There's a moment on Live at Gruene Hall when William Clark Green begins introducing "Still Think About You." The 30-year-old and his band had already barreled through 14 fan favorites with deft precision.
Then, Green took a moment to mention his co-writer on the upcoming tune, Kent Finlay. Green clearly had something to say. The legendary Cheatham Street Warehouse owner passed away in 2015 after a lengthy battle with cancer. Finlay's influence on country music goes all the way to the top -- to the king himself, George Strait.
"I've been trying to come up with a special way to salute him tonight, and I just miss him," Green manages to choke out before launching into the next gut-wrenching four minutes. Now sitting in the upstairs of a Broadway bar in downtown Nashville, Green has a bit more time to explain the moment. "Yeah, I almost cried," Green says.
He wrote "Still Think About You" with Finlay in Steamboat Springs, Colo. in 2014. Finlay was going through cancer treatment for the second time and was less mobile, but always up for a write. "The thing Kent loved most was writing and talking about songs," Green says. Over about four hours, the pair came up with one hell of song. Neither knew it would be their last together.
"Kent would've been proud of that night," Green says. "Of course he probably would've wished it was at Cheatham Street," he laughs. But no worries -- that just means Live at Gruene Hall is far from the last live album in the band's sights.
"When we make a live album at Cheatham Street, I want it to just be me and a guitar and a quiet crowd," Green says. "That's what Kent was always about; just shut up and listen." Green also got flak for not recording his first live album at the Blue Light in Lubbock, where he got his start as a student at Texas Tech University. But don't worry, preliminary plans include a live album there, too.
It just made too much sense to record their first live album at Gruene Hall. There's the name similarity, of course. But Green's favorite live albums growing up were recorded at Gruene Hall by Jerry Jeff Walker and Jack Ingram. There's no way he was passing up a chance to make a live album there.
When did plans for the record begin? "It started 8 years ago when we first started this thing," Green says. And it really is a snapshot of Green's four-album career, with a heavy emphasis on his most developed works, Rose Queen and Ringling Road. "We had to make time to make this record," he says. "We didn't just say, 'Let's make a live record and make some money.' I don't even think people make much money from live records. This is all for the fans."
Green and his talented and trusty band spent five days in Eastland, Texas rehearsing the full set three times a day. "We honed in on bad traits, listened to recordings, talked about things we really liked or didn't like and the signature licks to include," Green says.
Ultimately, the group had two shots to get it right. The band rolled into Gruene at the end of January for two back to back shows. The initial plan was to have multiple shows take the pressure off the group. If different parts of the set sounded better on different nights, they'd just take the best performance and put that on the album.
And, ultimately, they didn't want a technical malfunction to ruin an excellent performance. It turns out they probably would've only needed one night anyway. "99.9% of the live album is from Friday night," Green says. "On one song, our guitar player Josh's amp blew up, so we had to use Saturday night's performance."
Surprisingly, the better vibe was the Saturday night crowd. "Friday night, everyone kind of played on edge. The crowd was also a little timid, because nobody wanted to be the guy who [messed] up a live recording," Green laughs. But that led to the band nailing their parts, and Green delivering some of the best vocals of his life. "I gave it everything I had, man. Saturday night my voice just wasn't as good, but the crowd was rowdy. And we knew we nailed it the night before, so we turned it up. I thought the place was going to fall down," Green says.
Everything might not go quite the way you think it will when you start a band, but recording live at Gruene Hall was everything the band hoped it would be. "There were moments that just took my breath away," Green says. "I couldn't think of anything to say but just, man, thank you. It was a long road to get to that point, and it was a very emotional night; lots of hugs. That was the first moment we really felt like we'd made it."
It's a special record (well, two technically, since it couldn't all fit on one CD). Most importantly, the songs are just downright good songs. But they're delivered with a certain heart and appreciation that underscores the weight of the whole evening. And moments like when a fan yells out "Remember the Alamo!" just add to the package. "We turned that stuff up," Green says. "Cause that's what happens at a real show. Same thing with Jack [Ingram] coming out and playing a song. That's what happens when you're both in the same area at the same time. We wanted this record to be real like that."
A New Album in the Works
Green has always wanted to make a record every two years, but he has no plans of letting this album substitute for a studio album. Live at Gruene Hall is its own special snapshot -- one they had to make time for, as opposed to one they used to buy time until the next studio record.
Speaking of the next studio record, William Clark Green is fast at work on it. "I have 5 songs that I know are going to be on the record," he says. He takes pride in writing or co-writing all of his own tunes, and that's the plan for this next one too. "Songwriting is number one to me," he says. "Always has been, and always will be."
"More than anything, I want to be known as a great songwriter," Green says. "I don't think I'm a great songwriter now, but I hope I'll be seen as one some day." For Green, that means believing in your music. Make the music you want to make, and it will find an audience. "Like with 'Ringling Road,' we didn't think anybody would like that song, but we liked it," he says. "It ended up being our biggest song in Texas."
A large part of that growth as a songwriter comes from co-writing, too. Though Green admits it can be a nerve-wracking experience. "I love writing, but I hate the writing rooms -- they're stressful," he says. He elaborates a bit more with a personal story. He began a write with two well known, powerhouse writers in Nashville but found himself stuck. "The first hour was miserable, full of anxiety and nervousness because we were all trying to find a direction and get on the same page while trying not to step on anybody toes," he says. "But as soon as we were on the same page, it became one of my favorite writes ever -- we were high-fiving at the end."
And while he might not love writing rooms, he sure loves recording studios. "The studio is my favorite place to be," he says. Green employs a unique method of making an album -- recording the first half, then taking a long break to listen, write and determine what the second half needs to say. "I love writing for the second half of a record," he says. "I don't really get settled until I start writing for the second half."
So far, he's got some pretty killer tunes up his sleeve. They include a song called "My Mother," which he hopes will become his mom's new favorite song. (You have to listen to Live at Gruene Hall to find out which is his mom's current favorite). In other words, he's right on track for the next in his line of "one album every two years" motto.
But for now, pick up a copy of Live at Gruene Hall and appreciate what William Clark Green has contributed to country music so far. He's one the genre's most promising, raw and downright catchy writers. And all of it is on display in real time.