Across the Pond
Local band The Skeleton Coast eagerly awaits its U.K. debut
After 20 Albums, Greg Brown waxes rural, with wisdom
by LaRue Cook
Admittedly, it was the powerpop poetics of Senryu that accounted for the opening intonations of Wil Wright's musical oeuvre. Fresh out of the University of Tennessee marching band, Wright's inaugural three-piece provided him with a welcome introduction onto the Knoxville music scene six years ago.
But while Wright may not yet be ready to pen a denouement to his first chapter, his international welcoming will actually come by way of his four-month-old side-project-turned-band The Skeleton Coast, rather than his first-born.
As is often the case, the underdeveloped peripheral project garnered acclaim at a pace unsuspected by Wright. What began as a solo gig with kick drum and guitar has now been signed by upstart U.K. record label WaKS Records, which will release two digital singles in London, the first being "Black Ivory Elephant" on March 26. How did the Brits hear about this low-key indie-folk group out of Knoxville? The networking web known to so many underage teens as MySpace. Besides being visited by child predators and overbearing solicitors, the website has become the yellow pages for young record labels looking to sign unknown talent.
"We really just played live shows and kept Skeleton Coast under our hat," Wright says. "We had recorded a couple songs and people were really responding. I put one of our singles up on the Internet and a few days later the record label called me. To our good fortune, they were looking for something new and different.
"There is a serious indie-folk following over there and the label liked our stuff and signed us right away. Everything has just been falling into place like dominoes since."
A complete about-face from the bells, whistles, and synthesizers of Senryu, The Skeleton Coast is minimalist in nature, consisting of Wright on bass drum and guitar, violinist Natalie Kimbro, and Jenna Hancock helping to create the two-part harmonies. The trio was born from Wright's more introspective musical meanderings, and because he needed an outlet for the songs that didn't quite mesh with Senryu's high-octane aesthetic.
"I always struggled to incorporate some of our slower, less power-driven songs into our live shows, because Senryu shows are so hyperactive it would just suck the energy out," Wright says. "But I couldn't quit playing them and it just became too frustrating, so I channeled all of these songs in a new direction."
Listening to the debut single "Black Ivory Elephant," it's difficult to find any connecting passage between Wright's previous synthesized ventures and this roots-inflected ditty that runs just 90 seconds. "Elephant" opens with a sweeping foray of strings and guitar, only to do-si-do into a knee-slapping fiddler's riff by Kimbro. Perhaps the only way to understand Wright's transition is to drive down old Highway 70, stopping at the foothills of the Crab Orchard Mountains. Whether Wright ever admits the fact in his liner notes, the influences of his Roane County upbringing likely led (either indirectly or directly) to these Southern reverberations.
"When I started, the musical parts were young, small, and underdeveloped," says Wright, who was raised in Rockwood, which has a population of 5,000. "I've grown as a song writer, and each part of my music has gotten bigger, better, and more mature. And each one of my musical parts needs a place to do what it has to do."
Wright fronts both Senryu and The Skeleton Coast, while also instituting a quid pro quo with local bands like Matgo Primo, who often fill varying capacities for his Skeleton Coast shows. The recent Senryu EP BlinkBlink was merely a segue for a full-length album due out in April, and Wright says there is a group called Summer Baby in the works with a sound reminiscent of 2006's critical darling Neko Case.
Days are long for Wright with the U.K. press push already underway. WaKS Records partners with one of Europe's largest indie distributors, Vital, which could translate into a European tour if the serious commitments from British radio stations are any indications of impending success. An international tour will be uncharted waters for Wright, who has rarely been pried from the bar circuit in and around Knoxville.
"There will be no way around doing a tour in Europe if these singles succeed, but this kind of thing is the reason you play music," Wright says. "Getting these songs out in the U.K. seems to be the thing to do right now, but the songs will be available on iTunes, and we will be recording a five-song EP to put out in the U.S. to try and develop a following here.
