The Scud Mountain Boys began simply as The Scuds in Northampton in 1991. Back then the group played loud rock 'n' roll in local clubs and had an appreciable number of fans who would frequent their live shows. But after those shows ended, three members-Joe Pernice (vocals, acoustic and electric guitars), Stephen Desaulniers (vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, and bass), and Bruce Tull (electric guitar, lap steel, pedal steel)-would retreat to Bruce's kitchen to unwind. There, late at night, the trio would break out their old country favorites, playing the songs they thought too quiet and too slow for live performances.
The band found that these were the songs they really lived to play, so they decided to make a change. Adding "mountain boys" to their name, the re-christened Scud Mountain Boys played their first show in 1993. They described the stripped-down approach to Springfield’s Union-News: "We took simple gear like acoustic guitars. We borrowed the kitchen table from the club. We sat down in chairs around the table, put a lamp on it, and had a convenient place to put our beers and ashtrays.... Then we played our set."
In keeping with their simplified approach, the Scud Mountain Boys preferred to record in the same kitchen that spawned their new direction. They had tried recording in a small studio but found it alienating. Tull later told the fanzine White Bread about the experience: "We were very rushed. I was playing in this cold and drafty hallway with my guitar and amp where I couldn't see the rest of the band. I was trying to look through this crack in the doorway to see them." So a four-track recorder captured the sounds for 12 original songs and three covers of songs originally performed by such diverse sources as Jimmy Webb ("Wichita Lineman"), Olivia Newton-John ("Please, Mister Please"), and Cher ("Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves"). Originally sold as the Pine Box cassette, the tracks were later released on vinyl by the indie-rock label Chunk Records in 1995.
As an album, Pine Box carries the mordant tone set by its title's reference to a plain coffin, and features songs like "There Is No Hell (Like the Hell on This Earth)" and "Freight of Fire." The lyrics tend to the subjects of loss and longing, with a tone of resignation that suggests some inner ability to deal with the pain. Pernice told James Keast of the website shmooze.net that he was interviewed by the UK’s NME (New Musical Express) and the interviewer's first question was, "Do you have a terrible life?" He replied that he probably would if he didn't have music as an outlet to express himself. Examples of this seem to abound on Pine Box. In a line from "Peter Graves' Anatomy" Pernice croons softly, "Old age for a body, decay for a crown/Don't ask for nothin', you'll never be let down." And yet the voice is not one of self-pity. Writing for Addicted to Noise, Chris Nelson described Pernice's vocal quality as one that "can convey the deepest of emotions without sounding contrived or melodramatic, a gift that is intensified by the fact that he happens to be an excellent writer whose poetic imagery brings to life his painful, tragic stories."
Later in 1995 the Scud Mountain Boys recorded another set of tracks which became Dance the Night Away on Chunk. Including more four-track kitchen recordings, as well as others made a 24-track studio, the CD-only release featured drums on a few songs, another Jimmy Webb cover ("Where's the Playground Susie") and similar lyrical themes. As with the first record, soft sounds mask dark thoughts, and simple words are deceptively suggestive. Ira Robbins, of the Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock, claimed that with Dance the Night Away "the Scuds barely disturb the silence as they whisper such slightly bent inventions as 'Letter to Bread' and Television' ('send me a show/you're the only world I know'). Although able to rouse themselves to a mild roots-rock roar... they make understatement far more engrossing."
As word of these two powerful records spread beyond Massachusetts, a number of record labels became interested in the band. "There's a million bands out there. It's unexpected," Tull told Union-News critic Marcel after the group signed with Seattle-based then Warner Brothers affiliate Sub Pop Records. "We were a dinky band from Northampton, kind of unorthodox, and we probably didn't play more than ten gigs out of Northampton." Opting for a drummer to fill out the sound, the band brought drummer and mandolin player Tom Shea on board as a full-time member and set about recording Massachusetts, a 14-song album with a number of more upbeat songs with drums and electric guitar. Released in April of 1996, Massachusetts unleashed the floodgates of critical acclaim that had eluded its less-known predecessors. The New Musical Express rated the record a nine (out of ten) and opined, "Joe Pernice has the golden voice of the damaged, regret oozing from every word like wounded honey... rendering glorious the utter inevitability of failure.... The best broken love and bad drug cocktail songs written in many a year." Acknowledging the vast difference between Scud Mountain Boys and their country music forbears on the one hand, and new crossover stars like Garth Brooks on the other, Rolling Stone called the album, "country in that the songs are the honest, homespun sort that characterized country before it picked up a blow-dryer."
Although the band's sound has often been labeled as country music, the Scud Mountain Boys clearly see themselves as casting a wider net than that. As music writer James Keast put it on the shmooze.net website, "While the Scuds may be lumped in with Son Volt, Wilco and any number of other bands who are moving back to the traditional sounds of Hank Williams, they take their inspiration as much from hooky '70s AM pop as from the dirty country road of Johnny Cash." This assessment is borne out by the band's covers of artists like Cher and Olivia Newton-John. Scud guitarist Tull defined the band's style this way for the Union-News: "We're roots rock, but steeped in a real punk tradition and with a decided country flavor."
With the success of Massachusetts bringing increased demand for the first two albums, Sub Pop re-issued them as The Early Year, a double CD, in 1997. That year also found the band adjusting to a full-time musical career. Pernice, for one, had to reconcile the new career path with the master's degree in creative writing he had completed in 1996. Finding himself with a lot more time to write songs, he stacked up a few albums' worth in a short period of time. He also devoted some creative energy to the Pernice Brothers-a side project with his brother, Bob.
The group disbanded abruptly -- and somewhat acrimoniously -- in the fall of 1997. Pernice went on to form critically acclaimed indie band Pernice Brothers with his brother Bob. He and bandmates Stephen Desaulniers (vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, and bass), Bruce Tull (electric guitar, lap steel, pedal steel) and Tom Shea (drums, mandolin) became estranged, but finally reconnected in Cambridge, Mass. this August. Soon thereafter, Desaulniers and Shea joined Joe and Bob Pernice onstage at the Lizard Lounge.
Pernice says that, prior to the reunion, he and his bandmates "hadn't spoken a single word between us in 14 years," but after the recent death of a mutual friend, who also happened to be the Scuds' biggest fan, he pulled out some of their recordings and was inspired to contact his old friends.
"I left the band so I had to make the extension," he says. "I grabbed my nuts and gave them a call... All the bullshit kind of disappeared." With a solo show scheduled for Boston on August 25, Pernice then invited his former bandmates to sit in. "I picked, like, eight songs, and Tom [Shea] got in touch with Stephen, who was a little reluctant. I told him, 'I’m gonna set up a bass rig, if you want to show up and play, I love it, if not, I understand,' and he showed up. We had some time to shoot the breeze before the show, we had some laughs and cleared the air. Then we did eight songs and it was like we never stopped playing."
In 2012. Ashmont Records will re-release The Early Year, and there are plans afoot for other re-releases and recordings. The Scud Mountain Boys have booked a 7-date East Coast tour which will bring them home to Northampton for a gig in the Pearl Street Clubroom on Sunday, January 15th at 8PM with John Cunningham and Ray Mason as support.
Tickets are $15 at Northampton Box Office,76 Main Street. 413-586-8686 and online at IHEG.com