Fusing reggae and country music might seem like an unusual combination. But over the decades, many Jamaican recording artists have covered country songs, including Bob Marley, whose second single -"I'll Just Have Another Cup of Coffee" -was a country hit by Claude Gray in 1961.
Now, "Maui's Reggae Ambassador," Marty Dread, is exploring his love for country music with his most ambitious album to date, "Upcountry Boy."
"I have always been a fan of country music as far back as I can remember," Marty says. "I remember listening to pop radio as a child in Massachusetts in the '70s, and falling in love with whatever country songs would get onto the charts. I've always loved the stories of country music, and the common person theme is in both reggae and country. And - reggae music is like folk country music as well, average, every day, struggling-man stories. Even stylistically, they have similar traits, and I thought I'd try to marry the two."
Focusing primarily on popular country tunes, the album includes unique, reggaefied versions of "Live Like You Were Dying," a number one hit for Tim McGraw; Vince Gill's "Tryin' To Get Over You"; Kenney Chesney's "You Had Me From Hello"; and "You Don't Know Me," popularized by Ray Charles on his bestselling 1962 album, "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music."
Other tunes getting a reggae twist include "Still the One," a Top 10 hit by Orleans; Harry Chapin's classic "Cats in the Cradle," which was later covered by Johnny Cash and Ricky Scaggs; Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" (covered by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Maui's Amy Gilliom); and Stephen Stills' "Love The One You're With."
"I started off with over 75 favorites, and then narrowed that down to mostly country, and a couple folk and pop classics that had a country feel," Marty explains. "In the end, it came down to which ones would lend themselves best to a reggae treatment."
Saddle up to Rock & Brews in Paia at 8 p.m. Wednesday, when Marty Dread will perform at a CD release party for "Upcountry Boy." Admission is $10. The first 50 people through the door will receive a signed copy of the CD.
Besides the standout selection, Marty surrounded himself with a cream ensemble of reggae talent, most notably bassist/producer George "Fully" Fullwood, who recorded with Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Gregory Isaacs; and guitarist Tony Chin, with credits including Big Mountain, Mighty Diamonds and Burning Spear.
"Both were original members of Soul Syndicate, who were Jamaica's top studio recording band during the '70s," he notes. "Fully is a man who deserves the highest praise for creativity and innovation in bass playing. It was such an honor to work with them both as they played on most of the songs that inspired me to be a reggae musician."
Other stellar musicians enhancing the project included Phil Chen on guitar, sitar and banjo who has worked with Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck and The Doors' Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger; lap steel player Marty Rifkin (Bruce Springsteen, Dwight Yoakam, Glen Campbell); percussionist Rock Deadrick (Ben Harper, Taj Mahal, Ziggy Marley); and Sade's backing vocalist Leroy Osbourne.
"I asked Fully to assemble a band and he put together the best of the best, a truly legendary group," Marty continues. "Some of the guys had known each other, but hadn't seen each other in 25 years, so it was a family reunion of sorts. The sessions were among the best days of my life."
A Maui High School graduate, Marty was first exposed to Bob Marley's music in the early 1980s. He began promoting reggae as a DJ on KAOI-FM's Saturday night reggae radio show. Over the years, he's opened for many of the reggae greats who have played here, including Jimmy Cliff, Ziggy Marley, Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru, Third World, and Maxi Priest (scheduled to perform at Maui Tropical Plantation on July 11). His albums have included "Reggae for Love," "Versatile Roots," "Reggae Suite," and "Next Level."
In recent years, he's collaborated on a number of songs with country icon Willie Nelson, including "Farmers," "Take No Part" and "Lite This Up, and joined him at Farm Aid shows."
"I've had seven duets with him," Marty says. "I cameoed on his song, 'Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth,' with Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, Pat Simmons and Michael McDonald. In a lot of ways, Willie's 'Country Man' (reggae) record was a forerunner to wanting to marry the two styles. It was a big inspiration.
"When I started touring with Willie and his sons, we'd listen to Willie's satellite radio station on the bus and I thought some country songs he played would be incredible reggae songs. I recorded one of them, 'Just Another Day in Paradise' by Phil Vassar on a previous album, and to this day it's my top-selling song on iTunes. It far outsells my original songs. On a follow up album I covered Sammy Kershaw's song, 'She Don't Know She's Beautiful,' and that became a radio hit for me in Hawaii. So I began collecting country songs I'd like to cover one day."
In selecting 14 songs to interpret, Marty took inspiration from UB40.
"They updated classic Jamaican songs on their 'Labor of Love' series and I wanted it to play like a UB40 record, with really good songs, really good arrangements and really good beat," he explains. "People know songs like "Walking in Memphis' (which opens 'Upcountry Boy') and 'I Love a Rainy Night,' but they've never heard them like this."
It's a major first for Marty in many ways: His first tribute album to country, the first one recorded live in the studio and his first all hits covers project.
"I am so happy with the results, I already started picking songs for volume two and have no doubt the team will be ready to do it all again with a new crop of country classics," he enthuses. "I hope it's well received and achieves one thing above all, to turn people on to great songs that they may not be familiar with, because they don't listen to country. The truth of the matter is it's all about the songs."
Before he heads out for rehearsals with Fleetwood Mac for their upcoming world tour, Mick Fleetwood will present a special show at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater in Kahului on July 10, with his newly renamed Blues Messengers Band, featuring Rick Vito.
The evening will begin with a talk story session in a livingroom-style stage setting, followed by a concert. It's going to be quite a bash with acclaimed guitarist Vito, bassist Lenny Castellanos and keyboardist Mark Johnstone, enhanced by a horn section.
"Having a horn section is a reminder of some of the original Fleetwood Mac cuts," says Mick. "It will be great to have the horns blasting on some of the original Fleetwood Mac/Elmore James songs that Rick Vito recrafts with his unique slide guitar skills."
Talk has been confirmed about adding the Zenshin Daiko Drummers for a "Tusk" segment reminiscent of the Mac's brilliant track with the USC Trojan Marching Band.
"We are doing a 'Tusk-esk,' if not 'Tusk' drum fest solo," Mick continues. "It's kids and fun."
The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band presented their first public show in Hawaii at the MACC in 2008. Paying homage to the blues/rock roots of Fleetwood Mac, the Maui-based band is heralded for revitalizing classics like "Oh Well," "Black Magic Woman," "Shake Your Money Maker" and "Rattlesnake Shake."
A review in New Zealand's The Press raved: "What made Fleetwood's Blues Band an unheralded sensation was Mac alumni Rick Vito, surely one of America's finest guitarists, whose shimmering slide guitar and bluesy vocals made the quartet's set an event in itself."
Their live debut recording, "Blue Again," received a 2010 Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album.
"Six plus years and still going strong," Mick marvels. "Having the Blues Messengers and being active in my favorite genre of music when all is said and done has been an extra pleasure having it be a Maui made band. Also between Fleetwood's On Front St. and the MACC, the band has quietly been accepted as part of the island's musical fabric."
So what's he love most about playing blues?
"What I like about playing and being around blues is the simple commitment to being in the moment and the honest exchange of emotions that transmits through players and thus to the audience. For me, that's the magic known as the zone."
* Mick Fleetwood Blues Messengers will perform on July 10 at the MACC's Castle Theater. Show begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $49, $69 for reserved seating, and $149 for premium seating and "Rock Star" package that includes a VIP pass for an after show hangout area with the legendary drummer, as well as an autographed show poster. Fleetwood's on Front St. restaurant will cater burgers, Caesar salads and mahi tacos preshow. For more details, call 242-7469 or visit www.mauiarts.org.