Tuscaloosa Music: An Insight To Community
This is a story about Tuscaloosa’s Music Scene. It was originally done for one of my Journalism classes that I was chosen for by department faculty members. Over a semester, we had to produce an in-depth story that would be of community interest. There has not been anything written that has detailed our wonderful city and its music. I made it my mission to change that. Because I only had a semester to produce the story, I realize there are things left out and there is always room for improvement. I did the best with what I had and put my whole heart into this to make it wonderful for those who read it. I have cried more tears over this story than anyone will ever know about. But to me, that is one of the key factors that makes it great. So here is what I came up with. Please be kind.
At a pizza joint in Montevallo, Alabama, an hour away from the city of Tuscaloosa, the last person Matt Patton expected to encounter was a man named Sweet Dog. Having just met Patton earlier in the day at Vinyl Solutions on the Strip, the interestingly named man asked if Patton was in a band: Model Citizen, they were called. Sweet Dog inquired about their next gig: that night, said Patton.
“OK. I will be there.”
Stories like this are found rooted in music, tucked away in some of the hidden gems of the football-centered city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, based on friendship, progression, community, and growth.
Before the late 90s Rock revival, there was a string of eclectic sounds that were starting to make their way into the ears of those who would listen.
In the conservative, Ronald Reagan/George H.W. Bush-lovin’ eighties, came the Southern, beer drinking, long-haired, football freak band from Alabama called Storm Orphans. Having peaked just before the Grunge infested era of the early nineties, the band shaped their sound earlier than others from the Seattle scene.
Fronted by singer Rusty LuQuire, Storm Orphans were one of the few local bands that had more than just a “social crowd.” They frequently packed out the buildings on The Strip (which have all undergone numerous name changes over the years). The band even hit their stride in new markets – Auburn, Oxford, Athens, Austin, Chapel Hill, Nashville – predominantly sports towns – while recording full length albums, touring, and playing hometown shows with their friends.
“People grouped us within their top five favorites along with bands like REM from Athens,” said LuQuire. “We were one of the few bands of the time who actually toured out of Alabama and even the South. We branded ourselves as ‘Storm Orphans from Tuscaloosa’.”
Storm Orphans and singer/songwriter Marlee MacLeod were included in the handful of bands who actively toured during the time period and took their local sound on the road. Touring opens new markets for bands, growing their fan bases, and bringing people into the area.
One of the aspects that makes Tuscaloosa a unique music town, often overlooked, is the camaraderie between the musicians who play here.
“When you’re in a band, it’s not a competition,” the famous Sweet Dog once said. “It’s part of a community.”
MacLeod and LuQuire formed a rare a side project, one they called Texas Truck, that would make unannounced appearances at Storm Orphans’ shows. The two would play together and pack out the venue by themselves before the rest of the Storm Orphans had a chance to show up for sound-check.
After their final show in 1993, Storm Orphans finally disbanded and the Jam sounds of Widespread Panic, Phish, and Dave Matthews started to fraternize the area and bring in a new crowd to the city venues.
In the midst of all the new sounds, Patton kept pushing forward and tried to play the music he loved. In 1998, his band, The Dexateens, was formed, along with Elliott McPherson and Sweet Dog. When the group started performing and touring, they soon realized how the little music community of Tuscaloosa is not reflected in other cities across the Southeast.
“Tuscaloosa is not like other towns such as Athens,” said McPherson. “[Athens] is a community full of people who tour and take their stuff out on the road. Tuscaloosa is not like that. Bands on the fringe are not given the same opportunity as someone else because they have more resources and networks.”
Having had Sweet Dog in his band, McPherson learned a lot. One of the lessons he remembers fondly is, “When you play a chord, actually PLAY the chord. Do it with authority.”
Mentors like this are just one way in which Tuscaloosa is rooted in history, friendship and community.
Jake Thompson, owner of Druid City Time and Spaceship recording studio, is noted as the first person to ever record the Dexateens, according to Sweet Dog.
