Country's Cousins: Conversations with Diane Schuur and America's Got Talent Winner Michael Grimm


A Conversation with Diane Schuur

Mike Ragogna: Hello, Diane.

Diane Schuur: Hello, Michael.

MR: Let's get right into this record and then get into your history because we want everyone to know everything about you.

DS: Maybe not everything, but go ahead.

MR: (laughs) I would say your new album The Gathering, that's being released on June 7th, is mainly a jazz album that covers some great, classic country tunes. Would you say that that's fair?

DS: It is fair.

MR: I think it's brilliant that you made the connection between these particular songs and jazz.

DS: Thank you. The one thing that I did purposefully on this was, number one, not to do it with a twang, and number two, I wanted it to please both people that are into country and people that are into jazz, and I think we were able to accomplish this. I'm really excited about this because I did the whole thing in one day and did overdubs the second day. That kind of stuff is really cool because it's like from the old school, like when people did the old 78s in one or two takes. It's kind of reminiscent of all that, and it's not overproduced or over-electronic. It's just a really wonderful thing that we were able to do, and I'm really excited about it.

MR: Many of your vocals are some of the most heartfelt I ever heard you sing. It's very obvious that you had a really good time as you captured lighting in a bottle with this one.

DS: Well, thank you. What a beautiful expression.

MR: Choosing the material must have been difficult, to have found songs that work well as both country and jazz.

DS: Well, Steve Buckingham, the producer, sent me about 21 or 22 songs, and we sifted through them to choose what really spoke to me. When I get into a studio, I become an actress in a way, as far as being able to put myself into all of these different stories. That's probably why you can tell that they're really heartfelt, as I was just putting myself into these different situations, you know? It was really special and really fun to do.

MR: Nice. And you have some wonderful guests on here--Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Larry Carlton, and Mark Knopfler. How did you assemble this cast of characters?

DS: Well, Steve Buckingham knew these cats, and he did the work for me, actually. I got together with Alison Krauss, we spent some time together, and it was really fun. I wasn't able to meet with Vince Gill, but his work was so brilliant too, and I've always been a huge fan of Larry Carlton. So, it all came together really cool.

MR: On your opening track, "Why Can't He Be You," you hold out that note...

DS: ...oh yeah, (singing) "Why can't he..." I know exactly what you're talking about.

MR: It sets up the album nicely, and it says, "This is a Diane Schuur album, now sit down and listen!"

DS: (laughs) The energy in that studio was just a trip, just wonderful.

MR: How did you approach the recording in the studio, especially the vocals, as opposed to what you do onstage?

DS: Most of the takes were done live anyway. I did some overdubbing the next day, but there weren't a lot of fixes or anything like that. I did everything pretty much live with the musicians as it was happening in real time.

MR: I guess that's why The Gathering comes off like a living, breathing album as opposed to an overly-processed batch of songs.

DS: Right. I hope we don't get away from the heartfelt kind of thing. I don't know where this technology is heading--I wish I could say I did know, but I don't. All I can say is I'm glad I did it the way I did it.

MR: Also, in jazz, it seems like you can't do it the other way. You can't make it too precise.

DS: No, not when it comes to jazz. It's like breathing--it's spontaneous.

MR: Let's go back to your early days. Who were your influences.

DS: Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson--those three are the top. Then, when it comes the country stuff, Patti Page, Doris Day, Barbara Streisand, Kay Starr, Edie Gorme--all of these people were influential in my early singing career.

MR: When you started, did you play out a lot, and how did you get "discovered?"

DS: Well, it depends on which time. I did a lot of professional dates starting from the time I was nine years old and worked at the Holiday Inn in Tacoma, Washington, and different places like that. I auditioned at Lake Tahoe for Bill Harrah's club when I was 15, and just did a lot in the Pacific Northwest. Then, of course, I did the Monterey Jazz Festival in '75 with Ed Shaughnessy's big band, Energy Force. Then, I moved to the Southwest and worked in Tucson, Arizona, for a few years, from '76 to '80, then came back to Seattle. As far as the discovery thing, George Shearing heard me when I was 11 years old. The turning point, though, was when Stan Getz heard me at the Monterey Jazz Festival on my second appearance there in '79. Then, I signed up with GRP Record a couple of years after that, and as you know, the album, Deedles, was created, and so on. So, it's just really been an intriguing process all of these years.

