One of my favorite musical/variety festivals last year was Blankfest with Moon Taxi, This Mountain and many other great bands. Guy Marshall is a local band which just released their first full-length album, “The Depression Blues,” and Urban Woman and I have played it non-stop since we bought it, with its blend of country/pop/folk and all things Americana along with superb musicianship and excellent lyrics. When I learned they were playing this year’s version of Blankfest this Saturday, I knew I wanted an interview.
I met Adam and Sarrenna McNulty at the Medical Arts Building for coffee at Flow. Adam sings lead on most songs, with support from wife Sarrenna, he plays guitar and writes the songs. They seem so comfortable together both off-stage and on, it would appear they must have become a couple as soon as they met. It wasn’t so.
Both are from the area and met in high school in a writing class they both recall as very demanding. Adam said it was the only class in which he actually worked, because the teacher would have nothing less. Sarrenna got her first guitar around thirteen or fourteen-years-old and Adam started playing guitar in high school. Both spent a lot of their free time playing, with Sarrenna working her way through book lessons on her own. Eventually, Adam gave her a total of one lesson, teaching her “Green Eyes” by Cold Play as she recalls. She laughed and said to Adam, “You never came back.”
Adam actually started out on banjo in fifth grade, “because my Dad could see I had no potential in sports.” His Dad had him get up an hour early for school so he could practice his rolls. Later each of them led church bands in separate churches and Adam went to an International House of Prayer where he played “twenty-four seven.” He described it as like a monastery where, instead of focusing on silence, for example, everyone focused on music. He came back to continue lessons with Eric Griffin, the band’s lead guitar player.
Sarrenna chipped in that, “he did loop pedal and other, stranger things. It didn’t go over well in church.” He also found Bob Dylan along about that time and “made a total shift,” in his writing style. No longer content to write direct lyrics, his writing became more complex. He also de-emphasized the importance of hooks in his songs. He points to the current album as an example, citing “Cowboy Ballad” as an early effort and “Mountain of Fog” as more representative of his current work. The words are somewhat more obtuse and ethereal, as is the music.
As he began writing more songs and recording them on his computer, he remembers he and Eric saying how much they’d love to eventually play their own music in front of an audience. Adam did a couple of solo shows at Vienna Coffee in Maryville to a receptive response and large crowds. They formed the band and played at The Well and the Preservation Pub Speakeasy. Sarreenna pointed out that, “we thought we’d made it to the big time when we played downstairs at Preservation Pub.”
She insists she was terrified on stage at the beginning and still doesn’t want to say anything. Adam does the talking and deadpans his delivery to the point it’s become an important part of the show. I asked about the band name – I knew it had to do with Adam’s grandfather and he said they were literally sitting around a camp fire talking about it. They’d hated every name they’d thought of up to that point. His grandfather had died about a year earlier and his mother was remembering him and said, “Guy Marshall was such a great man.” “Marshall was his middle name and Adam had never heard his name said that way. They quickly adopted it for the band name. So many people assume it’s Adam’s name he’s considered making it his legal name just to keep things simple.
They point out that one of the best things about the whole experience is the people they’ve gotten to know in the Knoxville music community, including the people at WDVX and WUTK, Rusty with Blank magazine and Tim and Susan Lee. They pointed out that Benny Smith with WUTK got them on at Brewer’s Jam when no one had even heard of them. Playing Waynestock III in 2013 offered a wider audience. They since played their way into an opening slot on the main stage at Rhythm n Blooms this past spring and headlined Brewfest.
When the CD came out recently, they hosted a CD release party at Pilot Light and wondered how it would go. They’d only played there a few times, and since the room is book nightly for specific bands, there is no built-in crowd like that at Preservation Pub, for example. They needn’t have worried as the Pilot Light was packed to capacity and they sold many CDs that night. The support they felt was very moving.
I asked them what is next for the band. I’m very enthusiastic about them and could see them opening for someone like Jason Isbell (who has a great new album) or, perhaps, the Black Lillies – to whom they recently lost their pedal steel player. Adam said they may put out an EP with four songs not included on the recent album. Both acknowledged they would like to try to make music full time, but pointed out the lifestyle is hard and the payback often light. Locally, while they have many offers to play venues around town, they have their eye set on a Bijou show, feeling they may be ready to take that step.
Their favorite part of playing shows is watching people have fun and enjoy a happy experience with their music. It’s also fun seeing friends at shows. In recent months they’ve begun experiencing the fact that people they don’t know come up to them and talk about their music. Adam said, “It’s very intense.”
Adam summed up the business for him saying, “I’m always concerned about whether I’m progressing or making people I care about proud. That feels like an accomplishment. I really believe that the guys I love like Willie and Waylon broke out of the box, but were based on musicians they loved. Everything you do is based on what you’ve heard. I want to listen to what Merle and Waylon listened to.”
You will find them tomorrow night at 10:00 PM on the main stage in Preservation Pub as part of Blankfest. They’ll start just after the Black Cadillacs finish on the Market Square Stage. I was surprised to learn they have never played the Market Square Stage and that’s something they really want to do – and they will. Next weekend they will play an early set on the stage for the Tomato Head 25th Birthday Celebration before heading over to Emory Place Block Party to play the final set as the headliner for that event. Their next public, local show will be in Farragut with the Lawn Chair Series.
A couple of other items: Congratulations to Allen Brisson-Smith who won the tickets to see Ry Cooder. To everyone else – watch for more giveaways, very soon. I’m ending with a couple of videos. The first is a video from last year’s Blankfest and the second is a video of Guy Marshall. Meet me at the festival and download the new Guy Marshall album from itunes or buy a copy at the show.