Northwest Coast Magazine, Fall 2008
Carl Wirkkala would love to make a splash on the country music scene. But if it happens, it will be on his terms.
The 33-year-old Castle Rock resident has written nearly 200 songs – a handful of which are currently being considered by publishers and producers – and released four albums. His sound is a combination of blues, folk, and old-school country. Something you might hear if Johnny Cash and Buzz Martin sat down to jam with Bob Dylan and Tracy Chapman.
Although Wirkkala writes about “the West” in general, his music is pertinent to the Pacific Northwest in particular, with subject matter that includes logging, mill closures, and used-up towns.
“Some people probably think I should be chasing commercial country music,” Wirkkala said. “But I have to write what I know and what I like. It’s what I call ‘American music.’ It’s relevant to working people, not just cowboys with big belt buckles.”
Train Town, the newest effort from Wirkkala and his band, the Ghost Town Boys, is due out later this year.
Finding a Niche
Getting noticed is difficult – even if you have talent. Nearly all radio stations – regardless of the genre they favor – adhere to intensely-hyped, pre-scripted playlists.
“I could call every country station in the area, but it wouldn’t make a difference,” Wirkkala said. “No matter how good the song is, they aren’t going to be able to play it.”
Wirkkala sees himself as a writer first and a performer second. “I’m not trying to market myself as an act,” he said. “I’m trying to get my songs out there.” And in the country world, out there means Nashville. Carl has made four trips to country music’s hometown, the most recent in March of this year. Chad Mitchell, a high school friend and fellow songwriter, helped Wirkkala connect with several producers, including Cowboy Jack Clement.
“Cowboy Jack is an icon in Nashville,” Wirkkala said. “He produced Charlie Pride’s first albums. He knew Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. It was a thrill to talk with him and hear the stories he had to share.”
Wirkkala recorded a song in Clement’s studio, with Cowboy Jack accompanying Carl on the guitar on “The Man in White,” a tune dedicated to Cash. Clement is currently holding “Man in White” and “Freedom Town” – the title track from an album Wirkkala released in 2006 – and determining whether they will be broadcast on the Sirius radio program he hosts each week.
No Longer a Logger
Carl’s father, Orville, and uncle Allen worked in the woods as shovel operators and rigging men for many years. Orville eventually formed a robust gyppo outfit called Liberty Logging that was active in southwest Washington for two decades.
Carl worked as a chokerman during the summers when he was attending Castle Rock High School and Lower Columbia College but had no intention of making logging a career. “I was a junior at Eastern Washington University in 1997,” Wirkkala said. “My brother had left school, so I was by myself. I was running out of money, and I didn’t feel like college was where I belonged.”
He quit school and went to work for Liberty as a chokerman and rigging slinger. “I told myself I’d just work one more summer,” he said. But that summer turned into nine years, a promotion to siderod, and full immersion in the workings of the company.
When Orville decided to get out of the logging business in 2006, he offered Liberty to Carl and his wife, Donna, but they declined. “I’d seen what my dad and uncle went through and knew that, even with all of their experience, they were having a hard time making a go of things,” Carl said. “That helped convince me to turn down the offer, but I also felt like music was tapping me on the shoulder.”
He admits that he misses the work and harbors regret about abandoning the family business. “For me, logging is the Final Frontier,” he said. “Being away from it is an open wound. But on the other hand, I’m thankful to be out of the woods with my knees and my health.”
Loggers and Locals
If you’re looking for urban cowboys, you’ve come to the wrong place. Wirkkala writes about small towns, broken dreams, and times gone by. “I’ve always been a young guy who writes and sings about old things,” he said.
Wirkkala’s music features chokermen, bank robbers, forgotten mining towns, and even an ode to Rosco P. Coltrane of Dukes of Hazzard fame. There are no stampedes, honky-tonks, or hangovers.
Many of Wirkkala’s songs are about the Old West of the 1800s, but he tips his hat to the Northwest in some of his strongest numbers. Wirkkala recognizes that logger music is dying and does his best to call attention to an occupation and culture that have been decimated in the last three decades. “Rigging Men” (Ghost Town), “Haywire” (Freedom Town), and “Raingear Blues” – are humorous yet accurate descriptions of the physical, close-to-the-bone logging life.
