The Music Man
In the ’80s, Charlie Peacock was jamming with Randy Jackson in midtown Sacramento and being asked to open for a then-fledgling U2 in Davis. These days, he’s collaborating with the American Idol judge on TV projects and having Bono over to his house for breakfast. This is the unlikely tale of a kid from Yuba City who moved to Nashville to become a Grammy-nominated producer and multiplatinum songwriter, and his journey back home to where he once belonged.
S Suffice it to say, Charlie Peacock is having a very good year. In February, a band that he
discovered in the ’90s called Switchfoot won the 2011 Grammy for Best Rock Gospel Album. The film Rabbit Hole with Nicole Kidman has been circumnavigating the globe with a song that his company placed on the soundtrack. An album that he produced last year by a band called The Civil Wars reached No. 1 on the iTunes album chart, and then the duo won the coveted spot as an open-ing act for this year’s tour of Adele, the British sensation who has sold more records than any other artist in the United States this year.
On her blog in May, having just knocked off Katy Perry for the No. 1 song in America, Adele wrote of the Peacock-produced pair: “Their record is beautiful … I’ve never been so blown away.”
Not bad for a kid who grew up in a peach orchard in rural Yuba City.
And seated today, in early April, at a friend’s house in Natomas, that’s exactly where Peacock’s head is at—that orchard. He is describing his uniquely northern Central Valley boyhood, the incongruous and potent mix of a pastoral upbringing and Watergate-era consciousness-raising. He describes what, in his teens and early 20s, it was like to have Jerry Brown as governor (the first time) and poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg buying property up the hill in Nevada City. “All these heroes from the Beat era were just cycling around,” he marvels.
Slowly, he set about making a name for himself, figuratively and literally. He may have been born Charles William Ashworth in the summer of 1956, but in the process of making music—jamming at Sacramento area clubs, garnering music industry success, and overcoming in 1981 the drug and alcohol addiction that derails so many promising young artists—he became Charlie Peacock.
It’s the name under which he would be nominated for a Grammy for his album The Secret of Time, co-produce a Grammy-winning album (Best Rock Gospel Album in 2004, for the band Audio Adrenaline), produce music by acts as varied as soul legend Al Green and African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, write hit songs for artists like Amy Grant, release more than a dozen of his own solo albums, and accumulate enough gold and platinum honors to account for a staggering 20 million in record sales.
And now, 22 years after he moved from Sacramento to Nashville, he’s back. At least part time.
It was actually five years ago that Peacock and his wife Andi quietly purchased a second home in Yuba City, far from their cen- tury-old country house in Nashville. Yuba is where the two grew up, went to school, met, had their first kiss—and where they still have an extended family, some 80 people by his accounting. “When my wife and I made the decision to buy a house in Yuba City,” he says, “it was really about me having a heartache about missing home.”
And while Yuba is undeniably his hometown, Sacramento is the place where Peacock, who turns 55 in August, traces the creative successes of his past and, on this sunny day, perhaps even gets a glimpse into his future. That’s because he’s in town this morning to meet with Attwater, the new Sacramento country band that he’s mentoring (that’s right, he left Nashville to find a country band in Northern California), which will release—under his guidance—its first single and video, “Never Gonna Happen,” on June 7.
While the specific circumstances that connected him with this young duo may feel accidental (more on that a little later), it’s all part of a very purposeful desire on Peacock’s part to reconnect with his past, both geographically and culturally. That’s why, after years of coming West for a few weeks here and there, the plan now is for him and Andi to spend upwards of a quarter of their time in Sacramento and Yuba City, flying in for several weeks at a time every six weeks or so. And while the pair love spending time with family and reestablishing roots, make no mistake, they’re not slowing down one bit.
“There’s a sense that in some ways the initial work I went to Nashville to do has been accomplished,” he says. “So you can say, ‘Now what?’ We’re all just tiny little people and you can only spread yourself so thin. But on the other hand, there is so much that I admire about the West, and admire about Northern California. I would like to be plugged into it again, if that is what’s meant to be.”
