These things must be approached delicately, but the lead-off track from Steve Conn’s elegant new CD Beautiful Dream, an unraveled lament to gazing back over the years and pondering what-ifs called “Easier Said Than Done,” resonates a little as an apology self-accepted, something like a reminder that dreams unfulfilled and promises negotiated away are probably not worth the effort of examining too closely.
“If I had another chance, I wonder what I would do / Would I be better man, or would I just keep stumbling through?” Conn sings on the track.
It would align with what we know about Conn — the former bandleader of Boulder’s Cajun barburner franchise Gris Gris from the early ’80s who left Boulder to seek brighter lights and bigger stages in L.A., and who then moved to Nashville, where he’s made a long career as a sideman (usually keyboards) and songwriter of rare repute among the musical cognoscenti, picking up nine Grammy nominations along the way. Being a guy with a résumé is surely something to be proud of, unless being the guy everybody’s heard of was the original design.
Conn cops to it, but just a little bit, reminding us that most of the album’s songs are from the archive basket, leftover tunes stretching back as far as 30 years, highlighting the journey and not the destination. Conn admits to being a grindingly slow writer, so staying close to his past is a matter of necessity.
From that same song, a few stanzas later: “This is not a battlefield, no one wins, no one loses / Maybe all I really need is to just shut up and serve someone.”
“That one hit me when I was just coming around and sayin’, ‘Yeah, maybe I should just shut up and realize that it’s not all about me,’” Conn says.
Some of the tunes, like the warmly accepting “It Is What It Is” and the redemptive “Let the Rain Fall Down,” balance the mood with gratitude toward reality unvarnished.
And some of the others, Conn suggests, really aren’t what they seem. “It’s Just Not The Same,” for example, is merely about how the world looked a little different while his wife was away traveling, not really a pillow-tears breakup song.
“But the most brutal breakup song,” he concedes, “is ‘I’m Losing You.’ “That’s from personal experience. The story I’ve told many times during shows is, when I started it out, God’s truth, I was writing about how much I loved my wife. The working title was ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is,’ which I couldn’t really use, but that was the general theme. Then things started get ting weird around the house. It morphed into ‘Don’t Give Up On Me,’ and then … she left. And that’s what the song became.”
This isn’t the stuff that makes it into someone else’s liner notes. The guys who need a gently fermented organ fill, or the perfect melody, or the understated piano line, reach out to Conn for his relentlessly humane and deft musical touch. Conn is at a place now where he accepts it, but remains mindful of the miles on the clock.
“The truth is … I didn’t set out to be a sideman. I never really enjoyed that very much, so I really stopped well over a decade ago. Really, I guess, when most of these songs were written.
“So the lament is not so much about that, but about not being able to find peace in my life.”
But it’s there now, to whatever extent it can be for anyone, and part of that grounding comes from Conn’s lengthy relationship with slide guitarist (and fellow son of Louisiana) Sonny Landreth. The guitarist was just making a name for himself in and around the Fort Collins/Boulder area when he and Conn struck up a friendship that is still bearing fruit three decades down the road, although Landreth himself wasn’t actually a member of Gris Gris, but rather a frequent collaborator.
Conn returns for his nearly annual pilgrimage back to the Front Range for a Friday night gig at Nissi’s, a mini-Gris Gris reunion with old bandmates Steve Ivey, Chris Engleman and Bob Rebholz, with a set list likely to be long on this collection of alternately melancholy and comfortably resigned testimonials.
“In the past, Bones [ Jones] has done it several times, Fly [McClard] has done it several times, but this year we’re goin’ lean and mean,” Conn says. “And those guys, man, they’re as good as ever. Better than ever. They just play so great.”