"Music has always been a social-cultural force in any society. Each generation is moved by its own contemporary sound and message. We can only give people the music that is in our hearts, and present it with the lived experience and musicianship that we’ve developed over the past 50 years. So, while music can certainly impact socio-cultural beliefs, we leave that up to the listener."
The North Star Band: Kick-Ass Country!
Legendary Country Rockers The North Star Band, the band that time forgot, reunite for new album “THEN & NOW” (2022)! 1976-1982: Return with us now to those thrilling days of yester-year, when the horrors of late 70s disco, and the ravages of early punk rock, had left hard-core music fans stranded. When long-haired freaky people still roamed the earth, an endangered species. At a time when country music’s traditional forms had grown stale, and rock had lost its roll, country rockers stepped into the void. Some were outlaws, some were hippies, but all were keepers of the flame of authenticity, and when they came together, the heavens opened up! Look, up in the sky, it’s not Elton, it’s not Travolta…It’s The North Star Band! 2022: Fast forward; bringing blazing guitars, searing pedal steel, a pounding beat of thunder, and three-part soulful southern harmonies to drive hearts into a 200bpm ecstasy of fun, these guys have kept the fire burning. Five – count ‘em, FIVE – accomplished songwriters in one band. Led by rhythm guitarist Al Johnson, a wayward vagabond of Georgetown Law, and two-time Grammy Award winner (nine nominations), bassist Jim Robeson, along with east coast guitar phenom Gantt Mann Kushner, the wizardry of Jay Jessup’s sweet pedal steel (plus mandolin, electric guitar, and banjo), Lou Hager’s soulful honky tonk piano, and David Watt Besley’s thumping bass riffs, their music is driven home by the insane poundings of Paul Goldstein’s flawless beat. The North Star Band returns our hearts and souls to the epicenter of a place that was once known as Kick-Ass Country!
THEN: Four decades ago, NSB fans piled into dance halls and honky-tonks across the country to hear them play their original music. In venues long faded to dust – Desperados, The Lone Star Café, The Carolina Opry House, County Line, Exit Inn, 117 South Main, to name a few, they played more than 300 nights a year. Lou with his soulful ballads of love and loss, Jimmy with his velvety voice, Dave with his rich vocals and incredible story-songs, Al with his offbeat look at rednecks, hippies and Wild Turkey, and Paul with his soul-searching laments, the boys offered fans a band of many colors. Records were vinyl and spun at 45 and 33 rpm. Back in the days of analog, the NSB recorded their 3rd album in the summer of 1982, but it was never released. A recession, hard times, and life’s imperatives intervened. “THEN” is here, remastered and ready to be heard for the first time. NOW: Fast-forward 40 years. A reunion show to a packed house at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, gave birth to “NOW,” a collection of newly recorded material. Surprising even themselves, the band came together in the studio to record 10 new songs that not only capture the sound & soul they delivered back in the day, but offer a fresh bold look at the country rock genre they left behind. The playing is sharp and crisp, and the vocals retain that ‘round the campfire’ feel. Their music is timeless, and the quality of the songwriting and performance seems effortless. These guys are the real deal. A tip of the hat is due to other players who passed through this band, legends in and of themselves: Danny Gatton, Steuart Smith, Bruce Bouton, Mike Melchione, Dave Elliot, Bobby Spates, Jim (Ratso) Silman, Chad Bruce, Johnny Castle, and more.
Interview by Michael Limnios Special Thanks: Billy James (Glass Onyon PR)
How has the Roots and Rock music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
Al: We are all interconnected by our common human and societal influences, as well as by space and time. By that I mean that we are a product of our past, present and future. Music is a part of that continuum. Making music without knowing its roots and acknowledging those who have come before is incomplete, self-absorbed and lacks authenticity. As a high school rocker, when I discovered Flatt and Scruggs (the banjo) and Hank Williams’ heart-felt simplicity, it changed my world forever. Contemporary greats in country rock and rock music paved the way for me, the best ones having borrowed from the past but adding new twists and turns to make the music their own. My journey over the past 50 years has been a search for the sown seeds of musicians past that have grown and bloomed along the way.
Dave: It hasn't really changed my views on the world - but it is nice to hear other artists take on what’s going on. I have had a chance to travel to many places I would not have gone if it wasn't for music.
Lou: My musical roots have been what have kept me grounded through the years. Music today ain’t what it used to be, especially Country.
How did the NSB come about? How do you describe the band's sound, music philosophy and songbook?
Al: The name was chosen on a trip to Ocean City Maryland with my best friend, Pete Evans (destined to become a judge in Florida). We were on the way to a gig and had to come up with a name pronto. It was a nod to my Brooklyn roots. I don’t remember any runner up names being considered. When it came out of Pete’s mouth, it was done. We’ve always described our music as Kick-Ass country. Our songs are stories of love, life and times. We have 5 songwriters in the band, each one bringing individual talents and philosophies.
Dave: l would know the answer to that - it's the best we could come up with and listening back it wasn't bad.
"I miss playing live and writing/arranging original songs. Songs on the radio today feel over produced and some are a little too silly for me." (The North Star Band / Photo by Tucker Iames)
What´s been the highlights in your career so far? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?
