Bowling for Bands

Bands have always been second-class citizens in the Nashville country music system. Even after the long ride of the recently retired Alabama and the breakthrough of the Dixie Chicks, country remains primarily a solo singer's game.

So how does the emerging Nashville foursome Pinmonkey deal with being in an industry where bands are the exception rather than the rule, and where the bands that do come along are usually of the cheesy Rascal Flatts and Trick Pony variety?

"The fact that there aren't a lot of bands can be a disadvantage," notes Pinmonkey singer-guitarist Michael Reynolds. "But it can also be an advantage because we don't have a lot of other bands we are competing with. And we do get seen as a little different animal in the business."

True, Pinmonkey isn't your usual aspiring mainstream country quantity, ready to be buffed, styled, trained and molded by Music City mavens to fit current industry trends. Their music, with its high harmonies and good-time picking vibe, is an appealing throwback to such 1970s country-rock acts as Poco, Pure Prairie League and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. And rather than glean the latest jingles masquerading as songs from the Music Row songwriting factories, Pinmonkey gets its material from diverse sources. No other country act can do songs by Sugar Ray, Cyndi Lauper, the Staples Singers and underground Nashville songwriter Gwil Owen and, what's more, make them sound like their own.

As all Nashville acts must, Pinmonkey has a great discovery story, albeit one that fits its left-of-center status: The four got together to play music in a Nashville club just for the fun of it, and their career took off of its own accord. It's an appealing Cinderella tale with credibility attached. Yet it seems just a bit too chewy to swallow when one looks at three of the band members' bios. Brothers Michael (bass) and Chad Jeffers (Dobro, banjo, lap steel and guitar) majored in the music business at Middle Tennessee State and Belmont, respectively, two universities that yield countless young behind-the-scenes Music Row drones. And Reynolds was office manager for a Nashville music business attorney -- albeit one who started out as a music critic and mainly represents acts outside the country mainstream. (Drummer Rick Schell, the fourth 'monkey, was one of the busiest players on the Nashville off-brand country scene, backing respected artists like Buddy Miller, Allison Moorer, Chris Knight and Joy Lynn White.)

But Reynolds insists that Pinmonkey was not at all the result of calculated ambition. He and the Jeffers brothers were already players; the music business studies were just a hedge. "The other guys were all sidemen," he says. "They all kind of had their careers online, making very decent livings playing music -- playing other peoples' music, but playing music."

Like his bandmates, Reynolds had come to Nashville to make it as a singer and writer, and he took a law office job when he thought his dreams were dying. "I had sort of reached a point in my life where I was like, 'Well, you know what, maybe it's not going to happen for me. But as long as I'm working in the music business I'm happy.' I had sort of put it on the back burner and given up about it…"

It took total immersion in the business side of music for Reynolds to realize that he had been going about his career in exactly the wrong way. "I had always played music with an eye toward getting a publishing deal, getting a recording deal, starting my career, such and such," he says. "And you know, for once in my life, I wanted to go play music for the fun of playing music. That was something I had never done. For me, that's what this whole band was about."

So whenever all four were in town and free, Reynolds would book a gig at the Sutler, a funky dive significantly located next to the even funkier bowling alley where Hank and Audrey Williams used to vie for strikes and spares. Rank-and-file Nashvillians started coming out to see Pinmonkey first, but they were followed by the music industry. "Now, granted, when that ball started rolling all of our experience in the music business became very handy," Reynolds admits. Record labels were making noises about how much they liked the band, but none made a serious offer. "By that point we realized we could make a very nice honest living on an independent label, and we knew we had that in our back pocket."

But once the band met with Joe Galante, the chairman of RCA Label Group in Nashville, the dam broke. They played some songs for Galante in his office, and he liked what he heard. Two weeks later Galante came to a Pinmonkey gig with most of his staff in tow, and the next day a recording deal was on the table.

"He started saying things that we had been saying about ourselves all along: that it doesn't sound like everything else out there, that it has this bluegrassy thing, acoustic thing and country rock thing, yet there is something innately marketable about it," Reynolds recalls. "So we were looking at each other like, 'Okay, he gets it.' And then he says, 'I love the name.' Then we were like, 'He really does get it.' "

What about that name, huh? After all, it sounds far more pop or alt-rock than country. As Reynolds tells it, on booking one of the band's early gigs, the venue needed some kind of handle for the club's weekly newspaper ad. Being a big fan of The Simpsons, he snagged it from an episode about Homer's dream career: setting pins in a bowling alley. And it stuck.

And just how did an act that managed to win the crowd over at Doc Watson's Merlefest bluegrass bash end up recording a tune by modern rock dudes Sugar Ray? "You know how sometimes you get a song stuck in your head and can't get it out?" says Reynolds of "Fly." "Well, I was driving down the street and the song was just looping through my head. At one point I just decided to sing it out loud. Well, anything that I sing sort of comes out bluegrass. So as I started to sing it and heard that, I was like, you know, 'That might work.' So the next time we got together I was like, 'Hey, what do y'all think about this?' And they were like, 'I dunno, let's try it and see.' And we tried it and it worked."

"Try it and see" appears to be the operative career approach for Pinmonkey, and that's a wise thing. After all, the odds are against any new act in the music game, no matter how much their label may insist it's behind them.

"We understood that going in," says Reynolds of the odds they face. "We discussed all this before we ever accepted a record deal. We knew it was a gamble. But we were like, 'What the hell, let's give it a shot and see. If the odds are against us and we don't make it, maybe we've had some fun along the way. And maybe we'll be laying some stepping stones for the next guys who come along.'"

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Rob Patterson