Travis McCready of Bishop Gunn hasn’t walked 50 yards from the stage when the first fan stops him. It won’t be the last, either. The two-block walk to the shotgun cottage where he’s staying, in view of the Mississippi River, takes as long as a Southern goodbye.
The Nashville-by-way-of-Natchez, Mississippi, rock and soul band just wrapped soundcheck at the second Bishop Gunn Crawfish Boil, their annual hometown party, and it’s already a love fest. Gates won’t open for another hour, but a handful of well-wishers have found a way past security. No one seems to mind.
Two days ago, McCready and his bandmates were on the beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, playing a festival with Kid Rock, Jamey Johnson and the Cadillac Three. Before that they toured Europe with Slash and supported the Marcus King Band in the U.S. Tonight, they’re playing on top of an eclectic bill with heavy-hitters Tyler Childers and Black Stone Cherry.
“I flew from [Punta Cana] to Chicago, then to Nashville, and then got to the farmhouse [the band’s base in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee], maybe around midnight,” the frontman tells Rolling Stone Country, lounging on a couch surrounded by music memorabilia. “Slept a couple hours, and by 7:30 was on my way here.”
It’s hard to accidentally wind up “here” in Natchez. The small city of 15,000 souls stretched along the Mississippi River bluffs is older than New Orleans, but no interstate comes within an hour’s drive. The town has swelled by another 4,000 people today, despite being a near washout, from as far away as Belgium, the U.K. and 21 U.S. states.
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Bishop Gunn has managed all this while cruising just under the radar as their 2018 debut album, Natchez, has steadily picked up steam. To paraphrase bluesman Willie Dixon, who grew up 70 miles up Hwy. 61 in Vicksburg, it’s almost as if they slid in through the back door while everyone was sleeping.
McCready reaches into the canvas backpack at his feet and pulls out two 3×5 pictures from a book where he’s kept them from getting creased. An English couple who happened to see him play in Natchez before Bishop Gunn got off the ground surprised him with them at a recent London gig.
“They brought these pictures from 2014 from some makeshift band I had at the time,” he marvels. “And I’m like, ‘I finally made it. I told you I was coming!’”
McCready was working 12-hour days at a factory making steel ductwork for nuclear power plants then, a period he recounts on the slithering Natchez cut “Southern Discomfort,” when he split manual labor to pursue the band full-time. When he sings about “trying to make a little baby grow” and “hustling up one more show,” that was his daily mission — plying his trade to support his young son as best he could.
He and drummer Burne Sharp began making trips to Nashville around that time, playing open-mic nights and trying to make inroads to the music scene. They met lead and slide guitarist Drew Smithers playing outside Green’s Grocery, and asked bassist Ben Lewis, an old friend from Natchez, to move up. The quartet set up camp at the two-bedroom farmhouse outside of Leiper’s Fork, where they’ve lived more or less off the grid for two years. “We got wifi like eight months ago,” jokes McCready.
“We’d go fish and have bass tacos a lot,” he says. “Fairview is about 20 minutes one way and Franklin is about 20 minutes another. Back then we did a lot of cooking out. Now, we’re never there more than a week [at a time].”
As the band gelled and their songs came together, a common theme emerged — nearly all of the songs related back to Natchez in one way or another.
The bluesy “Silver Street” captures the intrigue and danger of the city’s notorious 1800s-era riverfront, a lawless district frequented by grifters, criminals and highwaymen who worked the Natchez Trace. The band gets an assist from the Muscle Shoals horn section on the soulful “Shine” and funky “All the Ways,” and creeps low like Led Zeppelin channeling their Delta blues idols on “Baby What You Want Me to Do.”
“I learned to sing to the radio [when] I was real little,” McCready explains. “I like a lot of music and there are so many different singers that I would try to emulate, especially after getting in the cover band scene as a teenager. You kind of go into the styles. Everything I was exposed to gave me different characteristics of range, and then over the years it just went on auto pilot, you know?”
Openers Magnolia Bayou and Southern Avenue make it through spirited sets before lightning and torrential rains shut down the stage. Some of the bands are huddled on their buses, but most of the revelers are at bars like Smoot’s Grocery, a shack covered by so many sheets of rusted tin that it might be more of a lightning rod than the stage.
After an hour-long sequester, Black Stone Cherry emerge and channel the crowd’s pent-up energy into a set of bruising Southern hard rock. Somehow, guitarist Ben Wells doesn’t slip as he pogoes through the rain showers. Appalachian singer-songwriter Tyler Childers follows, leading his band through highlights from his bluegrassy 2017 album, Purgatory.
At nightfall, the hometown heroes play to a crowd soaked by rain, saturated with beer and stuffed on local crawfish, boiled or cooked into jambalaya and etouffee. McCready struts across the stage in gold-mirrored aviators, brandishing the microphone stand like Steven Tyler while howling like the bastard child of Chris Cornell and Robert Plant.
In a set front-heavy with newer, more melodic tracks — more like the Blackberry Smoke nod “Anything You Want” than the genre workouts on Natchez — Bishop Gunn finally drop into the grungy grind of familiar songs like “Southern Discomfort.” What could have been a no-show ends on a high.
“The stuff we’ve been writing, things we’ve been working on for the last seven months,” McCready says, “has been from the mindset of, what would we like to see played live? How can the crowd have more fun?”
Before Bishop Gunn head out for the next leg of touring, they’re spending some downtime at home. Sharp owns a recording studio here and stays plugged into the local scene. Lewis plans to spend a few days working on a house he owns in town.
There’s plenty to bring them back, and despite the city’s seclusion, it’s not hard for them to get here. There are 435 miles between Natchez and Leiper’s Fork, straight up the old Natchez Trace Parkway. In a sense, they’ve travelled a long way to end up just down the road.
“The Trace actually comes within, probably, three miles of the farmhouse, but there’s just not an exit there,” McCready laughs. “We literally moved up the street.”