Cotton Jones is front porch music, the perfect soundtrack for fall’s first chilly evening, whiskey on the rocks in coffee cups, and friends who know all your flaws and somehow manage to love you anyway. Fronted by high-school sweethearts Michael Nau and Whitney McGraw, Cotton Jones release their impeccable second album, Tall Hours in the Glowstream, this month. We recently caught up with McGraw as the band and their van were making their way to an Oregon festival.
Where are you guys right now?
We just stopped because it’s so loud in our van when we’re driving. We’re in West Oregon, heading to Pickathon, a festival outside of Portland. We’ve never been there before, but it has a pretty cool lineup. Some of our friends in These United States are playing, and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and it’s kind of like a little rock festival with some folky roots. We’re camping. We camp as much as we can, it’s fun in the summer and better than hotel rooms every night.
How did you and Michael meet?
We were really young when we met. We didn’t go to the same high school, but we met through a mutual friend. I was in the 8th grade and he was in the 10th grade. We were friends for about a year, and then we started dating when I was in 9th grade, and we’ve been together ever since.
So you were totally high school sweethearts. Did you make music together when you were teenagers?
We started playing music together pretty quickly after we met. We would just sit around and sing songs that we knew, then we started doing the Page France thing, which started with just Mikey having some songs and we just laid them down. He has a really musical family, and his dad had a recording studio in his house, so we would go in and his dad would run the board and we would sing some vocal tracks and Mikey would play guitar. It just evolved, and we started loving it more and more and it became what we do now.
Did you ever write anything that’s totally mortifying now?
Mike definitely, definitely did! We always laugh, because I have all these old demos that he gave me, when we were young, of songs that he wrote, and it’s really funny. I personally don’t have any old stuff like that because I didn’t write all that much, and even now, I build on the skeletons that Mike brings to the table and make them grow from there.
You and Mike recently moved out of your hometown, Cumberland, Maryland. What prompted the move?
It’s a small town, it’s a really old city. It was one of the biggest cities in Maryland in the ‘50s, but it gradually died off. There is still all of this beautiful old architecture, but there’s not a lot happening. Both of our families still live there, and we have a lot of tight-knit groups that we’re attached to and attracted to, but there’s not a big music scene. It’s really pretty aesthetically, beautiful mountains and scenery, but other than that, not a lot to offer.
You ended up in Athens, Georgia. Why there?
We wanted to go somewhere to record this album that we just finished, and wanted a change of scenery and a place where we could go and be just the two of us and build these ideas. Eventually, we realized that we wanted everybody there, so all the band, would take trips down for a weekend and we would record and we would have these nice little sessions of small groups of the people that we’d always worked with. There wasn’t really a specific reason to go to Athens, we just pointed it out and went there. We probably won’t even stay there much longer, it was just a place to go to have a different frame of mind.
What’s your favorite thing about touring?
I like the traveling, I like the different city every day. Touring, more than anything, just kind of reaffirms your faith in human kindness. We have van trouble all the time, we’re a really haphazard group, and we have so many people who just pop out of nowhere and help us out, it’s really amazing.
Any particular examples?
Just a couple of days ago, we were on our way to Fargo, in North Dakota, and woke up at our hotel with a flat tire. We changed it and put on the spare, then got on the highway and were going to stop and get another spare when we blew another tire. Then this man and his wife pull of the road in this converted camper van, and offered to drive us in to town and bring us back. He ended up being the most amazing person, he was a musician as well and played stand-up bass when he was young, and he said that he worked with all these people like Gram Parsons. And now he and his wife are just traveling, making documentary films, like they filmed all of these missions in India.
You’re about to release your second album, Tall Hours in the Glowstream. How have you evolved since your debut?
This new record is a nice transition from Paranoid Cocoon. Our first album was mostly Mike and I writing and recording and doing most of the tracking, and this one has a lot more people involved. And it was nice to learn how to hand some things over to other hands, and it’s nice to look back on this communal feeling of when we made that. Usually the writing and developing of songs is pretty informal. We’ll usually have some guys over and just sit around and play music in the evenings.
What’s usually the first thing you do when a tour ends?