A Rebel line entered the confines of the Union Capital in Washington DC Friday night, only this time there was no dividing the interests of the North from the South. Florida Georgia Line hit the stage at Nationals Park and the only shots fired were Fireball. It took 150 years for the Rebels to arrive in this Capital city and they were led by two of the South’s finest generals – Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, and the troops they brought with them ROCKED the house!! By the end of their crowd pleasing set, both were wearing the hometown uniform and when that got too hot, Tyler stripped down to the waist – “Dayum, Baby!” If we told you we loved you, would it make you want to “Stay??”
Entering the city during rush hour Friday night, it looked like a Rebel invasion. Amongst the business suits and high heels waiting to board trains at L’Enfant Plaza metro station, a sudden influx began to emerge with a fashion sense that could not be ignored. If you looked at the floor, cowboy boots were suddenly everywhere. Raise your eyes a little and you’d spy the motherload of Daisy Dukes topping those boots. Cowboy hats and camo caps sat atop these would be invaders like coordinates on a GPS. Follow them and you were sure to arrive at your destination…Nationals Park. Watching the crowd filter into the stadium and assemble like willing participants in this Southern demonstration, I couldn’t help thinking that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were probably sitting on a tailgate together somewhere in awe of the moment. Cheers boys! “Here’s To The Good Times!!”
Having the perfect vantage point to observe the undulating crowd that packed the field at Nats Park, Florida Georgia Line lit the match that ignited their enthusiasm. When Tyler and Brian hit the stage, they set in motion an earthquake. The aftershocks were felt in each song they sang. This was my second time seeing their live show and it was just as exciting as the first one. These two guys have the ability to capture your attention from the moment they take the stage until they’ve disappeared from view. It’s a boomerang effect that encapsulates the entire audience. They entertain with as much force as they can muster and watch it come flying back at them in the form of a screaming mass of fans. Their set list contains all of their hits and usually a cover or two. They give the same attention and energy to every song they sing and leave everything on the stage when they’ve finished. They are engaging and appreciative of their audience and never fail to showcase their band members. If you were to ask them how they developed such an infectious live show, their answer would probably be, “It’z Just What We Do.”
This July night could not have been more perfect. The weather was divine and a baseball park provided the perfect summer concert venue. Immediately, Tyler and Brian acknowledged the city and the grandness of their surroundings. They exude Southern charm and seemed to embrace being out of their geographical comfort zone. With each hit they sang, the lovefest got bigger. When they invited the crowd to light up the night with their cell phones, it completed the summer landscape they’d created with the illusion of fireflies obeying the call to “Get Your Shine On.” When they performed their new single, “Dirt,” the fans embraced it like a long lost friend. The promise of more new music soon got a huge eruption from the crowd. Nobody in that park wanted these guys to leave the stage. Their sudden costume change at the end of the show was a gesture much appreciated by local fans and showed a huge amount of respect for the opportunity they’d been given. The picture of the two of them wearing their new jerseys captured a very genuine moment. You could see them taking it all in and the smiles on their faces said, in this town, “This Is How We Roll.”
No one would ever call Washington DC a hotbed for country music. Surrounded by Virginia and Maryland, the venue for this concert had to pull from its neighboring states to have any hope of filling those seats. Trucks rolled through the streets of DC on this night, calling attention to the fact that something out of the ordinary was happening. Florida Georgia Line showcased how far we’ve come in the 150 years since this city was largely known as the Union Capital during our greatest time of civil unrest. They brought with them the best of their Southern roots, giving the audience a glimpse of the things they love about the Southern way of life. At the same time, they worked the common ground they found between their Northern and Southern fans and discovered that “Party People” are everywhere. Whether it’s a presidential motorcade rolling down Constitution Avenue or a fleet of tour buses carrying boys from the South, both like to put their windows down and “Cruise” on occasion. If anyone could convince the President to put a lift kit on his ride, it would be these two guys. Whether your solo cup is red or blue, you can be sippin’ on Southern and singin’ Marshall Tucker thanks to Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, who had us all fallin’ in love in the sweet heart of a summer night in DC. To give you an idea of just how influential our Southern guests were, the Presidential limo is now tuned to WMZQ in the city or WPOC if he’s visiting Baltimore. Fireball has become the official whiskey at the White House and the driver of his new jacked up ride has standing instructions: “Fire it up! Let’s go get this thing stuck!”
When we think of Washington DC, images of monuments and politicians come to mind. It is commonly referred to as our nation’s capital. When Willie and Truman Morrison think of the DC area, they call it ‘home.’ It was kind of a surreal moment for me to be waiting at the 9:30 Club, in the middle of Washington DC, to hear a country band with roots just down the street. It’s rare for this club to host country artists and probably a first to have residents playing country music on that stage. Liken it to the odds of members of Congress agreeing on anything. There aren’t any back roads, dirt roads, jacked up trucks, or tattoos on this town (well, not many). What you will find is a sampling of Americana, with roots that reach in every direction. The sound of THE MORRISON BROTHERS BAND is a compilation of traditional country roots, modern country, alt rock, and classic rock, with a little international sound mixed in here and there. In other words, they are musically what the DC metropolitan area is demographically. You can cast a wide net from the heart of downtown DC to the countryside of Maryland and Virginia and the bodies of water that protect their shores – the Atlantic Ocean, Potomac River, and the Chesapeake Bay. The State of the Union speaks to the lives of all who live in these areas and everywhere within our borders. Nowhere is this better stated than in The Morrison Brothers Band’s third album, STATE of THE UNION.
