By Laura Childers
In our world, we tend to think about creativity as a flash of brilliance or cries of “Eureka!” But what if creativity usually looks more like taking old ideas
and transforming them into something new?
So proposes thought leader and filmmaker Kirby Ferguson in his now-famous Ted Talk called “Everything is a Remix.” Since 2012, his challenge to one of society’s most prevalent myths about art – namely, that creative people begin with a blank slate – has gone viral, calling attention to the fact that all artists, whether they’re authors, musicians, or filmmakers, borrow from those who have gone before.
Here in Chattanooga, you can certainly see the remix concept at work within our local music scene. And why should it surprise us? We’re situated in a region of the country that gave birth to America’s most distinctive music genres – from blues to jazz, old-time string bands, and bluegrass. Our artists have an unparalleled opportunity to pull from the melting pot that is American music.
The artists profiled here couldn’t vary more in sound, but they share this particular aesthetic: a respect for the musical traditions that have come before them and a penchant for building on our region’s musical past in creative ways. It’s an approach that, beyond making their work compelling, carries the weight of bringing our history into our future. And considering our city’s track record for reinventing itself over and over again, you could argue that it’s a distinctly Chattanoogan aesthetic too.
9th Street Stompers
From hot swing and gypsy jazz to rural blues, old-time, tango, zydeco, and even punk rock, it’s really difficult to find a type of music that hasn’t influenced the 9th Street Stompers. Drawing their name from the days when MLK was called 9th Street and home to a vibrant music scene, the band evokes a bygone era without pinning itself to any one genre.
“You know the old saying that you play what you listen to? Well, we listen to everything,” says upright bassist and co-bandleader Skip Frontz Jr. “You name a type of music you can dance to, and we play it.”
The band formed a few years back in a three-month period they call “serendipitous.” Frontz had just moved to Chattanooga, and when locals heard his musical chops they urged him to team up with blues guitarist Lon Eldridge. They started busking, playing jazz standards downtown in front of the movie theater. Then one night, they heard someone was playing gypsy jazz at a local biker bar.
That was their now guitarist Dalton Chapman. “We saw he was not only proficient, but virtuosic. He knew the tunes and spoke our language,” says Frontz.
Now with the addition of Samantha “Sampire” Brotherton – who brings a vixen flair to her rhythms on the snare and brushes – the 9th Street Stompers sound like they’ve been jamming together since 1919. Their snazzy dress and quick-witted brand of showmanship are strengthened by natural musicality and no shortage of technical prowess.
“There’s an element of stage banter, but it’s based on real conversations we’ve had just sitting around drinking cocktails,” Eldridge says. “Our stage presence is kind of an exaggerated version of how we really are.”
Their creative process centers on collaboration. Placing a high importance on listening to each other and the greats, they take musical ideas from one genre and apply them to others.
“We can’t really fake what we do or dress it up, because it takes a lot of study to play this stuff,” says Frontz. “We’re not trying to reproduce anything. We just take our listening repertoires and Frankenstein them into something you’ve never heard before.”
The past few months have seen them taking their new EP out on the road and touring it hard. On the rare occasions when they’re home, they’re working up new tunes and arrangements.
And the listening and recording work just keeps on going. “I think connecting with the musicians who came before you is important, because it gives you a jumping off point for your own work,” says Eldridge. “And then future generations can build on that foundation that you’ve set. And so the work goes on and on.”
Caney Creek Company
They may be well on their way to local stardom, but Caney Creek Company will make you feel like you’re family. The five-piece folk/Americana act is strumming their way into the hearts of area listeners with their refreshing authenticity and stripped-down Roots Revival sound.
Lyricizing the hills of Tennessee, the comfort of holding someone you love, and the ache of death, Caney Creek’s narrative-driven songs offer poignant windows into everyday, ordinary life.
“In our minds, you don’t have to go far out of your way to make a song good. The material is right there with all of us,” says band mandolinist Drew Streip.
Frontman and lead songwriter Konstantine Vlasis has spent most of his musical career studying percussion and world music, but when his mom gave him a banjo two Christmases ago, he was inspired to gather some of his best friends together for a jam session. According to Streip, something just “clicked” at that first rehearsal.
“I had been in bands before, but until that moment I had never had a first rehearsal where so much got accomplished,” Streip says. “I remember thinking: now I get why Konstantine wanted to do this. These people not only knew their instruments, but they had learned efficient ways to practice.”
He’s talking about fiddler/vocalist Katie Bradford, guitarist Corey Bradford, and upright bassist Doug Ford. Prior to joining the band all were active as soloists; together, they bring a sophisticated set of musical tools to their arrangements.
Caney Creek’s five-song EP (released in January) reveals they aren’t just piggy-backing on the popularity of roots music bands like the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons. It lacks contrivance; the arrangements accentuate their musical strengths as individuals, while the lyrics tell personal stories of love, loss, life, and death.
