She's still active (turns out she shares Willie Nelson's view on when to retire) and in 2010 she earned a Grammy nomination in the Best Traditional Folk Album category for Garden of Joy. It was late December when we spoke with Maria, and she had recently completed work on a Christmas album - something she never thought she'd do.
Maria Muldaur: I'm in a better place, as they say. I finished a Christmas album called Christmas at the Oasis a week and a half ago.
Songfacts: Well, at least it's timely. I've heard of some people recording Christmas albums and they record them in the summertime to be released in the wintertime, and they have to really put themselves into the right mood, because the weather doesn't do that for them.
Maria: Yeah, it's 98 degrees out. Well, to tell the truth, my Christmas album, which is called Christmas at the Oasis, was a complete accident. Over the years I've collected and enjoyed a wonderful collection of old blues and jazz Christmas tunes from the '20s and '30s and '40s mostly. People like Bessie Smith and Louie Armstrong and Lou Prima, so we have some swinging Christmas tunes. It's an antidote to the overly sentimental, sappy, smarmy kind of Christmas tunes that everybody churns out year after year and that we all get inundated with.
I just enjoyed listening to them, and then I started playing them - that was when I got the occasional request to do a special Christmas show. And then a year ago I had a Christmas show at a place here in San Francisco called the Razz Room, a really nice jazz room up here. And they wanted to record it for a broadcast, a special Christmas broadcast on a local TV station. I said, Okay, fine.
I did the show and the producer just kept raving about how great the recording came out and, "You should put it out as a Christmas album." And I just couldn't – I had decided to distinguish myself as being the only artist on the planet who didn't put out a Christmas album, because I figured the world was cluttered with enough of them already. So I just shined him on. And then, not even a month ago, he said, "You've got to hear this." And he kept pestering me and almost at gunpoint he said, "Sit down and listen," and I went, "Oh, my God, that sounds fantastic." I have this stellar jazz band that I work with up here, and they were just smoking. And so finally I was pressured and persuaded on all sides to release it. So we did. I mean, we just went in there and tried to clean up the sound a little bit. And so it's come out, it's been out about four days and people are loving it.
Songfacts: How exciting.
Maria: And the title comes from the fact that as we were putting together the set list for the show, just right before the show last year, the band asked me, "What, you're not going to put 'Midnight at the Oasis' in the set?" I said, "Well, it's not a Christmas song." They said, "Yeah, but your audience is going to want to hear that, that's their favorite song." So I said, "Well, let me see if I can make it Christmas-y." And I sat down and in 15 minutes I had "Christmas at the Oasis," you know, "Send your reindeer to bed. Snowflakes kissing our faces, and sugar plums in our head." Then, "Come on, Rudolph is our friend, he'll light up the way." Goofy, but everybody loved it. Who am I to argue with everyone? So we put it out and people are really enjoying it.
Maria: Absolutely not. I was making my first solo album for Warner Brothers in 1973, and I had just recently separated from my then-husband, Geoff Muldaur, who not only was my partner, but also my musical partner, and sort of the mastermind of, musically, whatever we did together. So being a solo artist was completely strange and alien and rather scary territory for me.
And so I was out in California finding myself in the studio with all the top guns: Dr. John, Ry Cooder, David Lindley; I mean, all the fabulous guys that played on my first album. And I had been working with a young guitarist named David Nichtern when I first separated from Geoffrey. He was very encouraging and told me, "You can do this." I was just sobbing and I was a mess. We had a little talk and he would say, "Look, people still know you from the Jug Band, and if I can get work in these little coffee houses, you can, too." And so we put together a few tunes, and he got us some gigs. This was real low profile stuff. I'd be crying all the way up to the gig, and he'd say, "Okay, dry your eyes and wash your face. We're on in half an hour." And he was just a very supportive little brother to me.
And so when I found myself out in California doing this solo album, I was going to do one of his songs. He's a very lovely songwriter and he'd written this beautiful song called "I Never Did Sing You a Lovesong." Very lyrical little waltz-y, kind of a country waltz kind of thing. And he knew I had all these really fabulous musicians at the studio. But he came out on his own dime, because he just felt, well, maybe they'll let him play rhythm guitar on his own tune or something. So he came on out in his little VW bug and slept on a mattress on my living room floor in the Hollywood Hills and came to the studio, was observing everything, and did get to play on his own song.
And then we were almost finished recording, the producer came in the studio and said, "You know, I've been listening to the rough mixes, and I think we're in pretty good shape." He said, "You know, we've got some up tempo stuff and we've got some nice ballads. I think if we had one more medium tempo song, then the album would be nicely balanced out, we'd be in good shape. Does anything come to mind?"
Songfacts: Do you enjoy singing it still?
Maria: I still do enjoy singing it. And you know why? Because number one, it was a very hip-ly written song. A lot of the jazz artists have covered it because it's very well constructed. Imagine my plight if my big hit had been "Wild Thing" by the Troggs, a really dumb three-chord song. But it's a song that's so well constructed that an artist can improvise on it night after night. So that's reason number one, it's a cool song.
