Bob Seger is rough and real on 'Ride Out'
In the realm of things that are rugged and real — pure Michigan, dare we say — one of those has to be Bob Seger's voice.
Even in conversation, that resonant, familiar voice, marinated in the sweat of countless funky roadhouses and bars, is interesting to the ear.
We're hearing that voice at his weathered but comfortable writing cabin in northern Oakland County as Seger gears up for the release of "Ride Out" on Tuesday, his first studio album since "Face the Promise" in 2006, and a 23-date tour that launches Nov. 19 in Saginaw.
On this drizzly October day, with nothing to see for acres but trees and squirrels, Seger is drinking coffee out of a Styrofoam cup, apologizing that it's not great for the voice (well, there was also that cigarette he was smoking earlier). He looks trim and tour-ready, dressed in a black 2013 Rolling Stones T-shirt. Clearly the workouts have been successful.
He becomes visibly excited when asked about the Stones show he took wife Nita and the family to see in Chicago that year — the rock star as unabashed fan.
"Oh, they started with 'Get Off My Cloud,' then 'Paint it Black,' oh!" he exclaims. He hadn't seen the group since the 1970s at Masonic Auditorium in Detroit.
We're lucky to hear that voice, because he tries not to talk too much while in professional mode. With so much riding on those rustic Michigan pipes, he is silent after a show — that means no backstage hellos, no parties, nada.
"I ride back (home) on the plane after a show, and I don't say a word."
He's protecting a lot. The raw power of his voice is on full display on "Ride Out," which is a sharp turn into the sort of rocking country Seger has been leaning into for the past decade, more than a few steps away from the laid-back singer-songwriter years. There are banjos. There are fiddles.
"We decided to experiment and have some fun," Seger says. "You can't go to Nashville as long as we have and not have some (banjo and fiddles). We thought we'd try it."
All but one song on the album was recorded, as always, at his beloved Oceanway Studio A in Nashville.
The punchy feel of the album is driven by the songs he sings and plays live on, including "California Stars," the beautiful, mournful Woody Guthrie lyrics put to music by Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett of Wilco, and "Adam and Eve," by Australians Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson.
"I'm playing guitar and singing (on "Stars"); it's a live session," Seger says. "I told the musicians, it's a free-for-all, if you feel like it, come in with a solo."
"Adam and Eve" has the same raw feel, because Seger sang live while playing banjo. He'd heard and loved the song, an addictive slice of country noir by Chambers and Nicholson, and "I had to do it," he says.
The question for the first-time listener is, who's that wonderfully funky female voice singing with him, some Nashville newcomer on a break from the Waffle House? No, it's Laura Creamer, who has been singing backup for him since "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" in the '60s.
Another cover song on "Ride Out" is the John Hiatt song "Detroit Made," released last August to coincide with the Woodward Dream Cruise.
Few things get Seger as excited as talking about cars. We have to point out that more than a few car nerds have phoned and emailed in to The Detroit News, objecting that the Buick Electra, the "deuce and a quarter" he's singing about (Hiatt's words, but still), was built in Flint, not Detroit.
Seger laughs. "I'm doing a 'Motor Trend' interview right after you, and they want to know what everyday car I drive. Well, I drive a Jeep Rubicon and they're going to say, 'That's not "Detroit Made," that's "Toledo Made!" ' Well, (Seger sings): "Toledo made ..." "Sorry," he says, shaking his head. Doesn't work. "That's as close as I can get it."
"Detroit Made" was a must, as soon as he heard the Hiatt version on Outlaw Country, his favorite Sirius XM channel. " I said, 'We've got to do this song. We're all from here, we all love cars ... it's pretty cool.' So it works on a couple of levels. I looove classic cars," he says, in an urgent whisper.
For Motor Trend, the Seger-owned classic car he'll talk about is his 1971 Mustang 429 Super Cobra Jet in Grabber Green.
"It's unrestored, it's exactly the way it was," he says excitedly. "Everybody wants the Boss '9, the '69-'70 Mustang that's the classic, but I like the '71 better. I think it's really space agey, and I like the styling better. It ran from '71 to '73. The cool thing about it is that the back seat is so comfortable, so it's great for the Cruise."
"Ride Out" offers some of Seger's strongest social statements since his days singing those fervent anti-war songs his baby boomer fans remember so fondly, such as "2 plus 2."
In "The Fireman's Talkin' " he sings, "The ice is melting and the seas are high." On "It's Your World," featuring a wailing female backup vocals behind him, he intones solemnly, "Let's talk about shorter growing seasons, let's talk about what we're going to eat/Say a prayer for the victims of extinction/say another for the redwood trees."
"There's a few statements in there, yeah," Seger says. "I flew over Lake Mead (near Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam) three years ago and said, 'What's that big yellow band?' Earlier this spring they said it's at the lowest level since they built the dam, since they were filling it! So there you go. We have to just take better care of the planet, or we ain't gonna be breathing."
He goes into a bedroom in the cabin and returns with a printout of an August Associated Press story by Seth Borenstein about a U.N. report on global warming.
