Growing up in Georgia, singer-guitarist Ron Pope found that he was “near all the music that influenced everything.”
“If you wanted to drive to the fields where Muddy Waters picked cotton or where Robert Johnson sold his soul or if you wanted to go to Dr. John’s house or go to Memphis to see where Otis recorded, all that stuff is right there,” he says via phone from Nashville, where he runs a small record label. “Little Richard and Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers are from Macon. Tom Petty is from North Florida. All these things intersect."
And that's not to mention the country, gospel and folk music that comes from the South.
"American music that influenced the rest of the world is from this tiny space," he says. "Loving the blues and loving country music, that’s a delightful thing. Levon Helm talks about folk and country and R&B and he has said if you put a good strong back beat behind it then you have rock ‘n’ roll. In my mind, that’s the best part of growing up in the South. Dr. John or Otis Redding or Muddy Waters or the Allmans or the Carter Family are all part of the same continuum.”
Pope distills that continuum on his new self-titled album, an album that reflects his various influences and shows off his narrative-based songwriting. The album actually came together on a whim. A singer-songwriter who’s toured and recorded on his own for years, Pope sought to follow up a successful 2014 tour with an even bigger tour. So he started calling his musician friends to see if they might be available. Normally, they’re too busy to commit to a tour. But he had a good stroke of luck and found that he could get everyone that was on his wish list.
“These guys are busy dudes,” he says. “I started calling them and I don’t know if the universe decided it would work this time. I had no intentions of starting a band or making a new album. Once I had the other six guys in place, I realized they’re all incredible singers. It’s like being in a choir only everyone has a beard and wears lots of denim. I thought I should write something with big harmonies.”
In Los Angeles with a few days off, he started writing songs with the band in mind. First, he wrote the soulful “White River Junction,” a Southern rock-inspired tune that features harmony vocals and gritty guitars.
“Then, I wrote another song,” he says. “I started writing and I had all these dudes. I started to think we should record an album. We went to Georgia with the intention of making me another solo album and then going on this tour and that was going to be it. When we got there, my friend who is a world-renowned engineer and producer came with us. He’s an incredibly talented dude. He came to record us. You could feel that we were becoming a band as we were doing this. Everyone was contributing to song arrangements and everyone was getting along really well.”
He describes his band mates, the Nighthawks, as “the best I’ve ever seen at what they do.”
“I’ve seen them on stage in other bands and sometimes you see Andrew Pertes, our bass player, playing and he’s so much better than every other person in this band,” he says. “Everyone in this band has been in that position. In this band, they come together and they’re like an all-star team. It was like falling in love. It’s like nothing else I ever experience but finding true love. It’s like this is the place I’ve belonged my whole life. That’s how it became a band and this became the debut release for us. We just naturally transitioned into this thing. For me, it’s been a revelation. I look to my left and this guy is a monster and I look to my right and that guy is a monster. We love to challenge each other on stage.”
Critics have compared Pope to Springsteen, and Pope admits he’s flattered to hear those comparisons.
“I always felt a kinship because he sort of did what I did,” he says. “He was a rock band guy and then went to New York and did the Village folk scene thing. He said the difference between him and everyone else who came out of Greenwich Village holding an acoustic guitar playing folk music was that when the lights went out, he could take out his Telecaster and burn the building to the ground. When people come to see my band and know my earliest work from the demos I made and I’m two hours into my set and I’m playing the guitar behind my head and pouring out sweat, it’s a little bit of a revelatory experience to some people. That’s one of the fun parts of the tour is that it’s good to inform people about who I am. The band I’m in is the kind of ensemble that makes you want to get up and dance. I love a great story song and I like making people be quiet, but I have more fun making people get loud.”
Ron Pope + the Nighthawks, Jonathan Tyler, Truett, 9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $15-$65, beachlandballroom.com.
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]