AS THE WORMS TURN
GETTIN' DOWN AND DIGGIN'
IN WITH THE Fiddleworms
by Sonny Edwards
(Photos by Dick Cooper)
Have you ever had a favorite cup or a beautiful vase or figurine or sculpture, or maybe a model ship or airplane that slipped suddenly from your hands and became shattered? In utter shock, you look at the damage, and waves of emotion wash over you. Sadness is an understatement. It is more like chaotic grief. Still mourning you gather up the pieces carefully, unable at that particular moment to assemble the fragments into anything resembling your lost treasure.
So you pack them away safely with the intent to try to put it back together a little later. Sometimes it takes days, or weeks, maybe months or even years. Such was the case in may of 1996, memorial day weekend, when Chris Quillen, the lead guitarist for one of the hottest new bands to come out of the Muscle Shoals area and indeed the entire southeast in years, died in a tragic automobile accident. (There is more history about the “early worm” days that you can read about by visiting their website at www.fiddleworms.com.) Nearly ten years later Russell Mefford, Mitch Mann, Rob Malone, Scott Kennedy, Mike Roberts, Clint Bailey and David MacKay have joined to resurrect the Fiddleworms. It is for many a long awaited and eagerly anticipated second coming. I caught up with the entire band recently for what could only best be described as a “high, spirited” interview. My one regret is you the reader cannot hear the laughter and witness the antics that I saw and captured on my tape recorder. Use your imagination. Rejoice in the miraculous union of seven brothers who have found each other and become a vital, vibrant unit that delivers that good old rock and roll feeling that we all need and relish. It’s good, and it’s good for you, too. In addition, please, accept this as a cordial, heart felt invitation to go dig some worms.
Many of our readers, especially those in the south, will remember The Fiddleworms from the mid 90’s as one of the busiest bands around. You were opening for bands like the Allman Brothers, Santana, Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Gov't Mule, Foghat and others. Can you talk a little about those days?
Scott Kennedy: Well, there was a lot of traveling.
Russell Mefford: Roberta Caldwell down in Birmingham was the one that put together the Santana, the Allman Brothers, the Government Mule, and the Col. Bruce shows for us. We started out playing the Nik and Oasis down in Birmingham, and then Zydecos and the Five Points Music Hall and it just sorta took off from there. We played about 167 shows in a 1995. That was the first year we were together. We traveled to gigs in a big old stretch limo painted orange.
Curious minds want to know so I must ask, what are fiddleworms and how did you come to name the band the fiddleworms?
Russell Mefford: Well, fiddle worms are night crawlers that a lot of people use for catfish bait. Chris Quillen and I were going to a concert in Birmingham to see Pink Floyd on the Division Bell tour. We had started jammin’ above Pegasus, a record store in Florence, with Scott and Matt Ross and Jay Wilson ...and it‘s hard to figure out, besides what the album was gonna be called, what the name of the band was gonna be. That’s always a hard thing. We were driving down Hwy 157 near Cullman, Alabama, and we passed a sign on the road that said fiddle worms for sale. I said, “Hey man, we need to have our picture taken beside that sign!” Chris said, “No man! That’s what we need to name the band!” (laughing all around), and that’s the story. Then he told me not to tell anybody so nobody would steal it. Then we got to that gulf station in Cullman and Scott Kennedy just happened to be going to the same concert and he gets out of the car across the parking lot and I yell real loud “ Hey man, we’re gonna call ourselves The Fiddleworms” and Chris runs up and says “Didn’t I tell you not to tell anybody?” (laughing, to Scott) Do you remember that, Scott?
Scott Kennedy : (also laughing) Yeahhh. Lots of drama.
Russell Mefford: There may be a band today in Cullman called The Fiddleworms.
What was it that first got you interested in playing music and what kept you playing all these years?
Mike Roberts: (Straightening and sitting up in his chair with a mock serious deadpan voice) “ I would have to say... definitely the chicks!” (lots of laughter from everyone) no, man I’m just kidding.
Too late dude, it’s on the tape now.
Mike Roberts: seriously, one Christmas when I was a little boy my mom bought my brother a guitar and I bought me a video game, a sub command game. For about two weeks I played my sub command game and my brother tried to figure out that damned guitar. We didn’t know how to tune it or any chords but I would go in there and play on it. I would just get on one string, find a note, and start moving around. It was a cool time for me ‘cause I was easily entertained. So, my brother made a deal with me and we traded the video game for the guitar. I went from learning how to tune it to learning some chords. Someone would come over and say, “Here kid, here’s a “c” chord.” And that’s all I had to do for two weeks so naturally I’d just sit there and fool around with a c chord or whatever. And the guy would come back, say “Wow”, and give me a couple more chords and that’s pretty much how it started for me. I like it! It’s fun! My mom asked when I was a little boy “ Son, what are you gonna be when you grow up?” and I told her either a fireman or a musician.