MR: And those were magic days, right? It almost seemed like everyone at GRP was part of a big jazz family.

DS: Oh, absolutely. We went out on the road together quite a bit and it felt like a family. Actually, in the present day, as far as Vanguard is concerned, they feel like a real family to me. Not that I haven't really enjoyed being on Atlantic for the one album I did on there, and Concord, of course, was really wonderful. But getting together with Steve Buckingham and the rest of the staff at Vanguard really is reminiscent of the early GRP days, only maybe more fun. Maybe it's part of my attitude, which has changed, but I don't know. One of the things that we did before we would actually get into the studio was gather everyone up in a circle and we'd pray that the session went well, and it obviously did, so that was really cool.

MR: Do you feel like recording an album like The Gathering makes you want to push the boundaries more?

DS: Yes, I'd like to push the boundaries a little bit more. I don't know what that's going to entail in that kind of a process, but yes. You know, Pat Benatar was into classic rock and then she got into jazz. People do this kind of stuff all the time. Rod Stewart got more into the American songbook, so I figured, "Why not change direction?" I'm not getting out of jazz or divorcing jazz by any stretch of the imagination. I just wanted to do something that would be--some people would call it "crossover." I just wanted to do something unique, and I think this is very unique. When you have these wonderful, classic songs and you have all the wonderful people we were talking about before, it is very unique. I don't think there is another album on the planet, by far, that is like this one.

MR: No. In fact, I think the closest we get, at least from the country side of things, is Willie Nelson when he mixed genres a bit.

DS: Absolutely. Willie, with the way he did "Georgia On My Mind" is a perfect example. I know that Ray Charles was the inspiration of an album coming together like this, and not only as a vocalist. I wanted to see if I could get some of those Floyd Cramer kinds of things melded into it, and I think I did a pretty good job.

MR: Yeah, and I know exactly what you're talking about with Ray Charles', especially with his Country and Western recordings that also were jazzy and bluesy. On the other hand, The Gathering has more solid jazz interpretations.

DS: I guess I took it a step further.

MR: Right. And I think I wouldn't be surprised if this had some success on the country charts.

DS: It might, you just never know. We do it and then we let go of the outcome, I guess.

MR: Are there songs on this album that, to you, feel particularly magical?

DS: They're all super magic, but I think that one of the songs that grabs me the most is "Don't Touch Me."

MR: The old Jeannie Seely song.

DS: I didn't actually hear the original, but I'll take your word for it.

MR: Yeah, I just have to keep my mind exercised as I'm growing older.

DS: (laughs) Oh, I hear ya! I know exactly what you mean.

MR: Were you in the studio when Vince Gill and Larry Carlton came in to play on "Today I Started Loving You Again"?

DS: I sure wish I could say yes, but no.

MR: When you heard what they contributed, what was your reaction?

DS: Well, Vince just really did that wonderfully. I thought the harmonization was fabulous, and, of course, Larry was wonderful trading off with. It was fun.

MR: And Larry, of course, was one of your old GRP mates.

DS: I guess so, yeah.

MR: What's coming up? What's in your immediate future?

DS: Well, as far as promoting this record, I'm doing the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, on the 9th of June, and on the 10th and 11th, I'm doing Catalina's Bar and Grill, which is a jazz club in the area. I'm doing B.B. King's in New York on the 15th of June, and on the 16th, I'm going to be doing the Joey Reynolds show, based out of New York, but it's a national broadcast on NBC. In May, I'm going to Palermo, Italy, and then I'm also going to Jacksonville, Florida, for a performance there--one is with a big band, and the other with a symphony. So, the plate is getting fuller all the time.

MR: Great. Speaking of big band, you received a Grammy for Diane Schuur & The Count Basie Orchestra back in '87.

DS: Yes, yes.

MR: You also received one for Timeless in '86, and you were nominated for Pure Schuur, Love Songs, and Christmas Collection. Since you're no stranger to the world of Grammys, I'm just wondering what you think the significance of winning one is at this point.

DS: Well, I think that the Grammys are still important because it's a recognition of peers in the industry, and as long as there is an interest, the Grammys will continue to go on. The thing of it is, as far as the jazz categories and stuff like that, it's not getting as much of a nod as it used to. I appeared on the Grammys in '86--I don't know if you're aware of that--and Manhattan Transfer was on the same stage, and Sarah Vaughan, also Bobby McFerrin, and Buddy Rich was on drums...

