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The Hidden Realms Of Drummer John McTigue III Revealed On Debut

John McTigue

Music writers wear out the word ‘eclectic’ because it's useful and there aren't any good synonyms. But if I only got to use the word once a year, I’d reserve it for a project like John McTigue III’s It’s About Time. It’s all over the place, in remarkable ways, with elemental rock and roll sitting side by side with jazz fusion and contemporary composing for string quartet. It’s an anthology from one wildly active imagination, illuminating the surprising story and musical range of one of Nashville’s veteran sidemen.

Listen to highlights from Craig's conversation with John McTigue III

McTigue has been in town since the summer of 1988, when he arrived fresh out of Boston’s Berklee College of Music with a degree in 20th century classical composing. And he wasn’t all that interested in country music. So you could say he didn’t exactly position himself for maximum advantage in what was then a much smaller Music City. But he found some interesting niches and became the innovative time-keeper at the inception of Broadway stars Brazilbilly. He’s also played tours and sessions with the cream of Americana music, in particular Raul Malo, the Emmylou Harris/Rodney Crowell duo and Hank Williams III. He’s thwacked hard-core shuffles and boogies behind Rosie Flores and Wanda Jackson. He’s traveled the world with commercial artists, gigged endlessly in Nashville’s beer joints and pretty much done it all as a drummer. But he hadn’t divulged his personal musical vision on an album. Now he’s done that too.

“I started thinking about how busy I was and it was like man, I can’t remember why I started playing and what made me want to do this in the first place” McTigue told WMOT. “In my hometown, there weren't a lot of people that played music. So you'd find maybe a kid down the street, and you'd get together and jam. And it didn't matter that it wasn't a whole band. It was just like, you get together, you play together, you kind of make up a song, and you keep playing it and you have fun. It's not about money. It's not about how busy you are, or where your career is gonna go. And I thought wouldn't it be cool to try and get that vibe on a record?”

He pitched the idea to his friend and star Nashville guitar player Kenny Vaughan, prominent this past decade with Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives. Let’s just get together and play as an instrumental duo, John proposed. Let’s invent something on the spot. Vaughn was down, so much so that when a few weeks went by and there was no date set, he prodded McTigue and helped him make the vital decision about where to record by suggesting Dave Roe’s Seven Deadly Sins in Goodlettsville, TN. Roe is a bass-playing icon whose background includes years with Johnny Cash. But on this session, there’d be no bass. Just a guitarist and a drummer with astonishing professional resumes playing with the mindset of teenagers.

The result of that first session was the spontaneous “Stockholm,” an instrumental that puts Vaughan in a Hendrix headspace, crafting a strong fuzz-toned melody that becomes a vehicle for improvisations at the edge of feedback and outer space. McTigue’s drumming reinforces the tune and defines its sections with deft phrasing, and the drums are much higher in the mix than they ever are with a full band and a singer, so you can feel the musician’s tone and intention.

Vaughan also appears on three vocal tracks that prove McTigue, whatever his initial ambivalence, truly mastered country and rockabilly drumming. The singer on opener “Deep Ellum Blues,” country standard “Ashes of Love” and his own “Store Bought Liquor” is mystical maestro Greg Garing, one of the true heirs to Hank Williams in our time. These tunes bounce, swing and roll even without a bass player, a testimony to the rhythmic mastery of these 21st century Nashville pickers.

Two other vocal tracks tap East Nashville stalwart Tim Carroll for a garage rock and roll esthetic. Again, the space and sonics made possible with just drums and guitar give the tracks a rare vividness and urgency. But it’s really the instrumentals in the second half of It’s About Time that lift it up among the most revealing albums that’ll come out in Nashville this year. “Luceat Lux Vestra” taps the extraordinary and, yes, eclectic fiddler Billy Contreras for a fully-composed cinematic, textural work made with layered violins over a thumping heartbeat. Two tracks later, Contreras is playing electric mandolin on an etude by Chopin, while McTigue decorates the classical harmonic movement with delicate ride cymbals and jazz drumming. “The Whale Song (Funky Fish)” lets steel guitarist Ron Blakely and bass player Jay Weaver get a bit surreal and aquatic on an original prog-rock opus.

The collection ends with the most fully realized iteration of McTigue’s classical composing degree. It’s his String Quartet No. 3 (one of six he’s completed), a five-and-a-half-minute ride into the heart of unstable harmony and abstract sonics. John says he was swept away by 20th century classical and composed music years ago by its unmatched range or expressive possibilities. “It’s the most emotional music that I’ve listened to,” he says. “Classical music, especially 20th century, was so vast in what it could convey, especially the intricacies of the feelings of a human being.”

So while some might fault It’s About Time for veering off in too many directions to be a coherent statement, I found it an adventure, freed from the stately march through a single genre that most albums pursue. McTigue calls it “a leap of faith” and one whose realization helped spark hopes and plans for future recordings. For me it’s affirmation of advice I like to give to anyone trying to gain a deeper awareness of how music is made and what’s actually going on on a bandstand: Never ever underestimate the drummer.

You can stream and purchase It's About Time at Bandcamp.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.