Four years ago, I interviewed Lawrence Specker when he covered entertainment for the Mobile Press-Register. At that time, he said we were in the golden age of music in Mobile — and that was before the opening of Dauphin Street Sound, Skate Mountain Records, The Steeple, The Listening Room, Kazoola and The Merry Widow. It was before Callaghan’s was named the best bar in the South, before the Saenger started bringing in acts like Bob Dylan, and before SouthSounds blossomed into a major showcase for undiscovered Southern bands, including some of Mobile’s own.
Music is an invisible force of revitalization in Mobile, bringing us together, giving us an identity and making us proud of who we are. The resurrection of downtown began at Monsoon’s and the Alabama Music Box. Before we had The Mulligan Brothers, Jimmy Lumpkin and the Revival or Willie Sugarcapps, there were The Ugli Stick, Slow Moses and El Cantador. There will always be Jimmy Buffett, Wet Willie, Catt Sirten, Jabo Starks and 92Zew, and the music of today grows from the echoes of notes that were played before.
New music keeps rising from Mobile in the form of Kate Kelly, Red Clay Strays, Yo Jonesy, Johnny and the Loveseats, and Abe Partridge — artists who are finding their own voices through lyrics and melodies and who got their start in local churches, theater classes and venues.
Lawrence was wrong — 2017 is the golden year of Mobile music. But the way our sound is growing, in a few years, I could be wrong, too.
Kate Kelly has a voice reminiscent of Norah Jones and Sara Bareilles with a heart like Joni Mitchell, but it is a sound and a feeling she has grown into. She spent her childhood singing in the church choir and summers leading music at Camp Beckwith. She headed to Nashville as soon as she could in search of inspiration and training and graduated with a music degree from Belmont University not long after. When she isn’t singing these days, she works part-time for a psychiatric hospital, teaching music therapy. All this while developing her own music career.
“My day job is very meaningful, and I love that it incorporates music, ” Kelly says. “We write songs, play instruments and music games. It gives them a distraction that provides a way to focus on a present moment.
“Those groups also inspire my songwriting and help me stay focused, too.”
As she studied music, her voice opened and changed, and writing songs made her more vulnerable.
“Growing with your voice is a spiritual process, ” she says. “My intention for performing is to connect through music and make us honest with ourselves. I love to tell stories about my songs and challenge myself and be open. What we do is soul work and heart work.”
Kate released her first EP, New Heartbeat, in 2016, and is writing songs for a new album she will record in the next year. “The new songs are much more pointed in their message and have more of a jazzy feel, ” she says. “This is going to be a big year for me.”
In her music, she connects with people, but she also feels a connection with Mobile itself.
“My family lives on Dog River, and when I go home, I feel lucky to return to such a beautiful place where I can get back to myself and away from a city that is oversaturated with musicians. It also reminds me of writing those first songs in my bedroom and gives me a chance to see just how far I have come.”
She says being by the water helps her get back to her roots and what means the most to her, saying, “That washes me inside and out every damn time.”
The Red Clay Strays
The Red Clay Strays are Brandon Coleman, lead vocals / rhythm / piano; Zach Rishel, lead guitar; Andrew Bishop, bass; John W. Hall, drums; and Drew Nix, guitar / backup vocals.
The Red Clay Strays, or “the Strays” as they call themselves, started playing together only six months ago but get along like brothers who have been together forever. “Red clay” represents their Alabama roots, and they claim to have all been strays. They are signed to Skate Mountain Records and are developing a sound that is part Southern rock, blues and “always something else.” They are already touring beyond the Gulf Coast and went to Los Angeles in August to start recording songs for their first album. The band is now operating full-time, giving the Strays the flexibility to quit construction and pizza delivery jobs and an excuse to focus less on studying for the college degrees they may never use.
Nix writes most of the songs, and the band takes it from there. “There is no closed-mindedness in this band, ” drummer Hall says. “We are open to trying different things until we get it right, and the songs usually change as we play them on the road.”
“Anything Brandon sings is soulful, ” he says. “We are Southern roots and can flip the switch and play a rock song then a soft acoustic song or country song. We knew things were changing when we started getting requests for originals or people started cheering when we said we were going to play the song ‘Mobile.’ That’s a great feeling, and we feed off the crowd. Even if only a few people pay attention, we will treat it like it’s 1, 000.”
They also feed off one another, especially with “shenanigans” on the road.