Reason number two is I love the look of the faces of the audience when the band strikes that number up, when the band goes into the intro of that number. Because apparently, from all the stories that have been told to me when I meet my fans after the show to sign my CD, that song was the soundtrack to many a love-and-lust affair, and if I had been writing down all the stories of what people tell me they were doing or were inspired to do because of that song, or as that song was playing, I could have written quite the little x-rated book. So when I start that song, people's faces light up and I see very happy, maybe slightly x-rated memories flitting across their faces. And so that's worth more than any Grammy nomination or award - to hear first hand from your fans, from hundreds and hundreds of fans, how a piece of music I didn't even write, but that I selected and recorded and just put out there in the airwaves, just had such a happy impact on people's lives. What a gift is that?
Songfacts: You mentioned Grammy nominations, which brings me to my next question. I wanted to say congratulations on your Grammy nomination for Her Garden of Joy, your new album.
Maria: Thank you.
Songfacts: And I love the saying, on the cover on the bottom, it says, "Good time music for hard times." Is that a little therapeutic for people to take their minds off of some of the really difficult times that we're going through these days?
Maria: Well, I didn't really plan it that way. But it just seemed like a good title, because it's a jug band album. Are you familiar at all with what jug bands are?
The first two songs I found, after I had called my friends, John Sebastian and David Grisman, who had both been in a jug band with me in the early '60s, I called them up when I got this bright idea that I wanted to try taking this nostalgia trip down musical memory lane and do a jug band album, kind of come back around to my original musical roots. And I said, "Hey, you want to join me on the project?" And they both loved the idea and said, "Just say when and where and we'll be there."
So I was all excited. I was driving around in my car when this bright idea came to me, and when they both said yes so readily, I ran home and pulled out my rather expensive collection of old jug band music from that original era, and the very first album I picked up was a compilation of blues by early blues women. And I found a song called "Bank Failure Blues" by Martha Copeland. And of course I went right to it and put it on. And I went, "Oh, my God." Because she wrote and recorded it in 1929, could that be any more fitting for what's going on today? And I found another song called "The Panic Is On" by a wonderful artist that nobody knows about called Hezekiah Jenkins. How's that for an old-timey name? And it's called "Doggone, the Panic is on." And to me that little song is like Ken Burns, whom I admire greatly, just could have done a three-hour special on the Great Depression and not come up with a more vivid depiction of what life was like during that Great Depression than this unknown blues artist came up with in this little 8 verses of this little song called "Doggone the Panic is On." I mean, he describes things, what people had to resort to, to survive in such a pithy and down-to-earth way. So those are the only two songs that are kind of serious. The rest of them are very upbeat and funny and, like I said, high spirited and high energy. So it just seemed like a natural tag, like a natural subtitle for the album. "Good Time Music for Hard Times."
Songfacts: What was it like to work with John Sebastian and David Grisman and those folks that you had worked with before? Was it as natural and easy as it was in the beginning, or was it a little bit different this time?
Maria: It was more natural, because we've all gotten way, way good at what we do now. I consider them masters on their instruments in this realm of American roots music and I couldn't ask for two better musical colleagues than that. And the love we share from going back over 40 years like that, you can't put a price on that. That's worth its weight in gold and then some.
We were just fledglings when we were in a few other dozen jug bands, now we really all know our craft and our instrument. And it was just a natural. And then of course working with Dan Hicks, whose music lends itself very much to jug band music and I recorded two of his songs and then sang two other songs, a duet with him, and we had a natural ball working together. He's an extremely witty guy. And it was all I could do to not just crack up because he was always doing something to make me laugh. And although we've worked together before - he's recorded with me before, we've done different duets and so forth - our music is very interconnected. When I first heard Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks maybe in 1969 or 1970, I wrote him a fan letter, one of only two or three I've ever written in my life, saying if one of your Hot Licks ever gets sick or pregnant or arrested, I humbly offer myself. Because I just totally fell in love with his music from way back there. Of course a year or two later we actually met and we've been friends ever since.
But our collaboration on that CD led to being asked to go to Japan together as sort of a double bill. And that worked out so well that we are going to do a tour of Hawaii in January. The way we are onstage, I put together a really killer jazz band that would accommodate both his stuff and mine, and onstage we're trying to do like a hipster version of George Burns and Gracie Allen. A little bit like Louie Prima and Keely Smith. If I can just allude to something that we describe, he does all the funny stuff and I'm a real good straight man foil. Keeps me on my toes because I never know what he's going to do. When you listen to this CD and you hear the way he improvised these hilarious wacky lyrics on the duet we do together, you'll see. You'll get a taste of what I'm talking about.
Songfacts: Have you heard his Christmas album?
Maria: No, I'm meeting with his wife later today and we're going to exchange Christmas albums. He was working on this since the summer. He's one of the guys that was recording his Christmas album in the summer. And his is a very carefully planned out, with great promo, great PR being done on it on a really good record label, and he's getting great reviews and I can't wait to hear it. And then mine is just kind of an accidental afterthought. It proves there's a certain synchronicity going on between us.