The core of THE MORRISON BROTHERS BAND is comprised of two sets of brothers and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Dave Benson. Willie Morrison (lead singer) and his older brother Truman Morrison (guitarist/vocalist) started the band at a young age not knowing where it might lead. By chance, they met Kevin Nolan (multi-instrumentalist) and his older brother Matt Nolan (drums/percussion/vocals) in New Orleans while attending a Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi concert six years ago. Matt Nolan was attending Loyola University in New Orleans at the time and the Morrison brothers were back in the DC area after attending college in LA. They quickly discovered their hometown connection (the Nolan brothers are from Laurel, Maryland) and their similar taste in music. Combining their talents, the nucleus of this band was formed. Dave Benson would join them a few years later. The band uses a collective songwriting effort when creating and honing a piece of music to suit their wheelhouse. The sophistication in their songwriting is far beyond their years. On the studio album, they use a host of additional musicians to achieve a full-bodied sound that perfectly compliments the depth of the music. Their three studio albums have all been independently released with great success, adding business savvy to their other many talents.
My first introduction to THE MORRISON BROTHERS BAND‘s music was in viewing their video for “Little Miss Whiskey,” the fourth track on STATE of THE UNION. I kept replaying it because I couldn’t believe I was watching an unsigned band that was not based out of Nashville. The quality of the song and the video easily surpasses some of those I’ve recently viewed on cable stations devoted to such things. As it turns out, some decision makers in Nashville agree with my assessment because the song has since been recorded by Clay Walker and is due to be released shortly. After seeing this video, I couldn’t wait to listen to the full album. If the State of the Union address delivered from the floor of Congress ever sounded as good as TMBB’s version, our founding fathers would rise from their graves and applaud the effort. STATE of THE UNION is a modern country musical proclamation of life as it is. The songwriting doesn’t lean too heavily on one familiar scene or list of desires. It’s a sophisticated album with a playful side, balanced by situations that involve an emotional investment. The constant throughout the album is the strength of Willie Morrison’s vocals and the impeccable studio performance by the musicians. Unlike many of the albums being released in country music today, the theme of this one doesn’t play to a singular audience with a narrow focus; it relates the experiences that unite us as individuals. Relationships begin and end for everyone, regardless of the setting or geographical location.
The lead track on the album is “Treat Me Right.” The vocals here are shared between Willie Morrison and Alyson Gilbert. It’s a strong start to the album and throws you right into the push and pull of a relationship. The instrumentation encourages the battle of wills and suggests that neither side is going to back down. Through the remaining nine songs on the album, the struggle will unravel in temptation, desire, and resignation to what’s meant to be. “Easily Pleased” is a recitation of the joy that can be found in the simple things in life. It’s got a light, uncomplicated feel to it that makes sitting on the back patio with the one you love, sipping sweet tea, seem like paradise. “If There’s Love” is a tender ballad that allows the heartfelt vocal to intertwine with the anguish the music conveys. It’s an unveiling of the risks involved in opening up your heart to allow love in and the leap of faith that requires.
The next two songs on the album are a let loose joy ride. “Little Miss Whiskey” is a testament to the fun that can be had in following your desires to an unknown end. The familiar trappings of a honky tonk setting are all here, reminding us that boys will be boys anywhere there’s liquor and hot girls. “Always a good time, break out the moonshine” is a universally agreed upon theory. “PBR” states its intention when the top pops to open the song. If you can’t hold a beer and dance at the same time, just put it down, because there is no possibility of sitting still for this one. The natural high that comes from being in love will have you kicking up your boot heels until the music stops. The lyrics here simply state what your heart feels in the moment – unbridled elation. “Small Town” has a strong traditional country sound embedded in the modern rhythm of the music. The lyrics describe the need to follow your dreams and chase the success you crave, even if that means trading the comforts of small town life for the possibilities that exist in the big city. This song could describe the necessary move to Nashville inherent in seeking a career in country music. Most everyone who dreams of the big stage in this genre will have to trade their small town zip code for the neon lights of Music City. Willie’s vocal and the tempo of the music combine to make this one of the unique tracks on the album. The sound pays respect to classic country’s roots while recognizing the fact that time moves on, and we have no choice but to go where it takes us. “Gimme All the Love” feels like a sing-along you’d here in a local bar with a piano in the corner. The “yee-haw” yell that opens this one tells me it’s a cowboy bar and some boot heels are about to hit the wood floor. Someone starts to play and sing and the music is so infectious everyone else joins in, adding whatever they can to this fun romp. There’s a lot of R&B in here as the lyrics beg an estranged lover to roll the dice and give love one more shot. The gospel-like chorus at the end of the song turns that request into a prayer. The musical camaraderie, showcasing Rick Jones on the piano and some intoxicating blues guitar playing, makes this a divine effort!
“Ain’t No Stoppin’ You” is a stunning piece of music. It suggests intrigue and deception from the first notes played. Picture Mata Hari and you get the idea. It’s got a lot of classic rock tendencies in it and just when you’re getting comfortable with that, the bongos start to play and Kevin Nolan takes over on slide guitar, or should I say Carlos Santana! There are so many forces at play in this song with Matt Nolan’s drumming spicing up the entire piece, the additional flavor of Aaron Fischer on the Accordion, and Willie’s punctuating vocal that pulls it all together. This track illustrates the incredible depth the band has and a polish that defies their youth. And from the complexity of this, they deliver a “State of The Union” that captivates in its simplicity. Willie told me the belief at the heart of this band is that the song itself is the most important thing. The title track is a tribute to that belief. There’s a reverence to the way it’s performed here as if the tone of the guitar and the delicacy of the vocal can never be out of balance for fear of harming either one. The lyrics support that in attesting to the delicate balancing act of a relationship. Without an equal yin and yang, even two loving hearts can find themselves at odds with each other.
