Ah-nold gets real, Shatner returns to space & dark Duggar Family secrets
FRIDAY, June 2 Searching for Soul Food The term “soul food” means different things to different people in different places. Celebrity chef Alisha Reynolds travels the world to experience this time-honored ethnic cuisine and its various regional and international incarnations (Apple TV+)
Shooting Stars Hoops fans will want to watch this original film, a dramatization of how LeBron James grew up to become a peerless basketball superstar (Peacock).
Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets Limited docuseries (below) exposes the dark secrets of abuse behind America’s infamous TV family (remember their reality show, 19 Kids and Counting?) and the radical, cult-like church in the background (Prime Video).
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Air is this year’s movie for people who say they don’t like sports movies, a feel-good flick that feels like a mashup of vibes from Jerry McGuire and Moneyball. The soundtrack is etched with deep-dish ‘80s grooves from Dire Straits, Violent Femmes, Mike & The Mechanics, Bruce Springsteen, Run-D.M.C, Squeeze and more, all woven into director-actor Ben Affleck’s true-story tale of how a third-tier shoe company launched the business of superstar sports marketing by lacing up a deal with basketball phenom Michael Jordan.
SATURDAY, June 3 TLC Forever Don’t go chasin’ waterfalls…. Instead, watch this two-hour documentary about the Atlanta-based female group (below) that led the way with their music, message and style in the 1990s, going on to sell more 85 million records (8 p.m., Lifetime and A&E).
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Jessica Lange: An Adventurer’s Heart (University Press of Kentucky) is author Anthony Uzarowski’s new deep-dive biography of the award-winning actress, covering her early years in Minnesota, her carefully guarded private life, and her fruitful partnership with playwright/actor Sam Shepard, which became one of Hollywood’s most tumultuous secretive relationships.
Ever since Moneyball, we’ve been much more savvy about how much the information age has shaped pro sports. In Game of Edges (W.W. Norton), author Bruce Schoenfeld goes even deeper for a fascinating inside look at how data analysis, tech and commercial considerations continue to reform the landscape of baseball, soccer, football, basketball and even gaming.
You know that filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have made some classic films, including Raising Arizona, O Brother, Where Art Thou and The Big Lebowski. Find out in The Coen Brothers and American Roots Music (McFarland) just how important the musical soundtracks have always been to their cinematic work.
SUNDAY, June 3 The Lazarus Project New drama series follows a recruit (Paapa Essiedu) in an organization that has harnessed the ability to turn back time whenever the world is on the precipice of extinction (9 p.m., TNT).
MONDAY, June 4 The Eric Andre Show Season six of the cult-fave grownup sketch series begins, and its slate of upcoming guest stars is pretty impressive—Natasha Lyonne, Jon Hamm, Raven-Symone, Cypress Hill, Lil Yachty and many more (midnight, Adult Swim).
TUESDAY, June 5 Stars on Mars Star Trek icon William Shatner hosts this space-y reality competition (below) in which “celebronauts”—including Lance Armstrong, Natasha Leggero, Marshawn Lynch and Rhonda Rousey—don spacesuits and embark on a mission to see who’s got the right stuff to colonize the Red Planet (8 p.m., Fox).
Cruel Summer Season two of the hit anthology series follows intense teenage friendships in an idyllic Pacific Northwest waterfront community (9 p.m., Freeform).
WEDNESDAY, June 6 The Luckiest Guy in the World New two-part “30 For 30” sports doc covers the life and times of basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, known as “The Big Redhead” (8 p.m., ESPN).
Destination: European Nights Five-part docuseries follows CBS sports analyst Gillem Balague through months of travel across Europe covering the UEFA Champions League and catching the continent-wide buzz of the world’s most prestigious annual soccer tournament (Paramount+).
THURSDAY, June 8 It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia It’ll be sunny tonight for fans of this acclaimed comedy series, which has become the longest-running live-action sitcom in TV history as it begins its landmark 16th season with stars Danny Devito, Charlie Day, Kaitlin Olson and Rob McElhenney (10 p.m., FX).
Arnold Yes, that Arnold—the Terminator, the former gov of California, the muscle man who became a movie icon. New docuseries pulls back the curtain on the fascinating story of Arnold Schwarzenegger (Netflix).
Based on a True Story Inspired by a real event, this dark-comedy thriller (above) set in L.A. follows a realtor, a plumber and a former tennis star whose lives unexpectedly collide in a true-crime caper. Starring Kaley Cuoco, Chris Messina and Tom Bateman (Peacock).
Hailey’s On It! Auli’I Cravalho stars in this animated comedy-adventure about a teenager on a mission to complete her ambitious list of tasks to save with world. With supporting voices by Julie Bowen, Jo Koy and Al Yankovic (8 p.m., Disney Channel).
Nashville museum is a deep-dive time capsule of vintage country music
Nashvillians don’t have to go “On the Road Again” to visit a “Willie” terrific collection of memorabilia and artifacts from country music’s golden era.
The Willie Nelson & Friends Museum features exhibits on Nelson and more than 30 other country stars. It’s just off Briley Parkway, across McGavock Pike from the entrance to the Opryland Hotel and the Grand Ole Opry, in a strip mall book-ended by Cooter’s and the Nashville Palace.
“We’ve got a really small space for a whole lot of stuff,” says owner Mark Hughes, whose mother, Jeannie Oakley, and her husband, Frank—longtime friends of Nelson and other country stars—started their collection in their Madison, Tenn., picture-frame shop 1979. The museum grew and moved several times over the years (off Music Row, then to Branson, Mo.) before settling into its current Music Valley Drive location in 1992.
Its 4,500-square feet of exhibit space details the world of Willie Nelson and many other entertainers who’ve intersected with his wide-ranging musical orbit over the years, including Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, Faron Young and Dottie West. There’s a pair of Nelson’s running shoes, and the guitar he played on his first Grand Ole Opry appearance—and his paltry $15 paystub from the gig. Over here’s a mockup of the front of his tour bus; over there’s a custom-made billiard table that once sat in his parlor; walls and display cases hold dozens of photos; and yep, that’s a booth and seats from Tootsie’s Orchard lounge, where Nelson and other singer-songwriters used to hang, just feet away from the backstage entrance to the Ryman. The laminated top of the booth is covered in autographs and scribbled notes, like hillbilly-music hieroglyphics.
There’s a blowup of Willie’s high school yearbook pic, movie memorabilia and items from the first Farm Aid concert, in Champaign, Ill., in 1985, including a bandana signed by all the artists who came to perform—including Willie’s fund-raising partners Neil Young and John Mellencamp, plus Loretta Lynn, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Billy Joel and Tom Petty. Look, that’s Willie’s 1979 Entertainer of the Year trophy from the Country Music Association, his only win in that category. And yes, that’s a handwritten note from Patsy Cline, thanking him for writing “Crazy” and letting her record it.
You can sit in a little theater alcove and watch a couple of documentaries featuring Nelson and other country performers reminiscing about bygone Nashville days. Or browse displays of stage attire from a country music who’s who of stars.
Another display, of framed photos, shows Willie’s wives, all four of them.
Hughes notes that Nelson’s granddaughter, Raelyn, was coming by the museum the next day to tape an episode of her Music is Funny podcast from the museum. Nelson used to drop by himself from time to time when he was in Nashville, but that doesn’t happen much anymore, now that he’s a bona fide global superstar who doesn’t spend a lot of time in Tennessee anymore. And even though he remains very active at 90, he’s not quite as wide-ranging as he used to be.
Many of the display items came from the Internal Revenue Service, which auctioned off Nelson’s property to chisel away at the $16.7 million they said he owed them, in the early 1990s, for unpaid taxes. “My mother was able to work out something with the IRS,” says Hughes, “and get first crack at some things.” Some things by the truck load, as it turned out.