Charlie Peacock’s speaking voice is soft and steady, lower than his singing voice, which tends toward a high tenor, but just as melodic. You can hear his songwriting instincts play out in his speaking pattern. The majority of it is a lulling calm that serves as a kind of “verse” portion, and then it’s punctuated occasionally by pointed, well-crafted statements that provide an intrinsically memorable “chorus.”
He’s dressed with a similar sense of carefully considered understatement: flannel shirt, loose blue jeans, flat-bottom sneakers. He retains the boyish doughiness of his youth, though a thinning pate of shortly cropped hair shows that time has, indeed, passed since his formative Sacramento years when he was a keyboardist and a burgeoning singer-songwriter at countless clubs that don’t exist anymore, like Melarkey’s, Harry’s Bar & Grill, Club Can’t Tell, Shire Road Pub, and Lord Beaverbrooks, the latter of which was one of the first projects by a young man named Randy Paragary.
“There are two restaurateurs in Sacramento that helped my career,” says Peacock. “Peter Torza from Harlow’s and Randy Paragary. They both bought me instruments, and I paid them back. Peter will tell you to this day that he credits [local musician] Steve Holsapple and I for [being the catalyst that launched] Harlow’s.”
Contacted in his native Connecticut, where he’s developing a new nightclub, Torza does just that. He explains that he was the manager of a restaurant called Nicole’s, and well past midnight he opened it up to cook Peacock and Holsapple an omelet, and to have a few drinks. “I will never forget that night. The next day the owner caught wind of it, and he fired me.” Unemployment was the mother of Torza’s entrepreneurship.
Torza, when told that Peacock thinks he may have been the first musician to play Harlow’s, one-ups the recollection: “Not only did he play at Harlow’s, he played there before it was even a nightclub, when it was still just a restaurant.” Torza, who himself studied music under the legendary jazz saxophonist Jackie McLean at the University of Hartford, says Peacock’s musicianship stood out: “It was apparent he had a lot of talent. He had great phrasing and great songs, intriguing tunes, intriguing lyrics.”
Paragary seconds Torza: “I owned a bar called Harry’s Bar & Grill, which I opened in 1980, and I was very impressed with him, not just as a musician, but with what a nice guy he was. I think I helped him buy a keyboard. He wrote original music. I would describe it as ‘new wave’; it was that period. I thought he would be a successful recording star. There were a lot of bands covering other people’s material, but he was doing his own stuff.”
But it was the aforementioned Stephen Holsapple, a visual artist, film editor and musician whose songs have been recorded by Bonnie Raitt and Dave Mason (co-founder of Traffic), who was Peacock’s biggest supporter. “However many years it’s been now, he was the one. I booked time at Moon Studios,” says Peacock of the Sacramento studio where Holsapple manned the boards. “I got some money from my wife’s grandma, I saved [up some money of my own], and I drove down from Yuba City to record my songs. And after we recorded, [Holsapple] said, ‘You know, you don’t have to pay anymore. I’ll record you for free.’ ”
Another of Peacock’s early collaborators was equally memorable—none other than Randy Jackson, known as the longest-running judge on American Idol, but also a bassist whose significant past accomplishments are, paradoxically, overshadowed by his broadcast celebrity. Working largely as a studio musician, he has recorded and played with Journey, Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, Jerry Garcia, Madonna, and countless others—including Charlie Peacock, back in the mid-1980s.
“Never has a bass player gone so far,” jokes Peacock, who continues to collaborate with Jackson on projects for NBC TV movies such as The Jensen Project (with ER’s Kellie Martin and Sacramento’s own LeVar Burton) and A Walk in My Shoes (with Nancy Travis of Becker fame). “The great thing about Randy is, no matter what he does that is so blatantly commercial, you cannot take away from him that he is one of the greatest bass players in the world.”