“I had the first CD Recorder in Tuscaloosa,” said Thompson. “Sweet Dog swears I was the first person to ever record them.”
Here is where we meet Ham Bagby, one of the city’s prominent guitar players and a friend to all. When he first came to Tuscaloosa at 21 years old, he could always be seen sliding numerous bands’ fliers, fresh from Kinko’s, under the huge gap in the door at Vinyl Solutions, which now houses a Pita Pit.
Bagby used to practiced at a place called Tide Mini Storage. Next to his unit housed practice spaces for another local band Pain!, and the Dexateens, his favorite band.
“We never got any practice done,” said Bagby. “We just sat around and listened to those guys tune-up and practice for hours.”
Bagby does an annual mini-festival at Egan’s on the Strip every year called Ham Ham Jam Jam, where he personally invites bands to come play and sit in with each other, to establish and encourage friendships.
“The only way to improve is to play with other people,” said Bagby. “We aren’t focused on being cool. We are focused on getting loud and playing live.
Local media has always been an active way of promoting local, original music. With student run publications like The Crimson White and WVUA-FM, and local publications like the Tuscaloosa News, bands began to reach wider audiences and were able to gain more exposure in new ways.
“WVUA, or as it was known back then, V-91, played all the local bands, partly because a bunch of us music people either worked there or had worked there,” said MacLeod. “It was very helpful having that outlet.”
One of the popular radio shows of the mid 90s until the early 2000s was the “Lee and Wolf Show”, hosted by Lee Overstreet and Wolfe Kincaid.
Popular local bands at the time such as Mindseye, Model Citizen, and Planet Terry, and even national bands like The Woggles from Birmingham, and Drivin’ n Cryin’ from Athens, made appearances on the show through its run.
“It added another outlet,” said Overstreet. “It shined another light. As our show slowly became better known, it became a ‘thing’ among some Tuscaloosa bands to play ‘Lee &;Wolfe’.”
The show usually featured a live performance and interview from bands who were playing later that in the week at places like the infamous Chukker. The show was a great attribute for direct promotion.
“In any town of Tuscaloosa’s size, musicians know a lot of other musicians, and most were familiar with WVUA-FM being the only source of local and independent music for many miles,” said Overstreet. “What I really got a sense of after hundreds of acts is just how musically incestuous a small local scene can be.
Being a smaller town reduced the number of people interested in local, original music. However, those who were into it, are really, really passionate about it, he said.
Tuscaloosa’s scene also would not have thrived without the writings of Mark Hughes Cobb from the Tuscaloosa News, who was huge supporter of local music and even participated in performing.
Since the eighties, Cobb has written hundreds of stories about the bands who called Tuscaloosa home, hoping to convince readers that the music is actually worth listening to.
“People have this idea that if it comes from here, it’s not any good,” said Cobb. “[They think] if it’s local, it must suck. Someone has to tell them.” Cobb is definitely the person to tell them.
Even today, while he does not write as many music stories as he did previously, the ones he does write really elaborate on what an interesting set up we have in this city.
“It’s hard for a band to build a crowd,” said Cobb. “There is a lot of support between musicians, for other musicians, partly because there is not a lot of support for original music.”
Ronnie Lee Gipson started playing shows in his hometown of Tuscaloosa when he was 13. Now 27, he can be found throughout Tuscaloosa and Birmingham playing with a multitude of different bands. When he is not playing, there is a good chance he can be found at Egan’s on the Strip watching other original artists perform. In these last 14 years, he has been in over 20-something bands between here and Birmingham.
Gipson has a slightly different perspective on Tuscaloosa’s music since he started so young.
“There was time when you couldn’t see the same band twice in a two month span. Currently, there are roughly ten solid bands, compared to over 25 a few years ago,” said Gipson. “I think we hit a decline and have been there for awhile. But it’s about to turn around. I feel it.
Even though he lives in the downward spiral of the Tuscaloosa music world, one aspect that he believes in is the family he has found with his fellow musicians.
“We are tight knit and everyone likes each other. It’s all about the love, and it’s about the family we have.”