Hughes says he often hears from museum visitors how surprised they are to see photos of Nelson well-groomed and clean-cut, without his long hair and signature braids, no beard, and wearing dapper, double-breasted suits—1960s Willie, as he was trying to crack into the Nashville music biz. “They say, ‘I’ve never seen Willie with short hair!’ They had no idea he existed before ‘Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain’,” he says, noting Nelson’s No. 1, written by Fred Rose, from his 1975 Red Headed Stranger album, which signaled the beginning of his “outlaw” phase—and the end of regular trips to the barbershop.
Visitors enter (and exit) the museum through a well-stocked gift and souvenir shop, full of t-shirts and country music collectibles. You can buy a Willie Nelson bandana (complete with braids) or cannabis-themed koozies. And get your future foretold by a mechanized Willie-bot in a coin-operated fortune-telling booth.
The museum displays are mostly vintage, truly from another era, a snapshot of country music before the current millennium and its ever-rising tide of newer, younger acts. “We don’t have anything against so-called newer stars,” says Hughes. “That’s just not what we’re about.”
“There are very few artists who can span the number of years that [Nelson] has contributed, and still be the level [Nelson] is today,” he says, citing Wille’s recent pair of 2023 Grammy Awards. “There aren’t many places people can walk into and see such a diverse collection of specific country music memorabilia, and you can run a thread through all of it and see how everything’s connected”—connected to Willie, as a songwriter, a singer, a hit-making megastar…and good friend to just about everyone whose paths he crossed along the way.
And that includes Hughes, the former businessman who years later took over, and expanded, his mother’s Willie-centric collection.
People think, “Long hair, smokes pot,” says Hughes of how many fans perceive Nelson. “Yeah, that’s true. But to me, he’s a very nice guy. I’ve never, ever seen him upset.”
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck score big in their modern Cinderella story about one of the greatest underdog victories in sports marketing history
Air Starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Viola Davis & Jason Bateman Directed by Ben Affleck Rated PG-13
In theaters Wednesday, March 5
Move over, Cinderella, and make way for another shoe story. And this one’s no far-off fairy fable.
Director Ben Affleck’s earnestly crowd-pleasing Air tells the true tale of how a third-rate sneaker company signed a teenage college basketball phenom, Michael Jordan, and revolutionized everything that followed. One of the most groundbreaking deals in the annals of sports marketing, Nike’s affiliation with Jordan sparked quantum changes in pro sports as well as the realms of fashion, celebrity endorsements and lifestyle.
It catapulted Nike to the top of the sports-shoe pyramid and eventually made Jordan—today widely recognized as pro basketball’s GOAT, its greatest player of all time—an ever-growing multi-million mountain of moola, dwarfing what he ever earned in his entire NBA career as a superstar for the Chicago Bulls and the Washington Wizards.
Air is a rah-rah, rousing feel-good story about taking risks, following gut instincts, sweating bullets and scoring big. It’s like sports in that regard, but it’s not really a “sports drama.” It spends very little time courtside. Most of the plays we see are as business execs watch grainy scouting tapes. The central figure of the story, Jordan, appears only briefly, a silent sentinental seen almost always from behind. We never get a good look at his face, and we hear him speak only one word, “Hello,” over a telephone.
He’s a looming presence without really being present. It’s a bold, completely effective choice from director Affleck, who knows that dwelling too much on Jordan as a character would take us away from the “sole” of the story and the people who made it happen.
So Jordan, and the game of basketball itself, are sidelined as movie focuses, instead, on the human drama—fathers, sons, workaholic businessmen and one super-savvy mom who connected all the dots, against all the odds. It’s like Moneyball crossed with Jerry Maguire and a dash of David and Goliath.
It opens in the heart of the go-go, greed-is-good 1980s as we learn how Nike is on the financial ropes, floundering far behind its competitors, Adidas and Converse. The board of directors is pressuring CEO and founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) to cut corners and slash budgets. Advertising honcho Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) bemoans that “George Orwell was right: 1984 is a terrible year—sales are down, growth is down.”
And Nike is down. But Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), in the company’s basketball scouting division, has a bold brainstorm to turn things around…maybe. He wants to use the company’s entire marketing budget to lure Michael Jordan, then only 18, into an endorsement deal, custom designing a shoe that “fits” him in more ways than one, footwear that will become his emblem, his lifestyle, his legacy.
Sonny knows that if his gamble doesn’t roll out a winner, he’ll be out of a job. But he’s all-in. “We build a shoe line just around him. He doesn’t wear the shoe, he is the shoe,” he says. “I’m willing to bet my career on one guy.”
The shoe, of course, would be the Air Jordan, so named for Jordan’s jaw-dropping leaping abilities as a prolific scorer.
Viola Davis plays Jordan’s mother, a shrewd negotiator who innately understands the longterm value her supremely gifted son brings to the table. Marlon Wayans is George Raveling, a superstar basketball coach who only appears briefly but offers some enduring words of inspiration from his past. Comedian Chris Tucker steals his scenes as a Nike marketer with some valuable insights for Vaccaro, especially in dealing with Black athletes. “Always go the mamas,” he tells him. “The mamas run stuff.”
Chris Messina has some spicy comedic bite as a Jordan’s hard-driving agent, David Falk. Matthew Maher is the shoe designer who comes up with the iconic, inspired design for a product that would ultimately travel far, far above and beyond the basketball court.
It’s a juicy, Oscar-bait ensemble, but Damon’s Vaccaro is the heart and soul of the story, the bedraggled underdog who rallies his Nike cohorts—his teammates—behind his big, high-stakes push to land a legend…and help create another one in the process.
Air is Affleck’s fifth project as a director, and it brims with the confidence and slam-dunk sure-footedness he’s developed in The Town, the Oscar-nominated Argo, Gone Baby Gone and Live by Night. The film is rich with ‘80s period-piece touches (handheld video games, Trivial Pursuit, VCRs, running suits) and a soundtrack of expertly curated MTV-era hits (“Blister in the Sun,” “Money for Nothing,” “Born in the USA,” “Time After Time”). It marks the first project of the production company, Artists Infinity, Affleck formed with Damon, his childhood bestie from the ‘hood in Massachusetts.
This is the ninth film in which Damon and Affleck have appeared together, beginning with uncredited appearances as Fenway Park extras in another sports-related human drama, Field of Dreams. They have a natural, unforced ease onscreen together, a natural stride that feels like, well, two old friends who’ve marched along the same path together for years, often as collaborators, doing what they always dreamed of doing, now getting to do it in Hollywood’s big leagues.
And in Air, they’ve found a shoe—and a shoe story—that feels like it fits them perfectly, a cinematic Cinderella’s slipper accented with the Nike swoosh.
Marty Stuart’s lanky, cool-cat singing drummer on his Nashville roots, making a movie with Bette Midler, kickstarting the Americana movement and avoiding a fume-y future
Harry Stinson (right) with Marty Stuart (top) and fellow Fabulous Superlatives Chris Scruggs (left) and Kenny Vaughn
Harry Stinson is a unicorn.
No, not the mythical horse-like creature with a long, spiraled horn spouting out of the middle of his head. But something almost as rare.
He’s a singing drummer. And for further cred as a rarity, he’s a musician who didn’t have to uproot and leave home to get to Music City.
Stinson, the longtime drummer—and harmony vocalist—for Marty Stuart’s rhinestone-spangled Fabulous Superlatives band, is a Nashville native who found his life’s true calling in the basement of Dottie West, the late singing, songwriting hitmaker who, among other things, was the first country female to win a Grammy, became a pre-Dolly duet partner with Kenny Rogers and wrote and recorded a smash 1970s jingle—“Country Sunshine”—for Coca-Cola.
