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‘It’s About Time’ by John McTigue III Review: Fascinating Rhythms


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After decades of playing backup for country stars like Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris, the go-to Nashville percussionist orchestrates an offbeat recording of his own with the help of some innovative buddies.


John McTigue III

Photo: Ryan Caldwell

It’s not unusual to hear the misguided allegation that music out of Nashville all sounds alike—repetitive arrangements, repetitive rhythms, the cookie cutter product of a single-minded factory town. In truth, top Music Row musicians were performing on a variety of jazz and pop records and were playing jazz in after-hours clubs as far back as the 1950s. The string players heard on country records have often been working orchestral musicians as well. A substantial number of Nashville music-makers played R&B in Memphis, Tenn., or Muscle Shoals, Ala., first. And some of the more daring, transgressive 1980s and ’90s cowpunk and alternative country rockers emerged from the scene that revived Nashville’s Lower Broadway.

A major figure in that last setting was drummer and composer John McTigue III, a Berklee College of Music graduate who arrived in town just as such rebellious young country artists as the BR549 band, Greg Garing, Kenny Vaughan, Lucinda Williams and R.B. Morris were defining new musical paths at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and, a few doors down, Robert’s Western World—a boot store/music venue. It was there that Mr. McTigue cofounded the longstanding, rhythmically unique band Brazilbilly, which fuses old-school honky-tonk country and rockabilly with Latin beats. In the decades since, he has been the regular drummer for Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Carlene Carter, and has backed artists from Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson and Charlie Louvin to Brazilian stars Luis Carlos Borges and Renato Borghetti.

And now, at age 58, he’s gotten around to orchestrating an album of his own, “It’s About Time” (MC3 Records)—the title referring more to the exploration of varied rhythms in the set than the decades he’s taken to record under his own name, though both do apply. As a drummer-percussionist, he’s done this by joining with a variety of friends—a number of them from that 1980s Lower Broad scene—in an appealingly unpredictable series of duets. Five include vocals, seven are fully instrumental, and the compositions are by the participants and others ranging from 1950s honky-tonkers Johnny & Jack to Chopin.

Mr. Garing provides deeply rooted crooning for three rhythmically transformed country-derived numbers. An under-recognized singing and writing talent whom Johnny Cash identified as the best country singer he’d heard “in 30 years,” he provides a smooth, traditional sound on an otherwise unconventional take on the usually leisurely “Deep Ellum Blues,” which Messrs. McTigue and Vaughan (co-producers of the whole set) reimagine as a driving boogie. The often-covered Johnny & Jack hit “Ashes of Love” gets an infectious Brazilian Baião dance-music treatment. Mr. Garing’s own “Store Bought Liquor” is delivered with a more time-honored honky-tonk shuffle beat, and it features the sort of swinging Vaughan guitar solo that the picker regularly provides in Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives.

The instrumentals offer Mr. McTigue room to lead these players (and others) down some truly original paths. One of his own compositions, the moody “Soul Shepherd,” has his drums up-front, with shifting, Afro-Cuban-influenced beats. Since his Berklee days, he’s never stopped keeping one drumstick pointed in the classical direction. The album closer is his original “String Quartet No. 3,” in a contemporary classic mode; he’s joined by the all-female Tosca String Quartet on that one—they’re known to cross multiple genre lines themselves. And with a langorous, after-hours jazz arrangement written for electric mandolin and band by Billy Contreras (who appears on violin), Chopin’s “Etude No. 4” gets quite a makeover. Reaching elsewhere, the generally breezy, ebullient Buck Owens theme song “Buckaroo” gets a disconcertingly darker minor key turn as “Starbuck.”

The album is hardly all low and slow. Veteran Nashville rocker Tim Carroll provides equally biting vocals and guitar on two of his own sharp punk songs, “Talk to God” and the particularly relevant, thumping “Keeping Time,” which raises an incessant list of life moments, from “church bell rings” to “ I take another sip” to “I lie awake” all “keeping time.” Mr. McTigue pounds those drums right along with him.

If anyone comes away from this set thinking of music from Nashville as of just one style—then that style would have to be labeled “imaginative.” It could change minds.

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