Griffin House writes a great pop song. That isn't such an unusual talent in Nashville, a town where every other drink is poured by an aspiring songwriter. (And a lot of drinks get poured in Nashville.) There are sardonic artists in Nashville and, alternately, singer/songwriters who treat the stage like a confessional. But House manages to pull off both wry and sincere at once. He then he sets it all to viscid melodies that stick in your ear like a warm hunk of taffy. That is pretty damned unique.
His latest album, Balls, was funded by his fans through Kickstarter. It's a stripped-down sound that showcases his voice, his guitar, and his knack for songcraft. Bostonians will appreciate the references in "Fenway, though there's clearly a lot more going on in the song than a trip to a Red Sox game. "Colleen" is a catchy, up-tempo tribute to a lusty crush he once had on his sister's roommate. And then there's "Woman With the Beautiful Hair," House's ode to the murder ballad.
House is more accustomed to dabbling in the typical singer-songwriter fare -- love, loss, crush, heartache -- but with a detail and specificity that only comes from personal experience. A song with a refrain like "Relationships I don't know why, they never work out they just make you cry / but the guy that says goodbye to you is out of his mind," could only be written by a guy who once spoke those words to a woman -- or at least terribly wanted to. Likewise, "Ah, Me" is an unflinching tale of a broken engagement too candid not to have actually happened. (And yes, it did.) "New Day," one of his best, is a soaring gospel-inflected tribute to finding redemption after loss, could only have come from someone who -- well -- found some redemption after a loss.
House also writes candidly about his family. "Hanging On (Tom's Song)" is a touching tribute to an uncle who died when House was six. In "Why Won't You Believe," a parent and college-aged child clash over faith and religion. When House does get topical, he still projects his opinions through the lens personal relationships. In "I Remember," he delivers an anti-war song by recounting stories from his grandfather, who served in World War II, and his uncle, who served in Vietnam. The song then circles back to express House's own worries for friends serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. "The Way I Was Made" is a folksy, up-tempo celebration of diversity and inclusion conveyed through House's own family history.
Even when he's political like that, House isn't usually didactic. His music sounds less preachy, and more like a guy thinking out loud while strumming a guitar. But he also doesn't ramble. House has an aptitude for economy of music, which is to say that his lyrics fit snugly and satisfyingly into his melodies, even when he's telling complicated stories. And despite the contemplative, sometimes heavy lyrics, Griffin House won't weigh you down. There's an airy optimism hiding behind even his brooding moments.
Earlier this year, House came to my place in Nashville for a session of Songs From My Couch, then answered some interview questions.
Thanks to M. Allen Parker for the sound recording and engineering, and to Dave Johnson for the video and video editing. The unofficial bourbon of Songs From My couch is Prichard's Double Chocolate, distilled in Kelso, Tennessee. I supplied the couch.
You took up music at a relatively late age. Can you talk a bit about what got you started?
I started writing songs in college. I took a guitar with me that I bought for 100 bucks from a friend in high school and had never learned to play. I learned from other kids in my dorm, and eventually joined a band as a singer and rhythm guitar player. By my senior year I'd made my own record and sold it around campus. I had also started playing my own shows about once a week.
When did you move to Nashville to pursue music full-time? What were your first few months here like?
I moved to Nashville in Feb of 2003. When I think back about that time, it seems magical. These days just feel real and very ordinary in a lot of ways, which isn't a bad thing. But those days felt like I was certain that I was going to make my own luck through hard work and a determination to follow my dreams. I worked at a gift shop down on Broadway and would write songs on the toy guitars and read and write lyrics. They fired me for it. Luckily I got a manager, an agent, and a label to put out a record shortly after. Once the labels started calling I figured I could really just bank on doing music from then on. So far I have been able to do that. And that's really a dream come true.
What precipitated your move to Cincinnati -- and then your move back to Nashville?
I moved back to Cincinnati because all my friends were moving to new places or getting married around Nashville. I was on the road so much that I had no place to stay, so I decided to go back to Ohio for a while. It was also to see about a girl who I ended up getting engaged to, but we called of the wedding at the last minute. I moved back to Nashville a couple years later after making Flying Upside Down in L.A., and doing a lot of touring. I was once again homeless, and ended up spending the summer at my mom's house drinking a ton of beer, playing golf, and chasing another love interest. Pretty much just treading water and trying to find my way. I didn't really know what to do, so I rented a room at my buddy's house and slept in the control room of his studio on a mattress with no sheets for a couple months.
Then I kind of got my act together and got a loan to buy my first house in East Nashville. It was just a tiny little box on Lillian street, but I ended up really doing a lot of growing up there.
Your songs seem to be drawn from very personal, even intimate places. Do you ever worry about revealing too much, or that a lyric or song may be misinterpreted by someone close to you?
In the past, I never worried about what I was doing or saying in my songs, probably because I was always being very sincere. But on "The Learner" record, I tried something new, with a song that wasn't sincere, but ironic. It didn't really feel right to me. So, I just decided that those kind of songs weren't my job. Lesson learned.
Nowadays, it's a little different being married. I can't really write about girls without my wife maybe thinking who is that about?, and I can't really write about our marriage without worrying that I'm trying to write a good song at her expense. It's a little more challenging because of those things, honestly, but I don't feel I need more of the same kinds of songs. So I try to find new things to say. Whatever is going on in my life -- I'm usually writing about that.
If you could go see and hear an artist play tonight -- living or dead -- who would it be?
I think I'd have to say I would have loved to have seen the Clash play live. I also really wanted to go see Roger Waters do the Wall last year, but didn't make it.
Is there an artist out there with whom you've always wanted to collaborate?
I'd like to sing "Born in the U.S.A." with Springsteen on stage one day.
Give us your best "Only in Nashville" story.
I don't have many "Only in Nashville" stories. My sister had Hank Williams Jr come up and talk to her in Robert's once. I tried to explain to her that that just doesn't happen, even in Nashville. I do remember Dolly Parton passing me in the car on the corner of 12th and Wedgewood. She just smiled at me.
