Swamp Dogg On Reinvention, Country Music And Getting Another Rolls-Royce

Mar 9, 2020
Originally published on March 9, 2020 8:00 pm

On his new album, Sorry You Couldn't Make It, Swamp Dogg leans into country music. It's not all that unexpected for someone who has been making music and reinventing himself for over 65 years.

Swamp Dogg's first song came out in 1954, when he was just 12-years-old; it was called "HTD Blues" and credited to Little Jerry. In the '60s, he released a string of R&B records under his given name, Jerry Williams. Then in 1970, he started going by his current moniker and presenting himself as an outsider soul artist.

"I needed an alter ego because I wanted to say some things," he says. "I wanted to be able to talk about sex, religion, politics; I wanted to sing about everything."

On his latest album, the 77-year-old artist collaborates heavily with a younger generation of musicians, including Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (whom he's previously worked with), Jenny Lewis and Poli├ža's Channy Leaneagh and Chris Bierden.

"It was great because I'll be 78 in July, but I keep forgetting my age. I go in and do things as a 20-year-old. I feel phenomenal and I don't want a bunch of old people around me," Williams says.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly spoke to Swamp Dogg about his long career of reinventions, writing music that, according to him, ranges from incoherent to genuinely heartfelt and what he looks forward to doing next.

"I want to be on the road a lot. I want to make more money because there's still things that I want to buy," he says. "In 1970, I had '69 Silver Shadow Rolls but I drove it to death. I just want to get another Rolls."

Listen to the full conversation in the player above.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The artist Swamp Dogg has been making and releasing music for 65 years. His first record as Little Jerry Williams came out in 1954. In the '60s, he dropped the Little and released a string of R&B records as Jerry Williams. Then in 1970, he started going by Swamp Dogg and reinvented himself as an outsider soul artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYNTHETIC WORLD")

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) With this synthetic world we're living in...

KELLY: Many more zigs and zags followed, and now at the age of 77, he is leaning into country. You hear it on his latest album "Sorry You Couldn't Make It."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A GOOD SONG")

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) A good song don't care who sings it. A good song don't care who plays it.

KELLY: Beautiful. Well, Swamp Dogg is in our studios at NPR West. Hey there. Welcome.

SWAMP DOGG: Thank you.

KELLY: I want to make you start at the very beginning, and I'm actually going to play a little bit of your first record, the one I mentioned. This is "HTD Blues."

SWAMP DOGG: Oh, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HTD BLUES")

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) Hey, baby. I'd like to tell you how I feel. Hey, baby. I'd like to tell you how I feel.

KELLY: You're 12 years old singing there.

SWAMP DOGG: Yeah, I was trying to imitate a blues singer. I thought that's how I wanted to sing - you know, down - you know, the growling thing. But I was too old - too young to pull it off.

KELLY: Yeah, it's the kind of voice you have to grow into, I guess.

SWAMP DOGG: Yeah.

KELLY: How do you even go about recording and releasing a record when you're 12 years old?

SWAMP DOGG: Well, my mother and father, they were musicians. They had called in some people to record them. And they had told me that I could also record, which - they lied. But I cried and cried and cried so much that they said, oh, no, we're going to shut this son of a gun up...

KELLY: (Laughter).

SWAMP DOGG: ...And let him. So that was it. I think we had about 25 copies made.

KELLY: These were old - what? - like, 45 records?

SWAMP DOGG: No, we didn't have no 45s then.

KELLY: What did you have?

SWAMP DOGG: Seventy-eights.

KELLY: Oh, OK.

SWAMP DOGG: And we also had 16s. I bet you don't know anything about that.

KELLY: Nope, sorry.

SWAMP DOGG: OK.

KELLY: I'm about to catch up with you (laughter).

SWAMP DOGG: Yeah. You remember who I am, don't you?

KELLY: (Laughter).

SWAMP DOGG: I'm Muddy Waters.

KELLY: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: Well, I want to ask you about your name, actually, and why you - why'd you drop your given name and decide to become Swamp Dogg?

SWAMP DOGG: Because I needed an alter ego because I wanted to say some things. I wanted to be able to talk about sex, religion, politics. I wanted to sing about everything.