Idol’s Jackson, asked to comment on his old recording and ongoing business colleague, is equally effusive. “Charlie is one of the greatest. Whether it be pop, rock, R&B, he is one of the most talented musicians and singers,” he says. “Charlie also helps and develops other great artists and talents. Charlie is definitely a future leader in the world of music. He’s always pushing the envelope forward in the right kind of way, and I love that!”
Charlie Peacock’s singing can bring to mind, at times, Sting’s—and, glancing back further, Randy Newman’s—with its touches of jazz phrasing, the way he hints at chords and favors complex melodic constructions. Those touches are often at odds with the pop music settings in which his voice is heard. To focus on Peacock’s voice is to understand how much he is a product of the post-punk era—“new wave,” as Randy Paragary put it—during which he came of age as an artist. It’s a voice halfway between the blue-eyed soul of the 1970s and the androgynous synth pop from the dawn of MTV.
The thing is, Peacock’s voice isn’t as prevalent as it once was. He doesn’t sing as much as he used to, not in public. In the past decade he has released just three albums under his own name, two of which aren’t anything that the majority of his recorded work would hint at. They are experimental jazz albums, featuring some of the biggest names in the small but highly influential avant-garde Lower Manhattan jazz scene, folks like drummer Joey Baron and guitarist Marc Ribot. Both albums debuted in the top five on the CMJ (College Music Journal) jazz chart.
Fans of the various stages of Peacock’s career—from Sacramento band sideman, to pop singer-songwriter, to recording artist affiliated with the contemporary Christian movement, to prolific Nashville songwriter and producer, to record industry executive—may be surprised, even confused, by those two jazz records. But Peacock’s affection for the genre has really been hiding in plain sight all these years.
“Bassist Gary Peacock, who played with Bill Evans and currently plays with Keith Jarrett, is where the name came from,” the man born Charles William Ashworth says of his adopted moniker. “It was during the punk-new wave movement, around 1977—everyone seemed to be changing their names. Local legend had it that Gary Peacock lived in Chico for a time.” And so he christened himself Peacock, and has remained Peacock ever since. It even says so on his passport. (Recalls wife Andi, “On one of my first visits to his house, he sat me down in his bedroom and made me listen to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. It was the beginning of my jazz education. He was so excited about great music and true artistry wherever he found it and he wanted to share it all with me.”)
As for Peacock’s long- diminished solo work, he says, “I haven’t been super serious about a solo career for probably about 15 years. I believed some of the lies of the record business. Like, if you don’t become a superstar by the time you’re 38, don’t bother thinking you should go out and make music when clearly it’s a young person’s game.”
His own “young person” period had a major time-out, precipitated by a drug and alcohol addiction that eventually required him to seek rehabilitation. “That was in 1981,” he says. “My conversion experience was deeply woven into my drug and alcohol recovery.” For emphasis, he interlocks the fingers of his hands.
Eventually this Christian self-identification would bring him a new and sizable audience. He released albums on the labels A&M and Island, and wrote tracks under contract for CBS Songs. And in 1989 he signed with the Christian record label Sparrow, at whose suggestion he and his family moved to Nashville. What followed was a whirlwind, an extended one. “Literally, we checked into an apartment and I started working, and within days practically of being there, wrote ‘Every Heartbeat’ for Amy Grant,” says Peacock of the signature hit for the biggest Christian pop artist of the time. “And I was off and running. I mean I put my head down; 10 years later I brought my head up, and I had produced over 50 albums.”
All that production-work opportunity contributed to his decision to diminish his performing, though family life also played a role in the career shift. “I don’t think I could continue to go out, get on a bus Thursday, Friday, Saturday, come home on Sunday, play with the kids, then go to the studio Monday through Thursday, before I get on the bus at midnight, and go through that month after month,” he says. “Mostly what was in my head was taking care of my family. Because after being a drug addict and an alcoholic musician loser, it was kind of like my number one thing was being a good husband and being a good father.”
