Every country music fan knows that there are more than a few tales about country stars that sound almost too unbelievable to be true. These stories work extremely well with the film genre of animated documentary, which is exactly what it sounds like: an animated version of the truth. What better way to explain these wacky stories about legendary artists — George Jones making a liquor run on his riding lawn mower, or Jerry Lee Lewis shooting up $50,000 worth of fake teeth — to the viewer than through animation, enhanced by eyewitness accounts?
Tales From the Tour Bus, the brainchild of Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-Head, King of the Hill, Office Space, Idiocracy, Silicon Valley), does exactly that, and Judge relied upon frequent collaborator, composer John Frizzell, to score the Cinemax series. As Judge explains, “John Frizzell did an incredible job helping tell these stories using country music instrumentation in an extremely original and powerful way.”
While the episodes are obviously entertaining and humorous, you may be surprised by the poignant moments that shine through, not unlike a country song that takes a fast turn. We caught up with Frizzell to talk about how he assembled the band of professional Nashville musicians, how he ended up with a co-write with Vince Gill, and how a cassette tape he made of Beavis and Butt-Head critiquing his music launched his career.
How did you get involved in the Tales From the Tour Bus project? Can you briefly explain the premise of the series?
I first worked with Mike Judge in 1996 and we have been good friends ever since. Mike and Rich Mullins, one of the creators of the show, weren’t sure the show would have score until there was a cut put together of the Johnny Paycheck episode. Mike asked me to watch it [and] see what I thought, and I told him score could bring a lot to the show. So, we went from there and started experimenting on how to approach the score.
The premise of the show is really unique; it’s an animated documentary depicting the lives of music legends. Season one focuses on outlaw country music. How can a documentary be animated? Well ... it’s best to just watch the show. [Laughs] It’s hard to explain!
You and Mike Judge have collaborated on several projects (Office Space, King of the Hill, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America). How did you two initially meet, and how did you start working together?
I was a Beavis and Butt-head fanatic from the first time I saw the show. I was just getting going in my career when the film Beavis and Butt-Head Do America was announced. I figured I had virtually no chance of getting the job because I didn’t have enough substantial credits at the time. So, almost as joke, I edited snippets of of Beavis and Butt-head viscously criticizing my music on a cassette. After each cue their scorn would grow screaming ‘this isn’t even music!,’ ‘this is crap!’ and of course, ‘this sucks!’. Well, I guess Mike laughed when he heard the edited cassette, and he set up a meeting and that’s how we met.
You are credited with Mike Judge on the opening theme for the show. Can you tell us about the process of you and Mike composing together?
Mike is a fantastic bass player. He spent a good chunk of time touring with various bands before he created Beavis and Butt-Head and he composed the theme for that series. I thought it would be fun to create the theme to the show together, so we scheduled an afternoon in my studio and Mike started playing the opening guitar phrase. I think I added the bass line next and then we just sort of took turns putting all the parts together.
The first season of Tales From the Tour Bus focused on country legends. Were you a country music fan growing up?
No. In fact, country music was practically banned from my house. My dad grew up in west Knox City, Texas. My grandfather was the only doctor in that whole area of west Texas. As a young man, I guess my dad wanted to escape and forget everything about the place he grew up — I don’t really know why. He moved to New York, got rid of every last hint of his accent, and only listened to classical music and show tunes. He was an exceptional piano player and loved music. It’s funny, because just last week I was talking to a family friend who knew my dad when he was boy, and she says he listened to lots of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell growing up. These days, I am very involved in playing bluegrass; I listen to and study lots of country. I can’t get enough. I wish I had grown up with it.
The series features interviews with people who give their firsthand accounts of some pretty wild stories. Is there a particular story that was told through this series that really stuck with you?
So many of the stories are just so funny and moving to me, but I just can’t stop thinking about George Jones and the invisible duck. It’s almost like Kafka it’s so out there, or even Gogol. It is also kind of tragic, but I guess it’s that delicate blend that makes the humor. This is where Mike Judge and his team are so amazing in how they can depict these stories and let it be deeply funny without loosing a reverence for the greatness of the artistry and music, nor compassion for the tragedy of the human experience.
You recorded the score to season one of Tales From the Tour Bus in Nashville with notable musicians including Paul Franklin, Glen Duncan, Larry Paxton, John Gardner and David Frizzell. How did you assemble this band?
It took lots of teamwork to get that amazing band. Sean Stuart, Glen Zipper and Maren Domzalski all helped me figure it out. Beau Stapleton, one of the attorneys on the show, introduced me to [producer] Eric Masse, who introduced me to Frank Liddell [producer and founder of Carnival Music]. Then Frank Liddell got me in touch with Paul Franklin and then the rest of the band came together. Paul Franklin is just an absolute master of the pedal steel. Even that is an understatement.
