Jack Daniel's JD Set, Lynchburg, Tennessee
After a weekend of good sounds, good vibes and quality southern hospitality, Suzanne Black reports on her musical adventure of a lifetime to Tennessee and Jack Daniel's country
The most surprising thing about Jack Daniel's isn't that it is distilled in the town of Lynchburg, Tennessee, in a dry state where the law decrees that alcohol can neither be bought nor sold. It isn't that it's the world's biggest selling single brand whiskey or that it's made to the same recipe that won Jack his first World’s Fair Gold Medal in St Louis for whiskey back in 1904. The most unbelievable part of the story is that it is exactly like the adverts. We've all seen the ads on TV: snowy-bearded, blue-denimed southerners sitting around waiting on the whiskey and telling yarns. Then the 21st century scepticism kicks in and we imagine them applying the fake whiskers and memorising scripts, like a stereotype ordered straight from central casting. But they're real, all right. And every so often they pause the fermenting to invite a few long-time friends of Jack as well as non-believers into their idiosyncratic place of business.
The savvy entrepreneur that he was, back in 1892 Jack Daniel realised the draw of live music and formed the Original Silver Cornet Band, which he installed in his bars to lure in the drinkers. 116 years on and it seems that this is something else that hasn't changed. The sousaphone may have been swapped for a Les Paul, but it's still the music that has got everyone flocking to Lynchburg on a particular Saturday night in October. The event is the JD set, a gig with a unique line-up held once in a while in the grounds of the Jack Daniel's distillery. The reason you made not have heard of it is that it's only accessible to a handful of lucky competition winners.
The chosen few are flown to Nashville, put up in lavish accommodation and generally treated as if they are the rock stars themselves. Nashville is Music City, so if there's anywhere that can offer a top weekend to a music lover, it's the birthplace of country, home to the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, host to Dollywood and neighbour to Graceland. Jack's guests for the whirlwind two-night trip are whisked around bluegrass bars, steak houses and tourist attractions while the Jack Daniel's never runs dry.
The 'educational' part of the trip takes place down at Lynchburg (75 miles from Nashville) in the form of a distillery tour and tasting led by one of the dungareed gents. The Santa-like guide, Ron, leads the tour through all the nooks and crannies of the manufacturing process, from barrel-making to charcoal mellowing (which creates a Tennessee whiskey rather than the bourbon that JD is often mistaken for) to vast storehouses to bottling all the while proffering lore about Jack Daniel the man and his whiskey.
Amidst all this hard work it's tough to remember that all this is a prelude to the main event: the concert. Hugh Cornwell presides over the music aspect, skipping on and off stage throughout the show to sing duets of classic The Stranglers songs with the other invited artists -- The House of Lords, Roisin Murphy and Tim Wheeler -- before airing some newer material. In the absence of their regular bands a stellar roster of local maestros has been called in for backing duties. John Tiven leads the New Silver Cornet Band, comprised of the illustrious voices and fingers responsible for the cowbells on Bob Dylan's 'Lay Lady Lay (Craig Krampf), co-writing '(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay' (Steve Cropper) and laying down trumpets for Elvis (Wayne Jackson) as well as Derrick Gardener, Billy Block and David Hood. The group employed the Nashville Numbering System to each of the songs, which is a method of writing chords and melodies that give the music a distinctive 'Nashville' sound.
A nervy looking The House of Lords (aka Tom Dartnell) from eccentric Ashby de la Zouch trio The Young Knives was apprehensive about claiming lead vocals for the night, a duty he normally shares with his brother Henry -- 'I'm not strictly the lead singer in our band. I don't think I've ever done a gig where I'm fronting it' -- and similarly worried about the lack of practice time with the Silver Cornet pros: 'I just sent over mp3s and the band worked it out. I've never played with anyone else. [The Young Knives] is the only band I've ever been in as well'. He needn't have worried as the energetic performance of his own 'The Decision' and 'Long Cool Drinks by the Pool' mixed with covers of David Byrne's 'Glass, Concrete & Stone', The Doors' 'Hello, I Love You', Pixies' 'Wave of Mutilation' and a duet with Cornwell of 'No More Heroes'. A highlight of the crowd-pleasing set was a rousing version of this year’s single, 'Turn Tail'.
Roisin Murphy (ex of electro duo Moloko) also noted the lack of preparation time, saying of the 90 minutes to rehearse seven songs that 'it's going to be seat of your pants business but we're all old pros now. Usually my thing is more rehearsed and plotted out and has to have all these different edges to it so that takes a bit longer than just to go and rock it out.' But she didn't skimp on the prep this time with a set list of woozy lounge numbers spanning Moloko tracks to *3The Wire*2 theme song, 'Where is the What'. Her own 'Through Time' and 'Scarlet Ribbons' joined Bryan Ferry’s 'Slave to Love', Tom Waits’ 'Down in the Hole' and ‘Baby I'm Scared of You’ by Womack & Womack. Talking about the attraction of the project, she cites the draws to be 'the musicians that are involved and the experience that that brings for me and the confidence that maybe I'll get from doing
something like this.' And, no doubt, the chance to sing 'Peaches' with Hugh Cornwell.
Ash’s Tim Wheeler also stressed the rare opportunity to work with the seasoned musicians. 'I'm only just starting to get into it,' he says on the afternoon of the gig, 'talking to Wayne Jackson and starting to pick his brain about Memphis and recording with Al Green. It's amazing. I haven't even got to the bottom of half of what those guys have done.' Leaving the remaining two thirds of Ash behind for the night, he made use of expanded back-up to whip up rocking versions of 'Goldfinger', 'Shining Light' and 'Dark and Stormy'. He also brought 'Starry Eyes' by Roky Erickson, 'Whole Wide World' by Wreckless Eric and 'Running Back' by Thin Lizzy to the party before being joined on stage by Cornwell. When asked about the pair's previous knowledge of the other, Wheeler recalled thinking of 'Golden Brown' as a 'crazy spooky record' and saying of Cornwell: 'We had a song called 'Candy' on our third album. It's weird sounding, it's got a sample of 'Make it Easy on Yourself' by The Walker Brothers, it's almost got a Ja
net Jackson drumbeat sound, it's really poppy. It was the one song that Hugh knows of Ash and he really likes it.'
Cornwell explained the strangeness of a mix-and-match approach to bands: 'Since I left The Stranglers my line-up's changed over the years so I've got used to playing with a lot of different people -- it's good fun. When you've been in a band for a long time, and I think Tim agreed with me, when you play with other musicians you feel like you're being almost unfaithful to them.' If any of line-up is guilty of cheating on their musical partners then they’re claiming safety in numbers: the evening ended with everyone on stage for a collective version of Van Morrison's celebratory 'Gloria'.
There's just time for a (good) few more JD before they return to their normal bands, and the audience to their respective realities. Wheeler states that 'Jack and ginger is my mix’, just one of the things on offer at the free bar. Not bad for a dry county, eh? (Suzanne Black)
The next JD Set events around the UK are with Hugh Cornwell, The Hours and Fox Cubs, London, 6 Nov; Hugh Cornwell, The Shortwave Set, The Joy Formidable and The Hosts, Manchester 7 Nov; Hugh Cornwell, The Paddingtons and Les Gars, Belfast, 8 Nov; Hugh Cornwell, Art Brut and Rosie & the Goldbug, Glasgow ABC2, 11 Nov; Hugh Cornwell, Sam Isaac and Fight Like Apes, Newcastle, 13 Nov.