Carbondale musician Hugh Phillips releases country album

Former Toyota mechanic a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist

Musician Hugh Phillips works on new material at his in home studio near Carbondale.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Hugh Phillips, 51, waited a long time to release his first album.

After a career in auto mechanics focused on Toyotas — including owning and operating a shop in Grand Junction called Safari Ltd. for 12 years with his wife — Phillips gave it up to pursue music full time in 2016.

“The stress of it all just didn’t seem worthwhile. My creativity was really coming through at that point. I’d grown up with music and always played music but I decided I wanted to commit to it. After a couple of years of committing to it I realized the business albeit lucrative was very stressful, and I didn’t want to wake up with severe health problems,” he said.

“It’s Been a Long Time” was released on Halloween on Phillips’ own String Kitchen label, and he said sales have been good.

“I’m very proud. We even sold a handful overseas in UK as well as downloads all over the world, in Japan, Costa Rice and Brazil. … Physical CDs I think at this point I’ve probably mailed out a couple hundred,” he said.

The CD is available for purchase on Phillips’ website.

The songs

Phillips wrote or co-wrote all 12 songs on the album, and he doesn’t pay much attention to the “write what you know” philosophy. 

In “Sunset for a Cowboy” he sings how “these 80 years I’ve wandered this country.” 

“I kind of write what comes to me that’s intriguing and interesting,” he said.

In “Bird Song” he sings, “My life is a circus, driving me crazy, and it’s turned me cold and rotten.” Pretty dark stuff, but the point of the song is getting out of your head and appreciating what’s around you.

“It’s important for me to relay the contrast between being really busy and just overwhelmed and needing to pull over and listen to what nature has to offer,” he said.

“The Big Show,” cowritten with his wife Kelly Phillips, has some room for interpretation but again is about finding the positive message in what could be an unhappy situation, as in “I lost you to the big show.” 

“The big show could be heaven or just going on to bigger and better things. It could be interpreted [as negative or positive], but it’s more of a positive. It’s definitely an emotional release, but it’s also allowing that person to move on, and that’s always a good thing, not carrying around all that baggage,” he said.

Musician Hugh Phillips works on new material at his in home studio near Carbondale.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“Hydrocarbon Heaven” may be the only song written about Cisco, Utah.

The instruments

Phillips plays electric guitar, mandolin, upright bass, dobro and piano but restricted himself to vocals and acoustic guitar on the album.

But the album is much more than a singer with a guitar. With the help of producer Stephen Mougin — who recently received the International Bluegrass Music Association 2020 Sound Engineer of the Year award — “It’s Been a Long Time” boasts an impressive array of studio musicians guesting on lead guitar, banjo, fiddle and dobro as well as harmony vocals.

Mougin, Phillips’ vocal coach, has played guitar for Sam Bush and brought in the rhythm section of the Sam Bush Band, Chris Brown on drums and Todd Parks on bass.

Next couple of albums

No matter that Phillips’ album is not even two weeks old, he’s already thinking about his third album.

Musician Hugh Phillips works on new material at his in home studio near Carbondale.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“I’m always writing. I just got back from North Carolina where I was invited to come down for a week in the Blue Ridge and write with a friend of mine. I came away with three solid song ideas that week which I’m pretty proud of. They’re still cooking — so I’m not going to talk about the content of them — but they’re solid ideas that’ll probably end up being songs before too long. I’m close to a third record’s worth of legit songs that are just more originals,” he said.

But that would come after an album of mining songs.

“I’ve always had an affection for mining songs. I remember when Mid-Continent was open here, and if you were on Catherine Store Road at the wrong time you couldn’t get into town or get out of town waiting for the train to load. The next record is most likely going to be a mining record that is all traditional mining tunes, more covers, but I do have a couple of new tunes,” he said.

Musical influences

Growing up Phillips listened to a wide variety of music, including southern rock, heavy metal and progressive. His mother, a classical musician, insisted he take piano lessons. His father listened to country on AM radio. 

Phillips grew up in New Jersey but finished high school in Carbondale.

“I went to my first Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and that sent me down the road of a more bluegrass/country kind of thing,” he said.

Phillips said early Dwight Yoakam was a huge influence.

Gig economy

The pandemic has not been conducive to a career in music. 

“This year has been heinous. Clearly there’s no traveling roadshow. It’s been pretty difficult. … Last year I was almost on the break-even with the music,” he said.

Nevertheless, he has been able to play a few solo shows at Marble Distillery in Carbondale and The Tipsy Trout in Basalt and farther away in Paonia and Powderhorn.

But there are no solo shows planned for the immediate future.

“There’s nothing on the monitor at this time. I have been playing as sideman with a local band here called Elk Range. They play bluegrass, and I’ve been playing bass with them,” he said.

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