Guitarist Browan Lollar had just left the band of one rising star, Jason Isbell, to strike out on his own in 2012. But immediately after releasing his debut EP, For the Givers and the Takers, Lollar found himself quickly changing directions again when he was invited to join St. Paul and the Broken Bones. He quickly put his ambitions for a solo career on hold. For Lollar, it was a no-brainer; he had always wanted to play in a full-fledged soul band.
"You can't just start a soul band. You've got to have a singer," Lollar says. "And you have to have a phenomenal singer."
Paul Janeway, St. Paul and the Broken Bones' lead singer, fits the bill. When Lollar heard Janeway sing, he knew immediately he had to be a part of the band.
"I was like, okay, I'm dropping everything and doing this," he says.
The Birmingham-based band just released its debut album, Half the City (Thirty Tigers). It captures the essence of classic soul and would sound right at home in the Stax catalog. Lollar says the band is inspired by classic soul music but doesn't want to be a retro band.
"We talk a lot about how soul music in the late '70s through the '90s got really slick, production-wise, and went in a different direction," he says. "It dissolved into keyboard R&B. We don't want this thing that sounds old, but with our record, we went in and recorded it live. There's only, like, eight or nine overdubs. We wanted to pick up where soul music left off in the late '70s."
St. Paul—a playful take on its lead singer's name—is a seven-piece band, featuring bass, guitar, drums, keyboard, trumpet, and trombone. Just as soul music evolved out of gospel traditions, both Janeway and Lollar grew up in devout Southern families. Janeway was raised in a Pentecostal church in Chelsea, Ala., and was groomed to be a preacher—a plan he didn't abandon until he was 18. He heard very little secular music as a kid but found a musical outlet singing at church, and he sings with an intensity that borders on religious fervor.
Lollar's background is similar. He was born at Fort Sanders Hospital and raised in Clinton and Oak Ridge. His family was Southern Baptist, and most of the music Lollar heard as a kid was gospel.
"It was mainly piano and organ music and choir. It was all gospel standards," he says, adding that he felt a connection to the music and embraced it. "Gospel was really important to my dad. I didn't feel like I was doing it right unless I was feeling it."
Lollar came from a musical family—his grandfather was big fan of George Jones and Conway Twitty. Family gatherings usually turned into jam sessions, as the family broke out the guitars and banjo to play bluegrass. Lollar is so grounded in music he can't even remember a time when he didn't play. He guesses that he began playing mandolin and banjo when he was around 4 years old. When Lollar was still a kid, he and his family moved to Muscle Shoals, Ala., and his musical education continued.
A legendary breeding ground for Southern soul music, Muscle Shoals has only a handful of restaurants and bars, Lollar says. But every one of them features amazing live music.
"At the time, I just thought it was normal," he says. "Once I started performing around the country, that's when I found out it wasn't normal. You didn't have that many great players in one town."
It's easy to see why Lollar would have been sold on Janeway's singing. He's an intensely emotive singer, without sounding overwrought or bombastic. His voice is reminiscent of some of the soul greats, particularly Southern ones like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Lollar says the band is best experienced live—their shows typically start out energetic, slow down for some of what he describes as the "more heartfelt songs," then careen off again. Lollar says Janeway's energy in live shows is infectious, inspiring the band to keep pace.
"Paul's got so much energy and charisma on stage, you want to be able to match it and give him something to feed on," he says. "That's the interesting exchange we've got going on. But when the crowd gets into it, there's an exchange of energy that I've never really experienced before. It's really fun. … People love soul music."