To get a sound befitting what Francis calls the “legacy of royalty” crowned in that cabin over the years, Francis and John Carter cherry-picked a firecracker band that includes Nashville all-stars Kenny Vaughan (Marty Stuart, Lucinda Williams), Michael Rhodes (Steve Earle), Ken Coomer (Wilco, Uncle Tupelo), Robby Turner (Johnny, Willie and Waylon) and Bob Britt (John Fogerty) as well as local musicians Ross Bellenoit, Chris Giraldi, Todd Erk and Rachael Yamagata.
“[Recording] was laid back and slow-paced, license to let ideas flow,” Francis says. “But at the same time it was surreal and larger than life to play in Johnny’s studio and with that band.”
In the tradition of legendary American songwriters, Francis’ catalogue brims with characters either chasing or glimpsing the American dream—or flaming out and huffing its fumes the whole way down. When it comes to lyrics, Francis—winner of the prestigious ASCAP Sammy Cahn songwriting award for Better Angels track “Love Came to Me Dressed in Red”—brings a gun to the knife fight.
The dexterity helps Francis command a room. “He’s no pussy on stage,” whispered a friend at the show. After Chaplin’s got rowdy by listening-room standards—one drunk guy declared the U.S.A. the greatest country in the world and suggested another red-faced gent kindly leave if he disagreed—Francis calmed the crowd with “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” a song he co-wrote with John Carter about Johnny Cash’s dying words to his son.
Once he’s got your attention, though, Francis is just as likely to beat back the brooding poetics with goodtime rabble-rousing and playful peels of lapsteel, porch-stompers that say, Hey, since the walls are crumbling, we may as well burn down the barn. (T.M.)
The 50 greatest Philly pop songs