(June 21, 2015) Sunday morning and it’s quiet around here. Susan’s sleeping in. Dogs are too. Can’t blame her. Yesterday was a long one, but a good one.
There was no real travel for us this week, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a busy time, musically speaking. In addition to our usual work trying to make a few bucks to live on, we had a duo gig, a Bark show, and I had a sideline job as well.
On Wednesday night, we did a short acoustic duo set at Sweet P’s Barbecue and Soul House, where we’ve taken over as hosts of their once-a-month Songwriters in the Soul House series. It’s a fun deal. I book the guests, and we host the shows.
Scott McMahan used to put these together, and he did a great job, but he recently moved to Virginia Beach and asked me to take over. I was glad to, mainly because I like to see things happen (like the Hannibal Smith of rock n’ roll … I love it when a plan comes together), but also because I’m a big fan of both Sweet P’s and its founder, Chris Ford.
Chris is a cool guy. He used to be the lead singer in a hard-touring funk band called Gran Torino. Big band, horn section, the whole deal. The story is that he was pretty good at finding the best places to eat on the road: the mom-and-pop soul food joints, that kind of thing. When he got off the treadmill, he turned that love of food into a BBQ catering business that eventually morphed into Sweet P’s, one of the most popular ‘cue spots in the area. And he’s just opened a companion location to the Soul House, called the Downtown Dive located in downtown Knoxville.
Chris works hard, but I figure if you can navigate eight or nine dudes in a van for as long as he did, a commercial kitchen is probably like a vacation.
It’s great food too, and if you know me and my love affair/obsession with barbecue, you know I don’t give those endorsements lightly.
I was pretty excited about Wednesday’s show, because the guest was a guy that I’ve known since the late 1970s. A fellow Mississippian, Webb Wilder has been a fellow traveler and a rock n’ roll advocate for his entire adult life.
Around 1978 or so, in Jackson, there was an odd club attached to a motel on the frontage road of I-55 called the Pyramid. It was elevated and built on stilts that came together above the building and formed an actual pyramid. There were basically three bands that played there: my band, the Occasions; Bobby Sutliff and John (J.T.) Thomas’ band, the Oral Sox; and the Drapes from just down Highway 49 in Hattiesburg.
We all played a mixture of rockabilly, mod, ’60s pop, punk, and new wave covers in addition to a few originals, as we worked on our burgeoning songwriting skills.
College kids came out every weekend to drink cheap beer (I seem to recall an overstock of J.R. … as in Who Shot? … beer that sold for 50 cents a can) and dance their asses off to the bands. It was a fun time that, in a lot of ways, sowed the seeds for the eventual original music scene in the Bold New City.
Compared to us, the Drapes were a little more rootsy, and definitely more professional. In retrospect, they were the band we all wanted to be in. I can’t speak for everybody, but I know I did, anyway.
Their band was comprised of future roots-rock royalty: in addition to Webb, there was the amazing Suzy Elkins (who eventually formed the Commandos in Austin and released a killer solo record called “Glass Slippers Just Hurt My Feet”), famed record producer/songwriter R.S. Field, Rick “Casper” Rawls (later of the Leroi Bros. and Planet Casper) and future Howlers Gene Brandon (rest in peace) and Mark Hagg. The Drapes were a great band, way ahead of their time, but that’s how it worked in Mississippi back then.
As students at the University of Southern Mississippi, most of the Drapes were involved in a film project called “Saucers over Dixie,” which introduced the world to a bumbling private detective named Webb Wilder. It’s a really funny little flick, campy and irreverent to the core (chock full of great lines like, “Pristine Suggs was unvolumptuous (sic) … I don’t even think Mars needed women that bad.”), sorta like if John Waters had been raised a polite southerner.
When it was, as they called it, “curtains for the Drapes,” the various members moved on to the other projects I mentioned. Webb moved to Nashville and formed the Beatnecks. From there, he hit the road and never looked back. Proclaiming himself the “last of the full-grown men, last of the boarding house people,” he created an entire mythos around this character who was “never a child and will never have children.”
