NRBQ’s Terry Adams:
The TVD Interview

I have made up a few rules that I hold dear and one of those is Rock & Roll Band Quorum. This rule states that if you don’t have a simple majority of original band members on stage, you are not that band. “The Who,” “KISS,” competing versions of “Foghat” and scores more are serial offenders. However, every rule has an exception and I just came face to face this rule’s anomaly when I saw the new lineup of NRBQ.

Terry Adams formed NRBQ with Steve Ferguson in Louisville in 1966 and since their inception, the band has seen members come and go. Most people cite the version with Adams, Joey Spampinato, Tom Ardolino, and Al Anderson as being the “classic lineup,” but somehow, Adams has kept their approach and intent intact over the decades. He is the common thread running through this off-kilter sweater that only seems to improve with age. Noted Nashville musician Bill Lloyd likened this phenomenon to the bands of Count Basie and Bob Wills, ensembles which retained their signature sounds through regular lineup changes. I compare it to having a great coach who always manages to field a winning team. Whatever your analogy, NRBQ continues to be one of the most adventurous outfits making music today.

NRBQ’s new album, Brass Tacks, sounds of a piece with band’s substantial catalog.

It’s the way I see things. I’m not saying I did everything but it is a vision of mine.

How did that vision develop?

You learn a lot from different musicians. For me, it showed me that there was more to the world than what they were showing me in Louisville, Kentucky. I could hear in the speakers that there was something else going on.

What was the first record that really grabbed your attention?

It’s not really about individual records, it was about sounds. When I was very young, there was a Mother Goose 78 RPM set I had and I liked the sound of that organ. I played it over and over again. Later, it was Elvis Presley and stuff like that. But I was fascinated by all sounds. I would even play records I didn’t like very much because I was interested in what was going on, sound-wise. Things like Doris Day records that I would play again and again and again.

After a while, it gets more personalized. I heard something in Thelonious Monk. Obviously, it had something to do with New York City but I had never been there. But I could hear the city in his music. Perseverance, sticking with what you believe in was a major lesson from him. If you love the music, then you have to obey what you learn.

Zeroing in on sounds rather than songs is a different approach. What other artists or records did you learn from?

Well, my favorite record was “Searching” by The Coasters. But what I really had to own were the instrumentals. There were big hits by Duane Eddy and Link Wray and I would also get the more obscure ones. Any time I heard an instrumental, it was more appealing to me than vocal records. My first LP was Especially for You by Duane Eddy. Soon after, I had an album on Epic by Link Wray [probably Link Wray and the Wraymen, 1960. Ed.]

The late ‘50s/early ‘60s was a heyday for instrumental records.

Yes, but some I didn’t go for. I never liked The Ventures or the surfing guys, it just never did anything for me. As I started getting into jazz, I listened to Bill Dogget, Jimmy Smith, and Jack McDuff. When I bought albums by Smith, McDuff, or Dave Brubeck, I didn’t decide that I was embarrassed by liking Duane Eddy or Link Wray. I didn’t become a jazz snob, I just liked it, too.

It’s interesting that you started with guitar guys and drifted to keyboard players.

Yeah, I’m sort of a guitarist and drummer at heart. That’s why I play the Clavinet because it sounds like a guitar.

Is vinyl still a part of your life? Do you still listen to records?

Oh yes, very much so. I love the sound of records. Albums I had on RCA with the Dynagroove process sound better to me than anything. I always go back to them. A Sonny Rollins Dynagroove album, in particular…it just never got any better than that for me.

It’s all about the music really. My dad brought home a Davis Sisters 45 on RCA [The Davis Sisters were Skeeter Davis and unrelated friend Betty Jack Davis. Ed] that became a big influence on me. Eventually, I met Skeeter and years later, NRBQ made an album with her, She Sings, They Play. After I heard that first Davis Sisters 45, I went out and bought everything they ever recorded. When I met her, she couldn’t believe I had it all. Even a couple of singles on an obscure label out of Detroit.

Were those the Fortune Records singles?

Yes, that’s right. I’m talking like a record collector but I’m really not one. I’m a music fan. When I first heard Skeeter’s solo records on the radio, I didn’t know she had been part of the Davis Sisters, so I didn’t care all that much (laughter). But later, when I made the connection, I took all the Davis Sisters records I had collected to show her. There was something about them that really scared me, the way their voices sounded together was eerie. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard. It was as strikingly different as Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry.

The sound of these records, coming from an 8” oval speaker, made me realize there’s a whole world out there. I was able to sit on the floor at age 4, 5, 6 and shut everything else out when I listened to them. I didn’t know I would become a musician, I was just a listener. Through my brother Don, who played trombone, I got a trumpet and joined the school band. Then my mom got a piano for herself and I discovered you could put multiple notes together. Playing the trumpet, that was a power that you didn’t have. Why is it that when you move this note in the middle it feels so different?

