A guide to the Nashville guitar scene by Jeremy Popoff, Lit
GUITARS AND AMPS EXPO 2014: When you think of Jeremy Popoff, the first thing that probably comes to mind is Lit's 1999 smash single My Own Worst Enemy. But, there's plenty more to Popoff than pop rock crackers. In fact, during the last few years this talented player has taken a surprising turn, becoming a regular visitor to Nashville and a country songwriter, too.
We spoke to Jeremy to find out how he came to embrace Nashville, what impact the scene has had on his own songwriting, and which country guitarists you just have to check out.
When did you first become aware of country music?
"When my brother and I were kids, our dad was in radio and the first couple of stations he worked at were country stations. We were exposed to country early on. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, the Top 40 music, which now is pop music, was country, rock, pop, r'n'b - a little bit of everything."
What made you decide to head to Nashville and write with country artists?
"In 2005 I started going to Nashville. I was just looking for something that excited me. I was frustrated by the way rock music was going and I wasn't feeling inspired to write. I went out there and fell in love with it right off the bat."
"I'll hire a bunch of Nashville players and we'll do five songs in one day and it sounds amazing. They get everything in the first three takes"
Has working out there changed you as a songwriter and as a guitarist?
"It's definitely changed me. It's made me a better songwriter and has changed my approach. It's a little more structured now when we write - I learned that out there. I grew up in the school of everyone getting together at night, cracking open a case of beer, and start jamming. That's great, but now I prefer to have fewer distractions around and make it a focused effort."
Were you impressed by the talent out in Nashville?
"The musicians out there, everybody is on the number system. I'm a self-taught player so I don't have that skill to jump in a room and look at a chart and hop in like I've played it my whole life. Bands take days to make a rock song, but I'll hire a bunch of Nashville players and we'll do five songs in one day and it sounds amazing. They get everything in the first three takes."
Did you find many differences between the Nashville and LA guitar scenes?
"If you're a rock guy now, I don't know who your go-to hero is any more. I don't hear guitar like I used to in modern rock in America. All I hear are tracks and computers. It sounds manufactured. There's a lot of country-ish sounds like that now, too, unfortunately, so when I hear a great guitar sound or a player then I'm excited that someone had the balls to put on a Les Paul and plug it into a Marshall because it seems like it isn't the cool thing to do right now.
"If you like guitars and songs about girls and drinking, you've got to either listen to old rock 'n' roll or country because new rock isn't doing that. I'm always looking for that but I haven't found it in new rock."
"One of my favourite bands at the minute is Blackberry Smoke. I saw them a couple of weeks ago and I don't think I've seen a better live band in years"
Who are the hottest Nashville guitarists right now?
"I love steel guitar. Cowboy Eddie Long plays with my buddy Jamey Johnson and he is one of those guys that can sit and noodle on guitar and you could listen for an hour straight to just him goofing around at soundcheck. It sounds like somebody is just pouring it out on the ground like it's a bottle of whiskey.
"I think Miranda Lambert is amazing and really helping to keep country credible. I would recommend her last couple of albums. Kacey Musgraves is another - killer songwriter, great voice, smoking hot. She's been a breath of fresh air on the radio. Another writer who has been tearing it up lately is Jaren Johnson. He is the singer in The Cadillac Three, which is kind of a southern rock [and] country band."
What about any bands that we should check out?
"One of my favourite bands at the minute is Blackberry Smoke. I saw them a couple of weeks ago and I don't think I've seen a better live band in years and Charlie [Starr] is a great guitar player. If you're a guitar player and you see that guy and your mind's not blown, there's a problem.
"After seeing Blackberry Smoke I'm now looking all over for that Dan Armstrong Ampeg Lucite guitar. It's funny, I'm 42 years old, been in Lit for almost 25 years, and the guy from Blackberry Smoke plays a clear guitar and I'm all of a sudden on the hunt for one like it will make me sound cooler.
"Another band to watch out for in that genre is A Thousand Horses. Great southern rock [and] country band."
Is there much crossover in gear between what you'd use on a Nashville session and what you use for Lit?
"I plug my Les Paul into a Bad Cat and rock out, and my guys in Nashville do exactly the same thing. A guy that has played a lot of stuff on my sessions is Kurt Allison who plays with Jason Aldean and our sounds are very similar. When he plugs his rig in it sounds like he's making a rock record. But then there's all the other flavours that you add in, the steel, the organ all of those sounds."
Where's the best place to buy a guitar in Nashville?
"There's the motherload - the Gibson factory. I've been lucky enough to meet the people that build the guitars there, it's amazing. It's reminiscent to what I imagine an old Detroit automotive assembly line is like. It's real craftsmen. The first time I saw that process I was blown away so when I'm passed a guitar by my tech now I feel like it means something, there's a lot of people that were involved in that one instrument. Of course, there's a lot of great pawn shops and vintage shops in Nashville as well, there has to be with so many musicians there."
"Some of the real craftsmen will take a step back, let the kids have their day and then come show them how it's done again"
What is the one technique that a country guitarist has to have down?
"I still don't have the number system down. That to me is interesting. I think it was created so it would be easier to play any song in any key over there. If I was learning how to play guitar now I would learn that system. That would open up a lot of doors. Other than that I don't think there's a whole lot of difference between rock and country technique."
Is the Nashville scene as vibrant as it looks from the outside?
"Music is always being played in Nashville. When you get off the plane there's a Tootsies in the airport and there'll be somebody playing in there. In town every bar has a band playing. There's Lower Broadway with all of the Honky Tonks, that's more of the tourist area, I tend to hang more in Midtown where it's more of the songwriters and up and coming guys. Every Monday they do the Whiskey Jam which is a cool thing, it's a lot of really happening guys and songwriters. If you're coming to Nashville for the first time that's a great spot."
Country songwriting is all about storytelling, is that becoming a lost art?
"I think it is. There's a handful of guys that are laughing and high-fiving all the way to the bank that really have no background in this, they just stumbled into it and got lucky. Some of the real craftsmen will take a step back, let the kids have their day and then come show them how it's done again."
Words: Rich Chamberlain
Lit's new album, The View From The Bottom, is out now. For tour dates, please visit Lit's official website.