Gipson is in the wave of the current local bands who are actively writing, recording, and performing all original music, which makes fans of Tuscaloosa music, like Josh Eyer, extremely happy.
Eyer is the one constant in local music that makes bands who play here feel special, like they are doing something right. He is always in the front and talking to artists in between songs, telling them what a great job they are doing. He always encourages audience participation, and without him, the music community would not thrive.
“If Josh Eyer is at a show, and you aren’t there, it’s a safe assumption that you are fucking up,” Gipson bluntly stated.
“The range of music you can get from our venues is really awesome,” said Eyer. “If you support it, and you show up, it can be good. Tuscaloosa has a really good scene going on now. Tuscaloosa’s music now is as good as now as it was in the 90s. You’ve gotta support what you love, especially in a small town. It’s not a very large music scene.”
Several have commented on Eyer’s participation and look to him with admiration, but one of the most powerful descriptions comes from Daniel Walker, guitarist for local band, Ferguson and the Copper Dogs.
“I strive to be as good of a musician as Josh Eyer is a music fan,” said Walker.
Sarah Ferguson, also from Ferguson and the Copper Dogs, said that Eyer is proof that music thrives on mutualism. Performance is a two-way exchange, and with good, supportive fans, greatness can happen.
“If we want Tuscaloosa to have a better music scene, we have to do it together,” said Ferguson. “I can say from experience that I am super lucky to have people like [Josh] who support local musicians.”
Eyer appreciates all types and styles of music and is willing to go see his friends play music just for the sake of seeing live music. Having the kind of attitude where you will go listen to a band that you have never heard of is absolutely essential to the growth of a music scene.
Fans are what make the music scene thrive on community. Fans also encourage friendship, which is what makes Tuscaloosa’s scene so unique.
In the early 2000s, there was an anomaly of a jazz group that did not fit within the realms of what most bands from the area sounded like. This band was called the Hypsys.
The Hypsys were comprised of what is now two-fifths of current popular Tuscaloosa and CBDB.
“People were interested in the technicality of the music we were playing,” said David Ray, bass player. “For a trio playing some really out there music in a college town, I’d say we were a smashing success. The scene here hadn’t quite developed as much as it has recently. But, for whatever reason, people did like us, and our fans were mostly other musicians or jam band fans.”
Like a lot of bands, the Hypsys faded away, but the sound they created is now a major influence on CBDB, who has put Tuscaloosa on the map as a considerable music town for the first time in almost 30 years.
This is where we meet Cy Simonton, front man of CBDB, who came to Tuscaloosa from Georgia for college.
CBDB has developed their own sound called Joyfunk, which is a blend of Funk, Jam, and Improv, mixed with Jazz, Rock, and Metal, among others.
Simonton is a big supporter and an active member of the Tuscaloosa music scene and how it functions.
“It is a more inclusive and non-judgemental community, unlike Athens or Nashville, who have more credibility,” he said. “It is a great place to come and practice playing in front of people without much pressure because it is not very competitive. There is a close knit group of people who are trying to do this.”
He strongly believes that this scene could be better if fewer people are dismissive about what talents come from this city. “When people think Tuscaloosa, they think football, but part of the sport’s town mentality is what makes here a good place to start,” he said.
“That is something we have had to overcome as a band in other markets,” Simonton said. “There is a ton of an interest in the crowds of people who want to see original music in bigger, more established cities. If more people would continue to pursue that here, it could be great.”
Simonton loves the start he got from this city. He thinks it is “pretty legit” and is proud of the growth in musicians and community he has seen in the last five years of performing here.
Several other local bands have also made their way into the community and have developed friendships with the other in order to prove to outsiders that Tuscaloosa is more than just a sports town, which could better improve our image.
Tyler Cameron, drummer for one of Tuscaloosa’s newest bands, Search Party, came from another sports town: Knoxville, Tennessee. The scene here was a pleasant surprise to a newcomer like him.
“The community around here is something I’ve never seen the likes of,” said Cameron. “Between the open mic nights at Green Bar and the people who are succeeding at different levels, like CBDB and The Doctors and The Lawyers, have been there to provide very sound advice for us. Their help has known no bounds.”
