Henry Lee Summer: Part 2

In the piece I wrote about Henry Lee that appears in NUVO’s 20th Anniversary issue (read on this blog  and online at nuvo.net) Henry Lee Summer was playing at Moon Dog’s in Fishers the night I saw him for the first time in a long time. It certainly seemed like a moment early in his journey back from the bottom. The story I wrote was way too long for print. So I saved it for the web…

When I saw him, he was backed by the Zanna Doo spinoff band 4 on the Floor and they were churning out classic rock, with each bandmember taking a turn singing. Some songs worked better than others. But it was a nice and loud classic rockin’ band, so when Henry Lee Summer ‘s turn came to sing, I smiled. It was no hat-pulled-low, going-through-the-motions performance. He was engaged. The band’s energy forced Henry to bring it.

Though he didn’t do any of his own music when I was there, the fire and the spirit resurfaced in an oddly fitting place. In the midst of an old bubble gum tune from Crazy Elephant called “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin” , Henry Lee reached down into his soul, like the old days, to take the band higher; helped them lock into a rock groove and turn a silly little song into a reason to believe. It made me believe Henry Lee Summer can recapture some of what he lost.

Could it turn out he hasn’t really lost anything – just that his light has been dimmed the better part of 10 years? America loves a reclamation project.

Right now, in Indianapolis, Henry Lee Summer could be that project.


Let me tell a story. It was the summer of 1988 in southern Michigan. A thunderstorm was rumbling and light flashed in the distance. I know because you can hear crackling in the tape I have of the radio that night. It was a Sunday night. I was living in an upstairs apartment, in a two-room space . Cardboard boxes were stacked around the living room, because I was going to have to move again the next month. Nobody was living in the apartment below. That proved important, because as a radio jock from 6pm to midnight, I usually stayed up until 3 or 4am, drinking a couple beers and playing more music – kinda loud.

I owned an old jambox stereo, with two big speakers, a radio and cassette player. The radio that night was tuned to Q106 in Jackson, Michigan. Though I’d started chasing the goal of being a radio dude, earning my beer money playing whatever the hell I wanted at the local station each night, I was off work every Sunday. On this particular stormy Sunday, the radio station played the Superstar Concert Series. Henry Lee was recorded live at Manchester College, here in Indiana. What came to me that night was 35 minutes of roaring, joyful, spiritual, loud, crazy, rock and roll. I had heard “Wish I Had a Girl” (how could you miss it?) and knew Henry Lee Summer was a heartland rocker – a John Cougar, Bryan Adams, Bob Seger thing – and it was the type of music I wanted to hear in 1988.

This was all before the internet, back when we depended on radio for our music and band info. And all I knew about Henry Lee Summer was his one hit song and ubiquitous companion video on MTV. I wasn’t yet living in Indiana – that would come ten years later, so I didn’t know the backstory of his time spent paying dues in the Indiana bars. Or his self-released music. Or his show. My education about Henry came through the radio that night.

Hey, I can be jaded. I’ll dismiss a band as wannabe rockers quicker than you can say Daughtry. But if you knew your shit about live music and rock and roll, you couldn’t miss it; this was a guy who had the gift of being able to connect with the audience and have that magic come through the radio speakers too.

Perceptive enough to drop in a gray TDK cassette tape and record the show, I still have the tape and recently converted it to an MP3 – it’s now on my iPod. And it still rocks. There’s still palpable energy and magic with “Hands on the Radio”, “Down on the Farm”, “Hey Baby” and the hit. It sounded perfect to my rock ears, coming through those two speakers.

It would be another year before I would see Henry Lee Summer live for myself, opening for Eddie Money in Louisville. Henry blew him away that night. Charmingly bombastic, full of preacher fire, flying hair and jumping feet, this one guy from Indiana commanded his rock and roll band, and another performer’s crowd, and won the night. Poor Eddie. He had no fuckin’ chance.

And that’s why, or at least one reason, I cheer for Henry Lee Summer to find his peace, his sobriety, and his passion. He’s a guy who had – and may still have – the spark and gift to inspire a concert audience to be a little nicer and each person a little more empathetic as they go about their daily life. That’s what I always felt walking out after one of his shows. There’s still a need for that, right?

