The Duke and the King, at the Basement in Nashville on August 11.
Simone Felice’s journey from his sibling-led group, The Felice Brothers, to his new band with Robert “Chicken” Burke, The Duke & The King, lends itself to various interpretations. Sonically, it marks a shift from country-rock leanings to mellowed, harmony-sweetened country-soul, though he considers both styles incidental: “The Felice Brothers don’t try to sound like that—they just sound like that. And for me, it’s the same.”
Lyrically, Felice intensified The Felice Brothers’ literary sensibilities, weaving strong narrative threads through the ten songs on The Duke & The King’s debut, Nothing Gold Can Stay.
But nothing gets at the heart of Felice’s move from one to the other like generational theory. He was The Felice Brothers’ sole Gen X-er (everybody else being of Generation Y), and had a full decade on the youngest band member. For a group built on close familial ties, spirited music and the scrappy, collective pursuit of an audience, that didn’t matter. Until it did.
Not that Felice had put the generational difference into words before being asked to during the interview for this article: “I didn’t sit down and think of it that way. But when you articulate it that way, it does make a lot of sense… I’m at a little different place in my life and I’ve had a lot of time on earth to have the kind of tragedies and jubilance that it takes to maybe write some different kinds of songs.”
(No doubt, one of the tragedies he’s alluding to is losing the baby he and his longtime partner were expecting last winter. He told fans of the experience—and his new musical venture—in an open letter.)
A song Felice contributed to the latest Felice Brothers album, Yonder Is the Clock, foreshadowed the direction he’d pursue on Nothing Gold; “All When We Were Young” is a reflection on youthful freedom receding in the rearview. “When I wrote “All When We Were Young”—I never really thought about it this way, but you just sort of brought it out of me—it opened that door,” says Felice. “The Duke & The King record, it’s all just true stories about the way my heart felt when I was a little kid, when I first got turned on to music.”
With Burke, a longtime friend who’s worked with George Clinton and a capella group Sweet Honey In the Rock, Felice captured a particular season of life, one still close enough to youth to call to mind its innocent—and not-so-innocent—pleasures in detail, but beyond the point of retrieving them. Between album opener “If You Ever Get Famous,” pivotal tracks “Still Remember Love” and “Union Street” and closer “One More American Song,” a group of friends go from cruising around with ripped jeans, big dreams and fervently shared musical tastes to adulthood’s isolation and narrowing possibilities.
All that’s to say, Felice’s new project pursues different themes than his work with The Felice Brothers. But there’s important continuity, too. Yonder is a Mark Twain reference; so is The Duke & The King, the names of two swindlers in Huckleberry Finn.
“Here they are rolling down the river, and they’re setting up these bootleg Shakespeare shows,” Felice summarizes. “And it reminded me of how The Felice Brothers used to be when we first started. We used to just drive up and down the Hudson River and play anywhere we could, in any bar, in any subway…. And then also what happens to the Duke and the King is that they get tarred and feathered, obviously, at the end. So, for me, when it came time for us to say, ‘Hey, what are we going to call ourselves,’ [I said], ‘Man, if we call ourselves the duke and the king, then it’ll remind us that we need to be honest and to never roll down that road to getting tarred and feathered.’”
Hometown: Catskill Mountains, New York
An early musical influence: My mom had the Joni Mitchell record Blue and she played it everyday.