The Vegabonds’ Daniel Allen Hails From The Land of ‘Sinners and Saints’
The Vegabonds recently released new album Sinners and Saints via Blue Elan and have also unveiled a new video for single, “Heartache and a Memory” that takes their live play in new directions. The album shows serious songwriting chops from the band as a whole and also from individual songwriters, including Daniel Allen, Ross Beasley, and Beau Cooper. The varied and blended sound elements on the album also suggest a wealth of creativity that comes from band-wide input in musical traditions. We spoke with lead songwriter and vocalist Daniel Allen about the creative landscape that gave rise to the new album and why the album title and title track “Sinners and Saints” really does make a statement about the band’s identity as they process their roots.
Americana Highways: Is it true that you’ve been songwriting for quite a while and you’re responsible for many of the lyrics on Sinners and Saints?
Daniel Allen: Right, that’s my main focus on this album, the lyrics.
AH: Can you tell me a little about working with Ross Beasley and how his collaboration works with the band? I think he has a couple of songs on the new album.
DA: Yes, Ross has three songs, I believe, that he was sole writer or co-writer on for this album. Ross is a longtime friend of mine and we went to college together at Auburn University. We actually started a band together at Auburn, called Danny and The Tanks. I sang and played bass guitar and Ross was our lead guitar. We’re all from Dothan, Alabama. I didn’t know Ross until college, though, so that’s when our relationship started, but he’s a really great friend and a good guy.
Danny and The Tanks broke up because I joined The Vegabonds, so it’s kind of a full circle thing for Ross to be involved in our songwriting at this point. I’ve always known he’s a good songwriter. He was a literature major and is very focused on the songwriting aspect of music, which I like. He ended up moving up to Nashville in 2014 and living with us, as a band. He got closer to the rest of the guys and now lives with Beau Cooper. So he’s a close friend of the entire band.
AH: He seems to have a similar way of thinking and aesthetic, which means it’s kind of seamless on this album and the songs go together very well.
DA: Oh, yes, it is seamless. That’s a good word for it.
AH: So, some of the songwriting on this album is collaborative for you. How is working with Ross different for you than working on a song alone?
DA: It’s not too different, aside from me sitting in my kitchen writing by myself. I always get to the point where, if I can’t finish a song, I think of a lot of people who can help me finish it. I write with a lot of people here in Nashville. That’s been a real focus of mine for the past three years, co-writing. I’ve been getting out into the community and writing with different folks. If I get to the point in a song where I’m just stuck, or have writer’s block, I always think who would be good to call on. It just so happens that for a lot of the Vegabonds songs, Ross is in just the right mindset, so I end up helping him or he helps me finish songs.
AH: I’ve heard that collaborating with other songwriters can be a situation where you have to set your ego aside to succeed, but it sounds more like it’s a big relief in this situation.
DA: Well, we’ve just been friends for such a long time that neither one of us really brings ego to the table when we’re writing. We know each other deeper than a co-write would normally go. But yes, I have been in co-writing situations where I just knew that it was not going to be a good song because we could not vibe as people. But that’s not the case with me and Ross, or me and any of the guys in the band. When we collaborate, we can pick up on how it’s going pretty quick.
AH: I heard that the whole band took a break for the first time in years at the beginning of the pandemic that might have had a good impact on the songwriting on this album. How did it affect you?
DA: It was a forced break. I was writing pretty heavily up until May of last year, then I just wanted to do something else. I was off the road, my whole life had changed. Things were flipped upside down. I found out that me and my wife were going to have our second baby, who has been born now. I just wanted to take a break from everything, turn off the news, turn my phone off, and see what interested me.
So I actually started a business, doing real estate investing, and fix and flips, which is kind of what I grew up on. My family was in building materials and building houses and that’s what I did growing up before I ever found music. It was a first love that’s a people business, like music. I feel like music allowed me to cultivate relationships, and I’m doing that now in real estate too.
AH: Do you like to physically do any of the work yourself?
DA: That’s funny you asked. I actually just started my first flip yesterday. It’s awesome. We went through and started painting, cleaning everything up, and putting floors in. It’s fun and creative. It’s the same mentality I apply to songwriting. It’s like, “Here’s this house that needs to be updated and it’s my responsibility to make it look good.” I was surprised at how similar the mindset was once I started doing it.
AH: I’ve had this experience fixing up a house over the last six months and doing a lot of things myself. I had some experience from when I was younger, but I really ended up getting into it at this point. It was really something I needed right now.
