I’m sitting alone with my back against the wall in a large and dusty room, empty save some mic stands and a box full of baseball caps. It’s 1 am at the end of the worst day ever—no sleep, double flight, pick up a Penske truck, pack and clean two houses, fist fight with best friend, Miller High Life… and a song called “Redneck Radio” is stuck in my head. Funny thing is: the song’s pretty damn good. The band’s called Tailgate South. The record’s called Don’t Fix It. And the whole project might be one of the brightest signs of life in current popular country music. The High Life’s cold, too, so I guess things could be worse.
They say there are a million guitar pickers in Nashville, but they rarely talk about the twenty-bazillion songwriters. Each one has written at least 200 songs, 30 good ones, and five great ones. Tailgate South is comprised of three dudes: one, Mickey Kelley, is a talented one of those songwriters, and the other two, Tony Lopacinski and Mike Meadows, are a talented two of those guitar pickers (who also happen to be seasoned songwriters). Mickey sings lead while Tony and Mike back him up. Important note: Tony and Mike are transplants from the rock world. This makes sense, because country is the new pop/rock—look at crossovers like Jewel, Jessica Simpson, Bon Jovi, etc.—not to mention the fact that a lot of new country music sounds like Matchbox 20 with a pedal steel.
So, to what extent does rock music rear its beautifully ugly head on this pop country record? The album opener, “Back Behind the Barn,” a song about where natives of rural milieux go to engage in sexual congress, cleverly rips off the main riff of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” And Tailgate South’s guitar work is exactly what blurs the line between country and rock for the record’s more aggressive tracks. “Million Miles from Monday” starts with a riff that astutely fuses country chicken-pickin’ and 70s southern rock à la Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps.” The aforementioned “Redneck Radio” includes a breakdown section reminiscent of Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator.” These harder influences give Don’t Fix It a tone familiar to heavy rock fans while maintaining a charming pop sensibility.
Consider “Country Romeo,” a feel-good love song that says it all in the title and tastefully flirts with sentimentality—the kind of tenderness that will put a cheesy smile on your face without making you feel cheesy. The title track similarly paints a sweet picture of domesticity; there’s work to be done, sure, but it can wait until a little more love gets made. All this affection, of course, is well dispersed amongst other standard country themes like drinking and strumming an old guitar. In fact, Don’t Fix It is the perfect title for this album. Tailgate South’s debut is a meticulously crafted obeisance to the high art of simplicity.
And it shines brightest particularly on the ballads. Each one is a consummate example of a different type of love song: love gone bad (“Party of One”), love gone good (“That’s Where We’re Going”), and love gone drunk (“Me or the Whiskey”). These songs showcase Mickey Kelley’s voice at its best. His singing style is vulnerable yet stoic, composed yet expressive. He demonstrates this on “Me or the Whiskey” by sounding dispirited and beaten without resorting to melodramatic lamenting. Complementing this tempered demeanor on “Party of One” is Devin Belle, another fresh talent with exquisite backing vocals.
Speaking of backing musicians, a healthy share of this album’s success can be attributed to the solicitous instrumentals—in other words, these cats sound like they actually like what they’re playing. Listen to drummer Kevin Murphy on “Redneck Radio.” He apparently got the memo that the band was re-recording Led Zeppelin II. Whether that memo was real or imaginary, he lit that track on fire. Bass player Amos Heller can hold a groove like the old Stax guys while pushing massive air like Flea—in a word: beefcake. Will Doughty, who contributes outstanding middle ground texture to every single track, plays keys with enviable fluidity, and Kevin Arrowsmith’s fiddle soars with style and grace. A big part of the Nashville sound these days seems to be fitting square song-pegs into round session player-holes. The Tailgate South record avoids this fundamental problem; the songs appropriately satisfy the propensities of the players, and vice versa.
What, really, though, sets Tailgate South apart from all the other boring pop country pop country pop? The answer is that Tony Lopacinski is the type of producer who folds his underwear. WARNING: the following criticism is unapologetically esoteric (for my music dork homies). The track sequencing adheres to classical harmonic progression! Track One in “A” modulates to its relative major in “C” which ends with an ascending melody to the dominant “G” which is the key of Track Three, you see. Track Four descends a chromatic mediant to “E” before it parallels to Track Five’s “E” minor (it’s more fun if you pronounce minor mi-nore). The Six of tracks “D”s dominant “A” becomes Seven and Eight which with innate purpose acts as dominant to the key of “D” for tracks Nine and Ten to reveal an extended V-I cadence from beginning to end… And, all the while, the album flows with cohesive clarity, stylistically. What’s the point, Dr. Seuss? The point is you don’t hear this kind of careful articulation on most pop albums.
Ultimately, that is the greatest achievement of Tailgate South’s debut, Don’t Fix It. It avoids the standard procedure of its contemporaries—that is, getting the money right and shilling the ragtag product to the masses with Godspeed—in favor of taking the time to make a rewarding and enjoyable pop record. Pop records like this don’t feign some sort of revolutionary ideal about how your life will change upon one listen. Pop records like this are carefully manifested to accommodate what’s already going on in your life. And it’s pop records like this that play on the soundtrack of that moment when knew you were ready to pop the question; the soundtrack of that long drive through the hometown you hadn’t seen in years; the soundtrack of the end of the worst day ever—in a large and dusty room with a cold High Life.
Tripper Ryder is a composer and session bass player in Nashville,TN. When not studying counterpoint, he enjoys the music of Madonna and Meshuggah.