(extended article originally published in Star News with additional Q&A)
By Brian Tucker
“Exposing personal and private aspects of your life can be a very scary thing,” John Wesley Satterfield said about writing songs. “You never know how people are going to respond. But there is a certain freedom in those confessions.”
His Goodbye Whiskey is a semi-autobiographical rock and roll meets Americana album where freedom led to memorable, earthy songs (he nails it on “Appalachian Wind” and “Stuck in the Piedmont”).
Satterfield’s performance at Reggie’s this Saturday is a homecoming of sorts. He’ll be accompanied by a full band – Zack Brindisi on bass (from country trio Gloriana), Jeremy Roberson on drums (currently playing for Chase Rice) and ASG’s Jonah Citty on guitar.
In the mid-2000s Satterfield was in local bluegrass/rock band Woodwork Roadshow. Moving to be closer to his sister after leaving the Coast Guard, he and childhood friend Harris Gardner began connecting with fellow musicians through brother-in-law Matt Wood’s band Grandpa Wood. They joined local bassist Jones Smith for a gig and Woodwork Roadshow began soon after.
“With Woodwork Roadshow I was far out of my comfort zone as a writer and performer. I liked bluegrass, but never really played it. It certainly helped me to expand and develop abilities as a guitar player, singer and songwriter.”
The band ran its course and Satterfield left to attend the University of South Carolina, where he performed as a solo artist and later forming the Damn Fine Band. A fan of Jump, Little Children, Satterfield landed Jay Clifford to produce an EP.
“Jay really gave me a lot of confidence in the studio and it’s pretty inspiring to hear someone like that singing your songs back to you while complementing your takes.”
After graduating Satterfield headed for Nashville, immersing in the area where local talent drove him to stay focused.
“I moved to Nashville for multiple reasons but the main ones are location and the talent. The location is important because it’s a lot more central to the rest of the country for touring purposes. Nashville doesn’t really wait around for you. It’ll eat you right up if you don’t maintain a solid work ethic.”
Goodbye Whiskey was written before moving but Nashville was partly on his mind while arranging the songs. Once there he enlisted Mike Gossin to produce, making the record in three days. Gossin is a member of the band Gloriana, and along with his two brothers, were frequent performers downtown around the same time as Woodwork Roadshow.
“I wanted to put something out there that had a little more punch to it,” Satterfield said. “I knew (Gossin) could get a more streamlined sound to my rough edges. I wanted something a little more polished and Mike really knew how to get that out.”
It’s a colorful pairing of gentler rock and roll with a country feel, centered with solid musicianship and Satterfield’s raspy, aching voice. He said his skills are influenced by his father who taught him the guitar and introduced performers like Harry Chapin, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Cat Stevens.
“Their songs definitely still influence how I write music. I’ve always had a tendency to tell a story in my music and often based on a personal experience I’ve embellished to make more interesting or entertaining. That aspect of my songwriting has always been a central theme and my penchant for involving a story has only become more commonplace when I get into a tune. I just think it’s more interesting to listen to something with some sort of content.”
Satterfield’s “Better View” is a collision of the influences. A catchy, textured song, it makes nods to the Coast Guard as well as traveling and playing music, Satterfield always knowing success wouldn’t be overnight.
“(Its) about the journey towards a better place. There’s a line in the chorus, “Wasn’t shooting for the moon, just a better view of the stars.” I guess it’s about staying grounded and remembering to do whatever you do for the right reasons.”
Additional Q&A with Satterfield
You were a musician well before the Coast Guard.
Yeah, I began playing guitar when I was twelve and I always sang, even very early on. I was active duty in the Coast Guard for four years. I definitely changed in that time as a performer and as a person. I played a lot on the ship, both on my own time and for the crew.
There was a drummer named David Payne from Pascagoula, Mississippi that introduced me to some different styles. That’s when I wrote the Woodwork Roadshow song “Aftermath.” We’d play little shows on the back of the ship during down time often 400-500 miles off shore in the middle of the Atlantic.
What’s your memories of moving to Wilmington, getting here and later deciding to form a band? Did you meet like-minded players quickly?
I moved to Wilmington because my sister and her husband (Matt Wood) were there with a new baby and my first niece. A childhood friend, Harris Gardner from Woodwork Roadshow, graduated from college around the same time that I got out of the Coast Guard. He was looking for a new place to live as well.
We met lots of pickers through Grandpa Wood – Coon Fat Gravy, Willie & Me, L Shaped Lot, Jesse Stockton, No Dollar Shoes, Organix, and some of the other guys that were playing around town. It was a pretty close knit community of musicians back then so it was easy to put some fun jam sessions together.
