A Q&A with Ward Hayden
Of Girls Guns and Glory
By Geoff Gehman
Ward Hayden has lived, sung and written plenty of songs about love’s rock-and-rollercoaster His former muse was an eight-year relationship that ended badly and inspired therapeutic tunes like “Inverted Valentine.” His current muse is a four-year relationship going so good he can declare “I own every star up in the sky.”
That line grounds “All the Way Up to Heaven,” a steam-gathering locomotive number on “Good Luck” (Lonesome Day), the fifth and latest record from Girls Guns and Glory, which Hayden founded nine years ago. Produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (Steve Earle, the Bottle Rockets), a former guitarist for Joan Jett, the CD is a crisp, juicy showcase for the band’s rocked-up rockabilly/country punk/Chuck Berry-to-Hank Williams-to-Buddy Holly-to Johnny Cash relay race. The disc is anchored by Hayden’s musings on love mature (“Rockin’ Chair Money”) and immature (“UUU”). He sings about these and more cosmic matters of the heart—the underground fire that ruined Centralia; the seesaw of the morality of mortality–with exquisite sorrow and yearning burning. His voice is one part creamy croon, one part blue yodel, one part medium-high lonesome.
Hayden and his three GGG mates—Josh Kiggans on drums, Doylestown native Paul Dilley on bass and Orefield native Chris Hersch on lead guitar–will perform Aug. 28 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, a joint they dig for its attentive crowd, enveloping acoustics and vaudeville veneer. In the conversation below Hayden discusses love as a bottomless well, an old Oldsmobile as a music school and stuffed animals on the wall as souvenirs of home.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely laid you flat?
A: Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” I was 20 and driving back to college in my car, a beat-up 1990 Delta 88 Brougham. The radio was broken, but the tape player worked. I borrowed a few of my mother’s tapes that I enjoyed, including some Dolly Parton stuff. I picked a Cash tape because the cover looked cool, and I wanted something other than silence on the drive. Not only did “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” tell a good story, the sound was so striking. The sound Cash created was what I was looking for, and all of a sudden I found it. It was like a “Eureka!” moment; it was truly life changing.
I had that car for a year before I gave it up. It was totally tricked out but pretty much gone when it got to me. It was a lemon other than it helped me discover country music.
Q: Did you have a musical mentor, someone who convinced you that music had to be your calling?
A: Robert Loyot, in my hometown of Scituate, Mass. I met him through friends who were painting his house. I looked in the windows and saw he had a home recording studio; he had been a touring musician most of his life [Loyot played in the band Entrain]. At the time I had written maybe three or four songs; I was pursuing music, but I was green. I met with him and we worked out an agreement. In exchange for building him a fence, re-shingling his house and power washing all his decks, I got some time in his studio. He helped me get a band started and he wound up producing the first three records [from Girls Guns and Glory]. It was a whole lot of work but it was well worth it because it brought a lot of music into my life.
Q: Do you have a favorite story from recording “Good Luck” with Roscoe Ambel, a special memory that reminds you why he was the right man for the job?
A: He won us over time and time again. I first met him when he invited me to New York, where he has a studio. We talked shop and then he invited the whole band down to check out the studio. After that we were in contract negotiations with a record label for almost two years. During this time Eric was totally cool. He came up to Boston to work with us on songs. He gave us time to bounce songs off him and put the record together so that when the contract was finally finalized we were good to go. I don’t think anybody else would have hung in there with us that long. He was almost a fifth member of the band. He still is; in fact, we’re scheduled to start making the next record with him in October.
Q: What did you learn while making “Good Luck” that you plan to apply to making the next record or to playing live? I know Roscoe had you guys playing instruments you ordinarily don’t play in the studio—electric guitar, in your case.
A: I’ve been picking up the electric guitar more and more; it’s become a part of every show. It’s opened up a whole other world of different sounds. In fact, it’s proved to be a sort of bottomless well. Now I’m looking at, and buying, too many guitars. Just yesterday I got a ’72 Fender Telecaster reissue. I couldn’t afford the genuine article but it’s close enough and it has a gold sparkle finish. It just had too much flash for me to pass on it.
Q: I’d like you to pry open the meanings of two of your more striking lines on “Good Luck.” What were you thinking when you wrote “Are there answers in a love song that’ll always bring you back?”? [from “All the Way Up to Heaven”]
A: That’s something I’ve always wondered when you sit down and start writing a song. You start pouring your heart out, but at some point you have to wonder if it will reach what you hope it will reach. Hopefully, there are answers in a love song that will always bring you, and other people, back. At least I’d like to keep the hope alive
Q: And what the hell were you thinking when you wrote “You are an art museum with abstract open doors”? [from “UUU”]
A: I’m talking to this very artsy person who’s projecting a certain way but it’s not actually clear, it’s abstract. It’s abstract that those doors to that museum would be open. Funny, [“UUU”] was probably one of my last breakup songs.