“I was really good friends in high school with Dottie’s oldest son, Morris,” says Stinson. “And we put a little rock band together—original music, about the time of Barefoot Jerry and Area Code 615,” two popular Nashville-based breakout country-rock bands of the early 1970s.
West had a small recording space in her basement, and Stinson’s band would woodshed down there—where he became a singing drummer, or a drumming singer.
“Since I was the only guy in our group who could sing, I was kind of chosen by default,” he says, adding that West’s basement was the crucible where his musical abilities all came together. “That was my school, my college for being a singing drummer; I’ll always be grateful because that’s been my biggest tool in the toolbox. The lucky thing was, I could sing well, and I could sing high, so I was able to cover a lot of ground. That really increases your worth as a band member or a player.”
You can hear him singing, and drumming, on the new album from five-time Grammy winner Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, Altitude, set for release May 19.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Stinson opens up about music, his stint as a record-company executive, making a movie with Bette Midler and tapping into the Tao of Ringo Starr.
What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
I listened to a mixture of everything after the Beatles came along. I wasn’t really attracted to music before the British Invasion; I wasn’t into “Peppermint Twist.” I started listening when the Beatles came out, and stations began playing everything; you could hear soul and pop and novelty songs, all that stuff. I also listened to WSM and the Grand Ole Opry; my dad would have it on in the house. And I liked bluegrass but listened more to pop growing up.
How did you get into drumming?
When I was in the third grade, my parents bought a piano. I took piano lessons and liked it, but not as much as drums. I loved the drums; I loved rhythm. I begged them for a set, and they gave me something that resembled a drum set. And then I got another set—my first real, brand-new drum kit. But it didn’t have everything; it didn’t have a high hat or a floor tom. It was just the basic minimum. But I played the heck out of it, and I worked cutting grass all that summer to buy a floor tom. And that’s the set I used on our TV show, The Marty Stuart Show [on RFD-TV], because it’s a smaller-size kit and perfect for that setup. They were practically brand new; I had kept them in good shape, in my parents’ house, in their boxes.
Do you remember your first gig, playing in front of people?
Over at [elementary] school, I was the drummer who would play a drum roll when the flag would come up the aisle for school assemblies. Then, in 8th grade, we had a little three-piece band called the Goldbugs, and we all basically played out of one amp. I had a makeshift set of drums. But we won the talent show and went on to the citywide talent show, and I think we won that, too, or came close, second or third maybe. One of the DJs was Noble Blackwell from WVOL; he hosted the TV show Night Train on Channel 5, on Fridays or Saturday nights.
Most people can’t play drums, and a lot of people can’t sing. How did you fare when you started out doing both?
Well, it was difficult to line up the lyrics with the beat, because sometimes you sing behind the beat and sometimes in front of it, but you have to keep the beat on the beat.
Were your parents supportive of your career path—to become a professional musician?
They were. My mom the one that insisted we have a piano. My dad drove for Greyhound; that’s what brought them to Nashville in the late ‘40s. I think they were skeptical, as far as me being a professional drummer, because it was uncharted territory for them; their idea of a career would have been for me to go to college, learn a trade and get a job, and that makes perfect sense. My mom said, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work out, you can always get a job at the Esso station.’ But I never doubted myself, and that’s the thing. They never said I shouldn’t do it, ever.
Well, things worked out and you avoided that fume-y future pumping gas! What other jobs, beyond drumming, have you had along the way?
Luckily, I haven’t had any other jobs. I was a waiter for TGI Friday’s just before I went to college. But I’ve been lucky enough to just make my living playing music.
You’ve kept the beat, and kept singing, through gigs with the band America, with country singer-songwriter Steve Earle, with many other acts in the studio. And then you became, about 20 years ago, one of the founding members of the Superlatives. What’s one of the coolest places you’ve played?
[The Superlatives] played with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman on the Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour [the 2019 concert events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Byrds’ seminal country-rock album]. That was a blast for me, going back to my living room in Nashville trying to learn to play the drums, listening to “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” That was part of my musical DNA from the beginning. What a thrill to have Chris [Hillman] over there playing bass, and Roger [McGuinn] up there singing.”
You spent a decade in California, until the mid 1980s, when you came back to Nashville. You were playing in a band, singing on sessions and then writing songs. What drew you to songwriting?
You live in Los Angeles, you’ll do anything to make a buck. I was in a video; I was on American Bandstand one time. As a background singer, you do whatever you can do. Then, that singer-songwriter kind of country rock, which I was really in love with, was falling out of favor on the radio, and those kinds of gigs were drying up. Toward the end of my stay in L.A., I started playing demo sessions for songwriters, and I kept thinking, ‘They’re paying me to play on them, but I can write better songs than this.’ I’m not as much in touch with the songwriting as other people are [now]. But I do still write. Marty and I have collaborated on quite a few things, and [guitarist] Kenny [Vaughn] and I have as well. But it’s not the easiest thing in the world for me to do. Marty’s got that channel really well-oiled, but for me, it’s always a little squeaky.
During your California days, you also co-starred with Bette Midler!
Oh, God, that was a fun experience. [He played a drummer in the 1979 film The Rose, for a scene in a nightclub where Midler’s character, Rose, reconnects with her musical roots.] She blows off a big concert and goes back to a local bar. That was the scene. I was asked by a friend of mine, who was putting together a country band for the film. We spent two days filming in some little sailors’ bar down in Long Beach. We played with a click system using spotlights; there were four of them, different colors, and they were timed as cues for the musical track; we used the lights to keep in sync. I’d never experienced anything like that before.
And then, you became a label executive, starting Dead Reckoning Records in the mid-1990s in Nashville with singer-songwriters Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch, Tammy Rogers and Mike Henderson.
We were all buddies. We had our own little crew. We decided to form a collective, like John Prine had done with Oh Boy. We knew we weren’t going to be able to make a deal where we could make any money with anyone else, and we were trying to get out stuff on the radio. So we decided to learn the record business—distribution, marketing—on a real roots level. It was the beginning of the Americana movement. We put a band together and went on the road, kind of like a revue. We made enough money to make the next record, and that was about it. I was so busy with the company, everybody thought I was a big record exec and I’d be too busy to play their sessions. So, all my work dried up. It was kind of a disaster, financially. But I learned a lot and I’m really glad I did it. It’s helped me with my perspective in the music business.
How did you get hooked up with Marty Stuart?
I was working with Steve [Earle] on Guitar Town [his debut album], and he had also been signed to MCA; he was under [label exec and producer] Tony Brown’s umbrella. He was aware of me when we were cutting Guitar Town, and when it came time for Marty to start making records [for MCA], my name must have come up with Tony, and somebody said, ‘Let’s get him in to sing on some stuff.’ So, I sang on a few things for Marty’s first MCA album [Hillbilly Rock, 1989]. Then I ended up playing, as well as singing, on some of his later records, “Burn Me Down,” “This One’s Gonna Hurt You.” We clicked; I really liked his sensibility—Southern and cool and rocking, all at the same time. He has that acoustic side very well developed, too, with his mandolin playing and bluegrass knowledge, which I also love.
Playing with Marty lets you showcase both your drumming and your singing, especially when he brings all the Superlatives “up front” for a vocal spotlight.
He brings everybody up for a couple of songs because he was a fan of how Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs would let Uncle Josh and Cousin Jake come up, and Paul Warren would do a solo. I mean, they were the Foggy Mountain Boys! They were a force. It wasn’t just Lester and Earl the whole time. [Marty] likes that comradery and the spark and the spontaneity.
