Q&A With KORT’s Kurt Wagner And Cortney Tidwell

KORT is Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner and solo singer/songwriter Cortney Tidwell, and with covers album Invariable Heartache (City Slang), the duo has recorded a sort of love letter to its hometown of Nashville and the city’s musical past. Eleven of the LP’s dozen tracks were originally recorded in the ’60s and ’70s for the Music City-based Chart Records (a label with huge familial ties for Tidwell), and the 12th song was cut by Tidwell’s mom, Connie Eaton, in 1975 for ABC Dunhill. And while the heartfelt Invariable Heartache is certainly ensconced in Nashville’s storied musical history, it’s a thoroughly modern statement by two of the town’s brightest hopes for Music City’s future being as fertile as its past. Wagner and Tidwell will be guest editing all week. We recently caught up with the duo via email.

“Incredibly Lonely” (download):

MAGNET: How did the two of you hook up originally? Did the idea to do Invariable Heartache solely come from the night you performed Don Williams’ “I Believe In You” together live?
Wagner: It was a combination of events that brought us together for KORT. I sang on a song called “Society” on Cortney’s record a few years back. Later we tried singing that song along with some other live versions like “I Believe In You” and the Jefferson Airplane’s “Today.” It was fun, so naturally at some urging from others, we tried making a record together. The idea for Invariable Heartache came out of the need to find some material which we could collaborate on that had some sort of resonance for us both, material that had an underlying interest for us both. In the Chart Records catalog, we found a connection we both had in being Nashville artists having our own unique ways of expressing ourselves with finding our own common interests in this type of music. I was unaware of Cortney’s family’s history prior to her husband Todd’s suggestion that this wealth of material existed and the family connection was so strong. But when I found this out it made total sense for us to explore the idea.
Tidwell: Nashville is a small town. There’s a small group circling around, and we play music with the same set of musicians.

How has Nashville changed as a city and as a music scene during your time there?
Wagner: I grew up in Nashville in the ’60s and ’70s, and the changes here are, as you can imagine, quite dramatic. The city has become a typical large, sprawling Southern metropolis with all that goes with that. Growing up during that time, things were more “small town” and limited as to its connection with the rest of the world. Change came slowly, but in time one could see the influence of four decades of physical and cultural growth. That said, the music world here, to some extent, still operates on a small-town sort of level, especially with the current downsizing of a music industry as it were. Things here are more condensed again, for better or worse.
Tidwell: I was born and raised in Nashville and sort of “grew up” with the changes. In the ’70s, Nashville had this seediness to it that was so attractive to people. Now that seediness has kind of fallen away. People would actually hang around Music Row with their backpacks and a guitar, and it was this gypsy thing. I still love Nashville; I just learned to go with the changes in my way, instead of giving in.

Invariable Heartache features covers of songs originally on Chart Records, which Cortney’s grandfather ran, employed Cortney’s dad and released music Courtney’s mom recorded. The album was also co-produced by Cortney’s husband. Cortney, are family and music completely interrelated for you? And Kurt, any pressure to not let down Cortney’s family?
Tidwell: Music and family to do go hand in hand for me. I grew up right in the heart of it. Music seemed to bring a lot of heartache into the family, so I stayed away from it for awhile, but eventually I got around to it again. This project was especially personal to me, so I had to distance myself in a way. Kurt did an amazing job at putting it all together. It was something I had always wanted to do but just didnt know how to approach it, mentally or physically.
Wagner: Sure, there was a responsibility to try to treat the concept and idea with the respect that it deserves, but this way of working is not that unusual for me or for the people involved in this record. Everyone wanted to respond honestly to the situation and give it a chance to develop naturally.

Have you gotten any feedback from any of the artists who wrote or originally recorded these songs?
Wagner: I personally have not had any contact, but Cort has a more imbedded perspective.
Tidwell: I know LaWanda Lindsey and Kenny Vernon have heard it, and they were honored and “tickled” according to reports from my father.

How hard was it to pick which songs you were going to do?
Wagner: Not so hard, really. There were so many songs to go through that in the end it was all about finding ones that seemed to stand out from the pack in one way or the other. This just took some time, and most of us seemed to gravitate to the same ones. In fact, if there were more time we could have pursued several others, but at some point we just had to start trying to put things together.

What made you choose to record at Starstruck Studios? I thought that was a place that catered to more mainstream acts.
Wagner: Two reasons why I liked Starstruck. First was Cort’s husband Todd worked there, and we wanted him to be the engineer and this was where he had a great recording situation already established. The place sounds great. The people who work there are really amazing and kind. Also there was a family connection there, as Cort’s dad is involved in the business, I believe. The place is just totally suited to making country music, though I gather this type of sound is a bit different than the daily productions.
Tidwell: Starstruck is an amazing studio. It felt good to record these songs on Music Row, the original starting place for this material.

What were the recoding sessions like?
Wagner: Things seemed to click pretty well right away with the first song, “Incredibly Lonely.” Then from there, it seemed like we had something to strive for when moving on with the rest of the material. There was a sense that in a way we were trying “on the spot” to come to terms with the idea of translating the original material to something more reflective of our way of making music. Sometimes this was easy, other times a bit more difficult, but always a revelation as we would, song by song, leave the cover idea behind and have it more a song we could claim as our own design.

That’s what I like best about the album: It embraces the tradition of the material, but it sounds modern and like you guys. Is that a hard thing to achieve?
Wagner: Yeah, I think it is somewhat hard to achieve, but in our case, it came naturally due to the quality of musicians involved and Cort’s creativity.

How did you put together the band for the album? Are they all people you guys have played with?
Wagner: It was pretty much a case of working with the people who make up Cortney’s band, whom also mostly happen to be part of Lambchop. My only concern was to try to come up with a sound that was more direct and simple: upright bass, drum, guitar or two. It was a luxury of simplicity to which I’d not had the pleasure of pursuing up to that point.

The album only just came out here but has been out in Europe since October. How come?
Wagner: I guess I’m a kind of a “one continent at a time” kind of guy.
Tidwell: That rings true for me as well.

Is KORT going to be an ongoing concern for the both of you? Will you tour? Make another record?
Wagner: We are trying to tour as much as possible. We are currently planing a small European tour for this spring, and we will play the occasional show here as well. We are just taking things as they come and trying to find a way to make this work within all of our other concerns. Playing in this band is a blast from my perspective, and I really believe that we have found something that we can pursue as we move forward in music. I certainly hope to make more recordings. In fact, we just finished a seven-inch for Europe, which should come out on the spring tour. It’s a cover of the Motörhead/Girlschool duet “Please Don’t Touch” with a b-side of Emitt Rhodes’ “Time Will Show The Wiser,” a song we learned from a Fairport Convention recording.

Who are, in your opinion, the best artists in Nashville these days?
Wagner: All the ones that you’ve never heard of. The ones that gather at Betty’s Grill or at house shows. The ones who put out their own records and play in each other’s bands. The ones who make time to show up to support each other’s gigs and bake cookies for the shows and practices. The ones who do this because they like to and do other things to make a living because it’s how we get by.

—Eric T. Miller