In the last 10 years, Mic Harrison’s moved from the top of the heap (as a member of the late, lamented V-Roys) to a somewhat secondary position as a ringer in Superdrag (up to the band’s 2004 hiatus) before emerging fully as a solo artist (he briefly led the band the Faults and released his first solo album, Pallbearer’s Shoes, in 2004). Now he’s the figurehead in front of Mic Harrison and the High Score, a band he describes as “a total democracy.” In other words, Harrison has moved from the proverbial fast lane to the back roads. The life of a weekend-warrior DIY indie musician isn’t glamorous, and Harrison is toiling as hard as the workingmen championed in his songs.
“Basically we’re just building off what we’ve got,” he says. “Every record we’ve made and all the touring we’ve done keeps building. We’re spreading out further and we’re adding people to our team.” At present the band employs a booking agent, publicist, and webmaster. “It gets a little bit bigger as we go, and we’ll just see how far that will take us.”
In this case, the work ethic might actually be paying off. The band’s third album, Great Commotion, is its best yet—and the earlier two were great. The band—Harrison, guitarist Robbie Trosper, bassist Vance Hillard, and drummer Brad Henderson—makes unvarnished country rock, comparable to American greats like Merle Haggard, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, or a more sophisticated version of Social Distortion. The band’s hard-rocking twang recalls the Rolling Stones at their early-’70s best.
Following in the tradition of Larry Brown and Roy Blount Jr., the songs on Commotion tell stories of Southern lives lived hard. The album’s 15 tracks offer a guardedly optimistic take on the vicissitudes of blue-collar life, peppered with dashes of ribald humor and genuine respect for their characters.
“The songs are sometimes fiction, sometimes truth, and sometimes a mix,” Harrison says. “You can’t tell all the truth all the time, or you’ll get yourself into trouble.”
One of the album’s best tracks, “Hiram Couples,” is actually based in fact.
“He’s no longer with us, so I can tell that,” Harrison says. “Back in West Tennessee my dad had a logging company and I had a little sawmill. We had this guy named Hiram Couples that used to cut timber for us, and he was a character—a very extremely ugly dude. I used to go pick him up on the way to work at like 6 in the morning, and he’d be sitting at this table drinking Milwaukee’s Best. He was a down-and-dirty working dude, and I remember hoping I wouldn’t turn out like that.
“Well, when I say working dude, you know, that means he showed up. He worked for us for a while.”
On Commotion, Harrison sometimes cedes the vocal spotlight to other members. The downtrodden barroom lament of “I Can Tell,” another of the album’s finest tracks, features Henderson on lead vocals and Hillard singing backup. Another of the album’s surprises is Trosper’s “South Knoxville Way,” a solo acoustic track that extols the virtues of marriage, home, and Knoxville in a way that is neither cloying nor patronizing. The simplicity and unaffected emotion of the song are keys to its charm.
“That’s just me and my guitar and one microphone,” says Trosper, who produced the album at his own home studio. “It’s just kind of a goofy little song. I was just playing around, but Mic heard it and really wanted it on the album. I just threw the mic up, ran through it, and here it is.”
Commotion is Trosper’s first production credit. “Personally, I’m proud of this one on a different level because we did it ourselves—just the four of us in my basement,” he says. “I look at the album as kind of a moment preserved in time. Every take is as good as we could’ve done at the time. We never just said, ‘Aw, that’s good enough.’ As a producer, I would try to make suggestions and push everybody to play as well as they could, but everybody was already thinking that way anyway. We put all the pieces together, demoed the songs out, immediately started recording, and, well, here we are.”
As for the immediate future, Harrison and crew plan to continue a series of short road trips before a long tour next year.
“For right now we’ll just keep the hard weekends going,” Harrison says. “The next time we do a proper tour it will be up in the Northeast and out to Texas, probably next spring. And when we go out on the road, we do make great commotion.”