Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Coming Back Around

Coleman prefers writing to rehash

By Ron Wynn

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  As local musician Wes Cunningham prepared for the release of his debut album, Warner Bros. Records sent an art director, a photographer, and a fleet of assistants from Los Angeles to Nashville. As might be expected, the crew arrived sporting outrageously chic finery and an aggressively artsy attitude.

Then there was Cunningham. Standing amid a whirlwind of activity, he appeared as if he'd accidentally wandered into the wrong crowd after changing someone's spark plugs. His face was clean-shaven, his hair trimmed high and tight. On his lanky frame, he wore a broken-in white T-shirt, slightly faded jeans, and athletic shoes. He stood as if waiting for someone to tell him what to do; instead, everyone scurried around him, making him uncomfortable. "They all looked cool and everything, and I felt like milk-and-cookies boy," Cunningham says.

In truth, they were all there to make him look good--or at least make him look compelling to young rock fans. For Cunningham, though, the event only underlined some of the insecurities he faces as he prepares to enter into the dicey sweepstakes of the modern entertainment world. He's afraid he's too sane and ordinary for rock 'n' roll.

"I consider myself really normal," he admits. "I know I'm creative. But underneath it, I'm just a goofball--a goofball going for my own crazy kind of sound."

Cunningham might worry about appealing to the fashion-obsessed dictators of the video generation, but there's no question that his music steps out in style. More than that, he pushes all the cutting-edge buttons currently in vogue in pop music. Cunningham's debut, 12 Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking, is a convincing artistic statement that sounds strikingly confident and developed for someone who's emerging with little advance hype--and from Nashville, no less.

For the last year or so, Cunningham has been developing his engagingly eccentric musical personality within the private confines of a recording studio. Along the way, he has forged a singular style of upbeat, grunge-free, pop-rock music.

"I want to get to as pure of a type of creativity as I can," he says, relaxing amid stacks of his own photography and artwork in the Green Hills home he shares with a friend. "I want to get to a point where it's like a kid sitting in a bathtub beating his hands on the water and singing whatever comes into his mind. I want the adult version of that."

One of the hallmarks of Cunningham's music is his profusion of ideas; like a collage artist, he combines a variety of sounds to create a commanding whole. A few fundamental themes run through his crazy-quilt arrangements: He loves monster guitar riffs, power-pop melodies, and lyrics that combine personal revelations with catchy phrases. But he yanks these classic rock themes into the '90s with Latin influences, quirky sonic effects, and offbeat rhythms.

Cunningham cites such disparate inspirations as Radiohead, Willie Nelson, Beck, and Lyle Lovett. And in the best possible way, it shows: He combines solid songwriting with modern studio advances and his own peculiar musical and lyrical slant. In this regard, he comes across as a Harry Nilsson for the end of the century: He's a pop classicist who embraces new technology, and he injects a bemused idiosyncrasy into his work.

"If you listen closely, my music isn't as happy as it sounds," he says. "Some of my lyrics are sarcastic and cynical. But I like to put the words to these cute, weird, fun songs. Most of the lyrics are dark, but the music isn't brooding. And I'm glad about that. I'm a pretty happy, joyful person, and that's the way the music sounds to me."

Indeed, he has no interest in the anguished themes and grim self-obsession of '90s rock. "My biggest pet peeve is rock stars who take themselves too seriously," says the boyish Cunningham, a dedicated runner and basketball player whose only vice is dipping snuff. "All those guys who are brooding and have all this angst--I don't know, maybe that's their personalities. It's not mine."

But while Cunningham comes across as amiable and modest, he deeply believes in his own talent. "I've always been into creating things," he says. "Growing up, nothing else really interested me, and I'm pretty much the same way now. I've always felt that I was going to make a living at music. But I'm not very good at promoting myself."

Growing up in Dallas, Cunningham says the options of his youth were limited. "In Texas, you're split into two camps. There are those who play football, and then there are those who don't. If you don't, you have to find something else to do. All my friends would play guitar and write. We'd sit on the porch and come up with songs. It was kind of a weird, creative environment. It's not like artsy-L.A. creative. It's more natural, more honest."

Among those who emerged out of his clique were Rhett Miller of the Old 97s and solo artist David Garza. Miller, he says, taught him new chords on the guitar. "We were all into folk music back then," he says.

While attending Christian-affiliated Baylor University, Cunningham modestly rebelled against his strict religious upbringing. Carousing with a group he describes as "cynical servants," Cunningham and his buddies hung out in rock clubs and drank beer--two normal college activities frowned upon by the fundamentalist Baylor constituency. "If you're in a conservative environment, you're going to want to push the boundaries," he says. "I've always carried a cynicism about the dynamics of the group, especially in church or school."

After college, Cunningham moved to Nashville to pursue music. While working as a tree cutter, he sought out contacts and passed around tapes. He almost gave up after a year. At first, the only interest came from an established Music Row producer, who wanted to transform him into a country singer and to have him concentrate on performing rather than writing his own songs.

The Texan was packing to return home when he received a call from Monroe Jones, a studio musician and producer who heard Cunningham's tape and liked it. Jones hooked the singer up with Whistler's Music, a publishing and production company primarily involved in creating advertising jingles. Cunningham worked on jingles six days a week, then spent evenings and Sundays concocting his own songs. His Warner Bros. debut was recorded at Whistler's Music Studios, with Jones and Chris Parker producing and Paul Evans and Steve Keller helping with electronic sampling and editing. "It's all happened very fast," he says.

Perhaps that's why he's so self-conscious, now that he has emerged from the studio into the bright glare of flashbulbs and stage lights. "I'm worried about fitting in because I'm not intrigued by the whole rock-scene vibe," he says, pausing to let tobacco juice drip from his lips to an upheld coffee cup. "My personal sensibilities are probably closer to those of a country artist. But when I get up and play, I'm definitely a rock star."

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