How Musicians of Muscle Shoals Led to Browan Lollar’s Thriving Soul Career

St. Paul and the Broken Bones guitarist talks hanging with the Stones, unusual painting habits

WHO: St. Paul and the Broken Bones guitarist Browan Lollar is a child of the Eighties, but his musical spirit is steeped in Sixties soul, rhythm and blues and country. Which is understandable, given that the 32-year-old grew up in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The son of a Baptist preacher, Lollar early on was exposed to "mostly gospel music and hymns, and also some bluegrass — nothing that was too in your face or that had curse words in it," he says. He cut his teeth on banjo and mandolin before switching over to guitar; around that same time, an older brother also turned him on to rock & roll. "I fell in love with Guns N' Roses, Metallica ... I just went all the way in that direction because I never heard anything like it before. It wasn't until later on that I backed off a little bit and got into old-school rock and soul."

MOTHER KNOWS BEST: As a teenager, Lollar began working as a session guitarist at FAME Studios, widely considered the birthplace of the celebrated "Muscle Shoals sound." "I knew I wanted to be a guitarist, so my mom said, 'Well, why don't you just walk into FAME? See if they'll give you a job.' I told her, 'Mom, it doesn't work like that!' But I did walk in, and I actually wound up booking a gig." There, Lollar, who counts players like Mark Knopfler, Chet Atkins and Steve Cropper among his influences, rubbed shoulders with some of the legendary musicians from the area. It's also where he met then–Drive By Truckers guitarist Jason Isbell, who came to FAME to record his first solo album, Sirens of the Ditch. "We started hanging out, and when he decided to go on a short tour to promote that album, he asked me if I would play guitar for him," Lollar says. "That was the first time I went out on the road."

SOUL MAN: Lollar recorded and toured with Isbell for several years, as part of his band, the 400 Unit. Eventually he branched out on his own and cut a solo EP, 2012's For the Givers and the Takers, which featured backing from members of Alabama Shakes and fellow Muscle Shoals outfit the Pollies. Lollar then joined up with St. Paul and the Broken Bones, a Southern-soul collective centered around the fervent, almost evangelical vocals of frontman Paul Janeway. The band's approach (they have a tendency to break into Otis Redding and Sam Cooke covers onstage) has led some to pin them with a "retro" tag, which, Lollar says, "isn't necessarily a bad thing. And there are some old-school elements to what we do. I mean, we played Coachella, and we were one of just a handful of bands that didn't use loops. So I guess that could be considered a throwback. Plus, we have a horn section ... and we wear suits."

SOME SATISFACTION: St. Paul and the Broken Bones are currently working on their second full-length album, the follow up to 2014's Half the City. According to Lollar, "It's going to go in some different directions. Paul is a really big r&b fan, so I think there's going to be a lot of D'Angelo influence on there, and also some Al Green. We don't want to lay back and be pigeonholed as just a certain type of act." In the meantime, the band has been keeping busy — earlier this year, they played two stadium shows opening for the Rolling Stones, an experience Lollar calls "humbling." So did they get to hang out with the Stones? "Sorta," he says. "On the day of the second show we were told we'd get a little time with them. We waited all day in our green room, but at some point we got hungry and went for a bite to eat. Only Paul stayed behind. And that was when the Stones' people came looking for us. So they just grabbed Paul and took him over, alone. He ended up having this crazy conversation with Keith [Richards], Mick [Jagger] and Charlie [Watts]. We were like, 'Oh, shit!'" Lollar laughs. "But then later on, yeah, the rest of us got to say hi and shake their hands."

TO THE MAXI: When he's not playing guitar, Lollar spends most of his time painting. "It's my happy place," he says. "I'm a huge nerd, so I'll turn on Mystery Science Theater 3000, let it play in the background and paint from nine in the morning until midnight." His preferred medium is acrylic or India ink on wood, which he then distresses by scratching the surface with nails and other objects. But for one particular piece, which became the cover art for 2009's Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, he employed a different technique. "I used tampons to apply the paint," Lollar explains. "I had been using Q-tips, but I ran out. And as I was looking for more I found [his then-wife's] tampons. I ran through an entire box in a day, which pissed her off. But you could soak up a ton of India ink in them and then…" He pauses. "God, there's no good way to describe it. But it seemed a lot less gross at the time."