From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
One of the most consistently popular live bands in Nashville does not play country music, has no lead singer and will never release an album. Instead, the Long Players play classic albums, front to back, before a live audience with a different guest vocalist singing every track. The singers are plucked from the biggest names in Nashville's music scene.
Craig Havighurst of Nashville Public Radio reports.
CRAIG HAVIGHURST: The Mercy Lounge is a loft-like club in a 100-year-old brick warehouse in downtown Nashville.
Unidentified Man: We're going to do this record from start to finish as we always do. And the first song, (Unintelligible) on the record.
HAVIGHURST: On a recent Friday night, the Long Players had to play sounding a bit like a cabaret club in Liverpool circa 1962.
(Soundbite of song, “I want to Hold Your Hand”)
Mr. BILL LLOYD (The Long Players): (Singing) Oh, I want to hold -
HAVIGHURST: The members of the Long Players are especially fond of the Beatles. In the past two years, they performed “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” in their entirety. But tonight, at their 15th public performance, it's “Meet the Beatles,” the Fab four's first long playing album.
Bandleader Bill Lloyd clarifies to the audience that they are playing the U.S. version, not the U.K. version. It's the kind of arcane thing he often comes up with.
Mr. LLOYD: We're always looking for something to say and the record geek comes out immediately.
HAVIGHURST: As record geeks go, Lloyd is in the elite class. He's solo power pop albums are critical favorites. He was half of the 1980s country rock duo, Foster and Lloyd. And he is a songwriter who has been covered by Martina McBride and Cheap trick. About once a month, he and some close friends get together to listen to old records. One of them is Gary Tallant, bass player in Bruce Springsteen's E Street band since 1972.
Mr. GARY TALLANT (E Street band): Once a month, we get together and play old records and try to turn each other on to things that we may not know. The others might know, just, you know, rare gems and things that slipped away. And we've done for quite awhile. And one night, I don't know if it was in a drunken stupor, but we probably had a little wine and we said wouldn't it be cool to, you know, that's kind of where the idea came from.
HAVIGHURST: The idea was the Long Players, a collective of performance art that draws from decades of talent accretion in Nashville. The core band includes Tallant on bass, guitarist Steve Allen, drummer Steve Ebe, and keyboardist John Deaderick. All are veterans of important bands, studio work, and tours with the likes of the Dixie Chicks and James Taylor.
Mr. LLOYD: The band stays the same, but the singer changes. We get a different up for every song.
HAVIGHURST: Bill Lloyd more or less steers things from the right side of the stage, introducing each guest vocalist in turn and reminding folks when they've reached side B.
Mr. LLOYD: What's that sound? What's that sound? What's that sound?
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
Mr. LLOYD: Oh, it's the needle lifting up.
And the singers are - can range anywhere from, you know, people who've had success in the country market. Bu also star session people, nearly retired rock stars, and up and coming people you've never heard of who were just great. It's an amazing talent pool we have here.
HAVIGHURST: One of the recruits for Meet the Beatles was Chuck Mead, founder of BR549, a band credited with reviving Nashville's downtown honky tonk district in the 1990s. He offered the fourth song on the album, “It Won't Be Long.”
(Soundbite of song, “It Won't Be Long”)
Mr. CHUCK MEAD (BR549): (Singing) It won't be long, yeah, yeah, yeah. It won't be long. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
It's just a privilege to play with people, caliber of those musicians because, you know, no one's getting really rich off the thing. It's like everybody's doing it for all the right reasons.
HAVIGHURST: Mead reflected on the show from Florida, where he had to drive hours after performing. Testimony of how difficult it is to line up the schedules of 20 or more working musicians for any given show.
Mr. MEAD: It brings me out of my little country world a little bit. And into, you know, these guys' rock and roll consciousness. You don't get to do Beatles' songs very often. Everybody likes to play those things. I ended up doing like four of them that Beatles' night. But, of course, I had a few drinks. It is good for that, too.
HAVIGHURST: Long Players shows are like parties. Once the 30- to 40-minute album is over, the ensemble plays covers by the band in question deep into the night. And while anyone can pay the cover charge, it can feel as if only Nashville's most fervent music fans and most accomplished musical practitioners have been invited. On “Meet The Beatles” night, modern bluegrass star John Cowan and singer-songwriting legend John Prine were in the audience. Besides Chuck Mead, they heard hit country writer Gary Burr, guitar hero John Jorgenson, and the unclassifiable Beth Nielsen Chapman.
(Soundbite of song, “Til There Was You”)
Ms. BETH NIELSEN CHAPMAN (Singer): (Singing) There was love all around but I never could -
HAVIGHURST: The Long Players choose albums that shape their musical tastes. Their first, performed in March of 2004, was the Rolling Stones' “Let It Bleed.” They performed the Cars' first album, Elvis Costello's “My Aim is True,” and Tom Petty's “Damn the Torpedoes.” An all female cast sang the The Pretenders' self-titled debut album from 1980.
One night people still talk about is the Long Players take on Bob Dylan's double album “Blonde on Blonde.” Dylan's keyboardist Al Kooper and harmonica player Charlie McCoy both sat in.
(Soundbite of music)
HAVIGHURST: Bill Lloyd says Al Kooper became the show's de facto bandleader.
Mr. LLOYD: The fact that he was on the original session a lot, you know, gave him certain status. And so we would always look to Al on that record. So is that what you guys did? And he was full of great stories and Charlie McCoy who also played on that record, is still very active and Charlie came and played. So to have a couple of the guys who actually played on the original record to come help us recreate it was a great thrill.
HAVIGHURST: Pat Embry has been an entertainment writer and editor in Nashville for 25 years. He could easily be the most jaded music consumer in an often jaded industry town. Instead, he talks with a sense of awe about singer-songwriter Kim Richy's version of “She's Leaving Home” from the “Sgt. Pepper's” show.
Mr. PAT EMBRY (The Rage, Nashville): In fact, it may be the best interpretation of a Beatles song I've ever heard in my life.
HAVIGHURST: He says moments like that are possible because of the Long Players and their guests. The great rock albums are shared cultural reference points.
Mr. EMBRY: It's like being an English major and knowing complete Shakespeare plays. It's as common to them as breathing.
HAVIGHURST: Bill Lloyd agrees, to a point.
Mr. LLOYD: Well, some of these records, the tunes are like DNA, you know, they're already in your brain, and in, you know, your fingers and you kind of know them by heart. Other records, though, are deceptively hard.
HAVIGHURST: That veteran musicians would take the time to burrow into the deep tracks of an album they've owned for 30 years for a modest paycheck and a donation to charity speaks of the timelessness of the music and an ethos of Nashville that outsiders never hear on country radio or see on country music television.
Mr. MARK VOLMAN (The Turtles): That's impressed me a lot about this community.
HAVIGHURST: Mark Volman, founder of the 1960s rock band The Turtles, is a regular Long Players collaborator.
Mr. VOLMAN: The fact that it isn't a community of country music. It's a community of music made for the country.
HAVIGHURST: Sometimes, he says, traveling and playing “Happy Together” and other Turtles' hits from yesteryear is just hard work. But Long Players shows remind him and the many others involved why he got up from the record player many years, picked up a guitar and started a band.
For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst.