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A cross between Rolling Stone, Soldier of Fortune and the Oxford American
The guy who conceived of a 119-song cycle five years ago is back with another magnum opus.
Doug Campbell, who put together a collection of songs each dedicated to an element on the periodic table back in 2007, has teamed up with some of the contributing musicians to that project for another massive collection of songs, this time setting poetry by high school students to music.
In 2008, those musicians — calling themselves The Elements — performed one time at Barley’s Taproom in Knoxville. Bill Ardison and John T. Baker were part of the project, and in the years since, Campbell has always sought ways to challenge himself, and his pals, musically, Baker told me this week.
“Doug loves to work with a big concept,” Baker said. “His wife is an artist, and she’ll make album covers for him to write music too. Another ongoing project he has is writing a song about each of the Greek and Roman gods.”
And then there’s Ardison. He’s a special education teacher at Roane County High School, and for the past five years, he’s conducted a week-long poetry composition course during the school year. At the end of the week, each student submits an original poem. Ardison takes the poems back to his compadres, who then set them to music for Ardison to deliver back to the students. It’s a project carried out with reverence to the source material and a responsibility for delivering something that sounds like magic to the budding poets, and that’s what makes it such a cool combination of musical creativity and community service.
“I wasn’t involved in the first two or three years, but this year I think I’ve staked my claim,” Baker said. “We got all the musicians we like to play with to contribute stuff to this, and we record the songs in the order they were turned into Bill. We only know the students by their initials, and we don’t change anything about the poems. We record them as written, misspellings and all.
“We try to hit every single musical style we can think of: We’ve done rap songs, metal songs, country songs, opera … and because Doug has a lot of friends who are musicians, there’s some really good musicianship on the project.”
The collective recorded 48 songs in 60 days, and you can download the whole thing for free over at DBLF Studios’ Bandcamp site. If you download the whole thing, you get a .pdf of the lyrics, and that’s the key to the project, Baker added.
“You can listen to the songs and they’re find, but you really get a sense of it if you read along to the lyrics,” he said. “Besides, all the songs are real short. I think the longest may be 3 minutes.”
And it’s free because the musicians aren’t interested in complicating the process by charging for the album, because the motives for putting it together are simple, Baker said.
“For me personally, it’s a wonderful exercise in songwriting,” he said. “When I’m writing my own songs, sometimes I feel like I’ve gotta be profound — like I’ve gotta say something and mean something. But when I’m doing someone else’s music, I don’t have nearly as much skin in the game, and I can just play. It’s so much lighter and more fun, and I think that’s the secret to writing songs. The best songs are carefree. It’s just a great songwriting tool, because it’s also a great exercise in learning how to fit lyrics into music you’ve written.
“On an emotional level, though, I remember when I was in high school, rock ‘n’ roll was the coolest thing I could imagine. It enriched my life and made my life worth living, and I also got really interested in the recording of it. If by doing this we can help a kid can feel like, ‘Something I made can come out sounding like a rock song; I might like to try to do that’ … it may only be a small percentage of them that thinks that, but if you can give anybody that notion, that makes me feel really good.”
Reggae artist Michael Franti performed Friday night at The Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville, and a friend at the show reports it was about what you’d expect: Great reggae, with hardcore followers grooving mightily to Franti’s Bob Marley-inspired one-love vibe. (Opener Nic Cowan reportedly was a hard act to follow, my pal reports.)
I interviewed Franti for last Thursday’s edition of Weekend, and while our conversation focused predominantly on the music, we also chatted a bit about the gay marriage debate that’s been a flashpoint of this political season. The day before we talked, President Obama had come out in support of gay marriage, and Franti has a very Zen-like attitude toward the opposition to the issue.
“I don’t think it’s a homophobia — it’s just a generational thing,” Franti said. “In previous generations, people grew up with churches a lot more in their life than today. People in the gay community have made themselves visible and seen as the beautiful people they are; as a productive part of society; as kind and as helpful and willing to participate in the world as anyone else. I think it’s great these things are coming to a head now, and it’s a huge step with Obama coming out in favor of it.
“I think all of the things we view as advances in our society — freedoms like women being able to vote and black kids going to school with white kids — these are things that people struggled for for a long time, and now they’re taken for granted. Gay people can fight and die for our country, but they come back to a country where they can’t be married — I see that as something that’s going to go away on the very near horizon. Whether it’s gender, religious differences or whatever, people should all be treated equally.”
