The Savants of Soul Displays Familiar Chemistry On “Old Ways”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Some bands thrive on internal discord to create amazing music (i.e., Jesus & Mary Chain, Simon & Garfunkel). Others though, like Gainesville’s Savants of Soul have so much love for each other that there’s not only a fluid musical cohesion in the studio but a tight family unity offstage as well.

“We cook dinner together. We all hang out afterwards. We make meals for each other. And there’s something to be said about that,” says keyboardist Zack Emerson. “You hear about bands who are at each other’s throats. We might get on each other’s nerves when we’re tired, but there’s no group of people in the world that I’d rather be spending a week on vacation with or spending a week on tour with, or sharing a stage with at any point in time.”

This familial affection for each other makes for a tight band, and from the sound of their current single, “Old Ways”, that tightness is inseparable. Emerson’s keys bleed into Will Campbell’s guitars, while the horn section (Mandy Ferwerda/trumpet, Jacob Armstrong/trombone, Jordan Jones/tenor sax, Ray Vigil/baritone sax) keeps in perfect step with Benny Cannon’s sturdy drums, while the “Reverend of Rhythm” Justin McKenzie delivers powerful vocals that rival the masters like Sam Cooke and Al Green with a touch of a swampier Robert Bradley.  While it may be considered “retro-soul,” it’s not stuck in a time capsule. The Savants of Soul’s music would feel at home on the tiny stage of Boston’s tiny legendary blues club Wally’s as much as a main stage at Lollapalooza. 

It’s this close precision to sound as much as feel that carries so much of The Savants of Soul’s character. Their upcoming self-titled album from which “Old Ways” is taken follows in the Blues/Soul tradition of their previous albums Dead Man Running and Missed Connections, but veers off away from the classic Motown R&B paradigm and moves closer to grittier, Southern-based blues. 

“From a musical standpoint, ‘Old Ways’ was an opportunity to pay tribute to one of my favorite lines,” says Emerson about how he constructed the single, mixing color and direction of the chord progression. “The I-iii-V-iv progression that opens the chorus is integral and ubiquitous in the American genres that I love. You can hear it from Clarence Carter, Etta James, and during the war cry at any given church on a Sunday morning.” It’s this progression that makes the song sink deep down in the pit of your stomach and gives it the added wallop that the band’s quintessence of soul is packing.

“I’ve always been compelled by melancholy songs that tell a story,” he continues. “Songs like ‘Pancho and Lefty,’ ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ and more recently, ‘Heaven Sent’ by The SteelDrivers, are mainstays of my musical appetite. I can remember the first time I heard ‘7 Spanish Angels’ on an old compilation album my grandfather had. It told a compelling story both musically and lyrically. It also was the first time I experienced the collision of two of the most influential genres in my life: soul and country. ‘Old Ways’ was my first real attempt at writing a song like this. At its core, it has the storytelling aspects you might expect from Willie Nelson and The Highwaymen, but the orchestration is closer to something you’d see coming out of Muscle Shoals in the late 60’s.”

Wholeheartedly embracing their forebears in the soul and blues world with arms wide open, The Savants of Soul artfully merges music and message in a way that feels natural and innate, and, as the cliché goes, inhabits an old soul.  While the song sounds like it is telling an ancient story of the swamp, its origin is actually far more mundane. 

Written about eradicating old habits, Emerson based the song about quitting smoking. So this song was, in sorts, a reveal to himself about that compulsion. “We as human beings have trouble overcoming habits, and it’s really easy to get pulled back into your old ways,” he explains. “So this song is about coming to terms with that, and the only way to do so is to make those confessions.”


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