Who are The Gardners of Soule?

Phillip Holding Guitar with Arms SpreadAt one point, Michael, Kenny and I talked about a Gardners of Soule record cover. Picture this: You are in the ocean facing a long pier that juts out over the water. Built upon the pier is an old, weathered clapboard inn. Like a bomber squadron flying straight at you, dead on between the tall columns of timbers, nearly skimming the water below, are enormous flying ants. Only they don’t have the faces of ants. The faces are familiar ones—Aunt Bea, Aunt Jemima, Auntie Emm.

The record title would be Under the Inn Flew Aunts. And the record would be our tribute to artists we admired. Whereas most bands find it necessary to disguise their influences in order to make a niche for themselves, we just wanted to have fun and be songwriters. To show overt appreciation to The Beatles, Elvis Costello, Luther Vandross, Prince, The Eagles, ZZ Top, AC/DC, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and others. If you listen carefully, I think you’ll hear their work in ours. Then again, I think you’ll also hear inventive even experimental songs like you have never heard.  But in every case, you will hear guys having fun as songwriters, singing like it matters, and playing with passion and virtuosity that is as authentic as anything you have heard, musicians embracing rather than resisting leaps in musical genres, and unmoved by “market forces.”

These songs were recorded in Michael’s studio, about a mile from where our musical career together began. When Michael was fifteen and I seventeen, he was the bass player and I the drummer in a soul/beach band from Goldsboro called The Brotherhood. We played songs by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, James Brown. We had a fabulous singer, Timmy Love. We got paid. And we had a regular gig on Hillsboro Street in Raleigh, just across from N. C. State University at The Keg—a titty bar. (It has been difficult to match the perfect combination of that dream-come-true.)

In the late 70s, Michael and I began collaborating as songwriters for what would become PKM’s debut album, Rock Erotica. Following the record’s release, the power rock trio of Pee Wee Watson, Kenny Soule, and Michael Gardner played to sell-out audiences throughout the 80s.

In the early 90s, Kenny, Michael and I convened in Michael’s studio to focus on songwriting.  Kenny, who is professionally trained and splendidly hip, and I were born fewer than 24 hours apart, he in the Northeast, I in the South. Musically and otherwise we three felt like brothers.

The first songs we recorded, Heart with DeLorean Doors and Transition, were songs I’d written in Tennessee. But collaboration and freedom were our aim. Michael would say, “I’ve got this Prince thing,” (Be My Girl) and we’d make it. Kenny would say, “Let’s write a kind of Luther song, you know, the last slow dance at the prom” (Take Two Broken Hearts), and we would.

Soon, Audley Freed and Robert Kearns, who were at that time putting together their own band, Cry of Love, joined our sessions. Michael, Kenny, Robert, and Audley would jam, send me the tapes, and when we got together, we’d compare thoughts and impressions. In every case, our shared ideas produced something far better than our independently rendered ones.

I think the joy of our working together was equally shared. I’d walk into the studio, and Rob, electric with excitement, talent and energy, would be singing I Don’t Want To Be Lonely, and we’d all join in. Audley brought in this slow, beautiful Hendrix lick, and we just had to make a song, All I See Is Red. When I heard Audley play it, I naturally thought of Hey Joe. So when I wrote the lyrics, I thought, What if we told Joe’s story not from someone else’s point of view, the Hendrix song, but from Joe’s point of view, from the inside out?

Those nights were for me magic. And never before or since have I enjoyed the generosity and kindness from other artists that I experienced with those four guys.

Audley, Robert, Kenny and Michael, seasoned, highly respected professionals, were excited about the new songs and eager to perform them. The result was The Gardners of Soule. I believe we were booked at Joe Tronto’s landmark, The Attic, in Greenville, N.C., before we had a name for the group. Indeed we’re in debt to John Custer for our name. For a time we performed in North Carolina’s top Rock clubs, returning to The Attic to open for The Black Crowes, a hot new band that would later include a very hot lead guitar player, Audley Freed.

Even while Audley and Rob were writing and recording Brother, Cry of Love’s acclaimed first album, Robert was a constant musical companion and friend, an inspiration any time he was in the room. He would go on to play for The Bottle Rockets and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Audley with Jimmy Page and The Dixie Chicks. Robert and Audley would reunite to back Sheryl Crow.

Tommy Evans, who had played with Doc Holiday, and Scottie O’ Bryan, who had played in Los Angeles and Chicago, replaced Audley and Robert on guitar and bass. And the songs we wrote during that period reflect the change in chemistry and the diversity of experience and influences. Throughout, however, Michael, Kenny and I remained first and foremost songwriters. Our friendship, mutual respect, and shared creative sensibilities never flagged. Once, when Ken was touring with DAG, our plans for writing something new (we didn’t know what) fell through; Kenny couldn’t join us. So we said, “Hey man, just lay down a drum track, and we’ll write a song to the track." And Michael and I did (Life at the Moment).

Sixteen of our songs received Honorable Mention in Billboard’s Annual Song Contest, and one was a semifinalist. But most of these songs were never performed before an audience and have never been heard by or available to the public.

Of the nearly fifty songs represented here, the common denominator, the central force, is Michael Gardner. In 2010, Michael was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. To recognize his achievements and talents as songwriter, performer, engineer and producer, fans can own the Gardners of Soule catalogue, four cds of songs. Click to hear a sample from each. You can also see the lyrics if you want.