The Drunk Uncles: (From left) Jeff Barbra, Mike McGill, Eric Keeble, Gordy Gilbertson and Aram Takvoryan
Jeff Barbra and The Drunk Uncles have parted ways, but both parties are reporting the split is amicable, mutual and in no way reflects any sort of bad feelings or bad blood.
Barbra, a Blount County resident who’s been working as a singer-songwriter, most often with his wife, Sarah Pirkle, for years, formed the Uncles with another local tunesmith (Mike McGill, who’s also doing the solo thing and playing as part of the Barstool Romeos with Barbra’s brother-in-law, Andy Pirkle), told us he simply feels led in another direction.
“It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, and it wasn’t an easy decision,” Barbra said. “But it’s like my pappaw used to say: If you can’t do something 100 percent, you shouldn’t do it at all. I’m just going where my heart leads me and trying to do what feels right.”
According to Barbra, the increase in church performances and house concerts with Pirkle has fanned the flames of his desire to have a conversation with fans. He and Pirkle were saved and joined a local church a couple of years ago, which led to the creation of last year’s gospel album, “Family Singing.”
“When we play in someone’s basement or in a church, you get to talk to people; really talk to them,” Barbra said. “A lot of times, that leads them to wanting me and Sarah to tell our story, which is as rewarding as anything I’ve ever done.”
In addition, the Sunday morning radio program “In the Spirit,” which he and Pirkle co-host for WFIV-FM i105, has brought the couple additional opportunities and is taking up more time, something he’s not complaining about at all.
According to McGill, the Uncles will soldier on, although the loss of Barbra will be a heavy one. At this time, there are no plans to mothball the retro-c0untry outfit, although carrying on will mean reconfiguring how the band — which includes bassist Aram Takvoryan, drummer Eric Keeble and fiddler/vocalist/songwriter Gordy Gilbertson — does so.
“We will fulfill all of our obligations, which includes a May date at Toot’s (Little Honky Tonk in Downtown North Knoxville) and another show in June,” McGill said. “Eric will probably play some electric (guitar), and I may, too. And Eric and Aram will both be singing, at least on harmony, to fill in that hole. We’re not sure how it’s going to work — we may have a couple of different drummers filling in — but the Uncles will go on.”
The band’s new album, which began last year at Music Row Studios, is still on deck as well, McGill said, but there’s no timetable for its completion — or whether it’ll be re-cut to reflect the band’s new lineup. Barbra’s songs, as well as his studio contributions before he left the band, are still planned for inclusion.
Both men say their friendship is intact, and neither rules out a return to the stage with the Uncles by Barbra, either as a guest or at some point down the road. For now, however, they’re focused on doing what’s best for them as individuals, and while it won’t be the same for them — or for the rest of us, for that matter — whenever the Uncles play “On Tap, In the Can or In the Bottle” or “Drunk Talkin’,” it’s with relief and admiration that we wish both parties the best on their new journeys.
“It’s a little sad, no doubt,” McGill said. “Going back to when Jeff joined White Oak Flats (the Sevier County-based show band that was a predecessor of the Uncles) and us playing together through the Uncles, we’ve had a lot of fun, and we’ve become more than friends; we’ve become brothers. We wish him nothing but the best, and we respect that he feels led to do something else.”
“No band is bigger than friendship,” added Barbra, who said that his resignation is effective immediately. “Those guys are still my best buddies in the world. We’ll still see each other, and we’ll still hang out and pick a little bit. But this is what I feel called to do now. I have no regrets, because playing with the Uncles and watching people get up and dance and have a good time was a whole lot of fun. But I’m looking forward to seeing where this new calling takes me.”
Modern rock trio Chevelle will perform Thursday (March 8 ) at The Valarium in Knoxville, and in interviewing drummer/co-founder Sam Loeffler for last week’s Daily Times Weekend section, he reminisced on shows past in Knoxville.
In 2010, he remembers, Chevelle came through with Shinedown, 10 Years, Puddle of Mudd and Sevendust as part of an arena tour that ravaged the Civic Coliseum; that night, Chevelle bandmates Pete and Dean Bernardini headed over to The Valarium to see the Smashing Pumpkins play. And the last time Chevelle rocked Knoxville, some shady T-shirt vendors came up empty-handed, he recalled with a laugh.