“Hey Baby” (LIVE)

Henry Lee Summer: Then and Now

A recent cold winter night, with snow falling, Henry Lee Summer was on stage at a northside bar, there to sing a few songs, play some guitar, have a bit of fun. Continue to get himself into musical fighting shape. Just another gig, and a bit more than that, too.

“What I am trying to do is go back to square one,” Summer says, talking about his career today. “First and foremost, I am taking care of myself and my family. Musically, I am writing and using the past few years’ experiences for material to write about. My goal in one year is to have a full time band that can play my old and new music and sustain my living and support my family.”

When NUVO interviewed Henry Lee Summer 20 years ago, for our debut issue, his story came across as that of a Hoosier homeboy – all blue jeans and cafeteria food (the first interview was at an MCL Cafeteria). The talk at the time was a new album and what he believed bands needed to do to succeed.

“I prefer to hear originals,” he said at the time. “When a band is playing their own stuff, they are much more alive.”

“In Indy there were places to play (back then) if you were a musician of any caliber,” he now remembers. “Starting out, I got to play six nights a week for several hours. There were lots of opportunities back then that aren’t there now. There were battle of bands, Ramada Inn, Holiday Inn, sock hops – it was great.

Has it really been more than 20 years since Henry Lee Summer broke big? “I Wish I Had a Girl,”, “Hands on the Radio” and “Darlin’ Danielle Don’t” come 1-2-3 on the debut record. An anthem, a pop-rocker and a power ballad with some grit. It is late 80’s rock and roll, filtered through Top 40 AM radio and smoky bars. It is the sound of the Midwest.

“‘I Wish I Had a Girl’ was a number one record for a few weeks,” Summer remembers. “I always wanted to have a hit record, so I was lucky and thankful. It was in heavy rotation and saturated MTV and the radio so people remembered it. ‘Hey Baby’ was a big hit, but ‘Wish I Had a Girl’ was everywhere.”

Way Past Midnight (1990) and Slamdunk (1993) were his last two major label releases, as the business was changing and grunge had arrived. With 1999’s Smoke and Mirrors and then a live album, Summer released records to a regional audience. Two of his cover bands, the Alligator Brothers and Candybomber, took much of his time.

Then, a pair of well-documented arrests brought Henry Lee Summer to where is today. First was a 2006 drunk driving charge and then a methamphetamine arrest in 2009. After that, he went into rehab.

If that was the end of the story, then it would be like hundreds of other musicians who burned brightly and then faded away. But there has always been a little more to like with Summer. Legendary show, full of energy and passion; great heartland rock made better live. Seeing him was an event. We loved Henry Lee Summer. And that’s why it’s been has been tough — though more for him than us.

It’s early in this new chapter of his life, but the story seems to be unfolding as a hopeful tale. His support has come from his family, and he says he feels the fans’ influence too.

“Most people have been very forgiving in general. They know that I am working hard to stay on track,” he says. Summer says he’s touched by the support. “Mom and Dad, my wife and immediate family, Mike Denton and Jimmy Ryser at Methodist Hospital in the Substance Abuse Recovery Program. It means a lot that my family has stood by me through all of it.”

His career is again being managed by Blonde Entertainment’s Lisa Sauce, and she says Henry is more engaged in his life and career than he has been in a long time.

“We have had some very real conversations since his sobriety,” Sauce says. “In the past, I felt like he was distant and closed off from me and others. I think that it’s ‘one day at a time’ for him right now. He needs to keep building up his stamina and health. If he continues to do that, then he will do great. I can see him getting a new record done and performing original shows and tapping into his loyal fan base. I do think that his fans are aching for his original music and shows,” Sauce says.

“I feel no pressure with a timeline,” Summer says. “I didn’t write for a while. Everything feels fresh to me again. I have been writing more than I ever have, and I want to put out a record that captures some of the experiences that I have had over the last 10 years. Lately it has been really good to write. It is hard to raise your bar high and write good songs. I am enjoying the process now.

“I am very hopeful. I don’t need a big house on the hill. I want to stay on the recovery side of my addiction,” he says. “There is no room for error with me now.”

