Semi Charmed Kind of Life: Part 1

for Lynne

“One rainstick is a novelty, but TWO rainsticks… that’s a statement!” I thought to myself proudly, standing on a corner in downtown Knoxville with enough drums and percussion to hang Neil Peart’s head in embarrassment. We were loading up a rented trailer to go to Nashville for the recording of “Hard to Please”, the Black Lillies’ fourth studio album. As any young drummer who discovers the trash can lid overdub on Steely Dan’s “Josie”, or reads about Wilco’s Glenn Kotche contact miking a fruit basket can tell you, it is essential to have all sonic possibilities at your disposal. In light of this knowledge, I had dutifully spent the prior two weeks tapping and tuning every drum, cymbal, pot, pan, bell, and whistle in my possession, determined not to be caught with my percussive pants down on my first major session. Cruz, who with an electric Nord, Fender Rhodes, 700 pound upright piano, and something called a “Farfisa” could have been auditioning for Yes, had little room for comment and silently helped me pack my gear.

Three hours and one time zone later, we made it to Nashville, pulling into the House of Blues recording complex a little before sundown. On the fence surrounding the studios, a painted pantheon of musical legends greeted our arrival; Patsy Cline, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and many more, bold and brilliantly rendered by the same artist who would later create our own album’s artwork. The murals provided a humbling reminder of the studios’ past and continued legacy of excellence; later in the week I would memorably spot producer T-Bone Burnett, on break from recording in one of the buildings, smoking a cigarette in front of his own likeness painted on the fence. Several years earlier, our own room of choice, Studio D, had been loaded onto a truck and transported up I-40 from Memphis, having previously produced records for artists ranging from the Bar-kays to Matchbox 20.

I was momentarily struck dumb by the enormity of the opportunity before us, but my reflection was short lived. Ryan, our producer, popped his head out of the Studio D door. “Come on in gang,” he beamed. “I’ll give you the tour.”

Ryan couldn’t help but make you a little nervous if you had purchased an album of popular music in the past forty years. His father, David Hewitt’s, engineering credits read like a who’s who of my early musical education; Pearl Jam’s “Ten”, Pink Floyd’s “The Delicate Sound of Thunder”, and MJQ’s “The Complete Last Concert” being particularly influential. Similarly, Ryan’s work with The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, MGMT, and the Avett Brothers provided the popular music backdrop to much of my collegiate experience. As I type these words in a Knoxville coffee shop, a Peppers song Ryan engineered comes on the stereo. The funky crack of the snare drum is familiar; we used the exact same one on “Hard to Please”.

Despite his formidable pedigree and extensive resume, in person Ryan was friendly and engaged, his relaxed demeanor belying a considerable work ethic. We already had a brief but intimate history with him; in the second of two pre-production rehearsals weeks prior, two of our five band members had announced their resignation. Ryan, unfazed, immediately started placing calls for studio replacements, instilling confidence in us despite the great loss.

The story of the following two weeks leading up to the recording session has become as close to lore as our band of limited repute can claim; a songwriter at a crossroads, with half a band and a ticking clock, and the fortuitous, freak East Tennessee snow storm that forced him into an unprecedented time of seclusion and creativity. It is a fine tale, and one I could write about at length, having been a fly on the wall for much of this prolific period. However, for those who have read any press releases about the band in the past two years, this story is as familiar and documented as “From the ashes of a band and marriage, in the rickety cab of an East Tennessee stone truck…”

Instead, I will focus on a relatively unknown event in the creation of “Hard to Please”, when I left a small, but indelible mark on a recording from one of the 1990’s most celebrated bands….

To be continued……

Broadway Laundromat

Old and toothless, cold and rankled
Pot leaf tattooed, on her ankle
The woman lifts a full clothes bin
And drags upon her vapor pen.
A younger gal, about my age
Fumes and folds in silent rage
She’s flushed and pink, a shirt she wears
Says “F*** off, Nobody cares”.
A tan young boy watches TV
Shrieking, screaming violently
What makes this little kid so scared?
A talking sponge, whose pants are squared.
The wildest washer that I saw
Brandished a lacy, purple bra
Her boyfriend paused, then looked away
Said “Mi amor, yo no se!”
My Spanish weak, but I infer
That bra did not belong to her.

A poem and a half story by Bowman Townsend