"I would never relocate from Knoxville," Wright says. "This is where I live and this is where my loyalties are. I won't be shifting regardless of short- or long-term success." m
Who: The Skeleton Coast
Follow My Muse
Speaking in a soothing voice, Greg Brown sits at a diner near his and wife Iris DeMent's house in Kansas City, Mo. It's one of their two residences, the other a farm in southern Iowa. "It's a pretty easy life," he admits. But that wasn't always the case. It took a long time for the 57-year-old folk singer to hit the proverbial Easy Street.
When he first moved to New York City in the late '60s, invited by a folk singer of the day, Eric Anderson--whom he never actually found upon arrival--times were tough. "I ended up livin' on the streets for a couple months... I had never been to the big city, I had never seen beggars out on the street; I saved up a little money which I almost immediately gave away. I did that for a while, then I went and auditioned at these little coffee houses down in Greenwich Village. Eventually, I got a job at one of 'em and managed to start eating again and stuff like that."
But the (not yet resurgent) folk scene in New York was dead, he says. "The generation of Bob Dylan had gone, it was all over, and there was not much goin' on in the coffee houses," he remembers. After staying only about six months, he hopped around to Los Angeles, Seattle and Las Vegas, where he did some ghostwriting for Buck Ram, founder of the Platters. The challenges of being a career musician presented themselves early on, and persistently.
"It was a long period, you know. The way it worked back then is I would try to play music for a while and then I'd get broke, then I'd get a job drivin' a truck or workin' in a hospital or whatever kind of job I could get for about four months. Then I'd build up a little stash, and I would play music again for a while. That went on for years. I think I was about 30 before I really made what you would call a living."
In the worrisome years, over the hill/ I thought it's supposed to get easier to pay your bills/ I got nothing to show except a worrisome heart/ Can you please tell me--when does the good part start? he sings in "Worrisome Years."
The financial struggle was certainly ongoing for Brown, but his persistence ultimately trumped it at every turn. "Really the only struggle was just trying to make a livin'," he says. "You just have to have a tremendous drive to do it, because it's... it's not an easy thing to do. It's making your own way. The main thing is to have a lot of drive and stick-to-it--and I had all that."
And with that persistence, his creative freedom, which he seems to value above all else, was earned. "With music, life is very uncertain, but I think life is very uncertain for everybody so it never seemed that bad to me. And you can have a kind of freedom--which most people don't have--when you're doing something like music, you don't have a boss... You know, it's just up to you what you're gonna do with all of it."
After his nomadic years, he retreated back to the Midwest and started to pen the bulk of his songs away from any sort of spotlight, a practice that he continues today. It seems Brown was never really drawn to an urbanite existence. If anything, his songwriting displays a longing to escape from the rat race, to retreat to an unconditionally accepting and redeeming natural landscape.
I wanna hear the Laughing River flowing right outside my door/ Gonna let the Laughing River flow right into my soul.
In the '80s he released seven albums, and he gained a solid and loyal fan base, as well as a regular spot on Prairie Home Companion --and finally, a regular paycheck. But even with a couple Grammy nominations, he seems to demonstrate a conscious aversion to popular music and a general resistance to modern society. Many of his songs lament the loss of a now-forgotten rural America. They invoke pastoral landscapes, mostly too perfect to be attained--an upside-down nostalgia, a longing for an escape to the past in this futuristic world.
Two little feet to get me across the mountain/ Two little feet to carry me away to the woods.
Sometimes, though, his songwriting is bleaker, adopting gritty blues chords that accompany simple and morose lines like, The wine bottle's half empty/ The money's all spent, sung with his signature rumbling voice, his most singular and powerful weapon.
There's always a hopeful turn for Brown, though--a slight lift in his voice, a sense of peace as he makes his observations on the human condition. Now with over 20 albums, his observations just seem to keep flowing. "I just follow my muse, you know. Follow my heart, that's all."
Who: Greg Brown w/ Bo Ramsey