It’s 11:14 p.m., March 25, at the Slow Bar, and Green Rode Shotgun have just begun their set with “Into the Light.” Drummer Don Sergio hammers away while guitarists Shea Callahan and Dave Henderson strum madly on the flanks of the stage. Bassist John Lane stands stock-still while hunched singer Jason Johnson clings to the microphone stand and rocks back and forth. All conversation in the room has stopped, in part because Green Rode Shotgun are making a racket and in part because the band’s teetering-on-the-brink-of-explosion style is so magnetic.
Green Rode Shotgun are at the first big crossroads of their career. The band’s members all are in their late 20s or early 30s, and all are veterans of other bands. They’ve been together in their current configuration for a year-and-a-half (after a few fits and starts that included the death of their original drummer, Jon Wells), and they’ve had a successful run. They gig regularly in Middle Tennessee and, lately, in venues across the Southeast. They made a well-received EP and have just self-released their first full-length disc, Bang!.
Getting to the next stage won’t be easy, but at least the band have a method, which starts with how they make music. Green Rode Shotgun develop their songs during their practices, with each member contributing to the process. The band play “for feel,” and when they hit a block, they decide together where to go next. Johnson says they know when they’re onto something because “it’s like an old acoustic guitar.... When you tune it, you can tell, because the strings resonate. It’s used to being in tune.” Sergio adds that they’ve learned to “trust the process.” If he disagrees with the majority, he tells himself, “They’ve all got good taste, so I’m probably wrong.”
The result is a sound informed by R.E.M., Crazy Horse, The Pixies, The Clash, The Who and all manner of cracked-pop visionaries. And it emerges from as satisfying a work environment as any of the band’s members can remember. Ever since they formed and picked a name (which comes from a sentence in a Marilyn Monroe biography), they’ve been focused on playing, writing, getting better and getting heard.
That last step is tricky, because it involves surviving in a scene where there’s so much music and the audience can be fickle about getting out to support local artists. Rock bands have grumbled for years about Nashville’s “numbness” to new music and about how hard it is to land a gig, but the guys in GRS say it’s mostly a matter of indifference, not malice. Some club bookers, they say, just don’t respond to demo discs from local acts anymore. They only want to know where the band have played before, and how many people showed up.
Green Rode Shotgun attribute what success they’ve had to a few local scenesters who gave them a break. The first was Mike Grimes, who listened to the band’s EP and booked them to play the Slow Bar. Fred Epps at Blue Sky Court offered GRS a similar opportunity, while former publicist Debi Gilley put GRS’ EP into the hands of the local media.
Capitalizing on these breaks, the band made plans for their first LP, looking to draw on the promotional force of a record label, indie or major. GRS also talked with local producer Jay Joyce, who has helped an increasing number of young acts create a polished and punchy guitar-rock sound. The collaboration never panned out; according to Joyce, GRS are “a good band...but I didn’t think they were ready.”
The upside of GRS’ brief association with Joyce was that he asked them to work up new material, which they did, writing furiously and coming up with the songs they recorded with Brian Carter for Bang! The band are hoping the record will elevate them to the next tier of Nashville acts, with the likes of The Shazam and Josh Rouse and Lambchop. The question is whether they’re really on that talent level, or if talent even matters.
Bang! has its flaws, including a samey tone: Nearly every song is a feverish, angular rocker with a semi-martial beat. “If you write constantly, you fall into patterns unconsciously,” Callahan says, aware that GRS have to fight hard to avoid this trap. Sergio adds that the band’s democratic writing style and live recording methods can make their music a little sloppy. “I can only play the drums as good as I can,” he says.
In individual doses, though, the songs on Bang! are alive with personality. When I played the album for a few critics, the response was respectful. One wrote, “I liked it, but it seems like the kind of thing that would actually benefit from a coat of production polish. The raw materials are therethe songs are pretty instantly recognizable the second time aroundbut I’m finding myself wishing the mix sparkled a little bit more.”
But isn’t raw “in” these days? Drew Murray (my uncle) has been an A&R man since the ’70s and is currently a senior vice president at Sanctuary, an umbrella imprint for the distribution of indie releases. Asked whether the industry is chasing rawer, more offbeat acts in the wake of The White Stripes, Hives and Strokes, he says, “The overall blueprint hasn’t changed. When something new comes along, everyone jumps at it like lemmings, and then everyone gets bored.” He adds that while he thinks that “new rock” is still on an upswing, “The Hives ruined it.... We overhyped them.” Which only makes it harder for bands like Green Rode Shotgun to get attention.
Back onstage at Slow Bar, it’s 11:36, and Green Rode Shotgun are launching into their last song of the night, “As Pieces Fall.” It starts as a sort of stun-ray punk ballad and ends in semi-psychedelic cacophony, with Johnson moaning blankly into his mic while Sergio takes over the lead, singing, “I heard it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.”
When their short set ends, the guys tear down, hauling their stuff to their vehicles while accepting the congratulations of the crowd. Green Rode Shotgun are going their own way right now, hoping to advance, but unwilling to sign just anything for the luxury of having someone else worry about their future for a year or two. Henderson and Sergio have gone that route before; never again, they say.
GRS’ manager Tige Casey returns to the idea of trusting the process. “It would be impossible for R.E.M. not to have made it,” he says. The hope for Green Rode Shotgun is that Casey’s statement is as true now as it was 20-odd years ago.
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