Do you see the career path you chose, all those years ago, as leading you where you always wanted to go?
It’s more like following a creative spirit than a career. I think I’ve always wanted to be in creative situations, because the creative part is what fuels everything. Being able to come up with a drum part or a vocal part or write a song or make a record—it’s all about creating, and I love that part of it.
OK, a final drumming question. Which of these choices describes your drumming ethos: A.) More bang, more buck, B.) Less is more, or C.) What would Ringo do?
It’s a combination between A and B, because less is more, and Ringo was so amazing. He still is amazing, and amazing as a human being. I was attracted to Ringo’s style of playing from the get-go. It’s about joy, about love, about swing, all those things he had. And he wasn’t a “chops” guy, not like a Neal Peart, which is also fine. But I prefer somebody that supports a creative way, rather than just playing every lick they know.
The roots-rockin’ sibs of Larkin Poe talk about their Southern roots, a Nashville homecoming and a certain iconic Boston ancestor
They’ve crisscrossed Europe, played Japan and barnstormed America in support of their seven studio albums. The most recent, Blood Harmony, was released in November.
Sisters Megan and Rebecca Lovell have been in musical harmony since they were youngsters, first as classically trained violinists, then in a bluegrass band before discovering the crunch and punch of electric instruments.
As Larkin Poe, they’re now bona fide “rock chicks” with roots in the deep, wide and rich musical culture of the South, where boogie and blues, soulful gospel harmonies, gothic storytelling, folklore and other fertile elements formed the firmament of rock and roll.
“Our childhood was full of different kinds of music,” says Megan, 33, whose electric Rickenbacker lap steel dobro has become integral to Larkin Poe’s sound and stage presence. “Our parents were real music lovers, so we grew up in a diverse musical household. In the past few years, we’ve really delved into blues music and have been going back to learn the history of Southern rock, like the Allman Brothers, and who they were inspired by.”
“We like to describe it as roots rock ‘n’ roll,” says Rebecca, 32, who occasionally swaps her Fender Stratocaster or Jazzmaster for a mandolin.
They write the bulk of their own songs, but on record and on stage, they’ve been known to cover tunes from blues legends Son House, Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Leadbelly, plus Bo Diddley, Bob Dylan, The Band, Cher, Johnny Cash, Neil Young and the Fisk Jubilee Singers—and yes, the Allman Brothers. Their version of the Blind Willie Johnson call-and-response gospel classic “John the Revelator” was used in the hit Fox TV show Lucifer. They’ve performed with Elvis Costello and toured with Bob Seger.
They acknowledged many of their influences in their 2020 album Kindred Spirits, an eclectic collection of music that had shaped them, from Eric Clapton’s “Bell Bottom Blues” to Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.”
“There’s such a kinship in music with roots that have grown out of the same place,” says Rebecca.
Their own roots are in East Tennessee, where Megan and Rebecca were born, later relocating with their parents near Atlanta. They released their first album, Kin, in 2014, then resettled in Nashville. Their 2017 album Peach was a nod to growing up in Calhoun, Ga.
This week, on Friday, March 31, Larkin Poe will play downtown’s Brooklyn Bowl, making a special appearance in their adopted hometown. “The very first show that] Brooklyn Bowl did [in 2019] was a Larkin Poe show,” says Megan. “It was right at the beginning of the pandemic, and we did a livestream for Self Made Man,” their fifth album.
“There’s something special about getting to play a show, then drive a couple of miles and sleep in your own bed,” says Rebecca, excited about the Nashville date on their Blood Kin tour. “It’s very sweet to be [back] in our hometown. We were born over in Knoxville and our grandparents live in Morristown, just a hip, hop and a wobble from Nashville. Being close to the Smoky Mountains is one of my absolute favorite things about Nashville—that in just a few hours, we can get back to the land we grew up on as kids. It’s good family vibes all around.”
Those family vibes extend back through multiple generations, to a famous relative—the poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe. The literary master of mystery and the macabre was a distant cousin of Megan and Rebecca’s great-great-great-great grandfather, Larkin Poe, whose moniker the sisters took as their musical namesake.
Their parents had collections of Edgar Allen Poe in their extensive home library, so the sisters read up on their Boston-based ancestor, best known for his gloomy tales of dread and death. “The darkness and Southern Gothic-ness of his writing appealed to us,” says Megan. But they missed—or avoided—most of the horror movies based on his classics, like “The Raven,” “The Black Cat,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Masque of the Red Death” and most recently, “The Lighthouse.”
“I’m definitely a purist when it comes to books I cherish,” says Rebecca. “I don’t want my mental image to be bullied to someone else’s representation, to be honest.”
Megan has another explanation for why her sister stays away from movie adaptations of their ancestor’s frightening tales. “Rebecca is very scared by horror movies,” she says.
Quoth the raven, or at least paraphrase: Rock on, Larkin Poe, evermore! And welcome home.
Looking for the next big country star, investigating space aliens & celebrating a ‘Young & Restless’ milestone
Reese Witherspoon & Kacey Musgraves are looking for new country stars in “My Kind of Country.”
FRIDAY, March 24 Up Here Romcom musical series (from Steven Levenson, who wrote Dear Evan Hansen and tick, tick…BOOM!) stars Mae (Good Girls) Whitman and Carlos (Gaslit) Valdes as young couple reevaluating their relationship, along with their hopes, dreams, fears and fantasies (Hulu).
My Kind of Country Talent-scout country artists Mickey Guyton, Jimmie Allen and Orville Peck hunt for the next big country star in this new unscripted competition series from executive-producer big shots Reese Witherspoon (a Nashville native!) and Grammy-winning country singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves (Apple TV+).
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Can you believe it’s been half a century since Pink Floyd’s iconic album first hit the charts? Now a lavish coffee-table book, Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon (Thames & Hudson) celebrates the musical milestone with rare and previously unseen photos of the British band on tour, documentation of tour dates, and a visual chronicle of the enigmatic artwork that would become the emblem for one of the most celebrated rock albums of all time.
SATURDAY, March 25 Unexplained: Caught on Camera Experts attempt to explain unexplainable events, including twin brothers who swear they were abducted by visitors from another world, and an hunter who gets more than any eyeful when he sets up a camera in the Montana wilderness (9 a.m., Travel Channel).
SUNDAY, March 26 Great Expectations My sixth-grade reading assignment lives on! This new adaptation stars Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham, plus a wide cast of others playing characters first presented on the page in Charles Dickens’ coming-of-age classic, which first appeared in 1860 as a serialized magazine story (Hulu).
Rabbit Hole Nothing is what it seems to be in this new thriller streaming series, in which a master of corporate espionage (24‘s Kiefer Sutherland) is framed for murder by powerful forces with the ability to influence entire populations (Paramount+).
Searching for Mexico And gee, I thought I already knew where it was… In this six-episode series, actress/producer/director Eva Longoria (right) retraces her cultural and culinary roots south of the border. Produced by Stanley Tucci (10 p.m., CNN).
Succession The Emmy-winning drama-dark comedy series returns tonight to begin its fourth season, further exploring the power struggle between media magnate Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his four grown children. Alexander Skarsgård returns as a tech visionary (9 p.m., HBO).
Yellowjackets The hit drama—about a young soccer team that splinters into brutal clans of survivalists after an airplane crash—kicks off season two tonight. Hang on: It’s gonna be another wild ride! (9 p.m., Showtime).
MONDAY, March 27 Like a Girl New six-part streaming series profiles championship women in sports—females who turn the derogatory phrase “Like a girl” inside out, including swimmers, volleyball players, soccer stars and basketballers (Fuse).
