ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — In a playing career spanning nearly 40 years, Greg Townson is both a Rochester and rock legend.
Armed with his first instrument — a 1966 Fender Jazzmaster guitar bearing the signatures of names like Bo Diddley to Chet Atkins to Nick Lowe — Townson recorded another instrumental surf rock album in the midst of pandemic.
Combining remote recording and mixing, Off and Running! features all songs that were written by women in the 1950s through the 1960s, all with Townson’s signature rock and roll sound.
The new album is available here, and if you really want to get into the old school vibe, it’s available on vinyl. The artwork for the album was designed by local artist Alison Coté.
“Off and Running!” is another installment of his instrumental guitar series, following “More! Travelin’ Guitar,” which followed, naturally, “Travelin’ Guitar.” It’s released through his longtime label and partners Hi-Tide Recordings. Even though Townson is a celebrated singer and songwriter, Townson says that his Jazzmaster that has been with him since high school, has a singing voice all its own.
Thee names of the albums are fitting. To paraphrase another singer, Townson’s “been everywhere, man,” touring internationally with The Hi-Risers, solo, with Nick Lowe, and surf rock instrumental group Los Straitjackets since 2010.
The new album is also a pandemic project. Much of it was recorded remotely, and then mixed by Townson’s longtime collaborator and bandmate in The Hi-Risers, Todd Bradley.
And like so many other great musicians, his story starts in a dive bar in his native town of Rochester.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Talk me about the music scene in Rochester when you were first coming into your own as a musician, what was it like?
It was actually amazing. I started to play when I was 15 years old, and there was a venue called Scorgie’s and it featured original music. The first show I ever played was opening up for a band called New Math who were new wave band, really good band. It was packed. It must have been 250, 300 people there. And I saw that and I said, this is what I want to do.
They were playing all original stuff, and the audience knew the words, and they were enthusiastic and dancing and it was, it was very exciting. It was a really good scene when I started to play; then the drinking age was 18. And then it went from 18 to 19 to 21. I was legal three different times.
The first thing I did was pick up the guitar, but the next day I wanted to write a song. As soon as I learned to chords, I wanted to write a song.
I think it’s interesting about what you do is anyone would listen to any number of your projects from The Hi-Risers to everything else that you do. And even though it is original music, it has this 50s and 60s flair. Where did the love of this genre come from?
Like so many other people, the Beatles were a starting point. I love their writing. The first tune of theirs that really got to me was “Roll Over Beethoven,” their cover of the Chuck Berry’s song.
So later in life, when I started to sort of study what they were doing, I went back and listened to what it influenced them, and it was all American music and it was all from the late 50s, early 60s. And that became the music that I really loved.
I like all different kinds of music, but when it comes to writing and performing, I draw from that time period. (That was an) amalgamation of so many different styles. So you had swing, blues, country music, and you had music coming from Mexico, music coming from Canada, music coming from all over. I just liked the mix of styles. I do like variety. So there’s a lot to offer in that time period.
It had a lot of style too, didn’t it?
Oh yeah. And a lot of enthusiasm when they performed the performers were really great entertainers. Of course I didn’t live through that time period, but I was lucky to see Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins, Bo Diddley. I played with Bo Diddley. We backed him up several times. So many artists from that time period; James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and you know, the soul era too. Seeing them and how they would present themselves on stage was a big inspiration to do.
What I find interesting about the Rochester original scene too, is that even though there are a ton of people creating original music, there’s like this little pocket of kind of like the old school rock and roll guys, or there’s a really strong like Americana and folk scene with people are taking something old, but also creating something new from it. You’ve been doing the music thing for a little bit now, is that still inspiring? Are you seeing people kind of taking a similar path that you did, that they’re taking some of these old forms and old styles that are in they’re interpreting and doing it their own way?
That’s what I love is someone who’s working with it within a tradition, but finding their own voice within it, something unique within themselves that they bring to this tradition. And then that creates something kind of new.
Originality is a bit overrated for me on one hand, you know, I don’t need someone to reinvent the wheel for me. I’m not looking for that.
It’s like the blue, so, or somebody’s singing the blues and it’s them when they’re working within that genre, they brought something of themselves to it. And that’s what’s exciting to me. And the same thing with rock and roll and jazz, even classical music, (so even thought) you’re playing the same notes (as everyone else), you’re playing it in your way and that’s what appeals to me when someone finds their own voice.
The longer you do this, you find different ways to interpret the same sounds. So talk to us about the new record. It’s still your fingerprints; people will know that it’s you, they know what’s the genre, but what new are you trying to do with this album that maybe you didn’t do before?
There are a couple of different things that were new about this project. One was that it was going to be all cover songs. And I kind of stumbled into the concept of it being all songs written or co-written by women from the mid-50sto the mid-60s time period. And it’s not an era where you think of women songwriters, but there were quite a few and they were in writing amazing stuff. And, and so I kind of wanted to shine a spotlight on that.