You’ve been pretty much burning the house down ever since. How about you, Rob? How did you get started?
Rob Malone: Well, I started playing because I used to watch Hee-Haw and I used to watch Roy Clark and I just thought it looked like it was the most fun in the world. That’s why I first got a guitar, and I, of course, remain in it for the money. Noooo no. The money thing is a joke. I keep doing it because I love it. It’s the most fun you can ever have...you know, without taking your clothes off.
Scott Kennedy: My dad bought me a drum kit when I was seven years old and I played it for about two weeks and then I used it as a trampoline.
Rob Malone: And you’ve been doing it ever since.
Scott Kennedy: Yeah... I sorta took a break from playing for a couple of years...started playing again but my dad wasn’t going buy me another drum set so I had to play the drums on my legs. My neighbors had a drum set, so I’d play my legs all week long and on the weekend I’d go over to their house and play on their drum set. I got over to Florence and started playing over there with a couple of different bands, Stained Mecca and the Love Yuppies, and then I got with these boys, and decided to drop out of school cause I wanted to play music for a living. So..I’m playing music but I ain’t making a living. I’m still having a good time.
David MacKay (Pictured at right): What happened with me was the Beatles came out and we were all in eighth grade so we went and got instruments and the other guys got guitars first so I ended up being a bass player, and I still am, and it’s kinda of a good feeling. I’m still a kid and I’m still learning how to play.
Mitch Mann: Three things. I was either gonna be Batman, Spiderman, or play guitar, and the other two weren’t gonna pan out I don’t think. That’s the thing. Everybody else can say Led Zeppelin or Beatles or Allman Brothers or something like that, but it was Kiss for me. They were comic book heroes for me so I had to paint my face and grab my dad’s guitar that my mom made him put away. He didn’t play it, so I grabbed it. It had like two strings on it and I’d just sit there and pick around on those two strings and rub blisters on my fingers, and I’m still at it. But you can’t get away from it. After you’ve played for a while it’s like... in your blood. My wife says I bitch when I have gigs and I bitch when I don’t have gigs.
Russell Mefford: So your just a bitch.
Mitch Mann: I’m just , err ...yeah...
Clint, what got you into this?
Clint Bailey: Well, the song that really turned me onto rock and roll was “Long Time” by Boston. My dad was playing it one day, and I just really dug it, and the more I listened to it the more fascinated I was by all the keyboard instruments that were in all the songs. I was at a friend’s house and his dad had a big keyboard and I started messing around with it and I just pretty much decided this is the instrument I’m gonna play. The rest is history I guess.
Well Russell I guess it’s your turn.
Russell Mefford: I’m a big John Denver fan. My brother was a big Beatles fan so I decided I was not gonna like the Beatles since my brother was a Beatles fan....
Rob Malone: Oh, wise choice.
Russell Mefford: ...and then this great record came out and I was, I think, in junior high school or something and this band called the Bee Gees wrote all these killer tunes like “Sgt Pepper” and...”With A Little Help From My Friends”. I was over at my next-door neighbor’s house, I was talking about how great the Bee Gees were, all these killer songs they had... and he’s like “That’s the Beatles man”.
(The laughter continues) Oops. So, my brother had given me all these records, like old mono stuff. “Beatles '65 had come out in America and I went back and I started listening to all that stuff and that was kind of...it just made me feel like nothing else. Even just from a listening standpoint. So I got one of my sisters old guitars she would strum at the house from time to time when I was fifteen and took a couple of lessons, and they wanted to teach me how to play “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” and I didn’t wanna play that. So I would just run into different people and they would show me a chord here and a chord there, and that’s how it got started. As far as what keeps me in it, I guess it is, you don’t have a choice, basically. In some form or fashion, like Mitch says, once it gets on you it doesn’t get off. And your ass is real sore a lot of the time.
Mitch Mann: It’s funny, my dad showed me “G” and “D” and that’s all my mom would let him get to. She said “Put it up - that’s enough.”
Mike Roberts (Pictured Left): That’s my mom. I went and stayed with my mom and she said “Son did you do your homework?” and I said “Yeah”, I did it when I got home from school” and she’d say “ Well will you do it again?” That meant just put the guitar down.
I think most of you are writers in your own right. What is it that made you want to write your own songs, instead of just playing cover tunes?
