Fragile Nature of The Cherry Blossoms

Posted by on February 28, 2017


To know the music of The Cherry Blossoms can offer a much deeper understanding of Nashville and its wider music culture. Self-described as “Middle Tennessee’s finest anarchic post neo-skiffle collective,” with a specialty for “kazoo-exotica,” The Cherry Blossoms were born of Nashville’s underground scene in the 1990s, after founding members met at Springwater Supper Club & Lounge while participating in the Working Stiff Jamboree, among Dave Cloud, Ann Tiley, Tom House, and members of Lambchop. They continue to emit a sound entirely their own. I asked core members Peggy Snow, John Allingham, and Chris Davis about the group’s time together.

Stephen: I wanted to start by asking if you could each talk about your own backgrounds and the formation of The Cherry Blossoms?
Peggy: I was about 32 when John [Allingham] and I started playing music together. Before then I sang and played spoons and kalimba with the Quela gang in the Belmont neighborhood with college friends and associates, in garages and dens. The guiding rule to that was: bring songs and ideas and whiskey and what-not, and start recording, with very little directives. That was a lot of fun.

I really always sang. I remember Christmas caroling with two little friends when I was seven and just loving that, and we made money!! When I was about ten, someone put three Peter, Paul, and Mary albums in our car by mistake while we were grocery shopping — we found them, warped by the sun, when we got home, and they became my cherished pastime, learning all those songs from those warped albums.

I was born in Nashville and when I was 5 we moved to Memphis. I came back to Nashville after Memphis State when I was 21, finally got wind of punk-rock, went to all the shows at Cantrell’s in Nashville. Then met-up with the Quela gang — took up spoons, and kalimba! Got put in adult choir when I was 13 and the director was very encouraging. The older teenagers in that church were singing those Peter, Paul, and Mary songs… they were beautiful hippies, they were my ideal! Took chorus all through high school, and that chorus director also gave me a lot of encouragement, and solos senior year. Then got in a select chorale at Memphis State University, and studied music there about a year but that didn’t work too well — my voice teacher would sit in the corner of her voice room and wince and look dismal when I tried to sing for her. Anyway, I changed my major.

As the 1991 invasion of Iraq approached, I became very involved with a large, dynamic drum circle in Nashville, a community that overlapped with environmentalists and peace activists. One evening, I sang harmony on the protest songs of a fellow peace-activist at Springwater in Nashville, at an evening known as The Working Stiff Jamboree. John Allingham was playing. I suggested to him that we could play music some time, and he suggested to me that I could play guitar, which I never thought I could do. So we did get together, and I did start playing guitar! I took very naturally to guitar… we found a simple song that I wanted to sing and John just demystified the guitar, showed me it was just a drum, and pretty soon, I was making-up songs with John, and we were performing them. This was all propelled by our similar view of the state-of-world, and our similar love of music, and desire to express ourselves, and rant against the war!

A year or so later, we got Allen [Lowrey] and Laura [Matter-Fukushima] to join in. Things were very home-spun then as now, fellow music-makers who loved the music, and wanted to join in, did join in — various players come in and out of the group. When Chris [Davis] joined in, we gained a connection to the greater world of free-jazz, avant-garde, and noise-makers! We all have these roots of ‘no rules,’ and I very much love what comes forth when each player is a free agent. There have been many times on stage when the chaos of the moment forces something totally unexpected out of me: some completely new song or rhythm or old jazz verse applied over something crazy. One of my favorite numbers was “The Boogie Disease” in Amsterdam, when it sounds like each one of us is playing different rhythms that seem to mesh wonderfully.

John: I grew up in Fullerton, CA, a very musical suburb of L.A. — Jackson Browne was a senior when I was a freshman. I went to Nashville in 1975, fell in with a bunch of singer songwriters at a place called Phrank ‘n’ Steins before it became a punk club for a year. I was in the more edgy part of the scene that eventually ended up at Springwater for about 30 years and just moved to Betty’s. We do this thing called The Working Stiff Jamboree which is where Peggy and I met. Things were winding down a little so it was really fortunate to meet-up with Peggy, who I’ve always treasured as a musician, and have The Cherry Blossoms happen. We’ve had quite a few people in the group who have all added a lot. The current group: Chris free flow drums, Allen adding accents on rhythm and doing his poems, Chuck [Hatcher] free electric guitar, and Taylor [Martin] on mandolin and harmonies. Chris is responsible for most of our gigs and a big guy in Nashville for under the radar stuff. We’ve always had a political part in the group, we got a song, “Wicked Wicked United States.”

We’re going to have a record out fairly soon on Violet Times Records. Its stuff we recorded with Hank Tillbury, a friend of Peggy’s, part of the Quela gang who also played with and recorded Lambchop and had a little extra studio time where he was working. We recorded it in 1996 right before Chris joined the group. It’s all acoustic except for Marc Trovillion on electric bass and banjo. Marc was the original bass player for Lambchop and tragically died a few years ago. Allen played mandolin and drums and Peggy and I guitars, kazoo, and harmonica. Hank just turned on the recording machine for about 3 hours and we culled what we wanted. The Hank Tapes was edited down to fit on an LP, with better sound, and will have four of Peggy’s paintings on different ones.

