Rambling with Jay Burgess of the Pollies
Jay Burgess, lead singer and songwriter for the Pollies, did not start out as a singer, songwriter, or a guitar player. But today he is a part of the new generation of Muscle Shoals musicians feeding off of each other and making the best music in the country music.
The Pollies shared songs from their new album, Not Here, at Callaghan’s on February 21, and we talked with Burgess before the show.
The Southern Rambler: Jason Isbell, Dylan LeBlanc, Browan Lollar (St. Paul and the Broken Bones), John Paul White, Ben Tanner, and the Alabama Shakes are all from the Shoals area. You grew up in music together, back each other in bands and on albums, and open for one another on the road. All of you have received national attention and Jason Isbell and the Alabama Shakes just won Grammys. What does it mean to be part of the new generation of music in Muscle Shoals?
Jay Burgess: All of them have made me better, but I didn’t realize how good they were until we started traveling outside of Muscle Shoals. I sometimes take it for granted that the things I grew up with didn’t happen in every town. I am happy that I have witnessed part of it, but as everyone grows and tours, it is harder to work around schedules. Ben Tanner was playing with us and the Alabama Shakes stole him to play with them. We played a show in Huntsville with Doc Daily and the Shakes opened. They killed it, and that night I texted everyone to tell them I was watching the next huge pop act.
Growing up in Muscle Shoals, the past wasn’t brought up until people from the outside started paying attention. When I heard an Aretha Franklin song on the radio, I had no idea that the guys I saw playing at local restaurants were the ones who played on that song. No one talked about it. David Hood, Kelvin Holly, and Scott Boyer were in the corners of restaurants playing what we thought were cover songs. We didn’t realize they were playing the songs they recorded. Some of the best players in the world were shaping us while we ate barbecue and burritos.
The difference between Muscle Shoals and Nashville musicians is that people who grew up and learned how to play in Muscle Shoals play to the song and just give it what it needs. What makes records good and different in Muscle Shoals is the space in the songs. The new drummer and bass player in the Pollies are from Nashville. They are great players and super-creative dudes, but it took us a while to get used to each other.
When did you learn to play music?
I started playing guitar when I was 19. I was interested in music, but didn’t realize it was an option. In high school, I wanted to be a lawyer. My uncle was a high-profile accountant and manager in Nashville and he worked for Billy Ray and Miley Cyrus. He talked me into majoring in accounting, but I discovered the guitar and gave up numbers. I thought my uncle would help me, but he never liked my music.
You started out playing guitar in Dylan LeBlanc’s band. How did you become the lead singer of your own band?
I never intended to be a singer, I just wanted to be a side guy. I was in the band Sons of Roswell and the lead singer quit to start a family. I went to a studio in Green Hill and started messing with textures of sound. It needed a vocal, but no one was there, so I had to do it. I wasn’t a singer. My ear wasn’t adjusted, so I couldn’t tell if I was flat or sharp. A friend listened to every vocal I did and told me when I was off. I learned how to listen and went through chromatic scales with a tuner each time I sang. A lot of nights I sounded like shit and didn’t know how to fix it. Now I know how to hear pitches and change it on the fly. It helps my ear. I learned what songs I can’t sing back-to-back and how to warm vocals into songs. I also shouldn’t smoke, but I smoke.
You had to learn how to write songs too. How does a song start for you?
The majority of songs start with a melody that is pleasing to my ears, then I add the sound of my voice and find the words to fill it in. Writing “Jackson” was scary for me. I read an article about the Selma march and I hadn’t heard about what happened before Dr. King went to Selma. I wanted to tell that side of the story and brought in Mr. Jackson. It started with more words than I normally use and then I condensed it and stuck to one chord so I wouldn’t overcomplicate it.
In “Paperback Books,” what is the memory behind the lines, “Remember the days when we were just teens? We pack our bags going places unseen.”
We threw things in a backpack and drove wherever we wanted to go. The first month I was out of my house, a buddy wanted to go to Miami. We had never been to Florida, had no GPS, and I only had $50, but we went anyway. At the Florida line we found out it was 13 more hours to Miami. We didn’t want to do that, so we went to Orange Beach and spent the first night on the sand. We met some girls and slept on the floor of their hotel the second night.
In my first marriage, I stayed home all day with our little boy. My ex-wife was a paralegal and hung out with the suits. She was consumed with that style of living and was married to a poor-ass musician. I can’t afford nice cars. I can’t even afford a fucking suit. This is a song from that difficult time, but we are divorced and get along much better now.
The band you are touring with is different than the band that recorded the album. Does that change your music?
“Lonely Betty” is the last song on the album and shows how good the band became with that lineup. We played together for three years, but they are doing their own projects now. The original members wanted to name the name to sound like someone’s grandmother, and it came down to Willadean and The Pollies. Thank God The Pollies won in a coin toss because I would still be stuck with Willadean.
It is not easy to get new members and get a new band to the level it was before. However, it gets more fun each time and I have a good time with this lineup. They know my parts and theirs. Not having the same people sing harmony means I have to do parts I haven’t done in the past and it has pushed me to be a better singer.
What drives you to make music?
Before it was someone telling me I couldn’t do this and thinking “I’ll show you.” I still have some of that. Music gives me energy. I can leave my house at 9 a.m. and stay in the recording studio until 4 or 5 the next morning and not get tired until I get in the car. It is similar to a drug. It is very addictive. I don’t think I could quit.
You can’t quit that Alabama trucker hat either. You wear it at all of your shows and your son wears it on the album cover of Not Here.Does the hat affect how you sing?
I wear a toboggan in the winter and I play more upbeat with the toboggan. The sets get a little sadder with this hat. Browan Lollar bought it at a truckstop in Florida. There was a ton of dust on it, but he bought it anyway and then gave it to me. But today I have had more people compliment this “Bernie Sanders is Magical” shirt than the hat. That is a change.