Russell Mefford: I can’t play cover tunes very well.
Clint Bailey: I just don’t think you can get very far playing cover songs. You gotta do your own thing.
Mike Roberts: Oh, I don’t know what it was exactly..a chick broke my heart...I had my first beer... or something. You know, you wanna talk about certain things. You wanna tell people about it and you don’t know how to say it. A lotta times what you do is pick up a guitar and play a few chords and write ‘em down...that’s how it started with me.
Rob Malone: That’s such a tough question...I don’t know. I just can’t pinpoint what made me want to write. Just hearing all the great music I guess.. Feeling like it would be nice to create something like that.
David MacKay : I don’t write a lot, but as a bass player it’s much more interesting to me to play with guys who are writing their own music. I never found cover bands to be... I mean you learn and it’s fine and it’s a quick fix but I always enjoy just tapping into the creative energy and I just think that’s where all the cool stuff happens. For me personally as a bass player that’s kinda where you’re doing music without a net and you have to find it in there.
Scott Kennedy: I just play the drums.
Mitch Mann: He plays real good drums.
Most of the readers of Gritz are really into Southern music, as the name of our publication might imply, and you guys mostly have a really strong connection to the Muscle Shoals area, which is considered by many to be a Mecca for southern music and has been for over four decades. A lot of different types of music have come out of the Shoals, it’s not really one particular style. In listening to your new CD I’ve noticed that there are a wide variety of different styles and approaches to your music. How would you guys define your music for our readers?
Russell Mefford : I don’t know if it’s really an accurate description, but Roberta Caldwell called us Southern Psychedelic. I don’t know if that’s true...but it sounds cool. Dick what do you think?
Dick Cooper: It’s such a broad spectrum. You’ve got elements of country, you’ve got a lot of rock, you’ve got some pop involved in there. It’s really very difficult to put a label on it. But Muscle Shoals has always been that way. You’ve had everything from gospel to heavy metal being cut there at one time or another and almost every style has been successful. Even things like Herbie Mann’s jazz. And that’s just the nature of Muscle Shoals. No matter what style it is somebody is going to be playing it here, and playing it good.
David MacKay: You kinda jump in and you look at the song and you decide what you think is going to serve the song best, what’s gonna sound best whether it’s an acoustical scenario or an electric scenario or a Bo Didley beat or a rock and roll beat or a reggae beat. You know that’s the gist of American music and we just happen to be in the part of the country where all the American music came out of. We have the luxury of being able to paste all the different elements and mix them together.
Mitch Mann: That’s a tough question. It’s sorta like asking some one what does your speaking voice sound like. Try to explain that to someone. I know everybody wants to put a label on everything, but as long as it comes from you....
Mike Roberts: It’s like when we’re putting the songs together, and every single one of ‘em we’d say well I think we oughta put f o u r guitars on this song.
Rob Malone: That’s very cool.
That’s a good plan since you got four guitar players. I imagine with four guitarists in the band there’s a lot of give and take in the interplay. How do you guys work it out?
Mike Roberts: Well, like listening to a Steely Dan album, how many guitar tracks are on it? And they all serve a purpose. We’re just figuring it out and everybody is playing something.
David MacKay: The only way a band can survive is if you pull out all the different elements of the people that are in it. If you’re morphing the way you play stylistically, over a period of time your gonna grow tired of it. And you’ve gotta have the freedom to be able to add with each to go there.
Scott Kennedy: At the gigs, every show we’ve played it’s gotten a little bit better each time.
Mitch Mann: I think all of us have been in three piece bands where we were the only guitar player who has the floor and you try to fill up the gaps and now all of a sudden I just think of the Miles Davis’s thing about trying to find your space and refine as much as filling in the gaps.
I know you all have multiple guitars, and play a variety of configurations, but do each of you have a particular favorite guitar and amp combination that you feel helps create your signature sound?
Rob Malone: Amps? I guess I like the Twin , but I’d want so many more. And I’d have to say the Telecaster I love. I’m gonna stick with that, especially since they’re playing Gibsons. Somebody’s got to represent Leo.
Mitch Mann: I’m picking my Firebird...Mike’s firing up his humbuckers. I mean, it’s kinda in between too, with the mini humbuckers. I go through my Marshall 50 watt amp.
Mike, your a Les Paul man, right?
Mike Roberts: Standards.... Standards all the way. I play through my 65 Bandmaster head and my Genz-Benz G-Flex .
Russell Mefford: I break strings. Whether it’s a Martin or an Epiphone, a Gibson or a Takamine, nothing’s coming out alive. I need an endorsement deal with a string company.
