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Truth And Salvage Company: From the Hills of Carolina To the Hills of California

Truth and Salvage Company: From the Hills of Carolina To The Hills of California
By James Calemine

The rare collection of songwriters in Truth And Salvage Company originate from Atlanta, New Orleans, Tupelo and Ohio, met in Asheville, North Carolina, and moved to California to furthur an indelible musical journey. The band’s debut, self-titled album, produced by The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson, hits the streets on May 25. Meanwhile, in April the band opened for the Avett Brothers, and this month they begin a headlining tour. Chris Robinson said what lured him to produce Truth and Salvage was “the sincerity of their songwriting and passionate performance.”

The Black Crowes signed Truth and Salvage as the first band to their Silver Arrow record label. This collection of musicians has come a long way since their humble days in the hills of North Carolina. Members of Truth and Salvage include Scott Kinnebrew (vocals/guitars), Tim Jones (vocals/guitars), Bill “Smitty” Smith (vocals/drums), Walker Young (vocals/keys), Joe Edel (bass) and Adam Grace (keys).

Keyboardist Walker Young grew up in the Crowes’ native Atlanta. He attended the University of Georgia for a year, and then moved to North Carolina to attend a smaller college. He met Truth and Salvage members guitarist Scott Kinnebrew, drummer Bill Smith and bass player Joe Edel. Prior to the inception of Truth And Salvage, the members have all been involved in side projects such as Scrappy Hamilton and Old Pike. In one-way or another, they have also collaborated with artists such as The Moldy Peaches, Ben Folds Five, Jack Johnson, The Squirrel Nut Zippers, Rogue Wave and My Morning Jacket.

Guitarist Scott Kinnebrew told me about his early years: “I grew up for the most part of my time—5 to 18—in New Orleans. Then my parents moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. I was in the merchant marine when they moved actually. I left my truck in a New Orleans parking lot and I drove up to see them in Wilmington. I went to Nashville for a while. I loved it there. But I got a guitar at about 6. New Orleans was an education. I’d sneak out as a kid and go check out The Rebirth Brass Band, Dr. John, The Meters, George Porter, the Neville Brothers and the Radiators. I saw it all. New Orleans introduced me to a lot of stuff at a young age (laughs).”

In 2003, the band Scrappy Hamilton dissolved, and the members were at a crossroads. Kinnebrew revealed the impetus for moving to California: “Walker’s brother lived out here and then Walker moved out here. I was living in Nashville in a small place. I was 31 and I knew this was it, so I moved to California.” Eventually they met guitarist Tim Jones who booked gigs at the Hotel Café. Tupelo, Mississippi-native Adam Grace (keyboards) explained the serendipitous circumstances that surround these southern musicians on California soil. “I’m a very different case than everyone else in the band, but early on I liked classical music. A lot of church music influenced me. My father was a preacher so I was exposed to a lot of gospel music. I didn’t get a lot of rock and roll at home. I got a lot of NPR, which I thought was cool.

“For me, I found some jazz records and New Orleans stuff and that got me addicted to music. That’s when I really started playing. Then my first taste of a real band was Widespread Panic in the 90s. That was mind-blowing because I could understand it. That’s where I started listening to rock music was through Panic. When they’d cover someone else’s tunes that would sort of dictate my musical pursuits.”

Adam explained how he came to join the group: “I moved out to LA in 2001. I was playing a guy named Gary Jewel who had a hit song “Mad World”, which went to number one in Europe. That was a lucky move for me. I got to tour and meet some real professionals. That’s how I met Tim Jones. Tim approached me and said ‘We should play together’. We hit it off immediately. Then Tim hooked up with the other guys.”

