“This is the album where I feel like this is me now, more than the others,” says Americana master Chris Berardo on the eve the release of his fourth full-length, Wilder All The Time. “I didn’t really know if the world needs more records, so I wanted to be sure that I really had something to say.”
While it’s been more than a few years since his previous full-length, during which he lost a parent and a band-mate while surviving his own serious health scare, Berardo certainly has plenty to share on the career-defining Wilder All The Time. Yet, always an artist who lets his creative urges dictate his career arc, this seasoned singer-songwriter was in no hurry, and the album isll the stronger for it.
“I only need these songs when I need ‘em for me,” he mulls, kicking back in what he calls his “little place in the woods” in Silvermine, CT. “So I tend to wait until there’s something in my head that I love and that I feel like, ooh, I would like be on stage and sing that for people.”
There’s a refreshingly pure, utterly uncynical air about a chat with Berardo. He’s a true throwback tune-smith and lyricist who simply feels compelled to write songs as his expression to the world. Over the past twenty years he’s played countless clubs and theaters, and released three critically-acclaimed albums, while always firmly focused on the sheer joy of his craft.
“I never really chased fame for fame’s sake” he says. “It was that I wanted to do this stuff. It was more I wanted bigger and better opportunities to sing these songs for people.”
Influenced by the country and Southern rock that reached out to him from AM radio while growing up in Westchester County, NY – Neil Young, The Eagles, The Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker, Poco, The Doobie Brothers, Berardo and his longtime six-piece band the DesBerardos lovingly continue those artists’ tradition of putting song before style and feeling before fashion. (“To me, it’s just an American rock band that has these roots elements and has some country elements,” he says.)
Performing since age 14, including spells based in Washington, DC, L.A., and eventually back to New York City – with stops at endless roadhouses and honky-tonks in between , Berardo generated both an unusually loyal fan base and a bottomless well of stories from which to draw inspiration.
With 2007’s third album Ignoring All The Warning Signs, Berardo’s tireless authenticity and finely-honed songcraft started hitting home. AcousticMusic.com enthused about the record spreading “the joy like it was the early seventies all over again,” while influential Nashville journalist Robert K. Oermann declared it “as good a country rock record as you will hear this year.” Almost despite himself, Berardo found his record charting (#4 on XM Radio’s Country chart and #49 on the Billboard Americana Chart) and enjoying rotation on more than 100 U.S. radio stations.
But Ignoring All The Warning Signs’ title proved cruelly ironic in 2010, when Berardo – who characterizes his life up until that point as “running on all cylinders like a wild-eyed teenager, without regard for health or personal safety” – was diagnosed with cancer. This stalled his career as he received (ultimately successful) treatment, yet the ever-genial Berardo took the experience in stride, thrived from its life lessons, and – like all great artists – almost subconsciously channeled it into songs – songs that would eventually become Wilder All The Time.
“I was way too concerned with doctors and praying to think about songwriting, but songs started to come when I wasn’t looking,” he marvels. “It’s the way my mind deals with it, and the words and music begin to spill out.”
Within weeks of undergoing surgery, Berardo was back not only penning songs at his piano, but also treading the boards with his band-mates, including opening shows for some of the very bands that helped set him on his path: The Doobie Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Band, America, Dickey Betts & Great Southern, and many more. “Just seeing those groups up-close and watching how they did things over the last ten years, that’s also been a big influence,” he says.
The resulting Wilder All The Time is a lived-in yet celebratory best-of-both-worlds that combines the extended gestation period normally associated with classic debut albums (Berardo reckons he had around 40 songs from which to chose the 10 that made the cut), yet crafted with all the musical maturity of a much-traveled, four-album troubadour.
“Getting the people you wanted to play with; having a better situation, choosing the way you want it to sound; and choosing the songs you think represent you at that moment – I think that’s what makes it for me,” he says.
The people Berardo wanted to play with were a world-class coming together of members of his own band – his brother Marc Douglas Berardo on acoustic guitar/vocals, and Bill Kelly on electric guitar/mandola/vocals – and players from lauded Austin roots-rock road dogs (and sometime Berardo tourmates) Reckless Kelly. Former Reckless Kelly guitarist David Abeyta produced the Wilder sessions, with his erstwhile bandmates Joe Miller and Jay Nazz handling bass and drum duties respectively. This formidable lineup was augmented by guest spots from legendary Austin musician Lloyd Maines (steel guitar), Bukka Allen (piano and organ), and revered Texas songwriter Walt Wilkins (who joined Berardo for a duet on rollicking stomper “Underachiever”).
Packing the fridge with beer and eats, the hybrid Berardo band made camp in the beautiful Cedar Creek studios, tucked away on nine wooded acres of south Austin. There, they just played all day like they were performing a live show, including that sense of spontaneous connection between musicians – and just downright collective fun – that no amount of technology or production prowess can replicate. They cut ten tracks in just ten days, mostly single live takes, with no over-thinking (and certainly no over-production).
“I think that [approach] helped to really achieve what I was hoping for,” Berardo recalls. “And that was tryin’ for more of the sound that you get when you go to a show and you’re in a room with a band – that sort of energy, that sometimes gets lost in a recording studio.”
Wilder All The Time maintains the signature qualities that made Berardo’s prior recordings so alluring, only with increased energy and effervescence – and just a little more sonic heft. The rousing melodies, tingling harmonies, jangly Byrds-esque guitars, and contemplative acoustic passages remain, as do Berardo’s soaring, poignant vocals and pop sensibilities. But, with the album being a decade in the writing, he’s got more to tell, and new angles to tell it from.
“There’s a lot of things in there that I can see were written by a guy who got bumped around a little this time,” he notes. “And not the smooth sailing that I’ve been lucky to have for so many years.”
One song in particular, “Take Me Back”, indirectly references Berardo’s recent life’s challenges in its lyrical lament for younger years free of such concerns. Yet hope has always been a central theme of Berardo’s lyrics, and – despite his health scare and the recent loss of his father and the DesBerardos’ longtime drummer Paulie Triff– his latest collection is no exception (“I have been twisted, and I’ve been turned,” he smokily intones on “Take Me Back”. “But I still believe, because I am still breathing.”)
“In this business, you really need to have this sense of hope and a sense of belief, and a sense of joy in what you’re doing,” he ponders. “There’s a lot of that [on Wilder All The Time] – and there’s also songs about cutting loose and having a good time!”
His recent life challenges certainly haven’t slowed Berardo as a songwriter. In the two years since Wilder All The Time was recorded (the delay the result of his receiving increasingly attractive opportunities for its release) he’s already written the backbone of his next full-length. Returning to Austin, and producer David Abeyta, to demo some of these new songs spawned a surprise, when one tune, “Somewhere Blue”, appeared fully realized and ready to fly. So, throwing chronology to the wind, Berardo released this optimistic slice of heartfelt heartland rock as a standalone single in November.
“You gotta keep doing the thing you do, and that doesn’t stop,” Berardo shrugs. “And if you love this thing, you wanna share it with everybody.”
Wilder All The Time represents the definitive accomplishment for one of America’s musical best-kept-secrets, where all the stars – songs, band, studio, and enthusiasm from the industry – karmically aligned.
“I stand by these songs. I think they represent what I want to be in the world,” he concludes. “It’s very rare to finish a thing and say: ‘that’s it – no excuses on this one.’ I love it.”