“We were sitting outside the tour bus in lawn chiars and we saw all these bootleggers running back and forth, selling T-shirts and stuff,” he said. “We found out later on where they had stashed their shirts, and we took all of them. They were selling them for $10 per shirt, and our merch guy was blown away. He wanted to find them and asked who they used to print those shirts! They were these nice five-color designs, and probably cost $6 to make.”
The girl who will be growling and swaggering her away through a cover of R. Kelly’s “Bump n’ Grind” on Saturday night from the stage of Brackins Blues Bar in downtown Maryville?
Yep. That’s Robinella.
You may find yourself doing a double-take, if you’re expecting the soft-spoken, jazz-country lilt for which Blount County’s most famous songbird — who goes by Robin Ella Tipton Bailey to friends and family — is best known. But she’s been branching out of late, throwing her lot in with the dance-rock cover band Pulse and co-opting some of that band’s songs for her own sets.
“It’s more fun than anything — an eight-piece band with four singers,” Robinella told us this week. “(Local jazz singer) Sarah Clapp (Gilpin), she’s involved, and then Shawn (Turner) is the lead singer. Sarah and I do a lot of backup for him, but we sing lead on a few songs, too. It’s really fun. I’m loving it.”
It’s the first collaborative project Robinella’s been involved in since the dissolution of Robinella and the CCStringband following her divorce from bandleader (and now Black Lillies frontman) Cruz Contreras. That was shortly after the release of 2006’s “Solace for the Lonely”; although the two went their separate ways musically, they’ve reunited the full band on a couple of occasions. In recent years, Robinella has scaled back her performances, choosing instead to concentrate on her art projects. She occasionally plays full band shows and tours as a solo singer-songwriter on occasion; in recent months, she said, she’s been able to perform more.
“Beau (her son with husband Webster Bailey) is getting bigger, and Webster is more than happy to watch the boys,” she said. “This year, I’ve already been up to Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky. I think I’m going to keep playing.”
In addition to material from the CCstringband era and from 2009’s “Fly Away Bird” album, she’s starting to incorporate some of the Pulse covers into her set. It makes sense, given that her keyboard player, Justin Haynes, is also the bandleader for Pulse.
“I saw them play at the Dogwood Arts Festival last year,” Robinella said. “I played solo, and they were the last group of the night. It’s a total dance band, and I stayed there and danced for a long time. And Justin eventually asked if I wanted to sing with them.”
Given the fun she had as an audience member, she had to say yes. On stage, she adds to the energy of the ensemble with her on-stage enthusiasm and takes the mic for some “upbeat girl songs,” as she calls them.
“They like me to do ‘Rock Steady’ and ‘Proud Mary,’ and Sarah and I just learned ‘Lady Marmalade,’” she said. “I do a couple of ballads and some old-style blues songs like ‘Smokestack Lightnin’.’ And they like for me to do ‘Bump n’ Grind.’ I don’t know who sings it — I think it’s R. Kelly — but it’s fun! I don’t know if they think it’s funny or they like it or what, but I do it.”
Many of those songs, she added, have been co-opted into her own setlist, along with a few other classic covers like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” She’ll give them all a workout — along with other Pulse material — on Saturday night at Brackins Blues Bar; in addition to Haynes, her band for that gig will include Pulse drummer Nolan Nevels, Pulse bass player Clint Mullican and local roots/blues guitarist Jack Wilburn.
“It’s actually going to be new for him, too, but he’s picking up everything real good,” Robinella said of Wilburn.
Playing more — with Pulse and under her own name — has inspired her to get back into the studio as well, she added. She has enough material to make a couple of albums and wants to cut one this calendar year … providing she can find a flow that suits her.
“I’m really going to try to make sure it has some continuity, because my records never have any,” she said with a laugh. “I’m always all over the place with genres, so I’m going to try to focus on a theme and a sound. I’m going to make some kind of album this year, though, even if it just ends up being a gospel album and not new originals.”
Robinella’s performance at Brackins takes place at 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18. Admission is $5.
In February 2010, in a blog post announcing “the fake that sunk a thousand ships,” the solo record by Sam Quinn of the everybodyfields, we mentioned an album that the band — which includes Jill Andrews as co-founder/co-leader and the instrumental firepower of Josh Oliver, Tom Pryor and Jamie Cook — recorded shortly before (and probably during the process of) breaking up in 2009 was sitting on the shelves at Rock Snob Studios in Knoxville.
