THE MUCKRAKES: They Are Tidewater
The MuckRakes: We Are Tidewater
Words Carly Fuller Monahan
Photos Amy Jackson
Wednesday, October 21st, 2009
“There is not a band around here like us. Tag. We’re it. We’re Tidewater,” said Billy England, the band’s wiry, excitable bass player.
He was sitting at one of the sticky black tables that fill the floor of Colley Cantina in Ghent last week. He was drinking a pre-show beer and chatting me up. As we talked the rest of the band set up on the small, makeshift stage.
“Everything he has said so far is bullshit,” the drummer, Dave “Gravy” Jackson, said as he pulled up a chair.
I liked Gravy right away. There was something relaxed and natural about the way he spoke, like he was somebody I already knew. I asked him about the origin of the band’s name.
“Muck Rakes is a double entendre for investigative journalism and a farming tool,” said Gravy, whose day job is buying machinery for aircraft carriers. “With seven instruments, we had to learn how to not sound like a muddy mess.”
The audience at Colley Cantina was, fittingly, varied as Tidewater itself, from old men wearing flannel to young, trendy women with chic hairstyles, from draft beer drinkers to mojito sippers. All seemed a perfect fit for the random décor of the bar, as the complimentary purple and yellow walls created an ideal backdrop.
According to England and Gravy, the Tidewater area seems to spawn a disproportionate amount of cover bands to bands that do original stuff. With the transient lifestyle that comes with all our military bases, maybe it’s just that bands don’t have a chance to build relationships with the region, and cover songs are safer. In my experience people here in Hampton Roads have a way of being trendy to the point of seeming false. How can a band find their niche in a place where tastes change so often?
“We base the music on the energy of the crowd,” said Gravy. “Twenty percent of what we do are obscure covers and eighty percent are original songs.”
Something about this excited England. “We could be playing The Cure up there and you might not even know what we’re playing,” he said, his hands fluttering around his ever-smiling face.
Soon the time for talking was over and England and Gravy took their places. The five male members—there’s actually six male members, but one was missing, which happens with a band this big—of the Muck Rakes took up most of the stage, leaving a corner of light near the speakers for the petite, auburn-haired, lead female vocalist, Melissa Troutman.
Troutman actually stood the guys up before her first audition (found on Craigslist) to be a Muck Rake, not sure about being the only girl in the club. It took a second Craigslist ad—and a willing friend to come along—before she showed up and was offered the gig. Soon enough she warmed up to this group of guys who ended up being more fraternal than frat house.
“These guys are like my quirky second cousins,” she said of the band, which has been together for a year as of yesterday. “It’s the perfect Petri dish for creating music.”
Without pomp or much of an introduction, they started playing. After the energy of Gravy and England, and just by the sheer number of instruments in this relatively small room, the music, which they describe as “alt-Americana,” was surprisingly mellow. Maybe it’s because it was a Tuesday and I was tired from a day of teaching. Or maybe it’s just they played so harmoniously together. Maybe it’s because I could still hear what my friends were saying, or the way Troutman so casually took pulls from her PBR the moments she wasn’t singing.
It was a little rock, a little country, but all groovy. And I liked it.
The Craigslist ad said, “We’re putting together a band and looking for like-minded individuals,” and watching them play, I couldn’t help but think they found each other. “Goulash,” is the word for the band that Gravy used, a metaphor that could be easily applied to the transient Hampton Roads area; band members are a mixture of local musicians and transplants, and they work a wide variety of day jobs when not jamming at night.
Like the blending of our local, brackish waters and the diverse Hampton Roads population, The Muck Rakes, who are on a mission to “clean up bad music in general,” as Gravy said, truly embody the spirit of the Tidewater population.
The Muck Rakes in action at The Cantina? It’s a little dark, but it sure does sound good.