major label is like being a teenager,” reckons independent artist Ron Pope. “You know exactly what you want to do, but you have to ask permission and ask for money – and terms and conditions apply.” The 32-year-old Georgia singer-songwriter should know. Having become an internet sensation a few years back after self-penned songs were spread without the help of a label, he eventually signed up with Universal Republic, then home to Amy Winehouse and Enrique Iglesias. But after that proved a frustrating experience, he struck out on his own, with his wife as his manager. And he’s now seemingly come full circle, gathering together a band of “my first-call guys” – friends from his teenage years and acolytes from a wish list – to form The Nighthawks.
“At first we were just going to go on tour, and then we got to the house in Georgia where we were going to record, and everyone was like, ‘This is the best band I’ve ever been in. What do we do now?’”
And that’s the vibe you get when you see this band play live. While their self-titled debut is impressive, blending bluesy southern rock, country, piano ballads and blue-collar Americana, it’s their live shows that have excited Pope’s already loyal following. Imagine a southern fried answer to the E Street band with a sideline in romantic laments and you’re halfway there. And the key word here is passion, not just in Pope’s open-veined songwriting, but in the playing of the band that boasts guts as well as finesse.
“With this band, I look to my left and this guy’s a straight-up motherfucker,” says Pope. “Then I look to my right, and that guy’s a straight-up motherfucker and as a guitar player, when three other guys can play guitar incredibly well, I have to think about what I’m gonna do and make sure every note I play fucking explodes.”
There’s an urgency to his songs, which allows his bandmates to go on their own instrumental excursions. Take Me Home is a rip-roaring southern rock romp, while Southern Cross tells a Nashville- gone-nasty tale of being “all burned up on kerosene”, and Bad Intentions goes New Orleans jug band with its half-cut horns and woozy shout-along chorus. Yet in between those exuberant highs, they strip things right down to acoustics on the brooding Hotel Room and the haunted, hungover piano ballad One Shot Of Whiskey.
While the album was mixed by Grammy-winning ex-Stones engineer Ted Young at The Magic Shop in New York, many of the songs were perfected on the road and recorded on mobile Pro Tools rigs, and the album will be crowdfunded via PledgeMusic.
“I grew up in the south,” Pope says, “at the intersection of all that’s great about American music. That’s what I want to distil in this band.” He’s made a good start at doing just that.
**“Jimi Hendrix was my tour guide into the world of music when I was a kid. At the same time, I grew up wanting to know exactly how to make Albert King’s licks sound as greasy as he did, and get that Steve Cropper groove. And even now as an adult, there’s still so much out there to learn…”
Ron Pope And The Nighthawks is out now via PledgeMusic