Hodge, Podge, Strained Through a Leslie:
Sadler Vaden is Getting Out There
Guitarist Sadler Vaden has been a member of Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit since 2013. He’s part of the Grammy-winning team that made 2015’s Something More Than Free and the band’s 2017 album The Nashville Sound, both of which earned Best Americana Album awards at the Grammys. Each of those albums spawned a single that would earn a Best American Roots Song Grammy: “24 Frames” and “If We Were Vampires,” respectively.
Vaden doesn’t write songs for the 400 Unit; leader Isbell has that covered. Before joining that group in 2013, Vaden was a member of Kevn Kinney’s Drivin’ N Cryin’. Vaden contributed to a series of four loosely thematic EP the group made: Songs About Cars, Space and the Ramones and Songs From the Laundromat (both 2012) and a pair of releases from 2013, Songs for the Turntable and Songs From the Psychedelic Time Clock.
All Drivin’ N Cryin’ releases feature group credit on songwriting, so it might seem difficult to judge from those just how much he contributed in terms of creative input. But as you’ll learn when you keep reading, Kevn Kinney made plain just how an important creative force the guitarist from the South Carolina guitarist was for the band.
That was clear, too, as Vaden launched a solo career in 2012 with Radio Road, his debut EP. He followed that up in 2016 with the full-length album Sadler Vaden. And even amid the demands of touring and recording with Isbell – as well as producing other artists – the 34-year-old musician found time in early 2020 to record and release his second full-length, Anybody Out There? The years have only sharpened Vaden’s songwriting and instrumental capabilities. He’s managed to strike a healthy balance between providing musical support for top-notch songwriters and pursuing his own creative vision.
When I spoke to Sadler Vaden, he was gearing up for a tour in support of his album. No one yet knew that all of the live dates would be postponed or canceled.
When I interviewed Kevn Kinney five years ago, he brought your name up. This is part of what he said: “This guy is a genius. We had him in our band, and I knew that this kid was going to be big. So I wanted to make as many records as fast as I could with the guy while he was with us. You’re going to hear about him for the rest of your career and his career.”
What did you learn about songwriting, performing, and just being in a band during your time in Drivin’ N Cryin’?
“First off, getting compliments like that from Kevn Kinney – whether they be true or not – that’s a high honor for me; that’s high praise. And his words mean a lot to me.
“I learned about all of those things from being in that band. But I learned so much about the craft of songwriting. I learned how to be a little bit more free onstage, and how to let things happen musically that aren’t rehearsed. Not to say I didn’t know how to improvise before, but most nights, Drivin’ N Cryin’ goes out there every night without a set list. So, you’ve got a catalog of over 100 songs to be able to jump in and play.
“And then, in terms of being in a band, it’s … what’s the word I’m looking for? I commend them for staying together for so long and making it work. And you see what their music means to people. So, I guess I learned that if your music means something to people, you can always go out and play it.”
One thing that Kevn Kinney and Jason Isbell have in common is that they’re both great songwriters. What kind of things have you been learning as a member of Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit?
“Well, I’ve put my tried-and-true method of serving the song into full play in that band, because Jason’s such a great songwriter. He’s also a great guitarist, great singer. You know, my role in that band is to be a part of a unit. A unit where there’s a lot of different pieces of the puzzle. I’m not the sole lead guitarist or the front man. So, I’ve learned how to really fulfill my sideman role.”
You got your start in a power trio (Charleston, South Carolina band Leslie). Obviously, the dynamics of playing in a three-piece are very different from being a guitarist in a five- or six-piece band. When you first started playing with Drivin’ N Cryin’, did you find that you had to modify your playing to “make room” for other players, or did that come naturally?
“In a power trio, when I’m singing, I’m playing rhythm guitar. So I didn’t really have to modify it too much, because when Kevn or Jason is singing, I’m still playing some rhythm guitar. Maybe a couple lead lines here and there, lead melody lines.
“But I guess the difference is, when I joined a band that had more instrumentalists, when I wasn’t the only guitar player, I learned a lot about how to not play anything. I tell people that my favorite guitar effects pedal is the mute switch.”
Right! Knowing when not to play is every bit as important as knowing when to play …
“Yeah, it’s kind of funny. This is a trick I’m going to let you in on. If you just stop playing and then start playing again, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing a G chord, or you’re starting a solo: it’s amazing either way. People will think it’s amazing. [laughs] Just stop playing, and then start playing again. Anywhere in the song.”
Do you feel the need to write and make your own music in a way that sets it apart from the kind of things that the 400 Unit does?