The album closes with an exclamation point on the importance of the song. “Without Me” is stripped down to the bare essentials in its telling of the end of this story. Sometimes no matter what you’ve put into a relationship, it just isn’t meant to be. Willie’s vocal is accompanied by Rick Jones on piano to create a musical melancholy as beautiful as it is sad. As it ends, you’ll find yourself wishing it hadn’t – meaning either the relationship or the album. Whenever I get to the end of this record, I find myself wanting to start it all over again, just like we do with relationships. The high associated with falling in love is worth the risk of the free fall, even with its uncertain landing. STATE of THE UNION has the quality I’ve come to expect from the likes of the Zac Brown Band. If I had to compare THE MORRISON BROTHERS BAND to anyone, ZBB would be it. Their approach to the music is similar and their devotion to the song and instrumental interpretation is apparent in the finished product. With a record this good, the next step is to transform the magic achieved on the studio recording into an equally impressive live performance.
For those not familiar with concert venues in the DC area, the 9:30 CLUB is THE premier spot for seeing some of the hottest acts in music from a wide variety of genres. It originally opened in 1980 as a spot for local bands and those touring the east coast to showcase their music. In those early years, it staged mostly rock and alt rock bands. As the 80s ended and 90s music took over, the venue hosted a lot of new wave and hardcore punk bands. The club offers seating that includes bar, balcony, and standing room only options and capacity is 1200 people. In 1996 it relocated to its current location, not far from the original. Over the years, many big names in music have performed there and the venue has been named Top Club by various organizations multiple times. Rolling Stone online rated it the #1 Big Room in America. What has been largely missing in this famous room is country music, mostly because the demand just wasn’t there. Combine the rarity of seeing country artists at this location with it being home turf for the Morrison Brothers, and you get a sense of just how special it is for them to play here.
There’s something different about seeing a band perform versus a solo artist with a band. The energy is amplified because it comes from the entire group rather than a singular star. Willie Morrison told me if you don’t have energy on stage, your audience won’t have it either. Willie is an outstanding frontman backed by an equally outstanding group of musicians. He runs the stage like an orchestral conductor, knowing exactly when to focus the attention on a particular solo or multi-instrumental section of the song. On this evening, power vocalist Alyson Gilbert joined them on a few songs at the end of the set, and Willie showcased her seamlessly. Sensational fiddle player, Alex Ruiz, was a guest of the band for this show and you would never know he wasn’t a full time member. Again, Willie stepped aside appropriately to allow Alex’s fiddle playing to shine. With Willie anchoring the front of the stage, Matt Nolan on drums anchors the back. Throughout the show, I was drawn to Matt’s incredible playing. There is an energy and excitement to his style that is not overstated but you feel it in every song. Willie says he often feeds off Matt’s energy because it’s a constant presence. The two of them are like a magnetic force field that draws you in from start to finish. Adding to this burst of musical energy is Kevin Nolan’s guitar skills. He does not have a flamboyant style that announces his intentions. Like a gun with a silencer, you don’t know it’s coming until it happens. He attacks a solo with an unassuming force that makes it appear as if his entire body is immersed in the sound coming from his guitar. Truly awesome to watch! Dave Benson and Truman Morrison add their vocals to Willie’s to provide a complimentary tone to the music. Their additional guitars provide the strings that pull the instrumentation together into the powerhouse sound that it is. On this night, their set included many of the songs from STATE of THE UNION, four new songs that are to be released in the next few months, and two covers that blew me away – Blackberry Smoke’s “Up In Smoke” and Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.” Both were outstanding and Matt Nolan’s lead vocal on “Copperhead Road” was sublime!
My initial reaction to hearing that there was a country band with roots in Washington DC was one of skepticism. Knowing how deeply rooted country music is in the culture of the South, I figured they were taking on an identity that didn’t match their geographical DNA. What I learned from listening to their STATE of THE UNION over and over, was that you shouldn’t judge people based on their physical address. The album cover for TMBB’s STATE of THE UNION is draped in the American flag, a symbol of patriotism. Growing up without a state to call your own, as DC residents do, makes you a resident of the United States of America. With a strong grounding in history, these citizens accentuate what unites us rather than divides us. THE MORRISON BROTHERS BAND has a deep appreciation for the roots of country music. Willie and Truman grew up listening to classic country artists routinely. As the links of this band came together, they took the unique talents of each individual and formed “a more perfect union.” Together, they offer a sound that is steeped in tradition yet current in its interpretation. What struck me most while watching this band perform live, was the joy they showed in the music. At no time was their a selfish moment of showmanship. Each member poured their all into the performance for the good of the individual songs and the concert experience for the audience. Their mastery of this ideal intention will take them far in attracting fans and sharing their unique music coast to coast. For those who would refuse to consider their brand of country music the real deal, consider it American country music, soundtrack to the State of the Union.
It takes a tough woman to make it in a man’s world. As much as we’d like to think gender equality has arrived in the 21st century, there are still strongholds that cling to their male dominated hierarchies. Yet even in those deeply rooted masculine entities, occasionally nature plants a seed, gives it the nourishment it needs to gather strength below the surface, and reveals its perfect flower on a Sunny day in August. The “Yellow Rose of Texas” could be a metaphor for what that flower symbolizes. It could also represent the indomitable beauty and spirit I found in Sunny Sweeney. She is Texas born and raised with a traditional grounding and a determined idealism. Her music is a captivating blend of the country and bluegrass she grew up listening to with her parents, and the tongue-in-cheek powerhouse vocal delivery of a Madonna song. And lucky for us, just like the “Material Girl” in the 80s, she’s in a “Bad Girl Phase!”
