Tom's Louisville music memories
This article appeared in the July 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com .
On a summer afternoon in ’93, I’m lying on the floor of a friend’s garage in La Grange, Ky., during band practice. My 15-year-old head is swimming in a cloud of reverb and feedback, feeling the electric rumble of hope in discovering and making music with friends, in finding a voice to express a whole host of feelings that I never knew were rattling around or had a thing to say. Oh, and I’m also filled with the electricity of an ancient, ungrounded PA system, my arms flapping like a hummingbird’s wings on the cold cement.
On Dixie Highway the summer before, in what now seems like a bizarre post-middle school rite of passage, I have my braces removed and convince my mom to help me buy my first bass guitar: a Sunburst P-bass copy of questionable construction. That night my dad’s LP collection becomes a playground library. CCR, Humble Pie and, of course, Led Zeppelin. The needle hits the groove and my brain is transformed into a mess of wires and gears. Every new sound completes a circuit and a new world is opened for me to explore. Completely unsure what role the bass guitar actually plays, my fingers fumble around those four strings, struggling all night to mimic Robert Plant’s voice.
Before the commonwealth of Kentucky would give me means to leave Oldham County on my own, my mom sacrificed perfectly good evenings supporting her son’s newfound obsession while waiting in the parking lot outside Tewligan’s on Bardstown Road or the Machine in St. Matthews for shows to let out. Some of the most memorable weekends were of Rodan, Hula Hoop, Falling Forward, Guilt and the countless other bands they formed, like a musical-chairs game. Being in the crowd those nights, hundreds of souls searching to be in the moment and free to let themselves feel, without judgment or hesitation, whatever they needed to — that connection, a chain of simultaneous reactions between the sea of kids and the bands onstage till it felt like the tide was crashing back and forth, both sides feeding off each other in a harmonious and cathartic way. It would inform me more about playing live than anything I’ve experienced since.
In high school my friends and I would stay up late, recording on jamboxes and borrowed four-tracks, regardless if anyone besides the band would listen. It was an important lesson in passion: to work something you love and are going to do without expecting anything from anyone outside of yourself and bandmates. Besides, we had no choice. There were all these things in our heads that we had to get out. There were new ways to play, more vocabulary for these new voices of ours, that we could only learn from playing together.
In 1998 my high school buddy Pat Nevins gives me a demo tape of his new band, Winter Death Club, who are looking for a guitar player. So after only two semesters, I drop out of U of L to manage a video store and play in the band that also includes Jim’s cousin, John McQuade, and J. Glenn. During a break rehearsing one evening that summer, J. hands me a cassette with Month of Sundays songs on side A and the mysteriously named “My Morning Jacket” on the flip side. I spend every night that summer obsessing over who the hell “Evelyn” is. (“Evelyn Is Not Real” is a song by MMJ.) WDC records a full-length record in Cincinnati that fall, do a short tour with Jim’s band Month of Sundays but slowly fizzle out before the album is released. Around this same time, Jim signs with San Francisco label Darla Records, who’ll release most of the My Morning Jacket demo tape I’ve been poring over for months. John and J. have been recording with Jim for the album but the band still has no bass player. Still unsure exactly what the bass guitar does, I immediately go out and buy the cheapest one I can afford and learn all the songs in the wrong key. Perhaps I owe a lot of my musical career to naivete, eagerness and the cassette tape.
Kentucky feels like it’s fought to create an identity of its own, not belonging to the many regions of the states it borders. Undoubtedly, through those formative years, the state’s unique circumstance inspired the way I created and experienced music. And every time I find myself back, lying on its soil, my head swimming in a cloud of countless creative individuals speaking enthusiastically about the hope of discovery and the joy of making something new and beautiful, I hear its voice rumbling with the electricity of an ancient soul, urging me, like the state itself, to never stop finding a voice of my own.
Photo: courtesy of Mickie Winters