Real swell year

Pub date July 3, 2012
WriterEmily Savage

MUSIC In Jimmie Rodgers’ 1930s-era song “The One Rose,” the country music pioneer wistfully croons “So blue, so lonesome too, but still true/Rosie haunts me, makes me think of you/You’re the one rose that’s left in my heart.”

Midway through Mornin’ Old Sport’s surreptitiously upbeat, plucky country-folk ditty “Katie” — off the contemporary band’s debut self-titled full-length, released July 10 on Misery Loves Co. — singer-guitarist Scott Nanos harmonizes with fiance-bandmate Kate Smeal about their complex love story. “The shadows are calling my number/I know I’m just waiting in line/but I’ll sing my vows as I’m pulled underground/I’m Katie’s and Katie is mine.”

Complicated love, it seems, is universal. While the song is toe-tapping fun, like a candlelit county fair square dance with checkered tablecloths and corked bottles of homemade moonshine at the ready, the message is a bit deeper: I’m in burning love, but eternal commitment could drag me to an untimely death of spirits.

And yet, “It is very loving,” Nanos insists over a pitcher of beer near Embarcadero, mere weeks before the band’s summer tour. “It doesn’t really sound that happy to me,” Smeal laughs after repeating the hook. “Fatalism and love are the same,” Nanos returns.

“It’s just a really sad love song,” Smeal concedes.

Mornin’ Old Sport is not solely based on this core romantic relationship, there are other types of connections in the now-Oakland based band, those of the blood-brother variety. Like the one between Nanos and fellow Berklee College of Music classmate Jeff Price — the band’s drummer who helped produce the album, which Price’s real brother mastered in their parent’s Colorado recording studio. The Price family runs the small Misery Loves Co. record label (the father was a session musician beginning in the 1960s).

Nanos and Price have been making music together since the first day of college in Boston in 2006, and have been living together just as long. There, at the Massachusetts music school, the band began in earnest — but with a twist. While it started with a few more members, the name Wiffle Bat, and a wholly different sound (Smeal describes it as “circus indie rock”), it eventually whittled to the Mornin’ Old Sport trio.

The three say they organically fell into the music they make now, which is reminiscent of pre-war Americana, early country, jazzy standards, the vaudevillian spirit of Tin Pan Alley, and twangy folk, with influences like Gene Autry, June Carter and Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell, Doris Day, the aforementioned Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Williams. But have they wedged themselves into a vintage corner?

“I was thinking about this the other day, because it is something that mentally I’ve confronted within myself,” says Nanos. “But everything that’s coming out right now is derivative; it’s derivative of the ’80s, or chillwave is slightly derivative of the late ’70s psychedelia, and late ’60s. It’s just a matter of what you’re using as a jumping-off point.”

Nanos’ major at Berklee — music therapy — was one factor leading to these earlier eras as jumping points.

“My field work in music therapy stirred up a romance with 1930s, ’40s, and even ’50s music because I was doing a lot of work with older adults, ages 60 to 90. So I’d do Tin Pan Alley songs, and maybe some Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald,” says Nanos. “I really started to fall in love with those styles, of which Kate was already a huge, avid fan.”

Adds Smeal, “My parents always sang to me, and then I started studying jazz in early high school — that lead the way for me because I really enjoy old throwback country music that has jazz elements to it.”

“I think our relationship and also music therapy made me enamored with vintage music,” Nanos concludes.

Now there’s yet another relationship to take into consideration: Mornin’ Old Sports’ new connection with the Bay Area. Nanos, Smeal, and Price moved out West this February and fell in love with Oakland. “We moved for romantic reasons…” Nanos says. Smeal smiles, “and now we’re staying for the same.” They tend to do that, finish each other thoughts. Price often laughs, nodding along.

In playing Oakland and Berkeley co-ops, house parties, and warehouses, they’ve just begun absorbing the local scene, and through the shows recently added two new members to the group — bassist Jack Kodros and guitarist Mike Schlenoff. Currently, the five musicians are out on the road for their first big tour, lugging those brand new vinyl records in the hot van. The debut was officially released this week, while the band makes its way through the Midwest.

Recorded mostly live in Price’s family studio just north of Aspen last year, the record is a promising and pleasurable debut, straddling vintage genres, and mixing up vocal duties. Nanos often leads, but Smeal shines on jazzy torch songs, “Over the Moon” and “My Lips,” along with swooshing if maudlin country track “Clementine.”

Standout track, “When the Bomb” boasts some icky lyrical imagery “when the bomb finally drops/I’ll splatter on the wall/But when that bomb finally drops/It won’t hurt me at all,” yet musically remains sticky-lemonade-sweet and cheery.

There’s a timelessness to all this. “When the Bomb” has such a nostalgic tug, it’s difficult to believe it’s not a cover. But that’s part of the charm in these songs, the reverence to the past and the relative simplicity of those feisty chords.

“If you took a Beach House song or something and wrote out chord changes for it, melody line, someone would [still] have a really tough time recreating it,” says Nanos. “Whereas I feel like the kind of song we’re aiming to write, we can write a chart for someone and be like, ‘here you go, just go play it.’ I like the social values of that.”

As for band hopes of that nature, Smeal has a lofty one: “The ultimate goal of the band is to make art that will stay alive years and years after we’re dead.”

“And that will most likely never happen,” Nanos interjects as Price chuckles, “but that’s the goal.” *