MR: ...I do remember that, actually.

DS: Yeah, but they don't do that as much anymore, which is kind of sad.

MR: Yeah, the emphasis is on whatever is going to get the TV ratings, I guess.

DS: Yeah, I guess so.

MR: But I do think that some incredible jazz still gets the award, it's just that it's done in such a downplayed way in comparison to the more reverent way that it used to be.

DS: I know. A lot of it is pre-telecast.

MR: Right, tom make time for all the pretty and outrageous pop stars, since they allegedly attract and keep viewers.

DS: Exactly, it's what is the most outrageous, as opposed to just the simple talent of the individuals involved. To me, I feel a little sad about that, to be honest with you. But I don't know if there's any real turning back of the clock. It's just the way that it is.

MR: You know what would be sweet? In the same way we treat country with the Country Music Awards, maybe we should have a major, televised, jazz-focused show that would pour more love into the genre. The ratings might surprise everyone.

DS: Well, they have the Latin Grammys, why not put together a strictly jazz show? It's just a thought.

MR: I'm with you one thousand percent on that. I feel that jazz, in some ways, has really become red-headed step-child of the music business.

DS: I know. Maybe some of us can turn that around in the next few years to come.

MR: Speaking of that, are there any of your contemporaries that you just love listening to right now?

DS: I like the old stuff. I just keep going back. Of course, Stevie Wonder is a friend of mine, and I love listening to his work. As far as contemporaries, I'm an eclectic I guess. I love going back to the '70s and listening to classic rock and stuff like that.

MR: Me too, lately anyway. One of my favorite shows on TV has been Supernatural, and they always play a classic rock song somewhere in the episode.

DS: Alright, I'll have to tune into that because I haven't seen it.

MR: So, we've talked about some cool old school stuff, but I want to talk to you about things like American Idol and the institution it has become. What do you think of that?

DS: It's okay. I've watched it maybe once or twice--I watched when Barry Manilow was on simply because he did produce one of my albums.

MR: My favorite was the Smokey Robinson show.

DS: Oh, very cool.

MR: Yeah, when they had those kinds of shows, it always seemed to be the most interesting for me, personally.

DS: Oh, me too. That's when I tune in.

MR: And this year, it seems that it's become more fun and less abusive.

DS: That's good.

MR: That was the hardest thing for me to watch, when Simon Cowell...

DS: ...yeah, it was pretty brutal, and that's one of the things that really turned me off and made me not really watch it as much. Who needs abuse? I certainly don't.

MR: Yeah, it had all the fun of watching a state execution.

DS: Exactly!

MR: Since we are on the subject of new artists, do you have any advice for them?

DS: Well, I would say pursue the dream. Get good management, and if there is a contract, get a good attorney and know what you're signing. By all means, go out there, pursue the dream, and have fun doing it.

MR: Yeah, fun's the most important part, isn't it.

DS: Yes.

MR: And that will come out in your music.

DS: Absolutely.

MR: And that comes out in Diane Schuur music.

DS: Correctamundo.

MR: I have to ask you one more thing--you mentioned earlier, Stevie Wonder--might there be a future Diane Schuur sings Stevie Wonder album coming, he asked trying to plant the seed?

DS: Well, who knows? I wouldn't mind that, but who knows. I don't know what the future holds. I'm just glad I was able to perform with him when we did the Friends For Schuur CD. That was fun.

MR: Beyond the touring that you'll be doing for this album, what does the future hold for Diane Schuur?

DS: Well, I've lost seventy pounds in the past three years. So, as a celebration of that, I'm going to start doing a little training at 24 Hour Fitness.

MR: Nice. Now, you have to be careful of those open-ended gym agreements, you know?

DS: Yes, dear. Don't worry, I'll be careful and I'll keep my tennies on.

MR: (laughs) This has been wonderful, Diane, thank you for your time and the visit today.

DS: You're very welcome, Michael, and thank you for having me.

1. Why Can't He Be You
2. Healing Hands of Time
3. Beneath Still Waters
4. Til I Can Make It on My Own
5. Don't Touch Me
6. Today I Started Loving You Again
7. Til I Get It Right
8. Am I that Easy to Forget
9. When Two Worlds Collide
10. Nobody Wins

Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney


A Conversation with Michael Grimm

Mike Ragogna: Hi Michael Grimm. I found your new self-titled album to be a good mixture of country and soul with a good measure of rock mixed in there, is that an accurate description?

