Notorious Cherry Bombs: Debut Album Finally Ignites (First of Two Parts)

Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill Acknowledge Band's History While Looking to the Future

The Notorious Cherry Bombs, a band featuring some of the most respected songwriters and musicians in Nashville, will release their self-titled debut album on Tuesday (July 27). For this first installment of a two-part interview, CMT.com recently visited with Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill and Michael Rhodes at an office near Nashville’s Music Row to talk about the band’s history. Running Tuesday, the second part will concentrate on the album itself.

Great musicians were flocking to Rodney Crowell’s band in the late ’70s just to work with the drummer. Vince Gill’s friends thought he was crazy to leave a successful rock band to hit the road as Crowell’s lead guitarist. And what were the chances that the keyboard player would one day become one of the most powerful record executives in Nashville?

And that’s just mentioning a few of the members of the Cherry Bombs — now tagged the Notorious Cherry Bombs because somebody told them the original name had been connected to a porn site. “We don’t want to cause any confusion,” Crowell says with a smile.

Despite working together through the early ’80s, the musicians are only now releasing their first project as a band — a self-titled CD on Universal South Records.

In 2004, it’s fitting to refer to the Notorious Cherry Bombs as a supergroup. In the ’70s, though, it was just a band — albeit a band that longtime Nashville musicians still talk about as one of the most powerful groups in the city’s history. In addition to Crowell and Gill, the original members include the keyboard player — Tony Brown — who later produced albums for George Strait, Lyle Lovett, Reba McEntire and many others. After years as a senior executive at MCA Records Nashville, Brown now operates Universal South Records with former Arista Nashville chief Tim DuBois.

Other original members in the current lineup include guitarist Richard Bennett and steel guitarist Hank DeVito. Their later work got plenty of attention, too, with Bennett co-producing and playing those famous baritone guitar leads on Steve Earle’s landmark Guitar Town album. DeVito, now a successful art photographer, also wrote some hits, including Hal Ketchum’s “Small Town Saturday Night” and Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts.” Bassist Emory Gordy Jr., who decided not to participate in the reunion, produced many albums for his wife, Patty Loveless, as well as other projects by George Jones, Bill Monroe and Matraca Berg.

Michael Rhodes, unquestionably the top studio bassist in Nashville, now fills Gordy’s slot. “You can’t take Emory’s place,” Rhodes says. “I can only be who I am. This is part of a long-standing relationship I’ve had with everybody in the band as we’ve traveled these parallel paths. Am I aware of the lineage? Of course, I am. I’m very respectful of that.”

Keyboardist John Hobbs is a new addition to the band, and session ace Eddie Bayers is now playing drums — filling in for Larrie Londin, who died of a heart attack in 1992. Londin is sorely missed, but his drum set was placed in the studio during the sessions, and he’s actually featured on the album’s closing track, “Let It Roll, Let It Ride (Reprise),” which begins with Londin’s pounding rhythms originally recorded for Crowell’s “Stars on the Water.”

Londin’s reputation was such that he became a magnet in attracting great musicians to the band, Crowell explains.

“Originally, I think Richard Bennett and Emory and Vince and Hank and whoever — [guitarist] Albert Lee for a little while and Glen D. [keyboardist Glen D. Hardin] occasionally — wanted to play with me to get to play with Larrie Londin,” Crowell says. “Not only did they get to play some good songs with me, they got to play with a powerhouse drummer with just a sneaky good feel. He just played with so much feel.”

Gill joined the Cherry Bombs after recording three albums as lead vocalist for Pure Prairie League. To the chagrin of his friends, his exit from Pure Prairie League occurred after the band scored the 1980 pop hit, “Let Me Love You Tonight.”

“I remember the day I gave notice and said I was going to go play with Rodney,” Gill recalls. “Everybody said, ‘What are you, nuts? You’re the frontman of this big rock band and blah, blah, blah.’ I said, ‘Listen to his songs. Listen to him sing. I love that. Look at the people in that band. You can’t get any better than that.’ It’s not the attention you get that ever drove me, it’s who I get to surround myself with.

“I have a lot of reverence — and always have — for this band of musicians, even back in the day when I first started playing with Rodney in the late ’70s and early ’80s. When I stepped onstage and played music with these guys, I mean, it just doesn’t get any better than this. You can’t find a better drummer than Larrie. I thought, ‘You’ve really got to be on your toes here, or you’re going to be left in the dust.’”

Crowell and Gill can’t seem to agree on when they actually first played music together, but Crowell vividly remembers one show in Orange County, Calif. He tells Gill, “You came out there and were playing guitar and just went off to the edge of the stage. That’s when I said, ‘That guy’s a keeper.’ He’s out there on the edge of the stage like a madman, and I was thinking, ‘Cool. I didn’t even know he knew the song.”

Even the greatest musicians don’t necessarily mesh to create a great band. Asked to describe attributes that are probably truly indescribable, Gill says, “I think personalities have a lot to do with it. I think our personalities all mesh in a pretty rare way to get that many people together who genuinely love one another.” Noting that the entire band produced the new album, Crowell says, “When you get some really talented people together, though, there has to be somebody who knows how to hold the talent together and create constructively. Everybody in this band knows how to do that. Everybody.”

Although the Cherry Bombs were originally his band, Crowell is quick to point out that the group dynamics have evolved.

“This was never about the lineage, although I understand the interest in it,” he says. “It was a name I came up with. It was a band I had. It was mine. Then it became something different. Vince has become a more of a key collaborator in a front stage role than he was before. Time has brought it to a more focused place than it was.”

After years of pursuing individual projects, members of the band reunited briefly in 2002 for a performance at an industry event during the week of the CMA Awards in Nashville. “It was the first time Vince and I had played together in 15 years, at least,” Crowell says. “We came offstage saying, ‘That sounded good.’” Gill laughs, “It inspired us to want to make a record.”

The performance was also one of Brown’s first public appearances — much less musical performances — during his recovery from a life-threatening head injury he sustained earlier in the year when he fell down a set of stairs in Los Angeles.

Brown’s accident played some role in the reunion, although Gill says, “We had planned to do it even before his accident. All it did was make it wait for a while until he got better.” When asked if they found themselves looking inward following Brown’s brush with death, Gill replies, “Sure, I think, for a lot of us because we lost Larrie 11 years ago, 12 years ago. We almost lost another one. I think it made everybody go, ‘Life really is quite precious.’”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.