Like many Nashville artists, you funded your most recent album through Kickstarter. Can you talk about that experience?
I'm so thankful to have successfully funded the Balls record through Kickstarter. It was just a really fun and positive experience. I'm still fulfilling the rewards a year later, so it's lots of work on the backend. But it's worth it for sure.
"The Guy That Says Goodbye" is the song that introduced me to your music. What's the story behind that song?
"The Guy That Says Goodbye to You Is Out of His Mind" was written in Springfield, Ohio, and it was inspired by a girl I had a crush on. I was trying to flatter her and make her laugh with the song, but I realized later that it was more about me and my life, and a desire to one day not have to say goodbye to someone.
Given that your songs tend to be so personal, it was interesting to hear a bonafide murder ballad on your new album. I'm assuming "Girl With the Beautiful Hair" isn't based on a real-life experience. What inspired you to write it?
Woman with the Beautiful hair is just me having fun while writing a poem to music. It's complete fiction.
What other Nashville music would you recommend?
I had never heard of Buddy Miller until I moved to Nashville. But every time I hear something he's worked on, every time I've seen him play, it makes me feel lucky that I get to play music too. He's inspiring. I really admire and respect his demeanor on stage, what he has to say with his music, and the way he plays.
One recurring theme I've encountered while exploring the music industry since moving to Nashville is just how expendable the giant record labels have become. As it turns out, pissing on your customers is a pretty awful business model. Artists are increasingly finding ways to fund their music that not only don't screw over their fans, but actually bring their fans into the production process, and that allow artists to keep more of what they make from their work to boot.
All of the artists who have done "Songs From My Couch" sessions -- Matthew Perryman Jones and Tom House -- have both had rewarding careers while bypassing the major labels. Jones' last album was funded entirely through a Kickstarter campaign. In a couple weeks I'll post videos from our most recent session with Griffin House, who funded his most recent album the same way.
We want to record a new album, THE SHAPE THE COLOR THE FEEL, and create a collaborative visual experience surrounding it. We believe that great music is inspired by great films and visual art, and great films and visual art are inspired by great music. It’s a beautiful cycle and we will explore it in this project by working with eight filmmakers to create music videos or short films for each of the songs on the album. We will release each film serially as the album rolls out along with an experimental documentary that retrospectively features the community that this collaborative venture will inevitably foster. And most of all we want to invite you to join us in the creative process.
In a time where a whole world of sound and experience can be compressed into a tiny digital file that we send to each other on our cell phones, we like the idea of attaching moving picture to this tiny little file and giving it some weight. So much goes into creating a song and a sound and an album and even more goes into making a film and all of that time, love, and attention is something we want to remember.
With that in mind, and a great love for collecting vinyl, we also want to give this album a physical presence. We’ll be releasing the album on limited edition 180 gram vinyl featuring art by Australian artist Jessie English. Jessie is creating a photo installation that will exist in the real world and will also inform the overall visual aesthetic of THE SHAPE THE COLOR THE FEEL. Jessie’s work has been shown in Sydney and NYC and we are excited to plan gallery openings surrounding the album release in Nashville, NYC, and Seattle, Washington.
I love this idea. As wonderful as it is that technology, social media, and new music formats are allowing artists to bring fans into the production process, and to write, record, produce, and distribute an album without signing their rights and independence away to Sony or Warner Brothers, the transition hasn't come without some costs. The big, beautiful album art of the 1970s and early 1980s is gone. You now get that 2 x 2 inch square that pops up on your iPhone. The lifespan of the music video as an art form was even shorter. Thriller and November Rain are excesses of the past. The substance of music itself has suffered, too. The MP3 culture has basically brought us back to the era of the single. There just isn't much room for a themed or concept album anymore. Studios also now engineer songs for portable devices, and a lot of sound is getting lost along the way. (There's more to the vinyl revival than just hipster culture. It really is a richer, fuller sound.)
I'm not lamenting the technology, here. The iPod revolution has done wonderful things for music. But in some ways, it has also shrunk music as an art form. There's a bit of irony at work here: As the democratization of technology has made us all increasingly multimedia savvy, music has grown increasingly one-dimensional.
Anyway, back to Kate Tucker. What I love about this project is that its aim is to blow it all back out. The idea here is to bring the visual and conceptual components back to music. You'll be able to download the songs for your MP3 player, but you can also get the fuller, less-loss recordings on vinyl. It's also a pretty bold to create and record a song, then hand it off to a photographer or filmmaker to interpret as they please -- and to let that interpretation be the way the song is presented to the public.
But the real beauty of the project is that just as it seeks to recapture some of what music has lost to technology, it's utilizing the same technology to make that happen. It'll be funded by crowd-sourcing. It will be promoted through social media. You'll be able to see the artwork online, and stream the videos on YouTube. It's really an effort to bring the best of the past and present together.
"I just don't like killin'," John Hiatt says. "I mean, if somebody's about to harm your family, sure. You do you what you have to do. But to plan out the killing a guy who could just as easily be locked up, I just don't get it. We might as well be lopping off the hands of thieves, cutting out the tongues of liars."
Hiatt is backstage, memorizing lyrics and rehearsing with his daughter Lilly the song they'll sing later in the night. Chris Scruggs, grandson of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, was also backstage, chatting with his mother Gail Davies while showing off the ode to Woody Guthrie he taped to his guitar: This Machine Kills No One. (Guthrie's guitar killed fascists.)
Scruggs, Davies, and the Hiatts were all preparing for Monday night's Generations Against the Death Penalty, an annual concert benefit for the advocacy group Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (TADP). As the name implies, the show features Nashville musicians taking the stage with their sons and daughters. The pairings made for some poignant moments--and some terrific music.
The benefit is the brainchild of Lauren Brown, a Nashville-area therapist and part-time musician who became interested in the death penalty while counseling people who had been convicted of violent crimes. "I wanted to be on TADP's board," Brown says. "But then I learned that when you serve on a board of directors of an organization, you're supposed to give them a lot money. I didn't have a lot money to give them!"
