"I've had some small meetings," Dodge says by telephone from his new home just south of downtown Nashville. "I came down here, and it's been like stink on shit. You can't throw a stick without hitting a country star. I saw Rodney Crowell in the health food market the other day. But no one thinks anything of it. At first, you're like, 'Hey, I've seen that guy on TV,' but then they're just hanging out."
Dodge isn't someone folks at the health food market have caught on television. His albums with longtime band the Horsefeathers aren't widely available, despite raves in small national publications like No Depression. Dodge says his newest album, Nervous Habit, has sold "pretty good for a release that has no label and no support." Almost a year after recording the disc in Salina, Kansas, with producer John Brandt, Dodge put Habit out in August 2000 with only a marathon performance at Louise's in Lawrence to commemorate the occasion. "I'd keep track of sales if we were selling any records," Dodge jokes. "Someday, I wanna be able to pay the band."
If Kansas City has turned out anything resembling an E Street Band, the Horsefeathers are it. Bass player Jeremy Sidener writes songs for Panel Donor, guitarist Matt Mozier graduated from Truckstop Love, and piano player John Mozier's graceful touch is integral to Dodge's sound. "I don't think Kenny writes," Dodge says about his drummer, Ken Pingleton. Dodge laughs at the good-natured jab and says, "These guys are amazing. They all do their own thing, and then they do my thing."
For now, their things and his thing remain separated by geography. "I'm trying to convince Kenny to move down here," Dodge says. "Hopefully, I'll come up every three or four months and we'll do a handful of local shows. The scene here is a tough egg to crack, so I don't know that it's time to move everyone down here. So we're not breaking up, but we're not doing anything either."
For New Year's Eve, the band will reunite for the first time since Dodge skipped town. He says there will be just one long rehearsal, time to catch up and begin talking about recording again. "We've played together long enough that we're pretty tight. We've got a 30- or 40-song set we can do. We've got a lot of new songs, so we'll probably do some of those. Then maybe in the spring, April or May, we'll record," Dodge says.
However, Dodge is not idle. He continues to demo songs to his four-track recorder, a good chunk of which he hopes will wind up on other people's albums. "A lot of what I write I wouldn't necessarily put on my own records. They maybe wouldn't work on our album," he explains.
For someone as prolific as Dodge, who says the title Nervous Habit may as well refer to his compulsive drive to write, the search for new outlets seems indispensable. "Writing is pretty much a natural thing for me," he says. "I don't sit down to write, but I do write a lot. Sometimes I don't touch a guitar for a week, and sometimes I'll write a song a day for a week. The writing takes care of itself. If I think that something is good, I usually don't mess with it. I usually don't go back to work on just part of a song. Occasionally I finish a whole song and realize that it's the same as the last five songs, even though they have completely different lyrics and tunes. But that sixth song might be a lot better.
"If you listen to a great Tom Petty album with nine great songs, you know that he probably had 50 songs that didn't get on there because he had to get it down to one album," Dodge adds. "It's usually not the best thing for an album to be that inclusive." He relies on the band to help him winnow the list to a manageable dozen or so songs, playing new material live rather than sitting them down with his tapes. "I don't make anybody play anything. I will push for the songs I really believe in, but if everybody doesn't like it, we don't play it."
The intimate, downbeat Nervous Habit proves the Horsefeathers have good taste in Arthur Dodge songs. On tracks such as "Stripper in a Cab" and "North of Mexico," the music achieves the emotional resonance of Alejandro Escovedo's haunted work; it's music to sweep the drunks onto the street by, with Dodge playing the tender barfly. But he still has room on the disc to belt out some of his lyrics; his flinty voice is assured and compelling.
"I think it's an improvement," Dodge says. "You always realize six months after you make an album what you did wrong, or the ways you could have made it better. Our last album we affectionately refer to as our 'greatest hits.' It jumps around. But that's what a transition album is, and we had a whole new rhythm section, which changes everything. This album is darker. It's just the messed-up emotional state I've been in the last few years."
Dodge says the goal -- one the band met -- was to make a cohesive recording. He credits Brandt, whose son John IV was born on the first day of recording, with adding "good perspective" to Habit. "He's old-school," Dodge explains. "He's lived in Nashville. He'd come out and say, 'No, that's perfect,' when we wanted to keep adding."
Now it's Dodge who lives in Nashville, an old-school songwriter trying to catch the tide of new traditionalism. "I think it's going to be good here for a while," Dodge says, an offhanded assessment that would sound natural on his answering machine, maybe right after he says, "I just wrote a hit.