Michael Grimm: You nailed it. (laughs) That's a great way of describing it. The (major label) debut album, man, I can't believe it. I'm pretty excited about it.

MR: And your producer was Don Was.

MG: Absolutely. Yeah, Don and I collaborated on this album. It was a great experience working with him, I learned a lot. He gets right in there--in the middle of the room with you, as opposed to other producers in the past. He's literally in the sound booth with the rest of the band, which makes you feel he's one of the musicians even though he's not playing. He's not just sitting behind the booth, you know? I don't know--it's very hard to explain. When you're in there working with him it's very inspiring.

MR: Nice. A lot of current artists seem to think that the engineer/producer combination is the ultimate, but personally, I prefer the old school of thought that has the two with different responsibilities and part of a team. It also adds to more objectivity.

MG: Yes, indeed. Bob Clearmountain mixed this album. He's won many awards for his work, so we were very honored to have him with us on this project. But you're right, it takes a lot of talented people to make this actually happen.

MR: Let's talk about your song choice of "Gasoline And Matches," which also was made popular by one of the True Blood soundtracks.

MG: The song was shown to me by Don Was. He was going through a few songs with me and I was throwing some at him as we were planning the album. I wound up loving the song--a husband and wife team wrote it, and I knew that I wanted to cut the song with Annie Wilson the first time I heard it. Don agreed, he was right with me. If we couldn't get her, we would have moved on to Stevie Nicks, but I go back with Annie and have opened for Heart a few times over the years. We got to record the song in the same sound booth--you know, the old-school way of doing it--while we were looking at each other. It was really neat, I had a great time recording that song.

MR: It shows, and it's a terrific choice for a first track. Now, you were the winner of the show America's Got Talent. Let's hear that story.

MG: I still can't believe that, man. (laughs) It's a dream come true.

MR: How did it feel when you won?

MG: It was bittersweet. I couldn't believe it, I still can't. I couldn't believe that I made it all the way to the end with Jackie Evancho. But when I was standing there, I was thinking of how to congratulate her because I was sure she was gonna win. Then, when they said my name, I was a little worried about her because I really wanted her to win. I was rooting for her, I wasn't really rooting for myself because I was just up there doing my thing, you know? But she's doing well and what a great career she's gonna have. It was a wonderful moment to hear my name, you know? I won something! (laughs) Maybe it all paid off after the years of struggling. I spent 20 years doing this, trying to get a record deal, trying to get a label to want my music and finally they listened. They voted for me, and it's just a wonderful feeling.

MR: What was the process like getting on the show?

MG: Well, I went to the cattle call. Judy Alberti, the entertainment coordinator for Green Valley Ranch, one of the casinos here in Las Vegas, kind of pushed me to get involved in it. At the time, I was working for her at the Green Valley Ranch at a place called Hank's playing the guitar next to a piano player. She was always a big believer in me, and she hooked me up with one of the people doing the talent round-ups at America's Got Talent. So, I went to the cattle call and they didn't go for it the first year, I don't know why. Then the next year, they called me and I didn't really have to go through the talent round. When I came in, I went pretty much straight to the stage and in front of the judges which I wasn't aware of when it all began. I was actually playing guitar for Bill Medley at the time and I didn't know what to do. So, when they called me, I flew from wherever I was into Hollywood and found myself right onstage in front of the judges. I had no idea that that was what was going on. It all happened really quickly in that second year.

MR: But once someone wins one of those shows, people generalize it as overnight success.

MG: Well, in little ways, I guess it was. Television is a powerful thing. My thought was that if I went to America's Got Talent, they would allow me to do what I do as opposed to similar TV shows. That's why I auditioned in the first place, and when I got on the show and I did what I do, I think America saw that I've been through the wringer. I could write the book on paying dues, you know? (laughs) I've been down the long road of trying to get my music heard and this was a great experience and a good route to take for my career. I was only hoping to get on there for a moment and be heard. Maybe I'd get a few fans if I was lucky, but it wound up paying off in bigger ways than I ever expected.

MR: It's also refreshing when the talent lives up to the award that they've been given.

MG: Well I appreciate it, thank you very much.

MR: No problem, you rock. Let's talk about some of the artists that join you on this album like Travis Tritt on "Simple Man," right?

