Bands just don't get much less glamorous than the Pirates of the Mississippi. Sure, they're sitting pretty now with a chart-happy debut album, fueled by a driving cover of Hank Sr.'s "Honky Tonk Blues," but Nashville's grimiest-sounding country band spent a good part of the late Eighties, literally, in the basement.
In 1984, lead guitarist Rich Alves and singer-guitarist Bill McCorvey were laborers at a Music City songwriting mill. They'd written a few tunes for themselves and were looking to test them. To this end, they recruited the rest of their crew: Steel-dobro pro Pat Severs was making a fine living as a sought-after sessionist; bassist Dean Townson was working in a factory; and stickman Jimmy Lowe had given up the road for the steady-as-she-goes life of a computer analyst. Soon, all found themselves in Alves' basement, practicing the songwriting pair's cache of tunes. The chemistry seemed flawless. The music had a sweetly serrated edge to it, and McCorvey's sharp, distinctive vocals fit it well. They liked their unadorned garage sound so much that they would later fight to maintain its calloused purity, keeping Nashville and success at arm's length.
When they first emerged aboveground, it was a small step up, to say the least. The gig was at the Smyrna, Tennessee, VFW, about a million miles from Nashville. It definitely didn't possess the sort of sequin-and-rhinestone flash of the Music City rooms that lured A&R reps or talent scouts. One evening, however, a barrister with music connections heard the Pirates and contacted Nashville producer James Stroud with a rave review. Soon the boys in the band found themselves in serious discussions with MCA Records. Then, just as a contract seemed to be in the offing, label chief Jimmy Bowen abandoned the company to form Universal Records. The fivesome followed Bowen to Universal, cut two sides' worth of songs, but was less than pleased with the results. The Pirates' edgy garage sound had been spruced to oblivion.
Back in the studio for another try, the Pirates went at it like they were still in Rich Alves' basement, eschewing separate recording booths and earphones. Except for a small dobro riff by Severs, the band's new effort contained no overdubbing. The project was slated for a 1988 release when Jimmy Bowen took the plum position of running Capitol-Nashville. While the band followed in Bowen's wake once again, it was another two years of day jobs and VFW nights before their inaugural album finally was launched in June.
It was well worth the port time. The years of indefatigable tenacity and fine tuning has produced an impressive debut. Alves and McCorvey's material, supplemented by Danny Bear Mayo, Waylon Holyfield, and Guy Clark, carries well-crafted messages of freedom and tolerance.
The steel-filled Holyfield-Clark effort "I Take My Comfort in You" is a gentle masterpiece, and "Jolly Roger/Pirates of the Mississippi" segues from a Ventures-like instrumental to the anthemic second-half motto: "Stealing time/And fishing for free." And the Pirates complement that serene sentiment in the laid-back "Anything Goes": "Nobody knows all the answers/Some people walk different roads/So live and let live/Anything goes."
The band's long estrangement from Nashville has served it well. Nothing on the album is formulaic or accompanied by such frightening entities as the Nashville String Machine. "Rolling Home," "Speak of the Devil," and "Down and Out in Birmingham" will bring to mind the likes of those early-to-mid-Seventies bands that emerged from the Byrds' long, rich shadow: the Flying Burrito Brothers, Pure Prairie League, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and the underrated Amazing Rhythm Aces. The same kind of sanguine, anticountry country flavors are here, spiced by superior musicianship and solid songwriting. Few morsels this good escape from the processors inside Nashville's Pine Curtain these days.
Pirates of the Mississippi will perform at Mr. Lucky's on Wednesday, November 14. Showtimes are 8 and 10 p.m.
The gig was at the Smyrna, Tennessee, VFW, about a million miles from Nashville.
Back in the studio for another try, the Pirates went at it like they were still in Rich Alves' basement, eschewing separate recording booths.