Brown says she was talking with fellow Nashville musician James Green and his mother when the idea was born. "I thought since we're here in Nashville, a benefit show would be a great way to raise money. At the time, I was counseling both child victims of crime as well as those convicted of murder. It helped me see that we're all human. So we were in the kitchen talking about the idea of a show with James' mom. She pointed out that there were a couple generations of musicians in the room. So why not make 'generations' the show's theme?"
This is the show's third year. TADP director Stacy Rector says the inaugural event attracted only a few dozen people. But last year it sold out the Station Inn. They moved this year's show moved to the larger and newly renovated 3rd & Lindlsey, and played to a full house. "We're really excited by how much it's grown," Rector says.
Brown played master of ceremonies, and kicked the evening off by asking the audience to sing "Happy Birthday" to exonerated death row inmate Paul House. House spent two decades on death row, was nearly executed, and was released last year after a long legal battle. He's one of two Tennesseans exonerated from death row. The other, Michael McCormick, was also in attendance. House was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while in prison, which his attorneys say wasn't properly treated by prison officials. The disease now has him confined to a wheelchair. House turned 50 Monday night and celebrated with a seat in the VIP section. "He came last year too, just after he was released from prison," Rector says. "He joked that it was the best concert he'd seen in 23 years."
Green was first on stage, along with his father Doug Green of the novelty country band Riders in the Sky. They were followed by John and Lilly Hiatt, along with Scrugs and Davies. The final set featured Nashville royalty Rodney Crowell and Roseanne Cash, the former husband and wife, along with their daughter Chelsea.
Rector says it hasn't been difficult finding Nashville artists for the cause, even in country music, where politics tend to skew more to the right. But she says that may be because the politics of the death penalty are changing. "Conservatives have never been more receptive to us than they are right now. We've worked with a number of Republican legislators in the last few years. The cost is an issue for them, and I think the innocence case have alarmed some of them."
Highlights from the night include Doug Green's dizzying stretch of yodeling, John Hiatt's solo renditions of his hits "Crossing Muddy Waters," "Lift Up Every Stone," and, in particular, "Feels Like Rain," one of the prettiest songs in Hiatt's massive catalog.
Scruggs and Davies kept the show in tune with the night's theme. Scruggs crooned a mesmerizing take on "Long Black Veil," Danny Dill's haunting ballad of a man wrongly executed for murder. Davies ended her set with "Can We Be Saved?" a soaring hymn about collective conscience and capital punishment she says she had written just a few days earlier. It may have been the song of the night.
Given his history of camaraderie with the convicted, it was fitting that Johnny Cash's daughter would close the show. Roseanne Cash and ex-husband Rondey Crowell took the stage last with their daughter Chelsea Crowell (fittingly placed between them). They ended the night with humor, moving tributes to the Man in Black, and some holiday family bickering.
Chelsea played referee as her parents exchanged barbs between songs, which were likely for show, but rang with the authenticity of a couple who'd fought a few times before. That brought laughs from the crowd, and also set Crowell up for "It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long," his hit with country supergroup The Notorious Cherry Bombs. Cash then sobered the building up with "September When It Comes," the only song she recorded with her father, with her daughter singing his part. The final act encored with two songs. The first was "I Ain't Living Long Like This" the title track from Crowell's first album that Waylon Jennings made famous. Multi-act, star-packed Nashville shows tend to end with a grand medley, and it's a safe bet it'll be something by Hank Williams or Johnny Cash. This one would end with Cash, of course. And so the entire building belted out "Big River."
After the show, Rector points out that the state has only executed six people since 1960. "It's a surprisingly progressive state on the death penalty," she says. While House and McCormick have been freed, neither has yet been declared innocent, which would entitle them to compensation. House could use the compensation to help his medical bills. As House's mother Joyce wheels him out after the show Monday night, she stops to let him say goodbye to Brown and Rector. Not only did the state nearly execute House--and take 20 years of his life--in failing to properly diagnose and treat his MS, the state likely shortened what life House has left. Now the disease also shortens his days. "We'd love to stay and visit," Joyce House says, as others line up to see him off. "But he's exhausted, and he just doesn't function when he gets tired."
There are currently 86 people on death row in Tennessee. The last execution was Cecil Johnson, Jr. in December 2009. Several states, most recently Oregon, have put a moratorium on the death penalty in response to the string of DNA exonerations that began in the early 1990s. That seems unlikely to happen in Tennessee, but Rector holds out hope. "We're reaching out to people of all political stripes," she says. "And we're finding receptive audiences in places you might not expect."
There may be no one alive who has crossed paths with more bold names than Manuel Cuevas, known around Nashville and the music and fashion worlds as simply "Manuel." The Nashville designer, known for his exquisite embroidery and use of rhinestones and sequins, has dressed five American presidents. He made Elvis Presley's gold lamé suit and his famous white jumpsuit, and he's the man who convinced Johnny Cash to dress in black. His clothes have draped Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and, as he puts it, "three generations of Hank Williamses."
And yet for the dizzying constellation of stars who have stood for a Manuel fitting, he says he has only been genuinely awestruck once. "The Lone Ranger," Manuel says. "When I was growing up in Mexico, I walked an hour each way just to watch The Lone Ranger on television. I wanted to be him. So when I had the opportunity to make his outfit for the show, I was just thrilled to meet him. I didn't know what to say to him."
Dressed in leather python-print pants, a black shirt, and his signature silk neck scarf, Manuel chatted with me last month from his studio on Broadway in midtown Nashville. It's a quaint operation, run out of an old house clearly built to be a residence. The aging floors creak and pop, and the rooms were Manuel and his staff do the fitting, sewing, and embroidery look more like bedrooms, a study, or a kitchen. The ground floor is an inconspicuous retail store, albeit a pricey one. Open your checkbook, and you can pick up a Manuel authentic previously worn by Kid Rock, Faith Hill, or Brad Paisley. (The first time Kid Rock visited the store, he spent $113,000.)