“Well, I feel like we’re in the same galaxy. But I don’t consciously go, ‘I need to set this apart.’ I think naturally I make rock ‘n’ roll that’s a little bit different from Jason’s, and probably a little bit different from Drivin’ N Cryin’, too. I think that people can hear influences or hear that there’s some cross-pollination going on there, but no, I don’t really have to try too hard to make it different.”
Both Kevn and Jason make pretty plain their perspective on “big issues,” things beyond music. And those perspectives really do inform the music that they make. Some of those kinds of concerns find their way into your lyrics as well. In that regard, what do you see as your responsibility as a songwriter?
“Writing songs and using that as an art form, I really just try to be true to myself. And I think that if you share some of your perspectives, then you’ll likely find – depending on what perspective it is – that there are a lot of people who share that perspective, too.
“If it’s a very personal song, I try to tell that story the best I can, and just try to dig deeper into myself. Because I find that the more you do that, people will relate to the song.”
In a larger sense, where does the inspiration for your songwriting come from?
“I gotta say that I’m just inspired by rock ‘n’ roll music, and I usually get inspired by the artists that I love. I continue to get lost in records that I’ve heard hundreds of times, and new music too. It’s just fun to listen to music, and consume it, and get inspired by it. And then sit down and write something.
“I just draw inspiration from listening to music. Sometimes something will happen around me, or to me, and I’ll think, “I could write about that.” And then I try to do that the best I can. I mine the same inspiration well a lot. You know, listening to old Paul McCartney records, the Who, Joni Mitchell and Tom Petty.”
Who would you name as the guitarist, or guitarists, whose approaches have most informed yours?
“Oh boy. Well, when I grew up, I loved all the classic rock stuff: Led Zeppelin, Clapton, the Who, Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jeff Beck, Dave Davies, all that stuff.
“And I love Mike Campbell. In the music world, he’s highly revered. And I find that for my role in Jason’s band, he’s the perfect example for me to go, ‘That’s how you can exist in this format.’”
I see you fitting into that, playing that same kind of role in the 400 Unit. It’s more than a supporting role, but still aside from the main guy …
“And if you think about it, Mike Campbell has all those influences I just named in his playing.”
Same question, in terms of songwriters.
“I realize that a lot of my favorite songwriters aren’t the front man. That’s Pete Townshend. That’s Noel Gallagher. And they’re all guitar players!”
You’ve built a reputation for your production skills. Who inspires you as a producer?
“That’s tough, because I’m not a person who grew up saying that I wanted to be a producer and then just studied producers.
“Here’s how I produce. I go in there and treat it as if it were my song. I try to make choices, of course, that the artist likes and agrees with, too. But I try to make choices that I would like on my own song, my own album. And that’s how I like to treat session work as well: just play something that I would like. Start there and then see where that goes.”
But how did you originally develop your skills as a producer?
“Having been produced so many times, and then moving to Nashville, and starting playing on albums and stuff in studios, I learned a lot from that. Then I never really thought about … well, I thought about doing it, just here and there. Like, ‘Oh, that would be nice to do.’
“But then I got a call in 2016 from this girl named Hannah Wicklund, and [her people] were like, ‘Hey, we thought that you could produce our record.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t actually produce, but I think I could do it.’ You gotta start somewhere to say you’re a producer. So that, really, is what started me off on that producer foot. That record [Hannah Wicklund & The Steppin Stones] came out in January 2018.”
You released your debut EP Radio Road in 2012. Eight years later, do you still recognize the guy who wrote, played, and sang those songs?
“Yes, I do. I think I’m a better version now, but I also hear how I probably wasn’t thinking so hard about what I was doing. And I kind of like that.”
How does Anybody Out There differ from the music on that EP and on your self-titled 2016 album?
“I think the new songs are stronger. And I think the record sounds better; it’s a little bit more hi-fi. I wanted to spend a good amount of time on parts, and also wanted to put some longer solos and stuff on songs, kind of let them breathe a little bit. There’s a little bit heavier stuff, there’s a little bit softer stuff on it. I think it’s a very balanced record.”
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Postscript: Before a tour was canceled in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Vaden managed to play all of one live show – a March 7 set at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge – in support of Anybody Out There?
On March 20, he announced the digital rush-release of a live soundboard recording of that performance, Live at Mercy Lounge. His announcement stated, “The sole purpose of releasing this album is to provide help through MusiCares foundation to musicians/songwriters/performers who are taking a hit due to COVID-19 … All proceeds will go to Coronavirus Relief Fund. This was not intended for professional release at the time of recording.”
Photo by Bridgette Aikens.