Tag Archives: Proud Larry’s

Of Swampfoot and Gunboats: A Night Of Delta Twists on Classic Rock

It was the first real day of summer in Oxford, Mississippi.  The kind of day that took me back to my childhood growing up on a Mississippi Delta cotton farm in Tallahatchie County.  It had been Larrys_HTunseasonably cold and rainy for weeks, so the ground was saturated.  But the sun broke through the clouds early enough in the day to create a steamy atmosphere—a thickness that sticks to your bones like gumbo mud and makes curly hair poof and straight hair stick to your head like a drowned rat.

The air smelled of sweet, wet earth as I stepped out of my car on the square in Oxford, rare because the square is mostly concrete all around now, like Joni Mitchell’s worst nightmare.  But Joni would approve of my destination:  Proud Larry’s.  I realize it is most fitting that on this steamy Delta-like day the Greenwood, Mississippi-based band Gunboat is going to play.  I had caught a couple of songs at a Gunboat show a while back and was significantly intrigued.  I had to come back to see a full show.

Gunboat has been around for eleven years.  Its band members consist of Will Freeman on lead guitar, Jonbob Wise on keyboard and lead vocals, Bubba McCabe on bass guitar and lead vocals, and Harrison Smith on drums.  All of them grew up together in Greenwood, which creates a family-like atmosphere onstage that beautifully transfers to the crowd.

Opening that night for Gunboat was Swampfoot, which also includes Freeman plus Taylor Wood (also on guitar), Zechariah “Zac” Lloyd Tollotson on drums, and Stephen “Stevo” McCain on the bass.  They started out with an awesome jam that was up there with the likes of Phish with a twangy blues twist, then straight into “Whipping Post.” Next was “Cheap Sunglasses” by ZZ Top, into a Zeppelin-like jam, southern style, then into a Panic-Party-At-Your Mama’s-House-like come down…then straight into “No Speak, No Slave” by the Black Crowes.  Zac’s voice sounds like a great eighties hair band singer—in a good way.  With the kitchy comedy-type style of the band, it works beautifully.  Swampfoot goes into a totally new way of playing “One Way Out,” a song originally recorded by the Mississippi Delta blues great Sonny Boy Williamson (a Tallahatchie County native, like me), and made famous by the Allman Brothers.  The Johnny B. Goode-like jam at the end by Taylor Wood was killer.  Next was the Pink Floyd song, “Have a Cigar” with Kell Kellum on pedal steel.  It was spot on—with a Delta blues feel to it.  Kell is also a native of Greenwood, and it came through clearly in his pedal steel solo, giving the song a haunting, country/blues fusion effect.  If this was setting the bar for the night, I knew I was in for a helluva show once Gunboat took the stage.

Well before the start of the Gunboat show, I noticed that the Gunboat crowd is such a fun crowd.  They all seem to know each other, and all seem to be friends.  It felt more like a family reunion than a show—a feeling that I have only gotten with certain bands, Widespread Panic being one of them.  When the band came onstage, Will Freeman did a call-and-response to the crowd, very reminiscent of Colonel Bruce’s “Cheese Frog Zambie” salute.  The band’s original “Happy Hour” started off the set—a blistering Beanland-like, boogie-woogie ballad written and sung by Jonbob Wise, with a really gritty, bluesy edge.  Jonbob’s gravelly voice is perfect for it, and his piano solos are even better.

“Modern Day Reggae,” written and sung by Bubba McCabe, came later.  The chorus begins with, “Mr. Johnson where did you go?”  And as I listen to Will Freeman’s fantastic solo, I’m thinking that I know exactly where Mr. Johnson went—straight into this young man’s fingers.  Freeman flies through his solos effortlessly, with the complete conviction that what he is playing is good. Robert Johnson had a kind of cocksure attitude toward his music ability that can clearly be heard in his live recordings.  Freeman has that same kind of self-assuredness—he is fully aware of his great talent and he wants the crowd to know it, too.

Then into a jammy, keyboard-lead melody by Jonbob that brings the room down like a feather to the floor—it is the intro to “These Balls,” a hilarious song written and sung by Jonbob.  Then it’s on to “Stranglehold” by Ted Nugent, which has become a boilerplate song for the band.  The reference to the movie “Dazed and Confused” is obvious, and there is much more to be drawn from that reference than just “Stranglehold” being on the soundtrack to the movie.  The band’s onstage presence resonates with the “School’s Out For Summer” attitude that is so prevalent in “Dazed”.   Gunboat shows bring the audience back to a simpler, more carefree time in their minds.