The Young and the Restless 50th Anniversary Celebration Has it really been half a century since this iconic daytime soap started stirring up the suds? Yep, and this primetime special commemorates the TV milestone with cast interviews, highlights and a deep dive into the show’s storylines of romance, feuds, rivalries, weddings and wardrobe (8 p.m., CBS).
TUESDAY, March 28 The Movement and The Madman Find out about this little-remembered chapter of the 1960s, when President Richard Nixon and the antiwar movement came to a tense showdown (9 p.m., PBS).
FBI True There are certainly a lot of “true crime” shows on TV. But this one is different, taking a gritty look at the real-life pressures faced by agents, in their own words, after events like the Waco standoff and a Manhattan bombing (Paramount+).
BRING IT HOME
A stylish remake of one of the classic anti-war films of all time from 1930, the Oscar-winning All Quiet on theWestern Frontdepicts the horrors of World War I from the perspective of young German soldiers who endure the hellishness of battle (Capelight/Netflix).
WEDNESDAY, March 29 The Big Door Prize Chris O’Dowd stars in this new comedy series about a small town forever changed with the arrival of a mysterious machine that appears to reveal everyone’s true potential, causing people to re-evaluate their life choices (Apple TV+).
THURSDAY, March 30 Rapcaviar Presents It’s kind of a weird name, but this new documentary series looks at some of today’s most provocative issues through hip-hop artists and newcomers exploring current events and other topics with their music (Hulu).
Unstable Rob Lowe stars in this new eight-episode series comedy as a biotech entrepreneur working to make the world a better place while trying to reconcile with his estranged son (Netflix).
Hot rising star Alana Springsteen talks beaches, bumps in the romantic road, punctuation and the highly personal songs on her debut LP
If you were in New York City in January, perhaps you saw Alana Springsteen—on the big billboard looming over Times Square, which played the breakout video of her new single, “you don’t deserve a country song.”
A big moment in the Big Apple, for a young singer-songwriter from a teeny town.
Springsteen couldn’t be there herself, but she felt the electricity of the moment. “Part of my label, Columbia, is out of New York, so I was like, guys, if you can take a break during lunch and please go get this on video…because I was freaking out about it,” says the singer-songwriter.
“country song” is one of the cuts on Springsteen’s new full-length debut album, Twenty Something: Messing It Up (Columbia/Sony, available March 23), the first of her planned three-part musical project after a trio of well-received independent EPs.
But there seems very little about Springsteen’s career trajectory, at this point in her young life, that indicates she’s messing it up in any way. She’s only 22, but she’s been writing music since she was a preteen, dreaming of one day being on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. (The video for “country song,” in fact, opens with a 10-year-old Alana on a backstage visit to the Opry, vowing to someday return as a performer.)
Last fall, on the night she turned 22, she made good on that vow, making her Opry debut with an introduction by fellow hitmaker Luke Bryan, for whom she’ll soon be opening shows on a summer tour.
Now this twenty-something—who is no relation to any other entertainers, e.g., Bruce, who happen to share her last name—is holding steady on the course that she set over a decade ago.
“At eight or nine years old,” Sprngsteen says, “I was saying to my parents, ‘I want to be a country music artist.’ That’s all I wanted to do, music. Once I started playing guitar at seven and writing my own songs, there was never a plan B for me. There was never anything else I could see myself doing. I feel like I was put in this world to make music and connect with people through the songs that I write.”
She wrote her first song, “Fairy Tale,” when she was nine, sitting on her bedroom floor. “I was talking to my mom about how her and my dad met in college, and she was talking about their love story and first dates and stuff he did to make her fall in love. I was like, man, that sounds like a fairy tale, and I decided to write a song about it.”
She’s written a lot of songs since then, and she co-wrote all except one on Twenty Something, which continues the intensely melodic, self-confessional, growing-up and getting-personal tones of her three previous EP releases.
She says the album’s “Missing It Up” subtitle reflects some of her rough rides on the road of romance.
“I think it’s pretty clear the areas that I’ve messed up,” she says, “when it comes to matters of the heart, picking the wrong guys, falling in love for the wrong reasons, not trusting my gut. When you’re in your twenties, you’re changing so much and taking it a day at a time and figuring out things about yourself as you are having these experiences—like feeling like you can’t really love someone you don’t know.”
Sounds very personal, and it is. She adds that, when they hear the new album—and they will—those “wrong guys” will know she’s talking to them, or at least about them, in songs including “goodbye looks good on You,” “shoulder to cry on” and “caught Up to me.” The leadoff single, “you don’t deserve a country song,” gives a loutish ex’ a thumping musical kiss-off, telling him he’s not going to get a sweet exit elegy. “I ain’t wasting any paper or any ink in this pen,” she sings. “I ain’t dusting off an old record, crying watching it spin.” Clearly, this is a gal who isn’t mushing and gushing on old memories. She’s moving on.
“I never name names,” she says. “I never call anybody out, specifically. But I think these people are probably going to know that certain songs are about them. It’s pretty inevitable. I don’t talk to my exes anymore. It didn’t end that way. It was more like we both realized it was best for us to not be in each other’s lives.”
She never names names…and on the songs of Twenty Something, heck, she doesn’t even use “proper” punctuation. All the titles are in lowercase. That’s not a typing error, she insists—it’s intentional.
“My eighth-grade teacher would probably not be very proud,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not the best with grammar, admittedly, but that was actually a very purposeful choice. It’s one of the funny quirks I have. Even when I’m writing notes or letters or texting, I never capitalize letters. It’s an aesthetic thing for me.”
So, no capital letters—but digits, on the other hand, figure prominently in her life. Her lucky number is 18; it’s her birthday in October, it’s the date she appeared on the Opry, and it will be the total number of songs, combined, on Twenty Something and its two planned follow-up albums—six songs on each of the three LPs. (She’s already written all of them.)
And there’s another number very important to her; it’s on the inside of her right forearm—a tattoo of three numbers, 757.
“Seven five seven is my hometown area code,” she says. “I’m from a little town in Virginia Beach called Pungo. I grew up five minutes from the ocean, a straight shot down Sandbridge Road. In the small town where I grew up, it’s a lot of farmers who’ve been there for generations, a real cross-section of coastal and country. I grew up riding horses, strawberry festivals, cornfields. I think a lot of that bleeds into my music. I always say that I want a lot of my songs to feel like a top-down Jeep ride along the water, because that’s where I’m my happiest.”
And she’s certainly happy that she’ll be going back to the beach this summer. She’ll be one of the formers at the Beach It! Music Festival, slated for June 23-25 on the familiar sands of Virginia Beach.
“A country festival that’s coming to my hometown for the first time!” she says. “I’m just a hometown girl, and Virginia Beach will always have a massive piece of her heart.”
She’s been in Nashville since she was 14, when she signed her first publishing deal, and her mom, dad and three brothers relocated with her—for her to get closer to the music business on which she had laser-focused her sights.
“My parents have always been so supportive,” she says. “From day one, they were the ones who told me to chase my dreams, and they would take me to Nashville on trips. When I was 10 years old, we would drive 12 hours back and forth, so I could spend a couple of weeks each time writing and learning about the industry.”
She’s certainly learned a bit about the industry, by being immersed in it and now finding such auspicious signs of success—including being named earlier this year as part of the 2023 class of CMT’s Women of Country, recognizing the genre’s most promising female newcomers and rising stars. But she knows she’s still got some learning to do.
“The most rewarding thing for me has been really getting to know myself,” she says, “and learning even more what makes me different from everybody else. So that’s advice I keep telling myself—just learning more about myself, getting really good at trusting my gut, and confidently living into that.”
