Mule Variations: Kyle Reid on the music of Tom Waits

Kyle Reid (Photo: Karl Schmidt) & Tom Waits (Photo: Michael O'Brien)
Kyle Reid (Photo: Karl Schmidt) & Tom Waits (Photo: Michael O'Brien)

Kyle Reid & the Low Swingin’ Chariots present The Music of Tom Waits
8 p.m. Friday, March 27
Opolis | Norman

You’d be hard-pressed to find a singer-songwriter out there who doesn’t hold a special place in their heart for Tom Waits, and it’s no surprise that many of Oklahoma’s finest look up to the gravelly-voiced demon of an artist with the same regard (and awe) as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan or Neil Young. From his debut Closing Time to 2011’s Bad as Me, few have made music on their own terms in the way Waits has.

So when Norman folk singer Kyle Reid decided to learn a lengthy list of Waits covers and assemble a tribute show in honor the legend himself — benefiting Norman’s Food & Shelter — he had no shortage of Oklahoma artists volunteering their services: Tyler Hopkins, Rachel Brashear, Caleb McGree, David Bruster, and Sarah Reid, among others. Ahead of the mega-packed show, we spoke to Reid about drunken angels, bastardizing American music and what Waits would do if he covered Frank Sinatra.

OK: Obviously, Tom Waits means something to you as a fan and as a songwriter to make you want to take the time to learn these songs to play this show. What is it that you most gravitate towards in terms of Waits’ music and his artistry?

Reid: Man, there’s something simultaneously otherworldly and extremely terrestrial about the music of Tom Waits. The production value on his records is unlike anyone else. It sounds like he scraped every sound out of a piece of rotting wood, and his melodies sound like they were dictated from the mouths of drunken angels. It’s obvious that this man knows how to write a hit song and chooses to make it a challenge to listen to, and you gotta respect that.

OK: When and how did you first come across Waits’ music?

Reid: My college roommate told me to check out Tom Waits and I hated it. He sounded weird and gruff, and I couldn’t put him in a box. It wasn’t blues; it wasn’t jazz; it wasn’t rock. It was some weird bastardization of American music that seemed to supersede all of those styles. Blue Valentine was the first album that made me really give him a chance, but Rain Dogs was the first album that made me fall in love with his music. Rain Dogs really took me on a journey through the grit and grime of of his musical mind, and it finishes with one of the most spiritual songs I can think of in “Anywhere I Lay My Head.”

OK: Most peoples’ relationship with music changes over time. How do you look at and view Waits now compared to how you did when you first came across him?

Reid: His music is so dense that as time goes by, I just notice more to love about it. I just climb deeper into the subtleties of what he chose to put on his records. The man has no boundaries, and as a result his music has a truly timeless quality. It feels as impactful and relevant to me today as it did when I discovered him at 20.

OK: What lessons have you taken away from him and applied to your own career in music?

Reid: The best lesson I’ve taken from his music is to do exactly what you want with a song, that there’s no wrong way to make music if you commit to it fully. Music is sound. Sound is noise. Noise is music.

OK: How many songs did you guys learn for this show? He’s such a revered guy … do you feel comfortable taking liberties with the songs and spin them into a very Kyle Reid & the Low Swingin’ Chariots-treatment of them? Or are you trying to play them pretty close to the original versions?

Reid: We learned and arranged a solid two sets of Tom Waits tunes, including one song I wrote around one of his poems. When we committed to doing this project I asked myself, “If Tom Waits were doing a concert of Frank Sinatra tunes, would he try to recreate Sinatra?” The answer is, of course, “Hell no.” We wouldn’t dream of re-writing his music, but we couldn’t recreate Tom’s arrangements if we wanted to, so we’ll be doing our own loving interpretations of his songs

OK: Is this something you see happening again in a different time or place down the line or are you treating it more like a one-off experience?

Reid: The future is so hard to see from here, but ideally I’d love to regularly put on benefit concerts like this featuring the music of writers that I love. I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing this same sort of thing with the music of Randy Newman.

OK: What else do you see happening in Kyle Reid and the Low Swingin’ Chariots’ near future? More touring, writing, recording or anything like that?

Reid: The Chariots have some exciting festival dates coming up this summer (Jazz in June, Norman Music Festival, Westport Festival in Kansas City) and a tour scheduled for mid-May. All the while, I’ve been writing like crazy working on new material for another album, and I have a surprise release planned for anyone who digs my cigar box guitar music. There’s much more coming very soon.