Then back > into “Modern Day Reggae” for its last verse—another round of that call and response similar to, “Cheesefrog” (which everyone seems to know but me), and a shout out to the bartender.

Listen to  “Modern Day Reggae > These Balls > Just a Jam > Stranglehold > Modern Day Reggae”

A spaced-out, Phish-like jam finished a song called “El Salvador”, and > “Lennox Man,” a touching song written and sung by Jonbob.  It perfectly ends the show, being reminiscent of the Delta and the ambiance of that special alluvial plane…a lot like Gunboat.  And that’s it.  And I am blown away.

I sat down with Will Freeman to find out a more about the band that had just blown me away on the Larry’s stage.

19 willDid your upbringing in Greenwood, MS, have any influence on your music style?

It did.  I was always exposed to it from an early age.  My father [Johnny Freeman] played with the Gants when he was a teenager, and my uncle on my mother’s side played music and even worked for Fender guitar; so not necessarily the style of my music, but it definitely made me push to play music.

You mention your dad…

That’s right.  He was an original member of the Gants, and then finished up with them as well.

Would you say the Gants influenced your music style?

Yes.  I didn’t really get into the Gants until I was about seventeen or eighteen.  There was always Motown playing in the house, or a Beatles documentary on T.V., and those were what influenced the Gants, so that influenced me as well.

Who are your main musical influences?

It’s really just the standard eighth-grade favorites.  I am a huge Pink Floyd fan, Zeppelin, Garcia.  Trey Anastasio had a big impact on the way I play guitar.  I try to pay tribute to those guys.

What are your favorite bands to go see live?

Really just any band.  I like big production shows like the Stones.  Those big production shows that are really over-the-top are always great.  Or even if it’s just a little bar with just two people in it—it doesn’t matter—as long as it’s good.  I just love seeing live music.

How did Gunboat come about?

Gunboat started when I had just dropped out of Ole Miss and moved back to Greenwood when I was nineteen years old.  There was a guy named Will Pleasants that had a band with Jonbob Wise, our keyboard player, and they were playing so much that they needed a roadie.  I was just this nineteen-year-old kid who was more than happy to help because I loved music and really wanted a band of my own some day.  So he let me sit in [with his band], and it went well.  I told him that I had these two other guys, Bubba McCabe and Harrison Smith, who weren’t doing anything and so we all four [with Jonbob Wise from Pleasant’s band] got together and jammed, and it went great.  That was the start of Gunboat.  And we weren’t called Gunboat for the first year.  Will Pleasants left after that first year.  It was around that time that we started making our own mold where Jonbob and Bubba were writing the music and I was developing my tone and the way I play guitar.  So that’s how it started and that’s how I came to start playing live music.

Why the name, “Gunboat”?

It took a year to name Gunboat.  We had just started with about two weeks of practice and immediately started playing shows, and a name was something we could never agree on.  And Harrison had this hat that said, “Gunboat”—it was just a really random hat—we don’t even know where it is anymore.  But we always kept joking about just naming that band after this stupid hat.  So, after the departure of an original member, we just said, “whatever” and named the band Gunboat.

I’ve noticed that you guys draw a dancing crowd, whereas these days you don’t see much of that unless it’s a techno-type DJ show.  What is it about Gunboat that makes people want to dance?

It’s been eleven years since Gunboat started, and our sound has not really evolved, which is fine—that’s the way I like it and I think that’s the way the other guys [in the band] like it, too.  So, it’s kind-of like a reminder of that late ‘90’s, early 2000’s scene when there wasn’t a lot of techno or that kind of stuff.  I am glad to see music evolve like that, and I enjoy some of that music, but I think our decision to remain in that mode of playing good ‘ol rock and roll has helped, and I think it takes people back to those days when they loved to dance.

What is the song, “Modern Day Reggae” about?

The lyrics to MDR were written by Bubba.  It’s about the experience of driving down Money Road, a road north of Greenwood where the kids from Greenwood would go to ride around and drink beer and just have a good time.  So, of course, we did it as well.  It was a very important place for the kids growing up at that time because we could go out there and listen to whatever music we wanted—rap, country, Phish.  Robert Johnson is buried out there.  It has just been confirmed that his official gravesite is there in the graveyard of an old Baptist church.



The guys in Gunboat are a band of brothers. Johnbob Wise, the band’s keyboard player, told me a little about how that feeling of brotherhood has shaped their music.7 harrison johnbob

How does the music process happen with Gunboat?