Songfacts: When you recorded some gospel music, I think this was in the early '80s, you worked with T Bone Burnett before he was the big producer. How was that experience?
Maria: Well, I just know him as a friend, and it was fine. He certainly knew what he was doing. And now I produce all my stuff myself, because no one knows better than I just what I want and how to get it out of the musicians. I've always picked my own songs and picked the musicians I want on each tune. And I've always had a knack for that, especially since I don't write, I at least have a knack for picking good tunes, finding them. And he was a delight to work with. He was fine.
Songfacts: Have you ever thought about doing another gospel album?
Maria: Gospel is not exactly first in line of the things I have on my back burner, because there's never a dull or spare moment at the oasis. I mean, I put out a sequel to the album that's nominated for a Grammy, I put out a kids' jug band album in October called Barnyard Dance. It was the result of people hearing the Garden of Joy Jug Band, the one that's up for a Grammy. It was so well received that I got approached to do a Jug Band for kids. And I thought that's a great idea. So I did that with a lot of the same players. I took stuff from that era and it's very kid-friendly music. So there, from October to December, that's two releases out of the little old oasis here. And if you do the math, and God knows at this point I hate doing the math, it's 36 years since "Midnight at the Oasis" came out, and if I could stop long enough to count, I believe that the Christmas release marks my 38th release.
Songfacts: You mentioned your back burner. What are some projects that are in the back of your mind that you'd like to eventually do?
Maria Well, I'd like to go all the way back to my original musical loves, I would love to do an old-timey album. I wrote a song a few years ago called "Old Timey Gal." You know what I mean by old-timey music? Like Appalachia music, the music that preceded bluegrass.
Maria: I was in a band with David Grisman when we were about 18 called Maria and the Washington Square Ramblers. And that was a bluegrass band. Nobody knows that, it was a short-lived little project. Anyway, right around that same time I was deeply immersed in bluegrass and old timey music and actually went to North Carolina and studied fiddle - old time fiddle - with Doc Watson's father-in-law, Gaither Carlton, and then learned lots and lots of old timey tunes. I've always loved that kind of music, and reconnected with it about a dozen years ago after my old pal, Bob Dylan, nagged me every time I saw him. He'd say (imitating Dylan), "Hey, are you playing your fiddle anymore?" And I'd go, "Well, no, not really." And he'd go, "Come on, Maria, you ought to take that thing out and dust it off. People need to hear that rustic way you play." Well, rusty is more like it. And this went on for years. I usually see him about once a year when he comes through up here. So finally, one year when he was getting really edgy about, "You need to do it," I thought to myself, I have got to take him up on this, because I can't face him another year. I just didn't have the time. So I started to pick it up again, and I came to discover to my delight that the music has really proliferated an enormous amount, and that since the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Are Thou? - speaking of T Bone Burnett - from mid-'90s, the music has just really taken off on a whole new level and a whole new generation was rediscovering it.
And I found out there was a huge old time music scene over in Berkeley right across the pond here where I live in Marin County. I tuned in with all those people and reconnected with one of my original musical loves. So I thought it would be great. I'm not a songwriter, but I've written two old-time instrumentals, and two old-timey songs. And I thought I would put out an album called Old-Timey Gal, and get together with all my women friends who play old time music. It doesn't mean it'll be no boys allowed, but it'll be predominantly women on the album, and I'd love to do that. And that will naturally have some old-timey gospel tunes on it. But also, for the first time ever, feature four songs actually written by me, a girl who doesn't write songs. So that's one project I want to do.
And then another one, I've been approached by a major blues label to do a straight-ahead electric blues album, which would represent the kind of stuff I do with one my bands, the Red Hot Bluesiana Band. And then I've got it almost all in the can, but we have some special surprise guests doing a tribute to Memphis Minnie. That'll be out this year, too.
Songfacts: How exciting. It sounds like you're more active than ever, Maria, and for those of us that love your music, that's a good thing.
Maria: Well, good. I'm glad. I'm having a good time. Someone asked when I was going to retire, and they asked that of Willie Nelson and he said, "Well, let's see, I spend half my time playing golf and half my time playing music. Which would you have me retire from?" And I don't play golf, but I sure put my heart and my soul into music and get an extreme amount of joy out of it. So I won't quit until I run out of ideas. And obviously that hasn't happened yet. I mean, the Christmas album is a case in point. I didn't even think I was going to make one. I resisted the idea of making one. But when I heard how exuberantly joyful and high spirited the music was, I thought, Well, of course people need to hear this. People are going through even more hard times now. And this is a good antidote to that.
Songfacts: Well, Maria, it's been a delight talking to you. Good luck at the Grammies.
Maria: Well, thank you. You know, "Midnight" was nominated in three categories at the time. I never won; I'm always a bridesmaid, never a bride. But maybe this year will be my lucky year. Just in this decade, I've had two other Grammy nominations, one for "Rich Land Woman Blues" and the other for "Sweet Lovin' Old Soul," both in the Traditional Blues category. This is my third Grammy nom in, like, nine years. So maybe the third one's a charm. We'll hope so.
We spoke with Maria on December 20, 2010. Her website is mariamuldaur.com
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