The whole thing was fun (and still is), but the music never suffered. Webb is a walking encyclopedia of roots music of all kinds, and his various bands have all weaved the best elements of blues, folk, soul, country, and pop into that wonderful melting pot we call rock n’ roll.
He’s one of the hardest-working musicians I’ve ever known, a lifer if there ever was one.
So there, that’s the long version of “I’ve known Webb Wilder for a long time.”
It’s always great to catch up with him and share updates on mutual old friends we’ve run into during our travels. While we were talking, a guy walked up with a thick stack of WW CD covers to be signed, as well as a rare copy of the Drapes’ 7-inch EP!
Earlier, Susan and I had arrived at Sweet P’s around 4:30 to get things ready for the 6:00 show, and there were already people staking out tables to see Webb. Chris was getting a little nervous about it, seeing as he had to get a bunch of folks seated and fed while the music is happening.
By the time we went on to get things going, the dining room was full to overflowing and the line to order was pretty long. We played four or five tunes and then introduced Webb, who took over. He cranked out song after song, including a few from his upcoming new release, told stories, and kept the crowd entertained for an hour-and-a-half.
It was a great evening, hot as hell due to the early onset of summer around here, and we saw several friends and made some new ones. The only downside is that some folks we know showed up, saw the crowded building, and decided to leave. That’s too bad, but we understood.
From there, the week stayed busy. On Thursday, I had a rehearsal with Mike McGill & the Refills.
Mike’s a good buddy of ours. He grew up in Mascot, Tennessee, and cut his musical teeth in bluegrass groups working the tourist spots in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. He’s got a high lonesome voice like few others, and a deep and abiding love for country music.
I first met Mike at the old Corner Lounge (if you follow this, you’ll probably see this line a lot with different names inserted … I met a good chunk of the people I know at that infamous little watering hole that appears in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, launched country singer Con Hunley’s career, and where the TL3 played many of our early shows) several years ago through his then-musical partner Jeff Barbra. They were in the process of starting their classic country band, the Drunk Uncles, a damn fine outfit that lasted for several years.
Mike’s no one-trick pony, though, he’s equally adept at singing blues and rock n’ roll, and I’ve played with him off and on for a while now, occasionally during his long-running Thursday night residency at the now-shuttered Jimmy’s, as a de facto member of the Barstool Romeos (his killer band with his buddy Andy Pirkle … check out their CD, “Twisted Steel and Sex Appeal”), or more lately as a fill-in Refill.
I’ve played guitar on a few Refills shows lately, when regular member Po Hannah hasn’t been available, but for Mike’s upcoming Friday show I was drafted to play bass when Chris Zuhr found out he was unavailable. I used to play bass in bands pretty regularly, and for a guitar player I’m pretty good at it, but I hadn’t played a full set on the four-string in a long time. I was a little shaky in rehearsal (we only had two sessions with myself and drummer Mark Dunn), but I got the hang of it quickly enough as we played through a selection of McGill’s stuff and choice covers that included songs by Johnny Paycheck, Chuck Berry, and Charlie Rich. Mike’s knowledge of music is deep, and I’m always getting exposed to cool stuff through him.
The Friday evening gig was in the nearby town of Loudon at their public park. Mike and I rode together in the stealth van, and met Po and Mark out there.
The venue featured a nice little Hollywood Bowl-style amphitheater that looked out onto a beautiful green field that formed a bowl. The sound on the stage was quite good, and we ran through a couple songs for soundcheck. I was feeling pretty confident, despite my lack of recent bass experience.
It became evident pretty early on that there wasn’t going to be much of a turnout. Apparently, the parks commission didn’t really have the resources to promote such an event, so we played to approximately 12 people (including the kindly couple who sold popcorn and soft drinks).