As time passed, though, Peacock grew less comfortable with the religious stance of the music scene in which he was thriving. He came to view contemporary Christian music as “building a separate community that sits as a satellite to the rest of the world.” He says he likes to think of himself as “someone who is willing to give voice to spirituality in the public square,” but criticizes the Christian-music industry of the era as “us-versus-them.” This tension between his ardent populism and the industry’s perceived self-isolation led to such a sense of fracture that he wrote a book about it. That book, At the Crossroads, which he co-authored with daughter Molly, looked deep into the contradictions he describes. It was published in 1999, and for him brought an end to that era.
“I can say, with all honesty, I have never said that I was a Christian musician,” he says. “My theology doesn’t even allow for it. It’s not who I am. It’s not what I would say. And finally, after a while, the audience for that music said, ‘You know what? We don’t think you are either.’ ”
He pauses for a hearty laugh. “And then it was, literally, ‘Thank God. Now I can move on with my life.’ ”
But Peacock’s career decisions and the resulting book have had ramifications far beyond him and his family. Take the Fray, one of the biggest rock bands to emerge in America in the new century. Its first album, released in 2005, went double platinum, and the follow-up debuted in 2009 at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. The Fray’s members were raised religious, but broke with the insular Christian music world when time came to pursue their own music. Says Fray frontman Isaac Slade of Peacock’s book, “It echoes my experience of coming up in the church and some of the opposition I got for wanting to play outside of the church.” Slade is speaking from Denver; it’s May, a few weeks before the Fray will join U2 on a series of North American tour dates. “If the culture is a neighborhood,” he says, “the religious sector ends up being a ghetto that very few people ever want to go into, and very few people ever manage to get out of.” Peacock recently produced a gospel song that Slade recorded with his wife, Anna, for an interfaith project. But Peacock’s influence on Slade precedes even the Fray. Says Slade, “As I was growing up, he was one of the main rebel voices that believed you could sing songs in bars and not go to hell for it.”
For Peacock, leaving the Christian music industry didn’t mean leaving Nashville, and one major source of continuity in his Nashville life has been Art House, which he and wife Andi founded in 1991. This is the country church they now live in. “The Art House is a hybrid home and a mixed-use space, which includes recording studios, offices and living areas, and the original chapel of a Methodist church built in 1910,” he says. “The space was deconsecrated in 1965, when the congregation moved down the road to a new building.” Creative people from around Nashville, as well as those passing through town, regularly sit at the Art House table and share their experiences. These have included U2 singer Bono, pop star Katy Perry, film producer Bruce Davey (Braveheart), theologian R.C. Sproul, country artists Keith Urban, Vince Gill, and Lee Ann Womack, pastor-artist Erwin McManus and banjo player Béla Fleck.
Actress Patricia Heaton, best known as the mom on Everybody Loves Raymond, says she met Peacock when she was in Nashville trying to raise money for a movie in the spring of 2008. “I never got the money,” she says, “but I met Charlie, and that proved to be the silver lining of the trip.” She has spoken at Art House, and describes what it’s like: “Charlie always opens his home to discussions about art, why we create, the deeper meaning behind what we do, the impact it has on culture—it’s sort of a salon for different artists, a space where artists can leave the mercenary aspect behind and just exchange ideas, talk about the impact of faith on our art and art on our faith, how to support each other, how to maintain integrity and still be successful.”
On Apr. 12, Peacock made an announcement on his Twitter page, where he maintains a steady flow of thoughts, jokes, links and public conversations with fellow musicians. It was a statement that would change the lives of two Sacramento musicians: “Very proud to announce the signing of @attwatermusic to Twenty Ten Music @musictwentyten.”
