My favorite song on the record is “Bethlehem” and that had to do with a dream (nightmare) I had about my Dad after he’d passed on. When I woke up, trying to remember the dream and figure it out (all I can see from it now is my Dad lying in a giant kidney-shaped pan in a hospital corridor and me yelling up and down the halls for help but there was no one around) for some reason I started thinking about Herod. I thought about what kind of horror it must be for any parent in any time to lose a child because of some greed for power or money or nonsense like that. Then the song showed up.
The traditional songs on the record are “Samson & Delilah”, taken from both Blind Willie Johnson (who was arrested for singing it in front of a local government building) and Reverend Gary Davis; and “Wild Bill Jones”, an old murder ballad that was covered by the great Dock Boggs and had a powerful effect on me and my relationship to the banjo.
It was a great time, recording this record. Tom Herbers brought up all sorts of cool old gear including the largest ribbon mic that ever lived, we had a bunch of good friends stop by including Molly Maher and Dave Carroll, Karl Anderson played bass and my friend Christian McShane brought a thing called a “Ukelin” over, which we decided must be satan’s favorite instrument (at least his particular one, which made us all cringe). Mikkel and I lined up behind the giant microphone and we just played, like we always played, and made it work. Not much changes around here."
Tom Herbers: "Rooster was all recorded live to analog tape, using one microphone. No mixers or compressors or equalizers were involved in the recording. The "mixing" of Charlie's voice, guitar etc. was accomplished by moving the microphone around until the proper balance was achieved. This is true for all the guest players as well. Players and instruments were moved around the room in relation to Charlie and the microphone. This is a classic technique that was used in the early days of music recording. We were all set up in one room at the school, so we would record some, listen to a playback through a single studio monitor speaker, make adjustments as needed and then record again. That was the basic process. The microphone we used was a beautifully restored RCA 77A ribbon, circa 1932. (Special thanks to Wes Schuck at Two Fish Studios in Mankato for loaning us the microphone for the sessions.) The microphone was plugged into a vacuum tube Ampex MX10 mic preamp and from there, straight into one channel of an Ampex ATR-102 half inch 2 track recorder. Glorious mono sound."
Dave Carroll (banjo/"Rooster"): "When Charlie asked if I would record a tune with him for his Rooster album I was thrilled. I had been a fan of Charlie for a few years so I was also pretty nervous. The studio space was huge, and so was the mic we recorded with. It was as big as a football. Charlie played the song once while I figured out my own part, and then we recorded it. I think it took us 2 takes. The whole experience was awesome. I was really new at recording, as well as playing, and Charlie made it easy on me. I'll never forget it."
Molly Maher (slide guitar/"Cheap Wine"): "When Charlie asked me to play on "Cheap Wine", I think I asked him, "Why?" I was living in a studio above Third Ear, where he recorded it. I remember coming down stairs, walking into the studio and saw 2 mics set up. One for him and one for me. Really my knees were shaking. I had just realized we were tracking live together. I'm not a strong lead player, hell, I'm not a strong guitar player in general. Once Charlie started singing though, I was swept up in the story. Swept up in the melody. I'm still haunted by his phrasing. I can hear him singing the word "I". I remember the way it came out from his mouth, the way he sang it, the story he was telling.
A while later, I got to play the song with him at the Turf for the release of the record. It felt so good to be back inside the story with Charlie. Here's a photo from that night."
Karl Anderson (upright bass): "The remarkable thing about recording Rooster was the marriage between Charlie’s production style and the recording equipment he used. Any other modern studio session involves a lot of “punching in” with recording software to correct bad notes, adjust vocal and instrumental intonation issues, add harmonies or other backing instruments, etc. Charlie didn’t want the manufactured sound, and the vintage equipment he found didn’t allow for that kind of editing. We all played acoustically into one giant old ribbon mic, so once the tape started rolling there was no going back to change what happened. As a result, when you listen to Rooster you hear exactly what you would have heard if you were with us in the studio instead of the illusion you get from other albums."