Q: That leads me to ask something I’ve never asked a songwriter: Have your significant others weighed in on songs they inspired you to write?
A: It’s funny, my girlfriend and I were driving recently and I was commenting on how much I liked a [heartbreak/heartache] song on the radio. And in all seriousness she said: “Do you want me to break up with you so you can write songs like that?” I told her: “No, please don’t be like that. I’m not looking to go back there.” I want to grow as a songwriter and find music in places other than pain.
Q: You’ve said that your songwriting muse has changed from a long-time lover who broke your heart to someone with whom you’re so comfortable, you can crow “I own every star up in the sky.” Want to take a stab at tracing that evolution?
A: I was in a relationship for eight years and at the time it was pretty much all I had known. It continues to be a well I can draw from, almost an endless source. Thankfully, as time goes by, it gets less endless. I’ve been with my girlfriend for four years. We live together, we have a dog, we’re quite happy. So I don’t find myself picking up a guitar to write and cry out these sad songs. It’s actually made writing songs harder now that I’m older and a little more mature and have a partner in life. It was easier to make songs happen when the emotions were rawer, to write about feeling so damaged.
Q: Billy Joel got some of his gutsy, lusty singing from Ray Charles; Bruce Springsteen basically stole his Okie drawl from Woody Guthrie. Where did your honkytonk-meets-hillbilly voice come from?
A: Hank Williams was probably my biggest influence when it came to wanting to write songs I could sing. I loved “Lovesick Blues”; I loved his Luke the Drifter recitations. He has a quality that draws you in and makes you listen; you hang on every word. Even his unique pronunciations, which must be a regional thing, drag you into the song and make you really believe it. Reading biographies of him and knowing the story of his life helped bring those songs further to life. He certainly had a rough time in a short period of time.
You know, singing wasn’t something I pursued until I was 24 and my parents got me a guitar as a gift for graduating from college. That’s when I started learning chords and writing songs that told my experiences, the stories on my mind. It was a way to channel those emotions and moments.
Over nine years with this band I’ve heard myself compared over and over again as a singer to Dwight Yoakam and Chris Isaak. I actually didn’t listen to those guys; I was really focused on Hank Williams. I certainly welcome the comparisons to Dwight Yoakam and Chris Isaak because the comparisons made me get into these guys, just like listening to Williams got me into guys like Jimmie Rodgers, which made me start to yodel and put yodeling into the show. Those comparisons made me check out what I sounded like. And that really opened up my world.
Q: What was your worst time in the music trade, when you felt like giving up and maybe becoming a taxidermist?
A: I started this group with guys I had grown up with on the South Shore of Massachusetts. Over a period of six months they all left the band, whether it was due to emotional issues or other job opportunities related to skills they had paid a lot of money to acquire. It seemed like one member left every two months. It was painful to be left standing alone after the band had started to do more touring and had gained some traction. What made it more painful was that they were people who had meant a lot to me personally. To see them leave the band was rough. I was wondering at that point what the future could be.
Then I met Chris [Hersch], who grew up in Orefield. His dad actually lives in Jim Thorpe, which means we’ve probably spent a lot more time in Pennsylvania than we probably would have. After I met Chris, I met Paul [Dilley] in Austin, at South by Southwest [the annual music/film conference/festival/smorgasbord]. Paul is from Doylestown and lives in Boston; he’s been with us four years. The transition of losing original members and bringing in new guys was hard. It took some doing, but I love these guys as brothers.
Q: On the flip side, what was your most rewarding time in the music trade, when all the planets aligned and glowed?
A: The whole entire last year has been so reaffirming–feeling the group become more solid, seeing us develop as musicians, learning to understand each other better on and off the stage. If I ever had a doubt that this is what I should be doing, this last year has shown me I had in fact chosen the correct path.
Actually, a huge part of that feeling has been going to shows in states like Pennsylvania, where four years ago we’d play to 10 or 15 people and where we now play to a whole room of people familiar with our music. It feels like we’re building a giant extended family.
Q: In fact, you and your GGG comrades are close enough that you wrote “C’mon Honey” after a night when all of you argued with your significant others—when all the planets collided.
A: That night we played a movie premiere. I had maybe been talking a little too long to Parker Posey, a star of the movie, which didn’t go over too well with my girlfriend. As luck, or bad luck, would have it, at the end of the night all the members of the band had had a lovers’ quarrel. So we all got together and went out on the town to forget our sorrows—to lose our blues.
The next day we had a band rehearsal and I played an Eddie Cochran-style rockabilly riff. The guys got a kick out of it and the next time we met Roscoe we fleshed it out. I put the finishing touches on the song lyrically the day we recorded it. I remember being in the hallway trying to come up with an opening line, which was strange because the song had been written for almost a year. And then it came to me: “When we get together and go out on the town”—which is exactly what we had done.
Q: Have you had a recent epiphany about writing songs, something that eluded you for years that suddenly became quite clear, even a slippery subject you finally grasped?