Peggy: One long-lost band-mate, Anna Ring, was omitted from John’s lineup on The Hank Tapes. Anna was a major player in that recording. Last we heard, she’s ohming in India…

Chris: I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. My first musical encounter with John and Peggy was when I was still a student at Vanderbilt. I was in a band called Tiny Corkscrews with some native Nashvillians, Ben Poremski and Josh Pilzer. I met Josh in an ethnomusicology class and he and Ben introduced me to all sorts of music I’d never heard before, Pere Ubu “30 Seconds Over Tokyo”, The Dead C., Albert Ayler, This Heat, The Fall, Sun City Girls, Richard and Linda Thompson, Nick Drake. Josh played for awhile with Azalea Snail and we had a song covered by Ladybug Transistor but released no recordings.

Our first show was at a talent show which was held in the basement of a decommissioned frat house. Afterwards we journeyed over to Springwater where they were having a Working Stiffs’ Jamboree. This is an open-mic of sort of outsider Nashville folks. A little less slick, but all very good. That night we jammed with Kurt Wagner, Jonathan Marx, Marc Trovillion, John Delworth, and many more people who have all remained friends. I met Peggy that night, but I don’t remember meeting John until a bit later after I graduated from college and moved away and returned to Nashville. I attended college here from 1990-94, left for about 9 months and returned in February or March of 1995. I had been working for a while and was going to organize a show with a lot of bands and wanted some guidance, as I’d never done anything like that before.

John Delworth, then a keyboard player in Lambchop, was a coworker at Tower Records on West End (replaced by a hotel). He recommended I get in touch with John, who was, and still is, involved in organizing Working Stiffs’ Jamboree, to advise me on putting together a benefit show. So, John Allingham helped me put together some of the first shows I ever organized here. One thing led to another and I ended up playing with them. I’m not really sure how it happened. We became friends and just played all the time socially. And I guess I just sort of drifted in the way things tend to swirl around in this band.

I also thought it might be of interest that we played the crew wrap party for O Brother Where Art Thou, held at Anna Ring’s farm house in Franklin, TN, where we’d frequently practice and have bonfires at that time. Anna has been studying since then at an ashram in India for around 15 years. It was fun and we heard afterward that the Coens liked our music and were looking for our records, only we didn’t have any at the time.

You mentioned “Boogie Disease” from your album ‘Live In Amsterdam,’ recorded in 2008, and released in 2013 by Hairy Spider Legs. Do you all have any stories you could tell from your tours together?
John: “Boogie Disease” was a cut by Doctor Ross off a Sun Records blues compilation. In the mid-sixties my brother would find records, a lot of them 78s, in African American areas like Watts in L.A. and they would be the top ten in our house, he would play them over and over.

On our Europe trip I was always getting lost. I got lost in that part of Brussels that breeds terrorist types and almost missed this festival show. Also got lost in the London subways and Taylor barely found me. It was hard but always worth it.

Peggy: The Amsterdam show was in a fabulous squat where they fed us SO well. They had the greatest rambling situation with a cavernous stage area and bar, then up some winding way to a totally swell vegetarian feast, great company, great show, then directed to a sleep-place, which turned out to be a squalid little room we could barely fit in… I guess that story’s not really worth telling. You just never really know what’s next, that’s all.

Chris: There was a really really incredible old schoolhouse in Easthampton, MA, where we played on our first tour. That was a great show and a great tour. A beautiful common separated the street lanes and terminated in the Connecticut River. We met a lot of really wonderful people on that tour and made a lot of good friends.

In Boston, where we didn’t have a gig, but were staying before heading to Martha’s Vineyard for Emily O’Brien (our then washtub bass player)’s wedding, Peggy and Patty LeMay so impressed Little Joe Cook, the owner of the Cantab Lounge, whilst busking out front, that Cook invited us in to play on the band’s equipment during their break. He wore a golden peanut around his neck as a reference to his regional 1957 hit record Peanuts.

We also played a pretty strange velvet rope type multimedia party/happening in the gallery district of Manhattan with lines down the street. It was pretty crazy, trapeze artists, rooms filled with aluminum foil and flowers. I got to hang with Ari Up while we were waiting to get paid.

