SOUTH BELOIT, ILLINOIS
Beloit-area native James Carratt has been performing music locally since he was a teenager, and recording his own compositions for years.
But on a recent album Carratt released on vinyl, the singer-songwriter who by day is an insurance man didn’t play the lead role in making the music. Instead, Carratt enlisted volunteer musicians from around the Rock County area—47 in all—to record the eponymous “James Carratt Project, Vol 1.”
The album is contemporary country music in style, but it’s loaded with stylistic twists that unfolded from having dozens of helping hands to nudge the sound into new and interesting directions.
Carratt’s own recording and production of the album tapped eight singers (all from the Rock County area) and a handful of local instrumentalists to record a list of songs the now-South Beloit, Illinois, resident wrote as a chronicles of his own struggles in life and marriage in recent years.
The record was released in fall as an 11-song LP on vinyl with two singles released on CD, but it took more than a year to record at home and in a handful of Nashville studios. The work, Carratt said, often was recorded one track and one instrumental or vocal section at a time as musicians worked recording time in between their day jobs and nighttime side gigs.
Carratt, a Beloit Memorial High School graduate who also has lived in Janesville, said he brought in sets of singers after he began test marketing his own earlier recordings of the songs used on “The James Carratt Project.”
Carratt, a guitarist and singer who said his usual style blends hard rock, singer-songwriter and country-tinged stylings, had submitted early versions of some songs to crowd-sourcing websites such as ReverbNation, a site that polls other music producers.
“They (the crowd-sourcing sites) said they loved the material, the songs. They just didn’t like the singer,” Carratt said. “I was the singer.”
“I said, ‘OK. I can come back with any singer you want to hear.’”
For some songs on the album, Carratt ended up returning with more than just a new vocalist.
To tackle his compositions Carratt wooed a bevy of singers and players—some of whom he knew and some others he didn’t.
Beloit singer Jimmy Roeling, for instance, tackled vocals on “Pictures on My Page,” a song from the album which has been released as a single. Milton resident Brad Shear plays lead electric guitar on the song, but the track also leans on 11 different backing vocalists and instruments that include a vintage-sounding Hammond B3 organ and saxophone—two instruments not usually featured prominently in contemporary country music.
“Pictures on My Page” is about the hardships of a romantic relationship on the rocks, and the stripping away of memories that goes along with a breakup. Carratt said his lyrics are personal.
“It was interesting to have a big crew of people there to tell a story that’s from you, to kind of go through it with you that way,” he said.
Carratt mentions groups such as Steely Dan, a 1970s jazz-rock band that often tapped dozens of session players for recordings on albums, as reference points to his own approach to music production. But he said he’s certain that few, if any, country music albums locally or nationally have been recorded with as many musicians as he hauled on board for “The James Carratt Project.”
A few of the musicians, he said, wrote new riffs for the songs, and all volunteered to work on the album for free, he said.
The use of crowd-sourcing to test market music is a new approach, but it’s one Carratt has grown to favor. He sees it as a unique system for deciding how to best construct songs that blend his ear for music with a business sense he forged earning a marketing degree at Northern Illinois University.
“A lot of people have said they don’t think anybody around here’s ever done that,” he said.
Carratt thinks the legwork he did crowd-sourcing songs helped him find the right blend of local musicians for each of the 11 songs on the new record. He said he’s found singles released from the album have gotten airplay on internet radio stations as far away as Europe, exposing potentially millions of ears worldwide to the homegrown talent here.
Locally, it’s grabbed attention. Roeling works for ABC Supply in Beloit. His boss, ABC Supply Chairwoman Diane Hendricks, learned of Roeling’s side hustle as a country music singer.
“Diane bought up a bunch of the singles when they came out. She about cleaned me out,” Carratt said. “It’s really neat seeing some of these performers getting noticed by people in other areas of their lives who maybe didn’t know about what they could do. It’s pretty special.”
For a few tracks on the album, Carratt brought aboard a few national session guitarists who tour with big-name country acts. These included pedal steel guitar player “Cowboy” Eddie Long, who once was a member of country star Hank Williams Jr.’s backing band.
Carratt said he’s surprised some of the contributors to his album with plaques designed to look like record industry awards to thank them for their help collaborating on music that might otherwise have not reached the recording stage.
The record, he said, hasn’t made a lot of money, but he’s interested in continuing The James Carratt Project with another album. He’s working on gathering even more local musicians for the next batch of songs, and he hopes to bring in as many as 60 for the next album.
It could take a few years, but Carratt hopes the next collection features as many as 20 songs and an even more diverse range of styles.