It’s a rare that a band supports two keyboardists, and Adam elucidated on the dynamic: “Yeah, it’s hard to find a band with two keyboard players these days. We’re both good players. We decide who plays what on a song. He doesn’t always want to play organ. So we keep it interesting. I love that. We have different styles of playing. It just depends on the song. Talk about gracious; Walker didn’t know who I was before I came into this band and just the fact that he openly accepted another keyboard player to come in was huge. If he would have been any different person I probably wouldn’t be in the band…”

A close group of friends…indeed. They began cultivating a scene at the Hotel Café where Jones booked gigs. They also played a place called Cranes a good bit. The four main songwriters—Kinnebrew, Jones, Smith and Young each possessed their own songs, but they were developing a communal ethos within the group. Kinnebrew elaborated in the songwriting process: “Songwriting has always been my primary thing. I never stayed in one place. I always brought my guitar and wrote songs, but I never had a group of people I could learn music with or jam together. I moved to Asheville and the people I met are the people I’m playing with now. Smitty, our drummer, is the first drummer I played with, and Walker…I pretty much met him at the same time. He’s the first keyboardist I jammed with…”

Songwriting served as the band’s fulcrum…the common denominator among the members. The band adapted to the new West Coast surroundings and streamlined the change into the music. Walker Young told me about how songs on this debut release came to fruition: “Most of the songs on this album we all wrote separately—independent of the band.” Kinnebrew offered more insight: “With moving out to L.A. we were starting at Ground Zero. We cultivated our own scene. Then we met Tim Jones. Then we met Adam Grace. Every single song we wrote for the Truth and Salvage Company started with our living experience in Los Angeles. I think a profound change happened to us all out here. We have so many songwriters we just pick the best one’s from each guy. There’s never a shortage of good material.”

The band played their Cranes and Hotel Café gigs, paid their dues, worked on songs and waited for all good things in good time. They got a break when a mutual friend introduced them to Pete Angelus, The Black Crowes' manager. Walker Young explained to me the origins of this relationship: “We were rehearsing a bunch and we weren’t really doing many shows. Pete Angelus came in and watched us play in our rehearsal space and he decided he wanted to get involved. He thought Chris would be a good person to produce our record because Chris moves into working on different projects and producing. Chris came in and liked the band as well. They signed us to Silver Arrow Records, which is the Black Crowes label where they started releasing their own music. We were the first band they signed to the label…”

Eventually The Black Crowes allotted Truth and Salvage the opening slot for the Crowes’ 2009 Before The Frost tour. During this time Truth and Salvage coalesced as a group. They began to learn essential business lessons as a band. In our conversation about songwriting I mentioned to Walker Young about how I always thought it was copacetic that Widespread Panic credited all songwriting to the entire band. Walker discussed Truth and Salvage’s perspective: “Oh yeah, we struggled with that a little bit. Our keyboard player Adam Grace is a huge Widespread Panic fan, and that was a model we considered. When you’re trying to figure out contractually how to do it all, Panic is a good band. We like how they do it--they’re a great model.”

Ultimately, Truth and Salvage decided to credit the individual songwriter. I asked Kinnebrew exactly what it was Chris Robinson did as a producer to enhance their debut recording. “Oh man, it’s a good question to ask now because after spending months with him, the guy breathes music. He listens to a whole assortment of different artists and music all the time. He’s really good at picking the best parts. He knows what he likes, what’s catchy and how to harness it.

“He brought to the table a turn of phrase for a song or cut this part to make the song as a whole spectacular. Not to mention he really pushed us. Of all our singers—I say this with utmost humbleness—I just belt it out. Walker can put soul into it. I have more of a gravely voice. Chris pushed me to warm up my voice. I have this thing where I tense up and try to push it all out. He’d say, ‘Nah man, you’re doing it all wrong. I don’t want you to tense up or strain. Relax.’ Sometimes he’d get downright…not ornery, but he’d say, ‘Look man, I told you 20 times, stop tensing up and shit…’

“Now I know spending that much time with him, he shared everything with us. He got the best out of us. At first, I didn’t think Chris liked me. After a few weeks I asked him after something he said, ‘Man, do you like me?’ He looked right at me and said, ‘Man, if I didn’t like you I wouldn’t tell you anything.’ So, whatever genuine encouragement he gave us was all true.”