So I wrote out a list of like 20 different songs, and I picked the songs that I thought I could bring something, unique to the arrangement. Some are more faithful to the original arrangement and others are completely different.
The other thing that was different was that this was during the pandemic. I started this in May of last year when I realized we’re not getting back to work, and I thought, “Well, what can I do?” And the previous instrumental records I had done with Todd Bradley from The Hi-Risers, it was just the two of us, you know, working together. And I brought Todd in to this project and he ended up mixing it, but I wanted to reach out to my colleagues, that I work with locally and work with on the road.
And because the people that were able to record remotely, I could call them up, and say, “here’s my idea for this arrangement. Would you be up for playing the drums or would you be up for playing the keyboards?”
And Dan, everybody was happy to hear from me, because we’re all in the same boat. I’m just happy to connect, love the idea of the concept of the project. If they were able and everybody was able to record at home — some people went into the studio if they felt safe to do so to record their tracks — and everything they sent was amazing.
I mean, these are all people that are professional musicians that are out there doing this for a living, you know, and they’re all people I greatly respect and I’m so thrilled to be collaborating with them, you know, on this project. So it was very different in that respect that the there’s a dozen different musicians on this. Every song has a different lineup.
Every song has kind of got its own little world with my guitar, being the constant through it, you know, my, the voice of my guitar, you know, kind of singing these songs.
Why also release on vinyl?
It’s a great format for the sound quality and, you know, there is an audience for it is as I’m sure you’re aware that Dan, that it’s, uh, um, you know, it’s just built up, it’s held its own and it’s come back. It was a long time ago. It came back and it’s bigger than ever. And, um, it just it’s, the packaging is so nice. You know, Alison [inaudible] who’s local here, she did the graphics and did a fantastic job. Her husband, by the way, plays drums on the record, Alex Gotay. Yeah. So, um, yeah, it’s just, it’s a really, it’s a fun format and it sounds great. So
What do you love about doing the instrumental record?
What I love about instrumental music is it’s in all languages, it’s for everybody, there’s no language barrier. Even though I can listen to music in a language that I don’t know, (I can) appreciate it and love it. There is something about the fact that there is no lyrics standing in the way between a beautiful melody that’s being expressed instrumentally. I just respond to it.
Guitar was my first love, as much as I love to write and sing and do all the things you mentioned — produce, arrange, record performances — guitar at the end of the day that’s where I go. It’s my home.
So when I was asked to join Los Straitjackets, when we started to, you know, and that’s an all instrumental band, uh, I just couldn’t believe that we could actually play a set of all instrumentals and it would work. And it was an amazing feeling. So it’s also for the Los Straitjackets fans as well. That was my original intention when I started to play instrumentals that the Los Straitjackets fans could relate to.
I got involved in Los Straitjackets it’s about 11 years ago, we were all friends and one of the guitar players, Danny Amis was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and which was a huge shock. And I got a call to the asking if I’d fill in. And I said I would. I said yes. Before they even asked the question, I was just wanting to help out.
And as it turned out, Danny, he’s still with us and he’s doing fine. He lives in Mexico, which is his love. He loves Mexico. He lives in Acapulco now. But he’s unable to tour. So I joined full-time shortly after they asked me to fill in and it’s been a wonderful experience. I love, um, the audiences, I love the material. And again, you know, to have the guitar is my voice. And to be able to communicate without words it’s pretty amazing, really. So I enjoy it.
Time for the Big Three. Rochester is your hometown. What makes this such a great place for original music and original musicians to thrive?
Rochester has been so supportive.
When I first started to play out, I saw the support that was there… It ebbs and flows, but it’s continued throughout the 40 years that I’ve worked here in this town. The fact that there’s always been a thriving live music scene is makes it a pleasure to be here.
Another reason for it is that if you want to travel and play other cities, within three to six hours, you can be in so many different cities here in the Northeast. For bands because like The Hi-Risers, we could go off and play long weekends, and come back to work our day jobs. But stillgain audiences outside of the city. So we’d go anywhere from Chicago to New York, that kind of that trajectory.
You’ve played everywhere, done so much, but if there — now obviously got the new record coming out — but if there was like a next goal or next feather in the cap that you want to achieve, what would that be?
I appreciate you asking that I’m actually halfway through a new project, which is the polar opposite to this latest record.
This record is all covers with multiple musicians. The next record that I’m working on is going to be all originals instrumentals with one lineup of musicians. And I’m collaborating with Todd Bradley again, and a drummer out of Los Angeles, whose name is Caitlin Moss, and she’s super talented. So we’re, we’re doing this remotely, but it’s coming together in such a beautiful way. It’s sounding amazing.
Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
My advice would be don’t get distracted. There are a lot of distractions and if you really love music, go for it. But if you’re not sure then maybe just do it as a hobby and have fun with it. You should have fun either way, but it’s hard work.
After 40 years, I’m still working hard and I still enjoy it, but that’s what you need. You need to work and you need to not be distracted and you need to find the right people to work with who feel the same way.