Calgary roots veteran Tom Phillips amusing the muse with a Plastic Machine

For Tom Phillips, it was do or die. For the beloved Calgary songwriter it wasn’t just about battling and banning the bottle after years of burdensome benders, or banishing whisky-soaked demons. It was also about the unexpected gremlins that pounded against the crack of sobriety. It was about sitting down in his office one morning, alone, just Phillips, his guitar and his pen, staring deeply into the unflinching, sober eyes of the muse and asking, “Can I or can’t I? What will my future be?”

“I’d written a whole bunch of songs since I quit drinking, but I wasn’t really happy,” Phillips says as we sit at his southwest Calgary home, steps away from the book-stuffed room where he writes his music. “So I went into the office one day and I thought, ‘Ok, can I really write a song anymore? Maybe I can’t. I’m not going to leave here until I’ve decided I cannot write songs anymore or I write one I’m happy with.’ That’s how I was feeling that day.

“Because I was thinking that, I came up with the line, ‘If I can’t rhyme all my words to whisky, I can’t rhyme at all,’ so I wrote that down. That’s kinda how I write, I write one line, work on it until I’m happy with it, then work on the next one.

“I didn’t mean to write it about that, I was just thinking I’m going to either write one or I can’t write anymore and I’m just going to move on. Like whatever, I’ll get a job at Walmart.”

That single line blossomed into the blunt, beautiful masterpiece, Words to Whisky, which Phillips previewed in February of 2016 at the Lantern Church with his longtime band The Men of Constant Sorrow (MOCS) while opening for one of his songwriting heroes, Alexandro Escovedo. After he finished, the audience sat in stunned silence for a moment; it seemed the muse had delivered. It had been 674 days since Phillips had taken a drink.

Now Words to Whisky has taken its place among eight other songs on Phillips’ new album, Plastic Machine, which will be released on Thursday, Dec. 14 with a show at the Ironwood. Phillips will play with his band the DTs (Downtowns? Delirium Tremens? Nope.The Difficult Transitions), whose existence and lineup are a product of the album.

Phillips released his first, self-titled album with the MOCS in 1999, and gained a loyal, almost religious following during the next nearly two decades. He released three more albums with the MOCS including a live album recorded at the old Ironwood, and also released a soundtrack for a Will Ferguson novel, a mainly acoustic solo album, an album of cover songs, a “best of” album, and several songs on a collaborative album, Sorrow Bound, which paid homage to Hank Williams and was produced by Billy Cowsill.

In spite of his reputation as a honky-tonk hero, Phillips has never built too many corrals on one piece of land. His wagon’s always gotta roll. Even when he was drinking, he thrived on musical risk taking, like on 2015’s Mr. Superlove album, a collection of cover songs that came from wherever Phillips had never been. The record earned universal critical acclaim while knocking his honky-tonk following’s hats off into beer they hadn’t yet ordered.

Phillips took a batch of new songs to Lorrie Matheson, Mr. Superlove’s producer, at Arch Audio studio, sat down and played every song he had written since Words to Whisky, one after another while the tape rolled. Together they pared the songs down.

“I didn’t have arrangements. I was playing with the band the DTs at the Blues Can, but they weren’t the DTs yet. Me and Geoff (Brock) and Tim (Leacock of National Dust, The Co-Dependents, MOCS). Ian Grant (Cat Ranch, Art Bergmann) wasn’t playing with us yet on drums. We went in fits and starts, so by the time we got in to the studio again, Ian had joined us on drums at the Blues Can so we said let’s use him.”

With Matheson, Phillips and Leacock perpetually playing elsewhere, the album’s recording stretched out for most of a year. Phillips went on holiday in Vernon and realized that nine songs fit together in the flow he wanted; Matheson agreed. At some point, sisters Shaye and Sydney Zadravec were coming to the Blues Can and adding backup vocals, so their transition into the studio and into the band was a natural. A few other musicians, like MOCS’ pedal steel sweetheart Charlie Veilleux and Deep Dark Woods’ keyboard maestro Geoff Hilhorst added some texture.

The only song not delivered by Phillips’ post-liquor labour was Death of Love, which had been around so long that many people recall him and former MOCS accordion player Ronnie Dyck performing it as a tweener at the Calgary Folk Fest in 2001, even before the stage was moved to the west end of Prince’s Island. It turns out Phillips recorded the song for every album he’s released, but it never worked out. Then Matheson added the horns the song always begged for and which listeners already heard in their heads. “It’s kind of organic working with Lorrie. My favourite line he has is, ‘Arch Audio: we manufacture spontaneity.’ ”

With that exception, the songs on Plastic Machine were written and recorded by a sober Phillips. So what was different about the experience?

“Many things! First of all, just to take the whole writing process to begin with. Because I quit drinking, I was looking for things to interest me, to take up time, and stuff. I thought about how I used to write songs before I started drinking a lot,” Phillips explains. “And I used to just write ‘em! A lot of times I wrote songs towards the MOCS, which I loved doing. I’ve got a honky-tonk band! Well, write subject matter honky-tonkish-kinda stuff.

“I thought I’d like to write some songs without thinking, just for myself, in there by myself. Whatever I feel like saying. I wasn’t thinking of performing, just of songs.”

But writing was not the only thing refreshed by abstinence. “The recording process was completely different for me because when I was recording Mr. Superlove I was shaking so badly and had to have a flask and I couldn’t remember lyrics. I was a mess. I was drinking like 40 ounces of vodka a day, and that was just to start, before I went to gigs.” Going into the studio a couple of years after his last drink was profound. Phillips felt clear-voiced and healthy and had fun during the process.

