Singer/songwriter Joe Nolan is an East Nashville music pioneer who recorded the first of four CDs on the “right side of the Cumberland River” 13 years before the neighborhood had Rolling Stone naming Nashville the “Best Music Scene” in the country.
Nolan moved to Nashville from Detroit in 1992 and signed his first publishing contract with Black and White Music (BMI) less than a year later. He began performing and recording with Pat Flynn (New Grass Revival) who co-produced Nolan’s critically-acclaimed debut CD Plain Jane.
Joe’s music has been spotlighted by international radio programs like Acoustic Cafe and publications like Vintage Guitar magazine, Los Angeles Daily News and Performing Songwriter. In 2014, Joe Wolf-Mazares of No Depression and the Ear 2 the Ground music blog commented on Joe’s songs writing that “Great music is timeless. This is timeless music.” Joe’s gigged all over the U.S. and played in Europe, and he was one of the winners of the inaugural Nashville Film Festival Song Competition in 2017. Joe’s latest single, “Red Eye Gravy,” was released in May.
In this interview spotlight, I chat with Joe about changes in Nashville since the ’90s, challenges, motivations, his newest project and more.
Full Q&A along with link and music below.
You’ve been in Nashville for a while. How has it changed since you got here?
People talk about it all the time now, but it’s been constant change since I got here in the early 1990’s: Garth Brooks was a superstar, the audience for country music was bigger than it had ever been, and Music Row was booming. But before that decade was out people had recording studios on their desks and digital music distribution flipped the table. Downtown was one all-but-empty-block after another before the ramp-up to the millennium. There were always some big office buildings buzzing and a few lunch spots to serve them, but after 6 P.M. the only places to go were the 176 Underground dance club, Ichiban for sushi or Mulligan’s Pub for Guinness. Besides the honkytonks on Broadway there wasn’t much else downtown. Back then the singer/songwriters who weren’t doing country music played at a Vandy pizza place called Guidos. We also played a lot at this place downtown called Martha’s where they had their own instruments and amps set up all the time. We’d just go there and rock out on their gear. The scene was smaller, but the people were mostly the same: dreamers for better and worse, and a lot of sweet faces speaking in the sounds of the South.
What brought you to music and what keeps you going?
I’ve been a writer since I was a little kid growing up in Detroit, and I took my first saxophone lessons when I was 10. Even before that I was writing songs, and at 15 I dedicated myself to songwriting – I turned into it and haven’t stopped. I’ve learned that singing and songwriting are only a part of what art has in store for me, but they’ll always be cornerstones. A fierce voice puts its command on you – this is why the true master always appears to be a servant. Music is a death match thing to me. Music can be stupid and funny and sexy and brilliant, but it can’t be bloodless. It has to commit to risk with courage. It’s either the Kumite or it’s nowhere.
How is your new release different from previous ones? Did you set out to accomplish anything specific?
It’s only the second time I’ve released a lone single. “Red-Eye Gravy” released back in May. I cut both of those songs in the same session. I’m finishing an album at Jerry Hager’s Blue Bourbon space in Inglewood. It’s like a dozen songs and my guitar player, Jean-Paul Lilliston, is helming the production. It’s a bigger project and it’s the third record we’ve made together. While we’re finishing that I’m still writing new material so I took the new songs to Andrew Adkins’ Electrahead space in East Nashville. We cut simple guitar/vocal recordings – the kind of thing I’d have done at home, but I’d just moved from one side of Gallatin Pike to the other and put all my gear in storage. We recorded six songs – “Red Eye Gravy,” “Hunters Meadow,” “Savage Nomads,” “Lone Wolves Together,” “Always Never Now,” and a cover of the Real Life song, “Send Me An Angel.” When we were done Andrew started rattling off all of these production ideas and I told him that I’d love for him to work on the songs and that he should follow his inspirations. Everything you’re hearing beyond the acoustic guitar and my vocal are Andrew’s contributions so the recordings are very much a collaboration. I love what he did and I like the way our voices sing together. That’s real important to me.
What challenges do you face as an indie musician in this oversaturated, digital music age?
It’s always a saturated scene – even movie stars want to be rock stars. The hardest part is finding that smart, tasty audience. I have a beard and I live in East Nashville, but I don’t play for the Americana scene. I play rust belt roots rock – it’s folky, bluesy, slightly stoned, irreverent music. It’s not country music – I pick Mitch Ryder over Merle. But, here’s the thing: I’m not interested in traditions or musical ancestors. I don’t have any reverence for bygone tones or times. This is the cosmic, Bruce Lee shit. “Hunters Meadow” is W.B. Yeats burning alive inside a wicker man. It sounds like a lullaby, but it’s a song about death eating silver apples.
What role has technology played in the development of your music?
I’m always curious about new technology, and I can’t imagine a world where recording music was something you couldn’t find at the ends of your fingertips. Even in the 1980s you could record your songs using affordable multitrack cassette tape recorders and dupe them with a dual cassette box. That’s what I had in my living room before I had a multitrack setup in a desktop in 1996. I got my first publishing deal with a tape I’d recorded on a TASCAM 4-track cassette console. I remember reading articles about shrinking a recording studio into a computer, and I remember the audio engineers who laughed at that idea. They got smashed – that wave wiped-out people and businesses just like digital cameras did in the photography industry. But it’s only been liberating for artists so everything else is acceptable collateral damage. In art the ends justify the means, and rock ‘n’ roll has no moral center. Ask Johnny Thunders. Ask Johnny Ace.
Where is the best place to connect with you online and discover more music?
Most of my music is for sale everywhere you might buy music online. That said, I’m only releasing my new singles through my Bandcamp page right now. Folks can also find my music on SoundCloud and follow me on Twitter. I also post my counterculture blog at my main site.