Quinn and Andrews have patched up their relationship, are pals again and the everybodyfields are playing one final show this year, the fourth since getting back together for Bristol’s Rhythm and Roots Reunion, and while the members won’t rule out playing together again at some point in the future, that final record will probably stay shelved, Quinn told me this week.
“It’s probably not ever going to happen,” he said. “I think the bulk of the work we did was pretty good, but recording in the middle of that period was tumultuous, and it wasn’t our best work. I think there’s a reason to keep it in the can right now. There were a few songs that were very good, but to be honest, I haven’t listened to it in ages.
“It might be something to go back and listen to and then we’ll go, ‘That’s pretty cool’ — or it might just sit up there. That was just a time when nothing was firing, and I think we were realizing that was probably as far as this thing was gonna go.”
New music is on the horizon from Quinn and Andrews individually, however. Quinn is putting together a more upbeat follow-up to “fake,” he said.
“I’m kind of taking the Wings sort of approach on it by playing bass,” he said. “I’ve got guitar players and electric guitars, and it’s sounding kind of laid-back, not unlike a slow Crazy Horse. It’s sludgy and slow and not-so-happy in parts.”
He hopes to play more shows in 2012, he added, while Andrews will continue to tour in support of “The Mirror,” her 2011 full-length.
“I’m mostly writing a lot, and getting together with a lot of people and writing for other people,” Andrews said, adding that local fans should expect another Jill Andrews show sometime in the first quarter of 2012.
Back in May 2010, after local singer-songwriter Jon Worley resurfaced after dropping off the radar for a couple of years, he alluded to some of his troubles at the times when he called up out of the blue.
Founder and leader of the Cornbred Blues Band, Worley was a fixture on the local music scene for several years — playing shows, couch-surfing and getting into all manner of trouble, usually with a good story to tell. But then, around 2008, he said, it was time for a break: “I played 600-plus shows in 2.5 years, and I woke up homeless in the back of my van with my tooth falling out and arthritis in my leg,” he told us in May 2010. “I had to reevaluate and take a little time off.”
Since then, he’s moved back to East Tennessee from the Philadelphia area, and he’s set up shop as the unofficial “artist-in-residence” (our title, nobody else’s) of the Fourth and Gill Neighborhood Center — still known as The Birdhouse — in historic Downtown North Knoxville. He curating shows there, but he’s also using it as a base of operations for a new non-profit organization he’s started — Brother’s Keeper, a helping-musicians-help-themselves sort of outfit that draws on his experiences as both a troubadour and a down-on-his-luck artist.
“(The Birdhouse) is just a physical brick-and-mortar place to employ the philosophy of the non-profit — to have an open community space for people to come together, artistic and otherwise, to create an alternate economy,” he said. “But that’s just half the story. What’s really going on is that I have basically set up a network with Brother’s Keeper, where I’m hosting traveling artists coming through Knoxville, giving them just the basics: help with emergencies if their car breaks down; a place to sleep that won’t give you scabies; hot coffee in the morning; some wi-fi.
“By doing that, we’re showing the rest of the music community on the East Coast that’s traveling at large how awesome Knoxville is, and if they use my services, they have to pay it forward — they have to get a paying gig for somebody else in the network, or host them when they come to their town. It just encourages everybody to let everybody else know where they’re playing.”
Already he’s got one high-profile underwriter on board — Scott West, the man who helped revitalize downtown Knoxville with his wife, Bernadette, and the various businesses they started — Preservation Pub, Earth to Old City, Oodles Uncorked and more. West’s sister now owns the Pub, but West plays a large role in its operation, and supporting Brother’s Keeper makes good business sense for smaller venues, West said.
“We’re in a position in this economy of not being able to pay musicians as well as we once paid them, and if we want the regulars to keep coming in — and the Pub is a cathedral to a lot of people who spend three or four nights a week in here — then we can’t charge those people in a way that allows a musician like Jon Worley to make a living,” West said. “So you have to figure out ways to help the artists make it, and that’s why we’re helping with Brother’s Keeper. We want to provide for them as well as we can, and if we can’t pay them like we’d like to, we can find them a place to sleep or get them coffee or food or a couple of beers when they’re playing shows.We’re trying to underwrite Brother’s Keeper so it can help the very artists that allow us to stay in business and allow the patrons to keep enjoying live music.”
