Allen Thompson and Keshia Bailey, On The Couch
There are hundreds of musicians in East Nashville, but Allen Thompson might be the only one who could organize a successful parade down Gallatin Pike on 24 hours notice. Wherever he goes, large numbers of creative bohemian types follow, ready to jam and make a scene. An Eastside friend of mine quipped that besides being a fine songwriter and musician, Thompson is “a bundle of yes.”
Wide-eyed and energetic, Thompson instigated and hosts the decade-old Last Waltz tribute concert that recently took place at the Basement East. It’s also a fund-raiser, far from the only one Thompson has organized over the years. And he’s led some of the biggest bands in town, big in local renown and big in personnel, the latest being LadyCouch, a dance-inducing “hippie orchestra” with eleven musicians “on a good day.”
“I definitely would not have had this opportunity without him leading me,” says Keshia Bailey, LadyCouch co-founder and front-woman, in a conversation on my couch with her and Thompson in late November. An old friend of Thompson’s, she brings East Tennessee charisma and a stellar voice to the band, which released its debut album The Future Looks Fine in September and which launches a Tuesday night residency at Dee’s Country Lounge on Dec. 7.
“When we sat and decided who we were going to call in to join, everyone said yes,” Bailey continues. “And everyone said yes, because they enjoy (Allen). And that's kind of the real gift. I mean, without him, there'd be no LadyCouch or The Last Waltz or a lot of other things in town. So yeah, no, he's necessary.”
“That's very sweet,” Thompson replies. “I feel like I've gotten a little bit better at it over the years, but it is one of those things where if I had my way, I’d just sort of be in the background, handing my songs or my arrangements to the actual leader. I mean, you know, at times I love it. But sometimes having that responsibility makes it difficult to also be, you know, the barefoot dude on the front of the stage that's dancing and singing like he hasn't a care in the world. It's hard to do those two things at the same time, sometimes.”
Bailey and Thompson have been close friends for almost a decade but it was only recently that Bailey was even considering being in a band. The East Tennessee native played piano as a girl and enjoyed singing harmony in church, but she came to the area to attend MTSU and was pursuing political and policy work with plans for law school. Music wasn’t the plan, until it was. Thompson suggested Bailey for a spot in Nashville’s pioneering roots soul band The Magnolia Sons, and Keshia surprised even herself. “It got down to the point of like, what do you want to do? Do you want to go and sing and sit in a van with a bunch of strangers? Or do you want to go sit in a classroom with a bunch of strangers and have a whole lot of debt? So I chose the band.”
Parallel to this, Thompson found his long-running namesake Allen Thompson Band growing unwieldy. “There was a lot of writing on the wall to let me know that wasn't going to be the thing that took us all to the next musical or financial level. And around that time, Keshia had been playing with the Magnolia Sons, but that was starting to wind down as well. And then we were on a Janis Joplin tribute at Exit/In together. And we did a lot of prep for that gig. And as we were doing that, we were like, well, maybe you and I should do something together?”
Thompson loves Keshia’s flower power soul voice, but when asked what inspired the partnership at the front of this particular band, he zeroes in on her harmony singing. “There's really only a few other vocalists that I can think of that are as adept at that as she is, you know, like Emmylou Harris,” he says. “I think Ralph Stanley with his brother Carter, and with Keith Whitley, is another really good example of that. And Keisha just had that naturally. And for me, as a vocalist who can tend to get pitchy every once in a while, that was, you know, a real nice thing to have!”
In concert and on the new album, that comes through as a heavenly choir complimenting the brassy punch of the horn section, led by Eastside stalwart Diego Vasquez. Thompson and Bailey spent hours watching film of the big revue bands from the 1970s - Little Feat, Leon Russell, Bob Marley - and decided their thing would be maximalist soul rock and roll and a collective, family outlook. They got things rolling chiefly at ACME Feed & Seed downtown and the Basement East. Bailey and Thompson worked together on the songs. Bailey polished the background voices. And the only hard thing about it they say was scheduling as many as 12 musicians.
The pandemic shutdown of 2020 was the last thing this nascent musical juggernaut needed, but in its own way it made the debut album easier. The “family” that is the LadyCouch band had more time and spent much of it together in overlapping pods of friends and collaborators. “It became like the 70s, where all of a sudden, we're not so busy that we can't be together,” Thompson says. “So it's like, hey, I came up with a good idea, and three people show up to help me finish.”
A similar kismet led them to their studio. Thompson considers Todd Snider a mentor and close friend, and he was given access to Snider’s Big Purple Building at Five Points in East Nashville. They thought it would be only a rehearsal room, but they discovered that Snider had rigged it up to record his exceptional First Agnostic Church of Hope And Wonder LP. Snider, Thompson recounts, kept pretty normal daylight working hours. “So we've got it from five pm until five in the morning to do whatever,” he says. “We thought we had all these hurdles, whether it was financial or Covid, or whatever else, in front of us. And then all of a sudden, we show up to this first practice and realize that none of those hurdles exist, if we don’t want them to. We could just do this here.”
What they did was The Future Looks Fine, an album whose title may be about guarded optimism but whose music is unguardedly rollicking and joyful. It’s palate cleansing opener “Do What You Gotta Do” urges us to find our bliss and dance. “Foolish And Blue” brings Bailey’s first lead vocal over a slow flowing Memphis mood. Fans of The Simpsons will enjoy “Delightfully Devilish,” a song inspired by Principal Seymour Skinner that uses the word “embiggen.” Lyrically the album is not all hearts and rainbows. “Purple Rose And The Black Balloon” deals with drug addiction and the overdose plague that Thompson saw growing up in southwest Virginia in the 90s and early 2000s. The disco-esque pulse of “Learn To Lose” started as a title meant to riff on an old gambling folk song, but it evolved into an angry rebuke of white supremacy.
Asked what story LadyCouch tells about Nashville in 2021, both artists talk about community, but in somewhat different ways. For Bailey, it’s about nurturing. “LadyCouch became this thing for us to not only just get our ya-yas out, but to really actually feel at home. Like my home is with all 10 of these humans, right? My community is based off of these humans. I think if you come and listen to us sing and play together, you’ll feel as if you are sitting on the couch with us.” (When you’re not dancing.)
Thompson puts it in historic perspective, telling an interpretation of the East Side’s golden era, which he pegs from 2009 to about 2015 and which he likens to Laurel Canyon in the 1970s or Paris in the 20s. “That time has definitely passed,” he says. “But, you know, maybe if we keep it alive a little bit, then it hasn't passed as much as we think it has, and there'll be another Sturgill (Simpson) and another Margo (Price). If us being together and being idiots encourages whoever, that kid, to show up at the 5 Spot and do that and be that next Sturgill - if I inspired someone else to keep this thing going forward and to keep that sense of community alive, then I know I did my job.”