Just as a record spins on a turn table the experience and images of Hans Chew’s life are the recurring motifs of the songs he writes and performs.
This week all his experiences have come together with the release of Chew’s first solo album, Tennessee & Other Stories. A limited edition is being released of 500 copies of the 33 LP on Czech vinyl with an original scene of a Tennessee barn by Melodie Provenzano on the double-sided album cover produced by Three Lobed Recordings and Divide by Zero Records.
The album, which can be ordered through www.thrilljockey.com or Amazon.com, is accompanied by a download coupon for DRM-free MP3s of the album. (The price is $15 plus mailing).
Jon Chew, Hans’s father, was a teacher and coach at Baylor School in the 70’s and 80’s. The family lived in one of the school’s dormitories overlooking the Tennessee River.
Hans’s early years were spent enjoying a somewhat idyllic setting surrounded by intense beauty and a campus which was all about learning and adventure.
“I remember the nights I spent watching barges from my bedroom window, their search lights silently sweeping the riverbanks, fog horns occasionally letting out their long, high-note-low-note bellows," recalled Chew.
“Once on a Christmas Eve, I even remember the extreme connection I felt to the world when I caught the attention of one of the barge captains by flicking the lights of my room off and on. The barge captain then pointed his search light at my window," continued Chew. “It was my way of communicating to this presumed lonely river boat captain a wish for a Merry Christmas."
Chew had read all the Mark Twain books and felt a connection to him, “or at least to Huck and Tom, having grown up on the river myself and having romped and spelunked and clawed through the poison ivy, brambles and briars of the multitude of acres that comprise the campus of Baylor School."
Meanwhile his mother “literally kicking, screaming and crying" made Hans take piano lessons for two years "until I won and quit."
He said, “She (Sherry Chew Greeson) always told me back then that I would thank her one day.”
So “Thank You Mom,” said Chew, who learned enough of a basis to pick up piano playing at the age of 28 by reading sheet music.
Chew’s grandparents on his mother’s side were rural, country people who lived near Nashville. They farmed tobacco and worked at truck manufacturing plants and at factories stitching boots and sporting goods.
“They went to church on Sunday and played bluegrass and country music until the wee hours of Saturday nights. I remember many nights sitting around a barbeque pit as these wrinkled men in overalls spat tobacco and called out tunes by men like Bill Monroe and Hank Williams,’ recalled Chew. “My grandfather and his brothers could play bass-guitar, guitar and steel guitar."
Hans Chew was too young and too distanced geographically to appreciate that kind of music when he was young, but as he began to mature and as his knowledge of music history and the interconnectivity of all musical genres grew he began to have an interest in his grandfather’s music in earnest.
Chew remembers the first time he and his grandfather ever tried to play music together. “I must have been 13 or so and we were sitting out in the backyard on some old folding chairs, back by a rusty 55-gallon drum that served as a trash incinerator. We finally had gotten all our instruments and situated ourselves and we just kind of looked at each other," he continued. “It became clear that we needed a common ground to meet on. I asked him if he knew 'All Along the Watchtower' by Jimi Hendrix and he kind of scratched the back of his neck and sucked the air sharply through his teeth and said, 'No …do you know 'All Around the Water Tank,' by Jimmie Rodgers?'
Today, from a distance that more than 20 years has given me that exchange between two non-contiguous generations is hilarious," according to Chew.
Shortly after this, Hans Chew's idyllic world changed. Hans was 14 when his father died of melanoma, after waging a spectacular fight for life.
Hans began to use many different means to escape from his teenage insecurities and to try to hide and cope with his anger at his father’s death. “I was reading William Burroughs when I should have been reading the Hardy Boys. I subscribed to the 'slacker, drop out, loser or bad boy' mentality, which meant not caring and not trying. I also thought that I was destined to become somebody, that it would just happen and that I didn’t have to work at anything."
Luckily he hadn’t made any decisions that prevented him from turning his life around. “I had always envisioned myself as an artist or musician. I prayed and promised myself to become a piano player and singer-songwriter-performer, which I did finally at age 28.
“My grandmother (who passed away in 2008) mailed me letters weekly throughout my whole life," said Chew. “She always picked and sent me the first four-leafed clover she found every spring, pressing and taping it between pieces of clear tape with a scrap of paper with the date and words 'love you' written on it."
When Hans was working with his girlfriend, New York City artist Melodie Provenzano, on the original work for the album cover he tried to think of imagery that fit the heavy Southern, specially Tennessee motif of the record’s songs. First of all he decided to include within the painting a small four-leaf clover to represent family, love, luck and hope.
“I wanted something definitely iconic for the album art. I considered the Moccasin Bend area, other Chattanooga-specific imagery, the Chattanooga Choo, Rock City, etc. and then it dawned on me that the old red barns that dotted the Tennessee countryside was the perfect symbol for the cover. I gave Melodie all my desires for the album cover, including that I definitely wanted the season to be fall (I was born in November)."
Chew spent the 1990s in flourishing music scenes of Atlanta and New Orleans. He then moved several years ago to New York City. His first solo show was in August of 2009 at the Cake Shop in Manhattan.
Chew recently completed a road show, which included stops in Atlanta, Nashville and Lexington, Ky., with his past and present band members D. Charles Speer & the Helix.
Piano is the new album’s instrument of choice and numbers like “New Cypress Grove Boogie" and “Forever Again” utilize a Tulsa-oriented piano-funk as the central basis of its gospel-blues and later serve up more of a New Orleans-styled jaunt. “New Cypress Grove Boogie" has been released as a track single.
According to Thrill Jockey Records, “While Tennessee & Other Stories as a whole demonstrates Chew’s formidable songwriting skills, the album also offers listeners a singular cover: the Tim Rose penned “Long Time Man," here presented as a darkly Southern Gothic re-interpretation of Nick Cave’s arrangement.”
The record company also said that “Tennessee & Other Stories is an extremely strong and confident record from start to finish, one that establishes Hans Chew as both a unique addition to and significant voice with America’s current outsider scene."
The track “Old Monteagle & Muscadine (Tennessee Part One)" with its instrumentation of guitar, drums, piano, banjo, percussion, bass and layered vocals have received an especially favorable review.
“I have put a lot of work into this album. I hope I can give back one one-hundredth of the inspiration that has been given to me by Baylor, Chattanooga, Middle Tennessee, family, friends, and mentors from bluegrass musicians, evangelists, and gamblers," he said.
Even though Hans Chew marched to his own drum, he has come full circle with his music returning to his Tennessee roots and traditions.
For more information you can go to hanschew.com
- Photo2 by Jake Cunningham