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Pier Pressure. A trip to Harbortowne and beyond with Jim Patton and Sherry Brokus

22 May 2024

With the eponymous single from the latest album just dropping, I sat down with Jim Patton & Sherry Brokus to find out about how they met, discussed music genres and find out where it all goes from here.

You met in that classic way of one of you asking to sit in with the other’s band at a gig. Can you tell me more about that?

Jim: We met at the Ox Bow Inn in Arnold, Maryland where my band was playing. I was at the bar during a break, and Sherry came up to me and asked if she could sing a song. Now, we had firm rules for playing in bars that included never letting anyone you don’t know up on stage with you, but I said: “Sure,” knowing my whole band would be mad at me.

Also, we knew very few covers. She asked if we knew “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and we didn’t. Then she asked if we knew “Cowgirl in the Sand”. I think she was thinking of the Neil Young acoustic version and was surprised when we were more familiar with the Crazy Horse one, but she hung in there. The next time we saw her, I asked her to sit in again.

Sherry: I was in Arnold, MD, at the Ox-Bow Inn with my high school living friends as we had just moved back home to Severna Park, and we were out for the 50-cent draft night.  I’m not really a drinker due to my Native American heritage. Yet, I’ve been known to drink a bit too much. That night, I heard Jim’s songs while his friend Alan accompanied on bass along with Jon, Jim’s brother, on guitar.  My friends and I were very interested in hearing more of their own songs vs covers, but we were patient since we’ve generally only heard covers in bars anyway. Notice I said, “Bars”, not venues.

It was the second time my friends and I ventured over to the Ox-Bow Inn vs the preppy other spots, as I desired to meet Jim. I really enjoyed the original songs and great, not-expected cover choices.  Again, not your typical music to be heard in a bar in Anne Arundel County. Oh, and I had several beers in me to give me the push to go.

It was I who suggested Neil Young’s “Cowgirl in the Sand” when the guys did not jump on Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?  A different version than I knew but I  figured how to adapt. I did ask if they were going to do another verse after the lead. I was hoping to exit the stage early due to my sudden thought of, “What the F are you doing?” Jim approached me the next time I saw them play. I told him I had too much to drink before and apologized for interfering with their show. But I did sing Cowgirl with them again. Luckily, we met up again several months later at the house my friend took me to as she said, “They play music, and I know them.” Okay, I’ll go meet them. I was looking for a creative outlet and to get out of my own head for a bit.

The new one, “Harbortowne”, is a lovely, upbeat, folky number. Is this representative of your sound, part of your sound, or just the tip of the sonic iceberg in terms of sounds and styles?

Jim: It’s part of our sound. I would hope my songs have a thread that runs through them, whether they’re played acoustic or electric. I have always admired Neil Young and his ability to play both. I admired the way The Byrds combined folk and rock, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.

Sherry: This song reminds me of the fools I met on the streets in Annapolis and Baltimore when I was doing street outreach for HIV/AIDS prevention for CDC in the 80’s-90’s. Besides the music, I’m a trained psychologist who has been a therapist for over 40 years; and spent many years working with high risk folks of various ages.

Jim Patton & Sherry Brokus · 01 – Harbortowne

Those fellows in “Harbortowne” are clueless, open to an adventure that they have no business entertaining. Maybe they’re young with the need to feel alive, so they risk themselves in a world that can be dangerously unpredictable. It would be safer for them to be merely be observing but they are young, naive, foolish maybe angry, needing an outlet to express themselves. Regardless, they make me laugh and thank GOD they are not my children nor by patients.

I believe songs are writings given sound to be presented. The paint brush can be whatever, electric, acoustic…. Music and writing doesn’t always need to be put in a  genre box as it closes the door to the adaptability needed to present the song at the time.

As a Brit, I struggle with the term Americana and said as much in a recent review of the single. What does Americana mean to you, and is Harbortowne it? (And do genres and labels even matter?)

Sherry: Genre labels do matter to many folks but to me it’s like people. We are all the same, Human Beings regardless of skin color, nationality, faith belief. Yet, I see the ease it can give to new ears knowing somewhat to expect; and style of music they like.

Jim: Were The Band the first Americana band, or did it start even earlier than that? I know the Dead combined all kinds of American music into their sound. I don’t really know how Americana is defined, except that it’s been a place for a lot of music I like to get airplay. I think Harbortowne (the album) leans more toward the folk side of folk-rock and I don’t know what that means to Americana.

You cite some classic influences from music and literature; how do you see those musicians and writers influencing your songwriting?

Jim: The classic influences I mentioned changed my life. I thought one way before I encountered them and differently afterwards. I heard Rubber Soul and became a different person, but I also was different after the closing lines of “The Great Gatsby”. Because those influences are so deeply embedded in me, I don’t think about them consciously at all anymore. But they’re the Gold Standard, you know?

The previous album, Big Red Gibson, leaned more towards a rock sound. What can we expect from the new one?

Sherry: Jim and I are more folk rock with the emphasis on the folk or rock depending where we are booked to play or what the project calls for. The sound crosses over into both rock and folk showing how music can be interpreted.

Jim: No electric guitar, no drum kit. Without them, the songs are probably more story-oriented. John Bush on percussion is a key part of our sound. He keeps the music rolling for us. We’ve already started work on our next album, and we’ll bring back the drums and guitars.

Can you tell me about the players you gathered for this album?

Jim: We first gathered this group of players together in 2008 for our Plans Gang Aft Agley album, except for BettySoo, who joined our recording band in 2020 when Sherry lost her high voice. This will be their seventh album with us. Ron Flynt, our producer, keyboardist, bass player, multi-instrumentalist, and collaborator, was a member of the acclaimed power pop band 20/20 and has several great albums of his own. Rich Brotherton was Robert Earl Keen’s lead guitarist for many years. Warren Hood now plays fiddle in Lyle Lovett’s Large Band. John Bush plays with Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians. BettySoo sings with and often opens for James McMurtry.

Sherry: They are wonderful, talented musicians, artists themselves, wonderful human beings and our friends. They get the songs and us!

And where next for you guys, both musically and personally?

Jim: Musically, we’ve already recorded 18 demos for the next album that we’ll cut down to 10-12 after recording. And it will be with electric guitar and a full kit of drums on most songs. Then, who knows what I’ll write next? Live, we can play as a trio (add fiddle/guitar/mandolin), with a full acoustic band, or with a full electric band, and we hope to continue to do both.

Personally, we’re hoping to get Sherry’s voice back. She has a year left on the allergy drops she’s been taking, and then we’ll see. The doctors say she has no vocal cord damage, so we’re optimistic. As for the two of us, we plan to travel a lot for music, and I plan to write more songs.

Sherry: I cannot wait until the summer of 2025 to be immune to oak, elm, cedar, ragweed and grass, so maybe my previous voice will start to return, harmonies that ride high and low interwoven in the words. I have had to re-develop what voice I have in the lower range and rely on BettySoo to hear my higher parts to be delivered.  But I will be back as the stubborn Taurus I can be at times. Yet, BettySoo will always be a part of our music paintbrush and journey.