Sometimes you have to hear an artist for awhile before you make a connection to the music. With Sunny Sweeney, a connection is likely instantaneously. For me, it happened at “Bad Girl Phase.” When I spoke to her recently, it cemented the image I’d already formed in my mind. She’s a tough, but fun-loving, no-nonsense kind of gal. I can imagine her momma looking into her eyes on the day she was born and thinking “this girl is gonna get all she wants out of life.” The only uncertainty would be the how and when. Her attachment to country music was formed early on. She described listening to it with her parents, a healthy mixture of both country and bluegrass. She is a huge Merle Haggard fan and got to play with him on a Texas stage just last month. No doubt, a surreal moment for Sunny, and a testament to how far she’s come.
After high school, Sunny didn’t take off for Nashville to pursue a career in music. She honored her parents’ wishes and went to college. She graduated with a degree in public relations and worked at low level jobs for awhile. Realizing very quickly that this was not the life she wanted for herself, she decided to make a change. With music in her heart and desire in her soul, she picked up a guitar and set her sights on being true to herself. She started writing songs and performing all over Texas. That might not sound like a big deal to outsiders, but the music scene in Texas is a male-driven affair. Sunny played for years in that environment, and besides winning over fans who were vocal about their preference for male singers, she built herself a resume worthy of bending a few ears in Nashville.
When Sunny moved to Music City, she packed the independent artist she’d become. She didn’t step off a bus, guitar in hand, and walk down the street searching for her “Lucky Star.” If she was going to be the “Next Big Nothing,” she would take the stage and show Music Row how that sounded. She didn’t wait for an invite to the big stage or a record deal that would make or break her career. In 2006, she released her debut album, HEARTBREAKER’S HALL OF FAME, on her own. She told me, “I didn’t go looking for a record deal, and wasn’t going to wait for one.” If I may reimagine a Disney classic – picture Sunny, gussied up in her finest, looking like the belle of the Opry. She wasn’t on the bill that night, and didn’t care. She marches across the stage wearing her glass cowboy boots and sings ‘em a “Slow Swinging Western Tune,” daring anyone to shatter her dreams (or her boots, those things cost a fortune!). Did she wow the prince that night? Apparently so, because her independent release fell into the hands of Big Machine Records Prince, Scott Borchetta. Sunny has no idea how it got there. Scott waved his magic papers, handed her the magic pen, and she signed the prenup. Her engagement was announced through the re-release of her album under the Big Machine label. Would they live happily ever after? Oh please…this is Nashville, not Disney World.
Sunny did make her official Grand Ole Opry debut in 2007. She’s gotten comfortable on that stage in the last seven years, having now played there more than 40 times. In 2009, Big Machine Records and Universal Republic Records combined their resources to form a new label, Republic Nashville, with headquarters on Music Row. Sunny’s second album, Concrete, was released in August of 2011 under the Republic Nashville label. The lead single from that album ( and her first single release), “From a Table Away,” spent 36 weeks on the Billboard country chart and landed at number 10. It had been four years since a female country artist had been able to do that! Two more songs off that praiseworthy album would become certifiable hits – “Drink Myself Single” and “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving.” This album would cement her place among the finest female voices in Nashville and earn her an ACM nomination for Best New Female Vocalist in 2013. This should give you an indication of how Music City defines “new.” At award shows, when the nominees for best “new” artist are announced, the artists in that category may have spent ten years earning that moniker. The wear and tear may not show on their faces, but it lurks there under the surface. Now that they’ve been ceremoniously branded best of the “new,” they get to start proving themselves all over again. Even though they’ve likely been everywhere playing shows and may have already released several albums, they’ll become an opening act, do countless interviews, and make a coming out like appearance on hallowed stages coast to coast. However, what looks like living the dream, may actually be a nightmare.
The music business is like a pressure cooker these days. When you hear someone say they have a record deal, that doesn’t always mean they’re rolling in cash and on top of the world emotionally. We see the photoshopped version of our favorite music stars. The reality is, their daily lives are a lot like ours. While Sunny was out doing what she loved and building a music career, her home life wasn’t living up to her name. The end of two relationships in her life would lead to the making of her third album. Sunny split from her husband and moved to a new record label. The emotional twists and turns she was experiencing at that time would manifest themselves in her music. Her new label, Thirty Tigers, seems like a manifest destiny location, allowing her independent spirit to thrive. Just the name of her third album, Provoked, sounds like a warning label about the power you’ll find in this record. Sunny co-wrote 11 of the 13 songs on the project. The other two she hand selected. Thirty Tigers takes a trust the artist approach that suits Sunny’s disposition perfectly. She’s an honest woman living a real life. She’s got a new husband, dogs, and the challenges of everyday life we all have. Her music is a reflection of that reality with the emotional charge of lessons learned. She is blessed with the gift and opportunity to create music that heals. She doesn’t shy away from raw emotion on this album which is why she’s looking forward to the release. The Madonna in her took the pop legend’s advice in “Express Yourself” and poured all she had into the making of an authentic record, knowing her fans will appreciate that.
“Bad Girl Phase” is the lead single off her new album, written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shannon Wright. If you’re not already in a bad girl phase, you’ll want to be after listening to this. It’s a paint the town red because I’ve earned it empowering soundtrack. If you’re looking for a comparison to figure out who Sunny sounds like musically, you’re not likely to find one. She has stayed true to the music she grew up on and that traditional country sound, but vocalizes it with a healthy dose of girl swag. Sunny told me she likes strong women and respects the opinions they have and the confidence they show in expressing them. Whether she’s singing about heartbreak or vulnerability, you know Sunny is not going to stay down for long. That fighting spirit in her adds strength to the music and encouragement to all who listen to it. Her take on country music is all about remembering where you came from while not losing sight of where you’re going, and believing you have what it takes to get there.