You all also did an album with Josephine Foster, can you talk about that? 
Peggy: That was a wonderful few days of community, I felt so lucky surrounded by such free-wheeling music-makers: Josephine, John, Chris, Allen, Chuck, Dave Maddox, and me in a wonderful old Nashville house where Brooke Gillon was cooking her wonderful gourmet dishes for us — and we spun out some great things, if I do say so myself! There was one punk-sounding number, it was really hot, and we could scarcely ever do it again. For one thing, we could never quite make out what we were singing… but it was wild. The kalimba tune, “Can We Trust the Waters,” was born full-grown, like Athena, all at once, one of my favorite songs! Really, I don’t think we’ve done anything with it! Which is odd, there are several gems there, Stephen, maybe your inquiry can serve to revive that music! There’s also a piece we did with Josephine on the deep broad porch of that old house where I think you can hear insects chirping, they become part of the music.

Chris: I met Josephine through booking her at Springwater in an early band of hers called Born Heller, a duo with upright bassist Jason Ajemian, who I had seen by chance in Chicago at an all-acoustic show held in a church with Spires That in the Sunset Rise and more. We really hit it off and I continued to book shows for her in Nashville.

Peggy: It seems now like I’ve always known Josephine. John sometimes describes our music as art songs, and Josephine’s, too…

Chris: We did some earlier recordings with her that remain unreleased. We recorded these at Tone Chapparal with George Bradfute, an undersung Nashville producer whose studio was in Jim Reeves’ old ranch-style house with amazing mosaic tile floors. On the first of the two-day sessions, I was feeling terrible with stomach pain and would lie on my back between each take and rest. The next day, after fainting twice on John’s front porch, he insisted on calling an ambulance. I would discover that I’d lost all but one unit of blood internally due to an undetected and severe ulcer. We were due to leave on a short tour together, Cherry Blossoms and Josephine Foster. John and Peggy fulfilled these obligations as a duo and this really cemented our strong bond. John and Peggy quite literally saved my life!!

How did you all decide on your group name, The Cherry Blossoms?
Peggy: John and I came-up with “cherry blossoms” one eve after practicing for a show at Lucy’s Record Shop. We’d come up with “Hard Candy,” a sort of anti-war song, and in that frame-of-mind was reflecting on my father having served in the Pacific arena of World War II and on into Japan, bringing back a Japanese music box with the little fragile cherry blossoms painted on it. He always called me his little cherry blossom (in a sarcastic kinda way), so we just figured “why not?,” being sort of fragile and sarcastic ourselves, and in a way, brought back from the war…

As you said Peggy, your musical union with John was propelled by similar world-views and involvement with environmental and peace activism. I think of your song “Dragonfly” being a good example of these elements in your music.
Peggy: “Dragonfly” IS a coinciding of anti-war/environmentalism. I made it up standing on an industrial-area mud heap on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion, standing there at dusk feeling pretty helpless.

Chris: We would quite frequently perform at protests and in somewhat political settings. I worked at a mom and pop health food store, Sunshine Grocery, and knew a lot of folks, like John and Peggy did, who were involved with activism and we would play a lot for Nashville Peace and Justice Center or BURNTT (Bring Urban Recycling Now To Tennessee).

You all have used some of Peggy’s paintings for your album art. Peggy, could you talk about your painting?
Peggy: The Cherry Blossoms has been a great vehicle for me to express a major part of my art through lyric and sound. Many songs continue themes that I bring to paintings — relics of our old world, a more grounded people, our destruction of beautiful old architecture, while money is poured into the creation of war, we don’t maintain the beauty in our own land — and then just the beauty of the colors of our earth.

Are there any other memories or reflections you all would like to share about your time together or of the underground music scene in Nashville?
Peggy: The community of people that swells around the shows Chris puts together is sure enough my tribe, the folk. What Chris does is a beautiful thing, pairing together the various acts — just knowing about what they are and where to put them, and where to put them up! And get the word out. And deftly pass the hat. He does a whole lot, very quietly, connected all over the world.

I love my band-mates. We have our share of differences, but our friendships are tried and true. In 2014, I suffered a lengthy hospital stint, and my band-mates paid me many many vigilant visits! I’ll always remember that.

John: There has been for a long time before I got to Nashville other stuff rustling around in the cellar here that has to do with folk songwriter stuff, r&b, and r&r. There’s a live and let live thing here, the music row people do their thing and we and others do ours, though the dynamics are getting a little different now. Springwater is an essential part, that Terry Cantrell has kept it going all these years was a lot of the primordial ooze that helped The Cherry Blossoms and other stuff happen. As Peggy was saying, Chris’s input of giving a stage for inner and outer stuff here is an essential part of the mix.

Chris: There was a very magical group of people, possessed of offhand genius and casual wit, I am fortunate to have found. I miss Dave Cloud and Paul Booker very much. Paul’s record Sheep/Rock Life is really good. Rob Stanley & The Limitations. Tom House. William Tyler. Matt Button and The Lone Official.

I am so glad I met John and Peggy and that I still get to play music with them. It’s really fun and I’m constantly surprised and smiling at what they play. Chuck Hatcher adds great elements of texture and ambience to the music. Allen Lowrey is a great drummer who kind of holds it all together.

[Stephen Molyneux is an artist and musician based in Denver, CO and co-runs the No Kings Record Cadre imprint.]