Jacen Bruce: On the road to Memphis

Posted by guest On October - 13 - 20124,543 views

A road trip through America resulted in Jacen Bruce recording an album at Sun Studio with a couple of Elvis Presley’s old friends from the ’50s. The Sun Album was the only time that the late Paul Burlison played at Sun Studio. Jacen tells his story, complete with the twists and turns.

We were in a coffee shop in central Cambridge. Jacen Bruce was sitting back in his chair surveying his surroundings, as if looking out on an audience. Despite rave reviews for his recent albums, worldwide radio play and even television appearances, we had met to talk about a road trip: one that resulted in an album of historical significance, recorded at Sun Studio. Jacen’s enthusiasm told me that this was a story he was going to enjoy telling, and one that I was going to enjoy hearing.

I first saw Jacen play with The Midnight Shift, back in the mid-’90s. He came into music late and broke through with electricity that more than made up for his lack of experience. “I was about 26 or 27. I was so frustrated and annoyed at myself that I left it so late, that I went head on and just really got on with it. I just used to go out and get gigs, gigs, gigs. They say every gig is worth ten rehearsals.”

Despite his insistence that he started late, music clearly made an early impression on him. These influences can be heard in his sound, even today. “When I was a little kid, my mum and dad had their old records from the ’50s and ’60s. They had a really old record player and I would have all these old records in my bedroom. I would listen to musicians like Scotty Moore, LaVern Baker, Carl Perkins, Big Momma Thornton, Jimmy Reed and Clyde McPhatter. I just used to play them over and over again.”

As we took the first sips of our coffee, I asked Jacen how he responds to criticism, and how he has learnt to overcome the self-doubt that blights most musicians. With characteristic honesty, he said: “Everyone has self-doubt if they are creative. Doubt is probably good for you. If you found it all too easy, you would lose some of your flair. You need to get better at it. If people like my music, then it’s a bonus.”

Getting better at it is exactly what Jacen has been doing since I first heard him play in the mid-’90s. When he was younger, he admits that he wasn’t aware of a rockabilly scene out there: “I didn’t know anyone into ’50s music.  I felt like the odd one out.” After The Midnight Shift’s final gig, which was at the Tennessee Club, he met some like-minded rockabilly musicians and overnight they formed Jacen Bruce and the Rockanauts. The band was well received and provided Jacen with the platform to hone his musical skills. Before long Jacen had formed a new band, The Memphis Underground. This drove his songwriting to a new level, and with exposure came recognition. But, in order to move forward, Jacen would have to go back to the root of it all: Memphis, Tennessee.

This journey started a lot closer to home. Jacen met his wife, Alison — now a successful crime writer — when she was running Swindon Rock ‘n’ Roll Club. Booked to play at her club were Paul Burlison and Rocky Burnette. “Rocky is Johnny Burnette’s son,” Jacen explained. “Johnny was from Memphis and had a rockabilly outfit called The Rock and Roll Trio. They were innovators of the music — Paul Burlison was in the band and was one of the pioneers. Johnny Burnette went on to become a commercial star. They were all friends with Elvis, all in the same town and knew each other very well.” Jacen turned to face me as if letting me in on a secret, which, basically he was. “Rocky Burnette has kept his dad’s legacy alive and still performs Johnny’s music. Paul Burlison was close to Rocky throughout his life and they often toured together. When they played at Swindon Paul said to me: ‘If you ever come to Memphis, give me a call and I will show you around.’ We didn’t think this would happen, or that he would even particularly remember our conversation when we met.”

A few years later, Jacen and Alison travelled to the States, arriving in Chicago. He drove cross-country to Nashville in an old Buick, which he said would cost only $15 to fill its huge tank. After arriving in Nashville, and sidestepping any moment of doubt, he picked up the phone and called Sun Studio.  James Lott, who runs the studio, answered the phone and Jacen explained who he was and asked if he could book a session. “I just struck up a good rapport with him straight away, and I don’t know how that happened. We just seemed to gel. He said: ‘Yeah, we’ll sort something out’, so we organised a session for when we got to Memphis.”

Jacen also made a call to Paul Burlison, who did remember him after all. Paul took the day out to show them around Memphis, taking him to the places he went back in the ’50s. He showed Jacen and Alison where Crown Electric had been, where Paul had once hung out with Scotty Moore. These stories were eagerly soaked up by Jacen, who would later turn them into fuel at the studio.