According to Worley, the idea for Brother’s Keeper dates back to when he broke his foot, back in 2007. Trying to scrape up enough money to get it taken care of was a challenge that contributed to ill effects that still plague him today.
“I realized that the social structure that I’m in is so marginalized — you’ve got people that pick your produce, carnie workers, and at the bottom of the pile are musicians, artists and performers,” he said. “We have no safety net. You figure that the average family making $25,000 to $30,000 a year is one car part, one illness from going under, and then you magnify that. I’ve been lving on $5,000 a year for the last 15 years, and it’s only by the grace of God I’m still here. My philosophy is, nobody else has to live like that or suffer like that.”
West agrees, which is why he’s contributing to making Knoxville the hub of a network that includes Worley’s connections who have established Brother’s Keeper outposts in New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New Orleans, Asheville, N.C. and Charleston, S.C. His donations — and those of others who will soon get on board, Worley hopes — allows public/private partnerships between artists and community businesses to flourish. By contributing, business owners will be investing in the local music and arts community, Worley said, strengthening it for the good of everyone who benefits from music and the arts — like West.
“I’ve known Jon a long time, and he, like 99.9 percent of musicians, lives a starving artist existence,” West said. “A lot of people in the entertainment industry pick up work as waiters or bartenders, but Jon’s one of the guys trying to make a go of it purely on music. And he’s getting by on $5,000 or $6,000 a year.”
Get him going, and Worley will talk about plans to turn Brother’s Keeper into an artist-run one-stop shop — record label, booking agency and more.Worley himself is heading out next week for shows in New York and Philly, both of them benefits for the non-profit. He’ll be back off and on and running Brother’s Keeper from the road. In the meantime, interested artists (and business moguls) can contact him at email@example.com.
Blues guitar ace Joe Bonamassa knows what it’s like to be derided by the purists of the genre.
Despite his obvious devotion to the blues and his affinity for everyone from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton (the guy opened for B.B. King when he was 12 years old, for Pete’s sake), he acknowledged this week in an interview with The Daily Times that his fast-and-loose style, and his affinity to push conventional boundaries, often leads those who define the blues by rigid parameters to dismiss his abilities and contributions.
Which is why, he said, he’s an advocate of throwing the doors open. The blues needs fresh meat, he believes, and those who have their hearts in the right place shouldn’t be denied access.
“What I try to tell people is that whatever’s left of the music business, the blues represents less than 1 percent of the total music sold in the world, so my point is very simple – we can’t afford to be exclusive or some kind of secret society,” Bonamassa said. “We can’t afford to shut out kids who dig Zeppelin more than Howlin’ Wolf. To me, the definition of the blues is that it’s a giant umbrella – everything from Robert Johnson to Led Zeppelin to the Jeff Beck Group to Muddy Waters to Free, and it’s just as much about Paul Rodgers as it is Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang.
“It doesn’t make any sense to spend any energy arguing over it, because if you truly love the music and want to see it survive, we’ve got to be a united community. To me, that is where I see the blues down the line: in the hands of the young generation of players who are going to define it and amalgamate heavy metal or whatever into it while still giving props to B.B. King and Muddy Waters.”
Bonamassa performs Sunday, Nov. 27, at the Civic Auditorium in downtown Knoxville. Look for our full interview with him in the Thursday, Nov. 24, edition of The Daily Times Weekend entertainment section.
When the media decides a piece needs a Christian point of view, Casting Crowns vocalist and songwriter Mark Hall often finds himself cringing when he sees who gets picked.
It’s not that Hall feels Christians should shy away from publicly stating their beliefs on political issues; his band, he pointed out, makes no secret of its advocacy for the sanctity of life. But there’s a fine line in speaking the truth and wielding it as a weapon, he told The Daily Times recently.
“I believe that the mainstream media can be pretty strategic in the Christians they pick to talk,” he said. “It’s always that guy, the God guy. I’m generally embarrassed by the people I see on TV talking about these things. If you know our music, you know where we stand on those issues and that our thoughts are passionate and strong and tied to our faith.
“But at the same time, the Bible says it very clearly – if you speak with the tongue of angels and have great wisdom and great things to say but you don’t love the people you’re talking to, it’s just noise. And people have heard that coming from the church for a long time now.”
Casting Crowns performs Saturday, Nov. 26, at the Civic Auditorium in downtown Knoxville. Look for our full interview with Hall in the Thursday, Nov. 24, edition of The Daily Times Weekend entertainment section.