Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Crossing The Line

Bill Lloyd's divided career takes a turn toward pop music

By Michael McCall

APRIL 19, 1999:  One of the strangest aspects of the music business is the current obsession with dividing expression into precise categories. By breaking music down into narrowly defined radio formats, the industry markets its artists as if America were divided into distinct cultural camps.

Of course, most of us don't live like that, and we certainly don't listen to music like that. Mass communication and the modern media have kicked down differences between regions and classes, at least when it comes to musical tastes. Kids in the rural South are as likely to listen to rap as to country, while teens in Detroit and Seattle fill arenas to see country stars.

Performers are the same way. Few listen to one kind of music; instead, they skip across the dial, and their tastes evolve as they age, just like the rest of us. That said, musicians still have to give in to the rigid categorization imposed on them by record companies, radio programmers, and retailers. When artists do step over those lines, it usually happens in a calculated move to expand an already large audience.

Over the last decade or so, Bill Lloyd has crossed back and forth between country and rock, but he's unique in that he has done so completely on his own terms, forging a multi-dimensional career as a recording artist, a producer, a songwriter, and a studio guitarist. Other local performers, of course, have incorporated both rock and country into their music--Mike Henderson combines blues and honky-tonk, for instance, and Steve Earle has regularly displayed his mastery of country, bluegrass, and rock. But Lloyd is different in that he's kept his double-barreled musical personalities so separate. He's the only musician to release a self-produced rock 'n' roll album while receiving airplay on country radio at the very same time.

The music Lloyd made as part of the country duo Foster & Lloyd and later with the Sky Kings is wholly unlike the chiming, melodic pop-rock on his own solo albums. Some people might have trouble dividing their attention so sharply, but Lloyd says he couldn't imagine doing it any other way. "I've been advised at times to focus on one thing, but I've just never really been able to bring myself to do that," Lloyd says, sitting in his Green Hills home studio. "Some people look at that as being a dilettante, but I see it as an extension of my love of music. I'm just trying to do all the things I'm interested in, and I feel real lucky that I've been able to do so many of 'em."

At the moment, Lloyd finds himself in an unusual position. In the past, his pop albums came out at the very same time he was concentrating on his country career. For instance, Foster & Lloyd were enjoying such mid-'80s hits as "Crazy Over You" and "Fair Shake" when Lloyd released his solo pop debut, Feeling the Elephant. Later, when he released the excellent Set to Pop in 1994, he was in the studio working with the Sky Kings, a country-pop supergroup of sorts that also featured ex-Doobie Brother Pat Simmons, ex-Poco member Rusty Young, and ex-New Grass Revival member John Cowan.

Now, with his newly released third album, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, Lloyd is free to devote himself fully to his own solo work. "The good thing is I have less on my plate, so I have the opportunity to go out and play pop music this time," he says. "Of course, that's kind of a bad thing too, because country music was usually what was paying the mortgage."

Indeed, at 43, Lloyd is back to being a full-time pop musician--which is what he was when he arrived in Nashville nearly 20 years ago. He still has a hand in Music Row work: Last year, he produced the debut album by the Thompson Brothers for RCA Records, and he has three songs on a new album by Monte Warden on Asylum Records. But for now at least, Lloyd finds that his future likely belongs to being a cult-level pop performer.

With an album as strong as Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, that's a good thing. Lloyd has made lasting and worthwhile contributions to country music, but his pop work is more immediate and more personal. Because the music is closer to his heart, the songs tend to express deeper thoughts and feelings.

On his latest, Lloyd continues to find fresh twists on propulsive power pop. He takes his influences--the harmonic innovations and unpredictable sonic surprises of the Beatles, the chiming melodies of the Byrds, the explosive dynamics of the Who and Cheap Trick, the moody introspectiveness of The Zombies--and melds them into a sound clearly and uniquely his own.

Just as importantly, though, he fills these delightful tunes with lyrics that explore his fascinations and fears. Sometimes he simply enjoys pouring himself into clever wordplay, as on two of his hardest-rocking new songs, "Box of Snakes" and "Complaints." But he's just as likely to explore his own psyche: For instance, he looks into his obsession with '60s pop on the title song, as well as on "Cool and Gone," "Dr. Robert's Second Opinion," and the ethereal "Turn Me On, Dead Man."

"Years Away From Here" is a beautiful song about how memories tend to tangle and intertwine as one ages, turning the heart into an emotional maze. The outstanding "Holding Back the Waterfall," which features an amazingly psychotic guitar solo by cowriter Marshall Crenshaw, delicately yet unflinchingly probes the hidden conflicts of a woman barely keeping her insecurities in check. Along with his new "So You Won't Have To" and "She Won't Be Back," the tune joins a long list of Lloyd songs that delve into both the volatility and the tenderness that often churn beneath the surface of most relationships.

It's this ability to bring something of himself to his music that makes Lloyd's pop albums such a treat. Now maybe enough of the world will discover his talents so that he can focus on pop music for a while.

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