Things were coming together, but not without a few twists and turns. James Lott had been involved in a car crash, and told Jacen that he would be unable to play guitar. He had arranged for a session musician to step in. Jacen immediately thought of Paul Burlison, and asked him if he would like to record with him. “He said he would love to do it because he had never recorded at Sun. He had played at other studios, but not Sun itself. At the time, he was managing a band called The Dempseys, who played Elvis’s band musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black in the Johnny Cash film, Walk The Line. He invited them along.”

If things were looking good then, they were about to get a whole lot better. Down at the studio, Jacen and the musicians were invited in through the back entrance. “When we walked in with Paul, James Lott’s session man turned out to be Paul’s best mate, Ronnie Smith.” Jacen explained that Ronnie, a stalwart of the Memphis Music scene, had been in an early ’50s band that played at the Eagle’s Nest. The teenager that joined them on stage to sing a couple of numbers was none other than Elvis. Jacen said: “Paul and Ronnie couldn’t believe they were both on the same session.”

“It was a special moment. There wasn’t any rehearsing; they were all live takes. Out of that evening came tracks that captured the live vibe. It was very exciting but also very surreal to be in that studio with those musicians.” The Sun Album features eight live cover tracks of famous Sun classics, with video recordings available to view on Jacen’s website.  Sadly, this is all that is left of a night that had a great deal of emotional significance to all of the musicians who were there.

The significance of The Sun Album itself — the only time the late Paul Burlison played at Sun Studio — was clearly not lost on Jacen. Far from being trapped in that memory, Jacen is now racing forward with The Memphis Underground and creating what The Musician has described as: “Cool as ice rockabilly for the 21st Century.”

Formed in 2008, Jacen Bruce and the Memphis Underground received critical acclaim following the release of their album, The Siren. The music this band delivers is toe-tapping rockabilly at its finest. I asked Jacen exactly what the future of rockabilly music looks like. “The future?” He smiled, “I have a huge respect for rockabilly music and there’s definitely a future for the purists who recreate a truly authentic style. But what excites me most is having the opportunity to add new material to the genre.”

As we spoke about the future of rockabilly music, I thought about how deeply ingrained it is in the culture: the American open road, the gritty streets of Tennessee, pool halls, and big-engine hot rods. It is a way of life, and one that is characterised by the music that Jacen plays. Jacen laughed: “OK. Original songs with a V8 engine and a rockabilly heart.  I think that sums it up.” I agreed. I asked how a musician from Cambridgeshire could stay true to an authentic American sound. Jacen said: “Rockabilly has an inherently American sound, no doubt living in the UK adds something to that and writing new tracks adds to it again.”

The most amazing thing about speaking to Jacen was the discovery that I was sitting with an incredibly unique and insightful musician who makes his full-time living from music, but who still manages to live life on his terms. It seems that he is also encouraging his daughter Lana, to do the same. At only 12-years-old, she already has an album behind her and is taking regular singing classes, which Jacen was picking her up from after our meeting.

With time running out, I asked Jacen what he is working on next. Jacen said: “I’ve already recorded most of the songs for my next album. They’re all original. It’s due for release in 2013 and I’m delighted with it. A second original album has been a challenge in some ways though — you want to make sure it is distinctive but follows on from your previous album without it sounding too unconnected.” He paused, and then added, “The album is rockin’ with some Hawaiian influence on several of the tracks. Hawaii means a great deal to us, as does Memphis. Playing rockabilly has been a journey for me.”

Jacen’s new album, which has not yet been named, will comprise of 14 original tracks with the same signature guitar style that The Memphis Underground are known for. Guitarist Craig Fillbrook plays on the album alongside his predecessor John Stannard, whipping up some blasting rockabilly numbers.

As we parted ways Jacen shared a few of his recent musical discoveries with me: his enthusiasm was infectious. The road trip might be over, but Jacen Bruce and the Memphis Underground are still driving on and making music that is: “The gritty streets of Tennessee, pool halls and basement music bars. Neon signs and hot rod cars.”

Jacen offers a free download of a song on his website

Seth’s website: www.sethrowden.com


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