Intersection of Motown and East Tennessee - Time to introduce the band.

Intersection of Motown and East Tennessee - Time to introduce the band.

Published by: David Cate
May 24, 2024

Before Summer rolls on, it's time to introduce the band. We've been working hard for about a year to craft something challenging and unique. We're thrilled to kick off a season of weekend performances with Samantha Gray and The Jukebox Jam - This Saturday night in Kingsport at The Reserve. This will be one of many shows in the coming year.

Now that the shameless plug is out of the way, let me share a story about a group of musical pirates embarking on a new adventure. We merge our talents into a distinctive show we'll perform all summer long.

Any musician will tell you that being in a band is like being in a family. Some might describe it as a marriage, while others liken it to a team sport. I've been in all sorts of bands—and I've loved them all.

A few weeks ago, I was standing on State Street, gazing down one of the most unique streets in Tennessee and Virginia. There's a lot of music here, and during certain times of the year, the sunsets create what I call The Bristol Stonehenge.

The band was taking a break from recording a new Christmas album that will be released later this year at Classic Studios on Moore Street in Bristol, Virginia. Mike Stephenson, owner and engineer, was weaving our sounds together, and he's great company. Classic has been a staple of Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee's music community since 1982. Last year, he was nominated for a Grammy for best instrumental music.

Mike Stephenson with Classic Recording Studios

I've known Samantha Gray for many years. She moved to East Tennessee from Detroit to follow her family. With albums in Nashville and collaborations with some of the best blues players in Tennessee, including Billy Crawford, Lightning Charlie, Bennie Wilson and many others - including fronting her own band. She's made quite a name for herself over the years and undoubtedly one of the area's most distinctive female voices.

Samantha Gray and John Grayson

Not long ago, she met John Grayson while playing a local gig. They were married soon after and continued to pursue their love of music together. A little over a year ago, they reached out to me about a new direction they wanted to take with their music. Samantha and John wanted to splice their love of the blues with R&B and soul music, showcasing their innovative approach to a new sound. That's when he called me.

This wasn't the first time John and I crossed paths. In the early '90s, he auditioned for The Watch, a progressive rock band that was one of my proudest musical moments. John lived in Bristol at that time and took a different path. Still, I always considered him for a potential collaboration.

Since then, his name has been at the top of the list of all the drummers in our area. As a Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom veteran, John commandeered tanks and heavy equipment in the Middle East. He toured Germany and Central Europe with the Second Armored Division big band. He came home after he served to command a different beat with some of the Highlands' most memorable bands, including Lightning Charlie, One Good Thing, and Spank, to name a few.

John Grayson - Drums and Vocals

When John called, his proposal was intriguing. He asked if I'd be interested in playing keyboards in this new project. I certainly needed something new to focus on at the time. Once John mentioned Charlie Aesque, my decision was inevitable.

After graduating from Dobyns-Bennett, Charlie Aesque worked with some of the biggest East Coast bands in the 1980s. He performed with the Tams, The Platters, and The Coasters as part of his path back to ETSU and a career in local media.

Over the years, I've heard many stories about Charlie Aesque. We certainly crossed paths working in local media and shared a love for all things gadgets. Still, we never got to play music together. His reputation as a bass player has always been on my radar, as his blend of soul, R&B, and jazz is just the right measure for my experiences.

Charlie Aesque - Bass Guitar

Things moved quickly from there. We started rehearsals with a talented young newcomer sound engineer, Jake Waugs. He's supportive and helps keep the band sounding the best we can.

Jake Waugs - Sound Engineer

Following a few early rehearsals, we were joined by Mary Munsey from Abingdon, VA. Mary Muncy is in her 13th year as Music Director for Virginia Highlands Community College. She's recorded three original albums on multiple instruments, and her roster of bands and players with whom she's collaborated is simply too numerous to list.

Mary Munsey - Saxophone and Vocals

My role as the keyboard player for this band is to fill the place of guitars and other instruments. Mary is a supremely melodic saxophonist who sings and plays soaring solos throughout our music. I'm the gadfly still working out his instruments and incorporating years of rock, jazz, and improvisational music into this ensemble.

This group is entering its second year together. Last year, we built a solid setlist. We performed together as much as possible, working this blend of old soul, R&B, and plenty of good memories—all held together by our love of music and our journey together.

We seem to be improving each other, too—at least, that's true for me. Working with musicians and using this style of music has given me a fresh new perspective on group dynamics. We mix blues, soul, jazz, and improvisation into a constantly evolving jam spearheaded by one of the most distinctive voices in the region.

Listening to Christmas songs in April.

Our schedule is packed this year, with little breaks on the weekends as we travel across Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina to work on this arrangement of music and players. We've come a long way together. We've been getting to know each other, cheering each other on through the knocks, and challenging each other on the stage.

We're not just looking forward to one gig—we're excited about our entire summer schedule as we recreate this genre of music. We also look forward to the album's release later this fall.

It would be great to share this with you and your friends. Supporting live music is always an investment in the place we call home, and it's one of the natural roots and misty fogs that keep the region alive with diversity and magic.

After all, the algorithms on our computers are holding us captive. There's something magical in a live musical experience. We know it, and it makes our time together something to remember and to challenge ourselves to improve and bring something positive to the world, playing this energetic form of music that's making the most of these local players in a musical setting.

We hope you join us on this journey as we continue to craft a fun and exciting show together. Your support, whether it's attending our gigs or sharing our music with your friends, means the world to us.