Born in 1938 in Coalcomán de Vázquez Pallares, Mexico, Manuel's brother was teaching him to sew at age 7. By 14 Manuel was making money. He's the fifth of 11 children, but he stresses that his isn't a rags-to-riches tale. "Everyone wants me to tell the sad immigrant story," he says. "But that isn't my story. We were comfortable. My father was a salesman, and he was very smart at it. He could sell condoms to the Pope. I worked hard, I still work hard. But we weren't hungry or wanting of things. I was already successful in Mexico and South America when I moved to America. I moved here because I wanted more. And America is where you come when you want more."
At 22, Manuel moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for several designers and tailors, including Sy Devore, where he designed suits for the Rat Pack. But it was while working for western-themed tailor Viola Grae that Manuel met the flamboyant Nudie Cohn, another talented immigrant tailor (Cohn came to the U.S. from Russia) who would become Manuel's mentor. Cohn went on to start the famous Nudie's Rodeo Tailors, and brought Manuel along, eventually as head designer. Manuel later married Nudie Cohn's daughter, Barbara.
It was at Nudie that Manuel began taking his measuring tape to the entertainment industry's elite, and later to the elite just about everywhere else. Country crooner Porter Wagoner put Nudie on the map with elaborately embroidered suits studded with wagon wheels, tumbleweeds, and other western themes. Country icons like Webb Pierce, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry soon began to sport Nudie originals, and by the late 60s, Manuel and Nudie were making clothes for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
It was also at Nudie that Manuel cultivated the philosophy that animates his work. "People come to me with a design and say, 'Can you make this?'," he says. "I tell them, 'No. But I can send you to someone who will.' If you want me to make you a suit, let's sit down and talk. Let me get to know you. Who you are. I will then make you the suit you need, the suit that is you, not the suit that you want. If you don't like it, you don't pay for it."
It's a brash way to run a business. And it can probably only be pulled off by a guy who can glance at a list of the seven best-selling artists of all-time, and say he's made clothes for six of them.
It's also how Manuel has conceived some of his more iconic designs. The Grateful Dead came to Nudie in the 1960s. Manuel sat down with Jerry Garcia for an interview. "There was so much joy in him," Manuel says. He and Garcia would develop a lifelong friendship. "But there was this death in the band's name. Death, and gratitude, and joy. It reminded me of Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, where we celebrate the dead with flowers and dancing and joy." Manuel designed Garcia a suit embroidered with images from Día de los Muertos celebrations, including flowers, skulls and dancing skeletons. Various incarnations of those images would become the band's insignia.
Manuel's friendship with Mick Jagger may have produced the most recognized rock 'n' roll logo in the world. "We had argued over something, we weren't on good terms. So the next time I saw him I made him a peace offering. It was a pillow of bright red lips, his most recognizable feature. We became friends again." A couple years later, designer John Pasche came up with the "Tongue and Lips" logo for the Sticky Fingers album, a design Manuel insists was influenced by his pillow. Pasche is widely credited with conceiving the design on his own. Manuel says he's fine with that. "We get inspired by the things we see, sometimes without knowing. Of course, it is also possible that two designers could look at him [Jagger] and come up with something featuring his lips."
Manuel's most controversial design at Nudie was likely the suit Gram Parsons wore on the cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers album, The Gilded Palace of Sin. It's also his most haunting. After sitting with Parsons for an interview, Manuel created a suit celebrating Parsons' fast-lane lifestyle. The white suit was embroidered with marijuana leaves, naked ladies, amphetamines, flames up the pant legs, and a towering cross down the back of the jacket.
"Everyone made a big deal about the marijuana," Manuel says. "I told them, this grows all over Mexico. Your son is probably growing it in your backyard. It's not a big deal. I don't think they even noticed the pills we put on the suit. Or the naked women. They were so focused on the marijuana."
In 1973, Parsons would die of a heroin overdose. Perhaps sensing his own fall (also eerily foretold in his gospel-tinged song, "In My Hour of Darkness"), Parsons told the Flying Burrito Brothers' road manager one night that should he die young, he wanted to be cremated. On his blog, Sam Umland, a professor of English and film studies at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, points to a 1997 interview Manuel gave with music critic Michael Jarrett. "I was just making the outfit according to all the ideas that we put together: the nude girls, the pills and the marijuana plants, and the California poppies. The fire up the pants. The cross in the back. Although I captured the idea--we developed it into a great form--it wasn't until a few years after his death that I really started thinking about it. This boy was really telling me how he was going to die."
By the late 1980s, Manuel was ready to leave Los Angeles. "You need to move sometimes," he says. "It's life's greatest freedom, to pick up and move on." It's another theme that echoes in the western motifs in his work. "I was always to drawn cowboys, the frontier, to the open country," he says. "Maybe this is the experience of an immigrant, but I see these new restrictions on allowing people to move around, and it worries me. People should be free to come and go. You can't ask people to live like that."
Manuel's wife suggested Nashville. "She really liked it here when we visited," he says. "You have people here who are in music who would get buried in New York or Los Angeles. They would starve. Not because they aren't talented. It just takes more than talent to succeed there. They come to Nashville and make great music and make a very nice living. It's a different business here."
He says the things that has changed most in his 20 years here is the city's diversity. "When I moved here, I bet there were three of us who spoke Spanish. Now you see lots of Spanish-speaking people, people from all over moving to Nashville. I like the diversity."
Of the five presidents he's dressed, Manuel says Lyndon Johnson was the fussiest. "He had this obsession with wanting to dress like Eisenhower," he says. (A fascinating bit of history in its own right.) Most of his designs for presidents were standard business suits. Only George H.W. Bush got a jacket in the flamboyant style for which Manuel is known. "I made him this beautiful jacket with his entire life sewn into the back. He says he wears it when he's on the yacht."
As we chat, Manuel's cell phone rings. He apologizes, and tells me he needs to take it. It's Larry Weiss, who wrote the song "Rhinestone Cowboy." Weiss is calling about Glenn Campbell, who famously recorded the song, and will be getting a lifetime achievement award at the Country Music Awards. Manuel made the jacket Campbell will be wearing when he receives the award. A good percentage of the crowd at that show will be waring Manuel originals.
