Funky Space & Rumpled Grace
Joe McMahan applies the principles of record producing to rising from the ashes
If someone had told me last January that before year’s end I’d be walking through the Gulch, with all its modern new fabrication, to visit the temporary home of East Nashville producer/musician and Luella and the Sun co-founder Joe McMahan, I’d have probably called them crazy. I’d finished a record with him, comfortably nestled in his funky East Side studio and home, just a few months earlier. We’d reconnected again, rekindling our relationship from long ago through music and poetry and old stories of travel, booze, food, and debauchery. In some ways, it was like coming home. At points in my life I’ve had to seek him out when I needed an injection of inspiration both as an artist and as a human being. He’s always been the kind of guy who can bring me a little closer to my own bones.
McMahan can always be found in the midst of some kind of funky coolness and color. Old houses, old records, pure sound, interests of the heart and mind, and travel are all part of who he is. At times, he can lift you above the mundane by quoting Chögyam Trungpa, or by talking about folk art, or guitars, or Indian music, or even chicken livers. He always has an energy around him that makes one realize life and music are an adventure.
He’s been hunkered down in East Nashville for years, always in some ramshackle space-full-of-soul, making music and life. Which is why it’s so odd to be walking through the Gulch to find him.
But then again, sometimes life happens.
In this case … fire happened.
Run out of his East Nashville studio and home by a fire June 8, 2013, McMahan landed here in transition. Knowing him, the whole scene seems a bit upside down. It’s like going to visit the dirt king in a swanky I.M. Pei building. It’s like venturing to Copenhagen for a meal at the fabulously inventive Noma when you crave smoked neck bones and collard greens. Part of it makes no sense.
McMahan greets me in the front lobby of his apartment building. Swanky light fixtures hang from the ceiling along with designer accoutrements that seem counterintuitive to anything within earthly reason. But walking into his temporary digs on the second floor it all suddenly makes sense. It’s obvious right away that, in spite of the fire and the trauma of the past year, Joe McMahan cannot escape himself. What’s left of his beautiful mess from the East Side looks like it’s just been shoveled into this modern space and track lit, as if to emphasize its beauty and rumpled grace. A mixing console, Joseph Campbell videos, old jazz, blues and country records, turntables, wine bottles, random instruments, and soldering irons are scattered everywhere, reflecting a life dedicated to what one loves in spite of everything that happens. If his calling had been to be a mechanic, there’d be a partially rebuilt V-8 in the kitchen. Perpetually interested and engaged is a good way to describe him. He seems to be always getting better at whatever he happens to be putting his hands on at the time; it’s not all just about effort either, although it’s taken a lot of that this year. It’s more about just surrendering to a passion. Or, maybe, it’s that he just plain enjoys paying attention.
Born in Hot Springs, Ark., to a father who trained racehorses, McMahan lived in a house trailer until he was 12 while traveling around to different racetracks with his family. “We’d park the trailer on the edge of a horse track for a few months, and then we’d pick up and go on to the next one,” he says. “As a kid I never had many friends. We would just pull into a town and a track, and then we’d be on to the next one a few months later. That was the first 12 years of my life.”
Eventually his siblings came along. Realizing they couldn’t be dragging kids all over the country, his parents parked the trailer on his grandfather’s land in rural New Haven, Mo. It was a town far removed from anywhere and anything. “I went from traveling all over the place to being stuck way out in the country eating a cold pork chop and talking to the cows,” he says. McMahan had an affinity for Arkansas, though, and he always seemed to appreciate heading there to his grandmother’s place for holidays. Going back and forth from the North to the South was fascinating for him, but there was a point where he just decided that he was southern. “It was a choice I made,” he says. Eventually his parents got divorced, and he wound up living with his father back in Hot Springs.
Living in the segregated South was interesting. “There was some level of racism involved in life there,” he says reluctantly. “It was a terrible part of the culture back then, and it couldn’t help but affect you. But in another way there was an appreciation and a respect for this mythological black character.” Being immersed in the South and segregation had a profound effect on Joe. It stoked an interest for Faulkner and the blues. The whole thing was like a double-edged sword of contradiction.
In the meantime, he couldn’t help hearing the music that was coming over the airwaves from across the river in Memphis. “I remember hearing lots of soul. Al Green and Marvin Gaye were always on the radio in the horse barns.” He started playing guitar at about 12 or 13 but, as far as the blues goes, it was a slow boil to the awareness and appreciation for it that he has today. His guitar teacher gave him B.B. King’s “Live at the Regal”—which he loved—but he had to come about the blues through the rock world, moving his awareness back in time and figuring out where it all came from. “I followed the trail back,” he says. “And as my awareness opened up my love for it just blossomed. It was infectious.”