Emily Portman channels the Coal Miner’s Daughter in ‘Always Loretta,’ a touring tribute show coming to Nashville March 21
The queen is gone, but her spirit lives on in Always Loretta, a tribute show coming to Nashville’s Troubadour Theater on Tuesday night, March 21.
The one-night-only event features Emily Portman singing the songs of country superstar Loretta Lynn, along with a slew of special guests cheering her on—Lynn’s sister, Crystal Gayle, and Nancy Jones, the wife of the late legendary George Jones, are expected to be there.
How did this small-town Kentucky gal come to channel the Coal Miner’s Daughter?
“I was in a band years ago, called Country Cooking, in Kentucky, where I’m from,” she says. “We played a really good little show out in Lebanon Junction [Kentucky], and the guys there told me I sounded like Loretta Lynn.” A steel guitar player gave her a stack of Lynn’s CDs and suggested that she study them.
“So, I learned the songs and really started honing in on her voice and her mannerisms,” says Portman. “I started singing them and did a few shows on my own around the state.”
A few years later, around 2008, she auditioned for the Loretta Lynn role in a touring roadshow musical, Conway Twitty: The Man, The Music, The Legend, based on the life of Lynn’s 1970s singing partner and featuring Alabama singer Glenn Templeman as Twitty. Portman got the part, and she says it was “God’s hand” showing her a direction.
The Twitty trbute hit the road but eventually fizzled out, as things do. But over the next decade, she sang Loretta Lynn songs every chance she got. People would find her on YouTube, and book her to come to their fair, festival or dinner theater. She would sing all the hits—“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Pill,” “Fist City,” “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind”—as well as some of Portman’s persoal favorites, lesser-known tunes like “Hey Loretta,” a 1973 single from Lynn’s second album, or 1974’s “What Sundown Does to You.”
Playing Loretta on stage, Portman says, “is something I love to do, and it’s like it’s as easy as breathing to me. I sound like Loretta. If I had to do Reba or Dolly, I’d have to really practice.”
And she looks like Loretta, too, with her hair—sometimes a wig—and her stage attire. Last year, Portman (above) was asked by one of Lynn’s Coal Miner’s band members to come and sing a few songs at a reunion event for the group. Another musician saw her backstage and thought he was seeing things—like, the real Loretta Lynn, some 50 years ago.
“I had my hair done and my long Coal Miner’s Daughter dress on,” says Portman. “He said, ‘I swear, I thought that was Loretta standing back there.’”
When Portman and the Twitty musical came to Nashville, and she guested on the Grand Ole Opry, guess who was also there that night? That’s right, Loretta Lynn.
Backstage, Lynn’s daughter said, “Mama, this is Emily. She’s playing you in the Conway show.” Loretta looked at Portman and said, “Honey, you look just like me,” and she “smiled real big and hugged me tight.”
That just confirmed to Portman that she was doing what she was destined to do.
She got to be friends with Loretta, visiting the country queen in her Hurricane Mills home, west of Nashville. The first thing Loretta said to her, the first time she was there, was “‘They told me you was coming, so I want back there and brushed my teeth,’” says Portman. “It completely eased my mind because I was a little scared and nervous.”
Sounding, and looking like Loretta aren’t the only similarities shared by Portman, now 43, and Loretta, who died in October last year at age 90. “I’ve got six kids, just like Loretta,” Portman says. “I live in a rural area, like Loretta did.” Portman’s home in central Kentucky, near Leitchfield, is about five or six hours away, on the other side of the state, from where Loretta grew up, near Paintsville. “Kentucky is pretty wide,” says Portman.
But in the back of her mind, she feels a kinship with Loretta—and Loretta felt it, too. “Loretta Lynn told me herself, ‘We’ve got a real connection’,” she says. “She looked me in the eye and told me that, and it really went deep.” And Portman isn’t fully convinced they’re not related, both being native Kentuckians. “I wonder, if we were to dig down, we’d probably be kin somewhere along the line. My grandma was from Crab Orchard in East Kentucky, too [like Lynn]. I’ll bet if you look back far enough, we’d probably be connected somewhere.”
Now Portman is back on stage and singing the songs of her fellow Kentuckian, who had 24 No. 1 country singles and 11 No. 1 albums, a truly groundbreaking country singer and songwriter who became the first country music artist to be featured on the cover of Newsweek. Lynn was nominated 18 times for a Grammy. The 1980 movie about her, Coal Miner’s Daughter, is considered one of the best musical movie bios of all time, and it won Sissy Spacek, who played Loretta, an Oscar.
On Tuesday, March 21, she’ll bring her show to Nashville’s Texas Troubadour theater on Music Valley Drive, across from the Gaylord Opryland Hotel.
But don’t call her a Loretta impersonator. “I think some people look at it as kind of an insult to be called a tribute act or an impersonator; I don’t really like those words. I like to think of myself more as a songstress or a vocalist, and an actress.
“I love Loretta. She’s my hero. I do sound like her, and it’s all just for entertainment. Everybody knows I’m not her; I’m not trying to be her, as a person. I’m proud of who I am, but also proud of my ability to portray her.”
She’s been singing Loretta’s songs for years, here and there, but the Always Loretta show is brand new—and it’s now her show. “It’s just kind of getting started,” Portman says. “So far, the shows we’ve done have been sold out.” She is especially excited because, behind her, backing her up on stage, are members of Loretta’s own band, the Coal Miners.
Portman says, unlike a lot of entertainers, she never really dreamed of writing hit songs, recording albums or filling concert halls. And she certainly never dreamed of touring the country as Loretta Lynn, performing with Loretta Lynn’s band. “I never started out thinking, ‘I just want to do Loretta Lynn,” she says. “I loved to sing, but I never sang in front of everyone until I was 19, and I was scared to death.”
She’s written a bunch of songs over the years, even recording her own CD in 2008. “I’ve got notebooks full of stuff; I’ve written a lot. I’m not finished. There are a lot of country songs I’d still like to record. Not to make it big, but just to have my stuff ‘on file’ for my great-grandkids and thereafter, so they can say, ‘This was my memaw’ or whatever, back when she was singing and stuff.”
She also took time off from making music to build a life and raise a family. She still teaches—at a Catholic school near her home, instructing K-through-8 students in music, social studies and “PE, believe it or not. We go to the gym and play.” She also gives riding lessons.
And she continues to carry the torch for her singing idol. She sounds like Loretta, she talks like Loretta, and she looks like Loretta, especially on stage. And right now, Always Loretta is her musical calling.
“I feel like it’s something that I need to continue,” she says. “I’m not a young spring chicken right out of the gate anymore, but I still have a lot of life in me.”
Spoken, well, just like Loretta might have said it.
Drumming with Charlie Daniels, a memorable slice of pizza with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Artemis Pyle, and going gonzo for Southern rock
Ain’t it good to be alive and be in Tennessee!
That’s something Charlie Daniels used to bellow out on stage, typically when he was playing back on his midstate home turf.
In the late 1970s, he was the big kahuna of the growing band-centric genre of Southern rock, which included such diverse groups as Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie and the Allman Brothers. Charlie had paid his dues as in the 1960s as a Nashville session guitarist (he played with Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Pete Seeger and Flatt & Scruggs) and touring road dog. He produced an album by The Youngbloods.
In the early 1970s, he’d had enough of all that and wanted to helm his own group. The Charlie Daniels Band finally hit the airwaves with “Uneasy Rider” in 1973. I remember him performing that song solo, on Ralph Emery’s early-morning weekday TV show, when I was a sophomore in high school. I remember thinking, wow, he looks like he’s not used to being up this early.