Would anyone at this stage of the interview care to bid tribute to your influences?
Mike Roberts: I’ve always been a real fan of people who didn’t care if they miss a lick as long as they got to a place they wanted. People like Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. I teach guitar and some of my students say they want to learn a Hendrix tune note for note and I think man he did it a dozen different ways...which one did you have in mind. Warren Haynes is one of my favorite guitar players.
Mitch Mann: Stephen Stills, Clapton, and Jimmy Page.
Clint Bailey: My biggest influences, my top three are probably Chuck Leavell, Bernie Worrell, and Jimmy Smith, the late jazz player and pretty much anyone who can play a keyboard well.
Rob Malone: Wes Montgomery, all the rock guys...typical rock guys, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Herring. All the Jimmys. They’re all great guitar players.
David MacKay: I feel like every bass player I listen to is great, and I know that sounds ridiculous but you learn something from everybody. Gosh, I don’t know...Jameson, Chuck Rainey, Phil Lesh, Jack Cassidy-he was very good. A lot of those guys who were great players and then I discovered Steve Swallow at some point, David Holland.... I could just go down the list, of course you’ve got Jaco . In the last twenty five years the evolution of bass has just been so incredible and you’ve got so many phenomenal players...great Muscle Shoals players like David Hood. Victor Wooten...I mean the entire gamut of bass players.
Well this month you have just released your new CD, Year of the Cock. It was actually years in the making. I’ve also heard a rumor that there is a new CD in the making.
Mike Roberts: Well it’s always in the making. When you get enough new songs to make a CD you say “Hell man, let’s do a CD”. We’re all talking about writing and we want to just hole up and just jam because it takes that kind of communication to be able to write some songs everybody can do. When I write for a three piece the first thing I think of is what’s the drummer gonna do, what’s the bass player gonna do so I’ll know what I’m gonna do on guitar and I know how the vocals are gonna lay out. With the Fiddleworms you got four guitar players and a piano and organ, you got a bass player who can play anything, you got four guys that sing lead and background vocals. That has to all come together when we are all together. I could write it and imagine what it would sound like with the Fiddleworms doing it, but I sure as hell couldn’t hear it till everybody’s all together, standing there playing.
Russell Mefford: I don’t think we’re gonna stand still. We spent a lot of time, and to me it’s just a miracle that “Year of the Cock” ever happened. And when we get together and work that stuff up...I mean already we’re playing new songs that have not been recorded yet, and I think naturally we started talking about what do we wanna do with ‘em. Scott McCutchen who designed our website and who travels with us actually came up with the idea to do a double album, one side totally electric and the other side totally acoustic and we are tossing that idea around. I don’t think we are prepared to say exactly when the next project is due out. In the past, we made the mistake of having a tentative recording date in like June, and we would tell some interviewer about it and then wouldn’t get in the studio until august or September, or ten years later, you know.
Well The Cock is out. To comment on Scott’s idea, at the CD release party, which you held in Florence at the Nolen Cole Gallery, you guys played an all acoustic set. I was amazed at how great the songs I had previously heard you play totally plugged in on my advance copy worked so well in an acoustic format.
David MacKay: That’s what it comes down to...a great song and then you try to find the arrangement whether it’s acoustic or electric...
Scott Kennedy: Even if it’s just a bucket and a jug it still sounds good.
David MacKay: You’re on your own there, buddy.
Well the CD is great and the tunes are winners, plugged in or unplugged. But after getting to see you play live I just wish I could afford to buy everyone I know, everyone that loves good wide open rock and roll, a front row seat at a Fiddleworms show. The energy you people generate on stage is so intense, just incredible. Any thoughts on a live album?
Scott Kennedy: Cuttin’ it in June aren’t we? Yeah, cuttin’ it in June.
Rob Malone: Well we’ve been talking about when we record the next one it would be nice to get as many live songs as we could, you know just lay it down and if it comes out right use it. Instead of trying to overdub lots of stuff. Make it sound really natural.
What can you tell us about your new record label?
David MacKay: Heart of Gold Records started when my wife Donna, actually our family got together and recorded a CD. We thought we would put it out ourselves and we had a band called The Heart of Gold Band and so we made this Heart of Gold Records. We really did it for ourselves but as we got more involved with these guys and various others in the Shoals area we thought why don’t we become more of a cooperative and lets work together and try and build something together. Heart of Gold Records is a very loose knit, artist-oriented label. It’s very grass roots and we’re just growing this thing as we go along. The people who are involved with it are, of course, the Fiddleworms, Donna Jean Godchaux MacKay, my son has a group called Boom Box, and another local artist named Michael Ledbetter. We are involved with four groups right now.
