Interview: Shamblin Sexton

A few years back, stumbling into The Great Eastern, a salubrious pub at the bottom of Trafalgar Street in the heart of Brighton’s North Laines, my ears were met by Hank Williams’ unmistakable tones emanating from the end of the room.  There, stood in front of two record decks were two innocuous looking blokes, smiles as wide as the Mississippi, flicking through a pile of vinyl.  Tony Sexton, AKA Shamblin Sexton and Senor Mick, together under the banner of Whiskey Preachin, have been bringing the country to the people of East Sussex and serving up the grits ‘n’ gravy for last four years whilst slowly making their way through the 300 odd whiskeys behind the bar at The Eastern. Their trademark posters, beautifully designed by Chris Sick – essentially the third member of the gang – cannot fail to catch your eyes as you wander around town. It’s an impressive feat and one that warms the cockles like a swift nip of Elijah Craig. I hook up with Shamblin to find out more.

So, let’s start at the beginning. Country music? Blues? Why? A result of rummaging through mum and dad’s record collection? Are they genre’s you have always loved or just grown into with age?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. It’s the nature-nurture argument, like a lot of things. I was born back in ’72, to quote Bob Seger. The radio was always on in the kitchen and I grew up hearing a lot of pop country on Radio 2, Glen Campbell, Bobby Gentry etc. When I was 15 I had a CD compilation of Fleetwood Mac’s blues stuff from the late sixties, Man of the World and Rattlesnake Shake were my favourite songs, alongside Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. At university, I started to DJ funk and soul, but it was always the grittier, down-home southern stuff that did it for me. It is only in retrospect that I can thread these elements together but it does make sense to me now. By the late 90s, I was working on the editorial team of Milesahead magazine in Brixton. One afternoon I was interviewing Alabama 3 in their studio, just chatting about music and their influences. I was explaining that I loved Southern soul, but knew little about country music. Larry Love laughed and said that if I was into music with soul, it wouldn’t be long before I was listening to country music. He was right. It wasn’t long after this that I moved to Brighton and started to get into country soul, honky-tonk and old-time mountain music. I guess if you have an inquisitive mind and a taste for music with a story and a good groove, you’re going to find country music eventually. I’ve converted friends who were exclusively into hip-hop to country by sharing songs with great lyrics.

How did Whiskey Preachin’ come about? Was there ever a mission statement? Or just a good ‘ole knees up at the local pub? How long have you been spinning?
Since 1993, I can’t really remember a time that I wasn’t playing records somewhere. After moving to Brighton, I discovered the Great Eastern, a great little whiskey bar in the North Laine. I started a Thursday evening record session, rather cumbersomely called Music to Drink Bourbon To, along the lines of Music to Watch Girls By. It was all about old-time music, blues, western swing and honky tonk, with some new Americana artists that fit the bill thrown in for good measure. After several years of that, I wanted to expand into more rock-based music, bringing in some funkier elements, gospel elements, and outlaw elements, the strains of music that make the South such a hotbed of innovation and perennial influence. We now like to call this music Gumbo Rock, Outlaw Boogie and Truck Stop Pop, but it encompasses Southern soul, Southern rock, country pop, cosmic Americana, hard honky tonk, the outlaws and touches of gospel. I pitched the idea to the bar and we decided it would need to be a Friday night, whiskey-drinking, weekend-starting session. All I needed was a name and, preferably, a like-minded DJ partner. I’d been playing with names for a few days when, one night, I woke up with the concept of the whiskey-soaked preacher in my head. Whiskey Preachin was go, but where to find someone like-minded enough to share the duties? The first night was in January 2013 and it was fun, the concept was good, if not quite fully formed yet. The following month I was approached by this guy who explained that he DJ’d at a rock night in another Brighton pub, but that he was keen to play the swampier stuff he was getting into and that the concept of Whiskey Preachin was very similar to what he had been imagining. This was Señor Mick. We agreed that he should bring some tunes down the following month and we haven’t looked back since. Just goes to show, sometimes you just need to get out there and do it, rather than thinking about it too much.