A: “Centralia [,Pa.]” was really that for me. I learned about the disaster from watching a documentary on TV when we were in Pennsylvania–I had trouble sleeping that night—and then I picked up bits about it over two years. What finally led me to believe I was in a position to tell the tale in three or four minutes of music was the story of this boy who on Valentine’s Day came home from school, played in the backyard, and a sinkhole developed. He actually clung to the ground until a cousin rescued him. If he hadn’t been rescued, he would have plummeted to his doom and been burned alive. [Lyric from the song: “Instead of chasing young girls’ hearts, he clung to his potential tomb/Clinging to the ground like a flower in bloom”]
I learned [the boy’s near-death] was the straw that broke the camel’s back; after that the town was willing to sell itself to the [federal] government. I learned this a year and a half ago, right before we started making “Good Luck,” and the story gave me enough pieces to tell the tale and make it a worthwhile song.
Q: I’m always curious about the surprise afterlife of songs after you release them to the world. Have any of your tunes zagged when you expected them to zig?
A: Again, “Centralia” fits the bill. Ever since we put the song on the album and toured behind it, it’s been incredible to hear people’s personal accounts. We’ve been in states in the Western part of the country and we’ve had people come up after the show and say they’d been in Centralia or been in a bar in a Centralia type of place. We even met one guy who had been an engineer called into Centralia after the fire started. He told us how townspeople had illegally dug their own mines, feeding the underground fire with oxygen. He said there isn’t enough cement on earth to plug those holes.
I can’t imagine growing up in a place and then saying goodbye to everything you’ve ever known. A friend of mine said it’s like when the American Dream becomes a nightmare.
Another thing that’s surprised me is that sometimes a song comes from your imagination, or a dream, and then your life lives up to the song. The best example I have is “Temptation.” At that point I was writing more from seeing temptation on TV and in the movies. As I’ve gotten older I’ve seen the story played out a hundred times around me–temptation being more than many can handle, temptation just being a fact of life.
Q: Speaking about another fact of life, and death, how did you get interested in taxidermy? What fascinates you about turning dead animals into stuffed souvenirs?
A: Well, my dad’s whole side of the family is mainly interested in hunting and fishing. As a kid I was always curious about my grandfather’s taxidermy collection; he had all these deer heads and a giant sailfish on the wall. When he passed, I ended up getting a few of those pieces that are forever in my childhood memories. As I’ve grown up, that imagery has a deeper meaning to me. Now I surround myself with pieces like that. To me, it makes a house a home.
A few days ago I was at this weekly flea market at the Todd Farm in Rowley, Mass. I fell in love with these beautiful brass-cast bull horns in a carved wooden box with a picture of President [William] McKinley, who had been assassinated in 1901. It was the end of the day and I was mulling over buying them. I was a little bummed out because this guy had not accepted my offer for these silver coins I wanted. These horns looked cool from afar but cooler up close.
The owner wanted $125. The end of the day is when you usually get the best deals because nobody wants to pack up this stuff, so he tells me: “How about $80?” And then I say: “Will $75 bring them home?” And then he says: “Sold for $75.” And I’ve been happy about that purchase all week.
Q: Is your girlfriend cool about your flea-market mania?
A: She is. Her big purchase this past weekend was a vintage alligator purse, probably from the ’40s or ’50s, made for the tourist trade in Cuba. The guy wanted $25 and she haggled him down to $12. Boy, was she happy!
You know, I’m a chronic collector of junk; I’m happiest when I’m surrounded by junk. I have an entire room devoted to vintage Elvis memorabilia. The velvet Elvises are pretty big; they’re starting to become overwhelming.
Ward Hayden: The Scoop
He may sell his Elvis paintings but he’ll never sell his Johnny Cash or Hank Williams mementos.
He duets with country-punk rocker Sarah Borges on “Baby Don’t Go,” the Sonny & Cher hit, on “Mixed Messages,” Girls Guns and Glory’s new two-song, seven-inch vinyl record.
For four straight years he’s hosted GGG’s tribute to Hank Williams; the fifth edition is scheduled Sept. 17 in Northampton, Mass.
He resembles Buddy Holly in a YouTube video of GGG’s “Sweet Nothings.”
He’d like to decrease GGG bookings—175 this year; 200-plus in each of the previous three years—to decrease wear and tear on the band’s van, which has clocked over 260,000 miles. “I love playing live. It’s a joy I had not experienced until I was 24 years old. The first show we ever played, it was just like magic. I knew in that moment it was something I hoped to do again and again. Thankfully, nine years later, it’s something I get to do again and again. But it would be nice to cut back a little. We would be doing ourselves, and our van, a service.”
He’d like to cut a live record in the Mauch Chunk Opera House. “The audience there is incredibly attentive; when they’re quiet you can hear a pin drop. The acoustics are magnificent, and it’s such a lovely spot. It makes me happy that places from the vaudeville era are still alive and thriving.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” never makes him lonesome or tearful. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.