Trying to distill Shotgun Party's music into its base elements is a little like trying to remove the cream from your coffee. You could try, but it would be a futile gesture.
Like many other Austin, Texas-based bands, the trio's music revels in a mix of styles to the point of being almost unclassifiable, lingering in Western swing and country before scampering off into a swirling gypsy/jazz melody.
As if to further muddle the issue, the performers soon will begin incorporating tap dance into their live show with the release next month of their sophomore album, "Mean Old Way."
"Well, we're really silly, and we have a friend who's a choreographer and a number of friends who dance, so we had her choreograph something from our new album, and she did," said lead singer and songwriter Jenny Parrott. "It's really a riot -- really fun."
Shotgun Party formed in 2006 after Parrott moved to Austin. When the bluegrass band she was playing with quit, she turned to fiddle player Katy Cox to fill in. The partnership worked so well they continued to tour with a bassist Parrott met through Craigslist. Last year, they welcomed their bassist Andrew Austin-Petersen to the band.
Shotgun Party performs an average of 100 dates on the road outside of Austin. So far, they've performed on stages in 40 states, Parrott said.
The band members have artists such as Louis Armstrong and Bill Monroe in common as influences, but each member brings other flavors to the mix, Parrott said.
The band's greatest strength lies in its ability to blend those approaches together and be stylistically flexible. As the group's primary songwriter, that opens all kinds of doors, Parrott said.
"We're all comfortable," she said. "It's like, 'This is weird; let's play it.' They're pretty down for everything. It's not very restrictive on me, which is nice."
Tonight, Chattanooga will put that comfort to the test as Shotgun Party serves up a musical cocktail as this week's featured Nightfall performer.
Nightfall continues weekly until Sept. 25.
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IF YOU GO
* What: Nightfall concert featuring Shotgun Party.
* When: 8 tonight. Spatial Effects opens at 7.
* Where: Miller Plaza, corner of M.L. King Boulevard and Cherry and Market streets.
* Admission: Free.
* Phone: 265-0711.
n Venue Web site: www.downtownchattanooga.org.
n Related links at fyi.timesfreepress.com.
2007: "Shotgun Party"
2009: "Mean Old Way"
"Usually, when I've written something that I think is awesome, that's almost enough for me."
-- Shotgun Party lead singer Jenny Parrott on when a good song becomes great.
Shotgun Party's sophomore album, "Mean Old Way," was recorded, mixed and mastered in the band's hometown, Austin, Texas, by producer Mark Hallman, whose past credits include work for artists such as Ani DiFranco and Carole King. The album officially releases in September but will be available at their Nightfall performance.
Chattanooga Times Free Press music reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Jenny Parrott, lead singer/songwriter for the Austin-based eclectic acoustic band Shotgun Party, about tap dancing, the group’s influences and how good literature contributes to good songs.
CP: When you called earlier, you guys sounded like you were having a pretty hectic time at the moment with one of your lineup in overseas and the rest of you moving into a new house. What gives?
JP: Katy, the fiddler, plays in another trio, and they've been in Europe for four weeks. She gets back Monday, and Andrew and I have been touring this summer with another fiddle player. We toured so much that we gave up our leases because we thought it would be a good money saver. Now, we're done touring, so we got places. (Laughs.)
CP: Is it a pretty welcome break to get to a more stable lifestyle?
JP: Yeah, definitely. It's pretty hectic here, despite all that, because we're releasing our album in two weeks. It will be for sale in Chattanooga, but it's not available for sale in Texas or in stores. That's really exciting. We're having a giant party at the Continental Club here, and tonight, we're starting tap dance rehearsals.
CP: Tap dance? Elaborate.
JP: Well, we're really silly, and we have a friend who's a choreographer and a number of friends who dance, so we had her choreograph something from our new album, and she did. I danced when I was a young girl, and the bass player did, too. Katy did not dance when she was little, but she catches on quickly. We jump off stage at some point during the show and tap dance with the rest of the dancers. It's really a riot - really fun.
CP: Did you write the music with tap dancing in mind? Did you see it as a natural fit?
JP: No, not necessarily. My good friend is a choreographer, so she offered to do it. I gave her an advance copy of the CD, and she was like, “Oh my god, I see tap dancing on this number” and she was like, “What do you see?” and I was like, “I have no vision at all for dancing. You can do what you want.”
