Way back in the mid-1990s, Mic Harrison was working in a sawmill and playing guitar in a string of unsuccessful cover bands in West Tennessee. He could occasionally fit his original songs into a set list, but mostly he was acting as a human jukebox, cranking out classic-rock hits in dive bars and nightclubs. The closest he had come to any sort of break was when a Knoxville band called the Viceroys started playing his song "Sooner or Later" in their live sets.
"They were all shitty," Harrison says of his early bands. "Mainly cover bands. I'd try to slide my stuff in every once in a while—‘Sooner or Later' is an old West Tennessee song. That's kind of what I was doing."
In 1996, after the Viceroys changed their name to the V-Roys and Harrison had been recruited to replace founding member John Paul Keith, "Sooner or Later" appeared on the V-Roys' first album, Just Add Ice. The song represented the band's near-perfect balance of pop hooks, Telecaster twang, and brawny classic rock. But even though the album's liner notes give the full band songwriting credits, Harrison's distinctive style—big harmonies, bigger melodies, and a hazy pop romanticism—is apparent on "Sooner or Later" and a handful of other songs on Just Add Ice, like "Guess I Know I'm Right" and "No Regrets."
"I wouldn't write country songs," Harrison says. "I was trying to write pop songs. As a matter of fact, when I was a kid, or in my teens, I hated country music. It took me a while to get into the old stuff."
The country influence he absorbed in the V-Roys made its way into Harrison's songwriting and guitar playing after the band broke up in 1999, even during a brief stint in Knoxville indie/power-pop/punk outfit Superdrag. When he hooked up with local rockers the High Score (which currently consists of guitarists Robbie Trosper and Chad Pelton, bassist Vance Hillard, and drummer Brad Henderson) as his official backing band in 2004, he pushed the group in a direction that stretched the High Score's punky pop-rock experience. The 2007 album Right Side of the Grass, in particular, was nearly a straight-up country album, from its Waylon Jennings-and-Willie Nelson-inspired cover art to its subject matter (drinking, in several cases).
That's changed on Harrison and the High Score's new album, Still Wanna Fight, set for local release this weekend, with national distribution to follow in July. Harrison and company's rural roots show through, but the songwriting and production tilt toward classic power pop and old-fashioned '70s and '80s radio rock.
"To me, it's kind of a natural progression with the High Score," Harrison says of the new album. "Once I forced them into doing country stuff, they loved country. But they're really good at the rock. I was going into this thinking I'd make a power-pop record. It doesn't matter—any words that come out in my voice, it's going to sound kind of country. But we went into it trying to make a rock record. We've done the honky-tonk thing, we've done the country stuff, we'll probably do an acoustic record at some point, but we didn't do a really good rock record until this one."
The new disc was recorded at Scott Minor's studio over four days last winter. The result is an urgent, energized collection that runs just 40 minutes and never lets off the gas.
"I think the last record I did live—just get everybody in the room and play—was Just Add Ice," Harrison says. "And that's the way we did this record; we all got in the same room and just played it, minimal overdubs. I think it shows."
The title comes from the chorus of the closing track, "The Colonel Is Dead," about the Fort Pillow Massacre in West Tennessee during the Civil War. In the song, the phrase is attributed to a group of black Union soldiers who refused to surrender to Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. But Harrison says the same sentiment applies to his band after years on the road.
"We're still enjoying what we're doing, going out and playing" he says. "We're not the youngest band in the world anymore, but we still want to do this because we love it."