One day in the mid-90s I found myself sitting at the bar at Kraftbrau, a newly opened brewery located across the street from Bell’s in Kalamazoo. I probably got there early because a friend’s band was playing later, or something. Who knows? Kraftbrau specialized in lagers while most micros at the time were still making ales (which don’t require refrigeration during fermentation).
There weren’t many other patrons there, but the bartender was friendly. I asked him about the music that was playing. It sounded a bit like Nashville Skyline or Mike Nesmith’s First National Band. Lots of great pedal steel and conversational lyrics that you could tell were good stories even without listening too closely.
Turns out it was a guy named Paul Siebel. The bartender told me the album was called Woodsmoke and Oranges and it was something of a lost classic. I was pretty full of myself in my twenties and it was humbling to realize I’d never even heard of this guy even though he was making the exact kind of music that I loved. Siebel was a mysterious figure who had made two albums and then just disappeared.
When I got back home I ran out to Vinyl Solution and asked Herm if they had Woodsmoke and Oranges in stock. It was out of print. But there was a new compilation called Paul Siebel (Philo/Rounder, 1995), so I bought that. It ended up containing the entirety of Woodsmoke and Oranges (in order) plus half the songs from the follow-up, Jack-Knife Gypsy, tacked on to the end. Score!
I hadn’t thought about Paul Siebel in years but recently I’ve been spending some time with John Prine’s debut album, and I was thinking about putting together a playlist of my favorite stuff like that. That whole late-60s/early-70s country rock/folkie/songwriter scene was so great. The aforementioned Nashville Skyline and the First National Band stuff, of course, but also Prine’s first couple of albums, some Gram Parsons, and oh yeah, Paul Siebel.
So I pulled him up on CarPlay on the way to pick up my pad thai yesterday and was trying to remember what year Woodsmoke and Oranges came out. While I was waiting for my food, I googled it (1970), but then I saw the news that Siebel had died on April 5. Of this year! Just a few weeks ago.
I didn’t realize he was even still alive. Apparently, disappointed by the lack of success and recognition for his two albums, Siebel left the music business after touring throughout the 70s and “became a bread baker for a restaurant and a county park worker in Maryland.”
In 2010 Siebel told American Songwriter, “I don’t know why I didn’t write another record. I started drinking, things started coming apart.”
David Bromberg, whose “Sharon” is the main beat in the Beastie Boys’ “Johnny Ryall,” was Siebel’s friend and advocate. He told the Times, “After those two albums, he wrote another bunch of songs, but he destroyed them. He said they weren’t as good as the ones on the albums.”
That’s a bummer. But at least we have those two albums. And fortunately, they’re both available for streaming. You should listen to them.
Siebel died of pulmonary fibrosis in hospice care in Maryland. According to his local obituary, “Even in his last days, Paul reveled in the company of fellow musicians, swapping stories and listening intently to the craft of songwriting.”
Apple Music: Paul Siebel – Woodsmoke and Oranges (1970)
Apple Music: Paul Siebel – Jack-Knife Gypsy (1971)
Spotify: Paul Siebel – Woodsmoke and Oranges (1970)