CP: Tell me a bit about the album.
JP: Well, it's called “Mean Old Way.” It's our second album. It was recorded, mixed and mastered by Mark Hallman, who is an Austin guy. He's well known for working with The Hot Club of Cowtown, Carole King and Ani DiFranco. He does a number of different kinds of groups, but we picked him because based on the Hot Club of Cowtown records, he really knows how to record fiddle, upright bass and archtop guitar. Our style is really different from any of those groups he worked with. We really like our old album, but we wanted to focus on getting the instrumentals right.
We haven't been reviewed yet, but it's probably about 17 tracks, about 13 are originals and 4 are fiddle tunes and a couple old blues standards. We had a clarinet player, Stan Smith, from Austin stand in. He's an awesome guy who plays around town. We had Steve James, who's a minor blues legend sit in on rhythm guitar and resonator guitar. We're super excited for it.
CP: Where did the name come from?
JP: It's the name of one of the songs on the album, and my favorite singer, I've discovered, is Sam Cooke. The song was inspired by him, and he had a song called “Mean Old World.”
CP: Walk me through how the group was founded.
JP: I moved to Austin about three years ago. I had a bunch of songs written and no band really. I found Katy, the fiddler, at a coffee shop. She was playing with a bluegrass band. I wasn't looking for band mates, necessarily. I was playing around town with a few guys. They quit, and I called Katy because I needed a soloist to fill in. She started filling in, and it went so well that we kept booking.
My old bass player I found on Craig's List. He was San Diego. He was great. He played with us for two years. He's actually on the album, but he has a child, and really can't tour for us. For about a year, we were finding other people to tour with us, and he would play with us at home. This last spring, we found Andrew, who was able to tour with us and play at home and be an integral part of the band. We're glad to have Andrew.
CP: How do their two styles fit? Was Andrew pretty easy to slot into the band or did you have to do some shoehorning to fit him in?
JP: Our other bass player is about 20 years older and just had that much more experience in the music business. Andrew is 25 or 26, so there's that learning curve there, but he has his energy and his attitude and enthusiasm that he brings to the band. He's willing to do things like drive to Chattanooga for the weekend or go to California for five weeks. They're very different, but each is as good as the other when you take into account the different things they bring to the group.
CP: In the next month or so, you guys are sticking pretty close to home in Austin and other places in Texas. Is a show in Chattanooga a fluke for you or is out-of-state touring fairly normal for you?
JP: We do. We tour all over the country. I think we've played maybe 40 of the states at this point. I don't know if they're proud of that, but I'm proud of that. (Laughs.) We just got back from a trip playing the Great Lakes Folk Festival and the Sugar Maple Fest. We tour a lot. We play about 100 date a year outside of Austin. In September, we're trying to get the CD release, making a good party and getting some rest because we have touring coming up this fall. And because we need to paint our houses and get mail in our new mailbox kinds of things.
CP: That pesky thing called life, huh?
JP: Yeah, we have to live a little. We are going to Louisiana for a weekend in September, so that will be fun. Lafayette is one of our favorite places. Some of our favorite bands are from there, and they come to Austin all the time - The Red Stick Ramblers and Lost Bayou Ramblers. We go there and hang out and see each other. That's kind of fun.
CP: So it's not for a festival or anything?
JP: Nah, we're calling it our Lafayette CD Release Party. We'll play New Orleans and then Houston and then come back just for the weekend in September. LaFayette is about six hours away, and New Orleans is about 8-9 hours. It's definitely doable.
CP: You guys seem to be doing a lot of “CD release parties.” You've got two more coming up in Texas, and you'll have the unreleased CD for sale in Chattanooga. Is this a CD release party, too?
JP: We're kind of silly, so anything we can come up with to have a party, we do. We had a T-Shirt release party in May. We're just sort of goofs.
CP: Does that aspect of your personalities shows itself in your music?
JP: Um, maybe not in the music, perhaps in the live performance. I don't think you can tell from listening to the record that we're silly. Actually, the first song in the record has a pretty silly spoken introduction. I don't know. (Laughs.)
CP: You're the band's primary songwriter, right? Tell me about your process.