The band was in the studio with Robinson during January of 2009 when the guts of the record were recorded. A month later, Robinson and the Crowes went to record their Before The Frost record at Levon Helm’s, and later that fall they took Truth and Salvage out on the road. Kinnebrew talked about how constant traveling exposed the band to brutal sacrifices of the road: “With this tour coming up I think we will be working new songs into the set because we’ll probably sound-check with them and we’ll move into that direction. We don’t have any time to rehearse on the road. It’s a routine day in and day out with a strict schedule and sometimes as a group you have to do it all on the stage. We wrote a few songs on the road, but keeping up with The Black Crowes we found it difficult to be creative.”

The debut album itself was recorded at Stagg Street Studio, Kingsize studio and Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. Robinson produced the album and his longtime sidekick Paul Stacey co-produced. “Hail Hail” opens the disc—a sweeping anthem projecting all the group’s sun-washed musical glory. “Call Back” follows in an acoustic piano-guitar driven tune that indicates the group’s textbook, muscular song craft.

“Welcome To L.A.” really reflects how the desert, cactus landscapes and California influenced these southern musicians. This country-twanged tune serves as an absolute gem. Keyboardist Adam Grace spoke about this album’s recording session: “The whole time, I felt extremely lucky to have Chris Robinson laying little bits of advice on you. The lessons Chris taught us were something we learned over a period of time. I’m glad the record was made the way we did it. If we would have rushed it we wouldn’t have been able to absorb as much info Chris had to offer. He’s an amazing musician. He’s very smart and he’s been doing this a long time.”

Grace went on to say Truth And Salvage’s exposure to the Black Crowes heightened their sense of professionalism. “The Crowes are the most professional guys you can imagine. The whole organization has been honed for over 20 years. They are really an exceptional group of people. Any person can spend some time with that crew and learn about how to do it. There’s no book on how to be a rock and roll musician and the way you learn is to do it. The Black Crowes were mentors to us. I couldn’t gain the knowledge I learned from them in ten years of school.”

The album’s “Heart Like A Wheel” contains a soulful carnival of sound—another centerpiece tune. “See Her” exudes a mercurial tone that streamlines one cohesive sonic quality…an outstanding number. “Old Piano” stands as another timeless Truth And Salvage classic. This song transcends time and any geographic boundary by a confluence of lyrics and economic instrumentation. This song alone pays for the CD. “101” exists as another well-constructed song operating like a catchy time-released tune that you hear something new with each listen.

“She Really Does It For Me” calls to mind Doug Sahm at the apex of his career. Each of these songs weave word grams and vivid melodies that exhibits vast musical versatility. Truth And Salvage Company is no one-trick pony. “Rise Up”, a whiskey-laced rocker, proves the band’s ability to flex a hard-edge, and Kinnebrew and Jones’ amazing right-left hand guitar playing chemistry shines. “Brothers, Sons & Daughters” counts as a sad-hearted redemption song. The Crowes’ Luther Dickinson provided his six-string expertise on the album’s last track, “Pure Mountain Angel”, which closes a glorious first chapter in the band’s discography.

In April, Truth and Salvage opened shows for the Avett Brothers. In May, they strike out to headline on their own. Towards the end of the month they return to the south for a string of shows and an album release party in their old hometown of Asheville. They will also play Atlanta, Nashville and Athens among other great cities in the south.

Since they recorded the debut album, the group has adopted another mode of operation on songwriting. Walker Young elaborated: “Lately we’ve been writing a lot of songs collaboratively, which is a whole different kind of experience. We’re trying to get everyone involved and do this family thing.” Kinnebrew elaborated, “We have a lot of new songs. We have been writing a lot of songs together as a whole. We have a lot of songs on backlog, and when we’re excited about a song we pursue it. We’re all looking forward to the new songs…”

In June, the band will play the Bonnaroo Festival, open for the Black Crowes again in July and play Red Rocks in September. They are in the game now, on the rise. They’ve already created a sense of anticipation for the next album, while this new hasn’t even hit the streets, and it’s a mighty fine collection of songs. What does the band intend to keep in mind during their ascent? Scott Kinnebrew put it in perspective: “I think patience is one and humility. Just leave your ego at the door. We have a rare thing and the bigger it gets things come up I would think that would rock the collective boat, but we’ve stayed humble…”

Seek out the truth…And salvage the music…

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