When I first met Bebe Buell, all I really knew about her was that she was part of New York’s underground elite. She was the stuff of glossy magazines, late night parties with Mick Jagger and a living breathing queen of rock and roll’s most infamous scene. A former Ford Agency model, the 17-year-old Virginian blew into town and ripped the industry wide open with her innocent “country girl meets rock bad boys” image. That legendary portrayal culminated in a November 1974 Playboy centerfold spread. Her subsequent dismissal from the agency only solidified her punkish image with the Big Apple insiders.
Buell put the pedal to the creative metal, endearing herself to icons such as Andy Warhol, Jack Nicholson and Joey Ramone. When she walked into a New York room, she commanded everybody’s attention. If you don’t believe me, just ask David Bowie or Jimmy Page. As I got to know her as the person she really was, I was fascinated with her casual acknowledgement of the high-profile relationships she had established, as well as the historic rock and roll timelines that she had been involved in.
Buell’s musical odyssey began with remnants of royalty. Her first EP, Covers Girl, was released on Rhino in 1981 and was produced by none other than Rick Derringer and Ric Ocasek. If that wasn’t enough to raise the eyebrows, Buell’s backing band just happened to be The Cars.
Her music scene dominance continued with groups such as The B-Sides and the 12-inch picture disc, A Side Of The B-Sides (produced by Todd Rundgren), and The Gargoyles. Bebe’s stint in The Gargoyles caught the eye and heart of punk king Joey Ramone. Ramone loved Buell and made sure she got heavy industry consideration during their time in the spotlight.
Buell released several singles including “Jacuzzi Jungle” and “Gargoyle” before destiny threw her a curve that would once again change the directions of her route.
The paternity of her daughter, actress Liv Tyler, going public in 1991 saw Buell shunning the spotlight in favor of the family business. She helped launch and manage her daughter’s career while waiting for the right time to reemerge as a songwriter.
That emergence came about with the first true lineup of The Bebe Buell Band. Taking over the legendary Don Hills nightclub on Greenwich Street, Buell and company honed songwriting and performance skills, pushing the limits and sealing that deal with a Don Fleming-produced disc, Free To Rock.
And while the pop culture machinery continued to work overtime, so did Buell. Her 2001 New York Times bestseller, Rebel Heart: An American Rock ‘N’ Roll Journey, was the inside look at both the music industry and her personal life. The book remains vital and stands tall above several other industry tell-alls. She was also the passionate subject of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, a stellar film which is heavily based on Buell’s charismatic existence.
But more importantly, all through the early decade, Buell worked and reworked the blueprint that would result in 2009’s Sugar. That dark and introspective record contained the popular single, “Air Kisses For The Masses.” This is the noticeable shift of Buell’s musical focus with husband and former Das Damen ax man Jimmy Walls. Walls’ prodigious style is best described as Warner Hodges meets Johnny Thunders, and his bombastic technique added a solid component to the Buell sound.
In September of 2011, the band released Hard Love. A direct link back to Buell’s early blues punk vibe, Hard Love sizzled with the influential guitar grunge of Jimmy Walls. Combining Buell’s raw and dusky lyrical magic with the addictive guitar attack of Walls, Hard Love was a middle finger flipped at an industry more concerned with Auto-Tune princesses and karaoke rappers than any real rock and roll efforts.
The record spawned superlative video for “Devil You Know,” which was directed by Jim Jones. It also spawned more than a few radio-friendly singles such as aforementioned “Devil You Know” and the attention-grabbing version of The Runaways classic, “Heartbeat.”
But the mundane conditions of the East Coast music industry soon had Buell making another life-altering decision. Following in the footsteps of rock icons such as Jack White and The Black Keys, Buell and Walls picked up stakes and headed back to the country-tinged familiarity of her Southern-bred youth.
When speaking about that action, Buell tells me, “Coming to Nashville was like an epiphany for me. It started in 2012 when I came down here to record a song for an Eddy Arnold tribute album on Plowboy Records. The experience left me with a strong craving for Nashville, so I returned quickly to start looking at houses.”
Nashville has always been a Mecca for old school country. But over the last two decades, punk, Americana and alternative music have flourished in the Smoky Mountain sector, and new artists are making their way down music row on a daily basis. It was there that Bebe Buell and her new group, The Nashville Aces, made their next stand.
The new singles were released on The Nashville Aces’ imprint, AmerEclectic, a name that denounces standard Americana fare in favor of a deeply diverse method of craft.
The singles feature an impressive lineup of songs and players. Contributors include Grammy-nominated Jon Tiven. Tiven is best known for his roles with David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Chrissie Hynde, Robert Plant and Frank Black of Pixies fame. He co-handles guitar duties as well as sax. He also produced the disc with Walls co-producing. It’s interesting to note that drums are handled by Shannon Pollard. For those of you who do not recognize the name, he is the grandson of country legend Eddy Arnold. The band rounds out with Sally Tiven on bass, as well as the vocal/percussion work of Harry Stinson (on tour with Marty Stuart) and Beth Hooker (James Taylor, Don Henley). The record also includes legendary pedal steel guru Bruce Bouton, who has graced stage and studio with everyone from Taylor Swift to George Jones. Piano on “Hello Music City” was manned by Ben Tanner from Alabama Shakes.
I was dually impressed with the fun you can tell they’re having on these tunes, as well as their natural affinity for fusing New York attitude with a Tennessee backwoods blend.
“Secret Sister” swirls and pops with the raw, punchy sass of a Pretenders-styled vamp and miles and miles of gritty, blues-based electric guitar. Pollard’s drum work brings back glory day memories of 1970s Rolling Stones as he pumps in conjunction with Sally Tiven, laying muscle up and down the backbone of this funky rock composition. Buell has come to a very sweet spot vocally, and her comfort level and ease of delivery are smooth and inviting. As with her physical location, Buell is completely at home here, and that vital piece keeps the song moving effortlessly.
“Hello Music City” is the tip of the cowboy hat to the traditional side of town. Buell laments of tired and let down ways of the Eastern Seaboard as she greets new expectations in the South. You can feel the sarcasm of the past melt away as it’s replaced with the exultation of what the future holds. The pedal steel lines of Bruce Bouton greet that sentiment, pulling out deep, glimmering riffs with truck stop finesse as drums, bass and guitars lay back and beam under Buell’s positive vocal ministrations. Ben Tanner’s ivory work dances throughout the track and the background vocal assist of Harry Stinson and Beth Hooker is the beautiful icing on the cake.
Compositionally, the song pays respectful homage to a town known for its historic greatness. Lyrics are simple and smart, moving in on sturdy intros, verses and bridges that carry the listener along on the band’s wide-eyed journey into their next new move. “Hello Music City” is a song about starting over, and it fits Bebe Buell And The Nashville Aces like a glove.
It takes a ton of gumption to drop everything and make a career move of this size. From the renewed energy and musical direction I’ve seen so far, Bebe Buell And The Nashville Aces are chugging down the right track.
“It’s been like a musical awakening—a rebirth,” says Buell. “I listened to my inner voice and took a chance. Some may call it a risk, but since I landed here it’s been nothing short of career highs. I’ve found my soul tribe.”
The singles “Secret Sister” and “Hello Music City” are available at iTunes, Amazon and the group’s website. An EP is slated for Spring 2015. If you happen to be in the Nashville area on Feb. 5, stop at The Bluebird Café and spend an “Evening With Bebe Buell And The Nashville Aces.” As Bebe says, “Expect supernatural guests.” bebebuell.org
(Photo by Ian Keaggy)