Chicago has a long tradition of story tellers. From Nelson Algren in literature to Mike Royko in the newspaper, Studs Terkel on the radio, there is no shortage. And in the world of music, well, Chicago isn’t called the home of the Blues for nothing. But aside from the great bluesmen, Chicago has been home to a few fantastic folk singers, most notably John Prine and Steve Goodman. Now comes 30-year-old Al Scorch, who combines punk, old-time string band, and American and European folk with soulful balladry to be the next generation’s storyteller. And although he’s a lifelong Chicagoan and still lives on the Northwest Side, he’s getting noticed all around the country and even in Europe, where he’ll be playing some dates later this summer.
Scorch, who is a large, amiable presence on stage, is much the same when not performing. The Chicago Ambassador caught up with him upon his arrival back to Chicago from playing a gig — something he’ll be doing a lot this summer because he just made his Bloodshot Records debut with his album “Circle Round the Signs.” In fact, he’ll be at the Hideout May 28 and at the Do Division Street Fest June 5. He talked about that, his love of performing live and more.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) You’ve become quite the media darling the last couple of weeks with the release of your debut album on Bloodshot Records, “Circle Round the Signs,” which just dropped. What’s it been like?
SCORCH) You know, it’s just a chance to tell my story. It’s a chance to talk about things that matter to me and also share my music. It’s been great.
CA) A lot of artists get publicity when a new album comes out because of their record label. While I’m sure Bloodshot is promoting you a lot right now, you seem to be taking matters into your own hands a bit. A couple Saturdays ago, you did something pretty unique. You attached a trailer to your bike, threw in your banjo and some records and you and your bandmates rode to five different record stores, playing a few songs at each stop and then invited fans to a barbecue. Whose idea was that and how did it go?
SCORCH) It was my idea. It was just kind of a natural extension of who I am and my friends and the community I’ve built in Chicago. It was a nice chance to hang out with everyone and celebrate. We had about 40 people on the ride and more people at each record store. It was very cool.
CA) You’re a 4th generation Chicagoan who is a banjo-playing folk singer. How did that happen?
SCORCH) I don’t really know. John Prine maybe. My mom was from Missouri and we had a banjo at our house when I was growing up. My dad is a music nerd. Maybe that’s it. And in Chicago you can explore whatever musical realm you want to, you can get into whatever type of art that you want to. Chicago is a crossroads city. It’s where the South meets the North and where the East meets the West. It was a frontier town. Half the city is from the deep south and also from Appalachia when you go back a couple generations after World War II when a lot of people worked at Maytag and Domino Sugar and places like that.
CA) A lot of the themes in bluegrass music, specifically your songs, seem to be relevant today. Is it the timeless quality that attracted you as well as the music?
SCORCH) I don’t know. I think I was drawn to it because it’s a very old type of music but timely. There’s an immediacy about the music that exists.
CA) “Circle Around the Signs” is your Bloodshot debut, but you put on “Tired Ghostly Town” in 2012. For that album, you largely promoted it by opening for punk bands. You’ve been associated with punk rock, both for you DIY attitude and for your love of the music. Do you consider yourself punk rock?
SCORCH) As far as who I associate with and the music I listen to, and the shows I go to, yes. Absolutely.
CA) This seems to go along with the previous question — how varied are your influences? They seem to be more than just Bill Monroe or Woody Guthrie?
SCORCH) I really like Minutemen. There were never afraid to sound different. They always wanted to make the music that spoke to them as a group of friends playing music for people. So, they are really inspirational to me because of how they aren’t held back by genre and are more about music and that attitude is really punk.
CA) I read that you have said it’s more important to you to play a great show than to have a huge record. Do you still feel that way since your new record was just release a few days ago?
SCORCH) I do, yeah. The live show is the heart of it all. I write for a live setting and I’m a performer. Some may like to hide in the studio, but I’m a performer and an entertainer.
CA) You’re touring all around America for most of the Summer and then have three dates in August in Sweden. Why Sweden?
SCORCH) There’s a really big roots music scene there. We’ll be there for a couple weeks actually so we will have even more shows. We are going for the Grenna Bluegrass Festival. There’s a big audience there of people who love the music. The American folk music that they are listening to is really a hybrid of two musical traditions. One is African rhythms and the other half is the melodies of European ballads… Music fans in Europe are savvy and really appreciate the music. They realize it’s an echo, that hundreds of years ago music from Europe went over to the States and now it’s coming back generations later. And they appreciate the influence of their tradition in the American music. So, it’s really nice to go there and see people connecting with it and appreciating it in that way.
CA) You play back in Chicago May 28 at the Hideout at June 5 at the Do Division festival. What are the pros and cons of playing in your hometown?
SCORCH) I don’t know if there are any cons. It’s all just fun playing for people who are the heart your community. You get to share the thing that you made with the people that you see every day. Maybe a con is that people have seen it before, but our performances are always so different that people come back. I’m always writing new songs and switching up various things.