The Last Tycoon - Oppenheimer Blues
From a motel room in Albuquerque, you can see the end of the world.
New Mexico: home to Indian reservations and missile ranges, Spanish colonialism and Route 66, Walter White’s Blue Meth and the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer Blues, the debut album of The Last Tycoon, was born out of the dry desert landscape of The Land of Enchantment.
The Last Tycoon, an Americana indie-rock band based in Atlanta, is the project of songwriter and vocalist John Gladwin. Gladwin had never been to Southwest, but then “I was living in a motel in Albuquerque for months working on a defunct TV pilot. I knew no one so at night I had nothing to do but play guitar, explore the city, and talk to strangers. As I learned about the area’s complicated history, these songs, stories, and cast of characters started to come alive.”
Gladwin had only known New Mexico from John Wayne westerns and Breaking Bad. But he quickly learned. “The shadow of the atomic bomb is all over New Mexico. Outside Albuquerque, you can find a liquor store, an Indian casino, and a nuclear weapons facility all on the same dirt road.” Working on a film set during the day, he wrote stories and songs at night. Feeding off the influences of Cormac McCarthy and Bo Diddley, Sam Shepard and Tom Waits, Billy Wilder and Wilco - Oppenheimer Blues was born.
“I was enamored with the atomic age and the personal side of these world changing events. The people building The Bomb were also dealing with the bombs in their personal lives. Life doesn’t stop just because you’re inventing the end of the world.”
While in New Mexico John filmed interviews for a documentary on Native American’s who worked in the Los Alamos Laboratory during the Manhattan Project. “It was incredible to meet people in their 80’s and 90’s who were at Los Alamos or the Trinity Site for the first nuclear explosion. Their stories and contributions had long gone unnoticed and the experience of meeting them defined the entire album.”
Recorded in Nashville, Athens and Atlanta, location was important for the album. “The distance gave me a better perspective on how to shape the songs and evoke the desert’s dusty loneliness.” Oppenheimer Blues was produced by Gladwin with Jim White, the Southern artist and musician who came to prominence with the record/film Wrong-Eyed Jesus, and Michael Rinne, an accomplished Nashville studio musician.
“Mike is an incredible musician who finds tight grooves and clean arrangements. Jim is a sonic wizard who brings incredibly bizarre ideas to the track. My job is to let them pull in opposite directions and find the record somewhere in the middle.”
Gladwin, Rinne and White worked together previously on The Last Tycoon’s EP Death By Dixie – a record that dealt with the ghosts of the South’s bloody past. After Death By Dixie’s release The Last Tycoon toured the country expanding the band’s sound and scope.
Oppenheimer Blues’ cinematic quality is a product of both Gladwin and White being filmmakers. “Songs and screenplays aren’t very different. You can adapt a character’s voice for a song just like in a film.”
“Where Shadows Grow” is written from the perspective of an obsessed killer on the road. “Sometimes songs - like movies - let you play the bad guy.” Originally it was written as the title song for a film that was never finished. For Gladwin, “It’s a soundtrack searching for a film.”
The song “Lincoln County Oracle”, which started as a screenplay, takes the story of the Oracle at Delphi from Greek history and drops it into a trailer park in New Mexico.
On “Same Road, Different Name” Jim White’s voice, junkyard percussion and banjo playing come alive. “Jim’s voice and playing hold all the mystery of the South.” The song is anchored by a barroom chorus and the theremin-esque sound of Spencer Cullum Jr’s pedal steel guitar.
The record has political elements to it but it’s more nuanced than a simple protest record. Gladwin says, “I’m interested in where the political meets the personal in people’s lives. This record lives at the intersection of Love and Nuclear War.”
The album’s most intimate song is “Albuquerque Tonight” - a ballad about honeymooners whose car breaks down at an Indian casino. “Albuquerque is a day’s drive from L.A. on Highway 40, so it is people’s last stop before hitting California. It’s a song about seeing a better future on the horizon - even from the bleakness of a motel room in Albuquerque.”
"The record was built to stir, to provoke your interpretation and not be afraid of what that might be. The fact that you’re thinking about it is a sheepish win for Gladwin alone: game, set, match."
- Scott Zupprado, No Depression/Sad Songs Keep the Devil Away
"The through-thread that Gladwin weaves into Death by Dixie is the New South versus the Old … the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly truths that lurk both on and under the surface of the region and its history. "
-The Bluegrass Situation
"What happens when you buy a $50 banjo off of Craigslist? If you're The Last Tycoon , you write an ominous tune in the vein of Tom Waits called 'Ballad of the Bloodstained Bible'".
Death By Dixie is a collection of sharply written, meditativie and haunting songs... If you love Lee Bains III and The Glory Fires, then you'll love The Last Tycoon."
-Adobe and Teardrops
"Amidst the boom of the contemporary Americana scene, Death by Dixie stands out in its refusal to romanticize"
"Gladwin is a kind gunner whose aim isn’t to shoot to kill. Yet, “Death by Dixie” slugs hollow-point rounds into the moral dilemmas of the progressive South with carefully constructed visions that leap from his lyrics like deer in North Georgian headlights. "