"I like to show people this, everything I talk about in 'It's Your World' is in there. And I wrote 'It's Your World' a year ago! I always read stories about climate change in newspaper and magazines. I try to stay up on extinctions and all of that."
A reference to Wisconsin in "It's Your World" has to do with a proposed mine, he says.
"The governor, Scott Walker, passed a bill through the state legislature on a weekend that there will be no environmental oversight, 'we want this mine.' Well, the mine is right by a river that runs into Lake Superior, which is some of the cleanest fresh water in the world. But sorry, according to Scott Walker, there isn't going to be oversight, we're going to build this thing, and it's going to be 9 miles long. I read about it in The New Yorker."
A cryptic reference to all this is a photograph of a chimpanzee that appears on the back of "Ride Out." The photo is by the late Tom Bert, who shot the cover of Seger's "Beautiful Loser," "Against the Wind" and "The Distance."
"People are probably going to say, why a chimpanzee?" Seger says. "They are our closest relative in the animal world. There is only about a 1 percent difference in our DNA." He cites figures on how the chimpanzee population is endangered. "So the message is, let's do something about this."
"The Fireman's Talkin' '' — the first song Seger wrote about climate change — came about musically because of a guitar tuning his guitarist Jim "Moose" Brown taught him.
"You tune your guitar to D-A-D-G-A-D — it's been around ever since the Beatles, their song "Norwegian Wood" is in that. But I'd never played it before. I wrote two songs in DADGAD — 'Gates of Eden' and 'Fireman's Talkin'.' It's just a beautiful sound.
Lyrically, the fireman reference is to wife Nita's brother-in-law, who lives in Phoenix. "I see him every year for three weeks in July," Seger says. "We go to Mackinac Island with all the kids. My wife has a big family and everybody comes in, one from Washington State, one from Phoenix, from Ohio, where my wife's from. So I always listen to Mark's fireman stories.
"About two or three years ago, I wrote 'The Fireman's Talkin'. The first verse: 'The fireman's talking like heroes do, so you'd best start listening when he gets to you ... so if you're in your house, you're in a fire when he shows up, it's a good idea to take his advice.' Then I had to stop, I said, 'I don't know how to expand this.' Then I thought 'fire' ... 'global warming' and it all came together."
The song "The Devil's Right Hand" was a song Seger has liked ever since he first heard it in the 1988 Costa-Gravas film "Betrayed," featuring Debra Winger and Tom Berenger.
"I liked that song for like 26 years," he says. "It's the closing song in the film, and Waylon Jennings does it. Every time I would see the movie, I would wait to the end to hear that song. I was stunned when I found out Steve Earle wrote it. He must have been about 19, because it's a long time ago. And he's one of my favorite songwriters."
"All the Roads" is "about the audience. It's my tribute to them. It's like what I always admired about (Bruce) Springsteen, his philosophy that you play every night like it's the last gig you'll ever do."
"Hey Gypsy" is a flat-out Stevie Ray Vaughan shuffle. "I was such a huge fan of his," Seger says. "I called the players in Nashville, and I said, 'I want you to play as close to Stevie Ray as you can.' The guitarist Kenny Greenberg, whom I was working with at the time, he brought a special amp in that made him sound exactly like Stevie Ray! We even got Stevie Ray's old organ player, Reese Wynans. That's the first time I used him, and he's on everything (on the album) now."
There are two bonus tracks available on the Target version of "Ride Out": "It All Goes On" and "Passing Through." The latter song "is about childhood. You get it when you hear the chorus. My kids (Cole, now 21 and Sam, now 19) are singing on the chorus; they were 8 and 10 at the time. It's about passing through childhood. My favorite line on that song: 'Everybody sees something we thought we'd never see' — today, it's kids being shot in school, or hacking the heads off journalists."
As always, half the work on any Seger album is paring down to 13 or so tracks. One song that was put aside, for now, is "The Highway," which he did with Kid Rock.
"Too many road songs on this album," Seger says.
Speaking of the road, this time around, will the media once again jump to the conclusion that it might be Seger's last tour? And why does that question always lead every story about him?
"Well, maybe because I'm 69, and I'll be 70 in May," Seger says, laughing. "It's a fair question. I just take it as it comes. The promoters have said that if they called this a farewell tour, they could sell multiple dates in some cities, but I don't want to do that. If I say it's my last tour, then what if I go out again and it's not?"
Seger tours TV
Bob Seger's new album "Ride Out" will be available Tuesday. You can catch him on the following TV shows this week promoting the album and forthcoming tour.:
■11:30 p.m. Tuesday, "Jimmy Kimmel Live" (ABC, Channel 7)
■3 p.m. Thursday, "Ellen," (NBC, Channel 4).
'Ride Out' track list
"The Devil's Right Hand"
"Adam and Eve"
"It's Your World"
"All of the Roads"
"You Take Me In"
"Gates of Eden"
"The Fireman's Talkin'"
"Let the Rivers Run"
Two bonus tracks, "It All Goes On" and "Passing Through," will be on the Target version of "Ride Out."