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

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.

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.

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…

My Morning Jacket bassist Tom Blankenship’s reflects on the band’s 1999 debut, The Tennessee Fire.

Heartbreakin Man

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.

They Ran

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.

The Bear

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

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.

War Begun

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 Dark

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.

Butch Cassidy

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 co

ming 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.

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