Spend any time in Rutland, and you’re bound to know at least one or two musicians. Our community has always enjoyed a vibrant local music scene. Jesse Lawrence, however, isn’t just another strummer in the window of Center Street Saloon or Café Terra. His blend of stripped-down, traditional country music and earnest songwriting has earned the attention and respect of peers and audiences alike.
A self-taught player who learned guitar at the age of sixteen when a back injury forced him to put sports on hold, Lawrence’s musical aspirations can be traced to an exact moment. “I saw the music video for [The Beatles’] ‘Free as a Bird.’ It was so amazing to me. I thought to myself, that’s what I want to do; I want to create something that inspires people the way that song inspired me.”
Early on, Lawrence and his brother Ryan would get together with friends, to write and play. “It started as a competition,” Lawrence said, “We’d trade off songs, and try to outdo each other.” From there, Lawrence began to get up the nerve to start performing publicly, playing open mics around the area and honing his chops. By the end of high school, Lawrence and his brother were playing in their first band, Helpless.
From the beginning, Lawrence was committed to writing his own music, to creating something that was unique and original. One of the first songs he ever wrote was at the request of his grandmother who asked him to write her a country song. “It took me about fifteen minutes,” Lawrence noted, who was at the time surprised at the ease with which the song came to him. The result, “Memories Go on Forever,” is still a staple of his sets, and remains his grandmother’s favorite song that he performs. “I’ll play her a new song, and she’ll say, ‘that’s nice, but that other one is my favorite.’”
Of his songwriting, Lawrence explains it as an ebb and flow process. He can go months without writing only to compose several in one day. “I’ll get a melody and maybe a lyric, put them together, and a song will start to come together,” he says of his approach. Whatever the method, he’s doing something right.
Lawrence describes his music as country, but with definite roots and Americana leanings. It is spare and honest with a lyrical depth that draws you in to a world of trains, honkytonks, devils, and loves pursued and lost. Working in an idiom that predates him by several generations, Lawrence feels right at home. Among his many influences, he puts Hank Williams, Sr. at the top of the list. “My dad used to play a lot of Hank,” Lawrence says, “his music was so simple but at the same time it conveyed so much. Hank was 29 when he died. It always struck me as amazing that someone so young could tell stories like that.”
It’s that juxtaposition of simplicity and depth that drew Lawrence to country music. While most teenagers are attracted to contemporary music or generic classic rock, Lawrence found himself seeking out a different sound. “I used to get a lot of grief from my friends for what I listened to,” he notes, “but that’s what inspired me. Structurally, everything is so basic-the chords, the melody, even the lyrics,” he explains, “but when you put it all together, you get something much deeper.”
After high school, Lawrence and his brother formed a band called Drag; again, playing originals, though not exclusively country and Americana. His current band, The Staind Glass Cowboys, started out as a side project, but soon became his primary focus as he continued to explore country sounds. With drummer Jason Crady laying down rock solid shuffle beat, Lawrence performs briskly moving sets of originals, and surprisingly, even some covers. You can catch them every Tuesday night at Center Street Saloon where they share the stage with local folk-rock duo The Chiptones.
Looking ahead, Lawrence is optimistic yet grounded when it comes to a career in music. “It’s always been a dream, but you reach an age where it becomes difficult to make it. Life has a way of putting things into perspective,” he says, noting that there are other priorities such as paying the bills and eventually starting a family, which take precedent. “At this point, if it happens, it happens.” He is content to play when he can, and cites other local musicians as examples of how you can have the best of both worlds. Still, a listen to the Cowboys’ most recent album, Along the Highway, the Backwoods are Burning (self-released), will convince you that Lawrence is poised to do big things.
Expressed: (Approximately) 5 Questions for Jesse Lawrence
The Express’ Jim Sabataso recently caught up with local guitarist Jesse Lawrence at his day job at Café Terra to talk music and listen to some tunes.
Jim Sabataso: Favorite musician?
Jesse Lawrence: Right now, it’s Hank Williams.
JS: One, two, or three?
JL: Hank the first, of course. Though, Hank III is great in his own way.
JS: We’re listening to the Beach Boys right now. Another influence?
JL: Definitely. I find myself drawn to bands with strong harmonies. The Beach Boys, the Four Freshmen, their voices were their instruments.
JS: So you must like the Fleet Foxes then?
JL: Oh, yeah. They got such a great CSNY/Beach Boys thing going on.
JS: What’s your dream guitar?
JL: I think I own it. A 1969 Framus acoustic.
JS: You’re a Beatles fan so I have to ask you this: John, Paul, George, or Ringo?
JL: He was just so consistently good all the way through with the Beatles and with his solo work.
JS: What’s your most memorable musical experience?
JL: Neil Young. July 4th, 2004. His Greendale tour. I didn’t know a single song on that album, but it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever scene. People around me were crying.
JS: Lou Reed or David Bowie?
JL: Lou Reed, no contest.