Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Songs For Emily

The latest from the Pawtuckets is a bittersweet elegy to the then and now.

By Mark Jordan

AUGUST 24, 1998:  It wouldn’t be entirely fair to call Rest Of Our Days, the new album from Memphis Americana band the Pawtuckets, a haunted record; that word implies a melancholia that this disc – full of rocking rhythms and soaring melodies – just doesn’t have.

But still, a close listen reveals a cycle of songs soaked in longings for people, places, and times that are simply no more, from the lost love of the album’s opener, “Blackberry Winter,” to memories of good times with a best friend in the title and final track. And these images are further draped in youthfully idyllic images of the country, such as the peaceful meadow of “Shade” or the stage for young love in “Mississippi Parking Lot.”

But to friends and fans of the band, one song on the album is more haunted than the others – “Song For Emily” written by guitarist Mark McKinney for his wife, who died last summer of heart problems. The track was written and recorded in less than two weeks, a fast pace that typifies Rest Of Our Days which was cut in a single weekend soon after Emily’s death.

“I took a few weeks off and then we played the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival in late July,” McKinney says. “Finally, it was just time to record or crack up. So, I called [co-producers] Posey Hedges and Paul Ebersold and the guys and said let’s go. Let’s do it.”

The resulting sessions at Ardent Studios, though fast-paced, were nevertheless understandably intense for the band.

“Just going in the studio with my best friends and bandmates and cutting those songs – the floodgates just opened,” says lead guitarist Kevin Cubbins.

“‘Song For Emily’ was really the hardest song for us to do,” adds McKinney. “I was real impressed with the guys. There was one take that after we finished I realized I’d forgotten part of a verse, and I was ready to just let it go. But the guys just picked right up and did it again even though it had been so tough on everyone.”

That experience is typical for these band members, who seem to prefer to communicate their most personal thoughts and feelings through music. In fact, it was the personal vision of each other’s songwriting that first drew the Pawtuckets’ principal writers, McKinney and keyboardist/guitarist Andy Grooms, to each other three years ago.

“We were both playing the coffeehouse circuit as solos.… We both liked each other’s songs and thought, why not put a band together?” McKinney recalls. “I’ll never forget. One of the first songs I heard Andy play was called ‘Picnic In A Cemetery.’ I always thought that was the weirdest subject for a song until I did it two months ago [on the anniversary of Emily’s death].”

The death of Emily McKinney is just the best-known and most tragic of the changes – both good and bad – that have hit the band since the recording of their first record, Cloud 9 Ranch, two years ago.

“We’ve grown up a lot since the last record,” says Cubbins. “These songs are more developed, more mature.”

Another change has occurred within the band itself. Like the fictional metal band Spinal Tap, the Pawtuckets continue to be plagued by high drummer turnover. Best Of Our Days features Meyer Horn, the group’s second drummer (unless you count one drunken night at the Oasis with this writer behind the kit). But beating the skins when the Pawtuckets take the stage at Elvis Presley’s Memphis Friday to celebrate the new album’s release will be veteran drummer Anthony Barrasso.

“I don’t feel like I’m replacing anybody,” says Barrasso, who previously had played in such bands as Bury the Bone and the Trust. “I feel like live we are creating our very own vibe that’s unlike anything else, including the record. On stage is where we do some of our best stuff.”

Bassist Mark Stuart agrees but also credits the band’s two songwriters with giving them great material to work with.

“I’ve heard everything there is to hear in this ‘Americana’ movement,” says Stuart, who with Cubbins hosts a weekly country and rock show called Hard Korn on WEVL-FM 90. “And I swear my three favorite writers in the whole genre are Steve Earle, Mark McKinney, and Andy Grooms. … I think anybody who listens to this record is going to like it. It’s just so raw and real.”

McKinney puts it another way: “Anybody who has ever had somebody who was that perfect person and who they loved and who loved them back and they took all that for granted, needs to listen to this record.”

And who, unfortunately, doesn’t fit that bill?

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