Maybe it helps, but you don’t have to be a penniless sharecropper in the Mississippi Delta to play the blues. Living proof of that is Thomas Tull, songwriter and guitarist with blues-rock six-piece Ghost Hounds, who is as well-known in the band’s Pennsylvania home base as part-owner of NFL team the Pittsburgh Steelers – and his successful film production career – as he is for his music.
Yet his band’s new album, A Little Calamity, blends blues, soul, hard rock and country with the effortless swagger of southern rock masters. Full of nagging hooks, lithe riffs and pithy lyrics, it exudes the passion of road-toned outlaws injecting vintage rock fumes into their veins rather than a private equity billionaire.
Tull insists his first love was always music, and although he used his riches from successful businesses to invest in movies through his company Legendary Entertainment, producing titles such as Inception, Superman Returns and The Hangover, he has been playing guitar in bands since high school. And he initially scratched that itch with Ghost Hounds’ first incarnation.
“It was the genesis of an idea that was not fully expressed,” he says of Ghost Hounds Mk 1, which was put on ice after one album as Tull’s movie production business took off. But then in 2018 he met Brooklyn-based guitarist Johnny Baab: “We just instantly bonded.”
Baab suggested Bennett Miller (bass) and Blaise Lanzetta (drums) to reignite the band, but what really turned heads, apart from Tull’s songwriting (alongside writer/producer Kevin Bowe), was the voice they found to front them – the trilby-wearing, wise-cracking figure of Tré Nation.
Their first encounter, says Tull, was “like something out of a movie”. “John saw a clip on his buddy’s wedding video, just 18 seconds or so, and there was this guy singing. It blew us away. We’re like: we have got to find him.”
Duly found and hired, Nation’s gutsy, charismatic pipes lit up 2019’s debut Roses Are Black and adds a crackling emotional pull to new songs such as the beautiful blues lament Tears For Another and the boogie-fuelled anthem that is Half My Fault. Joe Munroe’s piano also adds Muscle Shoals-y vibes, alongside righteous stabs of gospel backing vocals.
The band’s profile has been boosted by endorsement by some of Tull’s long-time heroes – the Rolling Stones and ZZ Top both invited the band to tour with them in 2019. If that suggests some serious networking skills on Tull’s part, you don’t impress blues aficionados like that with your NASDAQ portfolio.
“I’m a believer in meritocracy,” he says. “I grew up dirt poor, and, sure, I have been very fortunate in my life. But when we tour, the crowd don’t care – they either like the music or they don’t. And the responses we’ve had have blown me away; it shows that when people hear good music, everything else is secondary.”