Turns out, there’s a lot of overlap between my favorite contenders and those of my colleagues. That’s only natural, as a good portion of us are peers, but it did mean that my list got whittled down pretty damn quick. As has been accurately pointed out, the Aughts are far from the only time that we’ve had a strong non-country scene; several of our entries have reached back to the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and today’s the day I join in with some striking cuts from the Mid-State of Yesteryear(s), even if they weren’t so very long ago.
There’s a reason that the bands who moved through Spongebath Records’ ranks get mentioned a lot in this series: They combined songwriters and players who have both skill and ingenuity, helping the artists (if not always the bands) long outlive the label’s implosion. Until recently, I was unaware that that the label had an unofficial theme song: “Hey, Lou.” This paranoiac, Pavement-y nugget was written by the multi-talented Sam Baker, who was in a long-lost band called Speake at the time; he got his start in a hardcore punk group called F Particles, and would go on to drum for Fluid Ounces, Lambchop and Jon Spencer’s Heavy Trash. “Hey, Lou” was reinterpreted by almost every band on the Spongebath label (see the multiple versions above, including an all-star take from 2011), though it was generally agreed that The Features’ arrangement was the best, combining Matt Pelham’s frustrated teakettle scream, a distinctive half-speed funk beat and Radiohead-y Theremin squawks from keymaster Parrish Yaw.
Mike Grimes wasn’t always the namesake partner of a badass record store and its adjacent club, or a key sideman to Guilty Pleasures. Like so many of the rest of us, he wanted to play. In The Bis-Quits, he got his chance, playing bass with drummer Tommy Meyer and the twin guitars of Tommy Womack (post-Gov’t. Cheese) and Will Kimbrough. Womack and Kimbrough’s sly, Zappa-fied sense of humor shines throughout The Bis-Quits' one and only album, which came out on John Prine’s Oh Boy label, but it’s especially prominent on this seemingly innocent slice of sunny pop, a la “And Your Bird Can Sing,” that admonishes yuppies to lighten the hell up. The chorus is so catchy that you’re almost guaranteed to get caught singing it at work — and summarily be sent home, which is probably what you wanted in the first place, so go ahead and listen!
After Jason and the (Nashville) Scorchers blazed the trail for alt-Nashville bands into a major-label deal, plenty of attention was showered on the local non-country talent. Though several groups were signed, none broke through to the mainstream. Royal Court of China was one of those casualties, inking a deal with A&M that lasted for two albums. The group featured scene veteran Joe Blanton on guitar and vocals, Oscar Rice Jr. on lead guitar, Chris “Fuzz” Mekow on drums and Robert Logue on bass. They perfected an unusual mix of tough-guy hard rock and jangle-pop on “It’s All Changed,” the first single from their self-titled 1987 A&M debut. However, as is so often the case, band and label never met in the middle, and the group disbanded after one more record in 1989. There have been sporadic reunions, but the album and their pre-A&M EP are decidedly the best material. Blanton has continued as a local fixture, as has Logue, who did a stint with ethereal folk group The Shakers in the late ‘80s, and is currently the namesake partner in East Side haunt Logue’s Black Raven Emporium.
Practical Stylists, "Ralph"
In my research for this project, one of my most valuable resources has been nashville80srock.net, an archive curated by one Allen Sullivant that may provide the most complete document of that first alt boom. Goodies include a wealth of scanned fanzines, MP3s and videos of long-defunct bands that helped pave the path for the thriving non-country scene we have today. One of the bands that interested me the most was the group that Sullivant managed, Practical Stylists, which featured his brother Scott on bass and lead vocal, drummer Jim Hodgkins and guitarist David Russell. Their website's headline, "The Original Nashville Powerpop Band," is a little misleading; they've got stylistic ties to tight and fast British mod revivalists like The Jam, and an exploratory side like XTC. The group’s entire output, including a brief reincarnation with pop country/powerpop master Bill Lloyd as a collaborator, is available for streaming and purchase, and the fidelity is astonishing for a band that never had a major deal. The song that impressed me most was never released until the 2011 compilation Post-Script, a tightly-wound piece called “Ralph” that would make Andy Partridge green with envy.
The Ratz: Call It Quits
In the beginning, as it were, there was Phrank ‘N’ Stein’s, a short-lived club for musically inclined misfits, on West End Avenue below what is today the St. Mary’s Bookstore. Also in the beginning, there were The Ratz, who were frequently the entertainment at said punk hangout. The group, whose members would later disperse into Raging Fire, The Enemy and other seminal Nashville underground groups, performed what Scene chief Jim Ridley referred to as “ground-zero Nashville rock,” an amalgam of rock and pop flavors shaken up with a punk attitude. This nervy Ramones-inspired cut is among their best; the grating, awesomely off-kilter “Mental Block” comes a close second, but take a spin through all of them and you can see little glimmers of things to come.