DA: Yes! You can just go in there and demolish everything and start from the bare bones of the house.
AH: It’ll be really satisfying when you finish that place, too.
DA: I can’t wait!
AH: I just saw your new video for “Heartache and a Memory” and I love live play videos like this one. Was live play a choice you made for the video because you are so known as a live band?
DA: It was presented to us as an option. We’ve done live playing before for videos, but we thought this idea was really cool because it’s all one continuous shot. We loved the idea of that. When we got in there, it was already set up, and we didn’t really know what we were walking into. It was a little exciting. We just saw this white walled room and we just knew it was going to be awesome. With that background, they put the vibe on it with the yellow lights, and then we did the one shot. I’m really happy with the way that it turned out.
AH: I loved the lighting because it gave it almost a retro vibe with a filtered look. I associate some retro elements with Vegabonds, though it’s not a prevailing direction.
DA: Looking at different types of music really breeds new genres, too. We’re all really into different styles of music as well as generally being into the same things, too. That shows itself in the practice room and how we write our original music. It makes it original and unique, in my opinion, that we’re all different, but the same.
AH: Have you had a chance to play “Heartache and a Memory” live much?
DA: Yes, we started playing one-off shows back in March, just dipping our toes back in the water and taking precautions. We started doing a few runs, but we haven’t been on an extended tour. I don’t think we really want to at this point because it’s just an interesting landscape out there, depending on where you are in the country.
AH: It’s still bumpy.
DA: Yes. But it’s been our MO with all of our songs since day one is that we want to play them out as much as possible in front of a live crowd to see how they react. We want to see if it is as good as we think it is. We’ve been playing “Heartache and a Memory” for months now. The main objective behind playing live before a record comes out, to test that connection.
AH: Does is change how you end up recording a song?
DA: Oh, yes. Because we’ll start playing a song very early on after we write it, and in the live setting, we can get that energy going and do something a little different. Maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t. But it always changes the way that we end up recording it.
AH: When you all are playing a new song live, is there improv going on? Are there jam elements built in where band members can add elements?
DA: Yes, we leave room to do some improv and do some jams, especially with new songs, to see where we can go with things. We know the basic structure of the song, where the verses are, where the chorus is, but we’ll have some room in there to open it up a little more and see where we can go with it. During the verse or during the chorus, maybe Beau [Cooper] or Richard [Forehand] will play something just a little different to see the reaction that we give them. We might give them a little look, like, “Hey, I like that right there. Do that!”
AH: Then you have to remember it later! You’ll be checking out smartphone footage to see what happened.
DA: Yes, exactly.
AH: “Heartache and a Memory” is one of the most adult breakup songs I’ve ever come across because it acknowledges fault on both sides and takes a hard look at things. But I was surprised to hear that you wrote it several years ago, so apparently, you’re very emotionally mature!
DA: [Laughs] Well, I’m a lot older than the other guys, too. But I’ve had my share of breakups through the years. I’ve been happily married for almost five years but I’ve been through it with relationships. I always try to write from a real place. Of course, I do have songs where I’m like, “I was done wrong!”
AH: That’s a country tradition. You have to write those also.
DA: In essence, in most relationships, we all do stuff wrong. I was on a plane this past weekend, and I was going through my list of voice memos on my phone and saw that I started writing “Heartache and a Memory” exactly four years ago. It started off as a country song, on acoustic, with the lyrics. It came full circle with the release and video.
AH: That’s incredible. Songs can definitely take a long time. Can you tell me anything about the song “Sinners and Saints” and the writing process? I really love the lyrics on that song. I feel like, as the album title as well as the song title, it does say something about the identity of the band and where you come from. Was that intentional?
DA: It was intentional. I always like to say, right before we play the song live, “Let me tell you what my granddaddy used to tell me.” It’s all these Southern sayings that I grew up with. That’s pretty much the chorus, all these one-liner sayings. I grew up in church and we were in church every time the doors were open. I’m a very spiritual guy with my Christian background. It comes through in the music.
This is one song where I said, “You know what? I did grow up with sinners and saints and sometimes they were the same people. I was taught different things by the same people. There’s one line in there, “They taught me how to pray and they taught me how to play the game.” That was my upbringing, with people saying, “You need to have a very grounded spiritual presence, but you also need to know how to navigate life.” It’s a very special song to me, lyric-wise, and when Beau brought the music in, it just fit and was great.
AH: It’s a really powerful song and I’m glad you all were bold enough to include such direct lyrics.
Find the Vegabonds information and music here: https://thevegabonds.com