Twang Report: Drive-By Truckers, Truth & Salvage Co., Ryan Adams, Dropkick Murphy’s

Maybe the biggest and best-est band playing American Rock?: Drive-By Truckers getting a ton of good press about their new album, “The Big To-Do”, out this week. They’ll appear on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” on Wednesday, March 31st and are releasing a series of webisodes that tell the behind-the-scenes story of each song from the record. Recorded in the studio in Athens, Georgia, plus as the band performs the new songs at sound check and in concert, and it includes interviews with the band. Here’s the first installment and it is damn good – both in content and with the production.

Circle The Date: I wrote about Truth and Salvage Co. last time (from the cuts I’ve heard, maybe the best Americana album of 2010 – to be released in May), and Indiana guy Tim Jones’ contribution to the band. They hit Birdy’s May 6 – a nice “get” for that club. Thought it might make sense to remind you of one of Tim’s other projects, Chevy Downs, before we leave Mr. Jones alone. And, just so you know, I’ve always liked bands that include guitar whiz John Byrne as a member. Remind yourself of their sound here

OK. Shoulda seen this one coming up the highway: Conan O’Brien is taking his act on the road. He announced a 30-city theater tour, and Andy Richter and the former “Tonight Show” band (maybe the best talk show band ever) will join Conan for The “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour” that begins April 12 concludes June 14. Word today was that a documentary will be filmed around the tour (not exactly a new idea, but makes plenty-o-sense).

Finally, on Ryan Adams’ website, the alt-country crazy man says: “We’re going to begin pressing ORION — my most legit METAL record — on vinyl next week.”

I leave you with this from the Dropkick Murphy’s, wholly appropriate for March 17th.

Roots-Rock Music News: Truth & Salvage Co., Levon Helm, Legendary Shack Shakers

Tim Jones, the voice and guitar from Bloomington’s near-legends Old Pike, has spent 10 years banging around the LA music scene, and he’ll resurface in a big way with a new band that has the chops and sound to break out. In California since 2001, he’s now part a band called Truth & Salvage Co. They’ll release a debut album May 25, produced by the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson (the bands are on the same label – Silver Arrow Records).

Truth & Salvage Co., featuring guys from Georgia, Ohio, Indiana and New Orleans, sounds like – well, a lot like Old Pike. Rough-and-ready vocals, sweet harmonies, a great space-filling Hammond B3 sound tumbling around inside a band cranking out American rock and roll. Does that interest you? It should. You can hear three cuts from the album here

They’ve landed a slot opening for the red-hot Avett Brothers tour all through April, and play their own show at Birdy’s here in Indianapolis on May 6, as part of a Midwest trek that includes St. Louis, Columbus and Chicago.

When I listen, I hear a group that sounds ready for their moment. When critics start to write about them, you’ll hear comparisons to The Band, Tom Petty, the aforementioned Avett Brothers, maybe even Old Crow Medicine Show, and inevitably, the Black Crowes, though not nearly as jam-happy or blues-based. While they pull their sound from all of those influences, it’s still midwest rock, filtered through the harmonies of California and the gospel of the American South. Worth finding the music and the noting the upcoming show. They are my new favorite band.

hear in-studio live performance at daytrotter.com

→ The Band’s Levon Helm’s has lived a rough and glorious life: He’s survived throat cancer, bankruptcy, drug addiction and the tragic loss of band mates Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. His last two solo records (especially Electric Dirt”) have been acclaimed (rightly so) as the return of a legend. His voice is one of the most recognizable in the history of rock music. And now “Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm” will take a look at all of it, making its premiere at the SXSW Festival through March 21.
Read a great blog post about making the film from it’s director, Jacob Hatley
“It’s late and you’re sitting around Levon’s kitchen table. It has a hazy glow about it. Crew and cast have slept until at least 11 am that morning. Nothing is scheduled for the next day. Your mind is limber.

“So Levon just starts talking.