Kris Pourchot from local Rock band, Manchino, is always pushing to get more bands to come together for the greater good of the music community.
“There are a lot of bands doing their own music, which is important to have,” said Pourchot. “Everyone is on the same team here. There is no one trying to sabotage the other guy.”
That is one aspect that is important to have in a thriving community: people helping instead of bringing down others.
Another local band on their way to hometown hero status is The Doctors and The Lawyers.
After forming in late 2011, the members knew they had a sound and a connection that was special. As an audience member, you can see and hear that in their live performance.
Jordan Kumler, drummer for the group, recalls a story when he knew this city was something special.
“The moment I knew this community was really special was the first time we played at Green Bar a couple months after we released our album, Hear It Again, last year,” said Kumler. “It was the first time I looked out in the crowd and saw most of the people were singing our song, “Trybliss”, lyrics back at us. That was genuinely awesome.”
Kumler knows that the success of his band would not be possible without the support of local outlets and other local musicians.
As a Tuscaloosa musician, he has seen the music community here grow. It has been incredibly encouraging and energizing for him, whether it is spreading the word about local bands or giving energy back to them on stage at shows, he said it has been really nice to see the love for local music grow into a supportive community.
“I think the thing that is most impressive is the sheer speed at which this has grown,” Kumler said. “I have seen support for live music spread exponentially over the past couple of years: from 90.7 hosting local band interviews, the Crimson White doing pieces on local bands, the growth and success for Green Bar; it adds up. All of this effort by very driven individuals with a passion for music has really made this town a pleasure to perform in.”
Keyboard player for The Doctors and The Lawyers, Taylor Atkinson, is also a big believer in the music community within the city.
“”The music scene has helped the city grow,” said Atkinson. “This could be huge.”
Another member of Search Party, Shane Stephens, states that The Doctors and The Lawyers were one of the first groups that helped his band when they started. He is another example of someone who believes in the power of music in Tuscaloosa.
“People who have been here for ten years or more will tell you that now is a great time for Tuscaloosa music,” Stephens said. “There is such a great selection of music, a lot of rock and roll.”
Sarah Ferguson, is proud of the growth she has seen in this scene.
“When I saw CBDB, Callooh, Callay, and We Killed The Dinosaur Stickers, I wanted to be a part of that, and now we are on our way there,” she said.
As a band, they always go see their friends’ bands because they know attendance is a big factor in what makes a scene great. In a conversation with Ferguson and Daniel Walker, they discussed crowd attendance and musician collaboration. Without that, you will get nowhere.
“We have the perfect amount of bands where there is no competition, which is great for growth,” said Ferguson. “We have a good relationship with all the bands here, and we try and support everybody.”
“[Bands] have to support each other or this will go nowhere,” Walker agreed.
Ultimately, the Tuscaloosa music scene is thriving. As a member of this music community, I have striven to be the best audience member I know to be. I support my friends; I take pictures, and I write about them. I interview them. I play their music on the radio station.
Tuscaloosa has the potential to be the next great music town, in addition to being the best sports town. It is all a matter of perception.
Some, like local musician, D.C. Moon, thinks the best moment camaraderie Tuscaloosa has seen came with the closing of the Chukker.
“So many wanted to participate, and they did,” he said. “It was something special and hard to describe. We were the last of six bands to play, and there were hundreds of folks cheering us on, even though we started at 4:30 in the morning and didn’t stop until almost 6:30. It was a pretty special night for music and culture here.”
Some bands play to empty rooms because of an audience’s inability to listen. Some bands play to full rooms of their friends. Some bands play in storage units. Some bands are true works of art. To me, that is a community. That is a friendship. That is collaboration. That is Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Mark Hughes Cobb said it best, “People come from somewhere and sometimes, it is Tuscaloosa.”
Not bad…but Tuscaloosa has much deeper music roots than you covered. Not that you were trying to write a book, I understand. Thanks for an interesting read!