The narrator in “Raingear Blues” is plagued by a surly yarder operator, a demanding siderod, and the lack of a lunch.
Out here the wind’s a blowin’ the tail hold’s a goin’.
Why I’m still here I haven’t got a clue.
I’ve got the tight log-in-the-fog, kinked-up-choker-knob,
Ripped up raingear blues.
Bad weather and steep ground are the nemeses in “Rigging Man.”
When the logs are tight, and the ground is steep,
And it’s pounding down the snow and sleet,
It’s enough to make a greenhorn cry,
As he pulls on his tattered gloves to give it one more try.
“Haywire” carries a lament that could be uttered by hundreds and hundreds of Northwest chokermen who have pulled haywire during a line change:
I pull up that hill and down the other side.
I ain’t gonna stop ‘til the hooktender yells ‘line.’
Gonna pull that wire as long as I can.
My old man says it’ll make me a man.
“Frankfort,” another song with Northwest roots and a respect for the past, tells of a ghost town near Naselle that Wirkkala visited as a boy with his father. Strong writing by Wirkkala, spot-on back-up vocals by Tim Current and oboe accompaniment – which does not seem at all out of place – by guest musician Skip vonKuske highlight this tune from the Freedom Town album.
I can hear the axes ring.
Whistles blow and the engines roar.
Another day. What will it bring?
A hundred thousand feet or more.
The Ghost Town album includes “It Takes a Friend,” a poem written by Carl’s grandfather, Charles Wirkkala, during the 1930s. Carl set the words to music as a tribute to his grandfather, who was killed while cutting timber in 1962.
Carl’s father, Orville, left logging in 2006 to answer a ministerial call in Kingston, Minnesota. Spirituality runs deep in Carl’s life and permeates his music, but he avoids preaching and focuses instead on themes of redemption, tolerance, and optimism.
“A lot of people are hurting,” he said. “It’s not my job to judge others. I try to give them a message of hope.”
The Sound of Northwest Roots Music
Wirkkala lists Johnny Cash and Billy Joe Shaver among his most prominent musical influences. Neither relied on fiddles or gimmicks, nor does Wirkkala.
“I’ve always been a big fan of Johnny Cash,” Wirkkala said. “His music is so unusual and has such a wide appeal.”
Wirkkala’s gritty voice and stripped down instrumental arrangements play like a throw-back to a time before country music began sounding like a cross between the Osmond Brothers and Electric Light Orchestra.
Wirkkala and the Ghost Town Boys span the gamut from blues to ballads. “Train to Glory” (Freedom Town) is souped-up, with the tempo matching that of the train to paradise on which Wirkkala tells us we can all ride. The song relies on excellent lead guitar work by producer Kevin Nettleingham, who sat in on this number.
“Somebody Tell the Fool” from the new Train Town album is a beautiful, plaintive ballad of lost love that showcases Wirkkala’s songwriting abilities. With minimal instrumental accompaniment, the simplicity of the melody is a perfect match for lyrics that go straight to the heart. The words float atop the guitar chords.
Somebody tell the fool, she’s gone and she ain’t coming back.
Quit staring down the railroad track.
Somebody tell the fool..
Somebody let him know, she’s halfway to Birmingham.
Quit writing songs nobody understands.
Somebody tell the fool
Learning the Craft
Wirkkala is at his best when he is specific. In “Gunfighter’s Last Ride” from the Ghost Town album, the narrator introduces the passengers with whom he is sharing a train car:
There’s a buck-toothed kid in the corner, cleaning on his old six-gun.
Sickly doctor next to him whose face has never seen the sun.
Tall man in a flashy suit, with a handlebar mustache.
His eyes are looking right through me, and he’s got two pistols in his sash.
“I’ve always had a knack for writing and storytelling,” Wirkkala said. He attributes his interest in writing to a childhood affection for Louis L’Amour books and the teaching of Gary Udd at Castle Rock High School, where Wirkkala graduated in 1993.
He wrote his first song, “Borderline,” which eventually found its way onto the Ghost Town album, in 1996. “I was home from college for spring break. Dad was shovel logging near Ryderwood. I wrote the song on the back of the bag my chicken strips came in.”