As Manuel chats, laughs, and makes a crude joke or two with the one of country music's most successful songwriters, upstairs, his staff stamps embroidery designs into fabric, sews the threads that bring those designs to life, and punch sequins and rhinestones into jackets and slacks. The contrast between the quaint, almost humble operation with the celebrity of its clientele (not to mention its owner) is hard to miss. But this is the way Manuel wants it. He has resisted offers over the years to mass-produce his product. Its limited supply and custom-design is what makes it Manuel.
In any case, the market for his product may be shrinking. "I don't want to sound like a grouchy old man complaining about the new generation," he says. "And trends come and go. But there's no sense of style right now, no showmanship. You pay $100 go to a show, and the artist comes out in an old shirt and jeans filled with holes. Don't be surprised if you leave the show disappointed. Your clothes are who you are. If you can't bring yourself to dress for a performance, you aren't really dedicated to the performance."
If you haven't yet seen the Cold Stares live, here's how it's likely to go down: You'll probably be headed to a Nashville venue like 3rd and Lindsley, or 12th and Porter, or The Basement, and you'll probably be going to see another band. You'll get to the show early enough to see the opening act--this is Nashville after all--and you'll grab a table or a good spot at the bar, and you'll order your drink. I like bourbon.
As you grab your seat, if you're paying attention, you'll probably notice a guy in a short-cropped beard, glasses, and a blazer fidgeting with the sound gear on-stage. That's Chris Tapp, one half of the Cold Stares, and he's putting his guitar rig together. It's a jerry-rigged contraption that incorporates several amps, I was once told involved some MacBook program and--I'm pretty sure--some duct tape and chewing gum. Hang on for just a few minutes, and you'll hear why he's so damned fussy about the thing.
You probably won't be able to pick Tapp and drummer Brian Mullins--the other half of the band--out of the crowd. They don't have band look. No skinny jeans, no hipster facial hair, no iron-ons of cartoon cereal mascots. They dress up for rock 'n' roll as they might for church. Suits, sweaters, and blazers--more Men's Wearhouse than Goodwill. There will be no irony on stage tonight. These guys crush irony like a runt piglet. You're about to hear some rock 'n' roll verisimilitude.
When Tapp and Mullins take the stage, you'll probably be chatting with friends, and like everyone else in the bar you likely won't be paying much attention. Let's say they kick off the set with "John," a burly, bluesy tune about a boatman who loses his woman to a gravedigger--and then kills them both.
Thing is, the very first lick is gonna' turn your head. It's a muscular riff, the sort you might have heard barking out of the analog Alpine speakers in a '78 Trans Am. Tapp will belt out the song's first line, and it'll go like this: Had me a job on a boat, sailed on the deep blue sea. And this is probably the point where you'll decide the conversation you were having can wait. And every time I come home, Tapp will sing on, she was waitin' on the docks for me. And then Mullins will bring in the drums.
By now other heads will have turned, too. And other conversations will have stopped. Damn, you'll think. This is authentic. This is bad-ass blues. By now, Tapp will be repeating the line, John, won't you dig that grave, John, won't you dig that grave, and each time time he'll bend it around a single, lingering strum of a guitar string that feels as if it's about to beckon a hellstorm.
And then he'll drop out the bottom. A deep, monstrous riff will send a warm gust of speaker breath swarming across the room. I've seen it move a napkin.
By now other heads will have turned, too. And other conversations will have stopped. Damn, you'll think. This is authentic. This is bad-ass blues. And now Tapp will be repeating the line, John, won't you dig that grave, John, won't you dig that grave, and each time time he'll bend it around a single, lingering strum of a guitar string that feels as if it's about to beckon a hellstorm.
And then he'll drop out the bottom. He'll conjure a deep, monstrous riff that'll send a warm gust of speaker breath racing across the room. I've seen it move a napkin.
Heads will bob, now. Mullins will have already broken a sweat. The floor will shake; you'll notice ice cubes quivering in your bourbon. At some point, Tapp will bend back at the knees and make a righteous guitar face as his fingers fly around the fretboard like a scurry of squirrels whisking around a poplar tree.
This will go on for an hour. Between songs, people will whisper. They're asking one another if anyone knows who the hell this is. And it's here that you and everyone in the room will have the same realization just about everyone else has the first time they see they hear the Cold Stares live:
These guys are better than the band you came to see.
"The first time I saw them," says Nashville radio personality Dan Buckley, "I thought they had at least two other musicians secretly behind the curtain. There's just no way that sound comes from the two of them."
Thing is, it does. It's big and brawny and ballsy. It grabs you by the shoulders, shakes you until you're converted.
If the Cold Stares' catalog of songs were an actual catalog, it'd be tattered and faded--like your grandmother's hymnal. Probably stained with some blood and whiskey, too. It includes tales of regicide ("Kings," which also includes a nifty little riff Jimmy Page could have written), a valiant attempt to rhyme John Lee Hooker with short-order cook-er ("Cannonball"), and a song that would be at home on an early '90s Lynch Mob CD ("Release You").
The band's typical show-closer ("Red Letter Blues") starts off like some song you've heard Jack White sing, then shifts into something sinister, beginning with a wicked little bridge in which Tapp and Mullins engage in a bit of synchronized noodling. Next comes a thunderous collision of drum and guitar, then the refrain, then a colossal wave of sound that could serve as the soundtrack to a supercell ripping up the Delta countryside.
Tapp and Mullins live in Hendersonville, Kentucky, but as a band, the Cold Stares call Nashville home. They've released two EPs, one self-titled, the other Hot Like Waco, with another on the way. In 2010 they took first in the Nashville region of the Hard Rock Cafe's Ambassadors of Rock competition, and finished second internationally.
Earlier this year, the guys played a four-song acoustic set in my living room. Tapp was nursing a sore throat with some sweet tea--naturally spiked with rye.
Sound engineering for the videos below by Mark Crozier. Camera work by Nashville photographer Dave Johnson. Video editing by both Crozier and Johnson. My thanks to both for their help.
So I guess the first question is for Chris. What's behind the enormous sound that comes out of your guitar?
