UNSTOPPABLE GROWTH: The local boys in Kudzu go the extra mile to be more than just another bar band
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
The members of local rock band Kudzu are an adventurous lot.
Not only do they have two albums of original music under their belt — the most recent, “Not Afraid,” was released earlier this month — they’re gung-ho about tackling cover songs that don’t fit into any preconceptions fans may have about them. But while everything from Prince to Ronnie Milsap to The Commodores may find its way into the Kudzu repertoire, the majority of the band will, on occasion, draw the line.
Singer and guitarist Tim Flatford found that out the hard way when he brought Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” to rehearsal one night.
“If you look at the lyrics, there’s nothing in that song that’s locked in to a woman having to do it!” Flatford said with a laugh. “It could just as easily be about a man seducing a woman. But the disparaging looks I got from the guys was enough. (Bassist/keyboard player) Charlie (LaFountain) said he hated the song when it came out the first time. They weren’t too keen on doing that one.”
Give Flatford an A for effort, though. In a small music scene bursting at the seams with talent, it takes something special to reel in fans, which in turn make bar owners and booking agents converts to a particular band’s sound. Judging by the busy schedule kept by Kudzu since the group first formed in 2010, the strategy seems to be working well — but Flatford and his bandmates are content to do the same set of songs every time they play.
Kudzu got its start when drummer Justin Kelso, a graduate of Greenback High School who’s played in a number of bands around the area (he was once the drummer for Southbound), and Kudzu’s former guitarist found themselves searching for potential bandmates. They cast a net on Craigslist, and Flatford responded.
An Indiana native who moved to Union County as a teenager, he’s the son of a traditional country musician who once spent a couple of tours opening for Conway Twitty in the early 1970s. As a youngster, Flatford was occasionally part of his dad’s shows. In 1996, he moved to Blount County, eventually starting his own mobile deejay business and decided to play music during his down time.
When he answered the ad, he and LaFountain (a resource officer at Eagleton Elementary) hooked up with Kelso and the band’s old guitarist two days before Kudzu’s first show. Despite the rickety foundation, the performance was solid, and the boys knew they had something special on their hands.
“I didn’t know what we would end up with, but I knew that where we were at the time was going to take a lot of work to get it to where we wanted it to be,” Kelso told The Daily Times this week. “Once Tim fell into lace and Charlie fell into place, everything fit just perfectly, and off we went.”
After the departure of the band’s founding guitarist, the group could easily have splintered. Bar bands aren’t exactly an endangered species around Blount County, and many come and go without making much of an impact. Kelso, LaFountain and Flatford were energized by their newfound chemistry, however, and so they decided to add another guitarist and soldier on.
Enter Nick Bradshaw, a veteran of Blount County outfit the Steel String Swingers. Flatford found him at Murlin’s Music World, and with him on board, the guys set out to build themselves a rock ‘n’ roll machine that ran in unexpected directions.
From the outset, they wanted to avoid the trap of the typical cover band: playing “Mustang Sally” as a blues shuffle, or performing a faithful rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama” that would do Ronnie Van Zant proud. They don’t knock bands that play those songs, Flatford said; they simply wanted to do whatever they could to stand out.
“I’m not downing any of our competitors; I’ve seen the Jason Stinnett Band and the Jeff Jopling Band and Southbound and Avenue C, and I love all those guys,” he said. “We have a lot of respect for them, and now there are bands coming out of Knoxville that are ‘invading’ our turf. It’s odd that a lot of bands around here can’t get into the Knoxville market, but those bands that are in a bigger market are trying to come over here.
“What we do is to find a song that we feel like we can do well. We don’t want to go out and half-ass something just because it’s popular. If we don’t feel like we can do a quality version of the song, we’d rather not take the chance. If we take a song out there, we want people to listen to it and think, ‘That’s a great version of that song.’”
Perfect example — The Commodores’ funky disco hit “Brick House.” Done up Kudzu-style, it becomes a country-rocker with just enough of its original R&B heart to please both purists and adventurous musical spirits. Prince, Luke Bryan, Ronnie Milsap with LaFountain playing keys — all have a place in the band’s bag of tricks, alongside a strong collection of originals.
As solid as the band’s self-titled debut album was, “Not Afraid” stands as even more accomplished feat. It’s the difference between a new band just finding its footing in the local scene and a group of seasoned veterans who have paid their dues, Flatford said.
“The other one was, ‘Let’s get a CD together because we’ve got this clutch of songs; let’s get them recorded so we can get it out to folks,’” Flatford said. “We had a little more time and a little more inspiration on this last CD. All the songs are a lot more focused than the first CD was. Basically, I decided I would quit trying to be Brad Paisley.
“On the last CD, songs like ‘Thick’ and ‘Beer Pressure’ were they hooky, jokey songs like some of the ones Brad Paisley writes. But I realized there’s only one Brad Paisley, and I’m not him, and I’ll never be him. So when I quit doing that, I tried to write solid songs we can use and people can connect with.”
“Not Afraid” also showcases a more serious side of Kudzu. The boys won’t be blackening their eyes with mascara or calling themselves emo or goth anytime soon, but they dabble in more adult-oriented subject matter this time around — the Springsteen-esque feel of the blue-collar anthem “I Work,” which has been part of the Kudzu live set for more than a year now; the gritty rock of “Six Feet Closer,” which is as close as the guys will get to a murder ballad; and the foot-stomping salute of “Waylon Jennings,” which picks up steam like a runaway train toward song’s end and lets the listener know there’s nothing formulaic about this band.
They don’t traffic in expectations, and they don’t cater to the lowest common denominator. Neither, however, do they feel beholden to pursuing music as some sort of exclusive “art” that can’t possibly be understood by the masses.
“Instead of being something for everybody, we wanted to have something for everybody, but we didn’t want to pander to the masses,” Flatford said.
They’re just regular guys who harbor no delusions of grandeur and do what they do because it’s fun — to play with one another, and to play for a bar full of rowdy fans who dance and yell and pound tables with empty bottles because Kudzu is exorcising the demons of a particular stressful work week or the ghosts of a failed relationship or the loss by a favorite sports team.
They probably won’t be on a Grammy stage or in a major-label studio, although none would complain if such fortune were to find them. They will be, however, in bars all over Blount and Monroe counties, playing their hearts out into the wee hours of the morning. Because even though it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, they like it — a lot.
“When you play as many shows as we play a year, it gets tough, but what keeps it fun is that it’s just a good group of guys,” Kelso said. “I aggravate Charlie and call him dad. Nick was the best friend in my wedding. We’ve been through a lot together.”
“I told the guys right off the bat, I’m not looking to go pro,” LaFountain added. “I’m looking to play on the weekends and have a little fun, and that’s pretty much everyone’s mentality. My day job can get boring, and this is kind of my release. It’s rewarding, and as long as the crowd’s into it, that’s what make it worthwhile.
“Although,” he added slyly, “it would be nice for us to be just big enough to have roadies.”