By S. Elgar, Melbourne, Au.
You won’t find a person who knows James Scott Bullard on any scrap of a personal level that will tell you that there is any such thing as a more ambitious person…They just don’t exist.
Where most artists are sometimes shy, aloof, reserved, “why?’ sort of people,
Bullard is of the very confident, fearless, impatient, extroverted, “why not?” variety.
Some see him as an idealist and an opportunist; some see him as abrasive and uncompromising.
Bullard says: “Failure just never really occured to me.”
Having begun his solo career in the throes of a growing addiction, one bad relationship after another and surrounded by: “The dead and the dying.” as Bullard himself put it.
Within a few years, he had written, produced and released 2 solo albums which were followed by a lot of attention from fans and critics of the Alt.Country/Americana genre; some wanted, some unwanted. He began to rapidly get radio airplay, hit several charts, receive glowing reviews and amass an ever-growing swarm of loyal followers; That is, of course when his self-induced stupor, big mouth and attitude weren’t getting him into hot water.
He eventually accumulated a few awards for his efforts. The obvious, tired comparisons to Gram Parsons and Ryan Adams flew left and right, but Bullard went on undeterred by anyone’s opinion but his own.
After a series of life-changing events, which included trudging his way through the pit of addiction and beating it, and losing his father and a step-brother within three years of each other, he came out on the other side of all that changed in more ways than one: “Even after rehab, all I knew how to do was write songs, but I found a control after my dad died that I didn’t know I had. All of the lessons he had passed on about being bigger, meaner and hungrier than the rest, refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer and only accepting my way as the right way just sort of…clicked.”
By “clicked” Bullard means this new-found: ‘Kick down the walls and beat them into submission’ attitude his father passed down took on a persona of its own.
“The trick is to scare them.” Bullard offers. “Shake their foundations by being one-step ahead and more ruthless and determined. I make music because I have no other choice, because it comes from a place I don’t understand, nor do I want to…because it’s painful but glorious all at once, if that makes any sense.”
Alas, knowing how to do and actually doing are two different things, and as far as putting a backing-band together, Bullard, though an obvious born leader, admitted he was at a loss. “Who was going to just believe 100% in my vision enough to blindly follow my lead?” he thought.
However, a chance meeting with some like-minded musicians on a pilgrimage to play a Gram Parsons tribute in Nashville, TN, would change that.
Within the year, Bullard took his show with a backing band made up of some of these musicians he dubbed: “The Late Night Sweethearts” (a wink to a term his father coined) to the N.C. triangle area; and eventually garnered the attention of the manager of local hero and global cult icon; Dex Romweber.
The same manger, who aside from having a number of other popular acts under his umbrella, also manages the posthumous career of the late, legendary Charlie Louvin. (Which includes the recent release of the book: “Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers”; penned by Charlie himself, and consisting of the Cain and Abel worthy story of his and brother Ira’s turbulent but lucrative rise to fame.)
Landing a one year representation deal, Bullard openly says he felt he just sort of spun his wheels. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault really, we just weren’t right for each other. I’m a workhorse; I want to be on the road 250 days a year. I want to be the center of attention and his plate was full before he ever signed me, it’s as simple as that.”
But somewhere in the midst of all this, the above-mentioned ‘inherited persona’ started to become even more domineering, and finally took the wheel.
Bullard traded in the Nikki Sixx bed-hair and clean shaven, pretty face that had gained him quite the legion of devoted female fans, for a rugged, long-haired, heavily bearded look that would make The Black Crowes proud. This was just one more way of thumbing his nose at the previous feeling of being ‘marketed.’
His songwriting also took a darker turn; from the broken-hearted, country-rock crooning lament he was known for, to a more swaggering, sneering country-blues territory. “To me, I was always playing the blues; the pain, the heartache, the bittersweet suffering that’s always worth it for a song.”
Bullard recently pulled all of his previous recordings from the market completely, took the most popular songs from each one, put them on one album cleverly ‘repackaged’ (and I use that term fully aware of the ensuing joke) to look like The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” cover, (featuring ‘a part’ of Bullard himself, in the starring role no less) and titled it: “The Rise & Fall of James Scott Bullard & The Late Night Sweethearts”; which was either an obvious tongue-in-cheek nod to David Bowie, or a juvenile hint toward the cover itself. “It wasn’t meant to be a ‘best of’ record by any means, I’m too young for that yet! I just did it because I hated some of the songs that were out there and I wanted to better represent what was coming with a more accurate precursor.”
Then ‘The Rise & Fall’ album did something quite rare; it momentarily charted, which for Bullard is not at all uncommon, but for an album made up of songs, some of which were almost 10 years old, that’s another feat entirely and pretty much unheard of in the industry. Barely a month later, he released two acoustic, ‘basement tape’ style albums aptly titled: “Love & Death” Vols. 1 and 2 for free to anyone who wanted to download them, which he says was another way of cutting ties with his softer side for a while: “Why not give away what you’re no longer trying to sell?” he asks.
So how does one who has accomplished so much professionally remain, by and large, under the radar?
Bullard has no answer for this, saying: “Timing is everything I guess. Honestly, had I seen major success when I was set on self-destruct, I’d have never lived through it.” Bullard’s unforgiving critics will no doubt refer to him now as an outlaw, and he neither denies nor embraces the title, saying only that he doesn’t want to be categorized in the same boat with: “The new pop shit they’re packaging as ‘outlaw country’ just because someone’s jeans have a hole in them…Hell, I was a womanizing addict who carried a gun way before it was cool!…Except, I still carry a gun…Jesus, Waylon was right; This outlaw thing has done got outta hand!”
I recently heard it said that the most outlaw thing you can do in Nashville is to play country music. If that’s the case, James Scott Bullard will definitely be considered an outlaw by their standard.
Once quoted as saying he wanted to completely destroy the Nashville cookie cutter pop-country industry and usher in a new outlaw movement worthy of 1973, Bullard says he now realizes the pointless gesture that would be, because the ones with the money never learn their lesson.
“They somehow forgot that the first million selling album in country music history was Waylon and Willie’s ‘Outlaws’ record.” He says.“Now, I just want to give the people who want something real what they’re craving. Besides, I wouldn’t look very good in one of Taylor Swift’s outfits…It wouldn’t go with the beard.”
I found Bullard to be quite the contrary to ‘the outlaw’. He was very gracious and pleasant while e-mail’s regarding my interest in doing this piece on him were being sent back and forth, even after I explained it was not for a big publication, just my own little ‘fan blog.’ Nevertheless, one of his statements struck me as odd: “I’ve never been quite sure if I was as good as people think I am, or if I was just a good enough con-artist to make them believe I am.” After consideration, I do believe that there is a bit of actor in him, in that he can change faces at will; the songwriter, the comedian, the arrogant outlaw demon…But that same thing was said about a constantly evolving Bob Dylan at one point, so I guess it’s not a bad thing at all.
James Scott Bullard, now back in his home state of S.C., completely free of his management contract and once again (but I doubt for very long) a free agent, is at work on his latest album as I type this, but he is very tight lipped about it, offering only that there are a couple of huge surprises and that the public, his fans included, will either love it or hate it, there will be no room for a gray area.
While at work on the new record, he directs and produces music videos for himself and other artists, and is also putting together a new “Late Night Sweethearts” to hit the road with.