It was January 1966 when pianist Terry Adams started NRBQ in his Louisville, KY home. Adams soon met guitarist Steve Ferguson while both were still teenagers, and that meeting was the catalyst to take the show on the road — out of the house and onto the stage. Says Adams, “I remember saying, ‘I’m going to have a band that doesn’t have fines for not wearing boots, and doesn’t have to play certain songs to please audiences, and can play any song it wants, whenever it wants, regardless of what that style is.’ I was really passionate about that and I told Steve, and he agreed with me, that he would like to be in a band that was like that.”
NRBQ released its self-titled debut album for Columbia Records in 1969. Forty-five years later, after more than 20 studio albums, more than a dozen live albums and numerous compilations, not to mention countless, and legendary, live performances around the world, NRBQ will release a new studio album, Brass Tacks, on June 17, 2014. Recorded with Terry Adams on keyboards and vocals, Scott Ligon on guitar and vocals, Conrad Choucroun on drums (Ligon and Choucroun have been playing with Adams for seven years) and Casey McDonough (who joined the Q in 2012) on bass and vocals, Brass Tacks is brimming with swinging rhythms, sweet vocals, and sparkling sound. The dozen new tunes, served up in the unique Q mix of pop, rock, jazz, country, and more — ”It’s just NRBQ music,” says Adams — continues the trend of recent years, music that’s among the best that’s been recorded over a very long career. The songs are upbeat, powerful, happy, and filled with love.
Band members have changed over NRBQ’s four decades-plus career but one constant has always been strong songwriting. Brass Tacks features ten original songs — four from Adams, two each from Ligon and McDonough, and two collaborations among the three. There’s a contribution from Nashville musician and occasional member of the Whole Wheat Horns (the band’s touring horn section) Jim Hoke. And of course, there is always one unexpected offering from left field. This time it’s an unabashedly heartfelt NRBQ version of the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein song “Getting To Know You.”
Adams says, “I hear a song and know that it has some importance in my life, that it’s right for the band. Sometimes it takes a long time to get the arrangement right in my head. I’ve had “Getting To Know You” in the back of my mind for ten or fifteen years. I finally found the right time to do it. The songs that I put into the band, whether it’s “I Got A Rocket In My Pocket” or “Get Rhythm” or “Getting To Know You,” they’re as important to NRBQ as the songs I write.”
As for the originals, Ligon’s lead-off track “Waitin’ On My Sweetie Pie” and the acoustic “It’ll Be Alright,” and McDonough’s “Can’t Wait To Kiss You” and “Fightin’ Back,” slide perfectly into the NRBQ songbook. So do the collaborations between band members: the album’s closer “Love This Love We Got” from all three, and the Adams-Ligon track “I’m Not Here,” a plea to find some peace and quiet from the demands of the world. The Adams track “Sit In My Lap” is a perfect pop song, and his comments on credit card reliance on “Greetings From Delaware” are delivered with music that’s reminiscent of At Yankee Stadium-era NRBQ. The beautiful “Places Far Away,” with its Sun Ra-esque avant jazz feel, was written by Adams at the age of fifteen.
Adams has always written great songs about driving and cars (“Me and the Boys,” “Get That Gasoline,” “Little Floater”) and “This Flat Tire” is no exception. On the surface, it’s about making sure all your tires have air so all the wheels are rolling. “It’s good to stop every now and then to see if anything’s slowing you down,” Adams says.
As for Ligon, Choucroun, and McDonough, each has his unique sound, but when they’re together with Adams, on stage and on record, the sound and spirit is undeniably NRBQ. How does that work?
“Duke Ellington said ‘jazz is the music of personalities,’” says Adams. “The same is true about NRBQ’s music. The sound comes from the personalities and the way the music is played. There’s a specific way that NRBQ music is meant to be played. That’s the sound.”
“Scott and Conrad and Casey are genuine musicians who have their priorities in order. I play best with guys who like to learn and improve their art. The people with musical instruments in their hands but not in their hearts don’t work well with me. Some understand it instantly and others are curious enough to want in on it.”
“For some people, like Tom Ardolino (former NRBQ drummer and Adams’ closest friend, who passed away in 2012) and Scott Ligon, there were no auditions, no tryouts. I can tell when we meet that there’s an understanding and it will work out.”
Chicago multi-instrumentalist Ligon, raves the Nashville Scene, is “an unqualified badass — he echoes Adams’ gift for balancing melody with dissonance.” Of a live performance the Minneapolis Tribune said, “Guitarist Scott Ligon can deliver tender vocals one moment, red-hot country licks the next.” Radio Americana declared, “Scott Ligon gets my vote for MVP of the last couple of years for his role in getting the world’s greatest band out on the road and fired up.”
Ligon first started listening to NRBQ in the ’80s. He remembers 1988 and the first time he saw them live: “I just had this crazy thing happen to me that night. It was just so revealing. And so moving … I really felt like I was supposed to be in that band. I felt, ‘This is what I’ve been talking about. This approach and this language, I understand it.’ And I knew it immediately.”
“I also had this strange connection with Terry. He seemed like someone that I knew. Did you ever see somebody and think, ‘I have to know this person?’ Well, I kind of felt that way about Terry from the very beginning and I’m glad that I followed my instincts, because I ended up being right. I felt at one point in my life, that ‘I have to either completely distinguish myself from this, or I have to be in this band.’ The fact that it’s turned out the way that it has … I don’t think there’s any mistake in it. None of this is an accident.”
Drummer Choucroun has played with Bob Schneider, The Damnations, and Kelly Willis, among many others. Both Adams and Ardolino admired his drumming for years, and his style and feel make him the perfect anchor for NRBQ. McDonough may be the newest member, but after years of performing with Ligon in Chicago bands, his entry into NRBQ in the fall of 2012 was seamless. He’s an outstanding bass player and his vocal harmonies have brought an added luster to the band, in the studio and on stage.
As with anyone whose career has lasted for decades, Adams has experienced his share of change and upheaval. In addition to personnel changes, he’s lost a number of close friends in the past few years (Ardolino, Steve Ferguson, trombonist Tyrone Hill, T-Bone Wolk among them), has gone through serious health challenges, and has weathered indifference from the music industry. How does NRBQ retain its spirit and optimism? Why, in fact, does the spirit and optimism increase? How does the sound stay so authentic and unique?
Adams says, “I haven’t changed my feelings about life, music and culture. It doesn’t diminish. It gets stronger. Life is richer and there’s more reason to make better music and more reason to move people as you realize the value of life. As for the sound, my teenage culture has been in the music since I started the band. Sun Ra and the Three Stooges, it all makes sense to me. It’s why I got Captain Lou involved with the band — it just makes sense to me. It comes from my real self, it’s not copied from someone else. This stuff comes from inside.”
“If you’re lucky enough to get paid to make sound, then you better put everything you have into it, or you should be doing something else. It has to be the best that you have and make the most difference. The need for this music is still great, perhaps even greater than it was in the beginning. We’ve got something that no one else has. I know it and you know it.”
Terry Adams has never been one to explain the meaning of album titles, but what does Brass Tacks mean to him? “It means … it’s about the music. For NRBQ, it’s all about the music. Let’s let the music do the talking.”