Back in the day, there was an eccentric English outfit known as the Bonzo Dog Band. It was a wacky bunch that touted oddness and irreverence in equal measure. One of the group’s more telling songs was titled “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites.” It was a send-up on the various British blues bands that at the time hid their privilege and instead feigned hardship so they could bask in the blues.
It was a parody of course, one that denies the fact that the blues connects with all cultures and splinters all the stereotypes. That’s particularly true of the Cookeville-based band known as Few Miles On. Composed of three players from disparate origins — Detroit, Chicago and Nashville — and yet bound by blue-collar backgrounds, the trio shares reverence for its roots while also offering original material that shares that vintage sound.
“We have a wide variety of influences,” drummer Randall Rittenberry said. “I definitely have the country rock, Southern rock, hard rock influence. Our guitarist, Phil Hall, is a huge Joe Walsh, Pat Travers and Grand Funk Railroad fan. Our bassist, Larry Alder, grew up in Detroit, so his influences revolve around Motown and blues. He’s also a big jazz fan. So you will hear elements of all those influences.”
The band’s recently released album, “Turn on a Dime,” is its third effort to date and in the members’ opinions, their most satisfying as well. With songs that combine boogie, bluster and the blues all in equal measure, it underscores the group’s credence, conviction and a decidedly determined delivery.
“The new album is a culmination of our growth the past three years,” Rittenberry said. “There was definitely a more mature approach to the songwriting and arrangements.”
For his part, Hall agrees.
“If you listen to the first two albums, you will definitely hear there is an obvious trajectory in the writing and the production values,” he said. “We stayed within the boundaries of the canvas and we all agree that these are some of the best songs we have written to date.”
The songs were the result of a collaboration between the three musicians. Hall also said several of the songs were written about people they knew.
“Influences for songs come from a variety of places,” Rittenberry added. “The way we write is somewhat unique. In our case, none of us bring in a finished song. Instead, it could be a melody, a riff, or even just a song title or concept. Each of those things come from different sources — life experiences, observations and/or mood.”
Hall said after recording enough tracks for a double album, they made the final song selections based on what had worked best during their performances.
“We were playing most of these songs at our live shows, polishing the arrangements and hoping to get a sense of how people responded,” he said. “That helped us to identify which songs really connected.”
Audience response always proves essential.
“We often get the comment that we produce a lot of sound for a three-piece band,” Rittenberry said. “We’re also told that we’re very tight. Audiences generally like what we do. I think that people recognize the fact that we are a bit different because we predominantly play original material. However we can still deliver the standards as well.”
Hall has his own theory about why the band’s material elicits such eager enthusiasm, especially in a concert setting. “A lot of our music is groove based, and a good groove will move people to get up and dance,” he suggests. “When I see that happening at a performance, I know we’ve won them over.”
Regardless of the reasons, the band’s efforts clearly have paid off. The group recently was chosen by the Smoky Mountain Blues Society to represent East Tennessee at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis next month. It’s an achievement the musicians have sought for quite some time.
“We’ve competed a couple of times before and didn’t win, but we learned a lot from those experiences,” Hall said. “Winning the regional challenge was a validation that we are on the right track.”
Rittenberry concurs. “What an honor and huge opportunity it is just to be there,” he said. “In some ways, it will be a barometer of where we are as a band. When you’re among over 200 other bands from 50 different countries, you find out a lot about yourself. Quite honestly, it was a huge monkey off our backs. This was our fourth try, and we felt like we were never going to get through it. We had been doing a lot of great shows, opening for world-class blues acts, but couldn’t quite break that barrier. We went into it with no expectations, but, when they announced our names, I’ll admit it was a huge relief.”
That said, the group sometimes strays from a fixed formula in order to create music that has a more personal perspective.
“I think what we do is a bit different,” Rittenberry said. “We don’t adhere exactly to the basic blues template in every song. We certainly have that in our repertoire, but we aren’t constrained by it. We like to think that we are redefining blues in a way. We want to honor its rich tradition, but not become shackled to it through form and tone. You’re always going to run into those people who will say you aren’t blues, and they may even work against you because you don’t fit their definition.”
Hall stresses a need to move the music forward.
“To me, the recognizable elements which we use to define a song as blues are like the edges of a canvas on which we want to paint,” he said. “The challenge is to be creative inside those edges, and to write something that stands on its own as a good song. In my opinion, people are drawn to blues music because it is filled with raw emotion, passion and pain. Our goal is to give the listener songs that they can relate to.”