Brad Downs & the Poor Bastard Souls
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Brad Downs & the Poor Bastard Souls

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The best kept secret in music

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Brad Downs' debut album "Winter Breathing" not only offers eight enlightening examples of his raspy-voiced story-songs, but it also makes Athens music history of some note.

The Mississippi Delta native, who has pulled a couple of tours of duty in the Classic City, received contributions from a veritable "Who's Who" of the local music community, including representatives from Drive-By Truckers, Hackensaw Boys and Bloodkin, to name but a few.

"Winter Breathing" also features percussive involvement from retired R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry and ivory input from Widespread Panic pianist John "Jojo" Hermann.

It is believed this is one of Berry's first studio appearances since leaving R.E.M. in 1997 and is perhaps the first time any R.E.M. and Widespread Panic members have appeared on a recording together.

Downs' good fortune in assembling some of local music's crown heads comes courtesy of longtime Athens musician/producer Paul "Crumpy" Edwards, who called upon his considerable connections to add their own unique touches to Downs' acoustic-based style.

"Crumpy is an Athens legend," says Downs, who will headline a show Friday at the 40 Watt with his band the Poor Bastard Souls, featuring Edwards (bass), William Tonks (guitar, dobro), Randy Durham (drums) and Adam Payne and Josh Perkins (vocals).

"Crumpy's got so many talented friends, and it seemed like guest appearances kept popping up - he made that happen. But I think the most important thing he did was to get William Tonks in on the project. William really made it sparkle."

Moving to Athens 10 years ago for graduate school, Downs left the area a few years later to take a position at Loyola University in New Orleans teaching philosophy of religion and religious studies.

But the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina eventually chased him back to Georgia. He spent a few years as an adjunct professor at UGA, but now is completely focused on his music.

"I've got a chance to do something," he says. "People are paying attention, so I want to take advantage of this small window of opportunity I have. I can always go back and teach."

Downs first tinkered with music as an undergraduate at Millsaps College back home in Mississippi, but says he didn't "get serious" until he teamed up with Edwards, who previously played with Tonks in Barbara Cue and Durham in White Buffalo.

"Things got exponentially more serious when I got with Crumpy," Downs says. "He liked my songs and wanted to book some studio time, and I realized that this was an opportunity I might never get again. So I got very intense about it because I knew if this didn't work, I might not ever get back to a studio. So I was pulling from piles and piles of unfinished songs."

While Downs gets plenty of inspiration from his colleagues, he draws just as much in the way of influence from what he termed "dead authors."

"I lean on my favorite authors for characters and plot points," he says, pointing out that several songs on "Winter Breathing" were influenced by the writings of Herman Hesse and Russell Edson. "I guess you could say I finish work started by other people."

When he's not playing with the Poor Bastard Souls (which happens less than one might think due to the commitments of Edwards, Tonks and Durham), Downs plays in an acoustic trio with Payne and Perkins called Little Perky Jackson & the Gravity Fighters, which he admits primarily is a musical lark.

Payne will open Friday's show, with Downs playing in the middle and Perkins (with his band Theomataras) following up.

Downs says he'll tread on familiar ground in terms of songs at the 40 Watt, but adds there will be some fresh material abounding.

"We'll play all the songs on the album and about six or seven new songs that nobody's heard," he says. "We'll also probably do a Barbara Cue song. We haven't really talked about it yet, but there might also be an end-of-the-night thing with Little Perky Jackson. I'd sure like it if we reconvened at the end."

- Athens Banner-Herald


So much for an inauspicious debut: instead of a quietly released album of self-penned tunes showcasing his songwriting chops, Brad Downs’ debut is a virtual who’s-who of Athens-based sidemen, scene veterans and rock royalty. Backed by members of Bloodkin, the Hackensaw Boys, Drive-By Truckers and White Buffalo, Downs’ debut album, Winter Breathing, is an eight-song journey through Downs’ Americana and country-rock roots. While the long list of collaborators and guests is a testament to Downs’ songwriting prowess, the music is a result of several long and informal jam sessions between Downs and bass player Paul “Crumpy” Edwards.

“This project really started sitting on [Edwards’] couch drinking adult beverages. We sort of began this thing in January [2008] on acoustic bass and acoustic guitar. I’d bring in melodies to him, and he’d add things like space for a drum break. So, I have to give credit to Crumpy for those little things that helped this project shine,” says Downs.