Al: It’s hard to describe the joy of writing music and then transforming the raw ideas into a band song, working it up and playing out 330 nights a year, making fans and capturing hearts along the way. Even in the early days when we often played to tables and chairs, the music that we made, and that alone, kept us going. The entire time was one continuous highlight. Spending hundreds of hours in the studio was awesome. Playing places like Cowboys in Laramie, Wyoming, the Lone Star Café in NYC or 117 South Main (a decommissioned church) in Blacksburg, VA to a packed house of standing, dancing, cheering, happy audiences is part of a recurring highlight reel for me that never fades or gets stale. But I have to say, getting back together for the first reunion concert in 2018 and getting back into the studio with my brothers to record NOW is a current highlight that just may eclipse all others.
Dave: Getting back together with the band is definitely one of the highlights.
Lou: My family is the highlight. After all the crazy things we did to make it through this far it’s a miracle we’re still even alive. NSB definitely had some great times playing all over the country together and our collaboration with the music is a real blessing.
What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?
Al: Say what you will about social media and the new way of finding music and videos on streaming platforms, musicians now have access to a ready stream of roots music, so in that sense, there ain’t much to miss nowadays. Unfortunately, recordings and videos were harder to produce and release back in the day. So much great music never survived except in the memories of those who lived it.
I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we have no fears for the future. Each of us is involved in the NSB project for the love of the music; for what we were, and what we are now. This whole project came together organically. In 2018 we had planned to do one reunion show (another highlight). Several weeks later, Gantt sent out an email saying that playing that show “felt like coming home.” The conversation continued and the next thing you know we made plans to get back together to record a new album. Dave had the idea to release an album we recorded in 1982 (on 2” tape – analogue, not digital) but was never released before we parted ways. COVID hit and set us back a bit, but by degrees we completed both projects. Making music with these guys is awesome, always has been. Anything and everything that happens from this point on is gravy!
Dave: I still pretty much listen to the music from the past - every now and then something hits me mostly outlaw country or roadhouse on serious radio.
Lou: I miss playing live and writing/arranging original songs. Songs on the radio today feel over produced and some are a little too silly for me.
"Just believe in what your doing - give in sometimes - be thankful and humble with the gift you've been given - try to help others in the business when you can." (The North Star Band / Photo by Michael Malone)
What were the reasons that made the 1970s to be the center of Country Rock research and experiments?
Al: The late 60’s and throughout the 70’s was the golden age of live club music featuring original bands. Unless you topped the charts, gaining a following was done by performing live. There were no viral YouTube or TikTok videos to launch careers. No streaming services having access to the world. Recorded music had to be manufactured and distributed to record stores, limiting access to major label releases and a few independents, like Adelphi Records.
That said, beer joints, pool halls, small theaters, dance halls and honky tonks, 200-300 capacity venues were plentiful. Pay was relatively crappy, but baby boom bands were all over the place and rents were cheap. Without big time promoters, record company support or fancy managers, a good band playing their own original songs could perform well over 300 nights a year going from club to club, town to town, mostly one and two nighters. The drinking age was 18 and many venues had their own following so crowds were assured on any given night. Disco and DJs hadn’t taken hold yet. And the era of lone singers with drum machines and tracks was way off in the future.
Playing so many live dates also made country rock bands tight as hell. While it was hard to bridge the gap between live performance and the studio, we were able to do it and released our first LP in 1979. There was no auto-tune or digital edits back in the day. “Rats” and “gutter balls” could not be air-brushed away. With the release of “Tonight the North Star Band” on Adelphi Records the crowds grew. It didn’t hurt that country rock was wildly popular in the ‘70s.
Dave: The two worlds had to collide, and I am proud that we were a part of that even if it was the later part.
Lou: I believe 70’s Country Rock was better was because it was a fresh new sound based on old school country.
"The name was chosen on a trip to Ocean City Maryland with my best friend, Pete Evans (destined to become a judge in Florida). We were on the way to a gig and had to come up with a name pronto. It was a nod to my Brooklyn roots. I don’t remember any runner up names being considered. When it came out of Pete’s mouth, it was done. We’ve always described our music as Kick-Ass country. Our songs are stories of love, life and times. We have 5 songwriters in the band, each one bringing individual talents and philosophies." (Photo: The North Star Band)
What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?
Al: Music has always been a social-cultural force in any society. Each generation is moved by its own contemporary sound and message. We can only give people the music that is in our hearts, and present it with the lived experience and musicianship that we’ve developed over the past 50 years. So, while music can certainly impact socio-cultural beliefs, we leave that up to the listener. As roots country music had done for generations, our songs are stories and expressions of our own journeys. Hopefully they will strike a chord that resonates with fans, old and new. One of the beauties of this project is that we never expected to have the opportunity to offer up Kick-Ass country again. And here we are.
Dave: I always just write from my heart never really tried to make a social statement - it’s nice when people get the meaning of your song - there’s no better feeling.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?
Al: Stay grounded. Never get too high or too low. And enjoy the ride.
Dave: Just believe in what your doing - give in sometimes - be thankful and humble with the gift you've been given - try to help others in the business when you can.
(Photo: The North Star Band)
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