My Morning Jacket bassist Tom Blankenship's reflects on the band's 1999 debut, The Tennessee Fire.
I don't think I even had a full band version of this when I first heard it. It was Jim on a 4-track with all those crazy vocal harmonies laid on top of each other. It was so different from the finished product, and the whole vibe of it was haunting, like ghosts flying over your head and some of them were laughing at you and some were there to help you out. Some of the spirit of that made it to the final version. I think it's a great start to the record, where you hear that ka-shhh and then the band crashes in.
It's just predominantly bass 'n' drums. I thought "Heartbreakin' Man" was a great intro to Jim's vocals but the treatment of his vocals and the harmonies and the way they layer themselves one after another at the beginning of "They Ran" is the perfect showcase of what Jim is capable of vocally. All those vocals are his and still sound distinctly different. I think he's always been really good at making up characters that he does vocally song-to-song, especially on the last album [2008's Evil Urges]. But even in a subtle way like "They Ran," each harmony has a different feel to it.
It has that perfect Motown intro. That drumbeat has probably been used on hundreds of songs, yet it's still one of my favorite intros to any song we've done. We've done some pretty rockin' versions of it live, too..
Nashville to Kentucky
I don't why I've always had this image in my head of Jim literally driving from Nashville to Kentucky, and it is one of the most boring drives EVER to go from Louisville to Nashville. You're just on 65 pretty much the whole way and there's really not a lot to see. There's Dinosaur World about halfway, a Corvette manufacturing plant with a museum, and not much else. I imagine that it's at night and completely dark and he can barely pick up any radio stations – just the reality of it.
Old Sept. Blues
When I first got the demo tape I listened to "Evelyn" and "Old Sept. Blues" on repeat, just those two songs over & over & over again. So, it's always been one of my favorite songs. It's just a perfectly crafted nugget, where all the fat's been trimmed off.
If All Else Fails
Oh man, I'm gonna have to skip this one.
It's About Twilight Now
|The Tennessee Fire|
It's the most rock song on Tennessee Fire, which is funny because it has no bass on it at all. I think it's just the two guitars, drums and vocals. It takes me back to that studio in Shelbyville where everything was done on ¼-inch tape. It's the sound you'd get there if you were trying to be really raucous like we were in the punk hardcore bands we were in before [MMJ]. That was the way drums and everything would blow up on tape. I always loved that song and thought it was going to have a different life. It became such a different piece when played live. It was still raucous but it was so brutal. At the end we'd slow down and it was like stoner rock.
Evelyn Is Not Real
I think it's the hook that gets me. That guitar line is definitely a hook, and it's kind of a take on the country tradition of mourning the loss of a love or a love that isn't real. In a way, it's always felt a touch tongue in cheek but sincere at the same time. We're kind of poking fun at the genre but doing so with love. I don't know if that was ever Jim's intention but that was the way I first felt about this song. It's kind of like that song "Faraway Eyes" by The Rolling Stones, where it's a great song but it's also grinning at convention.
I always loved this bass line. I think John played bass on it. Listening back to it now, it reminds me of JJ Cale, where the guitar solo is kind of tiny sounding but still powerful. And the lyrics are brilliant – "Whenever your war gets out of hand I'll take it on." Everything about it I just loved. It gets requested a lot and it's kind of a substitute for "Lay Low" or anything like that.
Picture of You
It's got this lyric, "I've got a house in a court" but then, "I've got a car and a door and a big left arm." That's one of the strangest lyrics ever [laughs]. The lyrics all over this song are brilliant – "You don't say I'll wait up" and "You know I'm sorry/ You know I'd give you anything on a dime."
I Will Be There When You Die
The original version of it sounds like a chair is being knocked over and a tape recorder is being walked through a room. Jim's in one corner of the room playing and it's like the tape recorder is coming to him. I love any recording where you get a sense of the room it was recorded in and the time and place. So, the original version I had on the demo tape had about a minute long intro where it was just guitars on top of guitars and chairs falling and this craziness. That was THE song when we first started touring Europe. I think there were a couple nights when Jim played it twice. He'd always step away from the mic and sing it in the crowd. Everybody would be dead silent, and a couple of us would take our smoke break during this song. There was something so beautiful about rolling a cigarette and smoking and experiencing the song the exact same way the crowd was. You didn't really feel like a band member at that point; you're just another member of the audience. You try not to search out these kinds of moments because you can't force them, but it's hard not to think, "How can I get back to this place?"
|The Tennessee Fire inside cover|
This has always been one of my favorites to play live. We used to start shows with this song for years and years. It's got some pretty funny lyrics in it as well. The whole tinkling on the cymbals and the spaced out guitar in the intro has an incantation vibe to it.
By My Car
We always joked that we were going to put a sticker on At Dawn that said, "From the band that brought you 'By My Car.'" Not that it was an unremarkable song at all, but we thought it was funny because it was one of the last songs on the record and we'd only played it live a few times. Again, this has some great lyrics in it. I love Jim's hilariously violent lyrics and I think that started with this song. This has the line about wanting to kick his head in but it's said with a sincerity that makes you wonder how serious he is. You just don't know.
I'm really excited to play this live. It's always been one of my favorites, and I don't think I've heard Jim play it until we were doing the rehearsals [for the Terminal 5 shows]. It has one of my favorite lyrics, not just by Jim, but of all-time: "'Cause a soldier's death is so much better than defeat just hanging around." That's such a gorgeous line, and like the best songs on this record, the song is just haunting and dark but done in a way that doesn't feel like total despair. There's still a little bit of hope.
I Think I'm Going to Hell
This brings back a memory of one of the first shows we played. It was outside on a hillside at a college campus, and we ended that show, like a lot of shows at that time, with this song. And there's that line, "Lovers and children beware, devils and demons are coming to take me to hell." And in the field beyond the crowd was this little girl skipping through the field with a kite tied to her hand. And I remember how fucked up and evil it was that Jim was screaming these lyrics with this little girl out there. That's always stuck in my brain ever since. This song feels like Halloween.
While much of the Terminal 5 run is sold out, a handful of tickets remains for The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn performances. Find tickets here.
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