JP: That's right. I usually write on guitar, sometimes on piano or mandolin. It's usually the melody first and then words later. I get a lot of inspiration from books. I read like crazy. It's definitely one of my favorite parts of my life that I get to write songs and play them in public or for friends at parties.
CP: When, in your mind, is a song successful?
JP: Usually, when I've written something that I think is awesome, that's almost enough for me. I'm really, really happy I did that. If I write something I think is really quality, sometimes, whether I play it with the band and play like it, I still feel that way.
CP: Who are some authors you read?
JP: Right now, I'm reading Joseph Keller. I really like Jane Austen. I just read a biography of Sam Cooke. I don't really stick to authors much, but I guess I've read a lot of Jane Austen in the last couple of years.
CP: What do you draw from books? Is it turns of phrase or descriptive passages?
JP: I think that words and sentences are very melodic, in and of themselves. A couple of times, I've written songs because I read a sentence, and it just sounded like a melody. That melody became part of the song, and then I worked around it. Often, I'll write a little bit of a melody and then I'll hear where it wants to go. I'll try and get there and experiment with what notes could come between where I see it going and where I'm at.
CP: Your Myspace lists your music as country, and a few other places online have described it as country/western. When I listen to it, I hear much more, strains of jazz and Eastern European/Baltic influence with some vaudevillian flair. Is there an established genre you see yourselves fitting in?
JP: You know, it's really, really tough to be accurate with words. You might want to call it Austin music. I don't know if people would know what that means if they weren't from here, but a lot of Austin bands don't sound like us but mix together so many genres that they're unclassifiable.
We're definitely influenced by bluegrass and Western swing. I'm influenced by pop and soul a lot more than my bandmates are. Katy is classically trained, but she loves gypsy music and she loves bluegrass and classic swing. As a band, I come up with the songs, but we arrange them together. It's not like anybody has to play this or that. I'll go “OK, here's the song. What do you hear?” and Andrew will play whatever he hears and Katy will play whatever she hears.
We're not going for one particular genre ever. Maybe within one song, we'll say, “Let's make this one sound old-timey” or “Let's try to swing it hard.” But in general, we've never had a mission of having our band sound like a bluegrass band or a swing band.
CP: Your sound is certainly hard to pin down. Does that ever cause problems for you in terms of promoting yourself?
JP: You do have to worry because if you describe yourself as Western swing, sometimes people have a very clear idea of what that is. They can seem disappointed, which can be a drag. I am originally from New Haven, Conn., and I don't really know what the musical heritage of New Haven, Conn., is. I sort of grew up listening to all different kinds of music. If I had grown up in rural Virginia or Kentucky or Tennessee, maybe I'd be playing bluegrass, but I wasn't born into a rich musical heritage that was something I felt I had to stick to.
CP: You've listed quite a few styles the three of you are fans of, but are there any particular artists you all share in common?
JP: We all like Jimmy Martin. We all like the Delmore Brothers. We all like Louis Armstrong. We all like Bill Monroe and Sam Cooke. We all love Shotgun Party. (Laughs.) Then there are also things like Katy ad Andrew were both classically trained, so sometimes they'll put on some classical music and geek out about … I don't even know the words for it, sonatas and movements and things. I'm like, “Ooh, this IS good. That's some juicy Bach.” And they're like, “No.” Some I'm like, “Let's listen to Björk” and they're like, “Oh, God.” (Laughs.)
CP: Is there any shoe horning you have to do as a band during the arranging process to make the diversity of influences mesh together?
JP: I think it's actually pretty natural. We all agree that we like to play a mix of really up-beat music. We're all comfortable. There's a song on the new album that's modal and only has one chord, and if you played that at a bluegrass festival, they would probably kick you out, but they're totally down. It's like, “This is weird; let's play it.” They're pretty down for everything, which makes it easy on the songwriter. It's not very restrictive on me, which is nice.
CP: When you're on stage, what is your goal? What do you want the audience to take away from your performance?
JP: You know, there are a lot of different things you get out of music. I can't speak for the other two, but I really want people to have a good time. I want them to see glimpses of regular life in our music. We sing about love and heartache and excitement and joy and all kinds of things. I just hope people have a good time. I just hope they take something home with them that was special and are glad they went out instead of staying home. It's important for me to have a lot of fun and feel like I've performed well, but communicating well with an audience that's listening is the best treat a musician can have.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...