Unlike Motown, Memphis or Muscle Shoals, there is no Birmingham “sound.” Musicians who call the Magic City home tend to be eclectic sorts, full of diverse influences and willing to try all manners of expressing themselves. If I had to pick one local band to embody this ethos, it might be one that left home to stake its claim and returns this week to show you how they’ve done.
Corey Parsons and Stephen Pierce literally grew up playing rock and roll in Birmingham, notably at the old Cave 9, because they were too young to perform at drinking people’s clubs. In 2010, they brought Randy Wade, Jeffrey Salter, Danny Wells and Mary Beth Richardson into the circle to form a band they called Banditos.
In their debut album, you will hear a little bit of every kind of music you’ve ever loved, and if you haven’t heard it yet, you can come to Saturn in Avondale Saturday night for the Banditos album release party, an event that will, as Fred McDowell used to say, shake ‘em on down. We talked to Corey on the road in east Tennessee last Saturday afternoon:
Weld: You know, you may be the most successful guys to come out of the Cave 9 scene.
Corey Parsons: Yeah, well, that’s quite a compliment. I mean, Katie Crutchfield [Waxahatchee]’s doing really well, too. There’s a good bit of folks who stuck with the music thing.
Weld: You stuck with it in a terrific way. There was a real rootsy, almost punk thing you were doing at Cave 9 that has infused the music you play with Banditos.
CP: Yeah, it’s been a process trying to figure out what sound I wanted to create, I guess.
Weld: You’ve said you hold Joey Ramone in as high esteem as Bob Dylan.
CP: Oh, hell yeah. Joey Ramone, the Ramones, taught me that—it definitely matters about content in songwriting, but passion is just as important. Cave 9 definitely taught me that, too. It rubbed off on all of us.
Weld: How long did it take to pull your debut album together?
CP: We actually started on that album about two years ago, laying down some of the instrumental tracks at the same studio we finished the album in, the Bomb Shelter, up in Nashville. We made something to sell on the road, never officially released anything. In January of this year, we went back into the studio and recorded about five new songs and tweaked the other five or six songs we had previously recorded. It’s kind of a comprehensive album. Some of the songs we’ve been playing for four years now. Every song on there, even the newest ones, we’d played at least four or five months on the road by that time.
Weld: Was it a surprise to you guys that a sure-‘nough record label like Bloodshot Records came around to take a chance on you?
CP: Yeah, it was a great surprise. They went and saw us at two out of 13 shows I believe we played at our first South by [Southwest festival] two years ago. It just so happened they came to the two most ill-attended shows, with the worst sound, too, by far.
Weld: There’s no telling what kind of contract you could have had if the Bloodshot guys had come to the good shows.
CP: Yeah, but if they dug us after seeing those shows, it said something about us to them, at least.
Weld: The topic of country music comes up a lot when people in the press talk about the band, maybe because Stephen plays a lot of banjo. What do the words “country music” mean to you?
CP: I don’t really consider us a country band. We’re definitely a Southern band; we couldn’t escape being a Southern band if we tried. We couldn’t write a song without twang in it if we had to. Country music is storytelling, it’s honesty, it’s relatable songs to blue-collar workers and people.
Weld: And a lot of what passes for country music on the radio these days has nothing to do with working people.
CP: I think they should drop the word “country” from whatever they’re playing on the radio nowadays. It’s just pop music…a drum machine and auto-tuned vocals with a fake country accent.
Weld: I was listening to the Banditos album the other day, and just for fun I wrote down some of the influences I detected in your music: Led Zeppelin, the Mississippi Sheiks, The Band, Tracy Nelson, Old 97s, Mud Boy and The Neutrons, Lone Justice—it’s probably easier to ask you what music you don’t listen to.
CP: Yeah, that probably is an easier question, but it’s just as hard to answer. We spend a lot of time in the van listening to music, so we get tired of certain genres. We put together a 90s pop playlist not too long ago, just for nostalgic value. It was called “103.7 The Q.” Is the Q still around?