How’s the reaction been? Are the kids digging’ the twang? I guess the current popularity of country, Americana, blues even to a small extent must be evident to you at your nights?
January 2018 will be our 5th birthday and we are over the moon, not only to still be going strong but by the response we have had from people over the years. We have never been concerned about being well known for what we do, even locally. This simply isn’t the type of night that has mass appeal, even in Brighton, but we do see a growing crowd of music lovers who come down each month specifically for Whiskey Preachin. Right from the start, our slogan has been “Saving your soul, one record at a time”, but it could have been one soul at a time. There’s no hurry and no agenda when you are simply doing what you love for the love of doing it, of exploring the music you love and having an outlet for that passion. That’s the pay-off. Most people who love Americana, country, blues, roots music, whatever you want to call it, want to see artists live, rather than hear people DJing that music. That’s great, obviously, I love to see great artists live, too, but it also means that music is not really seen as something that people choose to DJ out in bars. DJs playing this music are usually on the radio, but we wanted to play these records in a Friday night way, in the bar, to bring them to people in the context that we feel they should be enjoyed in. It has worked wonderfully, the number of times people come up to us and say how much they are enjoying the music, or wanting to know what a track is, or amazed that Shazam has failed to identify some obscure Jamul track form 1972, it gives me hope. The location is a big factor in how well the night works, the Great Eastern specialises in American whiskey and the people it attracts are predisposed to the kind of vibe we aim for, in many ways it would be difficult to recreate elsewhere. The artwork is another important factor. The identity that our designer, Chris Sick, has developed for Whiskey Preachin is very important, he is very much the silent, third member of the team. From my perspective, I would say that the people who come to our nights are into the twang, as well as the gumbo rock and truck stop pop. We like to keep the music moving on, so it never sticks to one straight style for too many tunes in a row. Keep ringing the changes; keep pushing the vibe on, building the pressure.

Where do YOU hear all this great music that you play? Crate digging? Any radio shows that inspire and alert you to this great stuff?
I’ve never really been one for getting my inspiration and influence from magazines or radio. I generally just keep an eye on what is being released each week. Online record stores like Juno and Piccadilly have made this an easier task, but I do like to use local stores like Resident in Brighton as often as I can. You still can’t beat going into a record shop where the staff say hi and ask what you’ve been up to. I’ve had many of these over the years, but it’s still something I cherish. I’m not sniffy about digital formats for discovery and I use a subscription download service called eMusic a lot. I’ve found some great stuff that way, music that may never be released in the UK. Facebook pages, YouTube, email newsletters like the daily digest from American UK and websites like Saving Country Music are all good sources of information. Digital is a great way to find music, but if it’s going to be played out at Whiskey Preachin, it needs to be on vinyl. Mick likes to go create digging, as do I, but increasingly I am focusing on the new music that is being released, while Mick is taking care of business with the long-lost oddities and finds. We both like to play classic sounds from the late sixties and early seventies, but over the last couple of years, we have naturally found our own preferences. There is a lot of great new music being produced that sits well next to the classics of decades ago, something I wasn’t anticipating when I started Whiskey Preachin five years ago.

Where do you hope to take WP? What’s the game plan? Is there one or you are enjoying what you are doing and that’s enough?
There has never been a game plan, as such. We do what we do because life would be poorer for us if we didn’t. There’s nothing better than getting together with friends to enjoy the music you love with a bunch of like-minded people and a whiskey selection to die for. What else is there to do on a Friday night? There may not have been a game plan at the start, but there have been natural developments. We started the Whiskey Preachin radio show on 1BrightonFM (soon to be rebranded as 1BTN) two and a half years ago, and we have recently been promoted form a two-hour show to a three-hour show, now broadcast on the fourth Tuesday on the month from 9pm until midnight on FM and DAB in Brighton and online for the rest of the world. All these shows are then archived on my Shamblin Sexton Mixcloud page. We would love to do a Whiskey Preachin compilation, but I need to find the right label. Life is busy, so a lot of ideas go on the back burner until they can be revived and put to work.

Tell me about the other stuff you do in Brighton? Swinging Dicks, the radio show, the CD curating etc.?
One idea that was mothballed and then eventually revived was my Savage Rhythm compilation, now released on the Stag-o-Lee label. I had compiled a collection of 50s cowboy pop and western swing called Crossroads in Cowtown for Fantastic Voyage, and I had finished a second compilation of 30s swing called Savage Rhythm for them. For various reasons, I decided the time wasn’t right, so I put it on ice. A couple of years later, Chris Sick started doing sleeve art for Stag-O-Lee, so I dropped them a line to pitch my Savage Rhythm album. Reinhard at Stag-O-Lee liked the idea, so we put it out as a lovely gatefold double vinyl album. Soon after, Chris Sick and I started the Swingin’ Dick’s events, a strictly 78rpm only jazz and swing session we hold every couple of months on Saturday afternoon in a gin bar in Brighton. Rather than doing a second volume of Savage Rhythm, we decided to put out a series of 10” compilations of 30s and 40s swing, jazz and big band blues under the name Swingin’ Dick’s. Reinhard at Stag-O-Lee liked the idea and we currently have the first two volumes in the shops. Volumes three and four are in the pipeline and will hopefully see daylight next year. Theirs is also a Swingin’ Dick’s radio show that is broadcast on 1BrightonFM, all of which are archived on the Shamblin Sexton Mixcloud page.

