First Gig: Humming House

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First Gig: Humming House

First Gig is our series at Stereo Subversion that asks various musicians to look back at their first-ever live show. This week, we’ve got a fantastic story from Josh Wolak from Humming House about poorly timed jokes and learning to relax. If you’ve not yet tuned in to the band’s new album, Revelries, you’re missing out on a fantastic soulful folk fusion. They’re currently on tour with Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors and will soon step out with Kasey Musgraves through the month of May. Read Josh’s memorable story below and then tune in for more at Humming House’s website.

Back at Belmont, the university that all of us Humming House members went to at various years, there was an annual concert series known as the Country Music Showcase. For a lot of students in the commercial music program, this was an excellent chance to highlight commercial country vocal skills and garner some much-desired attention from Music Row. Hundreds of students applied every year, but only a select few were able to audition, and only half of those made the final cut. After the showcase, one artist would be declared a winner, and would get some cool opportunities from it.

I was far from a commercial music student -– I was actually a philosophy major then –- though of course I was an aspiring musician. I wrote a lot — some country -– and porch-picked relentlessly with my friends; I had even tried to apply to the similar Songwriter Showcase every year (though I was rejected every time). So, I had the thought: let’s just put together a fun, grassy jam group and record some country songs, apply for the showcase, and see what happens.

What happened next was completely unexpected, and pretty magical. We put together a solid group of friends to record two demos, and we all had way more fun than we expected. We weren’t trying to make serious art, or make a serious commercial statement, and I think that gave us a lot of artistic freedom. Having the showcase requirements as a parameter kept us all a little removed from the overwhelming burden of creating your own, unrestricted “art,” and we all came up with pseudonyms and really played into the roles. Some people took this as a joke, but that couldn’t be more far off… simply put, we left our sense of selves behind, stopped overthinking, and turned off the self-serious analysis common to a lot of hard-working musicians.

This ragtag jamboree was so fun it became the band Angus Whyte and the Irish Rednecks, which also involved Leslie and Justin from HH (Justin managed the group, and Leslie sang back-up and lead). We didn’t intend to become a band, per se, but we had our demos recorded and we started trying to book some gigs. We had almost completely forgotten about the showcase by that point –- until we got the phone call. Oh my god. We got an audition.

Honestly, none of us could believe it. I can only assume that the judges heard something that really resonated with them, even though it was nowhere near commercial country (and at that point, only a niche few had even heard of groups like Old Crow Medicine Show and the Avett Bros). Or maybe someone was just screwing with us. In any case, we somehow slayed the audition — wearing ragtag plaid amidst a sea of glam-pop country — and made the final cut. Angus Whyte was about to play its first gig, as a group of scrappers, at Belmont’s brand new rock arena.

Soon enough, we saw promos of ourselves on a jumbotron-type device, and — holy hell! — this was really happening. With our faces aglow in hi-def above us and a stage set for a Country king, we could not have looked more awkward and out of place.

This awkwardness grew every moment of our performance: the “throwback” condenser mics barely had enough volume to catch our banjo, fiddle, and background vocals without causing insane feedback; one of our backup vocalists (now my wife, Sandy) had a fauxhawk that scared people; my leg was shaking uncontrollably, and I had to keep shifting my weight to avoid falling over; I broke a string and had no idea what to do, so I yelled, “I just broke a straaang!”; I didn’t have the talent or foresight to bring a tuning pedal on stage, so I had to guesstimate my pitch while awkwardly addressing the crowd.

That’s when it hit me. Before we went on, another perfomer remarked that Country music was really “moving forward” and wasn’t just about “the breakups, the trucks, and the dogs” anymore (sidebar: fast forward to 2015 and it’s pretty clear that guy was wrong). Luckily, I was about to perform a song about breaking up with a girl who was obsessed with her dog, so I had to address the comment somehow. I defaulted to humor, the classic defense mechanism I had spent my entire life honing.

“This next song is a regular old country song about a woman who had a dog, and it died,” I mournfully told the silhouette heads in the endless rows of the arena… “and it’s a sad story, but lord knows the bitch had it coming…”

The overwhelming weight of silence filled the air. Belmont was still a Baptist university back then, and I had found myself mid-crash in a tasteless disaster quip. I sighed and finished the joke:

“…the dog. Of course.”

And… awkward polite laughter! Even a holler or two. “SUCCESS!” I thought to myself, as we kicked off into the refrain of “Where’s Your Dog Now?” Maybe it wasn’t as poor and tasteless of a joke as I had thought. We wrapped up, walked off stage, and then I heard another joke that wasn’t exactly funny:

“DISQUALIFIED.”

It would appear that, despite all the other obvious reasons we shouldn’t have “won” that showcase, we would be disqualified for delivering such a terrible joke. No bad blood here — it was just a decision a student felt they had to make for the better of their university advisors — but, in the end, that turned out to be the funniest joke of all. Despite being disqualified, we had to face a review panel of Music Row judges who had come out to see the latest-and-greatest Belmont had to offer.

To their credit, only three or four of those judges — mostly A&R and execs in the Country world — refused to make eye contact with me. At least one of them, a much older guy, absolutely loved it (despite of the obvious performance problems).

The next day, we had our second gig at The End, a divey-yet-amazing club in Elliston Place. I took to the much-smaller-and-stickier-than-an-arena stage with my musical companions feeling more energized and awakened as a musician than ever before. And halfway through the performance, I took off my plaid button-up to reveal the phrase DISQUALIFIED stamped across my undershirt.

I can’t explain to you just how weirdly encouraging all this was, and that — in spite of the fiasco and “controversy” — I was beginning to realize something special about music that I would never forget. No matter how important your craft is to you, you can’t be too serious about what you love. And if you’re one of those neurotic artist types (like I was back then), consider taking a step back: lose yourself, create a pseudonym, and stop caring so much! Just have some fun for a change, and see what happens.

At worst, you’ll be disqualified.

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