April 9, 2016

“Guetts wants to know if they can borrow our bass amp.”

Susan posed that question in the middle of a crowded Pilot Light in Knoxville’s Old City. It was barely five in the afternoon, and a lot of folks were already filling the joint, nodding their heads up and down in front of the stage, standing in the back to get a more full view, leaning on the bar, or coming and going through the front door to smoke.

“Sure, of course,” I replied.

It was the third annual Big Asses Fest, and by that time several acts had already played. Bark was still three bands away, but things were on schedule, everybody was having a good time, and the vibe was great. Last-minute negotiations ensued between bands to share gear and make the changeovers simpler. Zach from the Sweet Years was letting Susan use his drum kit, and Niles from the Crumbsnatchers was going to use one of our amps, thanks to Guettts’ request.

As Mare Vita was doing their thing, i took it all in. This was my world. A bunch of cool bands working together to make it all happen. No goals other than to get on the stage and do it up.

Big Asses organizer Daniel McBride had it all flowing smoothly, while keeping his low-key demeanor intact. During the four or five hours I was there (it started at noon and went past midnight with some two-dozen acts), i witnessed no negativity or friction between bands. Everybody played their best, nobody was a headliner.

We hit the stage around 7:30 and played what was possibly the most furious Bark set to date.

It was all great fun, but after hanging around for the Crumbsnatchers and a bit of Pleases, we needed sustenance so we headed north toward home with a stop at Hops n’ Hollers for one more cold one and some food truck grub.

(One of my favorite moments of Big Asses was our pal Chris Cook’s band The Jank doing a killer version of the theme from “Experiment in Terror,” a very cool Mancini soundtrack piece.)

The first weekend of April was particularly busy. Actually, it was busy weekend for music in Knoxville in general. The Big Ears Festival (the obvious inspiration for Big Asses) was in town. Every year, AC Entertainment’s Ashley Capps brings this adventurous event to Knoxville. Among this year’s headliners were Laurie Anderson and Phillip Glass, so you get the gist of the thing. There was music all over downtown, a wide variety of music that, as Susan said, the offered “possibilities.”

A last-minute addition to the Big Ears schedule was a handful of Knox-centric events at the Jig & Reel, a Scottish-themed bar in the Old City. There were film presentations, talks, poetry, and live music.

Our pal RB Morris had been asked to perform a couple sets of his unique blend of spoken word and song on the Thursday and Friday evenings. He, in turn, asked the TL3 to be his backing band for the weekend, which we gladly agreed to.

We put together a couple rehearsals to figure out some schemes for melding RB’s songs with readings from his own work, but also the work of famous Knoxvillains such as Cormac McCarthy and James Agee.

Thursday night’s set went well. There was a decent crowd on hand, including Knoxville mayor Madeline Rogero, an avowed RB Morris fan. Despite a couple flubs, we were hitting on most cylinders and made the improv pieces between the proper songs work.

For Friday night’s show, we were joined by Greg Horne on guitar, which gave it a beefier sound all the way around. The room was packed, and we were ready. It was a grand thing. The band was tight, the backing for the spoken pieces worked, and RB was on fire. Like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, he waved his hands in the air, alternately singing and talking, working it all out.

A grand thing indeed.

I guess that’s one of the unique things I dig about our deal, that ability to step in and be someone else’s backing band. I don’t know of too many other combos who do it as often as the TL3.

In my last scribbling, I mentioned the recording session we recently did with Jon Dee Graham, which was a blast. We have several shows scheduled together with RB in the coming weeks. In the past, we’ve backed several artists, live and/or in the studio, including Jeff Heiskell, Black Atticus, Kevin Abernathy, Jake Winstrom, and Daniel Miller. The list of people who have joined us on stage for anything from a song to a full set is a long thing. Out of curiosity, I tried to make a list and count a few years back, and I gave up after about 40 names.

I just love that kind of interaction and collaboration. It keeps you on your toes and keeps things from getting stale. In our case, I feel it makes us a better band. You learn something – either good or bad – from everybody you play with.

A good example is a thing that Susan and I did last fall. For the past couple years, I’ve been a big fan of Jim Mize, a singer-songwriter from Conway, Arkansas, who is on the Big Legal Mess label. I’d read his bio, how he’d worked as an insurance adjuster for years and didn’t really plan to get out and play much until he retired and had his pension in hand. A cool story, but nothing without the songs. Mize writes in an unflinching manner about the human condition and makes raucous blues-inflected rock n’ roll records. His last self-titled release is one of my absolute favorite recordings.