Still, we had fun. As Po mentioned, you don’t mind playing to just a few folks when you’re doing it with people you like.
It’s true, and these were three people I really enjoy playing with. I’ve told you about Mike, and I could probably write a book about Po. Another Mississippian, he’s possibly the funniest human being I know, and it’s been a treat to know him since he moved to Knoxville with his lovely family a while back.
I met Po’s dad, the late, great author Barry Hannah, back when Susan and I lived in Oxford, Mississippi, and he was a damn good guy. Following the well-reported wild times of his early life, Hannah had settled down and was a brilliant part of the community. A hilarious raconteur, it’s easy to see where Po gets his quick wit.
And Po is easily among the best guitar players I’ve ever heard anywhere. He’s a killer who has studied music in depth but knows how to pull all that knowledge together and funnel it out through his fingers and reel off sweet magic. A monster talent.
Mark is a recent addition to the local music scene. Apparently, he didn’t play his drums for a while, but after meeting our pal J.C. Haun and Mike, he’s back at it.
A super-sweet guy, he’s a great drummer as well. Standing on that stage, I could really feel the power of his bass drum, which is what the bass guitarist needs. I told him after soundcheck that his right foot “imparted gravitas.”
During the set, it was awesome to hear and feel the synchronicity of the bass drum and bass guitar. I experience that all the time with Susan and Chris in the TL3, but I’d forgotten how cool it is to be an internal part of that thing.
Mark really stepped it up on the George Jones tune, “Tennessee Whiskey.” And I joined right in, doing my best to keep close time with him. Oh, did I mention that Mark was Jones’ drummer for the bulk of the 1980s?
Yep, it was pretty cool to play a song with Mark that I’d seen him play with the Possum live way back then. Who’d have thunk it?
The small crowd was quite enthusiastic, so that was nice.
After we loaded up, it took a while to get out of there because Po and Mike got into a bad joke contest. You know, a lot of “Hold on, I’ve got one more …”
They eventually ran out of steam and we hit the highway for the 30-minute drive back to town, the longest drive of the week for a change.
On Saturday, Bark was booked to play the annual Brewfest in downtown Knoxville. The TL3 played it last year, so we knew what we were getting into. Hundreds of people milling around, sampling craft beers, stopping in occasionally to check out the music. A damn good time, actually.
We were the first of three local acts, followed by a “hot jazz” combo the Marble City Shooters, and Guy Marshall, one of our favorites from here in town.
We showed up a little after 3 p.m. to load in. Music was to kick off at 4:30. Naturally, a big thunderstorm blew through just as we got our gear on the stage, which was located on the north end of the Gay Street bridge. Fortunately, it was covered and we were able to move everything to the center out of the rain until it passed through.
Once cleared, we got set up with the help of Guy Marshall’s bass player, Travis, and did a quick sound check. The folks from Loudon County Sound do a great job, and things were up and running in no time.
With a little time to kill, I got a small cup and tried a couple samples. When in Rome, right?
After a quick introduction from Rusty Odom, the Blank publisher who booked the bands for the day, Bark got going right on time.
I talk a lot about chemistry and the joy of interacting with fellow players here, but I’ll tell you now, there is nothing that compares to the Bark experience for me. Susan is my soul mate, my best friend, and when we lock into our thing, it’s just the best.
Susan took up the drums early last year, after we wound up with a kit in our basement. TL3 drummer Chris Bratta (who teaches drums in addition to his day job) showed her a few things and wrote out some charts. She took to it immediately, and within a couple weeks I’d hear her banging along with Creedence Clearwater Revival records, hitting the snare fills and cymbal crashes without missing a beat.
In time, I’d venture down and play some guitar riffs along with her drumming. We started making up a group of songs for that format. It really came together when I got my hands on a Fender Bass VI, which is tuned like a regular guitar only a full octave lower. That allowed to come up with some bits that amount to me essentially playing bass and guitar at the same time.
