It’s only been 10 months or so since the official debut of scene veteran Jeremy Pinnell’s new project, Jeremy Pinnell and the 55’s, and it’s already been a momentous period.
The band’s initial exposure came through a continuous single-take video shoot of their first three songs by renowned photographer Michael Wilson in January, they debuted at the MOTR Pub in February, their first really big show was in July at the inaugural Bunbury Festival and they fit the bill perfectly for the Whispering Beard Folk Festival in August.
But ask Pinnell to name other major high points since their January launch and he goes all the way back to about 15 hours earlier.
“Man, we played last night at the Rabbit Hash Barn Dance and we had an amazing time,” Pinnell says over coffee at Covington’s Anchor Grill. “The place was packed, we played for almost three hours and people were dancing the entire time. Friends, family … it was just a beautiful thing. Things like that are something for me. When you get people smiling and dancing, that’s a benchmark for me.”
That’s the kind of unaffected simplicity that Pinnell brings to the 55’s. After amassing an impressive band resume with the rootsy Indie Rock rush of Light Wires and the dark Folk vibe of Great Depression and The Brothers and the Sisters (“That was a hot mess,” he says), Pinnell took some much needed time away from music to reassess his priorities. When he renewed his musical endeavors, he found himself leaning toward the pure Country direction that he had explored with pal Cameron Cochran when they were teenagers, banging out Country songs at their friends’ Punk gigs. It wasn’t hard for Pinnell to draw a correlation between Punk and Country, the two genres he loved most.
“I grew up listening to The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and Pop stuff; I’ve always been a sucker for Pop music,” Pinnell says.
“But I always liked that feeling of Country music. It made you want to move. Then I heard that Minor Threat album and that was like, ‘Whoa.’
“When I got older, I started to listening to Folk music and rehashed that Country that I always loved. I love classic Country; George Jones, Waylon Jennings … it don’t get much cooler than that. I think it’s honesty, truth, integrity and outlaws. Good Hardcore and Punk to good Country — they have all those qualities. Honesty is the big part for me. When somebody sings something, you believe it.”
Looking at the Wilson footage, it’s hard to imagine that the 55’s had only been together for a few weeks at the time of filming. The songs are certainly evocative of Pinnell’s previous songwriting power, now channeled in a decidedly Country direction, but they definitely don’t betray the ramshackle way the band fell together toward the end of last year.
“I met the drummer (Chris Alley) and I wasn’t sure about him — I’m still not sure about him today — but we ended becoming real good friends and we started playing,” says Pinnell with a laugh. “Ben Franks, the bass player, and I had played in The Brothers and the Sisters together and we asked him to come down. We just started playing some songs I’d been writing.”
Pinnell contacted Cochran about some possible recording. Cochran, who had long been after Pinnell to return to the Country music they’d listened to and played early on, expressed an interest in sitting in on guitar. Pinnell shifted to a Country gear to write “Them Days and Nights,” and the 55’s stylistic fate was sealed.
Cochran had written the lead for “Them Days and Nights” on a guitar and decided that the passage needed the kind of ligato provided by a pedal steel guitar; the only hitch was that Cochran had never played pedal steel, so he bought one from Jesse Ebaugh from The Heartless Bastards and bartered a quick lesson from singer/songwriter Will Hoge in Nashville. He’s been the band’s pedal steelist ever since.
The 55’s have gelled with an almost supernatural rapidity. They’ve racked up enough songs to account for a full-length recording, which they’ll begin in January, and Pinnell continues to grow as a songwriter, emulating the elements that make great Country music while retaining the melodicism and brutal lyrical honesty that typified his Rock catalog. At the same time, there is an Ambient Folk vibe that permeates Pinnell and the 55’s, a haunting expanse that identifies their original material and inhabits the covers they perform.
“Cameron said the key is to make it your song, and that’s what we do,” says Pinnell. “We’ve definitely developed our own sound, whether we see it or not. There are certain times when I’ll listen, and it’ll be like, ‘This is our sound.’ I like playing songs that the rhythm feels good, but lyrical content is the most important thing for me. If I can relate to that song, that’s what brings it home to me.”
JEREMY PINNNELL & THE 55'S perform “Honky Tonk Thursdays” at 9 p.m. every week at Japp’s in Over-the-Rhine.