This transformation was impressive, even startling, and it occurred not only in the spiritual, emotional and mental realms but also in the physical, with Phillips trading in his worn cowboy boots for polished shoes, his country-styled shirts and jeans for a tailored suit and tie. He always seemed at home in his music, but now, it seemed different. In spite of a very loyal following for a couple of decades, not everyone was thrilled.

“When I started playing with the DTs — MOCS still exist and everything — but when I started playing with them some people would say, ‘What’s this? Where’s the pedal steel? This is like rock music!’ I know it’s different, but the songwriting is no different – it might be different in subject matter, but to me, I’m doing the same thing, going wherever the inspiration takes me.

“And in general, 90 per cent of people get it. But there’s some who don’t. And I’m less concerned with that problem for some reason. And there’s some people who get it now who didn’t get it before.”

Phillips adds that he’s lucky because he’s always had places to play. “They’ve always been supportive of whatever I’ve been doing. Including quitting drinking. Like bars supportive of that, that’s weird but it’s true.

“So I don’t feel any pressure to be any way at all and I’m having fun just doing whatever I want, and I almost have to. I have to do whatever I want in my life right now.”

The fans who picture Phillips in his boots and cowboy shirt lost on a honky-tonk merry-go-round overlooked one thing: this is the man who recorded his compositions with Gordon Lightfoot’s band in a Toronto studio years before the MOCS came to be. Phillips is, was, and will forever be a songwriter before he is a musician, image, idol or ideal.

“I’ve always written about what was happening to me, somehow, and what was happening to me for a long time was I was playing honky-tonks and lots of drinking. I still think those (songs) were cautionary tales to some degree. It wasn’t like, ‘Yeah, let’s drink more tequila!’ There’s regret as part of it. I’ve always tried to be candid. And form and craft means a lot to me.”

Phillips says that before writing the songs on Plastic Machine, he sat at home on the couch, not knowing what to do with the time his newfound sobriety brought, playing albums one side at a time. Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations was a morning feature for about a year — not to help with writing but to help him feel calm. Then there was Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Merle Haggard, old soul artists, and so many others, each enjoyed on vinyl and one side at a time.

And as for the songs, they found Phillips. They reminded Phillips of what his mentors used to say: they have nothing to teach about writing songs. They wrote one song at a time, and when that one was done, they learned how to write another one.

Still, Plastic Machine, for all its variety and searching, has a theme. “Most of the songs are about quitting something, quitting drinking or moving forward into something new. I didn’t really notice that at the time. I mean, I‘m not that smart,” Phillips says.

The title song stood out to Phillips; he didn’t realize it was about quitting something until after he’d written it. He’d been watching TV when a commercial for a major computer company showed images of a whole bunch of different looking people, saying they were all the same because they all were using the same product. He hated the idea and thought, “We’re not all the same!”

A few moments later, he walked into his office, which faces a dog park. “There were maybe 15 people in that dog park and every single one of them was going looking down at their phone, and I’d just seen that add and I had this ‘Holy shit!’ moment.

“Maybe it does relate back to quitting something, because I was so hammered for five years. Sometimes I think I missed a whole bunch of things. I kind of woke up and everyone’s got cell phones, and they’re looking at them all the time. It seemed new to me.”

Other songs are so unwavering and transparent that they explain themselves. Sad Girl evokes a perfect picture of a woman coming home at dawn with her evening dress lifted up against her bare feet in the grass, high heels in hand. Phillips said that is exactly what he saw outside his house near the dog park one morning.

She Must Have Swallowed a Bird came from a comment a woman at a used record store in Marda Loop made to Phillips when he was there assuaging his craving for vinyl as a Frazey Ford song came on. Dry as a Desert Bone (a natural reprise to Going Nowhere Fast from 2008’s Downtown Cowboy album) was a song written around similes, just because Phillips wanted to play with those images.

“I was looking for rhyme and metaphor. I wrote, ‘I’m as stoned as a rock-cliff’s face’ and thought, ‘Does that make any sense? Is it too far out there?’ ” He’d lived it, though, which is why it works.

Writing aside, Phillips credits Matheson for giving the songs, pardon the term, sober second (and probably seventh) thought. “I work in songs, but Lorrie works in sounds, production. He hears things, and tells you what it should sound like. He’ll say, ‘This needs a Wurlitzer and I would say, ‘Hmmm? Yeah?’ And then he puts a Wurlitzer on a song and I say, ‘Yes, it needed a Wurlitzer!’ ”

The best example is the final song on the album, My Drinking Days are Over, a sombre yet joyous counterpart to Words to Whisky. The song was three verses long, and Phillips’ intention was to not record it because it was so short.

“But Lorrie’s like, ‘No-no, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to turn it into a giant thing!’ So we did a big gang sing with searing guitar. It turned into a rock song to my ear. We reprised (it) and turned it way up. (There’s even) crickets — when you’re drinking, they’re like pink elephants and stuff!”

With Plastic Machine being released, a couple of good bands in his life, and a good view of a dog park, Phillips doesn’t seem to want for much. His best times now, are, as usual, connected to music. Listening to music before recording, Phillips fell into the habit of listening to different albums every day. It is said that recovery means discovering the person you were before the substances tried to re-write you. For Phillips, recovery is being able to listen to his favourite songwriters every day, and remember them.

“That absolutely inspired me to write songs again. ‘Oh, I love this stuff, this is what I love!’ Music is something that can move me sitting there by myself on the couch, and I want to try (songwriting) again. Just like when I was a kid.”

Tom Phillips releases his album Plastic Machine Thursday, December 14 at Ironwood. For reservations call 403-269-5581.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who loves music and horses. She has been writing about these passions in the Calgary Herald, FFWD Weekly, Swerve, Western Horseman and other publications for nearly 30 years.