Susan quickly figured out that she could sing while drumming, and Bark was born. It’s a fun mixture of deep groove grit and melody, a kind of swampedelic thing.
On Saturday, we were on it. It was the first Bark show in a while, and we’d rehearsed a bunch in order to be prepared. The work was worth it. The grooves were happening and our singing was on the money. It felt great.
After the rain had cleared out, and the sun reappeared, the heat was sweltering but fortunately a steady breeze kept it from getting uncomfortable on stage.
Despite the ebb and flow of the large crowd, we managed to grab the attention of a good many people, including a handful of our friends who were on hand. As usual, we managed to make a few new ones.
I find it funny that people are often sheepish about admitting they like Bark as much or more than the Tim Lee 3. Hell, we’re flattered that anybody likes either one of them. Who cares which you like best?
After our set, we cleared out to make room for the Shooters, who I’d never heard before but had met a couple of the guys. Good band.
I had a long conversation with Adam McNulty of Guy Marshall about their upcoming CD release called “The Depression Blues.” He traded me a copy for a Bark disc, so I’m looking forward to hearing it.
In time, Susan and I walked around the corner to the Public House to cool off (because the heat was hot, you know), where we were joined by our pals Mary Podio and John Harvey. They are recent Knoxvillains, having moved from Austin, Texas, where they owned and operated the excellent Top Hat Studio. We worked with them on part of the TL3 “Devil’s Rope” LP and the Bark EP.
Eventually, they will open a new Top Hat here, and I’m sure we’ll work with them more.
We got back in time for Guy Marshall’s set, and they were smoking. They have a definite sort of Flying Burrito Brothers vibe, but a bit more rocking at times (thanks to Eric Griffin’s guitar work and the nimble rhythm section of Travis Bigwood and Zach Gilleran). Live, it’s high-energy country-rock, and when Adam and his wife Sarrenna sing together it is just dynamite. I’d gladly sit and listen to the two of them sing the phonebook.
Unfortunately, they recently lost their pedal steel player to a more popular local outfit, the Black Lillies, but they haven’t missed a step. Eric stepped up to the plate in a big way and was playing some seriously cool stuff. J.C. Haun joined them on guitar for a few songs at the end of their set, and that just amped it up more.
So you know that chemistry thing I keep harping on? Guy Marshall’s got it in spades, both between the band members and between Adam and Sarrenna. Maybe it’s apparent, but I love that band.
I’ve long been a fan of the male/female vocal dynamic. Stuff like X, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, Richard and Linda Thompson, Buddy and Julie Miller, and the Divine Horseman just gets me going. I tried for a long time to come up with something like that, and I’ve had in small doses here and there, so I’m really lucky that Susan has turned out to be such a perfect musical partner. When we sing together, something magical happens. I don’t take that for granted.
They wrapped up around 7:30, so we loaded our gear in the stealth van, spoke to the band members and other friends who were still around, thanked Rusty for booking us, and finally got pointed toward our home on the north side of town around 8:30.
Once we got the guitars inside and the dogs outside, we got back out to grab a bite. Susan wanted a hamburger, and we’d noticed that the Forks on the Road truck was parked outside Hops n’ Hollers, a great little craft beer joint in the Happy Holler neighborhood. We didn’t know how late they served food, so we were pleased to find the FotR folks happy to take our order after 9:00.
We settled into our favorite table by the window overlooking Central Avenue, got a couple Fat Bottom Ruby Red Ales from Charles the bartender and relaxed, catching our collective breath over sliders and fries.
It was a nice way to end the day, and once we got home it wasn’t long before we were nodding off on the couch. With another week of new experiences behind us, we turned out the lights and hit the hay.
In a few days, we’ll be cranking up the TL3 machine for a couple shows with our pal RB Morris in Oxford, Mississippi, and Nashville to close out a busy couple months of shows. In July, we’re taking it easier, gig-wise, but we plan to do some recording of new songs, so you’ll probably read about it here.
See y’all soon.