Our pal Laurie Stirratt has been playing bass for Jim on occasion for a while now. Her old band, Blue Mountain, recorded a couple of his songs for their records over the years.

I wrote a bit about Laurie in an earlier post, and she remains one of our favorite people. Back last summer, she and I started kicking around the idea of getting Mize to Knoxville to play the Songwriter in the Soul House series that Susan and I host at Sweet P’s Barbecue and Soul House. We finally got that opportunity in October. During the discussions, though, it worked out that we would two or three shows together with Bark opening, following by Jim with Susan, Laurie, and me backing him.

Laurie and Jim came to town a couple days early to rehearse. Susan and I had done our homework, so the set came together quite easily. It sounded good, and we had fun running through the songs.

After the first rehearsal, we all wound up down at the Applebee’s bar next door to the motel where they were staying. A few drinks and some great conversation later, Susan and I called it a night.

The Wednesday night show at Sweet P’s was a good one. Susan and I did a short Bark set instead of the usual acoustic approach, and we all joined Jim for his set. It was such a blast to play those songs, especially with the rock-solid rhythm section that was Laurie and Susan. Man, they play together well.

It was an early show, so we ended up back at Applebee’s to close out the evening. Mize is a fun cat. Gets worked up sometimes and says really funny  stuff. We were discussing the potentially dubious motel we had booked for the following night. He said if we got there, and it was undesirable, we’d just have to “do the doo-doo dance, and tell ’em we ain’t paying!”

On Thursday, we met up at Big Fattie’s for lunch and then headed west to Nashville for a show at the new Family Wash that night. We’d played the old Wash on a couple occasions, and I always dug the joint. But damn, the new one is something else altogether. Jamie Rubin and John Stephenson (also executive chef) and whoever else is involved have put together a great-sounding room with a killer (and ever-changing) menu.

Over dinner, we chatted with Stephenson, who it turns out is from my hometown Jackson, Miss., while we wolfed down the excellent grub. Good guy. Hell, he even made us fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.

Before playing, we caught up with Jamie, who asked about several mutual friends who’d once lived in Nashville but were back in Knoxvegas.

Although we had some friends on hand, it was a lightly attended show (a recurring theme in my world), but we played well and had a good time. We hung out and visited on the front porch until the staff started putting away chairs and sweeping up, our cue to cut a path back to the Howard Johnson’s.

Back at the motel (which ended up being just fine), we pulled a couple chairs outside and relaxed with a beer or two before turning in for the evening.

The next morning, Susan and I awoke to the bad news that our elderly basset hound Falstaff had bloated while under the very able care of Kevin and Christine Abernathy (another plug for their Happy Yap business). Not feeling like we could leave them to deal with the various trips to and from the vet, Susan and I made the tough decision to skip out on Friday night’s show in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Laurie  and Jim were understanding and supported our decision.

You hate to bail on any show, but our dogs are part of our family. Knowing there was nothing we could do for the foreseeable future (I’d spent a great deal of time on the phone with our vet already), we joined Laurie and Jim for breakfast at the Family Wash (yes, the food was so good we returned the following morning) before finding I-40 and taking it in the opposite direction of our original plan.

Ultimately, Falstaff was fine, and Jim and Laurie went on to Tuscaloosa to play as a duo (something they’d done several times before). Hated to miss that one. Hope to play with Mize again some time.

I’ve said before that variety truly is the spice of life, thus my inherent desire to play with a variety of folks. Consulting my calendar to remind myself when these shows were, I saw that I played four days in a row the week before then in as many different settings. On that Wednesday in early October, I played guitar with the Barstool Romeos. The following night, I led a house band through a couple songs for a Merle Haggard tribute (may he rest in peace), Bark played a show on that Friday, and the TL3 traveled south to Waverly, Alabama, to play a festival on that Saturday.

Keeps me busy and out of trouble, I suppose.

I’m trying to get back into the habit of throwing these musings out there. Hope you like ’em. In the meantime, remember the words of Jim Mize: “Sometimes you just gotta get out and get some inspiration: piss on an electric fence or stick a knife in an electrical socket!”

Wise words, y’all.

Later …