Sunny Sweeney is exactly what everyone says doesn’t exist in country music anymore. There was a time when Nashville was full of strong women. Most of them are still there. They don’t get the radio airplay or the headlines that the men of country do, except for a few. If you’re looking for a more traditional country sound with a strong voice singing the songs you can relate to, start listening to the women. Sunny Sweeney tells it like it is, and she writes songs that tell the truth. She is a modern woman who has had her ups and downs like we all have. She took a leap of faith, dug in her heels, and gave it her all to get where she is. Along the way, the experiences she’s had, good and bad, have been sewn into the musical quilt she blankets her life with today. She doesn’t require neon lights to advertise her success. She feels it in the happiness she’s found in her everyday life, her music, and her connection to the fans. Towards the end of “Bad Girl Phase,” a chorus of females adds their agreement to the sentiments Sunny has expressed. Their hallelujah like chorus makes the end of this song sound “Like a Prayer.” But this isn’t Sunny asking for forgiveness or explaining her bad girl activity. She reminds me of a girl from the 80s who followed her dreams and boldly expressed herself through pop music’s most popular bad girl phase. Sunny’s Provoked is going to put the “Bad Girl Phase” back in “Vogue.”
Nashville is country music’s hometown, but that’s not the only music you’ll find there. On any given night, in a landmark location downtown, you might find Keith Urban and Steven Tyler teaming up for an impromptu performance. Whatever musical accompaniment you’re in the mood for can probably be found, playing live, somewhere in Music City. Liken it to a geographical jukebox that will spin just about anything you can think of. If I wandered into Dan McGuinness Irish Pub on a Tuesday night, I might think there must have been something in that brownie I ate, because this sounds like a concert I was at in 197….. a long time ago. What I’d really be listening to is Thee Rock N’ Roll Residency, performing one of their weekly sets of classic rock music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. On lead guitar, looking and sounding the part of a 70s guitar shredder, would be Phil Shouse. Watching him, I would wonder “what the hell is a guy who can play classic rock songs like that doing in Nashville, Tennessee?” Well, when he’s not moonlighting as Eddie Van Halen or some other guitar god, he’s on tour with Rodney Atkins. No, Phil does not have multiple personalities, but his guitar does. Some nights, when Phil lifts it from the case and holds it to his body, it melds with the surroundings – a 21st century country concert stage. Chords sound as if struck by white lightning, a burst of energy and then relaxed, content to “Take a Back Road.” Alternately, smelling fish and chips through the worn leather of the guitar case, the strings tingle with anticipation. Firmly in hand, Phil twists the knobs on his eager instrument, sending it back to 1978. Memories of “Runnin’ with the Devil” slide across the strings like an evil temptress, daring Phil to jump into the fire, his fingers blistered from the heat of an “Eruption.” Now that you’re “On Fire,” I think I’ll turn up the volume for the telling of the Phil Shouse story…amped and ready to rock!
Photograph above taken by Carter Elizabeth Heim.
Before Phil took up residency in Nashville, his hometown was Decatur, Alabama. As a toddler, he didn’t know that the year 1978 would change his life and direct his future. Aerosmith was atop the rock n roll world at that time, and their vinyl LPs were being played by his older brother who was 13 years his senior. The drum set in the house belonged to him. Phil showed a musical fascination that he says started at birth, when he would climb up on his brother’s drum set at age four and play like he was Joey Kramer of Aerosmith. No doubt, his family and the neighbors appreciated these early live performances. His brother’s record collection spun like classic vinyl through his formative years and today he remembers it as the spark that ignited his passion. When he was old enough to join the school band, he wasn’t allowed to play the drums (no, not because his mother bribed the band teacher – shhh!) because he didn’t have piano experience and didn’t know the theory required. Up to this point, Phil had learned to play music by ear, not by any visual instruction. Determined to be a part of the band, he quickly learned to play the saxophone and learned the theory. This would bridge the gap between middle school and high school and prepare him for learning to play the instrument he lives for.
At 13, Phil was living in Nebraska. His father had just accepted a job transfer to Alabama, which meant moving just prior to high school – always fun. To take his mind off the anticipated turmoil of the move, his mother bought him the object of his desire. He’d wanted a guitar for some time and this seemed like the right opportunity to put one in his hands. Like putting a paintbrush in Michelangelo’s hand, becoming a master of the instrument was just a matter of time. Although he would continue to play the saxophone throughout high school, eventually earning the honor of all-state saxophonist, his obsession was playing guitar. Given a choice of activities, this was it. Always. Marching band took up a lot of his time in high school, so except for a few lessons here and there, Phil taught himself to play. He told me he used to get a guitar magazine, and each month it contained the music to learn new songs. Between that resource and the natural ear he has for music, he was a quick study. When I asked him what made him want to become a professional rock star, he answered as if it was happening in that moment. His brother’s record collection was harboring his dream. It waited patiently for Phil to come of age and discover its magnetic force. Aerosmith‘s 1978 release of Live! Bootleg was a double live album, popular in the 70s, and it was packaged as a gatefold LP. This packaging allowed for the inclusion of artwork, liner notes, and/or song lyrics with the records. Phil saw a picture in that gatefold of Joe Perry that was taken from the back. He was on stage in front of thousands of people and he had a guitar slung across his back and one in front of him. He remembers every detail of that picture and described it to me in HD. Also in 1978, Van Halen released their debut album containing the instrumental called “Eruption.” About the end of 8th grade, Phil heard this song on his brother’s CD player. He said his jaw dropped to the floor, and he remembers it being a life-changing moment. It’s been a few years since this happened (just a few), and yet his enthusiasm is still fresh. I haven’t seen Phil’s high school yearbook, but I’m certain if he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he answered without hesitation – a rock star!