Freeman and I sit down and he plays a rift and I put words to it and change up some of the progressions and [we would] make a song that way.  A lot of them were just [made by] me sitting in my living room at my upright piano, and it always happened in the morning-time for some reason.  I would write a song and bring it to the guys, and they always did what they wanted to with them.  They would put their input in on all of them.

What makes you choose the covers you play?

I don’t choose a whole lot of the covers, really.  Freeman and Bubba do mainly.  If something has a good baseline [Bubba] loves, or if it’s something that Freeman likes to play on guitar, we play it.  We do Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”—with a heavy guitar and drums, which Harrison loves, and the Ted Nugent song, “Stranglehold”—very hard guitar parts in that.  So we all work together on the covers, and make sure to feature our all-star, Will Freeman, in the songs.

Who writes the majority of the songs?

I do.  I write most them.  Bubba writes some, too.  But everybody puts their two cents in.  We give the songs to [the rest of the band] and let Harrison go on all of them and let Bubba do his own baselines—let Will do his own guitar.  Music-wise it is all of us.  I’ll get the melody down and then we figure out the rest together.

And then the lyrics…

The lyrics.  That’s me.  As they are, that’s me.

What are songs about, mostly?

I try to be positive.  But they are mainly about women.

Sad songs about women?

Some.  It depends.  Mainly praising the moment with a woman.  Some of them are sad…just different stories.

You have been called a “JoJo Herman that can sing”.   What is your response to that?

Well, I listened to my share of Widespread Panic, and more Beanland than anything.  But when I was younger, before I had even heard of them, I was a big Dr. John fan.  And I have a deep voice, a low voice, so it’s going to come out that way.  So I think of myself more of a “Dr. John” [voice] than anything.  I wanted to be Dr. John when I was young.

How long have you been playing the piano?

Since I was about fifteen years old.  I taught myself.  That’s why you’ll notice that my fingering is all screwed up—nothing’s normal about the way I play.  It holds me back in a lot of ways, because I don’t know what I’m doing; but I have created a rhythm style of my own that I like, and it has become a part of the band’s sound.

Have you done any studio work?

We have.  We did some recording in our hometown at Charles Hall Studio.  We laid down four songs and it was our first time in the studio.  And then we did some work over at Delta State [University]…we laid down four more songs over there, but never finished anything.  I don’t know why.  I guess we procrastinate a lot.  We just never finished anything up.

Do you plan to do a studio album?

We plan to.  We figure after ten years [of playing] we’ll call it, “Ten Years”.

Do you seek fame and fortune?

(Laughing)  No…absolutely not.

What do you seek?

Just having fun…playing music with these guys, and I hope we do it as long as we are able to.  I have always wanted to do this since I was very young, and I enjoy doing it and I hope we continue to do it.  It is about the music, and the friendship—the bond we all have together.  We have a good time.


Railroad Eath half-steps into Mississippi

Railroad Earth

Proud Larry’s

Oxford, Mississippi

June 14, 2007


Categorizing Railroad Earth is hard, yet that’s what music journalists inevitably do.  They’re bluegrass, but amplified and with drums.  The two latter pretty much cancel out the standard definition of the genre, but that’s the closest comparison that can be drawn, even if it’s a progressive one. 

Rooted in Flatt & Scruggs, they now carry the torch with arrangements and song treatments that have endeared them to younger fans and the jamband scene. One thing’s for certain: this ain’t your uncle from Kentucky’s bluegrass.

Does it really matter?  No, because in truth, what they are is one of, if not the tightest goddamn band of musicians touring today.

Continue reading Railroad Eath half-steps into Mississippi

Escaping the Seattle rain

If you’ve been laid off from an uninspiring corporate job, then you know that it can be a liberating feeling, and I welcomed the change.  You have your own time to manage and can get the things done that you would not have had time for otherwise. 

What would I do with this new freedom?

Priority #1: escape the cold rain and snow of February in Seattle.  I thought of nothing but traveling to see some shows.  In mere moments I decided to visit Mississippi and Memphis.  The ghosts of Mississippi have been calling for so long that it seemed rude to ignore them any longer.

Returning to Memphis is always a bit of a spiritual thing for me – call me kooky if you like but I love being close to Elvis.  I grew up on the north end of the Mississippi River and have always taken an interest in its history.  

I first noticed Oxford, Mississippi through Larry Brown’s books.  I was further intrigued by Beanland Rising.  I felt like I had been there because of the wanderlust created by my research, but I know that seeing is believing and was delighted to make this journey happen.

