Tales from Tennessee

MAYBE it isn’t true after all that, to echo the title of a Thomas Wolfe novel, you can’t go home again.

MAYBE it isn’t true after all that, to echo the title of a Thomas Wolfe novel, you can’t go home again.

Through memory, imagination, reflection, the past is a place that can be vividly revisited.

At least, this seems to be the case for Hans Chew, who will be playing three gigs at the Rhythm ‘n’ Roots Festival this May bank holiday weekend.

His debut solo album is Tennessee and Other Stories, and its 10 songs take the currently New York-based musician back to the state of his childhood.

He grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a small city by American standards, with a population of 150,000 to 200,000 people, where his father was a high-school teacher.

“We lived on the campus of a sprawling boarding school that was right on the banks of the Tennessee River right at the foot of Signal Mountain,” he recalls. “We had a gigantic campus to play around in that had lots of woods, a baseball field and a soccer field, a lake, and we spent lots of time skipping stones down by the river banks.”

One of his clearest memories is of watching from his bedroom window as barges would come down the river at night, the captains scanning the river banks with search lights to ensure that the boats didn’t run aground.

“I used to try to signal to the riverboat captains with my bedroom light. I would flick it on and off in some sort of gibberish Morse Code,” he says. “And sometimes they would shine their light in my room and I would always feel like I was communicating with them in some sort of Mark Twain/ Huck Finn kind of way.”

“I have some great memories,” Hans says. “I got a lot of love from my mother and father. If you listen to my music, especially Tennessee and Other Stories, I think you can glean from that that I did get a lot of love from my mother and father. My father was a great, great person. He did a lot with me and did a lot for me, but he was dying with cancer my entire life. He was diagnosed when mother was pregnant with me, but he was a real fighter. He battled with it until I was 14.”

“I think a lot of the music is informed by life in the face of death and suffering and hope,” he reflects. “A lot of those early childhood experiences inform a lot of the themes of the music.”

It’s also a way to take stock of the past, to record and preserve it, and then be able to move on.

At an earlier stage in his life, when he had decided to move on, both physically and emotionally, he found himself at the age of 28 living in Atlanta’s Clermont Motel Hotel for two years.

The hotel is most famous, or infamous, for its basement being the location of a “gentlemen’s lounge” or club, “where the dancers were probably the median age of 50 and some of the dancers had exotic and famous names like Blondie, an African-American lady who wore platinum-blonde wig”.

It was, Hans says, “like a Clint Eastwood movie meets David Lynch”.

He did go to hear bands at the club in his 20s, but when living in the hotel he instead devoted his time to working on his own music.

“I was at a point in my life where I was kind of at the end of my rope,” he says. “I moved in there because it was very cheap and it was a great location. It was a beautiful old crumbling building from the early 1920s.”

And so he would come home from work, sit with his digital piano and typewriter, and play piano all night long.

“It was kind of my Beat poet existence. It was a fun, romantic way to turn my life around.”

His decision to take up the piano was partly a conscious one, knowing that he would have a better chance of standing out in the music world, with so many others playing guitar. It also, again, harked back to his earlier days in Tennessee, although this time with his own slant on things.

“When I was about 6 or 7, my mom made me take a couple years of piano lessons and I absolutely hated it! I was screaming and crying,” he laughs, although he is grateful to have had the foundation of knowing how to read music.

As well, he says, “I always remember when I was a kid we saw Jerry Lee Lewis on TV and I remember my grandfather telling me: ‘That man’s crazy right there, son’.”

It was a “crazy” style that Hans would eventually decide to make his own: “That boogie-woogie piano just got into my soul.”

Hans Chew will play three gigs at this year’s Rhythm ‘n’ Roots Festival: on April 30 at 6pm in Ryan’s, on May 1 at 2pm in Cleere’s and on May 2 at 1pm in the Pumphouse. Tickets to each gig are e12. He will also give a “very informal” tour of the National Craft Gallery’s current ‘Irish Craft Portfolio’ exhibition on April 29 at 6pm.