Pinetops – Perfecting the art of perseverance
According to Billboard magazine, 29,429 albums were released in 1995. Alas, none of them were by Jeffrey Dean Foster’s band, the Pinetops. That also goes for this year, every other year, and every other band Foster has ever been in. While he’s been close, he still has yet to have an album out that he can call his own.
Maybe Foster’s luck will turn around soon with the Pinetops, who play classic chunka-chunka three-chord pop songs sure to put a smile on the face of anybody who digs the Dashboard Saviors or Steve Forbert.
Foster’s saga began with the rock band The Right Profile, who signed to Arista in 1986. Then and now, Arista was home to the likes of Whitney Houston and Kenny G. The Right Profile wound up on the roster during Arista’s brief, ill-fated fling with ’80s alternative rock, when the label was signing bands such as The Church and Dreams So Real.
But almost everything that could have gone wrong did. Recording sessions with a succession of big-name producers (Jim Dickinson, Pete Anderson, Steve Jordan) proved fruitless; they could never come up with a recording that satisfied either themselves or the label. Furthermore, they were signed to a management firm that had no idea what to do with them.
“It was a very long, sad, funny story,” Foster says now. “Although it’d be a lot funnier if it was somebody other than us. One thing encapsulated how much of a grasp our management had on what we were about. We were gonna do some recording in New York, and we didn’t have our other guitar player by then. It looked like I was gonna have to do a lot more guitar playing than I’d expected. So I told our management, ‘If we want to get some weird-sounding guitar on there, maybe we could get [Lou Reed sideman] Robert Quine.’ And their response was, ‘Oh, the comedian?'”
The Right Profile finally fell apart from the strain, never having released a record. Once free of Arista’s clutches, three-quarters of the band continued on for a few years as the Carneys — Foster, drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Tim Fleming. After the Carneys called it quits, Wurster wound up as Superchunk’s drummer (his primary occupation since 1991), while Foster marked time as a solo act, opening shows for everybody from the Cowboy Junkies to Alex Chilton.
“While Johnny was traveling the world with Superchunk, I was playing a lot by myself,” Foster recalls. “That was fun, actually — interesting to get on a bus or a train with my guitar and just go play someplace. I didn’t totally enjoy it at the time, but I really felt like I’d accomplished something afterward.”
The initial Pinetops lineup included Foster, Wurster and two members of Raleigh honky-tonk band the Backsliders, guitarist Brad Rice and bassist Danny Kurtz. They appear on the Pinetops’ Don Dixon-produced demo tape, a fine three-song effort full of great lines (“Swing low sweet Chevrolet/Up on blocks since you went away”) and Foster’s typically dire sentiments (when was the last time you heard anyone compare angels to “Birds of Prey”?).
“I had hoped that lineup could do something,” Foster says. “But then the Backsliders started to pick up after they signed to Mammoth. I was really disappointed at first, but it worked out pretty well because Plan B has turned out better than Plan A probably would’ve. These three guys are all naturals. My talent is that I won’t quit, I just persevere.”
The “Plan B” lineup augments the Foster-Wurster axis with lead/lap steel guitarist John Pfiffner, who runs a studio in Winston-Salem; and bassist John Chumbris, who also plays guitar in Glory Fountain with Let’s Active veterans Lynn Blakey and Mitch Easter. Since all his bandmates are named Jo(h)n, Foster calls them Slim (Pfiffner), June (Chumbris) and Johnny (Wurster).
Between Wurster’s drumming and Pfiffner’s lead guitar, the Pinetops have plenty of get-up-and-go. They’re a surprisingly tight live band, given the fact that they don’t get to practice enough. Wurster and Chumbris live in Chapel Hill and balance the Pinetops with other commitments.
“I wish we could just play a week straight,” Foster says. “I feel like we’re already better than a lot of bands, and we’re just doing this part-time. But I’m hoping we can do some things, get a record of some sort going as soon as we can. Obviously, I don’t want Superchunk to end anytime soon. We’ll just have to structure the touring like sports. Baseball and basketball — you do one in the spring and one in the fall.”