Twenty Ten is the music company he runs with musician son Sam. (His daughter Molly works in development for NPR.) It specializes in artist development, music publishing and the lucrative realm of placing songs in movies and on TV. Songs that Peacock has worked on, as songwriter and/or producer, have appeared in films like I Love You Phillip Morris starring Jim Carrey and Elektra starring Jennifer Garner, and television shows like CSI, Grey’s Anatomy and Smallville.
Attwater is the name of the Sacramento country music band centered around the songwriting core of singer Erika Attwater and guitarist Jonathan Richards. Twitter was a fitting place for the announcement because Twitter is where Peacock and the country aspirants met in the first place.
“This is how much I can’t get Sacramento out of my system,” says Peacock, who lists dual citizenship (“Nashville, TN & Yuba City, CA”) on his Twitter profile. “If someone follows me on Twitter,” he says, “and I see Sacramento, then I have to see if I know them, or know of them.”
Twitter may be great for quick introductions and split- second observations, but Attwater agreed that meeting up in person would be the best way to discuss this turn in their musical careers. They suggested one of their favorite Sacramento cafes, the artisanal coffee shop Temple Coffee on S Street between 28th and 29th streets. So on a sunny afternoon, we sit outside while someone installs fresh tiles in the patio and the steady rumble of the Capital City Freeway Loop provides an industrial sonic backdrop to a lengthy discussion about country music.
They are youthful (Erika is 24 and Jonathan is 31), refreshingly unguarded, and at some point they allow that aside from a radio appearance, this may be their first real interview. Ever.
Jonathan describes how their initial close encounter with Peacock came to be. “We had discussed where we wanted to go musically,” he says of himself and Erika, whose family name serves double duty as the band’s. “And one of the things we discussed is it would be cool if we could actually get in contact with someone who knew what they were doing. With Charlie specifically, we had been following him on Twitter, so I sent him a message. At first he was just giving input and advice. And then an e-mail came out of nowhere asking if we had any song samples, and that led to him wanting more samples and him saying, ‘I’m interested in working with you guys.’ ”
As a testament to the stature of Peacock’s career, both members of Attwater were fans of his before they knew they were fans of his. Jonathan mentions a song by the Christian act DC Talk that he had liked for years, without ever realizing Peacock was its author. And Erika is a longtime fan of the singer Joy Williams, one half of the duo The Civil Wars, whose recent breakthrough album, Barton Hollow, owes much of its success to Peacock’s untraditional, ultra-quiet production. (In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, country starlet Taylor Swift recommended the Barton Hollow song “Poison & Wine” as “a must-have for anyone who has ever experienced any kind of love at all.” The song features in the recent Kate Hudson film, Something Borrowed.)
Those industry connections certainly appeal to an ambitious act like Attwater, but for Jonathan and Erika, Peacock’s local credentials are especially important. “He played these clubs,” says Jonathan, referring to Harlow’s and other former local haunts of Peacock’s.
Peacock says his helping Attwater is all about payback: “I want to give someone the same chance that people gave me.”
Asked whether Peacock misses the down-home Nashville food when he’s in Yuba City and Sacramento, he laughs and answers with a simple “no.” He says it’s quite the contrary, and always has been. “In the earliest days of living in Nashville, we’d miss the simple things like prosciutto from Corti Brothers, things that we couldn’t get. Like, where’s the prosciutto? We still miss that. One of our very, very close friends, Kathi Riley Smith, she’s a chef and consultant [in Sacramento] and part of the whole new cuisine movement that started at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. We actually hire her to come to Nashville and cook for events for us so we can bring a little of the West out there.”
Wife Andi describes the first time they flew back to Sacra-mento after purchasing the new Yuba home: “I remember looking out the window of the plane as we approached the airport, really noticing the beautiful patchwork quilt and colors of the farmlands, and feeling the comfort of familiarity. There’s always a sweetness as we drive from the airport to Yuba City, seeing the Buttes and the Sierra Nevadas in the distance and acclimating to our homeland once again.”