So Phil graduated from high school and went on to Rock Star University…no wait, there aren’t any of those. Plan B? Start a band and hope you become the next Aerosmith! Plan C? Start college and keep playing gigs whenever you can get them, and try not to starve to death in the process. Phil did try the college experience for a few years but quickly learned he was more cut out for the Hendrix Experience. Apparently he isn’t any better at sitting still in a classroom than he is at standing still on a stage. He told me you’d have to tie him down for that to happen. Ten years would elapse between the end of high school and the beginning of his Nashville residency. During that time, he played with a lot of different bands in the southeast before becoming a regular with two in particular that were based out of Nashville. There was also a girl in that locale who added the incentive, should any have been needed, for Phil to make frequent road trips to the city. Being just a two hour drive, this wasn’t such a bad commute. But in 2004, he decided it just made sense to relocate to the musical land of opportunity.
Photograph above taken by Carter Elizabeth Heim.
During his first year in Nashville, he did what most new residents do – work odd jobs to pay the bills, pick up gigs where you can get them, and hope for that big break. In 2005, while playing on a pedestrian bridge during a festival, he was spotted by David Lee Murphy. Liking what he saw in Phil’s playing, he hired him. This gave him somewhat steady work but was still a “for hire” like position. The following year, a good friend who worked with an alt band based out of New York City, recommended him for a lead guitar position. A phone interview was all it took to secure the job. With his new band, Morningwood, he would spend a year touring the world, getting to meet some of his rock heroes, and making late night television appearances. It was a whirlwind year that led to some unwanted down time in 2007. With not much going on, he was back to hustling gigs. Country artist, Chris Cagle, was looking for a guitar player and offered him a tour spot. It would turn into his longest gig to date, lasting two years. By 2010, he’d been in Nashville six years and was still looking for the right fit musically.
Through the years, he’d become friends with the drummer/band leader for country artist, Rodney Atkins. Repeatedly, he tried to get Phil to join the band and go on tour with them. The timing was never quite right until now. In the fall of 2010, Phil made the commitment and became the lead guitarist for Rodney Atkins. It’s a relationship that’s lasted four years so far and one he’s very thankful for. Rodney encourages mobility on the stage from his band members and would think there was something wrong with them if they played idly behind him. This suits Phil’s alter ego and untamed guitar just fine. He gets along great with his bandmates, something he says is most essential when living on a tour bus together, and finds that musically, they have a lot in common. Judd Fuller plays bass for Rodney Atkins and is also a part of Thee Rock N’ Roll Residency with Phil. Imagine these two rock stars on a country tour bus, guitars just begging to “Rock ‘n’ Roll All Nite.” Since real rockers don’t go to bed until the sun rises, they channel their inner KISS and “Shout It Out Loud.” Are they secretly recording a country KISS tribute album? Thankfully, no. But they might be practicing for some kind of KISS tribute…
Photograph above taken by Bill McClintic.
In addition to their regular Tuesday night rock performances, they participate in a charity event held every December in downtown Nashville. Fans are asked to bring a donation of suggested items that are distributed locally for Christmas. The annual holiday show is called KISSmas, in tribute to the iconic rock band, and Phil Shouse becomes Paul Stanley for the evening, makeup and all! This means two hours of being in character and mimicking every action and chord played by the legendary rock star. This is another talent our Nashville guitar hero has. His superpower? Turning himself into some of rock’s greatest guitar players, who themselves would be awed by his abilities. The classic rock star trapped inside of him has taken on the role of Eddie Van Halen in a cover band that has perfected their Van Halen imitation. You won’t find a better likeness anywhere in the world. Not only did Phil learn to shred a guitar like Eddie (his stage name was Shredward Dan Halen), he learned to “Jump” like the rock star. And they say playing video games isn’t educational. See what you can learn from endless rounds of Guitar Hero? I’d say Phil’s probably mastered that game and now he’s a professional musician! See how easy that was? “Dream On.”
When you think about classic rock bands, how many of them are still around and still making music? Some of the most legendary bands only lasted a few years, yet we’re still obsessed with the music. Landing a long term gig with a band and being able to spend your life living that dream, and paying the bills, is a long shot. It’s often more about living day to day than being able to plan a comfortable retirement. Phil told me that you’re not going to get rich being a side man, but for professional musicians who live to be on tour, that’s whats available – if you can get it. He says the smartest thing you can do is have a backup plan. No gig lasts forever and you may not always be able to find one when the mortgage is due. Diversity is the key, and the work you do in your spare time may well become your safety net. Having an income that does not rely on the music industry is a smart move, and one he’s currently working on.
Nashville is full of musicians all hoping to become professionals. Finding steady work, in a genre you love, shouldn’t be that tough in a place called Music City. But even in country music, finding the right gig – or any gig at all – is challenging. If classic rock is your passion, it’s nearly impossible. Phil and I talked at length about the guitar gods that came out of the classic rock era and the music they got to play. He feels there hasn’t been a great classic rock guitarist since Slash. He told me that nobody wants to hire guitar players that play like the rockers of the 70s anymore. It’s a dying market. I found this almost surreal that I was talking to a guitar player in Nashville, Tennessee in 2014 who could easily trade licks with Joe Perry, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page, and Slash, but could only find opportunities to play this way with cover bands – IN THE COUNTRY MUSIC CAPITAL OF THE WORLD??? No wonder “Jamie’s Cryin’.” I hear ya sister!
