Equally gifted as a singer-songwriter, musician, and producer, Nick Lowe is the author of classic songs including “Cruel to Be Kind,” “Without Love,” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding).” Impacted and influenced by country music since childhood, Lowe made his way through England’s pop and rock world of the 1960s and ‘70s, and by the mid-1990s was concentrating on a quieter, deeply rooted sound, forging what amounts to a second musical career.
Peter on Episode 15: Nick Lowe
Nick Lowe has managed a trick that eludes many musicians: aging gracefully.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Lowe was a brash young pub rocker from England, inclined toward boozy adventures in melody and mayhem. He wrote songs with titles like “Milk and Alcohol,” “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” and “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ’n’ Roll),” and he recorded for Stiff Records, where he also served as an in-house producer.
He won fame in the U.S. with the impossibly catchy single “Cruel to Be Kind” in 1979, and he wrote “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” a hit for Elvis Costello that has been covered by dozens of folks, from Bruce Springsteen to late night host Steven Colbert. The song was also featured on the soundtrack to a movie called The Bodyguard, and that soundtrack sold more than 18 million copies, giving Lowe some monumental paydays. (As Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, once said after Elvis Presley recorded Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Them’s powerful checks.”
Lowe spent some 1980s time visiting Nashville, as he was married throughout that decade to Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash and Country Music Hall of Fame member Carl Smtih, and the stepdaughter (though he treated daughters and stepdaughters with equal affection) of Johnny Cash. The marriage proved impermanent, but Lowe’s relationship with the family (including Carlene) remained tight, and Johnny Cash would go on to record “The Beast in Me,” a song Lowe wrote expressly for the Man in Black.
As the 1980s gave way to the ‘90s, Lowe was entering his 40s, and feeling worse for wear. What could have been a mid-life crisis became an affirmation of artistry and a renewal of intent.
“The only thing he knew for certain was that he didn’t want to end up on an oldies tour, doing a ‘slightly balding version’ of his naughty self from the 1970s while the crowd snickered, ‘Oh, God, this old tosh!’” wrote Mark Binelli in Rolling Stone.
And so, beginning with his brilliant 1994 album, The Impossible Bird, Lowe’s music got deeper and quieter, at once more subtle and more inventive. He further explored his unusual guitar technique, in which he frets the low-pitched strings with his thumb, allowing four fingers to find intriguing chordal voicings. And he wrote songs that traded urgency for timelessness, and sarcasm for gentle, sly melancholy.
I was thrilled to talk with the man about his triumphs and transitions, and about his country music influences.
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