Hand on heart what’s your favourite album?
Hahaha, have you put your Kirsty Young hat on now? You know what a difficult and, ultimately, futile question that is, of course. It gives me existential angst. One album that I know I would find a great tonic, if I were ever marooned on an island, would be No Other by Gene Clark. Every time I hear it I find new wonder in it, the balance of bold studio production by the great Thomas Jefferson Kaye and the cosmic lyricism, world-weary delivery and sheer craftsmanship of Gene Clark will never lose their appeal to me.

What’s the one track that even the most non-complying feet just can’t resist a shuffle?
One track that gets the floor burning? Well, there’s not a lot of room for dancing at Whiskey Preachin, but it does happen and we love to see it when it does. I’m going to go with a true WP classic, Tulsa Turnaround by Rust Wier. It’s actually from an album called Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance?

What’s catching your ear at the moment?
Right now, I’m enjoying a lot of the new music. There are some great tracks on the Texas Gentlemen album, especially Gone. The “big” names on the scene are carrying a torch to light the way, for sure. Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Cody Jinks. I love the John Moreland album, Big Bad Love, that’s pure Whiskey Preachin style. I love the Sneaker album by the Paul Benjaman Band. There is so much great music coming out of Tulsa right now, well worth checking out. Last year’s album, El Astronauta, by the Quaker City Night Hawks is still a favourite, Blue Rider Songs by Scott Hirsch is wonderful, the new Ray Wylie Hubbard is great, especially Old Wolf, as is the new Steve Earle album. I like the new White Buffalo album, he’s made his sound grittier, which suits Whiskey Preachin just fine. Some of the new Eagle Rock Gospel Choir is nice, The Cordovas, Josh Ritter, Blackfoot Gypsies, Ben Bostick, Bette Smith, the new Deep Dark Woods album, Greg Ashley & the Western Playboys…

How do you view the ‘roots’ scene at the moment? Flourishing or all a little bit smoke and mirrors?
The new music just keeps on coming, some of it is great, some of it is not for me, some of it makes me question what I like and why I like it, which is a good thing. I think we are living in a golden age for new music, particularly in the styles we are interested in at Whiskey Preachin. Of course, there are a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon, but that’s just what happens in the record business when an emerging market becomes more established. It’s not dissimilar to the disco scene, which started out as an underground party scene for those left standing after the fallout of the sixties subside, then bands started making music specifically for those parties. Soon, those records were influencing more mainstream artists and the bigger record companies started to get involved. By ’77, disco was everywhere, rock fans were protesting at the loss of their airwaves to what they perceived as an abomination and the bubble started to deflate. I’m not saying we are at that stage now in the Americana scene, but I think there are similarities. I expect it will continue to grow and the output will increase for a while, but it will keep mutating and there will be good music, and there will be bad. It happened with swing music in the thirties, when the cool stuff of the mid- to late-thirties was appropriated by white bandleaders and commercialised and sweetened for mass-market consumption. I really hope we don’t see that happen again here, but history shows us how these trends can develop. It’s all music, at the end of the day, you just need to seek out the stuff that’s good for you.

What does 2018 hold in store for you?
Whiskey Preachin is going to start 2018 with our 5th birthday party at the Great Eastern in Brighton on Friday 12th January, so that’s a good way to start the year. We have recently become associated with Nashville’s Tailgate brewery and there have been conversations about festivals and playing records on the back of a pickup at their bars next summer, so hopefully we’ll be able to bring our selection of gumbo rock and outlaw boogie to a field near you soon. The radio show will continue to be broadcast on 1BTN on the fourth Tuesday on the month, 9pm-midnight, and the Whiskey Preachin night will continue to be at the Great Eastern on the second Friday every month. Other than that, I expect it will be business as usual, playing tunes at gigs, buying too many records and trying to keep sane in a crazy world. That’s why we are intent on saving your soul, one record at a time!

Whiskey Preachin, every second Friday of the month at The Great Eastern, Trafalgar St, Brighton. 

Whiskey Preachin, the radio show, every fourth Tuesday of the month on 1BTN FM 9PM-Midnight

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