“We once sang our way out of a ticket. Andrew was doing 75 in a 45 zone on our way to a gig, ” Coleman says. “The officer walked up to the window with sunglasses on and didn’t look happy. He asked who the lead singer was and then told me to sing a song. As soon as I started with ‘The night time is the right time, ’ there was ‘night and day’ coming from John and Drew in the backseat. We sang as hard as we could. The cop never broke a smile and still looked like he was going to tase us. He said, ‘Slow it down, ’ and walked away.”
The Strays just bought a house together so they can spend more time on their music.
“We have already made so many memories and are proud of the music we are making, but we are just getting started, ” Coleman says.
Throughout her life, Jonesy experienced all kinds of music around Mobile. Her dad played a variety of instruments, and she sang in a gospel band with him on the weekends. She prayed she’d inherit her mother’s voice but received the raspiness of her dad’s and learned to accept it. After a job working for TSA security at the Mobile Airport, she was an emcee and DJ at hip-hop clubs.
“Being an emcee teaches you how to feed off the audience, ” she says. “I was in the club life, up all night, sleeping until 3 p.m. the next day. I was also teaching dance — tap is my thing. I was singing, too, and ended up losing my voice because of throat nodules. I had to go into training to learn how to use my voice.”
She recovered and sang in a show band and later a rock-and-blues ensemble, Fortunate Few, before starting her own project, Crowned Jewelz.
“I was the only black girl playing with 40-something-year-old white guys in Fortunate Few, ” Jonesy says. “It taught me a lot about people and it showed unity and where we have come as a city. I wrote my current single, ‘Superwoman Blues, ’ with them.”
Her first album, Jonesy 316, comes out in the fall. “It is uplifting and many styles of music. I want to say positive things that impact people and teach kids to live in peace through music, ” she says. “Words are powerful, and I want to spread the message of ‘LIP: Living In Peace.’”
She wants to play music festivals and eventually open a performing arts school in Alabama that focuses on theater, art and dance to help gifted kids go to college.
“I am walking in my purpose, ” Jonesy says. “Everything I do is on purpose.”
Johnny Hayes took chorus as an elective at UMS-Wright and was moved to advanced chorus in 10th grade. His teacher told him he could sing and dance, but he stuck to sports. One night in college, he picked up a guitar and played in public for the first time. The song was David Gray’s “Babylon, ” and he just intended to fill time while the singer at the bar took a break. Johnny was hired to play his own gigs after that.
“It took me a year to get up my nerve to play in public, ” he says.
His parents made him go to college and get a degree, so music was a hobby. “I spent all of my young years thinking I was supposed to do something different and trying to figure out what that was instead of developing a sound. Last year, before I went on [the reality TV show] The Voice, I finally figured out the music I was supposed to play, and over the year, it came together.”
That discovery began when his band stopped at Stax Records while passing through Memphis. The museum’s introductory video about the music made there moved him.
“I was watching the influences of everything I listened to and finding the source of the source of the source, ” Hayes says. “I thought Americana was going to be my genre, but Memphis taught me soul is much more than singing. It is the truth. It is naked music, and that awakened my senses.
“They are making music right there with their hands and channeling emotions and giving it right to you.”
During this time of self-discovery, he found Meredith, the love of his life, and they got married and moved back home to Mobile. He also began his complicated relationship with The Voice. His first audition was in January 2011, and after several attempts that ended in rejection, he was invited to a private audition for Season 12 in 2017 and went in more focused than before. This time, he made it into the top 24.
“I told them I would do The Voice again if I could wear what I wanted to wear and sing what I wanted to sing, ” he says. “It was such a long process to get there, and I tried out so many times that it was an awakening when I finally made it on. I was proud of myself that I did something I wanted to do that was my chosen path. After I got off the show, I received more attention than I have ever expected. Being a musician is hard because you try to get people to notice you for doing what you love and you aren’t sure if you are doing the right thing.
“The Voice was validation that I am doing what I am supposed to do. I am so grateful.”
Through those years Hayes also started playing with his band, the Loveseats, and with musicians from Nashville and Mobile. The first album from Johnny and the Loveseats comes out in November.
“It is going to be live because I hear it every time we play, ” Hayes says. “I am not signed and don’t really care about that. It is all about the songs. I want people to hear the songs and stories because they are funny and true.”
Partridge grew up around music. His mom played piano in church, and his dad listened to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He went to four Bible colleges in four years and became the understudy of a prominent independent Baptist preacher in northwest Georgia. At 25, the born-and-raised Mobilian was called to pastor a church in Kentucky, but the coming years weren’t devoid of hardship.
“A lot happened that I wasn’t prepared for, ” Partridge says. “It was one of the lowest moments of my life, breaking down everything and making me question who I wanted to be. I was 27 and felt like I was going to have a stroke.”
