The Country Soul of Swamp Dogg

How a septuagenarian R&B great went from relative obscurity to a late-career renaissance.

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Credit: David McMurry

He’s been making records for over six decades with varying degrees of success, but in recent years Swamp Dogg has become a planet that some of the hippest names in music are orbiting. His new album, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, is produced by Ryan Olson of Poliça and features Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on guitar and piano, Jenny Lewis and Poliça’s Channy Leaneagh on backing vocals, folk star Sam Amidon on fiddle and the great singer-songwriter John Prine on vocals on a pair of songs.

So how did a septuagenarian soul man go from relative obscurity to a late-career renaissance?

Born Jerry Williams Jr. in Virginia in 1942, Swamp has had a long and storied career, beginning as Little Jerry Williams in 1954. During the midcentury heyday of soul, he recorded under his own name and wrote songs for a range of artists, scoring a No. 32 R&B hit with “Baby You’re My Everything” in 1966. In the late ’60s, he began working as an A&R executive for the Musicor label and later Atlantic Records, and rebranded himself Swamp Dogg in 1970 — a year before the artist who would become Snoop Dogg was born.

Short in stature but big in voice, he became a cult favorite with his mind-expanding and bawdy brand of funk, soul and R&B, on such classics as “Total Destruction to Your Mind” and “Synthetic World.” Today, he lives down my street (really) in the Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch, in an unassuming home with some impressive housemates (and collaborators): blues legend Guitar Shorty and late-period Cameo member Larry “MoogStar” Clemon. A poster of an American flag bearing the words “God bless the U.S.A.” hangs in the front window.

You can indirectly credit N.W.A for Swamp’s recording rebirth. Swamp owns the rights to an album by the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, Dr. Dre’s pre-N.W.A outfit that Swamp managed, and was looking to re-release it to cash in on the excitement surrounding the 2015 biopic Straight Outta Compton. Through conversations with his distributor, he was hooked up with Olson, who also runs the Totally Gross National Product label, notable for issuing Lizzo’s 2013 solo debut, Lizzobangers, which Olson co-produced.

“We put together a plan to help him re-release that World Class Wreckin’ Cru album,” Olson recalls. “We talked on the phone about once a week, and I found out he was still making music.” Swamp sent Olson his then work-in-progress, which would become 2018’s Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune“The Auto-Tuning was all out of key, so I said, ‘Let me tune this for you, man.’ And in the process of putting out that record, Swamp was like, ‘OK. Get me two Bentleys — one for me and one for Lonzo. And I was like, ‘Who the fuck is Lonzo?’

‘First off, I can’t get you a Bentley, let alone two.’ But I started working with him because I just love talking to him on the phone.” (It turns out that Lonzo is former World Class Wreckin’ Cru member DJ Alonzo Williams.)

It was Olson who brought his childhood friend Justin Vernon, better known as the leader of Bon Iver, into the fold. With help from Olson, Vernon was working on his album 22, A Million, and Olson later asked Vernon to help with the Auto-Tune on Swamp’s material.

Initially Olson wasn’t too familiar with Swamp’s work, but his collaborators were hip to the Dogg. “I was playing the demos he sent me at a barbeque, and Chris Bierden, the Poliça bass player [who also plays on Sorry You Couldn’t Make It], was like, ‘Is this Swamp Dogg?’ He was one of the few who knew who he was, but I was unaware. And there’s a lot to know about Swamp. He’s done a lot of things.”

Olson then dove headlong into Swamp’s history. He started working on a documentary about Swamp and scoured his demos and back catalog. His work on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune proved to be a success, even if Swamp’s initial reaction was one of confusion. “Swamp was like [Olson does a dead-on Swamp impression], ‘Is that me?’ But I think Swamp loves it now. He didn’t know what to make of it.” He wasn’t the only one who praised the album; MOJO called it “a deviant masterpiece.”

Prior to the release of that album, Olson and Vernon had helped engineer a reunion of sorts between Swamp and legendary folksinger John Prine, who, according to Swamp, first crossed his path when Swamp was employed at Atlantic Records as an A&R man. “I was working for Atlantic, and John was on Atlantic, and they put his record out [Prine’s self-titled 1971 debut] with ‘Sam Stone’ on it, and I heard it and I loved it,” Swamp says. “I didn’t think I could do anything close to it lyrically. It holds its own, anytime anywhere.”