“The goal of playing this music isn’t necessarily to entertain people,” says Streip. “You want to resonate with the audience, but it comes back to the truism that if you write songs about your own life, other people will have experienced similar things.”
He continues: “We’re not the Stanley Brothers, we’re not Ricky Skaggs. We’re not trying to say, ‘This is how traditional or folk music should be played.’ It’s just our own take on it based on our talents and our tastes. We see ourselves as an addition to the catalogue.”
Fans can expect a full album Caney Creek Company album later this year.
Mountain Cove Bluegrass
When you think of a virtuosic bluegrass band, you probably don’t think of a group of fresh-faced 20-somethings. And yet Mountain Cove Bluegrass gives the impression they’ve been playing together for 50 years.
All Tennessee natives, the band members have bluegrass music in their blood. By the time he was five, banjoist Cody Harvey was already picking on a four string and spending his weekends at the Signal Mountain Opry. Then while in high school at Signal Mountain, he and some of his bluegrass-loving friends started bringing their instruments to lunch.
“We would just jam through our lunch hour,” he recalls.
The teens began playing Saturday nights at the Mountain Opry, where they found a welcoming home audience for their foot-stomping tunes and smooth harmonies. “The opry pretty much gave us our start. It’s where we learned how to play in front of a crowd and talk to folks,” says Harvey.
The band’s current lineup includes Tyler Martelli on mandolin, Eli Beard on guitar, Will Markham on bass, and Chris Brown on fiddle. All five members are recipients of the Share America Foundation’s Pearl and Floyd Franks Scholarship, given each year to two students excelling in an Appalachian-style instrument.
When they aren’t in school or at work, you can find them playing bluegrass every Monday night on the Southern Belle or working on their latest album, Chattanooga Bound. Slated for a June release, it will showcase the band’s recent efforts to push traditional bluegrass into new territory.
“We’ve started doing some classic rock in a bluegrass style, and it’s gotten really good responses from the crowds. We’ve coined the term ‘grassic rock,’” says Harvey.
The title track on their upcoming album is a love song to the city. Harvey says it’s taken on new significance following the July attacks on local military recruiting centers. “We sat out to write a good bluegrass song, but after all that happened it became a tribute, and people have really connected with it.”
If you ask the band what drives them, they’ll say it’s just for the love of what they do.
“Bluegrass music is like medicine. We often refer to it as our therapy,” Harvey says. “It’s not made to make a lot of money. It’s just improvisation, coming straight from the soul of a man. Whatever you’re feeling at the time is what you play.”
He says part of it, too, is about rediscovering the area’s musical past.
“I think my generation is just so hungry for good music again. We’re looking for something that feels real. Living in this part of the country makes me proud to play the music that I do, because I feel like I’m continuing something that has been here for centuries.”
Put on one of Matt Downer’s latest full-length albums and you’ll swear it was recorded in the 1920s. His old-time sound breathes living history – and it’s just a small piece of his work to revive a long-gone way of thinking about music.
“People today get hung up on the technology and make everything sound surgically clean, but to my ears, it doesn’t sound as intriguing. When you put on a cylinder or field recording, the imperfections and background sounds offer a snapshot of a time and place. There’s an energy and vitality that has always appealed to me.”
Downer grew up on Sand Mountain, where he was exposed to old-time music from his earliest years. Now he’s recorded more than 30 regional old-time musicians in his field work, making him one of the Chattanooga area’s chief music preservationists.
Downer never set out to be an old-time music ambassador and preservationist. But when he started playing guitar alongside his granddad at age 16, one thing led to another and he found himself curious to learn traditional music techniques.
Shortly after, a family friend passed away with very little documentation of his distinct guitar style or remarkable storytelling ability.
“It shocked me, and it made me realize how important it is to document that stuff when you can,” he says. “I felt like I hadn’t even scratched the surface of what he knew.”
Downer has long since traded his guitar for the clawhammer banjo and old-time fiddle, but the same sense of urgency drives his musical work today. Besides his field work, he’s recorded four volumes of old-time tunes with guitarist Clark Williams under the moniker “Old Time Travelers.” On his latest album, he teams up with Micah Spence for eight old-time numbers under the moniker “Old Chattanooga.”
“There’s such a rich tradition and a deep well of songs and tunes that I sometimes feel like I’m just getting started,” he says.
Downer is also well known locally for resurrecting the Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers Convention, which drew crowds in the thousands to Chattanooga while at its height in the ’20s and ’30s. Today, the convention has a small, but loyal following that grows every year.
“It feels like a big family reunion,” he says. “Old-time music has always been underground and non-commercial, but that makes it all the more rewarding. There’s a mutual respect that everyone has toward the music, toward the history, and toward each other.”