Joe Fletcher cocks his head at Joe Principe, his upright bass player, with a hard stare that seems to say, C’mon, man … let’s get this right.
Fletcher’s band, The Wrong Reasons, is working over a song inside an old Providence mill that now rents out space to artists and musicians. The room is only about 10 by 20 feet but feels even smaller due to the amps, guitar cases and other gear surrounding the band. It’s a warm and sticky night and the only relief comes from a small table fan aimed in Fletcher’s direction. Despite the humidity, the guitars stay in tune for the most part.
Fletcher wants Principle to put more emphasis on the first syllable of a word in the chorus. After a few quick run-throughs, they get it right.
“Give me a pint of black coffee and a paper bag full of … OOOO-piates!” they sing in unison.
That’s the sing-along portion of the show, says Fletcher.
Staring back at him from the opposite wall are photographs of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, two of Fletcher’s heroes who conquered the Newport Folk Festival long before he was born. Fletcher has attended and soaked up the history of the legendary music fest for years.
Now he gets to play there.
The national attention he’s garnered over the past two years paid off with an invitation to play the festival on Sunday, July 29, at Fort Adams State Park. The rootsy Americana band will play the Quad stage at 12:30 p.m. (If you’ve got a ticket, consider yourself lucky. They’re long gone.)
The Warren resident is both thrilled and honored to be part of the festival that provided a world stage to singer-songwriters he grew up idolizing.
“It’s been a dream of mine for a long time. I’ve been working on trying to get there for a while and it’s amazing that it’s happening. The history of it is something I read about for my own entertainment. Just being part of it is pretty incredible,” says the 37-year-old Fletcher, who’d love to get to the main stage someday. “I hope to have a long, healthy relationship with the Newport Folk Festival.”
Joe Fletcher & The Wrong Reasons, which formed in Providence in 2005, recorded its debut album “Bury Your Problems” in 2007 and followed up with the heralded “White Lighter” at the end of 2010. The second disc has received a great deal of critical raves, particularly from the music website No Depression.
In the grand tradition of Hank Williams, George Jones and Townes Van Zandt, Fletcher’s honky-tonk story songs — “Drunk & Single,” “Every Heartbroken Man,” “Womanizer Blues” — are full of characters who drink too much, fall in love too hard and generally mess up all too frequently.
“I’m kind of all over the place,” Fletcher says of his songwriting, adding that some of his themes are autobiographical while much of his writing has literary influences. “I’ve definitely have always noticed that the more I read, the more I write, so a lot of my influences come from literature more than music. I don’t write what I would call a lot of topical songs. I like to write from a different perspective from what I’ve heard before.”
His songs are a far cry from what passes for “country” music today, which is probably why guys like Fletcher get slapped with the “alternative country” or “No Depression” label. To Fletcher, “alternative country” singers such as Hayes Carll and Justin Townes Earle — two contemporaries he admires — are much closer to the true spirit of traditional country music.
“I saw a band at my mom’s house the other day on ‘Ellen Degeneres,’” he recalls, shaking his head. “It was some country star — I forget who it was — but it sounded like AC/DC, and there’s steel guitars but you can’t hear them. It was like a rock and roll band with cowboy hats. They were dressed like a country band, but that was about it.”
“Alternative country?” Alternative to what?
“White Lighter” is available for download on iTunes and on CD at In Your Ear and the Wooden Midshipman in Warren, as well as Amazon and other online stores. “There’s one place it’s available for free, but we don’t talk about that,” says Fletcher with a grin. “It’s been selling pretty well.”
With its warm and natural vibe, the record sounds like you’re listening to a group of guys swapping songs in a living room.
“We did it mostly live,” says Fletcher. “Even a lot of the vocal tracks were live with the band, which can make a big difference. We do everything on tape, not digital. I just feel like you get that warmth and that sound of people playing together in a room and that’s what the records that I love sound like. I don’t like a lot of modern recording techniques that have a kind of cut-and-paste kind of feel. It’s just not authentic.”