According to Downs, the notion of recording an album was all Edwards’ idea.

“I played him a song that I wrote, and he said, ‘This is great, we’ve got to record this.' I knew he had produced albums before, and I said, 'If you’re serious, let’s do it.' It took a lot of nights like the first one, with me playing the acoustic guitar and him playing the acoustic bass and nailing down the arrangements."

As the songs began to be recorded and the guests’ appearances began to pile up, Downs started to look at Winter Breathing as less of a proclamation of his own songwriting voice, than an album with a life of its own. So much so that the in-studio collaboration between Downs and his guests began inspiring the singer to create new music for the album.

“I wrote two or three songs while we were in the studio - arrangement, lyrics and all for the project. I really see this as one single story, and some of those things really took shape in the studio,” says Downs.

But even though the music ended up taking a life of its own, Downs has maintained a healthy attitude about the album, along with a quiet optimism that an album born on a couch over beers and incubated through the contributions of outside artists will find an audience.

“I feel very fortunate. I don’t know that it will ever happen like that again, but it’s nice. To me it’s a sign of validation that what I am doing is worthwhile and good. You know, if these guys are interested in playing on these songs, then surely someone else would be interested in listening to them,” he says.

If Downs’ voice and songwriting are the medicine of Winter Breathing, the spoonful of sugar used to deliver Downs' music can be found in the guitar work of William Tonks, which is prominently featured on the album. Each of the album’s tracks features a healthy dose of Tonks’ brand of dobro playing, electric guitar picking and beautiful lead work. For Downs, working with a virtuoso like Tonks was an exercise in economy.

“When it came down to it, the more that I took myself out of the picture when it came down to what I call the ‘William Tonks Strawberry Pie,’ we got a better product.”

Another guest on the album is former R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry, who took a break from retirement to add percussion and a rather unorthodox method of guitar playing to the album.

“He took out an acoustic guitar and started hitting it with pencils. He plucked the guitar with pencils; I knew he was going to do that, but it was crazy to watch,” says Downs.

Whether it’s bringing joy to retired rock stars or introducing a new songwriter to Athens, Winter Breathing apparently has something for everyone. But the real question for Downs is: Will the long list of sidemen and session aces steal a bit of the spotlight away from the promising singer-songwriter?

- Flagpole Magazine


Discography

Winter Breathing - LP

Photos

Bio

Brad Downs, a Mississippi Delta native, is a singer/songwriter who calls Athens home. He recently finished recording WINTER BREATHING, his debut album that features a solid core of well-known, all-star Athens musicians and some special guests from Athens and elsewhere.

Brad Downs & the Poor Bastard Souls is a product of the musical friendship between Brad and Paul “Crumpy” Edwards (White Buffalo, Bloodkin, Barbara Cue). Crumpy, in addition to holding down bass duties, is the primary producer of the record. Drum and percussion responsibilities fall upon Randy Durham, a rock-solid drummer and also a former member of White Buffalo. Crumpy and Randy have literally played over one thousand shows together in various bands. William Tonks (Barbara Cue, Bloodkin), highly sought-after Athens guitar hero and dobro champion, adds essential finishing touches with his superior electric guitars and dobro. The core of the line-up is rounded off by Adam Payne who adds harmony vocals and acoustic guitar.

Along with this central crew of able musicians, WINTER BREATHING features a phenomenal cast of guest players and singers who dropped by Chase Park on random days to contribute some of their various talents. Drummer Bill Berry (R.E.M.) took a short break from retirement to add some unique percussion parts. He was joined by JoJo Hermann (Widespread Panic), who contributed piano & organ to the project. Pedal steel was added by local slide genius John Neff (Drive-by Truckers). Danny Hutchens (Bloodkin) contributed backing vocals on "Songwriter's Songwriter", a tribute song dedicated to the memory of Townes van Zandt. Athens talent was rounded off by Josh Perkins who also contributed backing vocals. Out-of-towners who contributed talent include Ferd Moyse on fiddle, Jesse Fiske on accordion and harmonica, and Justin Neuhardt on charismo. Ferd, Jesse, and Justin each play in the Hackensaw Boys out of Virginia.