His dad wound up moving to Shreveport, La., for more horse business, and McMahan worked with him at the track as a groomer and a horseman until he was about 18. “In Shreveport there were these blues guys that were around. There was a guy named Son Thomas who worked the local scene and was also a folk art guy that made these wacky skulls. Local blues icon Buddy Flett was kicking around and was—and is—an inspiring staple of the Shreveport scene. There was another guy named Raymond Blakes, who was an Albert King-style guitarist. He’d come and sit in with the band I was playing with, and it was just incredible. And then, of course, there was Lead Belly. Being from Shreveport and hearing him and knowing he was from there just kind of put you in the belly of it all. It made you feel that you were a part of it somehow. At times it was like you were walking through this mystical soundtrack of where the blues came from,” remembers McMahan.
After spending a year in Boston at Berklee College of Music, McMahan wound up back in Shreveport gigging, where he would eventually meet keyboardist David Egan and Nashville drummer Paul Griffith. During a stint in Dallas, he ran across Egan again. By then, Egan was playing with Louisiana legend Jo-El Sonnier, and an opportunity presented itself for McMahan to audition for Sonnier’s band. He jumped at the chance, got the gig, and the next thing he knew he’d hopped straight from the horse barn onto a tour bus. He eventually wound up moving to Nashville, since that’s where the whole thing was headquartered at the time. “I’m very thankful for my time with Jo-El,” says McMahan. “He is still one of the most intense musicians I’ve ever been around. His enthusiasm and focus was unprecedented. I’ve never seen anything like it to this day. Jo-El was hard on everyone, which made me a lot better as a player. It was so great to haul around a 100-watt Marshall and an Echoplex and go play for 30,000 people and stare at my shoes, just terrified. I cut my teeth there in that band.”
At the end of the Jo-El run, McMahan met songwriter Kevin Gordon. He marks that meeting as a seminal part of what got him thinking about his contribution in a different light. “We started doing gigs and recording, and Kevin would bring me a song he’d recorded by himself on cassette. It was so pure,” he says. “I would think, ‘How can I play anything on top of that that’s not going to take away from it?’ It was just so good as it was. I just couldn’t come in and start jamming on it. So that brought this whole idea to mind of film scoring for songwriters. When I come into a musical situation now I have to be thinking about how I can bring something to it that’s not going to get in the way. I have to find the primal inspiration of it and then approach it from there. Ever since then that has become a part of how I go about playing and recording.”
McMahan has lived in East Nashville ever since moving to the area in the early ’90s. In the beginning he lived in “Bush Manor,” a dump of a musician flop house on Chapel Avenue, first occupied by most of Will and the Bushmen back in the day. It seems everyone lived there at one point or another. The neighborhood was rough back then; it wasn’t the semi-upscale deal in evidence today. He eventually wound up living on McKennie, next to hillbilly stylist George Bradfute. The Long Players’ drummer, Steve Ebe, lived upstairs. “The riff-raff was thick back then,” says McMahan. There was often gunfire, and he even woke one day to a hooker turning a trick on his back porch. “Me and George called the cops on that one,” he says. “They didn’t come.”
He eventually bought a two-inch tape machine, set up shop on McKennie, and started producing and recording folks while working a day job. Kevin Gordon’s “Down In The Well” was the first, which McMahan considers an honor.
He also worked with legendary Iowa guitarist Bo Ramsey (Lucinda Williams, Greg Brown). “I learned a lot from Bo. Bo taught me that the music is always our boss and that ego can only get in the way. It causes us to be disloyal to the music. The music is always right.”
McMahan continued putting together his studio, eventually moving over to his present location on McGavock Pike, building it little by little. He has worked with scores of artists, including Webb Wilder, Kevin Gordon, Gwil Owen, The Altered Statesman (with Steve Poulton), Patrick Sweany and Sarah Siskind. He credits his work with Mike Farris and the McCrary Sisters as being an inspiration for his current project, Luella and the Sun. Farris’ seminal album “Shout: Live at the Station Inn” garnered McMahan a Gospel Music Association’ Dove Award for “Best Traditional Gospel Album of the Year” in 2010.
