In all my music-obsessed years, there have been countless moments in which music has gripped me fully, catapulted me to the highest of highs, dug up lost memories, or completely gutted me. There was a very young me in 1994, watching Adam Duritz smiling and flailing and improvising melodies over all five minutes of “Round Here” on SNL, changing everything I knew about what a great live performance looked and sounded like. There was the insane electrical storm in May of 2000 that knocked the power out at an Elliott Smith show at 328 Performance Hall in Nashville, forcing him to stand at the edge of the stage with only his acoustic guitar performing “Say Yes” for a thousand impossibly silent disciples. And there was the night I opened for one of my songwriting heroes, the famous curmudgeon Mark Eitzel, who stunned me after our set by graciously telling me that he wished he had written one of the lines in one of MY songs. The power and possibilities in music revealed themselves on deeper levels in each of these unforgettable snapshots in time. I could write a ten thousand word essay about the significance of each one of them and so many others. But one instance in my high school years captured my imagination maybe more than any other and gave me my first real taste of in-person musical nirvana.
There were several upstart bands around my tiny hometown of Cleveland, TN. Each one more or less represented the local version of something that was happening in mid-90’s pop music. There was the grunge band, the punk band, the rootsy/bluesy band, the metal band, etc. And so you are fully aware of the geography involved here, this was the quintessential southern bible belt town. There were Christian bands of ALL kinds, from jazzy lounge music to death metal. Regardless of genre, I looked up to all of these folks because they were doing exactly what I wanted to do with my life, albeit not exactly how I’d drawn it up.
After a high school football game in which our team no doubt won (they didn’t lose for three straight years), I was told about an after-party going on across the street from the school at one of our MANY churches. Apparently, a couple of bands would be playing. I remember being hesitant to go because I frankly always felt out of place at these church things.
Nonetheless, I made it over to the church and wandered into a small, auditorium-shaped room decorated with string lights that vaguely made it resemble a place where a band might play. Some guys were getting set up to play, one of which was a kid I’d been in school with since 2nd grade. His name was Stephen Nichols. I had always known him to be sort of a quiet, smart kid. I had no idea he was into music at all. The other guys were all a year younger than I was and I didn’t know them well. The bass player, Patrick McNeely, was wearing a silver formal dress with spaghetti straps that belonged to my friend Amanda. Remember for a moment…, we were in a church… and here before us all was a cross-dressing bassist. This already felt important on some level before anyone had ever played a note.
The guitarist, Jeff Wickes, had this awesome-looking dark sunburst archtop guitar and a giant Fender Bassman combo amp. Most everyone around town was playing fake Strats through ugly, clunky cabinets, so I was intrigued. The drummer, David Morton, had a modest kit with none of the racks and fancy trimmings that a lot of the other drummers around town liked to flaunt. And it looked like Stephen, the kid I’d known forever, was going to be singing the songs and playing guitar as well.
From the downbeat, I knew this was going to be something very different. There were no obvious tropes of the day, no ponytails, no wanking, no drop-D tuning, no hard-strummed acoustic guitars. There was a vibe I could only describe as spacy or airy. It was immediately cool. At first, the guitars were quiet and effected. Chorus or flanger (or something) was being thoughtfully applied. The drums had a start/stop thing going as the simple progression repeated. Stephen began singing quietly with a measured, effortless command.
After this dreamy, jangly progression repeated a few times, the chorus simply exploded with this other-wordly simultaneously cacophonous and harmonious wash the likes of which none of us in that room had ever witnessed. It was so, so damn loud. But it was somehow still gorgeous. There was a quiet toughness on the stage. Four smart kids, ahead of the curve in terms of brains and taste, using their smarts (and volume) against all of us – and yet uniting us all in our collective awe. Every kid who could handle the volume stood there stunned. It’s hard to explain the awakening that many of us experienced, and it’s sort of fitting that it happened in a church. Over the next few short years, this band – known as Annie – would provide many more viscerally satisfying spiritual learning moments for all of us who paid attention.
I became decent pals with those guys, learning a lot about their influences. Shoegaze acts like The Verve and My Bloody Valentine were huge for them in the beginning. Later, they would change their sound almost entirely to a bookish Pet Sounds-meets-Nilsson thing that was totally over everyone’s head. I remember being slightly frustrated because I wanted my favorite space rock band back. But as a teenager, that’s how I first heard about shoegaze and Pet Sounds and Nilsson and all the other things that inspired them and that would later go on to inspire my friends and I. It didn’t stop with musical artists either. I still play a dark sunburst archtop guitar, just like Jeff’s.
Some folks found them pretentious, but can’t we all be at that young age of discovery? I found them downright inspirational. I wanted to be as respected as those guys were, as well as respected by them. In fact, as my band Pale Houses were working on “Songs Of The Isolation”, I sent some of the rough tracks to Jeff, the guy with the cool guitar and the huge amp. His genuine excitement by the stuff I sent to him really warmed my heart.
Annie’s tenure of local dominance was brief but fruitful. They got signed to a small nationally-distributed record label, played for a couple more years into college, and fizzled as great young bands often do. Despite their early demise, their influence on so many will stick forever. You can find some of their songs on YouTube, which are great. But those recordings don’t put into perspective what an experience it was to be in the presence of boundary-pushing musicians in a small town at a time long before social media when we all needed to know that there was something out there more invigorating than what was on MTV and the radio.
So thanks, Annie. You were special to a lot of people. Now, get back together and save us all over again.
FAVORITE RECORD STORE
Grimey’s is the best record shop in the south. I also pop in to Phonoluxe for weird out of print obscure things I can’t find anywhere else.
FAVORITE CONCERT VENUE
Mercy Lounge / Nashville