I walk into an Old City bar and, scanning the room, I spot Matt Foster of Medford's Black Record Collection; he's got his nose in a Knoxville Voice newspaper. I approach and notice a sly grin on his face: "I thought that'd be funny," he says.
Moments later, band member Michael Davis arrives. We order drinks and chat for a minute. I hit record on the Dictaphone I've brought. Davis leans in to the microphone: "Are we famous yet? (pause) How ‘bout now? (longer pause) Now?"
And I giggle to no one in particular: "This is going to be fun." I feel like a kindergartner at storytime, except we're all in our late 20s, and the plastic red and blue mats are replaced by a few pints of beer. And the stories are a hell of a lot more interesting.
Davis and Foster have been playing together as Medford's Black Record Collection for about a year and a half, and in that time, Knoxville's had some difficulty in pinning down MBRC's sound. "A lot of people call us bluegrass," Davis explains, "And there's definitely a bluegrass shade to what we do, but we're not strictly bluegrass." "It's Americana, whatever that means," Foster offers. When pressed to define what it means to him, Foster quips, "Well, Americana is Latin for ‘not on the radio.' That's a direct translation." To the contrary, MBRC is in rotation on local radio stations WDVX (102.9 and 105.9 in Knoxville) and WUTK (90.3), and even ranked on WIVK's (107.7) most requested Americana chart.
Davis goes on to say: "Between the two of us (Davis and Foster)—and I know people say this all the time—we've got influences from everything: jazz, classical, rock'n'roll, true bluegrass." He's not exaggerating—Davis fronted a heavy metal band prior to co-founding Medford's.
Apart from one class Davis took in college, neither musician has any formal vocal or instrument training. But according to Foster, "We'll play anything [on stage] we've touched a couple of times." All told, they play guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro and harmonica, frequently passing instruments back and forth during shows. And they've got no intention of breaking from their self-taught musical explorations any time soon. Davis hopes to pick up piano again (he played when he was younger), and Foster says, "We had a smattering of accordion at one point." But it's hard to tell if he's serious.
The guys recently added another instrument—and a new bandmate—to the roster. Clint Mullican has joined MBRC on the upright bass. Evidently, he's also proficient on guitar and piano, and he can sing. After a year of searching, it seems as if Medford's has found a musician who'll fit right in. (At the time of the interview, Mullican had not yet played a show with MBRC. By press time, however, he's had a couple successful turns.)
Fitting that they found their missing piece in Mullican, a University of Tennessee student, as Davis and Foster met almost 10 years ago in the hallways of the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house at UT. While in college, Davis and Foster both took turns in a cover band called Squirrel Corn, and later, Squirrel Corn Revival (no joke), but never at the same time. It wasn't until they became roommates several years later that they worked on original music together, and specifically, on their first record, The Flattville Murder Album.
Flattville, which Medford's self-released last year, is a critically acclaimed concept album: a series of songs strung together to tell a single story. The idea came to them when they were sitting around, playing some Goo Goo Dolls chords. They thought they'd write a murder ballad to the chords "just for contrast." The story that they imagined turned out to be too involved for one song, so they planned a trilogy, which ultimately evolved into an entire album.
For the most part, Davis and Foster write songs (both music and lyrics) separate from one another, which was a challenge when composing a concept album. Davis elaborates: "We had an outline of the story. There were a few events that had to happen. And we had a few characters to go off of. We both wrote a couple of songs, pretty much independently of one another. And that started framing out the storyline. We had a beginning, a middle, and an end, so we just had to link all these things together. We were figuring out what events deserve a whole song and what events should be linked together back and forth through the lyrics, musical references… It was kind of piecemeal."
But the cohesiveness of both the narrative and the aesthetic of the songs is a testament to their chemistry as musicians. And other than an appearance by Will Barnes on piano on one track, Davis and Foster played everything you'll hear on Flattville.
That won't be the case for their upcoming recording sessions, however. Medford's (the trio) will be heading back to the recording studio in March. This time around, they're hoping to bring some friends with them. On the list of possible contributors are local talents Brendon James Wright, Roman Reese, Duke Brown, Daniel Kimbro, Sam Lewis, Tricia Gene Brady, and John Puckett. MBRC is looking forward to more instrumentation on this record, which will include drums and, of course, bass. They've got about 12 songs written and ready to lay down. And as winners of Preservation Pub's 2006 singer/songwriter contest, they received some cash and recording time at Don Coffey, Jr.'s studio. "That's the only way we're able to do this so soon," Davis says.
So, another murder ballad album? Not so, says Foster. "This one's going to be a little more jungle-slash-crunk. Naw, I'm just kidding. I stole that from [local musician] Johnny Sexton actually. It's on his MySpace page. He's got ‘Americana/Jungle/Crunk' as his style." Maybe some of that flavor will find its way onto the yet-untitled record: "This album might venture a little more into some rockabilly sounds just for the fact that we'll have some drums and bass in it," Davis says. "But it'll still have that folk element, one or two grassy ones… I don't know; I can't tell if this one'll sound like the last one or not. The songwriting will be different. The last one was a concept album and this one's not."
MBRC's departure from the murder ballads will be dramatic; Davis hints, "There's actually love songs on this one. And coal-mining town-based songs, real folksy stuff. And personal songs: heartbreak songs, some country songs about people who've left an impact…." What will remain the same is the band's attention to song structure, arrangement, and lyric writing.
Medford's songs are stories you'd read if you couldn't hear them sung. Each one, new and old, is an exploration of passion, from murderous rage to complicated love: But right now I just want for you to know/ That you're the one who can choose to stop lying in the thorns/ All I can do is tell you the truth when you say it's night instead of day/ If you think you've lost so much good, then don't throw the rest away. And in each song, in the music and the lyrics, there's an inherent complexity and sense of adventure, like you'd expect from reading a new book by your favorite author.
The new songs are already in MBRC's live performance set lists. "If someone were to catch a show, they'd hear the whole album," Foster says. And their schedule includes plenty of opportunity for fans to do just that. They play regularly all around town, including a biweekly gig at Patrick Sullivan's Backroom BBQ. Moreover, they've thrown their hats in the ring to play a handful of regional festivals, and have already been booked for Bristol's Rhythm & Roots in September.
Medford's live performances are unlike any other you'll see in Knoxville. "There's lots of sequins," Foster jokes. "And pyrotechnics," adds Davis. In actuality, neckties and cowboy boots are the uniform, and the shows are less of a spectacle than you might expect. "People [at live performances] are probably wondering where the hell the rest of the band is," Davis says, "'cause when we play, there's just two people up there, and there's all these instruments spread out behind us because we have to switch off on everything. So there's seven instruments sitting around us, and only two people playing. We work hard to try to fill out the songs to make 'em interesting, and not get anybody bored with just watching two guys up there.
"We've worked in some other odd instrumentation, too, like the tambourine and harmonica. The max we can do right now is four instruments at the same time. That's pushing it for two guys—and while singing harmonies. It's not a flashy show."
"We do what we do," adds Foster.
And it's true. Every now and then, you find a band that has no agenda other than writing great songs . Like their shows, MBRC's sound isn't experimental in the ethereal sense, though it is unique. They are unpretentious people playing accessible music, yet their creativity and versatility are astounding.
And though Medford's can't be summed up adequately by any one traditional musical style, they aren't some hyphenated mutation of genres—like alt-country or grass-rock—either. Those words just don't cover it any more than they'd describe the music industry in general. No, it takes stories of language.
And for Medford's Black Record Collection, it's a story that's to be continued.