Unlike Dr. Gregory House, the brash and brainy character he portrayed on the hit TV medical drama “House,” British actor and musician Hugh Laurie wants to make sure he won’t ruffle any feathers when he comes to play his first-ever Nashville concert at Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Sunday, October 13.
“An Englishman coming to Nashville and singing ‘The Tennessee Waltz’ – do people reach for rotten fruit and firearms, or do they take that in the proper spirit?” he asks The Tennessean.
Laurie talks of his impending Nashville visit with the utmost respect (“It’s a holy city for music”), but it was his reverence for another musical town – New Orleans – that fueled this year’s “Didn’t It Rain,” his second collection of classic blues covers. It’s a sound that’s spoken to Laurie all his life, ever since “around age 7 or 8” when he first heard bluesman Willie Dixon.
Calling from Vancouver – where’s he’s filming the buzzed-about Disney film “Tomorrowland” – Laurie told us about that lifelong love of blues and classic country, and how his musical chops have found their way into his roles over the years.
We were thrilled to hear a couple of months back that you were coming to town – and making your Nashville debut.
It’ll be more of a thrill for me. Not that that’s the point of it. I mean, I realize the point of this exercise is not to give me a thrill, it’s to give the audience a thrill, but nonetheless, I can’t deny I’m very, very excited about the prospect.
The prospect of playing in Nashville, Tennessee, specifically?
It’s a holy city for music, and I’ve never been there. This will be my first time, and I can’t wait. I’m treading on holy ground.
You take a lot of inspiration from another musical city – New Orleans – and traditional blues and jazz. When did you first hear that music, from any era, and how did it connect with you?
I was very young. I don’t remember exactly – that’s how young I was. It was an age before one cared about one’s age. But I’m guessing at about age 7 or 8, and I heard a record on the radio, and I had this idea, I don’t know why. I think it was (blues musician) Willie Dixon. From that moment on, I was just sold.
“Sold,” that doesn’t really cover it. I’ve got to be careful, because I know I’m heading for a very religious part of the world. I’d better not call it a divine revelation. It was like a thunder bolt, and I’m still shuddering from it even now, 50-odd years later, and will for the rest of my life. I’m not suddenly going to get into hip-hop, I can pretty much guarantee that.
While we’re talking about Nashville: any classic country sounds that found their way to you, and did they inspire you at all?
Oh, yeah. Well, actually, I need to ask your advice. An Englishman coming to Nashville and singing “The Tennessee Waltz” – do people reach for rotten fruit and firearms, or do they take that in the proper spirit?
I think they’ll love it – it’s one of our state songs.
It’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Well, that’s good to know, because that has been a favorite of mine, ever since I was a child. I know a million people have done it, but we actually recorded it for the album, and then I sort of slightly lost my nerve, because again, that’s a holy song, and I had a slight feeling of maybe trespassing. I know I’m trespassing anyway. But we did record it, and I absolutely love that tune.
You know, Hank Williams was always a hero of mine. There’s something about what appears to be the simplicity of what he does. It’s so deceptive, because anyone else tries to do it, and suddenly, they realize it isn’t that simple. Or at least, simple isn’t the same as easy. Robert Johnson, I think, is similar, in that people think, ‘Oh yeah, I know what he’s doing there.’ Well, no. It just so happens that nobody else can do it. Nobody can do Robert Johnson, and nobody can do Hank Williams. There’s something about guys like that. It’s unique, and all one can do, I suppose, is pay a kind of service to the songs themselves, rather than the artist.
You’ve mentioned two guitar players, so I wonder what made you gravitate towards the piano, versus other instruments?
It’s a good point. I suppose, well, besides the obvious thing of – I like sitting down – although a lot of Nashville players play guitar sitting down…
Yeah, some of them have a pretty sweet deal here.
Exactly. I never saw myself as the guy up in front. I never saw myself as a guitar hero when all of my friends were either playing real guitars or air guitar. That wasn’t how I saw myself. I saw myself more at the back, just noodling along on the piano. I suppose there was a strange thing that happened. When I was listening to Muddy Waters, the more I listened to his records, the more I found myself picking out what (Waters’ piano player) Otis Spann was doing. Brilliant piano player though he was, he was very often deep in the mix, so it was quite hard to hear what he was doing. I just found my ear going to that, and trying to figure out why what he did sounded so great and touched me so deeply. I don’t really know why it is, but the piano just caught my ear. Maybe I just felt like there are enough guitarists in the world.