He takes instruction from singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, whom Wirkkala describes as a master at creating pictures with words. Unlike Cash, the Texas-born Shaver has never found commercial success, in part because his music, like Wirkkala’s, does not conform to the type of commercial country produced by Big & Rich, Rascal Flats, and other pop-country groups.
“I have a lot of respect for Billy Joe Shaver,” Wirkkala said. “I try to be as effective as he was at putting words together. I think I’m getting better because the more I write, the more my songs seem like poems. I’m working hard to develop consistent imagery and to be efficient with words.”
“Lost Highway” from the upcoming Train Town album could easily have been penned by a wanderer during the Great Depression:
I’ve got on my ragged shirt.
I’ve set my thumb in the wind.
I know I’ve fallen in the dirt,
But I’ve struggled up again.
I’ve walked the soles right off my shoes
On this blacktop nowhere road,
And what awaits in the miles before me
I don’t really want to know.
Wirkkala admits that he is still learning how to tell a story effectively in three minutes – the length of the average song. Like other writers – regardless of genre – he reminds himself to show, not tell.
“It’s a real bonus to have the tempo and the sound to convey emotion and carry part of the load,” he said.
The Ghost Town Boys
The band was formed in 2004 and maintains a limited performance schedule. Most shows include covers of numbers by Cash, Shaver, Waylon Jennings, and Buck Owens, but the majority of the songs are original compositions written by Wirkkala.
The focus is on acoustic combinations, along with steel and electric guitar riffs by Wirkkala’s talented cousin, Lucas Holmgren. Eric Mickelson (drums), Ron Robinson (bass) and Tim Current (rhythm guitar and backup vocals) round out the group. Lead guitarists Daryl Pipkin and Paul Allen occasionally sit in.
Current’s tenor adds a nice touch when he and Wirkkala sing together. Current has released a CD titled Convergence and is working on a new album with a rock emphasis. “I tell Tim I don’t like it when he sings,” Wirkkala said. “He makes me look bad.”
Wirkkala released a gospel CD called Time Above the Ground with friend Bjorn Sjolund in 2001. This was followed by Ghost Town (2004) and Freedom Town (2006) with the Ghost Town Boys. A second gospel album, The Love of God, came out in 2007.
Wirkkala’s albums are engineered and recorded by Kevin Nettleingham at Deaf Jim Records in Vancouver, Washington.
Making Ends Meet
Relying only on word-of-mouth marketing, Wirkkala has sold approximately 1,000 copies of both Ghost Town and Freedom Town. The bad news is that recording an album costs $8,000 to $10,000, so profits are hard to come by. In order for his music to generate a living, Wirkkala will need to sell songs to publishers. If those songs find their way onto records that produce income, Carl will be entitled to royalties.
To pay the bills, Donna works as a bookkeeper, and Carl does part-time excavation and construction work. In the meantime, he writes.
“Donna and I haven’t talked about a stopping point (for his full-time focus on music),” he said, “but that could be out there if I can’t make ends meet.”
He has no illusions. He understands that there are no guarantees. “My goal is to write songs of value and take my music to the highest level I can. But you have to be good, and you have to be lucky.”
If You Want to Listen
Wirkkala and the Ghost Town Boys play twice a month at Hattie’s Restaurant in Castle Rock. They are scheduled to perform at Naselle’s Finnish American Folk Festival – “Knee Deep in Finns” – July 25th and 26th.
“We’ve been getting plenty of calls and could definitely do more shows,” Wirkkala said. “But we’re trying to stay away from events that involve too much driving. I prefer to put my energy into songwriting.”
Wirkkala’s music can be purchased at Hattie’s and at Minuteman Press, Just Music, Cowlitz River Rigging, and Thiel’s Music Center in Longview. Online purchases and downloads are available online at Napster, iTunes, and CDbaby.com.
Carl and his wife, Donna, have two children, Lance (six) and Brooke (four). Lance is the subject of “All I Need” on the Freedom Town CD. Brooke’s photo graces the cover of that album.
Listen to Carl Wirkkala: