Jim Waneka is answering a call that came to him two years ago, starting him on an entirely new path for his life, including an often-painful rebirth of his unparalleled music and commanding voice that some have compared to a young Johnny Cash, and songs that are reminiscent of Dwight Yoakam, George Straight, Merle Haggard, and Garth Brooks. Compelled to follow this powerful guiding spirit, Jim picked up a guitar and revisited his childhood passion for music, to the delight of new fans who are glad to see him pick up where he left off long ago. Jim’s journey has carried him from Colorado to California and now to historic Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he has worked alongside incredible studio musicians including Kelvin Holly and Justin Holder, with production by Charles Holloman, Andrew Kapner and Patrick Tetreault and mix work from Grammy-winner Craig Alvin.
Thanks for your time, Jim! Please tell our readers a bit about yourself and your music.
JW: I grew up in Boulder, Colorado at the time the area was one of the premier music spots anywhere. Artists like Steven Stills, Joe Walsh, Richie Furray, Dan Fogleberg and others lived or spent time around there. My aunt and my uncle did security work for Caribou Ranch, which was then the hottest recording studio in the world. I got to hang out there some and met the members of Chicago and other top musicians. Everyone from Elton John to Stevie Wonder to Kris Kristofferson to John Lennon to Waylon Jennings recorded there, so it was a very exciting and influential place to be. My parents said I started singing shortly after I learned to talk, and I taught myself to play drums, piano and guitar. I wrote my first songs at 19 and played quite a few gigs around the area. But because of family demands and starting up a construction business, I put my music off for another lifetime. Then two years ago a voice came to me and changed my life trajectory and I picked up my guitar again. I spent 2020 in Los Angeles, writing songs and doing some recording at Angelhouse and several other prominent LA studios. Focusing almost every day on writing the songs that came to me in dreams, I was able to build up a good catalog. Amazing guitarist Kelvin Holly, who lives in Muscle Shoals, joined me and introduced me to bassist Charles Glenn, both of whom played with Little Richard, amongst other greats.
What inspired you to move to Muscle Shoals from Los Angeles and Colorado?
JW: From the first time I visited Muscle Shoals, it felt so comfortable and welcoming. In some ways it’s like the vibe I felt in Colorado as a teenager, and I had a vivid premonition that Muscle Shoals is where I needed to be for my music to flourish. And a prominent LA music producer recommended I go to Muscle Shoals to hone my sound. So even though some friends and family thought we were having a midlife crisis, last December my wife Jill and I packed up everything and moved from Los Angeles, sold our home in Boulder, and went to Muscle Shoals.
Where in Muscle Shoals did you record?
JW: My first few sessions were at FAME Studios, and we rehearsed some at Cypress Moon Studios, but did the overwhelming amount of my recording at East Avalon Recorders with Charles Holloman and Patrick Tetrault engineering, and final mixing performed by Grammy winner Craig Alvin.
How do you feel Muscle Shoals influenced your sound?
JW: The Tennessee River flows through the area and the Native Americans had a belief that the river could sing to you if you listened. I’ve felt the power of the spirit of the river. Also, some of the studios here are iconic, such as FAME Studio and Muscle Shoals Sound, not to mention several other amazing studios. The sound engineers and musicians are as good as you find, and they take the time to ensure they understand what I’m trying to achieve.
What inspired you to write “I Ride Alone”?
JW: Although a vast majority of my songs come in dreams, I Ride Alone was a combination of a dream melody that developed over the course of a couple days. It’s about a person who, like all of us, has done things in their life they now regret. Most good people seek forgiveness and redemption when they’ve done others wrong. The song reminds people that they alone are responsible for their misdeeds and that we all need to strive to be better persons, which should be a constant pursuit in our lives.
What inspired you to write “A Different Man”?
JW: A Different Man came in an early Sunday morning dream on July 19th, 2020. It was a very powerful dream with a melody and words all flowing through me in a matter of a few minutes. Without picking up my guitar I knew what the song sounded like and how it would be arranged. I believe it was brought to me through the spirit of my uncle, Claude Starkey, who served as a Marine paratrooper during World War II. He had been shot seven times prior to losing his hand while on patrol on the island of Bougainville. The song is also about my cousin Dick, who came back from Vietnam a different man. What was interesting is that the word Afghanistan came in the dream. At first, I was wondering why Afghanistan was mentioned, but I realized it absolutely needed to be, because the song is about all soldiers who have seen battles and travesties and have been changed for the rest of their lives. As the song states, “he gave it all for this country with no complaints,” which I’ve found is a common thread among veterans. It should humble us all that we have these patriots among us willing to sacrifice so much to keep us free and safe. Most veterans rejoin our society when they return from service, but it’s so sad to see those who cannot. Part of my message is that it’s okay to ask for help. Too many of our vets try to tough it out on their own when real help may only be a phone call away. It’s a very emotional song so some may try to read more into it, but the only statement I choose to make with A Different Man is one of support for our veterans. We owe them so much that can never be fully repaid.
You have a very classic vocal sound. What artists inspired you to start singing?
JW: Because I started singing when I was very young and won a singing contest when I was six, it’s probably more like who inspired me to keep on singing. It’s kind of hard to choose, there were so many that I liked but I’ll go with Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and Elvis as the ones I tried to emulate early on. Soon after that I’d say it was Johnny Cash, Nat King Cole, Glen Campbell, Chicago, Merle Haggard, Garth Brooks and recently Chris Stapleton.
Did Aretha Franklin’s music inspire your work in any way? How do you feel about her music?
JW: In my mind, she’s one of the most special artists who’ve recorded in Muscle Shoals to date. I also feel that although she had a calamitous one day there, the song “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” changed the trajectory of her career and is reflective of the power of the river and spirit that flow through Muscle Shoals. Aretha, in my mind, is absolutely one of the greatest singers of all time, and her music and voice has influenced so many artists and touched so many people. That’s why they made the movie.
What’s next for Jim Waneka?
JW: After “A Different Man,” I have several more songs, including “Live Your Best Life Today,” which calls us to action to live our best lives by helping others. Also coming up are “Rodeo Cowboy,” “As the Raven Cries,” “Walking on a Thin Line,” “Flames, Ashes and Dust,” “Muddy Waters,” “01-2020 Love Song,” and several others. I have been blessed with new-found creativity and a new direction in life, following my musical spirit. As they say on the news, more to come!