I would see just how much fun a jobless rhythm fool could have in a week.


Day 1: 

I knew Oxford was a small town, and when I drove into the square for the first time, the person I planned to connect with (our beloved Tom Speed) was the first local I spotted.  

It was Fat Tuesday and I smiled at the sight of Tom and his shit-eating grin as he cruised by my rental car, briskly shuffling towards Proud Larry’s.  I turned the corner and was promptly greeted by legendary beings with cold beers and warm smiles.  An instant ease came across- and the good times began.

I can't compare the way that Oxford celebrates Fat Tuesday to New Orleans, as I've never spent the holiday in Louisiana.  What I do know is that a few folks had a good idea of how to make the evening festive.  Proud Larry’s is a venue with a history that made it worthy of hosting the fun.  I was surprised at how small the room was, and at the same time delighted because I came south for just this type of intimate, hometown show experience.

The night started off with a great acoustic set by locals Reid Stone and Patrick McCleary (of DayBreakdown), who were joined by Ben Johnson (Mayhem String Band) and the sweet voice of Gin Gin Abraham.  I took in every song with a smile and thought of how this town was blessed with a string player around every corner.  It seemed that the locals were spoiled and college kids might easily take such things for granted.

Next up was Shannon McNally, with Eric Deaton and Cary Hudson on guitar.  I had been reading about Shannon and was pleased to have the chance to see her play.  I have to say that there was plenty of guitar on stage and Shannon’s vocals took a back seat to the noise – yet none of it was overkill.  I was just drawn to listen that much closer.  Shannon is the real deal, and I anticipate the day I can see her on the west coast.

The Taylor Grocery Band took the final set and made sure to end the evening with a blast of the Big Easy – I love me some Pocky Way!  These guys know how to bring fun to the forefront and it was good to see they thought to bring a trombone player to the stage, making the night right. 

It was great to finally see TGB in the flesh.  I normally only get to listen to this band on CD.  I tend to put them on when I want to have that intimate Southern club feeling in my living room.  I felt blessed.


Day number one’s highlight: Meeting Kinny Kimbrough. ‘Nuff said.


Day 2: 

I made a futile attempt to wake up on Ash Wednesday (A perfectly horrible one in fact).  I took the liberty of an afternoon nap and woke, thank goodness, feeling much better.  After a divine dinner of catfish and Bloody Mary’s at the Ajax Café, I was back on the good foot and ready to see the North Mississippi Allstars at Proud Larry’s. 

This event was on the top of my list when deciding to take the trip.  The lure of a special series of shows, billed as “acoustic,” had a very strong appeal.  I suspected it would not disappoint my immediate entertainment jones.

I was right.

The Allstars are in a very tight place in their career right now.  Having 10 stout years of music behind them is certainly showing on stage.  Lately it has been a challenge for me to keep up with what each band member is working on from one month to the next, so having this chance to see a special event in their old stomping grounds was exciting.  I anticipated this set and knew I could set it apart from the others I have seen them play.

Having guest Kenny Brown show up was a treat!  It’s the respect for history that NMA bring to the field that has me intrigued with what they do, and it’s the incredible musicianship that keeps me coming back for more.  I am impressed with their level of dedication towards making music.


Day number two’s highlight: Getting over that ferocious hangover and watching Luther greet Kenny Brown to his stage with the words “well well well”- smiling like the Cheshire cat.


Read On: 


Day 3: 

I awoke to yet another gorgeous, sunny 70 degree day and headed to Memphis.  I was fortunate enough to be placed on the guest list for the premiere of the movie Black Snake Moan, and was looking very forward to the festivities surrounding it.  

I knew in advance that Kenny Brown and Cedric Burnside would be playing the movie's after party.  Upon arrival to my friend’s house I dressed myself in my best rock and roll black velvet and we started drinking cosmopolitans.

Seeing this movie in Memphis was such a treat.  So much local talent was hired, and to be in the same room with people who worked so hard to make the film was more than enjoyable.  Lots of laughter and audience participation made the evening extraordinary.

All I can say about this movie is that it’s a must-see for any blues fan.  It has a great balance of music, action, humor and drama to keep its viewers on the edge of their seats and fascinated with the characters.  If you have ever had a healing experience through song then you will probably enjoy a film like this.

The after party was mad fun.  Memphis hospitality is truly something to be revered.


Day number three’s highlight: Seeing Jimbo Mathus all decked out and grinnin’ in his Nudie suit!  Chatting it up with Alvin Youngblood Hart at the premiere party and learning about his contributions to the film.


