It’s taken Sonny Bama a while to make all the connections, but he thinks his new album “The Long Way Home” will be a big step forward. (Photos courtesy of Sonny Bama)
MOBILE, Alabama – Sonny Bama has a hard time pinning down a handy genre label for his music. But he has no trouble at all pinning down the reason why some people seem to like it so much.
“That’s easy,” he said. “That’s ‘Me too.’ And that’s what I call the records, they’re ‘Me too’ records. Because it’s that relatable. People are listening to them, and if I touch on a topic, whether it’s worldly issue or just a daily life issue, of the struggle, it’s a testament of my struggle and my successes.” And people see their own struggles reflected, he said.
Later this month, he’ll release an album with that “me too” effect at its core. He recently offered a sample in the video for “On My Own,” a song in which a man literally takes a sober look at his dissolute past and the real effort it takes to pull a wasted life together.
“We started out cool, just wasting time/ partying on the weekends behind neon signs/ throwing darts, playing pong and hustling pool games/ dancing as the jukebox, DJ and the band played/ our favorite songs. Then I’d wake up/ in the morning on my neighbor’s lawn and notice you’d be gone/ I searched for you in the bottom of a bottle/’cause of you I lost my job down to my last two dollars …” It catalogs the traps friends fell into, the pain of being “eleven steps away in a twelve-step program.”
There’s a distinct country twang in the music, a drawl in the refrain sung by Wes Bayliss, but Bama’s delivery – the volume of thoughts on his mind, the torrent of words it takes to get it all out – comes straight from the tradition of hip-hop.
If “On My Own” exemplifies the conundrum of just what Sonny Bama’s music “is,” it also gives a very clear idea of what he’s not. By coincidence, the video happened to come out at roughly the same time that Brad Paisley stirred up a minor country-music controversy with “Accidental Racist.” In that song, Paisley’s ballad-style singing alternates with sections rapped by LL Cool J. The two styles mix about as smoothly as water and oil.
Sonny Bama’s music mixes old and new influences into something distinctive, but he doesn’t like the idea of mixing up genres just for novelty’s sake, he says. (Photo courtesy of Sonny Bama)
Bama’s approach is very different. He’s a member of a different generation, one that doesn’t see hip-hop as such a separate thing. It’s been there all his life. It’s only natural to incorporate it fully with other elements of the musical landscape he inhabited growing up, such as Southern rock and blues.
He’s emphatic that he’s not a “country rapper.” As he told an interviewer at popculturez.com: “I never wanted to exploit genres of music. I think a lot of that is being done today, artists blend two genres together because they think it will be cool, but really have no roots in either genre. I find those records ‘cute,’ but not authentic.” He said that some of the songs on “The Long Way Home” blend rock and rap, while others are straight-up rap.
Bama is rooted firmly in hip-hop: Back in 1998, just 18, he and a few partners released “The Mobiliations,” a self-produced, self-distributed CD featuring a number of local rappers. Fifteen years later, he’s still proud of what he considers a groundbreaking effort. In 2002, he and his partners in South Lab Records followed it up with another local compilation, “Mobiliation II.”
The Baker High School grad moved on. He spent time in Atlanta, Nashville and Memphis, doing a lot of web development work for clients that included musicians and record labels. He kept his hand in things as a recording engineer and producer as well. But he got tired of being involved in music from behind a desk.
The first fruit of that dissatisfaction was “Change,” an album he released a couple of years ago. (It remains available as a free download on his website.)
He was well on his way to hammering out his own approach, and good things were about to happen. He’d play open mic nights at places like Stir, a venue on Old Shell Road near the USA campus, where he’d show up at open mic nights, a guy with a guitar in his hands and rap in his delivery. When he got the chance to do the same thing at the Brickyard on Dauphin Street, he found himself making connections with fellow musicians he respected.
Bama credits Brickyard owner Noell Broughton with helping him take a big step forward.
“He helped me out a lot by giving me the opportunity to play my genre of music there, and that kind of opened up the door a lot for me,” Bama said.
A scene’s worth of Mobile-area musicians contribute to “The Long Way Home.” Gregg Fells co-wrote a number of songs and sings on several. Ryan Balthrop and Josh Ewing added vocals. Wes Bayliss was down for vocals, guitars, dobro and violin. Greg Deluca and Ben Leininger of the Mulligan Brothers are credited with drums and bass, respectively. Jason Feinstein plays guitar. (Nashville rapper JellyRoll is also on the roster of key contributors.)
“Greg Fells was very, very supportive, on the record,” Bama said. “None of ’em was from the same genre of music as what I was doing. But I guess they respected either the content or the musicianship behind it. Which, I don’t consider myself near as good a musician as those guys are.”
The album is being distributed through Memphis-based Select-O-Hits, a company with which Bama has worked in the past. But he opted to do the primary recording in Mobile, keeping it on the venerable South Lab label. “I’m an engineer and a producer, first and foremost,” he said. “So I’ve always been very resourceful at being able to keep a studio, either mobile or at my house. I never really had a need to go book studio time at any other location.”
In the short run, Bama releases “The Long Way Home” on May 21. He said it should be available that day through all major online music retailers. He also expects physical copies to be available locally at CD & DVD Warehouse and eventually at FYE. He’s planning to hold a release party and show in early June at the Brickyard. (Interested listeners can keep up with plans at www.facebook.com/sonnybama or by following SonnyBama on Twitter.)
In the long run, he said he hopes that “The Long Way Home” is a big step on the way to a full-time career in music. He hopes it makes the case for his fusion of influences.
“I’ve been having a hard time explaining it,” he said. “It’s a double-edged sword, because it’s awesome to feel like you’re creating a new lane. Even though I’m crossing genres, I’m keeping it authentic and I’m creating a sound that is Sonny Bama.”
The other side of the blade is that people just don’t know what pigeonhole to put him in. But the “me too” effect makes it worthwhile, he said. If a story of addiction hits home with listeners, or if a song about the blue-collar struggle to pay the bills rings true, that’s all he needs.
“It’s either ‘Me too’ or it’s ‘Thank you,’ and that’s the main thing that keeps me going with music,” he said. “Because I did a lot of web work, I painted cars for a long time, I’ve had many jobs and I’ve worn many hats. I’ve been a part of that working-class force. A lot of the jobs, no matter how awesome of a job I did, it was always a thankless situation. And so music is kind of the only thing I do where people come up to me and say ‘Hey man, thank you.'”