CHRIS: I just kind of lucked into it. It actually took about six months of playing and working with it before to refine it to where it is now. It can move a lot of air. It's 560 watts live, 4 amp feeds, and very little effects. But it's not just about volume, it's about filling the room. When we first started jamming we were really digging a couple of the songs we were working on, but just thought they sounded horrible without the bottom end. I was dead against sequencing, so I just had to design a rig to do what I needed it to do live. We now have more bottom end live than most 4-5 piece bands. My formula for sound outside the drums with this band is really no different than AC/DC's "Highway to Hell", or The Cult's "Wildflower". Which means you just apply second guitar amps and bass where needed instead of saturating the whole song with it. It makes the song stronger, and more to the point. It makes you really want that bottom end, and then when I give it to you....well....
How did you come to the two-man setup?
CHRIS: We played in another band for a bit that dead ended after a big showcase, and we both just kind of said screw it. After a couple of months, we just wanted to jam. So we got together. We never actually decided we wanted a two-piece band. When this started, we didn't even want to have a band. We were just enjoying jamming without the pressures of trying to be something. "Jesus Brother James" came together one night, and we figured we had some other really good songs. People were wanting to see us play. So we thought we'd just play one gig, just to do a live show again. For that first gig I was actually sitting down in a chair. I still remember the look on people's faces when I kicked the rig in. It was pretty amazing. I had done some acoustic shows with material I poured my guts into, and you know it's the usual thing, people drinking and talking through the set.
So I told Brian after that first gig went over so well: If we were going to continue to do this, I wanted it to be so loud and powerful that no one could talk over it. Even if they're screaming, I don't want to hear them. Sound-wise, I don't think I would have ever tried this in the confines of a full band. I was experimenting with different ways the guitar could be used sonically. I'm running three octaves a lot of times through three amps, and using a unison line. It just has that Black Sabbath-type power, like in "Iron Man." We tried adding a bass player about a year ago, and it just didn't add anything to the songs. Keeping things the way they are gives us a formula and a parameter, and also keeps that ace in the sleeve when it comes to surprising folks at our live shows. A guy that has been following us for about a year told me that's still the best thing about seeing us in new venues: Watching people's reaction when it all kicks in.
I've noticed that, too. It's fun to see. As a two-man rock and blues band, you get the inevitable comparisons to the White Stripes and the Black Keys. Explain why that's wrong.
CHRIS- I don't think anyone that knows our material or has seen us live makes those comparisons. It's kind of like comparing Black Sabbath to Bad Company because they are both four piece bands with guitar players that build from the blues. They're nothing alike. And neither are we. All three bands have drummers that don't really dig the blues, and guitarists that do. I guess Dan Auerbach says the Black Keys don't play the blues. But they just did a Junior Kimbrough record minus Junior, so I don't quite get that. But whatever. Dan's a fantastic singer.
Jack White is a great ambassador for good roots music, and I have great admiration for a guy who pays homage to where it all comes from. Jacks' obviously a brilliant fellow with the marketing as well.
Both of those bands are platinum selling pop acts. We never looked at what we did and thought it would be marketed to the masses. We just wanted to do things that are real for us. Brian doesn't listen to either of those bands. I think we fall more in line with Clutch or The Black Crowes. All three bands now live around Nashville, but we've been here all our lives. I've been playing some of these riffs since I was 13-years-old.
Brian, do you have a philosophy or specific approach to drumming in a blues band?
BRIAN: I just try to play the best part for the songs. I hear different elements from what has influenced me coming out in our music--mostly jazz, rock, and soul records. I like a lot of different kinds of music so I don't really approach it like, "What would a blues player play?" I just try to be true to the song, play honest parts, and make sure that it feels genuine to me. With a new song, I generally like to jump in with something that just grooves, and then let the part evolve over the course of live shows.
Do you remember what made you first take up the drums?
BRIAN: My first drumming inspiration was my childhood neighbor. He had this huge, gold sparkle drum set at his house. I remember thinking it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. I remember hearing his son playing along with songs by the Police. That probably planted the seed. It was years later that I actually started playing, and it's just something I've always stuck with.
You guys are both from Kentucky, but you call Nashville your musical home. Why here? This is a blog about Nashville, so what makes Nashville different?
CHRIS: I've been playing in Nashville since 1997. I had a acoustic band that had a residency at the old Gibson Cafe. We played there for a couple years. We thought we had made it. We were kids driving into the big city, you know. We were playing folks blues stuff then, but not too far off in terms of songwriting from where we are now. So we've been around. It's a different scene now in Nashville. Back then, only a lucky few bands could get a deal. Dreams. The land before Napster. I was trying to get a deal with Sire, but we really had no clue what we were doing. Americana was just catching on. The only rock success stories I knew of were Matthew Ryan and Josh Rouse. Mindy Smith played slots before and after us at the Gibson, and there were other people I knew that had things in the works, but nothing like it is now.
L.A. just kind of folded and Nashville is the place where everything landed. But even the deals now aren't that great. I still wouldn't say Nashville has a great rock scene. It's kind of like if all the NBA stars moved to one city, but the city's team could still only have 12 players. Danny Ainge isn't going to have anything great to say about Kurt Rambis if Danny Ainge doesn't make the team. Everyone in town plays music, so a lot of folks in town aren't going to polish your shoes if they think they can do the same song and dance better. Nashville has ten times as many music venues with live music seven days a week than any other town on earth. You can't escape it. For artists, I guess that's both the greatest thing and the worst thing. Nashville is like an abusive relationship.
I've heard that before. That Nashville has such a great music scene, but musicians don't necessarily love playing here, because most of your audience will be made up of other musicians.
But even with all of that, for me it's still the greatest city on earth to be a musician. Probably the smartest thing for us is living an hour or so away, and being able to come and go. In our hometown [Hendersonville, Kentucky], we have a huge blues festival and a bluegrass festival, and there's always been a strong connection to both of those traditions around here.
BRIAN: There are so many things I like about Nashville. There's so much talent here. We have our places we like to eat or hang out. It's a very competitive endeavor to draw an attentive audience in any city, but even more so in Nashville because of the number of great bands. So while I feel like we've been successful in the cities we've played in, I'm especially proud of our progress in Nashville. We know how tough it can be here for bands starting from scratch.
