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Wednesday, 12 April 2006 00:00

Stillwell earns fans the hard way

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By Chris Cooper

What do the words “music career” mean to you? For many it’s big fancy studios, nice cars and whopping cash advances from a record label. Maybe a house in Malibu with a gold plated toilet. Worldwide superstardom and scads of shiny awards? Yeah, right.

Try this: Countless miles in your car, busting your butt to book shows and pay for your album, grabbing some sleep on a friend’s couch before heading to the next town, the next gig, and the next step down a very, very long road.

Fast food, gas station coffee and club owners whose grasp of reality is blurred by the rather precarious placement of their heads (more on that later) become regular parts of your life. But a fresh set of strings, the right kind of crowd and the buzz you get from a great show — these are the things that keep you going. This is a career in music.

Jackson County’s own Matt Stillwell knows this reality like the back of his hand, and as evidenced by the performance he and his band put on Saturday, April 8, at Main Street Sports Bar and Grill in Sylva, there’s no substitute for the experience a life on the road provides.

Kicking off, they barreled through a 30-something song set consisting of originals from his newest CD Take It All In and covers ranging from top 40 and classic country to some surprising rock standards. Stillwell and company demonstrated an ease and versatility that belied the mere four weeks they’ve been together as a band.

There are some that deride the whole process of learning and performing covers, tossing the term “bar band” around like an insult, when the reality is that in order to make a living AND make headway as an original songwriter, it’s often necessary to do just that: learn covers and play in bars, mixing in the originals where and when you can. It’s how you learn what works and what doesn’t, and it’s how you pay your dues in this industry.

Stillwell is aware of this and does it well — keying in on a lull in the crowd response, he’ll whip out “Rocky Top” or “Dixieland Delight,” because as much as he’s there to promote himself and his music, he’s also there to provide a good time. With the crowd bouncing around and singing along, he and the band can slide into “The Motions” from Take It All In and nail it.

It’s a feat of set-list engineering, and it works: having opened the show with a handful of covers, the band unleashed a burning (ha!) version of “Ring of Fire,” creating a receptive opening for his current single “Turn Around,” with guitarist Dennis Brown conjuring some Allman-esque sting in a glorious slide solo. “Moonshine,” another original from Take It All In rocked hard enough for me to put three exclamation points in my notes. That’s always a good thing.

Though the house wasn’t necessarily packed, the affection Stillwell’s crowd had for him was undeniable, as was his rapport with them. Joking, laughing and succeeding in getting audience members of every age up to shake a leg, there was a timeless quality to the night; a show like this could easily have happened 50 years ago on Main Street — except possibly for the fried mushrooms, cable TV and imported beer selection.

Whereas a live show is open to taking chances, an album is about details — the right arrangements, the right sounds and the right players. This is especially true in modern country, where the standards for performance and production value are set extremely high. Stillwell gathered a list of players from the Nashville elite, forming a five-piece studio band for Take It All In whose combined credits include Garth Brooks, James Taylor, Faith Hill and more. The results are fairly astounding, and I’m going to repeat something I tend to say a lot: independent artists are putting out albums as good as (and sometimes better than) much of the major label stuff. Maybe the limits work in favor of the artist — you can’t throw in the kitchen sink to hide the flaws, so the songs had better be darn good.

Stillwell’s voice is in great form, and his tunes are strong and memorable, mining all kinds of small town history, as in the Coffee Shop reference in “Take It All In,” or the sometimes heart-breaking portrayal of fatherhood in “Heroes And Men.”

A little after 1 a.m., with things winding down, I got the chance to talk with Stillwell about the set, his new band and being a musician. The band — consisting of guitarist Dennis Brown, bassist Jason Street and drummer Shaun Apple — came together through the inevitable connections a place like Nashville can provide. Brown (an alumnus of Ray Price, Doug Stone and Alan Jackson’s bands) wrangled tasty licks and a fat, burnished tone from his telecaster on every tune, epitomizing the term “hot picker,” and likely sent any other guitarists in the audience running for the woodshed.

Sadly, the discussion was cut short by an irate bar manger that obviously never read the rule book in regards to charging a $5 cover to late night stragglers AFTER the band has finished and AFTER 1 a.m. Let alone how unwise it is to kick up a stink about it in front of a music writer and the performer’s remaining fans.

Apparently 35 songs and more than three hours of music aren’t quite enough for some “business people” to justify paying an artist what they deserve. I hope that when everybody spoke up in Stillwell’s defense (even the staff), the argument was dismissed as ridiculous and petty, and met some kind of resolution. If not, well, you can catch Stillwell at the Rusty Lizard in Sylva next Friday.

Album: 5 stars

Show: 4 stars

Venue: nada, zilch, zero. Sorry.

(Chris Cooper is a guitar teacher at In Your Ear Music Emporium in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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