Once we got everyone in the room at Sound Emporium in Nashville, things clicked! We ended up ahead of schedule and Paul Franklin and I came up with a couple themes. David Frizzell came by and he started playing on these themes — it wasn’t planned, but it just sounded so good, we hit record. Paul later played one of those themes for his friend Vince Gill, and Vince changed it up and wrote lyrics. Before we knew it we had the song “Sinners, Outlaws and Troubadours.” The song is featured in episode eight of season one, with Gill summing up the experience this way: “Whether they were Outlaws, or Troubadours, It was fun trying to recreate what they meant to all of us, and after hearing and then seeing those stories I’ve known all my life, they are pretty spot on!”
Other amazing players who contributed to season one were Dylan Meek, who played keyboards. Dylan is a Los Angeles-based keyboardist who just never ceases to amaze me in his virtuosity and versatility. The series features a good amount of old-time music in scenes where we depict the early years of these artists. Father and son Tom Sauber and Patrick Sauber played all of these cues. They know more about these styles than just about anyone, and are phenomenal musicians. Lloyd Maines played some equally amazing pedal steel. And on the Waylon Jennings episodes, the score features Richie Albright, Jerry “Jigger” Bridges, Fred Newell and Tommy Townsend. They literally ARE the Waylon sound!
I’d imagine this project was very different from what they’re used to working on. How did you manage the process of scoring an animated show with this group of musicians?
It was different for the players in the sense that we were synchronized to picture. I also had to figure out how to write parts for the players that had film scoring information, but also used the Nashville Number System. That took a bit of work. All the players involved are such great pros; they got it really fast. This show isn’t very “score-y” animation; there were not a lot of precise hits to picture. Most of what the band created was an authentic feel of the time and the place being depicted. There are also quite a few cues that I recorded myself that are more cinematic and are closely synchronized to picture, especially in the darker vignettes.
Do you think longtime fans of legends like Jerry Lee Lewis, George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Waylon Jennings will look at these artists in a new light after watching the series? Do you think the show might introduce these artists to a new generation of fans?
I think everyone involved with the show hopes that we will deepen the love for this music that the longtime fans have had. Maybe they will put these artists at the top of their playlist again? Or maybe they have always been there? I think bringing these outrageous stories to the fans in such a unique way will connect with the longtime group and engage a new generation. I have spoken to quite a few people who have told me that the show has gotten them interested in country music for the first time. Many of the bluegrass players I know are ecstatic over the show.
Seems you connected with a long-lost cousin through this project — can you share that story?
I have always wondered if I am related to country music legend Lefty Frizzell. “Frizzell” is likely a mispronunciation of the Scottish name “Fraser” which probably is derived from the French word “fraise” for strawberry. There are many spellings, but the one in my family is rare with two z’s and two l’s. David Frizzell, a great artist in his own right and younger brother of Lefty, played at our first session in Nashville, and in talking we realized that Lefty and my father, William Kenneth, were both born in 1928 about 200 miles apart; Lefty in Corsicana and my dad in Abilene. While we don’t know the exact connection between our families, we just decided to start acting like cousins. I just spoke to David today and he invited me to join the first ever “Lefty-fest” in Corsicana, Texas on June 16th, 2018. I’m sure I’ll get to know even more Frizzells there.
You’ve scored big intense hit movies (Dante’s Peak, Alien Resurrection), smaller emotional film (The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio, James Dean) and television series (The Following, King of the Hill). These are very distinct mediums and genres — how do you approach each new project as a composer?
I think the key to moving between styles and genres hinges on what James Newton Howard taught me early on in my career: Listen to what “sticks” to the film. He taught me to look at the colors and shapes on screen, and to carefully consider the tones the actors use. Then, just feel what textures the film wants. I also believe when time permits, it’s good to go out on a limb and try risky stuff that may or may not work. Sometimes these long shot ideas end up being the central idea and lead to a more unique score.
What other projects are you working on? Anything coming up that you’re particularly excited about?
I’m currently scoring the film Cadaver for Screen Gems — very, very dark and creepy. I think it is going to end up being a very spatial, ambient and mood-oriented score. It’s a fun change from Tales from the Tour Bus.
How did you start working with BMI, and how have they fostered your career over the years?
BMI has been a great home for me during my career. Doreen Ringer-Ross [BMI’s Vice President Creative – Film, TV & Visual Media] creates strong relationships with the composers she works with. Over the years, Doreen has seen the great and also the challenging parts of my life firsthand. She has been on the scoring stage with me many times, and we’ve stayed up all night in Spain partying at film music festivals. Everyone at BMI is in for the long haul and has always been incredibly professional and very caring. BMI is critical to music and those who create music in the long- and short-term protection of intellectual property rights. The last couple decades have seen incredible change, and BMI is facing these challenges head-on with an aggressive yet responsive tenacity.