Tales Composer John Frizzell Fell in Love With Bluegrass
By Allie Waxman
The composer of Tales From the Tour Bus and frequent collaborator of series creator Mike Judge discusses his relationship to country music and process for composing the series’ music.
HBO: Can you talk about your personal history with country music?
John Frizzell: I was not a country fan growing up. My dad was from West Texas, and was born very close to the birthplace of Lefty Frizzell, one of the most important people in country music. I was always fascinated with Texas history. I started to get into bluegrass later on, and this [show] was the first time I got deeply into this music. I’ve fallen in love with it. Really understanding what bluegrass and country are and how they relate to each other has become more or less my life.
HBO: Was there any one story from Tales that really surprised you?
John Frizzell: I think George [Jones] and the duck is something I will probably think about for the rest of my life. The notion of an imaginary duck that you can get in an argument with is something that could be a series unto itself.
HBO: How is it working with Mike Judge?
John Frizzell: Mike and I go back a long time, almost 20 years. Mike is a wonderful musician. His bass and piano playing are really great. He had this guitar riff idea and we sat down; that’s where the theme from the show came from.
HBO: How did you approach writing the music for this show?
John Frizzell: The challenging thing at first was creating a musical palette—to decide what instruments would really be right. It mostly came down to the tone of the players. I honed in on Paul Franklin as a pedal steel player, and once we had Paul on board for our first recording session, the rest of the band fell together. We had Glen Duncan playing guitar—Glen is normally a fiddle player, he played with Bill Monroe; John Gardiner, who’s an extraordinary drummer; Larry Paxton, a great bass player and in the band at the Grand Ole Opry. Then, David Frizzell, brother of Lefty, played some guitar too. It meant a lot to everybody to have David there, with his family history so tied to the core of country music.
HBO: Did you adjust your composition based on each episode’s artist?
John Frizzell: There were three basic tones. When we explore the younger years of these artists, I wanted to represent old-time music. And then we had our country score, with Paul Franklin and the band. Then there was another part of the score, for instance, in the "[Johnny] Paycheck” episode with the whole turtle soup incident, which has very dark, sort of film score music. In some of the stories, we tried to forget about country music and score it like a movie.
HBO: What, if anything, was challenging about writing music for a show about music?
John Frizzell: I really wanted to make sure that the proper history was represented. I had a reverence for this truly amazing musical form which is such a critical part of the history of music, so there was a lot of obsession with detail, on really getting it right.
HBO: What’s your favorite song in the show?
John Frizzell: My favorite song is “Springtime in Uganda” which is in the Blaze Foley episode. It’s a funny song, but it represents a deeply sarcastic, almost Jonathan Swiftian, view of culture. I didn’t know anything about Blaze Foley when I started on the series; he was completely off my radar, and I really have fallen in love with what his life was about. I think fans are in for a great surprise because that episode is very emotional and colorful. There’s a lot about an artist that deserves this recognition.
HBO: How do you hope this show impacts the fans?
John Frizzell: We’re looking forward to bringing [the fans] more of this type of storytelling down the road and surprising them with all the different ways we can approach music. The best thing of all is to awaken a generation of listeners who will fall in love with this music—especially acoustic music—and make it something they have in their lives.