The junkyardmen beat back the blues with a new album and a sponsorship deal.
By Mark Jordan
AUGUST 2, 1999: You don't become a blues musician to get rich.
The expectations for record sales are about one-tenth those for rock releases. And you never see blues bands playing sold-out arena tours. No, blues musicians have to sweat out a living on the road, playing hundreds of juke joints, fern bars, and festivals each year in exchange for beer, dinner, and enough cash to get them home.
"It's just survival," says the junkyardmen's Billy Gibson of his group's long-term goals. "After that I guess it's first and foremost to make good music."
On both those points the junkyardmen (the "j" is deliberately lower-case) are doing pretty well for themselves. Together just two years, the four-man band is preparing to release its second CD, Keep On Workin'. In addition, the band has just signed a sponsorship deal with Budweiser beer, beating out several other applicants to win the sponsorship, which, while it won't put the guys in limos, has already helped them buy new equipment and a touring van. Budweiser will also help the band promote its shows in other markets and will have them play certain company-sponsored events.
"Actually, except for the van, all I've gotten out of it so far has been free beer, which ain't bad," Gibson says. "But then the deal really hasn't started yet."
The junkyardmen and Budweiser will christen their relationship this Saturday with a CD-release party at the New Daisy. More than just a party, however, the show is also a fund-raiser for the Bud Jammin' For Education program. Money raised from T-shirt sales and a silent auction will go to the Memphis Urban League's Scholarship Fund, which helps local teens pay for college.
For the four guys who make up the junkyardmen Gibson on harmonica, drummer John Scalici, guitarist Jesse Hoggard, and bassist Kevin Sheahan the making of Keep On Workin' was an education in itself. The band's first release, Scrapheap Full Of Blues, was recorded shortly after the band formed and was mostly made up tunes Scalici had written before coming to the band.
"The first record was about us being loud," Gibson says. "We basically brought our live show into the studio and played. We didn't do anything to make it radio-friendly."
On the new record, the junkyardmen decided to focus on performing as a cohesive unit.
"At the end of the last album I said, 'Let's have a friendly competition. Let's all write songs and just let the best songs be the ones we play. And Jesse just came on strong," says Gibson.
Hoggard wrote six of Keep On Workin's 12 tracks and co-wrote Gibson's favorite track, the slow blues "It's Gonna Be All Right," which features the soulful organ work of Al Gamble, a frequent collaborator with the band. Hoggard also brought in the album's only cover song, a previously unrecorded tune called "Arkansas Razorback" by Marion "Doc Tomato" Oliver, whom Hoggard used to back up in his native Little Rock. Wisely, the band hopes to release "Arkansas Razorback" as a single in time for college football season.
"I know it sounds like a cliche, but this time we really went in to play for the song, whereas before we were just flexing our musical muscles," says Gibson of the newfound emphasis on stripped-down playing and song composition. "[Producer Jim Gaines] was great about helping us do that, pointing out that some of the things we did live worked fine there but they don't make much sense in the studio. The most exciting thing about [the making of the record] was getting to work with Jim. Ever since I got to town I've been watching him and wanting to get a chance to work with him."
Besides playing with the junkyardmen, Gibson, who moved here from Jackson, Mississippi, has made a name for himself as a producer, sideman, and solo artist. His production credits include the first junkyardmen record, the first C.Y.C. disc, and his own solo record, which showcases the harp blower indulging his first musical love jazz. In fact, all the members of the junkyardmen have their roots in musical styles apart from blues. Scalici was the drummer in the Alabama jam-rock band Gravy, Hoggard played rock as well as blues in Little Rock, and Sheahan studied jazz at the University of Memphis. But in the junkyardmen, the four have found a comfortable way of combining their different tastes into a blues-based stock.
"I almost want to call this record modern-day Memphis rock-and-roll," Gibson says. "It's got blues, but it's definitely not a stone-cold blues record. And it's got Al Gamble playing organ, so it's a little of that Memphis soul, too. I've come up playing with a lot of blues guys in Mississippi, but I've never considered myself a bluesman because that's just not my life experience. Basically, we've all got such different backgrounds, and they just kind of come together to make something else entirely. Like building a car out of spare parts you find in a junkyard."
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