Grammy winner B.J. Thomas reimagines ‘The Living Room Sessions’ in Nashville

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B.J. Thomas serendipitously gambled on a career reboot when he pulled up stakes for Nashville and began tracking “The Living Room Sessions,” a stripped down album introducing his greatest hits to millennials. The “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” Grammy winner discusses the origins of the intimate comeback record in an exclusive interview. In the accompanying still the blue-eyed soul interpreter celebrates his 70th birthday on August 7, 2012, at singer-songwriter Jamie O’Hara’s beautiful Nashville home in a photo session for “The Living Room Sessions” CD liner notes. Photography by Angela Talley / Courtesy of Wrinkled Records

Grammy-winning recording artist B.J. Thomas rendezvoused in Nashville for his first album with indie label Wrinkled Records. The aptly titled The Living Room Sessions unleashed 12 of Thomas’s greatest hits like “Hooked on a Feeling”, “Eyes of a New York Woman”, “I Just Can’t Help Believing”, and “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.”

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Thomas successfully straddled the line between pop, country, gospel, and adult contemporary in his impressive 50-year oeuvre, notching 46 charting Billboard singles. Thomas’s country impact mostly arrived in the early ’80s with jewels such as “Two Car Garage”, “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love”, and “New Looks from an Old Lover.”

How could you dare attempt to improve on such ubiquitous oldies radio nuggets, especially considering that the cream of the crop was originally produced, arranged, and performed in the halcyon late ’60s by one of the most consistent hit-making teams in recording history, Chips Moman and the Memphis Boys?

Simple as homemade country pie — reimagine them as unplugged, acoustic duets with such notable guests as Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Richard Marx, and Steve Tyrell, Thomas’s longtime friend, producer, and incidentally an in-demand 21st century Great American Songbook crooner. Thomas also threw a few curve balls, recruiting blues musician Keb’ Mo’ for an impassioned “Most of All” and alternative rocker Isaac Slade, lead singer of the Fray, who delivered a mournful, effective rendering of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

“The concept of doing B.J.’s big hits in a relaxed, acoustic setting was my idea,” admits Sandy Knox, originally a hit songwriter for Reba McEntire and now president of Wrinkled Records, in an exclusive conversation. “My thought was that if I had a laid back, pot luck dinner party with B.J. and his wife Gloria, after dinner everyone would pull out their instruments, which they just happen to have with them, and sing B.J.’s tunes.”

The strategy paid off rather nicely. Released on April 2, 2013, The Living Room Sessions debuted on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart at No. 39, essentially becoming the artist’s best-selling LP since Shining on the Columbia label some 29 years earlier.

Read on as the legendary song interpreter sets the record straight concerning The Living Room Sessions, admitting how a longstanding friendship with country songwriter-producer Larry Butler set the wheels in motion for becoming a Wrinkled Records artist.

Thomas then reveals why he decided to revisit his greatest hits with co-producer Kyle Lehning, recalls the special guests on the record, what genre(s) he would like his next studio record to explore, and relays a special message to his faithful fan base.

The “Rock and Roll Lullaby” balladeer refuses to accept early retirement and simply coast on his past triumphs, instead maintaining a passionate artistic vision in the studio that continues to mature with each new project that comes his way.

Visit his official website [BJThomas.com], Facebook, or Twitter @TheBJThomas — where he actually tweets himself — for updates and to know when the singer will be appearing in a city near you.

A classically handsome B.J. Thomas relaxes on his 70th birthday at singer-songwriter Jamie O’Hara’s Nashville home on August 7, 2012, shortly after recording “The Living Room Sessions.” Photography by Angela Talley / Courtesy of Wrinkled Records

The B.J. Thomas Interview

How were you signed to Wrinkled Records?

I originally did a project with producer-songwriter Larry Butler down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama [along with Moman, Butler was the co-writer of “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song”].

Larry sadly passed away in January 2012, and the album remains unreleased. Someday I think my collaboration with Larry will see the light of day. It had some excellent songs going for it. Perhaps it was a bit more country than what Wrinkled was looking for.

Anyway, the folks at Wrinkled — Sandy Knox, Katie Gillon, and Stephen McCord — heard the songs I recorded with Larry. While they may not have necessarily liked the project, they really liked the way I still sounded. So they asked me to come aboard and start a fresh, unplugged project with producer Kyle Lehning, who has worked with Randy Travis, Ronnie Milsap, and Waylon Jennings.

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Dig those sparkling blue eyes: The unplugged “Living Room Sessions,” featuring Vince Gill and Keb’ Mo’, was released on April 2, 2013. Photography by Angela Talley / Courtesy of Wrinkled Records

Was there a concept in mind when you first started tracking The Living Room Sessions in March 2012?

First of all, it was a unique project for me and my first album since the Brazilian-themed Once I Loved released three years earlier. We cut 12 of my greatest hits in an unplugged setting in Nashville at Sound Stage Studios.

There was a simple concept — to introduce me and my songs to people who perhaps aren’t as ‘up’ on me right now, and to refresh the minds of others about these great songs that I have had the privilege to record and sing in concert for so many years.

A lot of my peers and veteran artists I know who perform their old hits in concert tend to get bored with the material and start phoning it in, but the biggest blessing for me is that I never get tired of it.

I still feel an emotional connection to the songs, and as they bring back great memories for me, they affect me the same way they might touch a longtime fan of my music. I never planned any of this out, so to be able to express myself in music and have that as a vehicle for my life for as long as I have is something I am always grateful for.