Starting the next year, Charlie would throw a big annual homecoming bash, the Volunteer Jam, in the Nashville area. He’d invite all his Southern rock friends to share the stage, along with special surprise guests from the wider musical world—James Brown, Ted Nugent, George Thorogood, Crystal Gayle, Roy Acuff, Alabama, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Don Henley after he’d gone solo from the Eagles. It was the big all-star concert event of the year, with a proudly Southern-fried spin.
In my role as a journalist, I crossed paths with Charlie several times over the years. And his music was a formative part of my teenage years, which happened to be the era in with Southern Rock was on the ascending arc of its curve, and South-rooted FM rock was at its zenith…especially in the South. I played in a band during high school—drums—and would put down the sticks and pick up a pawnshop fiddle to play a screech-y version of “The South’s Gonna Do It,” the CDB’s breakout hit from 1974. (Fortunately, in those dark ages of technology, no home video exists of me playing the fiddle.)
A few years later, I got to know one of Charlie’s two drummers, Freddy Edwards, when I was dispatched to interview and photograph him for the newspaper The Portland (Tenn.) Leader, for which I was working during college breaks. Freddy and his wife had bought a house locally, less than a mile from where I grew up, and we got to be friends. I photographed him for the piece in his basement, playing his drums. It looked a lot like the basement in my house, where I’d learned to play on my kit.
And in an interview that would presage my movie-reviewing career by some three decades, we talked about a wide range of things—including the movie Freddy and Colleen had just seen, Day of the Dolphin, starring George C. Scott. I don’t remember much else about the interview, but I do remember how impressed Freddy was with the story about “intelligent” research dolphins who are kidnapped in a diabolical ploy to use for a political assassination.
Freddy invited me one day to come along with him to a CDB rehearsal, at Charlie’s place in Mount Juliet, Tenn. Why, of course! To give the pretense of something professional, I brought along my camera and snapped some pics of Charlie and the band running through songs for the album, Million Mile Reflections, they were getting ready to record in the studio. Freddy asked me if I wanted to sit down behind his drums and play a bit while the band loosened up and jammed—on a tune that turned out to be the albums’ opening cut, a song called “Passing Lane.” To this day, whenever I hear that song, I hear the groove that I had locked into that morning in the rehearsal house on Charlie’s place.
A few more years rolled by. I interviewed and photographed Charlie for a magazine cover story after he won a CMA Award for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” It was my first job out of college, and I met him at the south Nashville home of his manager, Joe Sullivan, the former DJ who founded Sound Seventy Productions. I took some portraits of Charlie leaning back in a swing in Sullivan’s backyard, against a wall of sheared rocks, because it had a kind of Mount Rushmore feel. Charlie was himself a mountain of a man, a big guy. And if Southern rock had a Mount Rushmore, he would have certainly been on it.
“I’m just a country boy who plays the guitar and the fiddle,” Charlie told me, spitting a mouthful of tobacco juice with an emphatic splat into a pop bottle. “That’s all I am. I ain’t no better than anyone else. I don’t look at myself as being separated from the rest of the human race just because I sold a few records.”
He went on to sell a few more records, and I went to several Volunteer Jam events, marathon kaleidoscopes of eclectic performances, all revolving for that one night around Charlie Daniels. One piece I wrote on the Jam in the early ’80s described the performers cycling on and off stage like precision figurines in a massive Swiss clock of Southern rock, musical moving parts all clicking and ticking in sync with the night’s schedule. But you never knew who’d be coming up next. Appropriately enough, the Jams always closed in a late-night jam session, with everyone who’d performed that evening invited to return to the stage and join in.
As a fledgling music journalist, I’d been reading a lot of Rolling Stone, trying to soak up some of the mojo about how the big boys covered big musical stories. One of the RS “correspondents” was Hunter S. Thompson, whose counter-cultural “gonzo journalism” was a free-wheeling mixture of surrealism built around his own outrageous experiences. In Thompson’s world, a writer did than simply report a story—he became part of the story, shaping and sizing it by his presence and participation. I wasn’t gonzo enough to throw myself into Thompson’s dizzying swirl of whiskey, weed, cocaine and acid, but it did give me an idea.
I called Charlie’s publicist, Paula Szeigis, and pitched my proposal for covering the upcoming Volunteer Jam XIII, set that summer at the outdoor Starwood Amphitheater. Charlie knows I’m a drummer, I reminded Paula. What if I played drums during the Jam’s closing jam session, and wrote about it, for coverage? That seemed like something Hunter S. Thompson might have done if he were covering a Charlie Daniels event for Rolling Stone. It seemed gonzo tailor-made for me.
Paula seemed to like the idea, and said she’d run it by Charlie. A couple of weeks later, I got the confirmation call. I’d be drumming at the Volunteer Jam.
At the event, I picked up my laminate and milled around backstage with all the other musicians—Stevie Ray Vaughn was there, so was William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys. Over there is the L.A. rock band Great White, and is that Amy Grant’s husband, Gary Chapman? Yep, it is!
But the VIPs of the evening were the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, making their first appearance with Johnny Van Zandt as then new front man. He was the little brother of Ronnie, who died in the tragic airplane crash ten years earlier; the crash killed a total of six band members and crew, including guitarist Steve Gaines and his backup vocalist sister, Cassie. That night’s Volunteer Jam was a reunion of the surviving members, who’d decided to pull all their loose ends back together after the setback and re-form for a tribute tour.
It would be the final time they’d share the stage with Allen Collins, who appeared in a wheelchair, waving to the crowd. But his guitar-playing days were over. I think a lot of the crowd at Starwood thought Collins was incapicated because of injuries after the plane crash, but actually, he’d been paralyzed in a 1986 car accident when his new black Thunderbird flipped on a Florida highway, killing his girlfriend passenger. He would never play guitar again, and he died three years later.
There was Ed King, the former Strawberry Alarm Clock member who’d joined Skynyrd in 1972. And there was bass player Leon Wilkeson and drummer Artemis Pyle (more about him later), the former U.S. Marine and aviator who’d replaced the band’s original drummer, Bob Burns, in 1974. And there was Gary Rossington, one of the band’s founding members, and piano player Billy Powell, who started as a Skynyrd roadie but became a part of the group after the band heard him noodling around on a keyboard.
With Rossington’s death March 5, the band’s “classic” lineup was all gone—Ronnie Van Zant, Gaines, Wilkeson, Powell, Burns and King. I’ve been thinking about how almost all the Skynyrd band members I watched that night are no longer with us, and three of them had perished a full decade earlier. It had been a rough road for Lynyrd Skynyrd. And Southern rock, as a genre, would soon be past its heyday, a retro relic of another place and time.
I’ve been thinking about the times I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd, the times I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd, and about the time I reviewed their sophomore album, Second Helping, for my high school newspaper. Believe it or not, I slagged Bob Burns’ drumming. (He left the band in 1974 after a mental breakdown.) And I’ve been thinking about a night in 1989 in Elliston Place, Nashville’s West End music district, when I sat down at a table in The End, the little rock club across the street from the Exit In, and had some pizza with Artemis Pyle.
I was playing drums in a little Beatles cover band, Day Tripperz, and we making a return appearance at the club. There were maybe 20 or so people there; it was a weeknight. I couldn’t see very clearly; it was dim and dark. But I could make out the silhouette of one guy, with long dark hair, and he seemed a little bit older than the otherwise college-age crowd. Then a delivery guy from Obie’s Pizza, across the parking lot, came into the club and yelled, “Artemis! Pizza for Artemis.”
I’d never heard the name Artemis until I started reading album credits and music features and came across Artemis Pyle. Could this be that Artemis, the one who drummed for Lynyrd Skynyrd?
Indeed, it was.