Let’s go freestyle. Is there anything you want to represent, about the Fiddleworms, Muscle Shoals, other bands or musicians and writers, any topic at all?
David MacKay: The Muscle Shoals connection is kind of interesting. I’m from the San Francisco Bay area. We always liked Muscle Shoals music.
We were aware of it early on. In the late seventies, I started playing with Michael Nesmith, who took me down to Nashville. That’s the first time I ever tied to cut a record. We went to Quadraphonic Sound Studio. That was David Briggs and Norbert Putnam and so I had a direct connection to Muscle Shoals from that experience that was kinda cool.
Clint Bailey: I just have to say thanks to Five O’clock Charlie. If Mike and the guy’s hadn’t invited me to sit in with them, I wouldn’t be in the Fiddleworms today.
Russell Mefford: There is a song on our first record that was written by a blues musician from Tampa, Florida named Waz. I met Waz when I was sixteen up in North Carolina and he really took me under his wing and encouraged me. I lived above his garage for about eight months before I came home and met these guys. Other than Kenny and the C-Notes and playing with Donna and David and those guys this is the only band I’ve ever been in, the first band I was ever in. But there’s a lot of good music in North Alabama, there’s a lot of really good bands. There’s the Kings of Outer Space, there’s the Kojacks there is Gary Nichols and what he’s doing. There’s Angela Hacker and Zack Hacker, The Decoys, Scott Boyer III.
Scott Kennedy: In Huntsville there’s Toyshop, David Anderson, Black Label, Blood River just so many talented musicians.
Mike Roberts: There are a lot of great bands playing right here in this area and a lot out of this area that are out touring. Sometimes I hear people talking about nothing to do in Huntsville and I wonder if they know that there are eight or ten really great bands playing within three or four miles of their house. And still a lot are sitting home looking at a recording network that sells this many units and has this many airplays in an hour. The Fiddleworms aren’t getting that kind of airplay, but it doesn’t mean we can’t play as well as those guys out there doing it. I mean you don’t get anything you don’t ask for, Sonny. If you want to go out and play twenty-five thousand seat festivals you surely gotta send a package.
Scott Kennedy: I‘ll tell you what I want people to know. The Fiddleworms ROCK! That’s it in a nutshell.
David MacKay: It’s an amazing thing that the Fiddleworms exist. First of all just the history of the band and I don’t think it would exist if it wasn’t rock. It would have been easy for Russell and Scott and Rob and Mitch and the guys who were involved in the band way back when to just pack it in, but the fact that it came up and they kinda caught the wind and went with it... It’s very cool and it’s very unique that it would come around again like this, and it’s not an old sound. It’s not trying to re-create what was but there’s a lot of great creative energy right now and this is just a very exciting time for the band. And I hope people can catch it because there is something really unique, about a band that is breaking like this. All that creative charge that is going on just makes for a very special season in this band’s history.
Well this is one of those hard times, and we’ve sort of talked around it some. A lot of people who knew you guys back then will understand, but a lot of our readers who are meeting the Fiddleworms here for the first time may be left in the dark. Either I’ll have to try to find a way to explain it or maybe you can share a little about what happened with the Fiddleworms from the first incarnation to the present day band.
Russell Mefford: Well ... I mean... Chris Quillen was a guy who really kind of put all of us together. He was incredibly talented but I never saw him ever try to out do anybody. The one thing I always noticed about Chris was he always seemed to be a giver. He was so beautiful and I think that is a bond that we have...and his...it’s hard to put into words. I wish everybody knew him. They would benefit from it. We were out of our heads and Rob stepped in...
Scott Kennedy: we still are out of our heads...
Russell Mefford: And see, Rob and Chris were very close...so...things just happened. We never tried to force anything. I think that even though we all went our separate ways for a time...but that’s what needed to happen, for whatever reasons, it’s a healthy thing. My dad always said if you’re trying to repair something and if your trying to force it, your gonna screw something up. Take a step back and look at it. I think because we haven’t tried to force anything and have let things naturally take their course...that’s gonna hopefully result in good music.
Last chance for a shameless plug.
Mike Roberts: The CD is available at cdbaby.com at Sunburst Records and Railroad Bazaar Music in Huntsville, at Pegasus in Florence, at gritz.net, and at our website fiddleworms.com. Check it out, there’s a lot of cool stuff there.
Any parting words for the rest of the world?
Russell Mefford: Hi ya’ll. Come on down and see us soon.
Sonny Edwards is a musical instrument specialist at Railroad Bazaar in Huntsville, Alabama and a guitar player himself.