By Will Atkinson | 01/10/2018
In the middle of Steve Hartsoe’s debut solo album, “The Big Fix,” alongside a spate of original compositions, is a cover of Tom Petty’s “Trailer.” The deluxe edition of the album, released Dec. 1, came less than two months after the death of the beloved rock star, but for Hartsoe, Petty’s influence spans back much further.
The Raleigh-based musician, who is a senior editor in Duke’s Office of News and Communications, recalled attending a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers concert in San Francisco in 1983. The show came during a particularly trying period of his life: A former college baseball player, he had just been cut from the team, and his grandmother had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Initially, he and his brother were reluctant to go, but the concert proved to be a formative experience for Hartsoe, spurring him to begin writing music and form a band.
“I’ve never seen a guy relate to the audience as well as [Petty] did,” Hartsoe said. “You just felt like you were all in the same garage band rehearsal or something.”
Beyond Petty, “The Big Fix: Deluxe Edition” echoes the likes of Son Volt, Wilco and Jason Isbell in its blend of Americana and rock — in Hartsoe’s words, “the guys who can sort of rock it out but still keep a pedal steel nearby.”
After originally releasing “The Big Fix” in September 2016, Hartsoe and sound engineer Kevin McNoldy, who mastered the original album, decided to remix and remaster the record when some singles gained traction on online radio. The resulting product, which also includes two new bonus tracks, makes up the deluxe edition. Together, the two versions of “The Big Fix” are the culmination of over two dormant decades in Hartsoe’s musical career.
Hartsoe started out playing in bands in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1980s and early ‘90s, including London Down (later named The Raging Marys). Once that band broke up and adult life set in — with kids and a full-time job, first at daily newspapers, then with the AP, then at Duke — Hartsoe had little time for music, occasionally laying down ideas on cassette tapes and digital files but never imagining he’d break into the music world again. That changed when a Father’s Day gift of recording studio time led to a solo EP, 2014’s “Neo-Traditional.”
“It just kind of grew from there,” Hartsoe said, leading to a successful Kickstarter campaign where friends and former bandmates helped fund the new album.
Of the material written for “The Big Fix,” Hartsoe estimated about half came from those scattered demos throughout the years and the other half was written more recently. Lyrically, the songs deal with life as a husband and father, with road-ready geographical touchpoints abounding in songs like “Salt & Wine” and “Seven Miles to Wilmington.” At times, the songs seem to allude to Hartsoe’s faith, which he acknowledged may bleed through into his music. He cited a quote by the songwriter T-Bone Burnett: As a Christian artist, Burnett said, “You can write songs about the light, or you can write songs about what you can see from the light.”
“You could do your music and just preach to the choir all the time,” Hartsoe said. “Or you could sing about how your life goes and how you see it in these songs, which I much prefer.”
For “The Big Fix,” Hartsoe has also found help from his son, Eli, who plays drums on the record and with Hartsoe’s live band, The Beacon Souls. Having learned to drum by playing along with recordings of his dad’s band, the younger Hartsoe has shown no signs of struggle in keeping up with the band, offering a younger voice in rehearsals and recording sessions. (Even if it means he has to get a “big old ‘X’” put on his hands at many venues.)
“He’s probably the harshest critic of everything,” Steve Hartsoe said. “He’ll be very blunt where everyone else is really polite … which is really good that he’s not afraid to say that maybe this is repetitive, let’s try something new.”
Having his son on board is just one of the many ways Hartsoe’s career has changed since fronting a band back in California. Today, he said, it’s more difficult to get a band together to play when everyone has separate lives and families, but he acknowledged just how much easier it is to reach a crowd on social media and record on a low budget rather than, as he put it, “staple flyers all over telephone poles in downtown San Jose.”
As an editor, too, Hartsoe said his writing process has likely become more economical, not spending more time on fussing with a song than is needed — a cue he may have taken from Bob Dylan, who, to hear Hartsoe tell it, was as influential to his writing career as Tom Petty was to his music.
Hartsoe is approaching 10 years as an editor with Duke, but “The Big Fix” shows that having a family and a full-time job need not get in the way of making grounded, unpretentious rock music — true to the spirit of Petty. If anything, they’re what make it so honest.