An album counts the miles and years. It’s a set of stories about people, about emotions and follies, and triumphs. About the changes in life. The Gristle & Bone Affair, Terry Lee Hale’s 14th record, the second he’s made in his home of 20 years in France, and first in his recently adopted city of Marseille. This finds him considering the life he left behind in the US, his time in Europe, and at some of the things the future might hold.
It’s an album that’s taken time, three years in the writing and recording that started before the pandemic stopped the world. It also marks a vastly different approach to writing songs for Hale. Instead of the fingerpicked guitar front and centre, often his hallmark sound, now the instrument – and his voice - stand as the bedrock of all the music here; he’s become part of the ensemble.
“I’m older, content to step back and let the music speak for itself,” he explains. „It’s enough to contribute at a base level, to be part of a collaboration. I wanted to leave room for others to fill in their parts. We all recorded separately, no choice with the lockdowns. I had no idea what the others were going to do.”
Those collaborations bring together several strands of Hale’s life. He’s covered a lot of distance in his time, but one of the most important stops was in Seattle, a place he says was “foundational.” He was the only singer-songwriter on Sub Pop 200, the compilation that announced grunge and brought the city to the music world’s attention. It was in Seattle that he released his first LP, and came to know many of the musicians, like Jon Hyde (case/lang/veirs, Jim White) who adds steel guitar here. He also formed a close, lasting friendship was Chris Eckman of the Walkabouts, who’s produced The Gristle & Bone Affair, as well as several of Hale’s earlier albums.
“He did everything from taskmaster to hand-holder. He’s been involved with so many of my records, I trust him implicitly. He keeps me focused.”
It’s a disc that features his voice, which has developed with age into something weathered and filled with gentle insights. He’s never sounded better than he does here. Listen to the opening track, “Oh Life,” where Žiga Golob’s (Chris Eckman, Steve Wynn) warm, plucked notes on the contrabass makes an introduction for Hale’s crisp yearning falsetto calls, an evocation of an American West that’s all but vanished.
This time around, there’s only one track where Hale’s guitar stands out alone, the sole instrumental on the album, “Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” It’s a simple piece, one that was “older,” Hale says. “It’s been lying around for a long time. It gives a breathing space between the songs, very evocative of bars, and I’ve played many of those. It’s a basic chord progression, but one that sounds quite universal.”
As producer, Eckman suggested some artists Hale had never worked with, like Catherine Graindorge (Iggy Pop, Nick Cave), whose violin work haunts “Oh Life” like a beautiful ghost, adding a deep resonance to the song. The Seattle that’s developed since Hale left is there in the sympathetic, clear backing vocals of Claire Tucker, bringing everything full circle.
He didn’t know what people could put into his songs, and “I gave very little direction on purpose. I’d send them their tracks and a week or so later I’d receive their parts. I hold my friends close, but it was wonderful to work with people like Catherine and Chris Cacavas, (Dream Syndicate, Green on Red) who played keyboards on “Curve Away”. “I’ve known him years, but we’ve never done a recording together before.”
But the collaboration extended beyond the spread of musicians. The sound and claustrophobic feel of “Alive Inside,” a loving, sympathetic song about the interior world of a man with Alzheimer’s is mostly due to the work and imagination of Matt Emerson Brown, the mixing engineer, who had as much of a free hand as the instrumentalists.
“It surprised me when I heard it,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what he was going to deliver. Matt had said he wouldn’t let me hear it until the whole album was mixed. This song was the furthest from my overall vision. It felt like someone trapped inside, gradually revealing himself. Brown has been the secret elixir on this album. He had that sound in his head. I couldn’t be happier with what he’s done.”
There’s a very close, pressing beauty to it, and the sharp, compassionate observations make it a standout in Hale’s large catalogue of material: “Collecting shadows, rocking chair/ Connections crumbled, sitting there/ Still the love, open givers/ Reach sometimes rewards a glimmer”
It’s heartfelt poetry, tender and aching and caught in a small space, so different to the sweep of road and distant horizons that echo through “Curve Away.”
“I’d been reading a lot of Richard Hugo’s work when I wrote that. He was from the American Pacific Northwest and has long been one of my favourite poets.”
It’s a testament to a life filled with journeys, looking back over the distance covered and its cost: “Now, this road is hard on dreamers/ With cover hard to find/ Too many fall away, too far behind”. The words could almost stand as a summary of The Gristle & Bone Affair. But this isn’t the end of the road, by any means. It’s a turn, the start of another part of the journey. The result of three years of thinking, writing, listening, and recording. It’s a journey below the flesh, going down deep, all the way to the gristle and bone.
Doesn't Matter Anymore
Time is aRiver
All Fall Down