Wednesday, April 17, 2019
It's late afternoon in the VIP lounge at Smoot's Grocery in Natchez, Miss. Three of the four members of Bishop Gunn are in town, fresh off a triumphant 15-date European tour. On seven of those dates, the band opened for Guns n' Roses lead guitarist, Slash, on his "Living the Dream" tour. Lead Bishop Gunn lead vocalist Travis McCready is splayed out in a chair. Drummer Burne Sharp and bassist Ben Lewis are also present. Lead guitarist Drew Smithers remains back at the band's base in Leiper's Fork in Franklin, Tenn.
In barely two years, Bishop Gunn has gone from playing local gigs around Natchez to performing before crowds of thousands around the nation, and garnering national and international acclaim. In 2018, the band toured across the country, opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Marcus King Band, Gov't Mule and Whiskey Myers. After the band released its debut album, "Natchez," in May 2018, the record landed almost immediately at no. 4 on the Billboard Magazine Blues chart and no. 8 on the iTunes rock charts.
The band conceived the Bishop Gunn Crawfish Boil in March 2018. The event filled local hotel rooms and bed-and-breakfasts, and kept local bars and restaurants overflowing all weekend. The event returns this year on May 11.
In Natchez the Jackson Free Press sat down to talk with McCready, Sharp and Lewis about their tour with Slash, the Bishop Gunn Crawfish Boil and more.
How did the European audiences respond to you?
Sharp: Amazing. It's culturally different how they go to a concert. In the U.S., at shows people are talking and drinking, enjoying the band, and that's great. Over there, it's very much like, "The movie has just started in a theater. No cell phones please."
Maybe we were like exotic creatures over there—I mean, Travis walks on stage in a Versace bathrobe and no shirt on, I guess we did look a little strange. But the audiences really pay attention to the music.
McCready: And they knew the songs. When you see them singing along, you know this is a crowd that has really studied you and done its homework. In Milan, as we were walking up to the venue, the line outside stretched for blocks.
So after you performed your smaller gigs in the UK, Paris, Belgium and the Netherlands, you joined up with Slash in Berlin. That must have required you to make some adjustments.
Lewis: These dates in Europe gave us a lot of "firsts": We had our first tour bus experience, our first non-English-speaking audiences, and the Slash dates gave us our first (arena) experience. We were able to watch videos after the first show opening for Slash, and we realized we needed to spread out. We're used to being huddled together in small clubs. We had to learn to use the available space to communicate with the audience more effectively. So we made some adjustments and tried again. By the time we got to Lisbon, I think we were all much more comfortable.
The report is that Slash personally selected Bishop Gunn as one of his opening bands. Was this the case? How much interaction did you have with Slash?
McCready: Yeah, he did. I have this saying, "Embrace technology, but don't lose your calluses."
On the first night we opened for Slash, his dressing room was right beside me. We had gotten this email from management before the tour telling us basically to keep our distance (from Slash), just silly stuff that turned out not to be so strict. On the night of the Berlin show, I saw his door was open, and he was changing his strings. I gave him a half-wave and kept walking, and then I stopped and said to myself, "Alright, I can look like an ahole who was too cool to stop and talk to Slash, or I can stick my head in there and say hey. So I peeked my head in and said, "Hey, man, I'm not trying to bother you, but I didn't want to look like I was going to keep walking because I was too cool to stop." And he said, "No, man, come in." So we shook hands, and I thanked him for bringing us on, and he said, "Man, they gave us your album, and we really dig it." And we chatted some more.
But what I'm getting at was that he was changing his own strings—he had people that could do that for him. ... The fact that Slash is sitting there changing strings, and then I could hear him breaking them in—that was really cool to see. He's keeping his calluses.
Was there a show when it all came together, where you knew you couldn't have played any better, and the crowd knew it too?
McCready: Lisbon, Portugal. Every night up to that point, we thought the gig we had played was the best one—and it wasn't just the adrenaline talking. But in Lisbon, when we were playing "Making It," there's a photo that Ben took from behind his microphone when I went back to my amp to wipe my face. You see Ben's mic in tight focus, and behind it are thousands of lights in the crowd—they were all holding up their phones—and I almost started crying. I missed a line because I was choking up, and my voice was cracking on the last chorus of "Making It." When you see the video clip of that song, I was practically crying in front of 10,000 people.
Tell me about the Bishop Gunn Crawfish Boil and some of the talent you have lined up.
Sharp: Last year we really wanted to put together an event to help out our hometown, and what could be more representative of Natchez and Mississippi than a crawfish boil? We weren't sure what to expect, but when we saw 4,000 people out there eating crawfish, listening to music, and having a great time, we knew we had a winning event for Natchez. We hadn't toured nationally yet, and the album had only just come out. This year I think we're going to have an attendance of 8,000, maybe even 10,000.
McCready: Black Stone Cherry was a real hard push from us because their live show is unbelievable. It's a good push-pull relationship between us—they love us, and we love them. We were incredibly lucky to get Tyler Childers—his profile has increased dramatically since we first started putting the line-up together. Southern Avenue is a riveting, high-wattage, Stax-influenced act. And, of course, our little brothers from Gulfport, Miss., Magnolia Bayou, will rock the crap out of the place.
Bishop Gunn will perform at the Bishop Gunn Crawfish Boil on May 11at Bluff Park (Broadway Street, Natchez). Black Stone Cherry, Tyler Childers, Southern Avenue and Magnolia Bayou will also perform. For more information, visit ardenland.net.