Put on Ol’ Hoopty’s debut CD Key’s Under the Mat, and try to envision how this music came together. The strands that crisscross through this band evoke the threads of a prized old quilt that’s been in the family for generations. Like the homemade crafts that are such an important part of this band’s home town of Asheville, North Carolina, Ol’ Hoopty has put this record together patiently, with love, care and attention to detail, pretty much in the spare time that five busy lives have allowed.
Keyboard player George Scott and guitarist Bill Norlin, together with their quite formidable wives, devote much of their time to homeschooling their children. The two met at a recital, where all five of their seriously talented kids were performing. George, the highly effective information systems director for a public HMO, is the band’s only authentic native of western North Carolina, his mom a music teacher/singer and his dad, a retired professor and opera singer. George naturally started his lessons on piano and trombone early, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his band director and mentor Tex Overby. While his sister went on to a local symphony orchestra, George gravitated toward the likes of Pinetop Smith and Dave Brubeck. Bill started early as well, playing guitar and singing Tom Dooley to his fourth grade music school class. Though he played in rock bands as a teen, he grew to love jump blues, r&b and blues above all else. Bill rambled around from Mobile to Metairie to East Oakland, and somewhere along the way became a damn good carpenter. He’s now known around the Asheville area as an expert remodeler and busker.
After a few jam sessions, during which they naturally gravitated toward music by the likes of Jimmy Smith, Booker T. and the MGs, and Louis Jordan, George called drummer Mike Berlin over to sit in. Mike grew up in Baton Rouge, his mom sneaking him in to Tabby’s Blues Box and Abe’s Bar-B-Q, so he could learn the fine art of backbeat drumming. Mike, who runs a video production company with his brothers Bubba and Brian, had just brought his gumbo into the mix, when Steve Cohen decided to answer their “bass player wanted” ad in Asheville’s weekly, The Mountain Express.
Quite unlike these polite Southern boys, Steve’s a New Yorker through and through, born and bred in the beautiful Bronx. He’d recently relocated to Asheville, bringing his music management business with him. For years Steve had alternated between pursuing his business career, managing artists like Bobby McFerrin, David Byrne and Laurie Anderson, and taking off
on the road to tour Europe and the US with great NYC-based artists like Richard Lloyd (Television) and Chris Stamey (the dBs). One of Steve’s 1980s bands opened for everyone from the Police and Iggy Pop to the Hollies and the B52s. He’d made records and videos and played concert halls and clubs, always seeming to be about a week away from making ‘the big time’. After forsaking the bass for nearly a decade in favor of managing other musicians, Steve was determined that his move to Asheville would be the start of a personal second act. No longer worried about a career as a player, it was time to focus solely on the music.
The four of them immediately gelled, and made it a point to explore a wide range of their interests. No Mustang Sally for them; these guys were playing Big Joe Turner, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles – music with depth and soul that would let them stretch out and grow. George brought some of his own instrumentals, and Steve, who hadn’t written a song since Ronald Reagan was president, set out to write lyrics and vocal melodies to some of them. Bill had his own trove of original songs, and he and Steve started collaborating as well. “I had what I thought was a great idea for a somewhat tongue in cheek song. Then Bill put a completely different spin on it and brought I Don’t Miss New York to a place I never would have reached on my own.”
Meanwhile, while he was carefully trying not to get all New York with the guys and steamroll their hand-made project, it was inevitable that Steve would start ratcheting things up. “All of a sudden we were doing really well in regional polls and we found ourselves playing on big outdoor stages,” recalls Mike. “The strong sense of purpose we’ve developed together has turned out to be a lot more rewarding and a lot more fun than any of us could have predicted.” By and by they built Juicebox Studios in George’s house and learned how to make a record. “Recording was always a big, expensive undertaking,” says Bill. “Computers have made it so anyone can make a record.” It’s just fortunate that these guys aren’t just anyone. Putting the songs through numerous demo stages, refining the parts and the structures, Ol’ Hoopty was on the way to making a record on their own terms.
Halfway through the recording, George, who has a knack for being in the center of things, went to see some music at the White Horse in Black Mountain, when he was nearly knocked off his seat by the young woman who got up to sing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Crystal Bray had just moved to Asheville after bouncing around the Northeast, London and the Virgin Islands. She had grown up in a musical family, with an opera singer/music teacher mom. Some of her earliest memories are of dancing around playing the spoons, while her grandfather played accordion. When George asked her what kind of music she liked, and she replied with a list that included old soul music, r&b, gospel and rock ‘n roll, the stars all seemed to line up. One rehearsal later, and the guys were wondering exactly how they should retrofit their songs to let Crystal shine. Crystal speaks for everyone when she says, “I love creating and tracking parts and filling out a song, watching it take shape and change.” As the liner notes to the CD say, “We didn’t even know Crystal until pretty well into the process… Next time she won’t surprise us like that, and you’ll hear a lot more from her.”
Key’s Under the Mat is authentic, hand made music, made by some people who are otherwise very busy with their work, their families and their daily lives; people who are good at what they do, and have brought that devotion and care to this music, and this record.