My Morning Jacket: Fire Still Burns

By: Dennis Cook

See a track-by-track discussion of MMJ's debut here
See a video salute to MMJ's debut here
See full details on MMJ's Terminal 5 shows here

The Tennessee Fire
1999's The Tennessee Fire would be an auspicious debut for any band – a haunting yet happily shuffling blast of ideas woven together by strange poetry and gutbucket invention. It is what rock 'n' roll at its best aspires to but often gussies up too much these days. For My Morning Jacket it was the first solid footstep in a journey that's cemented them as one of the most ceaselessly creative, fearless and engaging bands of the modern era - a group able to ascend to the heights of pop culture awareness without losing their tenacious, fiercely independent spirit that makes no concessions to trends, critics or anyone outside their ranks. One would be very, very hard pressed to find five musicians - Jim James (singer, songwriter, guitar, grand vision), Carl Broemel (guitar, sax, vox), Bo Koster (keys, vox), Tom Blankenship (bass, vox) and Patrick Hallahan (drums, percussion) – with more raw talent, obvious determination or sympathetic interconnectivity.

This week MMJ will tackle their entire catalog one album at a time at New York City's Terminal 5 beginning tonight, October 18, with a run through The Tennessee Fire. We sat down with Tom Blankenship (aka Two Tone Tommy) to discuss their debut and the experience of preparing for the Terminal 5 shows.

JamBase: In revisiting your debut, it dawned on me that you're the only guy besides Jim that's been on every single album. In getting ready for the Terminal 5 shows, does it occur to you, "Yeah, I have been on this whole weird trip."

Tom: I get reminders about it every once in a while. People will say, "Weren't you a founding member?" I get that more & more as the years go by. It isn't something I necessarily think about because the five of us with Carl and Bo have been together for almost seven years, which is the majority of the band's lifespan. So, it feels like two different bands; the first three or four years we were together and then there's this band.

JamBase: Has it been fun to explore these older records, to go back and say, "Wow, look at what we made!"

Tom: It's really cool to go back to those records. We just spent a week in Louisville, just the five of us, rehearsing all the stuff that hasn't been played live like "Butch Cassidy," "If All Else Fails" and a couple other acoustic numbers from At Dawn, where Jim had done them by himself but we'd never done them as a band where we're creating some kind of atmosphere like on the record. It's a fun trip down memory lane. A lot of times I'm pleasantly surprised that the performance I gave are better than I remembered and some of the mistakes on the albums are now kind of charming.

I picked up on the same thing listening to The Tennessee Fire again. The tendrils of what this band would become are all already germinating in that first batch of material.

My Morning Jacket by Dave Vann
To try and revisit those things again today is sometimes strange because sometimes when I close my eyes I have flashbacks to being onstage when the band was just a four-piece. But I quickly realize the sounds we're making are not the same and we're not the same people. And Jim's voice has changed SO much from that album to today. But there's still a piece of the feeling I had making that record, the personal connection I made to those songs, whether it was the music or lyrics. A piece of that's still there, but it mostly feels fresh and new playing it with this lineup.

How do you find the material transforming with this lineup tackling it?

10 or 11 years ago we just played as hard as we could because we were excited to be playing live, period. So it was more raucous and us just having fun, and now it feels more moody and atmospheric. There are songs I'm playing on live that I've never played on before, just to beef things up here & there and give things a different kind of voicing. It's weird to say but it feels like this very adult version of the songs.

Mature or adult are dirty words in our youth obsessed culture, especially in rock 'n' roll, except they aren't really. To play music well and to evolve one's earlier efforts are good things, and that can only happen over time. But right from the start you guys were anxious to complicate what it meant to be My Morning Jacket.

One of the reasons I've always liked the name is because it doesn't sound like anything at all. Nothing comes to my mind except, "That's kind of a weird name for a band [laughs]."

There's some weird echoes of stuff on The Tennessee Fire but I couldn't exactly say that you guys sounded like ANYONE else from the beginning.

I had the same impression when I first got the demo tape given to me by the drummer Jeremy maybe 6 or 8 months before I joined the band. Most of the album had already been completed. Number one: I was blown away by this guy Jim, who was the same age as me but could write these haunting yet kinda poppy sounding songs. What I loved about the album was that it had all these familiar elements that I'd never heard put together before. I couldn't put my finger on what the sound was or how to describe.

Listening back again before this talk, I picked up on the cool Phil Spector-ish elements and echoes of vintage soul inside these strange new shells. It doesn't play to the popular sensibilities of the era it came out in, choosing instead to seek out the classic and the enduring as its influences, something Jim does a lot in his songwriting. It's a good trick if you can make people scratch their head and still keep listening.

Keep it interesting enough that it will take people a while to figure it out.

One thing I noticed looking at the liner notes was Sir Patrick T. Hallahan shot the photos used on The Tennessee Fire. So well before he became the drummer, he had a presence in MMJ.

The Tennessee Fire inside cover
Oh brother, I haven't looked at those notes in forever. I think his name appears on all the albums even if he wasn't in the band. I love the back cover shot with all of us with the cigarettes in our mouths and the fedoras.

So, this is a band from Louisville, Kentucky but their first album is called The Tennessee Fire. Why is that?

Before I joined the band, I remember pulling up to the studio in Shelbyville. I was in a band called Winter Death Club at the time, and we'd have practice after My Morning Jacket practice. At the time MMJ was just a 3-piece of two guitars, drums and vocals. They even played a few shows with that lineup, which is how [The Tennessee Fire] was mainly recorded. I remember pulling up and hearing that Jimmy had got a record contract with Darla but he didn't know what to name the band. I think he maybe wanted to call the band The Tennessee Fire at one time. As far as I know, that's how it came about, that and the picture inside the album of the Tennessee fireworks store where the 'works' is cut off.

Another thing that came up for me listening back to the Morning Jacket catalog recently is how sly and darkly funny Jim is. There are traces of that right from this first slab. Despite his whole rep of being this serious artiste, he's never failed to bust me up each time we've spoken.

Anyone that's met him in real life sees that he's constantly joking. The first time I met him we were playing in a storage garage in Lexington, Kentucky, his band Month of Sundays and Winter Death Club. I arrived early and Jim was sound checking by himself and he kept playing "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," but he didn't know any of the lyrics. He just kept saying, "Whole lotta shakin' goin' on," for what felt like 15-20 minutes. He did it so much that eventually everyone had to laugh. His humor has always been if you say it enough eventually people will laugh. They might hate you in between but they'll come around to see the humor.

Finally, how are you feeling about tackling the entire catalog in the space of a few days? That's a daunting task for any band.

Above all else, it's been a bit stressful. But Carl put it into perspective. He said, "The morning you wake up for that show all you need to worry about are the songs for that night. And you can tackle the other nights as they come." If you compartmentalize it like that it's not too bad. It's been fun to revisit covers from each era. It's been cool because we were doing songs I can't believe we ever did! Hopefully people will feel like they got a unique experience.

Continue reading for Tom's track-by-track commentary on MMJ's debut album...


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