Do you love bluegrass godfather Bill Monroe? How about the Sun Record Company classics of the 1950s that birthed rock ’n’ roll? Then you need to know about Nashville grassabilly group Monroe SUN. The band is the brainchild of singer-songwriter, guitarist and country classicist Adam Pope. The North Carolina native isn’t one to hide his two biggest influences — eighties and ’90s country specifically — drawing on both as namesakes for a project that melds and modernizes the two with his first love: country music.
Pope grew up in the golden era of Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Randy Travis — tear-in-beer crooners whose songs got him through the upheaval of his parents’ divorce and being shuffled between families in North Carolina and Kentucky. “The songwriting was real to me,” he recalls, “because of what we were livin’.”
Pope remembers discovering his grandparents’ record collection — a trove of classic-era Sun Records rockabilly staples like early Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and ‘60s Monument era Roy Orbison — as a teenager, around the same time he started picking up the guitar. “It jumped out of the speakers,” he recalls. “I loved it.”
It was the rhythms of rockabilly that gave Pope the music bug. In his teens, learning those rhythms on guitar led him to the foot-stomping, stringed-instrument-as-rhythm-instrument locomotive shuffle and bass thump of bluegrass that was already in his DNA, passed down from his great grandfather, who played in mid-century mountain music groups in the foothills of Appalachia.
“I combined those [rockabilly and bluegrass rhythms] with what I liked about the songwriting of country music,” he explains. “I didn’t really think I was going to go into bluegrass, I just wanted to basically write country music and play music that I loved…and that was really all I knew…and it took me to Nashville when I was 21.”
In Nashville, where song is king, Pope began fine-tuning his songwriting, while cutting his guitar chops among pro pickers, haunting Music City’s many weekly bluegrass jams. “I’m the guy off to the side playing rhythm,” he says, “hoping I don’t screw anything up. What I’m trying to do is surround myself with entertainers with a bluegrass background.”
At the same time, Pope began singing for his supper and dancing for his dinner on the road, playing country and rockabilly standards for roughnecks with short attention spans in rowdy bars, developing as a performer, and learning how to read a room. “What jumped out at me was show flow,” he explains, “and [how to] craft a set list, and the importance of a show… I realized that my heart was in doing shows.”
Monroe SUN is the cumulative culmination of those experiences. It’s a string band with a rotating cast of musical assassins, often augmented with appearances by his wife and duet partner Amy. “She brings pretty on stage, with her voice. She calms us down,” Pope says, explaining how those moments temper the fun, high-energy rollercoaster of dynamics the band brings to the stage every night.
While the Monroe SUN experience boasts a repertoire of bluegrass and rockabilly covers, like a sock-hop-ready romp through Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” it’s the bands songs — and the narratives within — that offer as many highlights. “I love the storytelling of [country music],” Pope says of his writing style. “I don’t write from a style of like a Flatt & Scruggs, or Bill Monroe, or even a Carl Perkins. I don’t write ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ I’m packing in more [storytelling]. .. What if Johnny Cash had made a really amazing bluegrass record? I’ve always wondered that?”
That’s the question behind clever, referential songs like “I Was Shot in Reno and I Don’t Know Why” – a banjo-driven response to Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” crooned from the victim’s perspective, which the band plays as a medley with the classic that inspired it. Or “Highwayman,” – a bluegrass-tinged outlaw country inspired original number about a highway worker who has a late-night vision of the being plucked from his job and into a more exciting life by legendary country supergroup The Highwaymen, as they roll by on their tour bus. “We have a handful of songs that are that way,” he says, “that work well for the show. But we also have songs that are completely the opposite of that. … Because anything that falls under [the umbrella] of country, I love to write.”
Pope doesn’t mind if all this makes him a bit of a misfit.
“I’m not a purist in the bluegrass or the rockabilly [thing], or even the traditional country [thing],” he says.
For more information on Monroe SUN, please visit: monroesun.com.
Adam Pope (vocals, rhythm guitar)
Lisa Horngren (upright bass/mandolin)
Preston Walden (banjo)
Jerry Webb (guitar/bass)
Asa Lane (drummer)