Photograph above taken by Nathan Cox.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if the next great rock band came from country music’s hometown? With every award show lately, they’ve seen fit to put a rock performance on the stage. Eric Church and Lzzy Hale loudly demonstrated “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” just last month. In August, Nashville will release its ode to Motley Crue, which I have to believe will lead to a collaboration at the CMAs. So it only seems natural, in the progression of things, that Music City should have its very own classic rock band. If I may recommend a band leader and lead guitarist, I know just the right guy. He was born in the 70s, raised on classic rock, and plays guitar like his life depends on it. The spirit of 70s rock drives his passion for the instrument, and it comes alive when his fingers touch the strings. Dexterity alone can’t make that sound. Only someone truly connected to the music can translate the intensity of rock’s passion into the dramatic sound that reverberates through the listener. Setting the stage for the guy I have in mind, picture the Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tennessee. It’s sold out and packed to capacity. The crowd is tense with anticipation, awaiting the arrival of their resident guitar hero. He walks out on stage and the light hits him from behind. He’s outfitted with two guitars, one slung across his back and the other in its usual tuned and loaded position across his chest. The fans go wild! Phil Shouse is ready to rock…and “Everybody Wants Some!!”
When we think of rock stars today, we always seem to look backwards. The classic rock of the 70s and the glam rock of the 80s produced a large number of larger than life personalities that defined for generations what it meant to be a rock star. The flamboyant, reckless lifestyles these idols lived, created the iconic images we still adore. As many of these rock legends fade into their twilight years, will this be the end of rock stars as we’ve come to define them, or will they pass the torch to a new breed of rock stars that will put their own stamp on the “ROCK OF AGES?” We’ve never thought of being a rock star as a career choice, more like a byproduct of spending too much time on your hobby, and certainly not a nine to five gig. Welcome to the new century, and a new way of looking at, and listening to, rock stars!
When I first saw BrianBonds perform live, it was like a blast from my past. I could have photoshopped him into any 80s or 90s rock video and he would not seem the least bit out of place. Reality check – I’m at a Florida Georgia Line concert in the middle of winter, 2014. No time travel or fireball whiskey involved! BK and Tyler were holding court in this arena and the musicians surrounding them were unlike any I’d seen on a country stage before. If you haven’t been to a show, it’s staged like rock concerts used to be. Everyone on that stage had their moments to shine, and together, they were like a fireball-fueled “ROCKET” exploding indoors. Brian Bonds guitar playing was something you just didn’t see anymore, and certainly not at a country concert! I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. Had there been more alcohol and less security involved, I might have rushed the stage, clung to his leg, and begged him to keep playing – and at that time, I didn’t even know his name! Who knew that five months later, I’d be interviewing my new rock idol? I’ll try to keep the “HYSTERIA” to a minimum.
Nothing about Brian’s story is ordinary, more like extraordinary. His hometown is Miami, Florida. He first picked up a guitar when he was ten, inspired by seeing DEF LEPPARD on television. Every guy wanted to be a rock star after seeing DEF LEPPARD, but how many actually fulfilled that dream? Welcome to the “nothing in moderation” world of Brian Bonds! When Brian sets his mind to doing something, it’s an all or nothing mentality. If he was going to learn to play guitar, he was going to learn everything there was to know about playing that instrument. He had a top-notch guitar instructor in Miami who would later be instrumental in his making the move to Nashville and landing his first gig. Growing up, he and his twin brother, Eric Church, shared the same musical DNA. Now you’re all going “I didn’t know Eric Church had a twin brother!” See how easily rumors get started? So they weren’t biologically connected, but they definitely could have smoked a little smoke, drank a little drink (or a lot!) listening to Megadeath, Metallica, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Jr., and Garth Brooks together. If you add Brian’s muse, DEF LEPPARD, to that mix and shake it up real good, what you would pour into a glass would be rock star in a country band, Brian Bonds! Shaken, not stirred. Now to add the proof to that drink on the rocks you just poured, add his guitar idols – Eddie Van Halen, Brent Mason, and Zakk Wylde, and you get “ROCK! ROCK! (Till You Drop).”
When Brian left Miami to chase down his rock star dreams, he moved to Atlanta. The area serves as a music hub for many genres in the southeast region. While living there, he picked up gigs with regional artists and gained some valuable stage experience. When he wanted to take it to the next level, he set his sights on either Nashville or Los Angeles. The deciding factor came in the form of his old guitar teacher. They’d stayed in touch over the years and he’d since moved from Miami to Nashville to further his own career in music. He shared with his former student an insider’s view of the current opportunities available for musicians there, and based on that assessment, Brian decided that Nashville was where he needed to be. In 2006, he packed up a U-Haul and drove from Atlanta to his new home base…Nashville, Tennessee!
For most musicians who take that leap of faith and move to Nashville, it generally takes a long time, sometimes years to get that first promising gig. For Brian, he was still driving the U-Haul when he was offered his first gig. He saw the area code 615 come up on his phone and was not exactly expecting a job offer to be on the other end of it. He arrived on a Monday and accepted the gig on Tuesday morning. Turns out his guitar teacher had been offered this position but it wasn’t something he was looking for, so he recommended Brian. Solo artist, Chely Wright, was to begin a European tour and her guitar player had backed out. Brian opted in and his career took flight – literally. Over the next four years, he immersed himself in the Nashville music scene. He played with a lot of local talent and did what he called “van and trailer gigs” during that time. For a short while, he played with Love and Theft on dates here and there and continued doing showcases in town. He was making connections and laying the groundwork for something on a grander scale and careful not to make a serious commitment until he found what he was looking for. In 2010, he found it, in the form of two guys representing the two states he’d previously lived in. Nashville served as the melting pot that lit this new alliance on fireball, I mean fire!
