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On The String: The Delevantes And The Connells Jangle On

Emma Delevante
Mike (L) and Bob Delevante

Roger McGuinn’s 12-string electric Rickenbacker guitar chimed out the seminal arpeggios of the jangle pop genre in the opening bars of the Bob Dylan song “Mr. Tambourine Man” in the spring of 1965. In came the tambourine and the close harmonies, and one of rock and roll’s most appealing and enduring sounds entered the bloodstream. Of course, the Beatles were in there too, because they’re behind everything.

Crisp and chiming, bright and harmonic, jangle pop arrived as a British invasion, but it started a slow burn in garages and studios around America where it took on regional colors. Big Star lent a Memphis twist in the early 1970s, though few jangled during the disco and arena rock years. It was the 80s where the sound finally had its moment as a key ingredient for The Replacements, The Plimsouls, The Bangles, the dB’s, Let’s Active and of course R.E.M.

This branch of the rock family tree was on my mind as news of two upcoming albums crossed my path from bands I’d enjoyed very much during two different chapters of my life. From right here in Nashville, The Delevantes hit the studio after a nearly 25-year break from recording as a duo. Their disc A Thousand Turns will arrive Sept. 17. From my North Carolina teen-hood, The Connells announced Steadman’s Wake, set for Sept. 24, the first album the Raleigh outfit had composed since 1998. When I started making inquiries about coverage of these welcome returns, fate conspired to set up interviews with both groups on the same day. Thus was the first, and only, jangle pop special edition of The String set inexorably in motion.

The Delevantes are brothers Mike and Bob, well known in Music City as fine musician/songwriters and as prolific graphics and visual guys. Bob is an accomplished photographer and graphic designer. Mike runs his own full-service design and branding business. “For some reason, and I don't know if this sounds weird or not, but doing visual work and doing music work felt very similar to us, or expressing something in a different way,” Mike Delevante says at the outset of our conversation. “And I think if we hadn't had this desire to do visual work, maybe the 20-year gap would have been shorter.”

The career began with brotherly music making as kids, which matured into early bands and bar gigs in and around Hoboken, NJ and New York City. First, they played as Wreckless Abandon, dressing up Beatles and Monkees and bluegrass covers. Their next iteration, Who’s Your Daddy? found them writing their own material and electrifying the music. Meanwhile, they completed art college in New York, ready to go whatever direction seemed to work out best. And after a BMI executive heard them play at a conference up East and talked them into visiting and eventually moving to Nashville, music took the inside track. Working with new friend Garry Tallent, fellow New Jersey native and bass player for Bruce Springsteen, they made and released their debut album as The Delevantes on Rounder Records in 1995 (Long About That Time) and a second on Capitol Records two years later (Postcards From Along The Way).

I caught their music on CMT’s alt-country blocks and saw them pop up in magazines as I pieced together my first grown-up impressions of modern country music. And their ability to fuse springy and tuneful pop rock with surging pedal steel came as a bit of a revelation, one that quickly led me to that era’s similar bands - the O’Kanes and Foster & Lloyd. Country music could bop like that? Who knew? The Delevantes were approaching their apex when Gavin unveiled the Americana format and chart in 1995, with Bob and Mike there near the top. They did well in Europe and toured extensively, before competing interests - chiefly raising families and the lure of art and design - put the band to rest. Bob stayed engaged, writing and releasing albums as a solo artist between 1999 and 2016. The brothers spoke about getting back into the studio for years, and you’ll hear how that came about in the show.

The Connells
The Connells, with Mike Connell far left and Doug MacMillan far right.

The Connells take me back even farther, to when I was chasing elusive and unusual music during my teens. While R.E.M. and the dB’s dominated the consciousness of me and my high school garage bandmates, we discovered there was a local outfit with some of the same punchy shimmer. The Connells were on our NC college radio stations. I bought their 1985 debut album Darker Days (still own it) and caught them at the Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill on my June birthday in that year, home for summer after my freshman college year. They had a good run in that era of mimeographed music zines and indie radio, especially after their 1987 album Boylan Heights (produced by Mitch Easter, the recordist behind R.E.M.’s explosion) became a critics’ favorite and got them on MTV. A second wave of validation followed 1993’s Ring, with its bracing lead-off track “Slackjawed” and its moody and lovely “74-75” became a certified pop hit across Europe.

Things slowed down, as they tend to. Mike Connell, guitarist and chief songwriter, finally made use of his early law degree, while the band stayed in touch and played over the years as they tended to family life. “It was all regional, on the weekends, maybe 10-12 shows a year,” Mike says in my conversation with him and lead signer Doug MacMillan backstage at the Brooklyn Bowl before a Nashville show in August. “But we never entirely ditched it. Old habits die hard.”

Same with his songwriting. “When my family would clear out and I was left at home with the guitar, I would sometimes feel the impulse to pick it back up and see if something might occur,” says Mike. “So I had all these germs of songs that just needed fleshing out and finishing. And so, at some point we had reached that critical mass, where there were enough songs to justify making a record. And that's what we did.”

It’s called Steadman’s Wake, and its anchoring title track provides more than enough gravitas to justify the Connells’ return to vinyl. With a tempo a couple clicks faster than a dirge, it visits moments of truth, from the Civil War to Charlottesville’s Nazi march, as a way to sing about how the scales fell from our eyes about our country in the last few years. “Now I know, I know,” Doug sings with resignation and something resembling resilience. The other advance single you’ll hear at the end of the show is the firecracker opening track, “Really Great,” a 2.5 minute blast of southern pop rock and roll.

Maybe not everyone will see the same thread in music history connecting The Connells to The Delevantes that I do, but there is a surprise confluence revealed at the end of the show that bolsters my case (a little). Anyway, the tie is there for me in the stories of emerging musicians developing new takes on the legacy of the Beatles and Byrds, The Faces and The Jam, while the pop music machinery around them asked them for synth beats, or grunge rock, or some other flavor of the month. Melody and jangle are forever young.

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.