He found the blues in a flea market on an old VHS of blues musician Son House. He bought the tape and started playing a three-finger banjo that he bought at a pawn shop in Chattanooga.
“I learned from Son House there was a different way of music and that songs don’t have to make you feel good. The blues led me to Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt, ” he says. “When I went off the deep end, I started writing songs and that got me through. Putting thoughts on paper makes them easier to compartmentalize and deal with.”
Partridge left the church and Kentucky, moving his family in with his mom back in Mobile and getting a minimum wage job. Feeling like he had failed, he joined the Air Force to find a skill and was sent to Iraq to fix airplanes that flew into battle zones. Today, he is an Air Force reserve technician and still wears a uniform to work every day.
“The desert in Iraq was another dark time for me, ” Partridge says. “I realized I had spent my adult life bringing negativity and violence into the world. I said if I could make it home, I would do something to bring beauty into the world, so I started a record label called Alabama Astronaut and put out records for rock ‘n’ roll bands.”
The 2015 Songwriters Shootout in Gulf Shores was the first time he played his own songs in public. “I wasn’t expecting anything, but I was one of the winners. I recorded my first CD two months later with someone who heard me play that night.”
His first show was at The Listening Room in Mobile, and he quickly learned how to perform in front of people who care about lyrics and original music. “I am a different performer because I started with people in a listening environment instead of a noisy bar. It was about connecting with folks.”
Music took off from there, and so did he. Partridge plays out of town almost every weekend, including many songwriter festivals in Georgia and Texas.
“I get up in the morning, and I am happy to be alive for something else besides my family, ” Partridge says. “That is a new feeling, and I am going to find a way to play music full-time. The music I play is a form of communication that moves you — not entertainment. If I am forced to be entertainment, I am terrible.
“I try to write songs that are brutally honest and play them in a brutally honest way.”
Walker Hayes recently had the biggest moment of his career, when his single, “You Broke Up with Me, ” was taking off and dreams were starting to come true. The song recently hit No. 1 on Sirius XM and radio stations were beginning to add it. About 70, 000 copies have been sold, and more numbers are coming in every day.
This is a time of celebration for the country singer-songwriter who grew up in Mobile and met his wife, Laney, at St. Paul’s Episcopal School. But his first hit single has been a long time coming. Walker has lived in Nashville for 12 years, and getting the first publishing deal and signing with Capitol Records was the easiest part of his career. After signing, commercial success never came, and he was released in 2012. That rejection started a humiliating time of drinking, stocking produce at Costco and fighting his way back to being a better songwriter and father for his six kids.
“I was working at Costco and a drunk, ” Hayes says. “I knew the end was coming, so there emerged a reckless, nothing-to-lose attitude in my songwriting, and what started coming out was honesty from painful times.”
Right now, there is a reason to celebrate all of the time. “I wouldn’t trade the last 12 years, but this was just in time because I don’t know how much longer I would have stuck it out here.”
Hayes’s second chance came when he pitched songs to Shane McAnally at Monument Records for other artists to record. McAnally called him back and said Hayes should sing them on his own record.
“Shane rescued me from Costco and signed me to a publishing deal, ” Hayes says. “It is a miracle, among many miracles. I felt like I was writing good songs but couldn’t give them away. You get so jaded and have such little expectation for the stuff you create. The older I got, the more I gave up.”
“You Broke Up with Me” is not about a girl breaking up with him, but the people who left him during the bad times and tried to come back when good things started happening. “I tell my kids this is life, ” he says. “I wish I didn’t take it so personally, but I do. I am a sensitive artist.”
Hayes is proud to be from Mobile and says his writing is embedded in the language of the city. “My songwriting is Deep South, rooted in Mobile flavor, Mardi Gras, Dew Drop Inn, magnolias, rivers and bays, ” he says. “The songs and emotions start from there. All of the love stories inside of me take place in the humidity, the rain and the soaking wet streets with steam coming off of them. When I sit down to write a song, my head is always in Mobile. Writing the truth is hard, and for a while my life gave me a lot to write about. Now life is good, but it will be harder to write.”
He dreams of having a place on Dog River and letting his kids experience the childhood he had.
“Every time I go back to Mobile, it gets better, but what I love about it hasn’t changed either, ” he says. “The identity is not getting lost. There is so much talent and tradition there.” (Click here to listen to Walker sing about Mobile on 95KSJ)
“Five years from now someone may ask, ‘Do you remember that ‘You Broke Up with Me’ song that we sang that summer?’”
Lynn Oldshue is the founder of The Southern Rambler, dedicated to sharing stories of Gulf Coast musicians and artists.
Photos by Matthew Coughlin • shot on location at The Staples-Pake Building