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Roots Radio News

On The String: The Relentless Roots Rock Consistency Of Chuck Prophet

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In his new biography of Chuck Prophet, English film professor and long-time fan Stevie Simkin writes that “one of the defining features of Prophet’s career has been his knack for keeping himself interested in what he is doing.” The book, a deserved tribute to an artist who’s loved a lot by a few rather than a little by a lot, draws a line from his ‘fringe’ stature to his artistic freedom. “Prophet has thrived on the instability that his marginal status in the industry has given him.”

In fairness, key indie labels including England’s Cooking Vinyl and Americana stalwarts New West and Yep Roc (his current home), have believed in the fortunes of Prophet all along. Yet an abiding resilience does come through as one learns more about this fascinating, musically restless Bay Area roots rocker, he of the winsome smirk, the loud shirts and the tousled hair. He’s a gamer, a lifer, a 57-year-old veteran whose story is worth a good tell, even if Prophet says he’s ambivalent about being memorialized in print at this time: “I feel like honestly I’m just getting the hang of what I’m doing now.”

Chuck Prophet spent his first decade of professional life in the always-on-the-brink rock band Green On Red. He re-grouped as a solo artist, cultivating strong creative ties to Austin and Nashville and a reliable following in Europe. I was surprised that throughout the 1990s, as far as the USA was concerned, he remained a local Bay Area artist. Only in 2002 when Lucinda Williams had him support a tour and he got AAA radio engaged with his catchy song “Summertime Thing” were the substantial rock and roots venues able to be confident he’d sell tickets. Throughout this, Prophet has released 15 strong solo albums and had his songs cut by Solomon Burke and Alejandro Escovedo, with nary an Americana or Grammy Award nomination, despite critical consensus that he’s outstanding.

He grew up in Orange County, CA and while he describes his parents as conservative business-class folks, there was a loud guitar scene that caught his fancy before the family moved to San Francisco. There from age 15 on, he dove into a scene defined by KALX radio out of Berkeley and Beserkley Records, by Jonathan Richman, The Rubinoos and The Flaimin’ Groovies. He signed up for the life and after some gigging around, Prophet was invited to join the already noteworthy psychedelic garage rock band Green On Red. After ten years of that, the fire petered out and Chuck went home to regroup, where he tells me he forged the approach that wound up positioning him in the early days of alt-country and Americana.

“When I got back to San Francisco, myself and some friends of mine (including his future wife Stephanie Finch) started playing these shows in this bar in the back room with acoustic guitars and accordions,” he says. “And we just started turning it down. That led to my first solo record. I was listening to The Basement Tapes and stuff like that. And I just wanted to make something that was verité, just raw. And if I was going to have a solo career and people were going to react, I had to strip it all back to the drywall.”

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Prophet’s solo recordings are not easy to typecast however. Citing the Simkin biography again: “Prophet’s restless creative spirit has taken him all over the musical map: the 1990s alone saw him move from folk-inflected rock (Brother Aldo, 1990) to more overt country-rock (Balinese Dancer, 1992), to ‘balls to the wall’ rock’n’roll (Homemade Blood, 1997) and rock music enriched by beats, loops, and electronica (The Hurting Business, 1999).” That nimbleness has continued, right up to the new album The Land That Time Forgot.

Arriving on Friday, Aug. 21, the 12-song set is sonically spacious yet never lagging in groove. It’s reflective, as in his darkly comic tour of “Nixonland,” the 1960s Orange County milieu in which he grew up. It’s political, as when he frames our current president as a washed up entertainer who’s run out of jokes in the album-closing “Get Off The Stage.” In “Womankind,” Prophet prays for a new age of leadership rooted in feminine compassion and competence. And my favorite, “Marathon,” is all about dancing, tying its subject (the dance marathons of the pre-War era) to its hypnotic pulse. The song also boldly showcases the voice of his longtime musical companion and wife Stephanie Finch.

Our conversation covers all this ground, offering glimpses of a work ethic and a tenacity on the way to realizing a vision. “Getting there is sometimes a struggle,” he says. “On the early records we’d run out of money. I always felt like we’d be lucky to get halfway there. And yeah, I feel like I’m just now getting the hang of it. We have a great band and we go out. It’s great even when it sucks these days. And it’s been a long road to get there. I don’t know how else to explain it.”