I co-produced The Living Room Sessions with Kyle. We work very well together, and I had a wonderful time. While most producers will sit behind the console listening and directing the sessions, Kyle took a seat in the studio with myself and the band, and became even more fully immersed in the moment. We nailed each song in at most two or three takes. Everything was real simple and organic, and we didn’t labor on anything too long to get things right.

Some of the best studio musicians the city has to offer played on the record, including Bryan Sutton on acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, gut string guitar and dobro, John Willis on electric, acoustic and gut string guitar and dobro, Viktor Krauss on upright bass and Steve Brewster on drums and percussion. Viktor’s sister is a star in her own right — Alison Krauss.

The session really came off just like we had hoped it would. Off the top of my head, “New York Woman,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Old-Fashioned Love,” and “New Looks from an Old Lover” — co-written by my wife, Gloria, Red Lane, and Lathan Hudson — sound exceptionally well. I’m also quite proud of “Lonesome,” which we rearranged a bit, creating a cool guitar and vocal only version.

Video Credit: Wrinkled Records

Who did you get to duet with on the record?

Vince Gill [“I Just Can’t Help Believing”], Lyle Lovett [“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”], Richard Marx [(“Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song”], and my longtime friend Steve Tyrell [“Rock and Roll Lullaby”] immediately come to mind. Tyrell produced the original single in 1971, and this is really the first time we have sung together in the studio.

Sara Niemietz duetted with me on “Hooked on a Feeling.” You probably don’t know her yet. Believe me you soon will. I first met her in 1997 when she was four years old at a concert of mine in Wheeling, Illinois. I noticed her singing the words to “Hooked on a Feeling,” and I brought her up onstage. She had an amazing voice even then. Her family and I have stayed in touch over the years.

There were some great, surprising moments as well, particularly on Isaac Slade’s fine interpretation of “Lonesome” and the dynamic singing by Keb’ Mo’. He is so much more than a blues musician. He originally wanted to do “Hooked”, but I wanted to save that for Sara, so I gave him “Most of All.” Keb’ came in not knowing the song at all, but he sat down, learned it, internalized it and put in the work it took to make it magical.

Dr. John and Alison Krauss were originally supposed to be on the record. Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts made this impossible. I would still like to work with them someday.

I tackle “Eyes of a New York Woman”, “Everybody’s Out of Town”, “Don’t Worry Baby”, and “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love” all by myself.

I include some of the unplugged versions in my show and have been blessed to team up with some of my duet partners for some special performances. I still play between 60 and 80 shows per year. So far my fans have taken quite a liking to The Living Room Sessions.

Click to watch B.J. Thomas discuss “The Living Room Sessions” as unplugged versions of his greatest hits provide an ebullient soundtrack. Video Credit: Wrinkled Records

What other projects would you like to tackle with Lehning?

I would like to do an album containing all-new material. Several of my compositions that not many people have heard — “Hands on Me Again” and “Back Against the Wall” [the title cut of Thomas’s 1992 album], are songs I hope to record for this project.

A classic country album is another idea on the drawing board. I’d especially like to cut a classic soul/R&B album featuring songs that I grew up with. I have no idea why I haven’t recorded an all-R&B project. That just seems like a no-brainer [laughs]. Going back to the early ’60s, I’ve done songs with soul origins on nearly all my records.

One reason it may not have happened yet is that when you have so much success with a certain kind of song, producers only want to cut that kind of song on you. I never had any successful R&B or straight up rock and roll singles.

All the stars have to line up for things to happen in a certain way. Fortunately, I’m with some terrific friends at Wrinkled who are old-school record people who listen to their artists. Their goal is to produce great music. I’m looking forward to tackling these projects soon.

Is there anything you would like to say to your fans?

I appreciate my fans a great deal. Every day I think about how lucky I am to have had the support I’ve had over the years from the people who have bought my records. It means a lot to me. And of course, I want to thank everybody reading this.

[Author’s Note: Thomas’s sophomore recording project on Wrinkled Records, a limited edition six-song Christmas EP entitled O Holy Night, dropped quietly on November 18, 2014].

Video Credit: Wrinkled Records

The Living Room Sessions Track Listing

  1. “Don’t Worry Baby” [No. 17 POP, No. 2 Adult Contemporary June 1977]
  2. I Just Can’t Help Believing” [feat. Vince Gill; No. 9 POP, No. 1 AC June 1970]
  3. Most of All” [feat. Keb’ Mo’; No. 38 POP, No. 2 AC November 1970]
  4. “Eyes of a New York Woman” [No. 28 POP June 1968]
  5. (“Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” [feat. Richard Marx; No. 1 POP, No. 1 C&W, No. 1 AC February 1975]
  6. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” [feat. Isaac Slade of the Fray; No. 8 POP February 1966]
  7. “New Looks from an Old Lover” [feat. Etta Britt; No. 1 C&W June 1983]
  8. Rock and Roll Lullaby” [feat. Steve Tyrell; No. 15 POP, No. 1 AC January 1972]
  9. “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love” [No. 93 POP, No. 1 C&W, No. 13 AC February 1983]
  10. “Hooked on a Feeling” [feat. Sara Niemietz; No. 5 POP November 1968]
  11. Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” [feat. Lyle Lovett; No. 1 POP, No. 1 AC November 1969]
  12. “Everybody’s Out of Town” [No. 26 POP, No. 3 AC March 1970]

© Jeremy Roberts, 2012, 2018. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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