By Mike O’Cull
You know how sometimes you hear a new band that blows you away and you just know it’s bound for much bigger things? You’re about to have one of those times right now. Hailing from Natchez, Mississippi, Bishop Gunn makes tough, 21st Century Blues/Rock music from the primordial human elements of guitars, drums, and lyrics, elements that many music fans feel have been replaced by electronics and computers. What’s more, the band does it with style, grace, and originality equal to the biggest names of the Classic Rock era. Gunn’s debut album, Natchez, is modern and unique in both tone and energy but is packed with the type of timeless songwriting of which careers are made.
Natchez delivers sounds worthy of rocking out to as well as lyrics deserving of a close listen. The lineup of Travis McCready on vocals, Drew Smithers on guitar, Ben Lewis on bass and Burne Sharp on drums is a strong and articulate unit that grooves hard and tells tales of life down South and the dirt road wisdom it takes to survive there.
The opening cut, “Southern Discomfort,” features a syncopated power chord pocket that is an immediate attention-getter on the bottom and McCready’s hard-edged and inventive lyrics about living in a place where you “pray for the best but expect the worst” on the top. McCready radiates the authentic Southern feel that Steven Tyler has chased his entire career and it makes every word he sings believable.
“Anything You Want” is straight-up, swampy Southern rock done right, with a hit-single chorus and some impressive guitar tracks from Drew Smithers, who fills the entire album with his toneful and tasteful licks and rhythms. Bishop Gunn clearly has its rock and roll fully locked down and can punch with the best of them. What catches you by surprise is when BG easily shifts into Soul and R&B feels that are as compelling as its rock music. Mid-album songs like the blues-inspired ballad “Devil Is a Woman” and the Alabama Soul of “Shine” show an entirely different side of this crew that’s just as much fun as the three straight body blows that get this set going.
Speaking of Alabama, Bishop Gunn created Natchez with the help of Grammy-winning producers Casey Wasner and Mark Neill at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound and FAME Studios, as well as at The Purple House in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee. To its credit, the band stands on these giant shoulders and leaps forward, turning influence and tradition into a new generation of Southern music devoid of imitation. This high degree of realness has already put Bishop Gunn on stages with major artists including Mavis Staples, Justin Timberlake, Eddie Vedder, Gary Clark Jr. the Gregg Allman Band and debuting at #4 on the Billboard Blues charts.
The album ends with a song called (what else?) “Alabama” that winds the Natchez experience down in a mournful, desperate way that is actually one of the record’s best moments. The track chronicles a truck stop encounter with a suicide blond who just might be a life-taker as well as a heartbreaker, a meeting the song’s narrator will be glad to escape alive.
McCready has the ability to pull listeners into the situations he sings about and hold them there hypnotized. It’s this level of songwriting skill that separates Bishop Gunn from most rock bands working today. The songs on Natchez reflect the fact that much of American music is a storytelling art, not just a vehicle for vocal or instrumental heroics, and that emphasis on big-picture thinking is what makes the album such a gem. It also makes this a record that works well as one long listening session and not just a grab bag of assorted singles. Cue it up and settle in for the duration. This one is worth every minute of your time.
Bishop Gunn is currently on tour in support of The Marcus King Band and will tour Europe in early 2019 with Slash.
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