Gregg Harper Releases Red Velvet Cake
By: Jason Savio , January 29, 2013
At the heart of every good song is a story, an experience or thought molded by the artist to share with their listeners. It is the common thread that intertwines storytellers and songwriters from generation to generation and makes each writer a member of the same universal songbook.
Master storyteller Gregg Harper of Sandwich is a bold representative of this model on his latest CD, “Red Velvet Cake.” The songwriter flexes his writing prowess on both covers and originals alike.
To fully appreciate the work of Gregg Harper, one must first be familiar with the background of the man and the material he extracts from his past to empower his songs.
While music has always been a passion, Mr. Harper has also been heavily involved with studying cultural history. He was director of the Behringer-Crawford Museum in Kentucky before moving to Cape Cod to serve as the director of the Cape Museum of Fine Arts for nine years. He does not hesitate to incorporate his strong knowledge of cultural history into the songs he records.
“What I wanted to do was develop a group of songs that had a little bit of fun and a little bit of history to them,” says Mr. Harper of “Red Velvet Cake.” “And, to some degree, [make it] relative to the places in my life I have lived: my home area of Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati, and then my home of most of the last 20 years, which is Massachusetts. I wanted to try and get a mix of things I’ve related to over my life, historical interests I’ve had over my life in terms of history and music and culture.”
Harper's Biography Laid Out
That mix of interests can be heard throughout the beautifully arranged “Red Velvet Cake.” Focusing on a folk/Americana theme, the album consists of four traditional and popular covers as well as a collection of originals that all read together like Mr. Harper’s biography.
The quintessential cover and best representative of the magic Mr. Harper spins comes in his take on the 19th century New Orleans tune, “St. James Infirmary.” In true Harper fashion, he takes an older song and breathes new life into it by mixing in his own original lyrics.
“I took it a little bit further,” Mr. Harper explains. “Growing up in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, I was on the Ohio River, so the steamboat culture was a major part of that area and is what connected that geographical area to New Orleans. What I wanted to do was bring a little bit of the river boat element into [the song] with the Mississippi River. I bring that together with the new verses that I wrote.” The lyrics read: “Get roustabouts to carry my coffin.”
Mr. Harper continues, “It’s a sad story but it’s a long-told story in Americana and I’ve always loved playing it and thought I’d add my own twist to it.”
“Red Velvet Cake” also offers memorable originals. The upbeat folk-gist of “Chickadee” is Mr. Harper’s love song to the state of Massachusetts, and “Hokum Rock Blues” is his unofficial theme song for the Hokum Rock Blueberry Farm in East Dennis, where he has performed.
The most powerful is “Straight And Narrow.” He sings “Then one day/He wandered from the straight and narrow/What he saw/Was a different world,” as he looks back on his coming of age in the late ‘60s and realization that the world is a much more complicated place than he was led to believe.
Navigating Life's Shades Of Gray
“Two of my friends from that period passed away earlier this year,” Mr. Harper explains regarding the basis of the song, “so it was a cause for reflection, figuring out that not everything is black and white, that everything is pretty much a shade of gray. How you navigate that morally and ethically is difficult. It is not something that any particular path, whether it be philosophy or religion, can really navigate for you. You have to do it yourself.”
With his crisp guitar playing and strong voice, Mr. Harper delivers an honest and engaging listen as a one-man band and singer/songwriter on “Red Velvet Cake,” showcasing a true testament to what an individual artist is capable of doing on their own without a full band to back them up.
Mr. Harper’s wide world view and knowledge expands the listening experience on his latest offering and opens up new doors for his listeners, allowing them to hear and imagine sights they might otherwise have never thought of. It is a perfect example of someone taking the reins of everything they’ve encountered and learned and putting it to song, just like all talented songwriters do.
“Being able to have some fun writing music and being proficient enough with the guitar and the harmonica and to be able to put some nice songs together and really entertain people, when you put that all together it’s just fantastic,” Mr. Harper adds. “I just want to keep doing it and I also feel like it’s probably my retirement. I joke that as my voice changes I’ll just play more blues.”
Mr. Harper plays regularly at several venues in Sandwich, including the River Street Studio.