part of a compilation album, Rock and Roll Over to raise funds for different dog charities with Nashville artists contributing songs about their favorite dog breeds. I had to know about that too. Mike Younger joins us on 89.5fm WMOT today for our Finally Friday From Home virtual live concert series, Mike plays at 12:30pm and video is at NPR's Live Sessions page.
AnaLee: Mike, thanks for releasing “Lord of The Fleas”, I can’t wait to hear about the initial recording of this song and how it finally came to be. Then we need to talk about this video, your new full length album and dogs! The cast of contributors to this song is incredible. Would you tell us about the players and the story behind “Lord of The Fleas”?
Mike: Hi AnaLee! The original tracks for Lord Of The Fleas were included in a collection of recordings made in Memphis in 2001 at Jack Holder's Sounds Unreel Studio. The record was produced by Jim Dickinson, who also played piano. Luther Dickinson played electric guitar, Levon Helm was on the drums, David Hood on the bass and Spooner Oldham on Wurlitzer. Obviously, it was a dream come true for me to get to work with these gentlemen. We recorded 9 songs before my record label hit an iceberg and everything went south. On the 4th day of tracking, we got a call from California and were told to stop production. It was a kick in the pants I've been living with ever since. But as you know, these things are not uncommon in the music industry. The tapes remained in a sealed vault at Sounds Unreel for 15 years.
I took it really hard at first and left Nashville to wander the southwestern states in my old truck and was ready to croak really... but I had a very spiritual journey through the New Mexico, Arizona and California desert regions and eventually, when I felt strong enough, I returned to Nashville to fight my way out of the record contract I was in. I kept putting music out over the years and chipping away at it, playing shows, booking tours, going broke, the whole shebang. But then in 2015 I read that Jack Holder had passed away and the studio was closing. I knew my tapes were in there in the vault. By then both Jim and Levon had also passed away. I had struck up a friendship with Levon after those sessions in 2001 and I had always looked forward to listening down to our project together. We ran out of time though, and it was not to be. But when I heard the news about the studio closing, I was actually in the process of having 2015's Little Folks Like You And Me mastered by Ray Kennedy at Room & Board Studio in Nashville. He made a few calls for me and soon I was in contact with Dawn Hopkins, who had worked at Sounds Unreel and knew where my tapes were. With Luther's blessing I drove down to Memphis in 2017 and collected several reels of 2" tape and took them back to Nashville where Ray Kennedy baked them (a process to safely remove moisture from analogue tape) and transferred the files into a digital platform so that it could be finished. Grammy-award winning producer/engineer Chad Brown at Space Monkey Sounds stepped in to take up the project where Jim Dickinson left off and the process of completing the project began. Lord of The Fleas was one of two songs that I chose to rewrite in order to make the song current. The original song and lyrics were very different, both melodically and lyrically. The underlying track was really great, so I took poetic license to rewrite it with new lyrics and melody that worked quite well within the existing track. We brought in some of my favorite singers in Nashville - Regina McCrary, Jeanne Peterson and Lisa Oliver Gray to put background vocals on it and then we added an amazing brass section - Randy Leago, Roy Agee, Steve Herman and Neil Konouchi - and transformed it into a sort of "jazz funeral" vibe for the waning days of the Trump presidency.
AnaLee: The video is sort of like a commentary on current world events. Did you put it together recently? Would you tell us about making the video?
Mike: Work began on a video in December 2020. Chad Brown (man of many hats) directed and edited the video in record time... I originally wanted to have some of Nashville's lovely burlesque performers playing tuba and trumpet and sax and trombone in the video with me but social distancing protocols and covid made that approach impossible. So, I decide to do a newsreel with some amazing clips from the National Archives, which has an extensive vault of anti-fascist propaganda videos and animations from WWII and we cobbled together a video to compliment the message in the song. After the insurrection on January 6, I felt compelled to put it out right away. Like most Americans, I was deeply outraged by the violent turn of events at the US Capitol that day. Lord Of The Fleas helped me get my two cents into the conversation. Sometimes, humor and satire are the strongest weapons we have.
AnaLee: Hearing this song really makes me want to hear more! Your new full-length album, Burning The Bigtop Down, which is also a line in “Lord of The Fleas”, is due this spring. Can you tell us about making the album, was it pre-pandemic, during or both? When might we get to hear more?
Mike: It was 2017 that we dug into finishing the record. The process was slow, because I have had to shoulder the financial burden of getting it to the finish line, which has meant that my energies have been divided. As you may know, most of us musicians have had to get very creative with how we stay afloat in today's industry, and that can inadvertently put you on a course you never could have imagined until you wake up one day and you're swapping a transmission out of somebody's car. But we kept chipping away at it, bringing in some of the amazing musicians in our community here in Nashville as time and money allowed. I had hoped to find some industry support, but the industry has seen more than a few setbacks in recent years and had few breaks to offer. It took a couple more years to finish it, and when covid hit it slowed us down even more. The plan is to release the rest of the record in 2021. There is no set release date as of this writing.
AnaLee: I follow you on social media, and like me, it’s clear you are an animal lover. In fact, when I first saw the title, “Lord of The Fleas” I thought maybe it was a follow up to “King of The Pack”, the track you contributed to Rock and Roll Over to benefit various regional dog charities! Obviously, that’s not it at all… but I was curious about the project, which features Nashville songwriters singing about their best friends and dog breeds. I was also interested in hearing about the animals you have on your farm just outside of Nashville.
Mike: That's funny that you thought Lord Of The Fleas might be about a dog because I was actually thinking that if anyone hostile really puts me on the spot about that tune, I would tell them I wrote it about a dog hahaha...
"Rock and Roll Over" was a project that Norty Cohen of Moosylvania put together to support both animal shelters across the country as well as quarantined Nashville songwriters and musicians during covid. It was a really great collaboration with some amazingly talented local Nashville people like Dave Coleman, The Truehearts, Bob Lewis, Jamie Rubin, Anana Kaye and Irakli Gabriel, Mark Robinson, Meghan Hayes and a bunch more...I was assigned to write one about Great Danes, so I wrote King Of The Pack about making a little room on the sofa. Dave Coleman and Steve McWilliams produced the whole thing remotely and did a fantastic job. Hats off fellas!
And yes, I live on a small homestead/farm in North Davidson County where we, (myself and my gal Nikkole Turner of Edible Nashville) have been learning and practicing regenerative agricultural methods and developing the skills that go with. We got started down this path when she volunteered at Nashville Fairgrounds 10 years ago to care for a bunch of horses that had been rescued from a slaughter farm in Cannon County TN. Nikkole fell in love with a couple of the horses she helped nurse back to health and together we decided to find land where we could care for them and train them. It wasn't long after we found our spot that we got chickens, then sheep, bees and finally pigs. In addition, we grow tons of vegetables and we support several organizations in Nashville that feed the hungry, as there has been an increased need this past year due to covid. We've been very fortunate that our neighbors support what we're doing and offer fields for pasture when our land needs a break from the grazing. It's a lot of extra work but we love the independence and resilience of the lifestyle. We love our animals and try to give them as much freedom of movement and forage as they would have in the wild. It's more important than ever to care for our planet and its creatures and to be the best stewards that we can be in this life.
Mike Younger, “Lord of The Fleas”
Mike Younger, “King of The Pack”