Asked what else he’s missed about Sacramento, Peacock transforms into the Chamber of Commerce: “I’ve missed the Nimbus Fish Hatchery on the American. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with trout, steelhead and salmon. The fish leave home to explore an ocean of possibilities and then return home to where they began. Weatherstone was our main coffee shop. It’s a little more gentrified now. I just went there with local promoter Jerry Perry and the coffee is still great. The Crocker is a milestone place for me. I played events there, but most impor- tantly I experienced Stephen Kaltenbach’s remarkable painting Portrait of My Father there. His painting has life-altering power.”
He goes on to list poets, artists, musicians and, being a musician himself, eventually winds his way to Mecca. “The thing I miss most about Sacramento isn’t around anymore, and that’s Tower. When I was a young musician the goal was to get your record in Tower—that’s how much cultural sway Russ Solomon and his team had. It had the power to shape you. Tower was our library, our Google,” he says. “When UC Davis asked if I wanted to open for a baby band from Ireland called U2, I went to Tower to see who they were. When I got curious about reading the Bible, I went to Tower Books and bought one. I remember the album I did for Island Records in 1986. It was a big deal for me to walk into a Tower and have an entire endcap display, and have [the promotional displays] hanging from the ceiling.”
To come back to Sacramento, for Peacock, is to try to reconnect with that origin story, to come full circle. “You have that arrogant youth position. ‘I gotta go someplace [else] because I need a bigger place for my big ego,’ ” he says. “Then, as you mature and see the world a little bit differently, you start to appreciate [where you’re from], and you want to contribute to that story. The history of Sacramento and outlying areas like Yuba City is an extraordinary one. It’s as if you have the whole of the United States rushing towards the West and funneling down to meet at this confluence of rivers which are eventually going to lead you to San Francisco and out into the oceans of the world. I love being a part of that. I respect that now, and I love it.”
This is why making a home in Yuba City is important to Peacock: He is returning home to find himself, just as he once left home to find himself. “You’re only as good a citizen as you are a keeper of the stories,” he says. “If you want to maximize what it means to live in Sacramento or Yuba City or wherever, you gotta make an effort to learn the stories, because the stories inform your life, and shape you, make you one kind of person in the world and not another, and also help you find your place in the story.”
Attwater is the first but not the last new act he hopes to work with here. And he has other ideas for ways to contribute to Sacramento’s music scene, including adopting the famous “guitar circles” or “guitar pulls” that made the Bluebird Cafe a Nashville institution. “You look for these binding agents, like they have some magnetism, they attract, and they hold together,” he says of the way simple communal activities can have a deep and lasting influence, “and one of the things that worked like that in Nashville is this thing called ‘in the round’: four singer-songwriters, and you sit in a round and you literally go around three or four times and you each share a song.” And Peacock intends on being among those playing.
He has a wish list of Sacramento musicians to work with, in the round or under other circumstances, some as a reunion, some for the first time: “I have to perform with [local ’80s Top 40 artists] Brent Bourgeois and Larry Tagg, [local jazz great] Henry Robinett, and [Tower of Power’s] Roger Smith again at the very least, but would love to work with, among others, Vince Di Fiore,” he says of the trumpet player with the band Cake. He jokes about flying in one of his electric keyboards so he can jam with jazz saxophonist Tony Passarell.
For the immediate future, though, his focus in Sacramento is Attwater, the decidedly mainstream country band he met online and whom he now wants to put down serious roots right here and then build a national audience: “I’m definitely putting a lot into Attwater. I want Sacramento to embrace Attwater and send them out. There’s an old Jewish saying, ‘Seek the [peace and] prosperity of the city … and you yourself will prosper.’ It’s from the Book of Jeremiah. I really like that, and I believe it,” he says. “If you want to live in a better city, then be a part of the process of encouraging and making people value the city.” S