Phil Fuson has got a lot on his mind. Always. And these thoughts are apt to be unleashed at any moment. Particularly if you ask him a question.
He keeps himself busy, certainly, but that only feeds his thought processes. To start with, he’s in 2.5 bands; he’s taking a sailing certification class so he can legally steer his craft, the D’Orca, on local waters; he just traded in both his Buell and his BMW for a tricked-out Ducati Hypermotard, a two-wheeled vehicle he swears “transforms you into a colossal asshole”; he’s got an eclectic three-hour show on WDVX, Common Threads, that takes him four hours to tape; and he’s got a day job composing TV and film scores. But all that won’t stop him from taking the time to suddenly drawl out inflammatory observations that would make a more timorous man hesitate.
“The circle’s finally turned enough that people are actually starting to begrudgingly connote what a huge influence the Eagles were,” he muses one Friday afternoon over a plate of drunken noodles (heat level: 4) at the Taste of Thai patio in West Knoxville.
Whaaaaa? Can one of Knoxville’s finest electric guitarists—a graduate of the University of Tennessee music school, compatriot of local masters such as the late Terry Hill, a man who came of age in the 1980s Fort Sanders punk scene—truly find greatness in the soft country-rock melodies of the freakin’ Eagles?
“You can say what you want, but their harmonies are non-peccable,” he insists calmly, looking almost professorial in his wire-frame glasses, crowned by still-shaggy locks. “I will stand on anybody’s coffee table and say this: You’ve got your entire life to make your first record. But you’ve got only six months to make your second record. This is back when people made records. The album, Desperado, functions on two levels as a loose concept: as either a gunslinger-guitar guy or as a literal gunslinger. But they had six months to do that—not a lot of sophomore efforts in that world.”
At this point, we are only grazing the surface of Phil Fuson’s load of unexpected opinions on music, popular culture, and MotoGP. One thought leads to the next in a flurry of observations that arrive fully formed—you get the sense that he’s been thinking about them for a while. (“I’m a babble fish. I can blather on and on.”) And when it comes to rock ’n’ roll—first as a listener, and then as a player in such local bands as the Dirtclods, Heuvos Diablos, and now with Itchy and the Hater Tots—the Morristown native invites all influences, even the Eagles.
“My ethos is, if it’s good, I dig it,” Fuson says. “People go, ‘What do you like?’ I like George Jones, Frank Zappa, the Replacements, all manner of stuff. And that’s probably why our band never went anywhere—we liked too much stuff. Back in the day, we’d play a Merle Haggard song and then it could be ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog.’ We’re not discriminators, though we do try to draw the line at ‘suck.’”
The band that didn’t go anywhere, the Dirtclods, was nevertheless one of Knoxville’s bravest; in the early ’90s, it ruled local stages with not only the most energetic live show in town (expressed through the swiveling hips of lead singer Brian Waldschlager), but also one of the most multifaceted. Not unlike the original creators of the form, the ’clods would instinctively fuse all sorts of sounds into their rock ’n’ roll—flipping from rockabilly to country to metal to R&B to punk. At the time, such eclecticism was not commercial fodder for most record labels—it could not be neatly categorized.
But Fuson’s latest band (he’s Itchy Bruddah, and the Hater Tots include Allen Smith on bass, Vince Harris on drums, and Waldschlager “on the other end of the stage”) has largely taken up that gauntlet once more, playing what he calls “schizophrenic roots rock.” (They’ll be performing for the debut outing of Metro Pulse’s MetroFest Music Tour, benefiting the Joy of Music School.)
“We’re playing our old junk and our new junk. But we can’t remember the old junk and we can barely remember the new junk,” Fuson says. “The great thing is we’re all old enough to really enjoy it now. No egos can be seen from space. And we’ve finally learned how to play.”
But if you want to enjoy their musicianship from the playback device of your choice, you’ll be mostly out of luck—Fuson professes little motivation to release his recordings, either online or with physical products. And that’s a shame when it comes to tunes like “Much Obliged,” a country-by-way-of-Westerberg paean to performing on the road, or “Memphis Changed the World,” in which Fuson recounts the cultural impact of the West Tennessee city’s music scene over a strutting blues/soul/rock beat that simultaneously expresses the influences its lyrics celebrate.
“I’ve amassed this body of tunes—I’ve got more than a record’s worth of stuff. But I’m not really inspired to put it out,” he says. “As the great [producer] R.S. Field said, ‘I’ve got this artistic property that I’m trying to zone commercial.’ And I’ve yet to really get a handle on it. So generally, I just give it to friends.”
Meanwhile, Fuson has at least started a YouTube channel that currently includes two videos: “Jackie Chan,” a bouncy tribute to the martial-arts star by Heuvos Diablos, and “Fuç%ed up town,” a survey of the ’80s-’90s Knoxville music scene, complete with Ken Burnsian pans and fades. (“That’s the way I’m going to release this stuff—on YouTube—and hope and pray that someone decides, ‘Man, that’d be just the thing for the next Cadillac commercial!’”) His choice of a visual medium to release his music “at a glacial pace” is somewhat ironic in light of his view that the music industry today has become more about appearances than euphonic sound.
“I feel like I’m really lucky to have been one of the last people that lived when music was meant to be listened to and not looked at,” he declares.
But that’s another story.
Also: Phil Fuson’s “quiet” band, the Neighborhood, will be performing at the SHAREhouse (1640 Jefferson Ave.) on Sept. 28 at 8 p.m.