Harris and I got asked to play with Jones Smith on a gig in Carolina Beach to cover for another guy that bailed on the gig. That was where Woodwork Roadshow got started.
Woodwork Roadshow played a lot around town. Were you seasoned already?
I wouldn’t say I was quite seasoned but I definitely had no previous experience playing that kind of music. I played bass in a punk band in high school so I could’ve easily landed in a band that sounded more like Reason To Ignite or ASG than Woodwork Roadshow, but there was definitely some teeth cutting with that group.
Playing in that band, what experiences helped you be a better musician/performer?
With Woodwork Roadshow I was pretty far out of my comfort zone as a writer and performer. I liked bluegrass but I never really played it. It certainly helped me to expand and develop my abilities as a guitar player, singer and songwriter.
The easiest part of the music business is the music, everything off the stage is the really tricky part. No one tells you anything about that when you start. There’s nothing glamorous or fun about trying to make a bunch of people happy who all have different ideas about the way things should go. There’s also no rule book or guide on how to keep a band together. You just kind of jump in head first and hope you can keep yourself and your friends that trust you afloat. The sharks come later.
Did you find your voice as a singer during that time?
When I go back and listen to some of those old recordings, I don’t feel like I really found my voice then because it was still pretty rough, but I do feel like I started searching for it in there somewhere.
Prior to Woodwork Roadshow I was never the lead singer of a gigging band and I was also never a front man or leader of a group so there was a lot to learn. There’s a ton of things that I learned from that experience, both good and bad, and I think I emerged on the other side of it a better and more capable musician and leader.
Were you confident leaving Woodwork and going solo or was it necessary given you headed to University of S.C.?
I didn’t really see leaving Woodwork Roadshow as a huge risk because at that point, all of the members were pretty unsure if we should keep going. I did what I could to keep it together but the spirit and love of it, the reason that we all got involved in the first place, was replaced by confusion of intentions and mixed emotions. Accountability was non-existent and I felt like I was replacing players too frequently to call it a band. In all honesty, I blame myself and my poor management skills for letting it get out of hand.
It was a good experience for me to learn from and I certainly would have done things different if I had known better but I didn’t know better. That’s kind of the point there. I was pretty confident going it alone because I knew I had more music in me to get out.
Did you relish the challenge of playing solo?
There’s comfort in having some band mates to depend on but ultimately, and this was a hard lesson to learn, you can’t depend on anyone as much as yourself. No one is going to just hand over a successful music career to you. Some people get lucky as hell and happen upon a song or an opportunity, but for the rest of us you’ve really got to fight and drive your way down miles of highway and shitty gigs before you ever see any tangible piece of success.
Jay Clifford is great, how did he push you or surprise you in the studio?
I was beyond excited to work with Jay and it was an incredibly positive experience. I’ve always been a big fan of Jump, Little Children. I used to sneak out of my house in high school to see them play at clubs in Columbia, South Carolina. I jumped at the opportunity to work with him.
He’s a great producer and I got to make that record with the original Damn Fine Band which we got going in Columbia while I was attending the University of South Carolina. Jay really gave me a lot of confidence in the studio and it’s pretty inspiring to hear someone like that singing your songs back to you while complementing your takes. I really hope to work with him again one day.
Goodbye Whiskey is semi-autobiographical, was it freeing to put yourself out there in songs?
Exposing personal and private aspects of your life can be a very scary thing because you just never know how people are going to respond but there is also a certain freedom in those confessions. I think it’s a lot more productive and honest to give people the real you and it’s certainly easier than trying to maintain a facade.
I don’t always appreciate difficult situations but I do appreciate the lessons I learn from them. There’s stories in some of those songs that are really personal and somewhat embarrassing but everyone has those stories, most just choose not to tell them. I do, however, feel like it can help people get through those situations if they understand that they aren’t alone.
I’ve had people email me or come up to me at a show and tell me how relieved they are that someone else had similar experiences and didn’t mind talking about it. I don’t pretend or even really care to be an example for others to learn something from but I think anyone can help another out by hearing their story.
It was pretty therapeutic for me to put myself out there and if it’s comforting or relatable for someone to hear, then that’s all the better. On the other hand, my personal friends didn’t have to listen to any of those songs to tell you I’m an asshole. They knew that long before this record.
Can you share the story behind “Better View”?
I wrote that song partly about being in the Coast Guard and on the sea and also about traveling around and playing music. When I first started considering music as a viable career, I realized that it was going to take a lot of years of hard work and that it wasn’t going to be an overnight thing. That song is about the journey towards a better place and it really is very autobiographical.