Jackson Rathbone recently debuted his first solo album American Spirit Blues, and he’s sharing the story behind every track with Billboard today (Nov. 12).
A collection of songs that span the actor/singer’s decade-long career, American Spirit Blues is a reflection of who Rathbone was, is, and hopes to become. Blending folk and rock, the album explores the true American Spirit while echoing Rathbone’s lengthy journey towards a personal goal: making music that’s true to himself.
As an actor, Rathbone is known for his work in the iconic Twilight Saga. He also starred in 2010’s The Last Airbender and will appear (and sing) in the upcoming indie film Heart, Baby!, due for release in theaters and on VOD on Nov. 23.
Check out Rathbone’s breakdown of American Spirit Blues below.
I went back to Austin, Texas to record these songs. I hooked up with an old friend from Midland, T.X. who had built a studio just south of Austin — James Jones of Twin Creeks Studios. We did a good amount of preproduction work to massage these tunes into the Americana sound I had been hearing in my head. We didn’t want to go too country with these songs, but still desired a bit of that vibe. We added the slide guitar on the opening. The song breaks into a Beatles-inspired romp on the outro, a round of singing the mantra that kept me writing and creating: “Don’t let those bastards get you down.”
“Young + Tragic”
I had been trying to figure out this tune for a long time. James came up with this great opening guitar lick and the song took off from there. We never expected this tune to be the first single, as it doesn’t have a simple “hook,” but we loved how it moved and bopped along. James and my wife, Sheila, can be heard singing backing vocals with me as a sort of callback to those voices of friends helping you along through the rough times. I tried playing the rolling banjo on the chorus, as I always loved that sound in classic Americana tunes. That, and the mandolin with organ, just keeps that energy flowing.
“One Foot in the Grave”
I’ve been writing this song as a story that has a concrete beginning and ending, but wanted the middle to be open to the listener’s own interpretation. It’s a song about running from death, and how we want to change our present situation with a bit of Bonnie and Clyde type of characters. We never see how Robbie and Joanie meet, but they are buried together at the end of this tune. This tune was originally written on the banjo, but we switched it to the piano and guitar driven sensibility. It was really fun to get a little wild with the chorus. Bassist Chris Cox really nails the bass part in this section and it makes me dance like the weirdo I am!
This song nearly didn’t make the cut. It was originally written as a silly little ukulele and kid piano song, and the finished version sounds nothing like the demo. We really dug Benjamin Booker’s two albums, and he’s a bit of an inspiration for the way we kept this song simple, driven and straightforward. The song is about how much I hate writing love songs, but sometimes you have a few whiskies and they just come out anyway. The end horn section really ties the tune up nicely, and Austin local Michael St. Clair was a blast to work with. He helped develop the harmonies and arranged the trumpet and the trombone to create a big sound on the album.
I’ve had a few traumatic deaths in my life: both of my fraternal grandparents died in a car accident when I was in eight grade. My best friend [singer/songwriter] Spencer Bell, was taken by adrenal cancer at the tender age of 20. My friend, who I moved out to L.A. in 2003 to write for, died in motorcycle accident and then, most recently, the best man at my wedding, my dear friend, band mate and mentor Lawrence Abrams was taken by cancer two years ago. This song is about death chasing me. Or at least the way it feels. I’m not too sure. It all feels so heavy sometimes, so I guess that’s what it’s about. You’ll get to the end eventually. It’s from the point of view of a death row inmate, so, a bit of a heavier tune.
Remember how I hate love songs? This is me writing a love song. This one is for my wife and partner, Sheila. She’s actually singing backup on a lot of these tunes because: 1) she’s a better singer than me and 2) she literally saved my life and weathered the occasional storms of my artistic depression. This is my favorite song on the record. I’ve had it in my head for years now. The ending of this song, the “la la las,” is something I heard in a dream. Hearing it in real life is odd to me and very freeing. It feels like a new beginning. I’m very proud of this one.
Listen to American Spirit Blues below.