Barry Sless plays both guitar and pedal steel for Northern California’s Green Leaf Rustlers. Their new album “From Within Marin” is released on March 6 via Silver Arrow Records. The following is an interview between Barry and Jon Siembieda from Tahoe Onstage.
Jon: For the new release, can you walk through how you guys picked what tracks you wanted to use on the album and what was the overall process for putting this record together?
Barry: “Well, as far as the record goes, we did a three-night run in March of 2018 at Sweetwater (Music Hall, in Mill Valley). Those were actually some of our first gigs as a band. Betty Cantor-Jackson (the legendary Grateful Dead engineer) came out and brought her gear and recorded the shows. We didn’t choose what went on there; it was all Betty. She went through her recordings and picked out what would go on the album.”
What do you really connect with on the album? Do you have a couple of favorites?
“I really like all the stuff that we jam on, which would include a little jam on “Ride Me High,” a J.J. Cale song, that’s the last track on the record. So we get out and get a little spacey on that, a little jazzy, and that’s a lot of fun. There’s a jam on “Folsom Prison Blues,” which is also a lot of fun. And Chris (Robinson) sings his ass off on all of these songs. People think of him primarily as a rock singer – which he most definitely is – but he really nails the ballads. I love the way he sings the Dylan song “Positively Fourth Street,” I think he does a great job interpreting that. He’s not copying anybody, he has such an iconic voice, and he makes all of these songs his own. He really delivers it with a lot of soul and passion.”
With the band, how do you guys arrive with the vision of what to play?
“It’s mostly Chris. I would consider him a musicologist. He has a very wide range of knowledge with all genres of music, and definitely the cosmic country stuff. I first met Chris when we toured together with Phil Lesh in 2004 and 2005, and he put some Gram Parsons and cosmic country into the sets back then.
“As for how the band got together in the first place, Chris and I met playing with Phil and connected off and on throughout the years since. Chris moved to Marin about five years ago … and that’s where I live, and Pete (Sears), and Greg Loiacono. He did a series of dates in 2017 at Terrapin Crossroads that he was calling Chris Robinson’s Hootenanny Heroes … and he used a different group for all three shows. One of the groups was me, Pete, (John) Molo, and Jason Crosby on keyboards. We didn’t have another guitar player … and we had a lot of fun with that, a lot of cosmic country.
“After that gig, Chris said he wanted to call it “The Green Leaf Rustlers.” In January of the next year, we did a couple dates with the same band and with Greg, no keys … and then the next gigs in March are when Betty came out and recorded the tracks that are on the album.”
So, you pull double duty in the band. You play pedal steel guitar, but also regular guitar. Can you walk through what got you going on guitar, what made you jump on steel, and what you’re into with influences? I’m sure Garcia is a major one, but there’s got to be many more.
“I started playing guitar in high school. The first stuff I was into was classic rock, then discovered Bob Wills and Western swing, and old school country: George Jones, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and the Bakersfield sound, then The Grateful Dead, all of which informed my influences. Some of the first couple country rock bands I liked were Poco and the Flying Burrito Brothers, both who had pedal steel, which I tried to emulate on guitar. And then at some point I had the opportunity to get an actual pedal steel and learn how to do it the real way, probably about two, three years after I started picking up guitar.”
Yeah, you’re widely considered one of the best players out there, both on regular guitar, but also on pedal steel, which, as you know, isn’t something that is as common. So, when you find someone who’s really, really exquisite at it, it’s a lot of fun to listen to. How do you and Greg play off of each other? I’m a guitar player, so weaving is something that’s always exciting to me, and you guys do it really well. And, of course, Chris also plays guitar. How do you make it all work?
“We have a lot of fun doing it. We didn’t really know each other or our styles when we started playing together, and I can hear the formative genesis of how we were learning to play together on these recordings. Greg’s a real rocker and brings some really cool rock ‘n’ roll influences to it as well as his great Telecaster twangy sound on the country stuff. Gig by gig we learned a little bit more about each other, and figured out who tends to gravitate toward what spaces, and as the band goes on, we figure it out more and more, how to play around each other, and how to complement each other.”
What’s your preferred gear setup these days?
“I move around. Most of the gigs where I’m playing primarily guitar, which is not Green Leaf Rustlers, it’s more David Nelson Band and Moonalice. I use an amp built by Bill Krinard, who was one of the originators of Two Rock. Boutique amps. They are usually 50 or 100 watts with a half-power switch in the back, and run four 6L6 power tubes. One of my favorite amps to use for steel is an older mid-70s Music Man (2×12 cabinet) I found used. Sounds great for pedal steel. A good Twin Reverb also sounds great with pedal steel. I don’t often bring them out because they are so heavy! What I’ve been gravitating toward lately with Green Leaf Rustlers’ gigs, or gigs in smaller rooms, is a 35 watt head Bill Krinard built, and I plug that into a 1×12 speaker cabinet I have, or else into a provided backline amp on some road gigs where I don’t have my regular setup.”
So, you use the same amp at a show for pedal steel as well as regular guitar?
Yes. If I’m using one of the two instruments for only a couple of songs, I wouldn’t bring a second amp.”
Well, it’s working. And those Music Mans are killer. I love those vintage ones.
“Yeah, and it sounds good for regular guitar too, and it breaks up if you push it hard enough. It’s got the sound.”
What’s next for you musically, how can people stay up to date with what you’re doing?
Most all of the gigs I play are posted on the Nelson Band website (nelsonband.com). The ones that aren’t DNB shows are listed under Sideshows.
Coming up is the David Nelson Band Hawaii tour. We start on Feb. 23 and have five shows on the Big Island, then we head over to Maui and have four shows between March 3 and 7. We did this for about 10 years running until David got sick about four years ago, and we have the opportunity to go back this year. We get about 100-150 people coming over from the mainland, that make it their vacation, in addition to our on-island fans. We have some off days. It’s a blast. Great hang for the band and fans. We’re really looking forward to it.
When I get back, Moonalice is gonna start up again in late March. That’s a new band now. Full Moonalice THC Revue. THC in this case stands for, among other things, “Time Has Come” because we’ve added the New Chambers Brothers (original Chambers Brother Lester Chambers and his son Dylan) to the band. The original Chambers had the hit “Time Has Come Today” from the ’60s, and we’ve also added the T Sisters. That’s been a lot of fun. We’re a large band now, sometimes 10 pieces, and we’ve added two blood families to the band, which brings a warm family vibe. All of the vocalists have added a lot to the sound, and we’re really excited about that.
Is it going to take on more of an R&B or soul angle?
It’s going to be all things. It’s expanded what we’re able to do. The T Sisters bring their originals, as well as some great renditions of Grateful Dead songs. The Chambers have their hits like “Time Has Come Today,” “Love, Peace and Happiness,” and Lester also does “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay.” They were kind of the first psychedelic soul band as far as I know. So, we still maintain our psychedelic side and have added a soulfulness with beautiful, angelic harmonies from the T Sisters. Every time they leave the stage for a jam they get an ovation, and when they come back they get an ovation, and the Chambers Brothers take it to a whole new level. It’s become a really cool show.”
I’ll have to check that out this spring!
Yes. Our first show is March 20 at The Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, then we’re in Auburn, Eugene and Applegate, Oregon, then Arcata. Skull & Roses Festival is in early April, and David Nelson Band is also playing that along with a bunch of other people, Billy & The Kids, Oteil & Friends.”
Green Leaf Rustlers
‘From Within Marin’
Release: March 6, 2020
Label: Silver Arrow Records