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Say Zuzu gets a little help from Willie's folks

By Jon Johnson, June 1997

The Portsmouth, N.H. area has long been home to a vibrant music scene. Flanked by other small cities such as Durham, home to the University of New Hampshire, musicians in the New Hampshire seacoast area form bands with astonishing regularity.

Though folk artists and punk rock bands seem to be particularly prolific in the area, the seacoast has also produced a growing number of bluegrass and country-influenced acts.

One of the longest-running acts has been Durham's Say Zuzu, in existence since 1988. The band released its fifth album, "Take These Turns," this winter.

The new album finds the group adding new instruments - including banjo, steel guitar, fiddle, and mandolin - to its established Uncle Tupelo-influenced sound.

Though the group's three original members have known each other since grade school, the group's members first played music together several years later while in high school.

Recalling the band's origins in a telephone interview, rhythm guitarist/vocalist Cliff Murphy says, "Three of us - (lead guitarist/vocalist) Jon Nolan, (bassist and brother) James Nolan, and I - started playing together when we first picked up instruments."

"The Nolan family happened to have a bunch of guitars lying around, and Jon wrote a song on one of them without really knowing how to play, and we just kind of went from there. We couldn't play anyone else's music, so we started writing our own."

Jon Nolan says, "My uncle - sort of a hippie-turned-Reagan-era military guy - played guitar. He taught me a few chords, and I wrote a song. I played it for James, Cliff, and my mother, and my mother said, 'You guys should be a band.'"

Murphy said the group decided to record its first song after about three years. The release was a tape called 'Say Zuzu to the Grocer Man' in the summer of 1991 under the name of Zuzu's Petals, a reference to a scene in director Frank Capra's famous holiday movie, "It's a Wonderful Life."

Unfortunately for the band, several other groups also picked up on the Capra reference at about the same time, necessitating a slight name change to the group's current moniker.

Says Murphy, "By the time we did our next album in '92 ("Tribal Moans"), we had to change the name because one of the bands (who shared the group's original name) had been signed to a small label."

"Take These Turns," like its 1995 predecessor "Highway Signs & Driving Songs," was recorded by the group (now rounded out by former Groovechild drummer Steve Ruhm) and engineer Bradley Hartman at Trace Sound in Franklin, Tenn.

Two members of Willie Nelson's band in 1994 recommended Hartman while Nelson and his band were in the area for a club appearance in Hampton Beach.

"We were thinking about recording a new album and we were frustrated with trying to find an engineer who could find the proper balance between the electric guitar and acoustic guitar," says Murphy. "So we talked with them for a little while about that and they suggested that we should give them a call and they would set us up with someone that we could afford who was very good."

Nelson bassist Bee Spears hooked the group up with Hartman, who had also worked as a recording engineer for Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Guy Clark.

"When we recorded this album, it basically meant that we were extremely pleased with the results the first time around, so we decided to go down again," Murphy says.

In addition, the group recorded the new album's final song, "706 Union," at the birthplace of rock 'n' roll, Memphis' Sun Studios, where the likes of Elvis Presley, Howlin' Wolf, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash started their recording careers.

Says Murphy, "We happened to be walking by Sun and went in to look around. We got really excited by the feel of the place, and we couldn't resist asking if we could record there. And it turned out that they had a slot open that night, so we just went out, wrote a tune in W.C. Handy Park, and went in and recorded it that night."

The group's Murphy and Jon Nolan both share songwriting and singing duties in the group, a situation that brings to mind a similar modus operandi in one of Say Zuzu's more obvious influences, the late Uncle Tupelo.

"It started out that Jon was writing almost all the songs, and I just started writing 'em because we needed more songs. Over the span of the band, I guess Jon's written about two-thirds of the stuff and I've written maybe a third. On the new album it's the first time that Jon and I have written this much together."

Nolan says, "Cliff and I both started from the same place and we had a lot of the same influences. We like a lot of the storyteller singers - Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, and Guy Clark are great ones. We both write about what we know. Cliff obviously didn't know Joshua Chamberlain (a reference to"Chamberlain's Guard" from the new album), so then it's a mood we know. Cliff went to school in Gettysburg, and he's a history buff."

The group has considered how they fit in with the rise in popularity of bands like Son Volt, Wilco, the Jayhawks and other "alt-country" groups. Says Murphy, "I think our stuff has a little more mainstream appeal to it - not mainstream country, but mainstream rock. I guess that we're on the other end of the spectrum from someone like the Waco Brothers. I think we have a lot more of the Neil Young/Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings-type country influence."

"A year ago, we had 'Highway Signs..." out and that was going well and we were trying to get the strongest base established in New England that we could. Since we went on tour (in the south in late 1996), things have really taken off. I was happy with where we were at a year ago. But now we're a lot further along in terms of musicianship, gigs, etc. It's great. We're pretty hardworking and people seem to like it."