August 6, 2004
Cherry Bombs burst back on country scene
Backup band makes 1st CD
by Brian Mansfield, Special for USA TODAY
Outside Nashville, the Cherry Bombs might not carry much cachet. But inside Music Row, it's the name of legend, a mythic backing band mentioned in the same breath as Buck Owens' Buckaroos, Merle Haggard's Strangers and Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours.
The band releases its first album this week, but its history goes back nearly 25 years. Formed early in the 1980s to back Rodney Crowell and his then-wife Rosanne Cash, the Cherry Bombs took the core of Emmylou Harris' Hot Band. Crowell played guitar and bolstered the band with folks who'd played with the likes of Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond, plus a hotshot guitar picker who split his time with Pure Prairie League.
Nearly every Cherry Bombs member went on to bigger things. Crowell and that young guitarist - Vince Gill - wound up being chart-topping country singers with more than 22 million album sales to their credit. Keyboardist Tony Brown and bassist Emory Gordy Jr. became two of Nashville's most powerful producers and executives.
But back in the early days, Crowell just needed a band with which he could make good music and have fun.
"I was making a record in Sausalito," recalls then-California resident Crowell. "I called (drummer) Larrie Londin to come," Crowell recalls. "He was a session guy, and he became the guy that said, 'This is a band. I want to play in this band. When you go on the road, I want to be in this band.'
"It just grew from there. I did some tours, and when the tours would run out, I started looking for records to produce so I could keep the band together."
The band eventually split up, though many of the members have worked together on albums through the years. Brown signed both Gill and Crowell to record deals. Brown and Gordy co-produced Steve Earle's landmark Guitar Town album, which prominently featured Cherry Bomb Richard Bennett.
Most of the group reunited in November 2002 to play three songs at a music-industry banquet where Crowell received a songwriting award.
"I said, 'We sound better now than we did 25 years ago,' " Crowell says. "We started talking about it, and it didn't go away."
The reunion nearly ended prematurely when, in April of last year, Brown fell on a stone staircase, severely injuring his brain. Brown spent several days in a coma and several months recuperating.
"My hands got kind of stiff, and I had to do some physical therapy to get them where they would react to a demand from my brain to play an octave, as opposed to almost an octave," says the producer of albums for George Strait and Reba McEntire, as well as Gill and Crowell. "It took me six to eight months before it felt natural again."
Crowell says Brown's recovery time allowed the other members of the band to get a clearer picture of what they wanted to do. "It became a more cohesive record than it probably would have been," he says.
Crowell and Gill spent some of that time writing songs, including one that wound up being the single, It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long.
"I tell you, I've played a lot of music for people over the years, and nothing has made people respond like this thing has," Gill says of the honky-tonk novelty number. "I did it for the first time at a gig down in Florida. They were all singing along at the end, and they were standing up and cheering. I thought, 'Oh, boy, we've got something going on here.' "
Though nearly all the album's songs are new, The Notorious Cherry Bombs often recalls the band's early '80s recordings behind Cash and Crowell. "We didn't revisit the songs, but we revisited the grooves," Brown says.
Even though all the Cherry Bombs have other jobs to fall back on, Gill has high expectations for the album and hopes to do others.
"We're not going to hang our heads and feel like we shouldn't be successful with this because it was just for fun," he says. "We'd love to sell a zillion records off it."
Reads like Who's Who
A number of stellar musicians, including some of the genre's best guitarists, have played with the Cherry Bombs over the years. The roster, present and past:
Eddie Bayers: Perhaps Nashville's most-called session drummer of the past decade, Bayers was a protege of the late Larrie Londin, the Cherry Bombs' original drummer.
Richard Bennett: After the Cherry Bombs, Bennett became an in-demand guitarist working with the likes of Steve Earle and Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler. Bennett recently released a solo disc, Themes From a Rainy Decade.
"Tony Brown: Brown came out of the Southern gospel world and played piano for Elvis Presley before becoming a Cherry Bomb. He has since become one of Nashville's top producers, working with the likes of George Strait and Reba McEntire. A top executive at MCA Nashville for years, he's currently a senior partner at the Universal South label, which released the Cherry Bombs album.
Rodney Crowell: Crowell hit his commercial stride after the Cherry Bombs disbanded. In 1989, his Diamonds & Dirt became the first country album to yield five No. 1 singles. He's also had songs covered by Tim McGraw, Bob Seger and many others.
Hank DeVito: Steel guitarist DeVito came from Emmylou Harris' Hot Band to the Cherry Bombs. Having written hits such as Juice Newton's Queen of Hearts, he's the group's third writer, contributing two songs to the album.
Vince Gill: Gill is one of country's most successful artists over the past two decades, with 16 Grammys and more than 40 top 40 country hits - including When I Call Your Name, I Still Believe In You and Go Rest High on That Mountain - to his credit.
John Hobbs: The Cherry Bombs' second-generation keyboardist is also a songwriter, producer and session player in Nashville.
Michael Rhodes: One of Nashville's most-recorded musicians, Rhodes replaced Gordy on bass.
Emory Gordy Jr.: Before the Cherry Bombs, bassist Gordy backed Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond. Afterward, he became a successful Nashville producer. Gordy is married to singer Patty Loveless and has retired from live performing.
Albert Lee: This virtuoso British guitarist, who has backed the likes of Emmylou harris, Eric Clapton and the Everly Brothers, occasionally played with the Cherry Bombs during the early '80s.
Larrie Londin: Londin was a Motown drummer and later played on many Nashville records. He died of a heart attack in 1992 at age 48. The Notorious Cherry Bombs is dedicated to him.
Jerry McGee: One of the guitarists from the pop instrumental group The Ventures, he sometimes stepped in during the group's eraly days.