“Working with artists is always a challenging and fascinating experience,” says McMahan. “A while back I saw an interview with Liv Ullmann on ‘The Charlie Rose Show.’ Charlie asked her, ‘What was the one thing that you learned from working with the brilliant filmmaker Ingmar Bergman back in the day?’ Liv shot back, ‘Never step on someone else’s fantasy.’
“What I’m trying to do when I’m making a recording is give someone a sensuous experience when they listen to those speakers vibrate. So what I have to do is capture the inspiration and the fantasy that’s going on inside that particular artist. The essence of that experience is in the primal inspiration of that artist. My job is to capture that so that other people can be enraptured by it. That, at times, can be an incredibly difficult thing.”
A couple of years ago McMahan helped found the band Luella and the Sun, a vehicle through which he has further expanded upon his unique vision as an artist. Taking their love for the blues and the blues form, he and singer Luella (Melissa Mathes) started taking old Blind Willie McTell spirituals and reworking them. Along with bassist Adam Bednarik and drummer Jon Radford, they spent hours and hours attempting to redefine those old works in a more contemporary, inventive, and artistic fashion. The result has been something of an art form all its own. As all great art does, it incorporates a rich trail backward as well as forward. Just as one can see the face of the Egyptians in Picasso’s contemporary pottery, so, too, can the faces of McTell and Lead Belly be seen in the sonic onslaught of primal modernism that is Luella and the Sun. It’s been a brilliant and enlightening bright spot on the local and national music front.
Walking into Peg Leg Porker off of 8th Avenue, the smell of smoked meat wafts through the air. There is a kinship of food that holds Joe McMahan to me. We went into battle together at one point, touring Italy with a soul band for a month or so. Now, whenever we see each other, there’s a bit of gastronomic PTSD that happens. It comes from eating too many clams in Tuscany and pumpkin raviolis in the Piedmont. Ghosts of Dolcetta d’Alba, cheeses, dry cured meats, and chard pizza pies suddenly rear up and start dancing around in our heads as a flashback to greater times spent. As a result, food cosmically seems to find us when we hook up. As we settle in to eat some dry ribs and sauce, the conversation turns to the future.
A new home, which will include a new studio, is in the works for Joe McMahan. The fire-scorched house has been gutted to the studs and is being rebuilt with “new everything.” Lights, electrical, and plumbing are being installed. A recently purchased vintage recording console is being reconditioned. Salvaged mic preamps are being refurbished. New (old) microphones have been acquired.
“I’m really excited about playing guitar and writing these days,” says McMahan. “My experience in Luella and the Sun has enabled me to open myself up and discover another dimension to my work.” With the band currently plotting its next move, McMahan’s focus is on rebuilding the studio, writing, and working with other artists. “I’ve got a rock ’n roll band from Kentucky, and a great Eastside songwriter/artist, Joseph Hazelwood, that I’m working with.” There is a new single with Webb Wilder that has just been released and he has begun pre-production with old friend Kevin Gordon.
“Rebuilding everything from the ground up is a major undertaking of the psyche,” reflects McMahan. “I get overwhelmed. At times, you don’t own it—it owns you. I can wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking about all the endless stuff I have to do. I basically have to start from scratch. I bought an old RCA microphone owned by Ike Turner, and I’ll start wondering how that is going to sound—or how I’m going to rewire everything. My mind will just start racing ... but in the end I have to just pull myself back to love and gratitude. I’ve been doing this for so long. In the end, all I can see before me is a gift. The whole community reached out to me incredibly during this whole process. It’s been amazing. I’m still going to be able to do what I love, and I’m truly grateful for that. I’m excited I’m gonna be able to create something new out of the ashes. I should be open for business again in early 2014, and it’s gonna be better than ever. I might even have to get a couch for myself.”
Steve Poulton of the Altered Statesman sheds some light on working with Joe: “What’s great about Joe is that he’s always asking himself, ‘Is the music is being served here?’ He gets you to do that by proxy, as well, in the studio or at a gig. And as a result, you end up getting out of your own way and stop blocking your own path.” Kevin Gordon comments, “Joe pushes people deliberately to get them out of their comfort zone to try and create something new.”
Gordon’s statement, ironically, sums up McMahan’s life this past year. Having been pushed out of his comfort zone, he’s creating something new. It’s been a hard year, no doubt. Regardless of the times, though, there has always been a constant to Joe McMahan—he’s always remained true to his vision and growth. Despite what happened to him over this past year, it’s obvious that he is perpetually incapable of escaping himself, much less his path as a musician, producer and deconstructionist savant. And that’s a good thing for all of us to be around.