KELLY: Yeah.

SWAMP DOGG: That made sense, I thought. I don't know if it made sense or not. And a couple of the songs - I was on LSD for the first album, "The Total Destruction To Your Mind." So, you know, if you want to sit out one day and listen to some incoherent stuff...

KELLY: (Laughter).

SWAMP DOGG: You could listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUST YOUR HEAD COLOR RED")

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) Spirit dust your head color red. Sparkle your insides pink with pleasure.

KELLY: And why Dogg?

SWAMP DOGG: Do you have a dog?

KELLY: I do.

SWAMP DOGG: OK. Now, you can go home, and he will have a little pile of something on the floor there for you. And you will holler at him, and you will put him out on the porch. But later, he just keeps looking through the window, and you say, all right. Now I'm going to let you back in, but don't you do that again. Yeah, right.

KELLY: (Laughter).

SWAMP DOGG: But he...

KELLY: But you can't stay mad at him.

SWAMP DOGG: Right.

KELLY: Yeah, good point.

SWAMP DOGG: Right. So that's why I became Dogg - because a dog is lovable no matter what.

KELLY: Let me walk you up to your latest project. Let me play you a little bit of "Billy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLY")

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) You ought to see Billy. He looks more like you every day. He's too young to remember. I guess it's better that way.

KELLY: Who's this song about, or what's it about?

SWAMP DOGG: It's about a man's - who's been married all his life to the same woman, and she unfortunately passed, which is what happened to me.

KELLY: Yeah. I was going to say...

SWAMP DOGG: My wife passed.

KELLY: I'm sorry.

SWAMP DOGG: Yvonne. And I look at it like he's out at the graveyard talking to her and tells everything he's done and what they're doing. And he's not even screwing around, you know? He basically can't wait you go to heaven and meet with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLY")

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) I wish you could've seen Billy this morning. He took his first step today.

KELLY: You said earlier that some of your stuff from back in the '70s - that some of the songs were incoherent - your word. And they are. I will admit, listening to some of them, it's hard to figure out what some of them are about. But on this new album, it's clear. You're talking about human relationships and aging and loneliness and longing. What made you decide to write about such concrete stuff?

SWAMP DOGG: Well, I've done it all my life. I just didn't record it. But that's what country consists of - broken hearts and penitentiary and joblessness. It's real, you know? The other type of music, when things get bad, you dance, you know?

KELLY: You feel it in country, yeah.

SWAMP DOGG: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLEEPING WITHOUT YOU IS A DRAGG")

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) It's a natural fact. I can't live like that. Sleeping without you is a drag.

KELLY: You collaborated with some younger musicians on this.

SWAMP DOGG: Yeah.

KELLY: I was reading about Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, the singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis. What was it like to work with them?

SWAMP DOGG: It was great because I'll be - what? - 78 in July. But I keep forgetting my age, and I go in and do things as a 20-year-old. I feel phenomenal. And I don't want a bunch of old people around me, you know, because...

KELLY: Slowing you down.

SWAMP DOGG: Yeah, exactly.

KELLY: So I have to ask the what's next question. You turned 78 this summer. What do you still want to do?

SWAMP DOGG: What I'm doing. I just want to - I want to be on the road a lot. I want to make more money because there are still things that I want to buy.

KELLY: What do you still want to buy?

SWAMP DOGG: Well, I - in 1970, I had a '69 1/2 Silver Shadow Rolls, but I drove it to death. Might as well get me another Rolls.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD, BETTER, BEST")

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) Good, better and best - that's the only kind.

KELLY: Well, this has been an experience, and this has been a lot of fun.

SWAMP DOGG: Yeah.

KELLY: Swamp Dogg, thank you.

SWAMP DOGG: Oh, you're welcome. You'll be invoiced.

KELLY: (Laughter) I'm chipping in for the Rolls. Is that right?

SWAMP DOGG: Oh, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Well, that would be my pleasure. Swamp Dogg, thank you.

SWAMP DOGG: Thank you.

KELLY: His latest album is "Sorry You Couldn't Make It."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD, BETTER, BEST")

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) All of them sweet as a Georgia peach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.