The album was funded through Kickstarter, an online platform which gathers donations from the public for creative projects.
“We don’t have any kind of deal with anybody right now,” Fletcher says when asked what he thinks of the music business thus far. “Some of that may change pretty soon. It’s hard to make money selling records. I don’t know how many records you have to sell to make a living at it, but it’s way more than I do. But playing live, which I love to do, is one way we count on making money. We got to be out there playing, because there’s no money coming in.”
He’ll be busy in the recording studio in the coming months. First up is a solo EP that he’ll lay down in August, followed by a supporting tour. Then the full band will follow up “White Lighter” with recording sessions slated for December.
“I think there’s going to be a little more electric guitar on it,” he says of the upcoming band recording. “Some songs we’re working on have a Neil Young and Crazy Horse kind of vibe.”
Left the classroom behind
Fletcher, who has a slight southern drawl, is originally from St. Louis. His family came to Rhode Island when he was in kindergarten, then moved to Pennsylvania and then South Carolina before coming back to the Ocean State by the fourth grade.
A University of Rhode Island graduate, he worked for a spell as a feature writer for the Kent County Daily Times before becoming an English teacher at age 25. He did that for 10 years until June 2011, when he decided to go all in with his music.
“I loved (teaching) for a long time but I was pretty burnt out by the end, especially as the band got busier. It was hard to balance, and I felt I wasn’t doing a very good job at either thing,” says Fletcher, who was living in Providence at the time.
Yes, it was a little scary at first to give up a steady paycheck and benefits for the unknowns of a music career, he acknowledges. But he has no regrets about leaving the classroom behind. “None — zero,” says Fletcher.
Still, he needed to cut his bills in half, so that meant sharing a cheaper apartment with a roommate. Finding nothing within his budget that he liked in Providence, his eyes turned toward the East Bay, which he’d visit on occasion. Needing a lawyer for the band, he ended up hiring perpetual Cool Moose candidate and Warren resident Bob Healey.
“My first few meetings with him were at the Coffee Depot. Every time I’d get done with him I’d walk for a couple hours in different directions. (Warren’s) got a wonderful, blue-collar vibe,” says Fletcher, who loves the history of the area as well as its proximity to the waterfront.
Now he lives in a modest, second-floor apartment between Water Street and the downtown area. “It’s a great place to come home from a tour and unwind rather than living on the west side (of Providence) with sirens.”
The boys in the band
Besides Fletcher, the other members of the group are Joe Principe of Providence, upright bass; Dave Hemingway of East Providence, drums; and Damien Puerini of Cranston, guitar.
Puerini, however, won’t be able to make the Newport Folk Festival because his wife is due to have a baby that weekend. So, Greg “J.D.” Burgess of Newport, who played on Fletcher’s first record, will be taking his place. A member of The Throttles and a former guitarist for The Amazing Royal Crowns — Fletcher attended the latter band’s shows in college — Burgess had his first rehearsal with the band in Providence last week. He proved to be a quick read, cruising through the band’s Newport set list with nary a stumble.
“I’m on it,” Burgess tells the band leader at one point.
Fletcher says he’s grateful to be surrounded by top-flight musicians who make his job that much easier.
“I’m lucky to have such talented friends.”
Fish out of water early on
Although he loves Warren, Fletcher would like to eventually re-locate down south — Tennessee, perhaps.
“I think I’ll be here for the foreseeable future but long-term I’d like to be somewhere between Nashville and Knoxville. I just like the air and the culture,” says Fletcher, who plays in Nashville every couple of months and is received well.
Although he now plays in front of friendly crowds in New England, it wasn’t always that way, he says.
“There was a time when people were a little bit baffled that we played this kind of music,” he says, noting that some thought it didn’t make sense to play country music unless you were from the south.
“That’s so absurd to me,” he says. “What you listen to and what you like, you end up sounding like. Nobody asked the Rolling Stones why they played southern blues, and they’re from really far away.”
For more about Joe Fletcher & The Wrong Reasons, including upcoming live performances, visit http://joefletchermusic.com.