After I discovered Monk around ’63, I wound up studying composition with Don Murray in Louisville. I knew that I needed to know what was actually going on, in a technical sense. I advise musicians to never let go of what intrigued them in the first place. Their inspiration is something that should never be messed with. Later, the open-mindedness of the middle ‘60s was a huge influence on me. The Beatles and The Lovin’ Spoonful…you can’t describe their music because each record was different. Revolver was so adventurous but, unfortunately, that door was shut. The music industry decided that that was done with, but I didn’t. I just continued to be open to music, from Mother Goose at age 4 to John Cage, absorbing everything. It’s all in me now.

Nobody is telling me what path to follow. Too many musicians want to identify with something—“I want to be a reggae guy, so I’ll smoke some pot”—so it’s more like a club.

But that’s a box you put yourself in and you can’t get out of it.

Yes, “the box”! But why be in box? That category has already been invented. The spirit of trying to find something new is what keeps you going. If the universe is open, so is the music. Like with NRBQ, you have to play with guys who really want to do it. I can’t say anything negative about anybody who doesn’t want to do it anymore. That’s their choice. The road and the years can wear on people but it didn’t wear on me. I have longevity. I don’t want to do some other thing. Also, I don’t believe NRBQ has achieved some “golden thing” where I can go accept all the awards and then move on to something else. That didn’t happen for NRBQ. I don’t care how great the band was in 1982. “Here’s the trophy, here are the top ten records, here’s the lunchbox with your face on it…”—that never happened for this band.

That’s why when people say, “Why would you mess with the original lineup?,” I say, “Well, what lineup?!” This is still something I’m working on. If it gets to the place where I’m satisfied with it and don’t want to do anything else, I’ll let you know. Until such time, I’m still working on this! (laughter)

I never saw you onstage when I thought you weren’t having fun. I always though of NRBQ as a band that loves music.

Well, that’s what we have with this lineup. When I met Scott (Ligon, guitar/vocals), I could tell he had something through our conversation. I’d never heard him play, but something he said to me one night stuck with me. When the rest of the players that had been in NRBQ weren’t interested in doing it anymore, I didn’t know if I could keep it going. I made a solo album called Rhythm Spell and then I started thinking about Scott. I was ready to get going again so I made my mind up to find this guy. We hung out for a few days and he had a million questions for me. As we talked, I realized I’m not alone in this thing.

To change subjects, I have long been fascinated by Tom Ardolino’s “Beat of the Traps” song-poem compilations [NOTE: song-poem records were recordings made by companies, most prominently MSR Records, that would set your poem to music for a fee. The results could be transcendentally weird and wonderful.] Were these records that you found while touring, raiding thrift stores?

Actually, that started before Tom was in the band. We had become friends when he wrote a fan letter to NRBQ. Reading it, I realized he knew something that nobody else knew. I had a couple of these records and so did he: “You mean, you’ve got that record ‘Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush,’ too? Why do we love these things?” I remember going in some kind of surplus store that had screwdrivers, lightbulbs, all kinds of things and there was a big pile of records on the floor. When I looked through them, I saw that they were all MSR Records. I said to myself, “I don’t have time for all this. It’s a fun thing, but I’ve got other things to do.” So I called Tom and said, “You gotta go get this stuff!” There was no “record collector competitiveness” here (laughs). “Tom, you’ve got the time to sit on the floor and figure this shit out.” So Tom really become the “official” MSR guy.

Originally, it was a mutual thing but I got too busy. Plus, it’s such a weird place to go—I don’t know if I want to in there for that many hours! (much laughter) I told Tom to sort through it and give me the best of it. The one that really got me was “Little Rug Bug.” I couldn’t stop admiring the beauty of it. NRBQ wound up recording it, in fact.

I’ve really been enjoying the new album. Listening to it, I was struck by how much it reminded me of the band’s previous albums, like NRBQ at Yankee Stadium.

Well, I did pull out some old songs that I may have written around that period. The other guys brought in songs as well. One thing we did that may be unusual today is that we recorded the songs with all of us playing in the studio together. It’s ridiculous that people don’t do that. It allows us to react to each other. The music I like, I can hear the personalities of the players and I wanted that for this record. It’s not just “that’s the correct bass part,” I want to feel what that guy feels. Also, no strobe tuners were in the studio. There’s no way music is supposed to be that in tune. It should be in tune enough to feel good, to create waves. With no waves, there’s no vibe.

NRBQ’s Brass Tacks is in stores now.

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