"Once I get up there and start playing, it's like crawling into the cockpit of a Tie Fighter," says Jon Worley, frontman of the shoeless, hillbilly-and-proud-of-it Cornbred Blues Band, an agglomeration of bluegrass, funk and a near-lethal dose of corn liquor. "Got instruments everywhere, everything's crazy. I don't know what's going on. I ain't got a clue. Just get on that horse and ride. Where we're gonna go, we don't know. But we're gonna have fun getting there.
"I want to fulfill the same function that a shaman would in an agrarian society," he goes on. "I put the bells and the whistles on, and crawl up in a hole in the mountains by myself and have my visions, write it down and bring it back down to the people."
Worley claims to have died several times throughout his life, intense spiritual deaths, the result of those moments in life when you first begin to take a real look at yourself, only to find vast, empty tundra, frozen to the core. "I got in my rabbit," Worley explains, "drove 280 miles to Kentucky, lived in a hole until I got my shit straightened in my head, got it straight enough to try to get up and walk on."
That's when the journey began to take focus. The kid who once held the juvenile arrest record in Morristown—the kid who was raised by his grandfather, who came from a long line of Southern Baptist preachers—finally found his ministry. It may not be the path that straightedge preacher-men would've picked for him, but it's a path that allows him to find that sweet moment of spiritual peace, smack between Dionysian excess and Apollonian introspection. Yang and Yin, man. Yang and Yin.
"We found eternity," Worley sings. "We were dancing naked." It's one of those deceptively simple lines, stripped bare, sung over unapologetically unornamented rhythms, backed by a clear, understated flute, like a medieval pastoral ballad—like a psalm, maybe. This is yet another one of Worley's corn-bred spiritual exercises, the hope being that his music will allow audiences to experience some form of shared consciousness. "It's eternal," Worley explains, "and it's never going to happen the way it's happening then. It's the most supreme feeling of being alive, to know that you're so connected to somebody else, that you don't have to think, it just is."
And least that's how the band will explain it, as its members attempt to piece together Tennessee's musical heritage, strip it down, and make it psychedelic at the same time. "Have you ever read any of that Quaker literature?" Worley asks, quite unexpectedly. "Go up to Gilford Community College. It's a cool place. I got stranded there one winter. Some 22-year old lesbian chick gave me a Bible called The Beatitudes of Christianity, which connected beatniks and preaching. It flipped my big chicken. And, many trips of LSD later, here we go."
Somewhere along the line, after months of begging Manhattan's to let him play his solo gig, Worley has found the right musical combination. He now takes care of the acoustic guitar, harmonica, keyboard, tambourine and vocals, backed by Daniel Broaderick's electric-slide guitar. Then there are the guys who're able to give Worley's songs a full-bodied, olden roar, beats that speak through generations and genres. Shaggy grounds it with his bass thumps. Zac Manley keeps things together with a well-timed, cadenced drumbeat. And Daniel Lancaster brings the brass, playing the tenor sax like a down-home Coleman Hawkins. The Cornbred Blues sound can be experimental, as Worley is apt to speak through an old, beat-up microphone, fuzzed-out with all the distortion his amps can muster, warping his voice into a gritty, guttural Peter Framptonian wail.
There may be layers to the sound when the band comes together for a prolonged jam session. But no matter how far out or acid-fried it may get at times, the music is always countrified, always backed by a simple philosophy.
"I wrote a paper called 'Materialistic Self-assessment Is the Cancer of the Self.' Had three footnotes in it: Buddha, Jesus and Kierkegaard," Worley says, adding: "I'm real big on the 11th Commandment. Love thy neighbor as thyself. If you know that, then you're not going to rob your neighbor, because you know he's a funk soul brother. You ain't gonna covet thy neighbors wife, because you know that funk soul sister's your funk soul brother's mate."
Worley wants to take his band into a bar in the middle of the night, because people who are drinking liquor and beer are usually doing it for the same reasons that other people wake up on Sunday mornings for church. "If you wanna know God, close your eyes," Worley says, "because you're a slice of divinity pie." Sometimes it's that simple.