“Sit in My Lap” is NRBQ’s defiantly chipper, proudly quirky, sunnily earnest ode to the power of a sweet kiss and a reassuring embrace.
“Lyrically, the song is about somebody you love who is having a really bad day,” bandleader Terry Adams says. “You can fix that by saying, ‘Come over here and sit in my lap. It’s going to be all right.’
“I’m most proud of that song, I guess, because it came straight from my heart. It’s not pulling any tricks. So, yeah, that song feels real good to play.”
That’s pretty much how all of NRBQ’s songs operate. With an inventive mix of American popular styles — from rock to jazz, country to show tunes, Brill Building to Tin Pan Alley — their music sounds like it’s designed to boost listeners’ morale. Every album, including Brass Tacks, their latest, sounds like a meditation on the joys of making music.
That has been Adams’ motivation for nearly 50 years now. He started the band in his basement in Louisville, Ky., where the teenager was scribbling out compositions. During the 1970s and 1980s, the band developed a rabid cult following for their goofy sense of humor and ecstatic live shows.
From his home in Vermont, Adams spoke to CMT Edge about recording tunes from his teenage years, making rock guitar pioneer Link Wray laugh and confounding the cops.
CMT Edge: There’s a song on Brass Tacks called “Places Far Away” that you wrote when you were 15. Tell me about that teenager.
Adams: I was living in Louisville, and I must have been daydreaming about getting out of there. I wrote a lot of songs at that age, mostly instrumental. I notated the music then. I’m still a composer using a songwriter’s form. That means I put a lot of thought into the development of a song to keep it interesting harmonically. So this song existed as an old manuscript. A lot of songs from that period have been thrown out or forgotten, but this one came back to me.
Personally, I’m not sure I’d want to go back and look at the writing I did as a teenager.
I know what you mean, but when you find something that connects, it just makes sense. When you’re thinking about yourself retrospectively, you can start to make sense out of your life. Life is just one big day. On the cosmic calendar it’s not even a second. It’s nothing. So you’re the same person you were years and years ago.
“Places Far Away” gives the impression of a 15-year-old who was really into jazz.
That’s for sure. My biggest wish was to see Thelonious Monk. For my 15th birthday, I talked my dad into driving up to Cincinnati for the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival in 1963. I saw Monk, Roland Kirk, Dave Brubeck — who I’d seen several times.
I was crazy for all kinds of music. Link Wray especially. Sometime in the early 1970s, he showed up where we were playing. I didn’t know he was still alive. I was so excited because I had bought all his singles and albums from 1958 through the 1960s. So I went up to him and told him about how I had every record.
He was really excited, and he said to me, “What kind of guitar do you play?” I told him I was a piano player. He laughed. He would bring that story up every time I saw him — even the last time I saw him right before he died. He was so used to guitarists coming up to him, but a piano player! Maybe that’s why I play clavinet. It’s got strings like a guitar.
The band is pretty scattered geographically now. What is it like working with these guys long distance?
If we have some new songs, we just get together the night before we go out. These guys are fast. We can all read each other. So every time we play, it’s practice. So our songs are always developing. Nothing ever stays the same. But it’s been like that for a long time.
One time we were in North Texas or Oklahoma or some place, I don’t remember where. It was many years ago. We were pulled over by the police, who thought they had something on us, so they separated us. They looked at our driver’s licenses and asked us all what we did. And, of course, we all said we were in a band. We played such-and-such an instrument.
Finally, they got us together and said, “You’ve got a Connecticut license, you’ve got a New York license, you’ve got an Illinois license. OK, how do you practice?” They thought they had caught us red-handed! So we’re obviously not the garage band in the neighborhood anymore.
Almost every band member gets a songwriting credit on Brass Tacks. What is the collaborative dynamic between the four of you?
That’s just the team spirit. Everybody likes each others’ songs. We even have a song written by a guy in the horn section, Jim Hoke. That’s just what keeps it going. I’m crazy about the way they write. The first song on the album is “Waitin’ on My Sweetie Pie,” which was written by Scott Ligon. It’s a really simple song, but I’ve found over the years that the simple songs are the hardest ones to nail in the studio.
Another relatively simple song is Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Getting to Know You.” Why did you decide to cover that one?
I’ve always had an ear for songs that are perfect for me and NRBQ. I’m the A&R guy for the band. I bring in songs that nobody’s thinking about — not because they’re obscure, but because they just make sense to me.
“Getting to Know You” can be overlooked because it’s so childlike, but to me, it sounds like something off [the Beatles’] Revolver. I hear it in a different way. You expect there to be some irony in there but, for me, there’s not. We really are still getting to know you, and that’s a good feeling.