Our band was on a break, so I went over and introduced myself. He had friendly eyes and a big, fuzzy beard that seemed to meld with his long hair to completely obscure his face, and he asked me to pull up a chair. He was likeable and talkative. We bantered with a bit of drummer small talk, and then he told me about surviving the plane crash, and how he wanted to write a book, called “The Best Seat in the House,” about his perspective as Skynyrd’s stickman, getting to see everything—on stage and in the audience—from his seat behind his double-bass rig on the drum riser. Artemis didn’t sing; he just drummed…and watched. But the title had a double meaning. If he hadn’t been where he was sitting on that ill-fated Conair CV-240, when it plowed into the Mississippi swamp, if he’d been in another seat, situated somewhere else in the plane, he might not have made it. As it was, Artemis was the only survivor capable of crawling from the wrecked fuselage and trekking into the night looking for help, covered with mud and blood.
Best seat in the house, for sure.
At the Volunteer Jam event, I didn’t know when I’d play on stage, with whom, or what songs. So I just hung out, me and my laminated backstage pass, waiting for my cue and watching the musical flow—and the frenzy when Lynyrd Skynyrd took the stage, plowing into the opening bars of “Workin’ For MCA.”
When my “spot” finally came, at the evening’s big closing jam, I was instructed to come up on stage and stand behind one of the two risers on the backline; there were two drummers playing to keep the beat going and avoid any interruption when a sub would come aboard. One of the drummers, on the other riser, was Artemis. The risers were about three feet high, and they had a couple of little steps. A stagehand was standing beside me, behind the platform, and when one song finished, he reached up and put his hands into the rear of the drummer’s pants waistband and gave a tug—time to “switch out.”
The newly de-throned drummer hopped down, handed me his sticks and I climbed up. And before I could say “Yikes!” the 15 or 16 musicians on stage launched into a rocking version of “That Good Ol’ Mountain Dew.” Charlie was leading and calling the shots, throwing in fiddle breaks. Our two-drummer rhythm section was churning. And most of the Lynyrd Skynyrd band members—and various other musicians—were scattered about, picking and playing and trying to get all their chords in the right spots.
I could see the stage stretched out in front of me, with the edge about 40 or 50 feet away. The audience was a churning sea of faces on the other side, disappearing up the hillside into the night. The sound is different, on a big stage like that, from what you’d hear in the audience. I could barely hear when Charlie turned away from the stage and told the musicians what song we’d be doing next, and then we were launched into a peppy version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
I’d never played that, or the other song, either. But luckily, growing up steeped in music, I was familiar with them. I just locked in with Artemis, and away we went.
And then I got the tug; my time was up, and there was yet another drummer waiting to take my spot for the big finale, the closing jam number.
I didn’t get any pictures; it’s hard to photograph and drum at the same time. And all my Nashville press colleagues—from the Tennessean, from the Banner, from Billboard, from the Associated Press—had left early, to beat the traffic, along with most of the publicists who were there. I haven’t, to this day, come across anyone who witnessed me playing drums on the stage with Charlie Daniels and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
But I did.
And for a few minutes, I knew what Charlie Daniels meant, about it being good to be alive, and be in Tennessee—I was alive, in Tennessee, playing drums at an event I’d previously only experienced as a spectator. I was alive, even as the specter of death loomed in the gloomy recesses of Southern rock’s musical soundscape, waiting to pluck more victims. My heartbeat had synched with my drum beat, and I knew exactly what Artemis Pyle would later be talking about, off West End Avenue, over slices of Obie’s Pizza.
I, too, felt like I had the best seat in the house, and in a lot of ways, I always have.
“Fearless” singer Jackson Dean on seeing ghosts, recording at the Ryman & what really gives him heebie jeebies
Jackson Dean’s new single is kinda scary. It details things that frighten a lot of people, and one thing that should scare everybody.
“Fearless (the Echo),” originally a track on his 2022 debut album, Greenbroke, gets a new kick of renewed energy this week on March 17 as the first release from Dean’s forthcoming full live album, recorded at the Ryman.
And recording at country music’s Mother Church was a dream come true, says the Maryland native now living in east Nashville. Dean, 22, vividly remembers visiting the Ryman for the first time as a teenager.
“I had just turned 15,” he tells me from his East Nashville home. “I had already [recorded] a little acoustic record, and my dad said, ‘Hey, you want to go [to Nashville] and check it out?’”
Dean sat with his mom and dad in the nosebleed balcony of country music’s venerated music hall, watching Jamey Johnson perform on the stage below, joined by his special guest, 27-time Grammy-winner Alison Krauss.
“They were singing ‘Dreaming My Dreams with You,’” a 1970s classic recorded by Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Crystal Gayle, Marianne Faithful and Jewel, among others. “And I fell in love with the place, with the Ryman,” Dean says. That’s why it was such a thrill for him to come back, seven years later, to record his songs in front a Ryman audience—one that had come to see him.
“I had [‘Dreaming My Dreams with You’] on my mind during the soundcheck,” he says. “It was a big bucket-list moment, a helluva mile marker for where I am now and where we’re headed.”
If you’ve heard the big ballad “Fearless,” get ready for a slightly different live version of it and other songs from Dean’s debut album, Greenbroke, released a year ago. The Ryman album has new players (including Dean’s road band), some supplemental instrumentation (lap steel and dobro) and an unbridled onstage live-show energy that he says “you can’t recreate” in the studio.
“ ‘Fearless’ is a bit fast,” he says. “That’s what happens when your adrenaline starts going faster than you can keep it down. All the [live] songs are a bit more aggressive, for sure.”
It’s understandable that Dean might be surging with super-charged adrenaline. He’s been hitting it hard on the road, opening shows for Blake Sheldon and Carly Pierce, and he’ll be on the bill at several major state fairs and festivals this summer, including Stagecoach, Country Thunder and the Iowa State Fair. Fans as well as critics have been wowed by his earthy, masculine baritone, which has drawn impressively lofty comparisons to Chris Stapleton, Waylon Jennings and Travis Tritt.
And everyone wonders, where does a 20-something get a voice like that, one that sounds like it’s already lived a life beyond its years?
“I can tell you where that came from,” he says. “From my daddy. He was a stonemason for hire; still is. I’ve been working for my old man since I was about 10, and being on job sites, being expected to carry yourself like a man, it shapes you. You learn to walk and talk.”
You also learn, he says, to be fearless, like in his song—except when it comes to someone you love. “Dudes are dudes, and we ain’t scared of shit,” he says. “But the song is about being fearful of something happening to someone; loving them so much, you’re scared of losing them, or fucking things up. My dad told me and my brothers and sisters once, ‘I’ve been scared to death since the day you all started popping out of your mom.’ I can’t really imagine anything more powerful than the love of a dad for his kids.”
In “Fearless (the Echo),” cowritten by Dean with Jonathan Sherwood and Luke Dick, he starts the song by noting that he’s unafraid of risky behaviors like jumping off bridges, risking a fall from a narrow ledge, or even encountering ghosts. Maybe it’s because he’s done all those things.
He claims to have seen a ghost near his childhood home in Maryland, where years before, the bodies of several murdered missing girls had been found in the deep woods. “I swear to God,” he says. “My mom had gone to school with one of the girls, and she showed me her picture.” And that day, alone in the woods, “I saw her, that girl in the picture, walking through groups of trees. She passed behind one, behind another, and then she was gone. It sent a shiver down my spine. I’ve believed in ghosts ever since then.”
As for jumping off bridges and leaping from ledges, he’s done that too, into streams and swimming holes of the Potomoc River, near his childhood home between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. “There are some crazy cliffs on the Potomic, man,” he says. “I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, so it was work, the woods and then music. Just like the song says, there’s not much that scares me.”
But there’s one thing that does make him somewhat slightly uncomfortable.