“Ron Pope & The Nighthawks is the band I’ve waited my whole life to be a part of. It feels like a new beginning for me; I wouldn’t have put my name on it at all, but I’ve cultivated this following over the years, so I didn’t want the fans to get too confused,” explains frontman Ron Pope.
With their thundering eponymous debut, Ron Pope & The Nighthawks deliver music that is “affectionately-crafted and Americana-drenched; soaked in the country rooted-musicianship of the southern states” according to Chart Shaker. Co-produced by Pope and Grammy Award winner Ted Young (The Rolling Stones, Kurt Vile, Grace Potter), the band’s new LP showcases giant down home sing-alongs drenched in gorgeous church pew harmonies, New Orleans brothel horns, and Georgia firework slide guitar solos, alongside the incredible songcraft which has brought Pope to prominence. Theirs is distinctly American rock music that manages to feel inexorably tied to its past while remaining unquestionably contemporary and vibrant.
From the biting slide guitar wail of “Ain’t No Angel” to the lover’s whisper and upright bass of “Hotel Room,” to the haunting, sparse “Lies and Cigarettes” to the screaming Bobby Keys on a bender horn blasts of “Hell or High Water,” Ron Pope & The Nighthawks effortlessly shift gears to showcase that “rootsy” doesn’t have to mean boring or homogenous. The songs can be forlorn and lonely, like “Leave You Behind” or full of joy and swagger and twang, with harmonies stacked towards the heavens, like “Southern Cross.”
On this record, you’ll find love and sex, fear and hope; pain and pleasure and hopelessness mixed with boundless optimism. Home and away, the city to the woods to the tour bus, New York to the Blue Ridge Mountains, the streets of London to the Indian Ocean. It’s all in there. This is rock and roll that feels timeless but still very much of its time; American music that will make sense to anyone, regardless of where they grew up. These bandmates hail from different corners of the US; from Iowa to Georgia, New York to Idaho, the woods of Illinois to the leafy suburbs of New Jersey. They found their way to their shared stage and their collective love of rock and roll through different avenues. The band’s keyboardist, Alan Markley began playing jazz professionally in his early teens while Ron grew up doing a poorly executed (but passionately rendered) Albert King impression in Georgia roadhouses. They came together in Brooklyn as most things do these days. For many years, they’d circled each other; drummer Mike Riddleberger was in a college band that Ron and Paul would go see monthly many moons ago. Ron began calling them one by one; “I’d hear ‘Oh shit, HE’S in the band? Yeah, I’m in’ as each of them realized who else was going to be a part of this. It was like drafting an All Star team of the best musicians I’ve ever seen in New York; I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but for all of us, playing together each and every night is inspiring; it has truly been the most exciting musical adventure of my life.”
As well as contributing to the songwriting process, the band performed the tracks on the road during the recording sessions, giving them the opportunity to reveal the finished product to their core fans before anyone else got a chance to hear them. Pope explains, “I wanted to take these songs out on the road and get them dirty, sharing them with the fans while they are still fresh and brand new rather than incubating them in the sterile environment of a studio for a long time.”
“I think that everybody knows that it’s probably the coolest way to make a record, because you’re capturing not just the excitement but the brotherhood of being on tour together,” says Alex Brumel, the band’s in house “maxi-instrumentalist” (who has played everything from pedal steel to tenor sax to “70’s cock rock” guitar in the group).
“I heard that Bruce Springsteen said he wanted to make ‘the best rock and roll record he’d ever heard’ when he started working on ‘Born To Run.’ I figured that was as good a goal as any, so I started with that and worked my way backwards” laughs Pope.
As a performer, Pope’s frenetic energy is palpable and the band’s chemistry and genuine love for one another and joy in playing together is obvious; this explosive mix creates a party atmosphere wherever they take the stage. Entering one of their shows is like walking into an all night blowout where seven people are already having the time of their lives and daring you to catch up as they pour rock and roll flavored tequila down your throat. Ron Pope & The Nighthawks’ performances are sweaty affairs powered one moment by the band’s razor sharp virtuosity married to Pope’s wounded bluesman in hell howl, and the next soothed by nuanced, restrained musicianship and whispered harmonies. “If you see this band and don’t go home exhausted and smiling, you didn’t do it right,” smiles one of the group’s multi-instrumentalists Paul Hammer.
The band enlisted the help of filmmaker Kelly Teacher (“No Cameras Allowed,” “Austin To Boston”) to create “One Way Ticket,” a feature length documentary which follows the band as they record their debut album and tour the US. The film uses the story of Ron Pope & The Nighthawks as a backdrop to explain both the state of the contemporary music industry and how Pope has managed to forge a career in this new, Wild West style, anything goes digital age.
“Here’s a guy who’s figured out how to do this basically by himself, and is really proving the power of streaming music,” says Spotify’s D.A. Wallach in “One Way Ticket.” To date, Pope has sold out shows on three continents and in more than 20 countries, sold over 2 million digital tracks, had over 150 million streams on Spotify, over 100 million views on Youtube, and has more generally crushed every metric used to measure what is possible for independent artists. As Pope states in the film, “I am a completely independent artist; no record label, no publisher, no boss.”
In “Ain’t No Angel, “ Pope sings, “I want to stand on the mountain, I want to know how it feels, want to see what the world looks like when everybody here can feel just what I say, and I’ll do it my own way.” In crafting songs that are equally at home at festivals, honky-tonks, or on arena stages, Ron Pope & The Nighthawks seem poised to make everyone hear exactly what they have to say. Good ol’ American rock and roll music is alive and well.