MG: Yes, sir! I grew up listening to Travis Tritt and he's the reason why I went from country music to soul and rock 'n' roll.

MR: Is that because you heard some of that in his music?

MG: Well, I grew up listening to country, and when you grow up listening to country, there's nothing else, you know? (laughs) That's the way it is. When I heard Travis Tritt's music, he was doing covers of Otis Redding and Lynyrd Skynyrd songs--stuff out of the realms of country. So, I listened to him a lot and really loved his voice. His music kinda taught me that it's okay to sing all sorts of music, I needed someone to say it's okay so that I could still keep the country music crowd. I mean, if they listened to him, then I could probably do something like that, you know? So, I went off and started singing soul and rock 'n' roll, singing some Lynyrd Skynyrd. When I was collaborating with Don Was on this album, we were thinking, "What would be a good song for me to sing with my idol?" That's how we landed on "Simple Man," and we had Greg Leisz playing steel guitar and a baritone guitar, Waddy Wachtel on guitar, and Kenny Aronoff...great musicians. The way that Don approached this was that he was writing sheet music out for everyone to give them the song structure, and they just kind of did their own version of it. Travis loved it when he heard it, and I was honored that he wanted to do it with me. It was quite an experience to sing with him.

MR: And speaking of rocking, you recorded "Stay With Me," The Faces/Rod Stewart classic.

MG: Yes, sir. They did a great job with it. You know, I had the honor of playing with Ian McLagan on this album, who is the piano player for The Faces. When we were putting some ideas out for this album, we were thinking that we wanted to go the Amerciana route and I kind of said let's go The Faces route and (Don) agreed. Then, all of a sudden, I saw Ian McLagan in the session, Don had called him up because he thought that we should just get one of the original guys in the session playing with us. So, since we already had Ian there, I said, "Let's do a Faces song," so we landed on "Stay With Me" and the band just rocked out. I enjoyed listening to them and we just had a great time on that song.

MR: Are there any other songs on this album that have a particularly interesting story behind them?

MG: Well, you know, I'm really most attached to the songs that I write because I was going through moments in life when I wrote them. "Suddenly You Are" is one of those songs that takes me back to the time that I wrote what I was going through, and it sort of speaks for itself. I was going through a time where I thought I could control my being in love. And then I found myself in love. It's a common story, but the song puts it in my perspective. I had the privilege of collaborating with Kevin Hunter on the song who is a great songwriter - he used to be with a band called Wire Train.

MR: After winning America's Got Talent, you donated the winnings to a very personal cause, right?

MG: My grandparents raised my sister and I, and I always wanted to get them out of the trailer that they were living in. I grew up blue collar, you know. My grandfather worked offshore to support us. I always wanted to get them out of that situation. Then, when Hurricane Katrina hit, my grandmother was actually living in a house, and of course the house was destroyed along with everyone else's in Hancock County. That was ground zero for the hurricane, so it just demolished the whole city. I felt like if I won that show, I had to get her out of that situation because she was living in a trailer in the woods and she was just miserable. So, when I won the show, I was more excited about building the house than anything. I could afford to build it in a place in an area that she really enjoyed but could never afford. The framework is up now, so I'm sure it's just a matter of another month or two and it'll all be done and then they can move in and I can't wait.

MR: Such a great story. What advice do you have for newer artists?

MG: Just stick to your guns, you'll make it somehow. You never know what the road is going to bring, but if you just keep doing what you're doing and don't look back, you will find yourself where you want to be at some point. But you've got to make some decisions and you can't just stay closed-minded because that's called standing in your own way. I know that from personal experience...I've stood in my own way many times and made some bad decisions. But you learn from them and you pick yourself up and just keep going, no looking back. Just keep doing what you're doing and you'll get there.

MR: Michael, thanks for the time and all the best. What are your plans for the near future? Are you planning on touring?

MG: Well, I'm getting married in June to my wonderful Lucy, and right after the wedding, we plan on touring in July.

1. Gasoline and Matches - with Ann Wilson
2. Something I Said
3. Stay With Me (Baby)
4. No Other Love
5. Simple Man
6. Champagne and Wine
7. Let's Make Love Again
8. Red
9. Suddenly You Are
10. Fallin'
11. I Am"
12. You Don't Know Me
13. Stay With Me

Transcribed by Evan Tyrone Martin