“He describes the duckbilled platypus (“the absolute baddest thing you can get a hold of”), he reenacts his favorite scene from The Wild Bunch, he talks about an old boy he once knew who rode his mule into town to go to a dance and on the way swapped his .38 for a .22 because you just can’t move around with a big .38 in your pocket. He remembers living in hotels in Canada, the simple existence when you didn’t owe anybody anything and you told the maids to just leave some towels, and you spent your days watching Peter Cushing double features and your nights playing hard driving rockabilly music.

“It’s loose but goddamn it’s vivid. And you realize you want your whole film to be nothing more than this: an A, number 1 certified hangout movie. A movie, as Howard Hawks put it, that’s no plot, just character.

“But then things do happen. Levon records his first record in twenty-five years. He loses his voice. He runs into serious financial trouble. He is told he will receive a Lifetime Achievement Grammy for The Band and he rejects it. Suddenly, events loaded with dramatic potential swarm around you. Stuff documentary filmmakers supposedly dream about. But the thing that keeps nagging at you: ‘What about the duckbilled platypus?'”

→ In other new release notes, Gothic-country punkers The Legendary Shack Shackers will release their seventh full-length album, “Agridustrial”, on April 13th on their own Colonel Knowledge label. Loud and thrashy, with a bit of a twang.

Get a free download of “Sin Eater” from the new record

→ The Court Yard Hounds (Dixie Chicks sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire) take the stage during the Americana Music Association showcase at Antone’s at SXSW next Thursday (March 18th) and will go on to do a string of intimate shows across the country. The CD, on Columbia (meaning it’s more than just a side project) is out May 4.

listen to four cuts here. Very Sheryl Crow-like…

Roots Rock News: Larry Crane, Gaslight Anthem, The Dead Weather, Marah

Former Mellencamp guitar slinger Larry Crane has released a new album, called “Tropical Depression”. It is a refreshingly solid piece of roots rock, similiar in sound to the albums Crane put out in the 90s, as he was hitting the clubs of Indiana behind records like “Eye for an Eye”. Crane, part of the Mellencamp band all the way back to the early Cougar days, now lives in Florida and plays occasional shows there. The new record, however, was recorded here in Indiana. Nearly equal parts rollicking and introspective, it shines most when Crane lets loose with his Telecaster: screeching, grinding and digging into roots-rock sounds. His singing voice is rather ordinary, but exudes a familiar, lovely southern Indiana lilt, and it serves his songs just fine. “What Billy Wants” is one of the album’s best, an Americana anthem that dates back to some of his live shows from his days in the Hoosier State. The opening cut “Once You Love” hits many of the same rock and roll buttons, with three-chord rock, guitars and gospel keyboards.

Larry told me via email that he’ll be back in Indiana in the spring. We will let you know when and where. Meanwhile, listen to (or buy) the entire album here.

Gaslight Anthem is working on its new album, “American Slang”, the follow-up to 2008’s “The ‘59 Sound”, and the Jersey rockers are, according to lead singer Brian Fallon, moving into more literal songwriting.

In an interview with on DyingScene.com, Fallon said that the Americana stories are out. In is something like reality.

“I’ve kind of abandoned all of that,” said Fallon. “There are no names (Maria and such) and none of the old stuff. I feel like I’ve said a lot of what I had to say about that old stuff. I’m moving on. … [American Slang] is a hyper-literal album. These stories are coming out of my life and the reflections on the things I’ve gotten as I’ve gotten older. It’s more autobiographical, definitely more direct. Not so shrouded in mystery. I’m not trying to confuse anyone with a trail of images on this one.”

Let’s hope his talent and intelligence means this is all a good thing, and not a self-indulgent change in direction. I just say this: Please be good….
Read the interview.

Gaslight Anthem and special guest…

Philly’s old school-type rockers Marah have a new album coming out, called “Life Is A Problem”, due on June 1st. They have a deal on their website that if you tell five people about the music, you can have some cuts that didn’t make the record.
go to website

“We are making these unreleased recordings available to you because you deserve ’em,” they say on the website. “As music fans you’ve displayed the rare quality of really giving a shit about our music through the years and that means a lot to us.”

The Dead Weather has announced a spring tour, as Jack White’s third band plans to release a sophomore album later in 2010. The tour begins in San Francisco on April 15 and winds up on May 2 at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. They get only as close to Indy as St. Louis on April 24 at The Pageant.