Student musician a key player in burgeoning campus band scene

Student musician a key player in burgeoning campus band scene

Photo courtesy of  Hugh Rowe Thomas

The blue, three-way divided plate rests against the checkered tablecloth with mashed potatoes, fried okra, buttermilk chicken and, hopefully, a square of cornbread. While pleasantries bounce around the room, and sweet tea is devoured at immeasurable amounts, a 15-year-old singer-songwriter armed with a guitar provides easy entertainment.

“The first time I ever played was at a meat-and-three-place and it was terrible,” said Hugh Rowe Thomas, a sophomore marketing major from Mountain Brook, Alabama. “I went down there for three hours and played. But then, I started playing at Saw’s Juke Joint a lot, which was fun, and I still do that sometimes. I got to play my original music and a lot of Dave Matthews stuff acoustically, which I don’t get to play that much anymore. That was kind of my start.”

Thomas, now a matured musician, finds himself a member of multiple bands on campus. But in high school, despite his young age, he began to find his footing in the music scene, playing an array of free gigs. His dad acted as manager, creating business cards that the two distributed to bars, venues and restaurants across Birmingham. 

While the bulk of his music career revolves around his guitar and voice, his grandmother, who was once the president of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, encouraged him to play his first instrument, the piano. Her experience with music led Thomas to pick up an instrument himself, but the piano didn’t quite stick.

“My grandmother is actually an unbelievable musician,” Thomas said. “She’s always been involved. She got me into piano when I was in the third grade and I hated it. I didn’t practice at all. I was bad. It killed her that I wasn’t playing anything for such a long time after I quit piano. I started playing guitar and she just immediately got behind it, always asking about what I was learning.”

Guitar lessons began in eighth grade for Thomas, ultimately resulting in an EP that he recorded in his instructor’s basement. Thomas credits his instructor’s influence for his knowledge and skill. 

His pursuit of guitar followed a change in music genre preferences, largely influenced by John Mayer and Dave Matthews.

“I went through an identity crisis,” Thomas said. “I realized I didn’t like country music. It’s very mainstream, but during sixth and seventh grade, I didn’t know what I liked so I started listening to John Mayer. As I kept playing with people later in high school, I got into Phish, Widespread Panic and past that, now I’ve just discovered all these different kinds of artists. Artists, they're just gateways. It’s like drugs.”

One talent that's always been prevalent for him is singing. Encouraged by his grandmother once again, Thomas was active in choir and his school’s acapella group, ABOG, serving as president his senior year, which brought a final performance of “Free Bird” at graduation, air guitar solo and all.

“It got me to not only sing everyday, but also meet all these people," he said. "I didn’t see that side of my high school often. I’m still friends with them and talk to a lot of them that don’t go here because they’re way smarter than me.”

At first, college didn't present many opportunities for musical exploration. While Thomas was able to play on his fraternity’s front porch a few times, he wasn’t able to fully commit to a band until he was initiated.

Thomas was then recruited by students John Hooper and Tucker Deaton, who also played with Tuscaloosa jam band Sauce, to join Black Warrior Band. 

“It was affiliated with three different fraternities, and it immediately was popular whether we were good or bad,” Thomas said. “We were terrible, but bars started hiring us because we would bring in people. We’re not trying to go far, like at all. We’re just trying to play music for people that are in college, and that’s about it.”

The Black Warrior Band toured around Tuscaloosa last year, mostly covering jam bands. The band is still active, but is currently on hiatus to reconfigure the group because of graduated members and others that are hoping to join. In the meantime, Thomas has formed Joey Freshwater Band, named after Lane Kiffin’s pseudonym. Carter Lockwood, another Tuscaloosa student musician, joins him in the group, and has influenced Thomas musically since they met. 

“I played a lot during the summer time and met some unbelievable musicians, like Carter Lockwood,” Thomas said. “I think he’s the best guitar player in a fraternity in Tuscaloosa, for sure, and I’ll stand by that. But, I met so many other guys, like Tyler Cameron, Alex Garrett. It all happened quickly. It’s just been really cool.”

The Tuscaloosa music scene continues to flourish because of the creation and overlap of the various talented bands driven by their need for a creative outlet. Student bands form and evolve throughout their time at the University and learn from each other’s previous experiences with music.

“I think it’s really cool that we have, especially in the Greek community, the amount of bands that have popped up since I was a freshman,” said Jordan Levy, bass player for The Smooth Saddles. “The Smooth Saddles have been a Sigma Chi band for eight or nine years and it keeps getting passed down. When I was a freshman, they had gigs all the time because there weren’t as many other bands in Tuscaloosa. Now, it’s kind of a good thing, but we’re struggling to find gigs. There’s more competition in the marketplace and there’s a lot more of a culture of it being cool to join a group of guys and play music with them.”

The Joey Freshwater Band includes Thomas, Lockwood, Chandler Patty and Fred Harwell, all members of other prominent bands in the Tuscaloosa band scene. The band has consistently played once or twice a week since the semester's beginning and don't plan on stopping soon. 

“I would never play any rap music if it weren’t for Carter Lockwood,” Thomas said. “We play Eminem and ‘Gold Digger.’ It’s all because the people in the band are really good performers and are really good at picking songs, or making a cover of a song, that everybody wants to hear without having to be that kind of band that just plays for the crowd."

Universally, the band is influenced by Widespread Panic, Phish and the Allman Brothers. They each bring different artists to the table, which play into their music writing.

“We haven’t really started writing music yet, which I’d like to get after pretty soon,” Thomas said. “I think we’re a mixture of a lot of stuff. It’s just going to be really cool because the music we cover will determine the kind of stuff we might write because of what we see in the crowd, what the crowd seems to like, as we keep playing.”

Thomas continues to experiment musically with other students at the University, which evolves his own preferences and capabilities. Despite his major in marketing, Thomas has pondered the idea of continuing with music for a short stint after graduation.

“I would totally live on the road for a couple of years and play for meals, the experience and tour with a band if we get to that point,” Thomas said. "That would be really cool. I’ve devoted so much time to my music and music in general, so I just feel like being able to experience that life for a couple years would be great.”

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