And if you play the piano and can sing, you’re a one-man show. But you’ll be bringing a band with you to Nashville?
Boy, I’m coming mob handed. I’m coming with the great Copper Bottom Band, who I sort of half-ironically refer to on stage as “The Greatest Band in the World,” but it’s only half-ironic because they are unbelievably great. I know you hear unbelievably great musicians every night of the week in Nashville, but I put these guys up without any doubt, I have every confidence that they’ll prove equal to the task. I’m the shaky guy in the outfit. I’m the big faker who’s trying to get away with it, but they are unbelievably great. There are seven of them, so we’re eight on stage. We make a good, fat sound.
You’ve shown your musical side on “House,” “Saturday Night Live,” and well before that on British television. I wondered if throughout your acting career, you’ve tried to find ways to work music in.
You know, I’m not conscious of that. Maybe I did. Maybe there was a little voice, sort of saying, “Why don’t you suggest a piano…” but I don’t think I did that. I remember, particularly with “House,” there was a very conscious effort in the beginning, the character was very deliberately, consciously modeled on Sherlock Holmes, who had that obsession with the violin. I always thought that a musical expression of the character was an interesting element. As with Sherlock Holmes, you have this brain that appears to be ruthlessly logical and rational, and yet it also has this sort of romantic side to it. There is some part of that brain that needs to express itself or converse with itself through music.
I couldn’t play the violin, and even if I could, that might have been too direct an allusion to Sherlock Holmes. But I did think that music was an interesting element to “House,” partially because music conforms in some ways to the rational side of that character. It’s a mathematical, physical thing, but also it’s improvisational and it’s creative and it expressed a sort of longing in the character of “House” that maybe he didn’t dare express in words.
And if it wasn’t voice inside your head telling you to suggest music, surely there were people around you saying, “Hey Hugh, here’s a piano – how about a song?”
I think it did appeal to the writers a little bit. I remember years and years before, with my friend Stephen Fry, we’d done these P.G. Wodehouse stories (the “Jeeves and Wooster” British television series). And the guy who produced that show had done the “Hercule Poirot” series, which was set in the same period. He had decided that to fill an hour, the script needed to be 61-and-a-half pages long. It so happened, we discovered in the first week that we were going about 10 percent faster than they were, and so the first show we did, he realized that we were short by about four minutes. They were scratching their heads thinking, “We don’t have a show. How can we fill four minutes? I know, we’ll get the guy to sit at the piano and sing a song.” So I wound up singing on the series, basically because I talk too fast. That was the price I paid for talking fast. I had to sing a song every week – which I loved, by the way. And it went on from there.
You’ve been a musician all your life, but perhaps being a touring musician is a new development. Does that life suit you – being on the road, seeing the world?
I absolutely love it. I’m like a kid on the bus. I’ve got eyes like saucers, and I can’t believe it. We do a show, we get on the bus, we drink some whiskey, we wake up the next morning and we’re in a different city, a different part of the world. It’s all of my dreams coming true. For the rest of the guys, the band I’m playing with, they’re a very, very experienced band, and some of them have been doing it 30, 40 years. So maybe the romance has slightly worn off for them, and they’re just thinking about laundry. That’s the big issue. But for me, it’s the biggest and best adventure there is.
You’ll be in Nashville soon, but worlds have already found a way of colliding. One of our residents, Tim McGraw, is in the upcoming Disney film “Tomorrowland,” which I hear you’re also a part of. I’m not sure what you can say, but are you looking forward to the experience?
They have a gun to my head, and I’m not allowed to say a damn word about. I’m actually in Vancouver now, shooting for that movie. I heard that he was going to be in this, I heard yesterday. I haven’t met him yet, but I hope I will. All I will dare say is that it is a very, very exciting project, and so far, we’re about a third of the way through now, I think. I am cautiously optimistic. Things are going well. That’s no guarantee of anything, but it’s a very clever, and interesting bunch of people working on this movie – of whom I am not one, by the way, I’m not sure I qualify. But they’re a very interesting bunch, and the movie’s going very well, and I’m really looking forward to meeting him. It’s going to be really interesting.