Your songs include quite a bit of religious and historical imagery . . . and also a lot of killing. Do you come up with a few riffs first, then write lyrics, or the other way around?
CHRIS: 50/50. We either just riff something in practice, come up with a section and then I write lyrics to it from there based on the mood it brings, or the whole song just hits me at once and I write it down start to finish. "John" and "Jesus Brother James" were finished in my head before I picked up the guitar. Scribbled them on a piece of paper early in the morning. A song like "Cannonball" is one that we just jammed out. It's nice not sticking to the same method all of the time, I think.
As far as imagery, I think that's what I take from the early Delta artists that I love more than anything. Son House sang about women, drinking, gambling, and Jesus. Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James, Bukka White--they all sang about what was real to them. I identify with that. I grew up in church, I didn't know my real parents until I turned 30. I was born in Eastern Kentucky, and Brian and I grew up in the River Valley. That area has a lot of history. I identify with Johnny Cash and Robert Johnson. I've been arrested, and I've been saved. If I grew up in Jersey as an atheist, I guess I'd write about factories and science.
At your live shows you cover the Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Jimi Hendrix. Did you listen to a lot of AOR growing up?
CHRIS: I had a God-brother that lived behind me when I was a kid who was 12 years older than me. When I was about seven I saw a Jimi Hendrix poster on his wall. I remember him showing me the inside cover of Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever" and thinking, "What the hell is this?"
I also remember being on a church retreat around that time and some kids had smuggled a Black Sabbath record into the basement of the lodge, cranked it on this giant wood box record player thing, and I can't begin to tell you what kind of effect that the first 30 seconds of "Paranoid" had on me. There's great stuff in any decade of music, but the seventies guitar rock stuff is a huge influence.
BRIAN: I listened to a lot of everything. Album-oriented rock was the most accessible when I first started getting into music. Obviously as a kid, you sometimes like what's trendy, or what your friends expose you to. I would read about these bands, then check out what influenced them. So going backwards, I first listened to Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Hendrix, and then moved to jazz and blues from that.
You get to assemble a band for one show. Anyone, living or dead. Who's on stage?
CHRIS: Jim Morrison on vocals, myself and Peter Green on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass, Keith Moon on drums. No way I'm putting that lineup together and not playing with them.
BRIAN: Cedric Bixler-Zavala on vocals, Ray Manzarek on keys, Jeff Beck on guitar, Tony Williams on drums, John Entwistle on bass.
Who would you want to jam with?
CHRIS: I'd love to work with the Chino from the Deftones, Jimmy Page, Josh Homme. I'd love to do ZZ Top's comeback record. Shave the beards and get lowdown in the street.
BRIAN: Ian Thornley, Clutch, Tom Petty, MGMT, Pink Floyd, The Who.
Let's talk about the music industry a bit. What's it like to be an unsigned band in a city full of musicians? Do you get frustrated?
CHRIS: I'm probably always frustrated, never satisfied. When a band plays a gig, the venue does $5,000 at the bar. The band makes $400.00 at the door, pays $150.00 production, $100.00 in gas and travel. You split the money up, and most times you're breaking even. A lot of bands play for free in Nashville because they just want the gigs. But just because a hooker will lay you for free doesn't mean you should lay her. Get paid for what you get--it helps the whole community.
There's no money in downloads, no money in touring, so what is there to not be frustrated about? But Dan Baird once said to me, "we are lifers." This is what we do. It's not like you can say, "At 30, I'll quit playing music and just teach history." Bullshit. I didn't wake up one day and say I'll be a musician. It's just who we are. We are doing it whether there's success to be had or not. It's just a shame that even in 2011, everyone else involved still has a bigger cut of the pie than the folks who are doing the baking. We don't want to get rich, we just want to be able to continue doing what we do. Why should someone that wants to have a relationship with us also be forced to have a relationship with Sony, or whoever?
We're working towards something that we are launching in early 2012 that we think will be unique to the industry. It might finally cut out the middle man, and create a better relationship between fans and artists. So stay tuned.
BRIAN: I'm very grateful for every chance I get to play. I'm also greedy in the fact that I want it to sound great, I want people to pay attention, and I don't want to have to pay $17 to do it. It's tough playing rock and roll. I concur with what Chris said, and would add that any frustration I have is just because this thing is special, and I want as many people as possible to be able to experience it.
The music business model is changing. You've had some success selling your own CDs. Is signing with a label still even necessary?
CHRIS: Everything we've done can be attributed to people who dug what we are doing, who then turned more folks on to it.We're in the process of creating something that will enable and encourage that kind of community, and make everyone feel like they are a part of the band's success. We have talked to some labels, and at this point I don't think we're interested in signing with one. I'm not saying we wouldn't sign in the right situation. But at the moment, I think some of these record labels are in the same boat as these Wall Street cronies. We're hoping that by February 1st, 2012, you can visit www.thecoldstares.com to see the new direction we're going, and if you dig what we do, you can join us in making some changes to how it all works.
BRIAN: I'm interested in continuing to make records. I'd like for people to hear those records. And maybe to have a budget to record without having to watch the clock. But I don't know if a label is the best way to accomplish that. When you're a kid, you think that the label comes to you and says, "Hey, would you like a golden egg? We love your songs." It's just not like that these days. It's an 85/15 split between label to artist. And that is just unacceptable.
Chris, you have a great family story involving your great grandfather that's really a blues tune waiting to be written. Want to share it?
CHRIS: I think I'll hold on to the details until the song is written. But the gist is that my great grandfather killed the sheriff and his deputy brother in the late 1920's after the cops did some ill things to my grandmother and her sisters. I was told about it in high school by their great grandson. It was a tough story to hear from my grandmother. It was a different time in America, definitely a different system of law. I've kind of held off from writing that because it's still a painful thing for my great aunt. She's still kicking it at 103.
You guys don't really project the image of the typical Nashville musician. You generally drive up from Kentucky for your shows, drive back after. You're dapper, not ironic. Is that all a conscious thing--to stay clear of the noise?
