TALK THIS WAY: Hard-working members of the Southern Drawl Band see their stars rise quickly
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Peruse the schedule for the Southern Drawl Band, and it becomes clear how the local country-rock outfit, in little more than a year, has become one of the hardest-working groups in the East Tennessee music scene.
Every weekend ... at least two nights, often three and sometimes all week long on out-of-town trips to venues as far away as Key West, Fla. ... the Southern Drawl Band hits the stage, and hits it hard. There’s no holding back, no taking time off to make the crowds hungry for a show. The time is now, band co-founder “Nashville” Mike Nash believes, and he and his bandmates are doing everything they can to spread the word, play the shows and capitalize on whatever shot they have of making the group a household name around these parts.
“I credit growing up in Nashville to that,” Nash told The Daily Times this week. “From my standpoint, I learned very early that once you get to a certain level, everybody at that level is talented. And a lot of people buy into the idea that just because they’re talented, they should be famous. But you have to stand out above the crowd.
“I subscribe to an old-fashioned work ethic: If you bust your ass and give people what they want, they’ll let you know. And just how fast this thing has taken off has surprised me. When Rich (Killingsworth) and I started this thing, we looked at what other people were doing and decided to do the opposite. When I came to East Tennessee, I expected this area to be inundated with country music like Nashville was. But to my surprise, I saw a lot of ’80s music and a lot of bar bands. And I told Rich, ‘We need to be pulling out Charlie Daniels and Alabama and even the Zac Brown Band.’”
Although he grew up in Nashville, it took leaving Music City to realize that music could actually provide him with a living. He did the Nashville scene and played the bars in Music City, but it wasn’t until moving to Florida in 2006 that his eyes were opened, he said.
“My very first show was a Fourth of July show, and when I finished, the woman came up and handed me $300,” he said. “I said, ‘What’s this for?’ And she told me that’s what I was being paid for that gig. I said, ‘Wait a minute, you can make a living playing music?’ Because in Nashville you’d be lucky to make $30 a night.”
After his dad died, Nash moved back to East Tennessee, where he’d lived briefly a decade ago and had a short-lived band with Killingsworth. He started playing music solely as Nashville Mike, but it was a request for an Old Crow Medicine Show song that led him to call up Killingsworth.
“I kept getting requests for ‘Wagon Wheel,’ and I didn’t know it, but I finally gave in and bought the CD and listened to it on my way to Illinois,” Nash said. “As soon as I heard this song, I knew I couldn’t do it without the fiddle. And I remember Rich had told me one time he had a fiddle and used it to play a couple of songs in an old band he was in. So I called him up and said, ‘You still got that fiddle lying around? Blow the dust off of it, bring it out to the show Friday and sit in with me.’”
The rest, as they say, is history. The two performed as a duo for a few months before adding drummer Larry Dunsmore; within 60 seconds of jamming with him, Nash and Killingsworth knew they were laying the foundation for something extraordinary. The three assembled other players and made plans to go into Lakeside Studios with local production wizard Travis Wyrick, but Nash knew the band’s debut album, “Against the Grain,” needed a little something extra to take it from good to mind-blowing.
Enter “The Djembabe.”
A 2005 graduate of Karns High School, Melanie Howe threw herself into music as a teenager. A self-described “band dork,” she was active in the school’s concert, symphonic, marching and jazz bands, as well as her high school percussion ensemble. She attended the University of Tennessee initially as a music composition major before switching concentrations to percussion performance, and during and after college, she had tried without success to establish a long-running band.
“As a percussionist, that can be a little frustrating, because typically the person who starts a band is the lead person — the singer or the guitarist or that kind of thing,” Howe told The Daily Times this week. “I would hire friends to play for me, and they wouldn't be able to produce the quality I expected or work on what I expected them to work on, so I ended up firing a lot of my friends.”
When her last band, Siren, came to an abrupt end, she decided to concentrate on being a side woman — a hired percussionist for bands needing a rhythmic, tribal sound on their records or in concert. The move allowed her to set her own schedule, and because she found herself in such demand, she was able to quit as a bartender and become a full-time musician.
That’s also how she earned the nickname — she used to play in downtown Knoxville with DJ Slink, who would mix her drumming on the African djembe into his own music. He christened her “The Djembabe,” and it caught on, as did word of her talent in the local music scene.
Last Christmas, local trop-rocker Tall Paul was throwing his annual Christmas bash at Quaker Steak and Lube in North Knoxville; Nash and Howe were both in attendance, and when the Southern Drawl Band convened to record “Against the Grain,” Nash remembered her and gave her a call.
“We were gonna have a friend of mine from Homemade Wine come in and track percussion, but that band ended up getting a last-minute show, and he couldn’t do it, so I called Melanie, and when she came out to track for us, it was another of those magical moments,” Nash said. “We knew we would be crazy if we let this girl slip by.”
“I was the last piece of the puzzle, as the guys like to say,” Howe added. “I came in and recorded some tracks on the album, and after hearing me play, they asked me to come sit in on some shows. It took a little bit of syncing, but then they asked me to become a permanent member of the band.”
Given Nash’s determination and the work ethic of the entire Southern Drawl crew, Howe didn’t give it a second thought. It’s not like she had sworn off every playing in a band; after all, she, Tall Paul and local singer-songwriter Andy Wood play together as The Hot Trio, a group that staged a recent Joy of Music School benefit at The Bijou Theatre; with Southern Drawl, she said, the willingness of everybody to put in the effort to make the band successful left her with little doubt that she was signing on with a bunch of hard-working boys.
“In the past, I was the one person dragging everyone else along, but with Southern Drawl, it’s different,” she said. “All of us are working every day toward that goal of being able to make a living out of this and grow it as big as we can.”
Howe’s certainly easy on the eyes, but her percussion work gives Southern Drawl more flexibility as well — by scaling back the electric guitar and letting her drumming rise to the top, the band can shift gears into “trop-rock,” the calypso-inspired island jams of Jimmy Buffett or latter-day Kenny Chesney. That flexibility allows Southern Drawl to appeal to a broader cross-section of fans, Nash said.
“You’re not going to see many country bands at our level with a fiddle player and the congas, and that’s what’s different,” he said. “That’s what sets us apart, and it’s memorable. Me, the drummer and the bass player could switch in and out, but with Melanie and Rich, we’re different. And for our cover songs, we choose songs that will set us apart.”
“Instead of trying to fit everything into a pretty little box and say, ‘This is country,’ or, ‘This is trop-rock,’ we decided to reach out,” Howe added. “There are so many different styles on this one album that you reach a bigger variety of people.”
However, as talented as the members of Southern Drawl are, and as good as “Against the Grain” sounds, Nash knows that raw talent will only take the band so far. That may not be fair, but as a guy who grew up immersed in the cutthroat world of the Nashville music industry, Nash knows it’s also the reality of playing music in this day and age. As a result, he and his bandmates (and his sister, who manages much of the band’s social media) know that spreading the word, beating their chests and pushing for attendance at shows any way they can makes all the difference in the world.
Because, he pointed out, all of the talent in the world doesn’t mean a thing if nobody’s in the audience to hear it.
“Social media is the No. 1 reason, above everything else, that we’ve grown,” he said. “You’ve got to approach this from a business standpoint. It’s 25 percent talent, and 75 percent hard work.”