Weld: Yeah, but they’re pretty heavily into Ryan Secrest syndication now.
CP: We did one for the Q and one for “107.7 The X.” I grew up on the X. “Classic Rock 99.5” was an awesome station, too. I mean, even WZZK was good, then, too. We’re all suckers for 90s country. I know it’s not necessarily country music, but it’s sure not what they’re playing now.
Weld: It’s country-ish.
CP: Yeah, there’re some good session musicians on those tracks. I mean, you can’t beat a Randy Travis song, man.
Weld: Even Randy can’t beat his own songs these days.
CP: I’m hoping he’s going to come out with an album after all this being found naked and drunk on the side of the road. That would be a great inspiration, right?
Weld: I think it would be a great missionary trip for Banditos to seek out Randy and record with him.
CP: Just tell me where he is. That’s a plan.
Weld: It’s great that you’re coming back to Birmingham for the official album release. What I like is, you’re in Nashville for the most part anymore, headquartered there, but on the road, you still represent as a Birmingham band.
CP: Oh, hell yeah. We’re proud to be from Alabama.
Weld: Now that you’re in Nashville, are you able to look back and assess the Birmingham music scene?
CP: I don’t think I’ve completely figured it out. Since I was so much a part of it, it’s hard to see it from an outside perspective, but it seems to go back to Cave 9 in those days. There’s just a lot more passion in music in Birmingham. Most bands there aren’t playing to get big, they’re playing because they enjoy it. That’s all that really matters to them. And we still look at it that way. If people ask us what to expect from a Banditos show, I always say we’re going to have fun and people usually want to have fun with you, but we’re going to have fun either way.
Weld: I see an interesting confluence between what your band is doing and what Alabama Shakes are doing. Two strong female voices, two cohesive ensembles. Pretty interesting.
CP: Yeah, for sure. We love Alabama Shakes, they’re good friends of ours, and their new album is bad-ass. I personally think it’s a huge step forward.
Weld: Would Banditos make that sort of step on their sophomore album?
CP: We’re probably going to do a polka album next. Don’t tell anybody yet.
Weld: I’m sure you’ve told this tale a million times, but I wish you’d tell the story of what happened in New Orleans before your fateful first performance at Bottletree.
CP: That was maybe two shows into me and Steve playing together. Randy, our drummer, had played the second show with us. Mary had seen both the shows and commented that she wanted to sing on a couple of songs—we’d been friends with Mary since we were, like, 15 or something. I was, like, ‘Well, why don’t you just join the band, why don’t you sing on all of the songs?’ She had a trip to New Orleans planned that Thursday and Friday, I believe, and we had a show at Bottletree on Saturday—our first, like, real show. At that time, we were thinking about picking up a lead guitar, since I can’t play lead guitar that well, and our buddy Jeff, who we had known (I went to high school with him), was around. Randy stayed back and me and Steve got drunk that night and Mary called and said she wanted to join the band.
We were like, ‘Well, we’ve got a show Saturday,’ and she was like, ‘Well, I’m leaving for New Orleans tonight.’ Me and Steve were drunk as piss by that time, so we recorded all the songs we had onto his crappy little laptop and sent ‘em to Jeff. We left for New Orleans with Mary; had a couple of crazy nights there and ended up getting some regrettable tattoos, almost getting arrested. But somehow in that time we ended up showing Mary our songs, and she wrote the lyrics to the songs down in a Gideons Bible that we found in the hotel we were staying in. We made it to Bottletree about an hour before we had to play, and Jeff and Mary hopped up on stage with us, and we made it through the set and people seemed to dig it. So here we are now, four and a half years down the road.
Banditos, with John and Jacob, Zach and Cheyloe opening, celebrate the release of their debut album, playing it loudly and joyfully, starting at 9 p.m. Saturday night at Saturn. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.