CHRIS: What does a musician look like? Sure we do. We look like the bands we like. Afghan Whigs, Muddy Waters, Clutch. We don't look like the Kings of Leon, but they didn't look like Kings of Leon on their first record, they looked like the Black Crowes. I might wear a suit because that's me. I like to wear suits. I like southern things, old things, it's who I am. If I'm holding a gun it's because I am about to shoot it, not because I want to be seen with it. These bands in their sarcastic t-shirts and their dirty skinny jeans are no different than Bon Jovi and Poison twenty years ago. That's not them. Then you couldn't get noticed from the labels unless you looked like a woman. Someone likes that stuff, and that's great. It helps draw a line between us and them. We are more concerned with being a good band live, and writing great songs than coming up with the right color theme for our band.
I don't think we are intentionally trying to stay clear of anything. We are working with the best folks in town right now. We're very close with some great bands in town and have a great relationship with the venues we play. We wouldn't be where we were if Ron Brice at 3rd and Lindsley hadn't given us a shot. We have a great relationship with Lightning100. We aren't going to go out of our way to be associated with someone that worked on so and so's record in the 90's just because they worked on so and so's record in the 90's- and there are a lot of those kinds of people in town like that. Who want to be seen with the latest thing for their image.
We just aren't like that. We're small town, and we choose our friends and relationships with people based on who they are as much as what they've done. Instead of the music social events, we're usually in the studio, or at someone's pad playing music. It's the stuff outside the stage and studio that turns us off. My friend Ryan Smith, who has a dozen or so #1 MTV videos in L.A. in the last decade, came up and crawled through the woods to an abandoned, 1940s Pentecostal church in rural KY to shoot some photos of us. [Note: See some of those photos in the video for "John" above.] Our friends get what we are. It's not about L.A., or reality shows, it's about honesty. We have the most unpretentious team of folks I could ask for.
What's coming up for you?
CHRIS: Probably spreading out a bit for 2012 and picking up some tours across country. Multiple new records and the new website in January that will launch our new music model with our community of fans. Possibly some film and TV placements. We'll just keep ours head down and continue to work. We are very thankful, and grateful, and want to do the best we can so that the people that have worked so hard to help us will see it wasn't in vain.
Martin Scorsese's epic three-and-a-half-hour documentary, "George Harrison: Living in the Material World," is a tender exploration of what sets George Harrison apart, both in his work and life.
Widow Olivia Harrison is a co-producer on the film, so perhaps it's no surprise that Harrison's legacy remains untarnished; there are no new damning revelations. Unlike the 10-hour-plus "Anthology" documentary from 1995, this is not an exhaustive perspective on the rise and fall of The Beatles. Instead, it's a chance to get to know George Harrison as his close friends once did.
The documentary features new interviews with key figures from Harrison's life, including his widow, his son, Ringo and Paul, and Eric Clapton. Recollections of intimate, sometimes seemingly minor, encounters with Harrison make up much of the movie. While the film is not heavy-handed in its artistry, it's clear that the interviewers spent considerable effort getting these people to come up with memories that only his loved ones could have had.
Olivia Harrison's retelling of George Harrison's stabbing is detailed and harrowing. An old friend talks about what Harrison said in a call after Lennon's murder, prefacing it with, "I don't even know if I should be telling you this." Dhani Harrison, George's son, recalls running out into the garden and frolicking with his dad. He also recounts the time he realized his dad was cool, when Harrison told some cops to "fuck off" after Dhani got in some trouble. This is not a George Harrison you are likely to get from broader Beatles lore.
Not that there aren't precious discoveries for Beatles fans. Photos of the early group, gussied up, standing in the stodgy English drawing rooms of their families, are incredible, as is footage from very early concerts in crowded, tiny venues. Harrison's older brothers describe an incident where John Lennon pours a pint on an old lady's head at a family dinner, with the proclamation, "I now anoint thee David."
While Scorsese touches on the more troubled parts of Harrison's life (his problems with drugs, his declining critical success, the breakup of his first marriage), he doesn't linger there. The film is unabashedly a celebration, and can be viewed as a fresh framework with which to approach Harrison's music.
Harrison himself is allowed ample time to show off the acerbic wit and generous spirit that endeared him to so many. The documentary goes through general Beatles history -- for instance, their stay in the training grounds of Hamburg and their switch from Teddy Boy bouffants and suits into leather jackets and heeled boots. But it's primarily the story of Harrison's artistry coming of age. The breakup of The Beatles, as seen here, was pretty much inevitable from the time George decided that he, too, wanted to be a songwriter.
While Lennon and McCartney -- shown as older, better-developed talents who were able to use each other to fuel their writing -- dominated the band's output, Harrison quietly devoted himself to getting better. During that time, he compiled a backlist of songs rejected for The Beatles that eventually helped fill his first, three-disc solo record.
The story of Harrison's post-Beatles life shows us a man who kept searching for an artistic family. Harrison formed the super group Traveling Wilburys with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison, because, as Petty says, "He liked to surround himself with people who were good at something." He also saved the Monty Python production "Life of Brian" when it lost funding due to its provocative content, mortgaging his house in the process and helping form a production company, Hand Made.
The title of the documentary, and to a large extent its subject, is "Living in the Material World." Harrison's spiritual conversion to transcendental meditation is presented as a dominating force in his life.
Harrison's response to Eric Clapton's famous statement, "I'm in love with your wife" -- to which Harrison reportedly said, "Go on take her," and, "Can I have yours?" -- is recast as having emerged out of this anti-material mindset. Harrison was obsessed with the idea that the way you leave your body at death is crucial, and was angered by Lennon's murder for the way it robbed him of his chance. He prepared for his own death most of his life.
The result was apparently somewhat supernatural. His widow, Olivia, telling the story to the filmmakers, says, "You wouldn't have needed to light the room if you were filming it -- he lit the room."
The first installment of "George Harrison: Living in the Material World" premieres Wednesday night, Oct. 5 on HBO at 9 p.m. ET, with the second installment to follow on Oct. 6.