They were a little bit country and a little bit rock-and-roll. Then The Pawtuckets, Memphis' favorite alt-country band, called it quits. Now that the dust has cleared, Mark McKinney, Kevin Cubbins, Mark Stuart, and Andy Grooms have launched three new groups -- The Tennessee Boltsmokers, The Lights, and Andy Grooms Living Room.
"Creatively, the Pawtuckets was a real struggle -- five guys, two principle songwriters, and each musician with his own idea of how it should turn out," McKinney confesses. "The demon we were chasing was to always have that cohesive thread."
Playing with the Tennessee Boltsmokers, he claims, "is much less painstaking. The band really started off as a solo project. I wrote all the songs, then got these guys [guitarist/fiddler Eric Lewis, bassist Todd Cook, and mandolin/banjo player Andy Ratliff] to do their thing behind it," says McKinney.
His biggest problem, it seems, was diverting his energy from MADJACK Records -- McKinney is co-owner of the label -- to his own musical project.
"The timing got right," McKinney says. "My workload at the label is lightened right now. Cory Branan is between records, Lucero has moved on, and Eric Lewis and Andy Ratliff's record has a November 18th date for national release, so we were gonna be out touring anyways. Plus," he jokes, "I was about to lose my sanity. I had to get some music out!"
Songs From the Floor, the Boltsmokers' debut, was recorded over a series of Saturday-afternoon sessions at Memphis Soundworks. "We'd start at lunchtime," McKinney recalls. "Andy and Todd would come in from Nashville, and we would eat lunch, then I'd show them three or four new tunes. We'd rehearse and then cut it."
"The Boltsmokers' stuff is a little harder to pigeonhole," McKinney says, comparing his new band to the Pawtuckets. "I've been listening to a lot of bluegrass lately -- Slaid Cleaves, Nickel Creek, Allison Krauss, Peter Rowan."
McKinney expects the Tennessee Boltsmokers to hit the road in November, but you can catch them locally at a free show at Shangri-La Records at 5 p.m. on Saturday, November 1st; later that night, the band will play a record-release party at The P&H CafÇ. On Saturday, November 8th, they're playing a free show at Borders Books & Music in Germantown. On Sunday, November 9th, you can hear the group on the Thacker Mountain Radio Show on Mississippi Public Radio; the program was recorded last week.
Andy Grooms, meanwhile, has eschewed the whole country scene for a more rockin' sound. "I was frustrated with the Pawtuckets," the pianist says. "When we started the band, alt-country was a lot of fun, but we painted ourselves into a corner with our style."
Comparing the new Tennessee Boltsmokers CD with his own debut, Grateful To Burn, he says, "Mark and I both like acoustic instruments, but our two records are a good example of what we were fighting about artistically in the Pawtuckets. While our fans loved that simplicity, as a songwriter it was frustrating to have to frame my songs within a certain genre. I'm a piano player, so I have many chords at my disposal instead of just three."
"I've gravitated towards psychedelia. I'm into waves and blankets of sound," Grooms says. "The Living Room uses every musical influence. We'll do a klezmer tune, then an alt-country song, then we'll really rock. Of course, our style is piano-driven, with a stand-up bass to emphasize the rhythm."
Pick up Grateful To Burn at Cat's Midtown (the only place it's available), and you'll hear guitarist Clint Wagner and bassist Jonathan Wires; live, the band usually features Cubbins and Stuart, with John Argroves behind the drum kit. Catch them at The Glass Onion Wednesday, November 5th.
Guitarist Kevin Cubbins also branched out: "After playing in a 'country' band for seven years, I was up for something completely different. I really wanted to rock," he says. "But I didn't play for about a year. I was stuck in the studio." Crediting former Eighty Katie frontman Bret Preston for the impetus to form a new band, Cubbins says band members started talking about nine months ago. After tapping drummer Argroves and bassist Stuart for the group, called the Lights, "we took inventory and decided what we wanted to do."
So when will the Lights cut their first record? Cubbins, an engineer at Memphis Soundworks, laughs. "None of us is in a hurry to do anything," he says. "We're loving playing. We're trying to gig, gig, gig. Once we get a good batch of songs, we'll go into the studio."
Interestingly, Cubbins co-produced the Tennessee Boltsmokers' Songs From the Floor and produced Andy Grooms' Grateful To Burn. "I still enjoy playing with Andy," the guitarist says. "Although his stuff has gotten kinda freaky, there's enough folky material for me to whip out my pedal steel."