Brian was playing some showcases where BK and Tyler happened to be one day and before he left, they handed him their demo CD with some acoustic performances on it. He listened to it, liked what he heard, and decided to give FGL a shot. It turns out that his new bosses had the same approach to building a career that he did. They weren’t looking to be an overnight sensation, though many people today think they were. The FGL fan base is the result of a relentless grassroots effort by BK and Tyler to win over fans one bar, one town, one radio station at a time. Their first big break came in 2011 when they opened for Brantley Gilbert in St. Louis. They were very well received there and decided to build on that. Brian told me the strategy was to come back and play every venue they could within a 300 miles radius and continue to broaden their fan base. He said they’d play in small places for maybe 10 people sometimes. The next time it was 30. Then it was 100. The combination of the show they put on and their proficiency in using social media, eventually built the loyal legion they have today. Brian said when they were on the road, there wasn’t a moment they weren’t working. Miles between cities were spent working social media and connecting with fans. Fans in cyberspace become your audience in the next town you come to. When they arrived to play the show, Brian described it as “putting on an arena show before we had an arena.”
Brian hadn’t made a long-term commitment with FGL when he started, he was waiting to see if this would be the right fit for him. In 2012, with new music coming out and momentum building from their extended road trip, FGL made Brian an offer to “Stay.” Had they sung it to him outside a burning trailer, irony would be served so well here! Prior to “Cruise” erupting like Mount Vesuvius, these rock stars you see today didn’t have the luxury of throwing furniture out of hotel windows or randomly trashing sports cars. They were traveling by modest means and staying in roach motels with two rooms for everyone. They couldn’t afford to pay Brian Bonds what they knew he was worth, but they laid the cards on the table and he liked the hand they dealt. FGL was a unique opportunity for Brian because no one else in country music at that time was doing what they did. The staging they’d been doing, and would continue to use, showcased the musicians in their band in the way rock concerts used to. This was a non-negotiable factor for him. Would Jimmy Page ever have played in the shadow of Robert Plant all night? PERISH THE THOUGHT!! That would have been a Stairway To Hell for a guitar legend. Putting someone with the talent of Brian Bonds standing still, playing on a darkened part of the stage, would be equally tragic. Thankfully, Brian put his faith in the future of FGL and they put what meager dollars they had into him. “Cruise” was released in August of 2012 and that would soon mark the end of their relationship with roach motels and cruising cross country in a van. Burn it down!
The meteoric success these guys have achieved over the past two years has not been lost on any of them. For Brian, it built the foundation for him to envision a lasting career and work towards developing a brand for himself. A year ago, FGL was invited to perform on the season finale of The Voice. At that time, this was the largest and most visible television performance they’d had.
A career musician’s blog based out of Nashville called That’s My Gig( http://www.thatsmygig.com/), asked Brian if he’d like to write about the experience. He found this opportunity to be a great outlet for sharing things from a musician’s perspective. Here’s a look at what he penned: (http://www.thatsmygig.com/choose-your-voice-florida-georgia-lines-guitar-player-journals-about-the-season-finale-of-the-hit-nbc-show/). Since that time, he has continued as a contributor to That’s My Gig and has taken on the role of career mentor and guitar teacher to aspiring musicians. It’s just the beginning of branding his identity as a professional rock star. We don’t often think of our stage idols beyond what they do as performers. The reality is, that’s just a small portion of what their job entails. Fame is fleeting, and if you don’t invest in your own longevity, no one else will either. Brian doesn’t think on a small scale. Ever. When I asked him about his favorite places to play, he didn’t respond with venue names, he said Chicago and Canada. That told me a lot about the way he thinks and the size of the audience he hopes to reach. He’s working on a website and t-shirts that should be available in the next few months (and I will be buying the first t-shirt that’s printed!).
Brian Bonds, professional rock star, is a practical dreamer with his feet firmly planted on the ground. He doesn’t buy into the reality show mentality of winning your opportunity and expecting everything to just fall into place after that. It used to be that the rock star lifestyle was a giant dose of unreality. Many of them lived their lives in a 24/7 cycle of performing, binging, sleeping it off, and starting all over. That would be a recipe for a short life and an even shorter career in today’s world. When Brian comes home after time on the road each week, it’s not recess. He goes about the other tasks he’s taken on as part of the Brian Bonds complete picture he’s painting. It’s a colorful portrait that illustrates the multifaceted musician he is. Many of us watched our rock idols of the past perform on stage with a curious eye, wondering what outlandish things they might do that night. The music was epic so we overlooked the antics, on and off stage. We used to take a “PHOTOGRAPH” of our favorite rock star at a concert. Now we shoot video clips of their performances. Working within the frame of that moving picture, Brian Bonds can be captured as a 21st century rock star. Play through it and you’ll hear the “ROCK OF AGES” come alive in the pickups and blend with the energy he generates before amplifying back to the audience a rock-infused country song. Add his unique and perfectly planned out stage look, and you’ve just seen a modern day rock star resume. Wanted: professional rock star with experience in bad ass performances. Must be able to work on the hyper-energized stage FGL concerts provide, play like a classic rocker minus the spandex, and reboot the sound of a country song into the rockin’ country the fans go crazy for. Off stage, you will be expected to build your own rock star brand empire by seeking out opportunities to grow as a musician, mentor others, and share your experience through demonstrations and multimedia platforms. If your name isn’t Brian Bonds, keep looking. The position of “ROCK OF AGES” torch bearer has already been filled!