In September of 2017, Olson and Vernon had Swamp fly out to the Eaux Claires festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where Vernon, Jenny Lewis and others paid tribute to Prine. Swamp was there to perform “Sam Stone” with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Bon Iver; the soul singer had covered it on his 1972 album, Cuffed, Collared & Tagged, and re-cut it for Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, but it didn’t end up making the album. At the time, Prine told Star Tribune reporter Jon Bream that he was thrilled to perform “Sam Stone” with Swamp and Tweedy. “I had wanted to meet Swamp Dogg ever since I saw a YouTube video of him doing my song,” Prine said, apparently having forgotten the earlier encounter that Swamp claims to recall. (Swamp is set to support Prine on June 20 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.)

While in Wisconsin, Swamp was roped into a studio session with the German electronic duo Mouse on Mars, who were friends with Olson and Vernon. Vernon guests on the opening three tracks on Mouse on Mars’ 2018 album, Dimensional People, while Swamp is featured doing some spoken word on the album’s final two tracks, “Resumé” and “Sidney in a Cup.” “They just said [to] do what I felt, and I did,” Swamp explains. “I didn’t know they had recorded until I went to their show and they called me up onstage. And I went, ‘For what?’ And they said the part that I did in the studio.”

While the Mouse on Mars material took Swamp into experimental music, Olson and Swamp thought it might be a good idea to go back to his roots and cut a country album, inspired in part by the music Swamp heard on the radio growing up in Portsmouth, Virginia. “It was just another idea I wanted to try, and I found out that Justin and Ryan were down with it, so we did it,” Swamp says. “I was looking for another direction that wouldn’t have people think I was trying to become a hip-hop artist or some shit,” adds the man whose music has been sampled by Kid Rock, DMX and others.

A month after the Prine tribute, Swamp opened a pair of shows for Bon Iver at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. “His audience liked Swamp Dogg a hell of a lot,” Swamp says. “I got two standing ovations. … I have to say, I was shocked on that first night.”

While some might not associate Swamp with country music, he certainly has the credentials. Perhaps his most successful song is “She’s All I Got,” which he co-wrote with his pal Gary U.S. Bonds. Johnny Paycheck’s version of the song hit No. 2 on the country charts in 1971. (Swamp’s likeness and voice were featured in the Johnny Paycheck episode of the Cinemax animated series Mike Judge Presents: Tales From the Tour Bus.)“She’s All I Got” was subsequently covered by, among others, Conway Twitty, Tracy Byrd and Tanya Tucker, who flipped the gender to “He’s All I Got.” Swamp revives the song once again as “(Don’t Take Her) She’s All I Got” on Sorry You Couldn’t Make It.

It was Kurt Wagner of the genre-bending, Nashville-based indie act Lambchop who suggested that Olson cut the album in Music City, a concept Swamp was down with. “We wanted it to be authentic,” he says. “There was a time, I don’t know if that time is now, but you could have taken the biggest musicians and stars out of Nashville, brought them to L.A. and recorded the album, [and] it wouldn’t have been considered a Nashville album because it wasn’t cut in Nashville. It’s still kind of like that.”

To further legitimize the sessions, Olson brought in Nashville players including guitarist Jim Oblon, known for his work with Paul Simon. Olson added backing vocals from Jenny Lewis while on a trip to Los Angeles. And although much of the album was cut live in the studio at Sound Emporium in Nashville, the drums were provided by a sample Olson nabbed from an old Swamp demo. The end result is an exceedingly genuine country album, beginning with Swamp’s tears-in-my-beer ballad “Sleeping Without You Is a Dragg,” through the funky drug tale “Family Pain” and closing “Please Let Me Go Round Again,” a bittersweet duet with Prine.

At a time when Lil Nas X is still flying high on a smash country-rap hit, and more than a decade after Darius Rucker became an unlikely solo country star, the time might be right for a new audience to discover Swamp Dogg.

“Nashville’s made a lot of money off of Swamp,” Olson says. “Hopefully he’ll get some recognition, or at least more than he has. He definitely deserves a lot more, but that was far from our goal when making the album. We were just trying to make a good record with Swamp.”

Goal accomplished. Meanwhile, Swamp and Lonzo are still waiting for their Bentleys.

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