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SHIVER ME TIMBERSWITH A YEAR OF PLUNDER IN THE HOLD, THE PIRATES FINALLY SET SAIL FOR HOME

When they made their first concert appearance in the Valley last November, the Pirates of the Mississippi had barely set sail. But thanks to a rollicking cover of Luke the Drifter's jumpin' "Honky Tonk Blues," the quintet managed to catch country radio's half-deaf ear. Hopes were high for a cool cruise to Cape Cash.

Aye, and it looks like they just might make it, matey.
"It's starting to sink in," says pleased Pirates' lead singer Bill McCorvey. He and lead picker Rich Alves founded the band in Alves' basement in 1984. "We haven't really had time to reflect on it, though."

That's because these music-making buccaneers have been on an extended road cruise since August 1990. Already this year, the band has played 150 dates, and it won't get a real port call until this month.

"That's right," McCorvey sighs. "We're celebrating our one-year anniversary of being on the road. But we're set for a ten-day vacation later this month--in fact, right after our show in Phoenix." The day of our conversation, the Pirates are scheduled to play a hot-air-balloon show in Indianola, Iowa. While stormy weather there threatens to deflate this high-flying corn-belt affair ("Ain't too many balloons going up today," McCorvey chuckles), it doesn't seem to be raining on the Pirates' parade. The night before, the band had wowed a crowd of some 50,000 at a Minnesota festival.

"We got a tremendous reaction from all those people," McCorvey says enthusiastically. "I can't tell you how it feels when they start hootin' and applauding after just the first couple chords. Not only the singles, either--all the songs from the album."

McCorvey and shipmates have a right to be pleased and proud. After experiencing a fair amount of success with their first single "Honky Tonk Blues" and the follow-up "Rollin' Home," the Pirates' third single has garnered the gang all sorts of attention. "Feed Jake," an emotional and richly lyrical ballad by the Pirates' pal Danny Bear Mayo, has inspired listeners to a wide variety of interpretations. While the chorus appears to be a simple prayer for the care of the singer's dog ("If I should die before I wake/Feed Jake"), the verses discuss a number of seemingly unrelated social questions.

"I don't think there's really a right answer to what the song means," says McCorvey. "Everybody in the band has completely different ideas about it, too. Everyone agrees, though, that it does more than fill up your ears. It fills up your heart." Adding to the controversy is the song's video, which, in the different-drummer spirit of the band, eschews the lip-synching, chick-packing-her-duds, gauzy-goo norm for a more cerebral approach. Naturally, McCorvey loves it all. The whirlpool of chatter surrounding "Feed Jake" has been a boon to album sales and concert receipts.

"It's fed us," McCorvey laughs.
Yet a fourth entry from the disc is poised to provide an even more bountiful booty for the boys. "Speak of the Devil" has climbed high up the charts, and the early odds have it surpassing the success of "Feed Jake."

Only a few years ago, however, all of these treasures seemed hopelessly buried.

The five Pirates--McCorvey, Alves, drummer Jimmy Lowe, steel guitarist/dobro player Pat Severs and bassist Dean Townson, all veteran bandsmen--scrambled out of Alves' basement only to play for tips and rum at tiny Nashville club the Sutler, and the Smyrna, Tennessee, VFW Hall. Their unvarnished, airtight sets eventually caught the fancy of rambling producer Jimmy Bowen, who led the group on a tour of labels until he finally found harbor as captain of Capitol-Nashville.

In the middle of this odyssey, the managerless Pirates cut an album's worth of tunes, but were horrified at the results. The pure, freeform cellar sounds that had gained them notice in the first place had been gussied up in the studio with a tsunami of pretty strings and things. The project was tossed in the drink.

Vowing to their ownselves be true, the band hit the studio decks a-running, waving aside booths, earphones and the other trappings of modern mixing. While the Pirates had another extended wait for their album's eventual June 1990 aweigh date, none of them is complaining about the end result.

"That's the way we'll do it," McCorvey promises. "Our roots run wide and deep, and what you'll hear in concert is what you'll hear on the album."

Same goes for the as-yet-unnamed new disc, due to hit the bins this September. Amid the never-ending road stops, the Pirates somehow found a week to make it into the studio, and that's all the time it took for the band to get the job done.

According to McCorvey, fans of the first Pirates of the Mississippi treasure trove will love this chest o' songs, as well.

"It's got more country, and it's got more rock," he says. "But we're mostly a country band--although we do push the edge a lot." McCorvey says one song, "This Ain't the Denver I Remember," is "stone country," while another, "Nashville Nights/Redneck Blues," is an 11-minute jam that segues from an Allman Brothers-flavored instrumental to down-home blues.

So far, this leisurely, go-our-own-way navigation has gotten the Pirates where they want to go. McCorvey attributes the success to age, wisdom and a lack of ego.

"We can party with the best of them, but when it's time to work, it's time to work. Besides, we're not 21 years old anymore--we've pretty much lived out our party time.

"We're just cruising now," says McCorvey, an up-a-lazy-river ring of satisfaction in his drawl. "We almost always do things together, and even the crew goes out with us. There are no stars in this band."

Pirates of the Mississippi will perform at Mr. Lucky's on Thursday, August 15. Showtimes are 8 and 10 p.m.

"Our roots run wide and deep, and what you'll hear in concert is what you'll hear on the album."

"We can party with the best of them, but when it's time to work, it's time to work."

Amid the never-ending road stops, the Pirates somehow found a week to make it into the studio, and that's all it took to get the job done.

"I can't tell you how it feels when they start hootin' and applauding after just the first couple chords."

So far, this leisurely, go-our-own-way navigation has gotten the Pirates where they want to go.

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Larry Crowley