Listen: Vance Gilbert makes a new song out of 'Simple Things'
This is an exclusive song premiere, part of WBUR's effort to highlight New England musicians.
“This is what happens when a Black kid from Philadelphia who grew up listening to Earth, Wind & Fire, and didn’t know the Average White Band was white, tries to write a song like John Prine,” laughs Vance Gilbert.
The Arlington singer-songwriter is talking about “Simple Things,” one of the tracks on “The Mother of Trouble,” which will be his 14th album out May 5. The tune captures the wry, stream-of-consciousness flow mastered by both Prine and Gilbert.
Gilbert’s trademark is effortless, bridging both the serious and the funny sides of folk with jazz, R&B and pop. He admits that he discovered Prine not through a folk festival campfire sing-along but because he’d bought a Bette Midler record that included her cover of Prine’s “Hello in There.”
“It was just one of those moments where the genres crossed for me,” he says. “John Prine gave us all permission to tell a simple story with great musical elegance.”
Prine's battle with COVID-19 inspired Gilbert to write “Simple Things,” a song he first shared with his Facebook audience the same day Prine died on April 7, 2020. “Writing it during the pandemic, I really wanted the song to take a breath. It’s about what matters. I felt like John would say there’s a lot of crap on our tables with everything going on, but let’s take stock of the wonderful, simple things in our lives, think about what really matters, and carry on.”
While the basic structure of the song was done in an afternoon, Gilbert says the hard work came with honing the words to make them flow just the right way. Prine’s conversational style “may be easy to write from the outset, but then to have something that actually is cinematographic is much harder, that’s where the sweat drips down on the page.”
The opening lyrics talk about “Pink ripe peaches in a pretty glass bowl.” Gilbert says he liked the idea of the peaches, but didn’t know where to put them. “I wanted it to be a song of observations, without judgment. But ‘pretty’ is fairly judgmental. But I realized ‘pretty’ is what people would say about a glass bowl. This is a person in their living room or porch just thinking about what defines simple things to them.”
Gilbert says he got stuck on how to end the song but found the solution.
“When I had ‘Telephone ring/ Any interruption is good enough for me/ What I wouldn’t give for your company,’ well by golly, that was it. This is a person who misses someone, but there has to be a light somewhere.”
The hopeful essence of “Simple Things” is buoyed by Gilbert’s fingerpicked guitar. “I used a capo to shorten the string, so it has a sprightly, dancy ring to it – it sounds like sparrows dancing on the roof.” In the studio, Gilbert gently dressed up the song with the tasty mandolin of bluegrass master Joe K. Walsh, the purring gospel organ of Dennis Montgomery III, and a rhythm section of Red Molly bassist Craig Akin and renowned Americana drummer Marco Giovino. “Marco really gets acoustic soul music – I wasn’t sure how I wanted to chase the song, and he came up with the right feel, and in two passes we had it down.”
At 64, Gilbert maintains a busy tour schedule both headlining folk clubs and festivals and opening for comedian Paul Reiser. (Gilbert previously had a similar gig with George Carlin.) Gilbert has to carefully choose which songs are right for priming a comedy audience for the headliner. He says “Simple Things” has gone over well. “I think people are really lifted by it.”
Vance Gilbert's "The Mother of Trouble" is out May 5. He appears at Club Passim in Cambridge on May 7.
Note: The audio for WBUR's music premieres comes down after the track is released. You could still listen to the track via the streaming service embed above.
This article was originally published on May 02, 2023.