It takes a special kind of mid-life Midwestern songwriter to transform the tale of Ann Boleyn, Henry VIII’s famous second wife, and Thomas Cromwell, the king’s lesser-known chief minister, into a cheatin’ song.
On his new release, Summer, Kansas City songwriter Scott Hrabko, with the help of his backing band The Rabbits, added a subtle historical adjustment or two, and voila: lines like “I’ve got it bad for Anne Boleyn,” make complete sense. Add a few dazzling pedal steel and guitar solos, and the song successfully straddles both England in the 1530s and Nashville in the early 1960s — and showcases Hrabko’s fearless, innovative songwriting.
“That one came from a PBS miniseries called Wolf Hall,” Hrabko explains. “Cromwell got to know Anne Boleyn a little bit, and there was a sexual tension between them.”
Plus, he says, “the Ann Boleyn character had these fierce eyes."
Hrabko knew there was a song in there. Also, he was sick of writing about himself.
“When I do that, the thing that moves me to write is to complain, and it gets really tiresome,” he says of his Tudor detour.
Since releasing the lyrically intricate and musically dazzling Biscuits & Gravity in 2015, Hrabko’s facility with words, expertly encompassed in the many possibilities of country — Western swing, rockabilly, and classic country of the ‘50s and ‘60s — has remained constant.
With Summer, his third record, Hrabko is as enthusiastic about writing music as he’s ever been.
“(By this age) most people have either made it big time and are trying to perpetuate that, or they’ve given up, or it’s just a hobby,” he notes. “It’s either a blessing — or a cruel joke — to have things come into focus this late in the game.”
Even if Hrabko’s songs do make the occasional complaint, the people in them are real enough to make some kvetching understandable. The cheerful “Sunshine Girl” (which Hrabko emphatically declares is about a character, not him) has a line about admiring a girl enjoying music on headphones with a twist that reveals the guy’s essential sweetness while simultaneously kicking him squarely in the self-esteem.
“I came up with that line ‘I’d make love to her for sure, if she could endure…,’ and after that dot-dot-dot, I came up with ‘the gratitude,’" he says. “And then the back-up singers come in with 'So uncool.'”
In his songs, there’s always room for a little more bottoming out.
The origins for his searingly funny and devastatingly painful lyrics, Hrabko says, generally start out with one phrase.
“The Ogre’s Waltz,” for example, is built around a sweet, nostalgic melody, but it’s about a man seemingly born with a secret mark that makes women around the world find him repulsive. It started with "the ogre at the orgy.”
“I laughed out loud when I wrote that phrase,” Hrabko remembers. “I held on to it for a long time, because I thought, ‘It’s too gross, people are going to think I’m weird or something.’ Then my wife said, ‘Write the damn song! It’s hilarious.’” (She was right.)
Hrabko’s muse isn’t always quite so smooth — or serendipitous.
“Usually, there’s a horrendous struggle,” he says with a sigh. “It’s not like I just gracefully land on these. I’ll get really lucky; I’ll have a moment when things just flow, but that’s preceded by miserable times just pushing words.”
Hrabko’s songs, with the support of a league of dedicated local musicians, are every bit as intricate and well-crafted as his words, and they nearly always just plain swing.
“Bob Wills is obviously an influence,” says Hrabko, “and I like music that’s a little behind the beat. I love that world.”
The musicians joining him for Friday’s CD release party are veterans in every genre of country. They include the latest version of the Rabbits: Fred Wickham (Hadacol, The Naughty Pines) on guitar; Marco Pascolini (The Naughty Pines, The Country Duo) on guitar and pedal steel; Jason Beers (Dead Voices, Brannock Device, Freight Train Rabbit Killer) on bass; and Tim Higgins on drums; as well as nearly all of the guest musicians on Summer, including Mikal Shapiro and Chad Brothers (The Shapiro Brothers); Brett Hodges on fiddle; and vocalists Lauren Hughes and Havilah Bruders.
“We’ll do all of the songs, and some greatest hits from the other two albums, plus some covers,” Hrabko says. “We’ll even do an Elvis song.”
Scott Hrabko's Summer release party, 7-9 p.m. Friday, June 23, at The Brick, 1727 McGee Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108. Hrabko and Fred Wickham swap songs at the Saturday Storyteller’s show, 5-7 p.m. Saturday, July 1 at Ollie’s Local, 3044 Gillham Road, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.