Day 4: 

One of the missions I also hoped to accomplish this week was to take some pictures.  I needed to shoot some building, general atmosphere, and staff shots of Delta Recording Service in Como, MS.   It was another fine day for the hour drive south and the natural light served me well for shooting. 

Como has a very charming town square area that is under some renovation.  I enjoyed lunch at the Windy City Grille and took a stroll around.  It was fun to think about how this town might have served blues greats like Mississippi John Hurt back in the day.

Back in Memphis I joined my friend for drinks at the Beauty Shop.  The service and food were exceptional and the conversation that took place about Black Snake Moan was highly engaging.  

My friend later took me to check out some local Memphis music.  We headed to see the River City Tan Lines and the Limes play at Murphy’s, one of the smokiest bars I have been to in quite sometime.  Of course, both bands rocked.  We stuck around for two sets and headed to a house gathering to chill out.


Day number four’s highlight: More sunshine and prolonged sleep, and seeing Harlan T. Bobo play guitar with the Limes.


Day 5:

My friend invited me to join her at the Folk Alliance, held at the Memphis Marriot over the weekend.  She was volunteering, and I decided at the very last minute to join her when I realized they were in need of the extra staff.  

The four-day event was well attended, with some phenomenal talent.  For the first time in the event's 19 years, the public was welcome to enjoy the gathering (for one day only). Strolling between the hotel rooms, lobby areas and the adjoining convention center, everyone was able to enjoy live performances by Alliance members.  It was really enjoyable to take in spontaneous string sessions around every corner you could turn.


Day number five’s highlight: Seeing Robert Belfour throw some major diva attitude down at his 2:00 am set in the Rollin and Tumblin’ showcase room.


Day 6: 

My friend gently awoke me to ask me if I wanted to go and see a University of Memphis Basketball game.  I easily and foolishly declined, opting for some more rest.  I was truly disappointed later to learn that Pricilla Presley had been part of the half time entertainment.  The mascot wore sideburns.  

The rest of my evening was spent enjoying The Oscars and sipping champagne cocktails.


Day number six’s highlight: Having Scott Bomar suggest to me, and affirm once again, that I should I find work in the music industry.


Day 7:

My last day in Memphis was spent getting ready for my very early flight the next day.  I made my way to see Tom Foster and Luther Dickinson's art show in a gallery on south Main Street.  To my disappointment I found the gallery closed.  

I like to admire Old Memphis architecture and a stroll around any old town will always give me something interesting to look at.  The time was not all wasted.

My last evening in Memphis saw me at the Stax Museum enjoying The Bo Keys play with just about every Stax legend still with us.  I was impressed with the show, facility and notion that my last waking hours there were not quietly passing by.  

We were soon off to Tsunami for a night cap, and grabbed one more set of music at the Buccaneer, some Sunday night bluegrass.  

I grinned all the way back to my pillow.


Day seven’s highlight: Seeing Mustang Sally performed by Mack Rice twice in one night.


(Unplanned) Day 8:

I always sleep light when I need to awake for travel.  I have never missed a flight in my life.

Until this trip.

I ended up having to wait 12 hours to get on the next available flights back to Seattle.  I didn’t mind too much –  after all, I had no job to return to, no deadlined projects to worry about, and one more gorgeous afternoon in Memphis was certainly not going to hurt.  I checked my bags and caught a city bus back downtown to kill the day.

First and foremost I sought coffee.  I was relieved to find the doors of Peabody Place open at 7:00 am.  I seated myself and watched the local news tape a live performance by an Australian guitar player who was passing through town.

After my coffee I decided to investigate photo opportunities of an early morning Beale Street.  

At noon hour I walked down south Main St. to try and see that art show again.  It turned out to be another fruitless attempt.  I was baffled and wonder if the gallery was ever open.

I perched myself at Bluff City Coffee and took in a couple hours of sunshine at an outdoor table while waiting for a friend to come help me kill some time.  We watched the river roll, talking about rock and roll, and debated the various talents of someone fondly referred to as Doughboy.

After a slightly miserable airplane ride next to a rather large guy who smelled like a dirty diaper I returned revived yet exhausted to Seattle.

Snow was falling.  

My mission of having my spirits lifted down south had been accomplished.

I have concluded that there is nothing like sunshine and rock and roll to inspire.  I suppose I should get with the task of joining the viably employed, but it might take me awhile to find that energy.

They do say easy does it.