Back in 2018, I attended the Bicentennial celebration for the town of Madison, North Carolina. While browsing the festivities, I was stopped in my tracks by the country sounds echoing from a stage erected in the heart of downtown. Even though I soon learned that the group of musicians who were producing that sound were a relatively new group; their infectious energy, tight instrumentation, and rustic delivery demonstrated the potential of a band that were well on their way to something greater. Now coming on three years since that performance, the Valley Authority has released two studio albums with no sign of slowing down. I am thrilled to have been given the opportunity to have an exchange with the members of the group in order to showcase their artistic processes and their musical narrative. The members of the Valley Authority are Caleb Johnson (lead vocals and acoustic guitar), Cameron Kerby (pedal steel), Joey Clemons (lead guitar), Nick Collins (bass guitar), Zachary Hileman (keys), and Andrew Myers (drums).
AH: I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to ask you all some of these questions. As you are aware, I have been keeping up with the Valley Authority ever since I first saw you guys perform at the Madison Bicentennial in Madison, North Carolina back in 2018, and at that point the band had just essentially formed. For starters, how about you all tell the readers about how the band came to be and the role of each member in the band. I know some of you go way back with each other.
Cameron: The Valley Authority originates back to an original three-piece band called Snake Holler that was created by existing TVA members Caleb (lead guitar and vocals), Nick (rhythm guitar and backup vocals), and drummer, Andrew Davis, who is no longer with the group.
Caleb: In high school, Nick and I was in automotive class together. We would bring our instruments and jam with other boys in the class on Fridays and some random weekdays as well. We learned to work on cars and then play some music, it was really a cool time to be alive. After playing with a few ideas, the Snake Holler band was formed. Snake Holler is the place in Sneedville, Tennessee where my Mammow was raised. It seemed like a fitting name for the group. My parents never really minded the sound of drums or loud guitars, so at any given moment, it was not out of the ordinary for us to be playing well into the night. We played all kinds of restaurants, bars, and fairs. Granted, we were like seventeen/eighteen years old, so just about any gig at all was a big deal to us. Our claim to fame as the Snake Holler band was winning the local Jefferson County Fair’s battle of the bands. I believe we won a grand and were rich for a few weeks. A few years into Snake Holler, Cameron began making appearances on stage beginning with a banjo, harmonica, lap steel, and finally graduated to a pedal steel. Joey started going to my church around that time and once we found out each other played music, we set up a jam. He played his first gig with Snake Holler with a bass and a keyboard. Andrew came to jam with us at the time and wanted to join on stage. He had been playing drums, mandolin, bass, and guitar in his church up until that point. Zachary was always around Snake Holler and the Valley Authority. He and I were roommates in college and he and Nick are cousins. Zachary played bass guitar for one gig with Snake Holler. He was around the music so much with no definite role in the band that he decided to buy and learn how to play an organ.
Nick: Luckily it seems we have found a great fit with all the boys in this band and we really love what we do.
AH: What kind of music were y’all exposed to growing up in East Tennessee? Has the music that y’all heard growing up informed the music that you play today?
Cameron: Growing up, I was mainly exposed to gospel and bluegrass music which now has some deeper influence in songwriting and song structuring. I personally felt more influenced by growing up listening to 90s country music on the radio which was a gateway to learning more and more about older forms of country music. What sets the Valley Authority apart is that between the members of the band, each have various influences in regards to genres and our originals reflect no individual influences overshadowing others.
Caleb: When I was growing up, I was exposed to classic rock, traditional country, gospel, pop, and bluegrass. As a young kid, I didn’t care much for country because it seemed a little bland, so I preferred pop and rock music. The area I grew up in was heavy on rock and roll and country. The only time I really seen live music outside of a venue was either at church or in someone’s living room. When I started playing guitar, I started to learn those riffs I heard on the radio and by doing so, I was learning to play the blues which has been a guide for me. After I learned about the 12-bar blues scale, I could attempt to play lead riffs out of thin air which was awesome. I would say the music I was exposed to certainly played a role in what I do with composition and songwriting.
Nick: My mother and father have greatly influenced my music tastes. From cutting my teeth on all the great country from the ‘60s all the way up to the ‘90s. It definitely has influenced my playing style.
Andrew: I grew up in church, so the old red back book at church was my first taste of music. My mom and dad have sang my whole life, so I guess I just kind of grew up in it. Gospel and bluegrass were the two biggest growing up for me, and as I got older, that turned into older country, classic rock, some blues… and that’s what you’re hearing in the Valley Authority. You can hear the Merle, Waylon, and Johnny vibes along with southern rock, like Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top. We even add some bluegrass and blues into the set. So, yes, our variety in music can be heard in our sound, I think. We don’t want anyone coming to a show and saying, “Oh, they’re just another country band.” We want you to come hear us and think, “I can’t believe a country band is playing that.” The cool thing is we all have different music tastes, and we like to implement suggestions from all of us. So we play anything sounding from Waylon, to John Mayer, to Red Hot Chili Peppers.
AH: To date, you all have released two studio albums, your self-titled debut last year, and Unpopular Opinions earlier this year. To my understanding you recorded your first album under the guidance of a producer in his private studio, but with this latest record y’all took full creative control and produced the project yourselves under the helm of your lead guitarist, Joey Clemons. Talk a little bit about the experience of taking full creative control of this project. What were some of the obstacles you faced navigating this new territory? And how has it made you better musicians for having done so?
Joey: I’m not exactly sure where the idea of producing our own album came from. I think we felt that the last one was rushed and that we wanted to be able to take as much time to record this one. We recorded this album with one mic for amps, one cheap vocal mic, and a set-up of cheap drum mics. The strategy of recording and mixing this album came down to research. I pored over as much information on how to make it happen that I could find. I had never really looked into how to record and properly mix music. We definitely didn’t do a lot of stuff the proper way; we improvised a lot. We did most recording in a 10×10 bedroom with the same two mics. We had to move the entire setup to my living room to get the drums recorded. At the end, this resulted in a unique sound. For mixing and mastering, I wanted an old school sound with a slightly psychedelic atmosphere. I tried to bring these sounds in a thematic way to give a concept album vibe even thought I wouldn’t consider this album to be a concept album. Where I hadn’t had any mixing experience, I used a lot of reference tracks. I would find music that I wanted our songs to feel like and use them as reference tracks for mixing to try and capture a professional sound using as many tricks as I could find from Abbey Road Studios. All in all, it was a huge learning experience. We found out that we want to keep full creative control of our music. I believe we have come to the conclusion that any record we put out by the Valley Authority from this point on will be written, recorded, and mastered, by us. I consider this album to be the beginning of a new era for us. There’s a lot of ideas that we want to expand on in the future, especially when it comes to composition and experimenting with chords the listener wouldn’t expect to hear in a country song, like on “By The Stem.”
AH: I know that the primary songwriters for the band are Caleb and Cameron. Talk a little bit about your songwriting processes and how y’all make the decision about which songs fit to be included on a record together.
Caleb: My songwriting process is generally pretty slow. I usually say I’m good for maybe one a month. I will think about a hook or a story, and from that point, I will chew on it for a while. I think about songs on my ride to and from work mostly. I’ll hum melodies and imagine what phrasings I could do and how the words could mix with the music. Cameron and I have composed and written songs together over the years. We have different writing styles, so it’s pretty hard to just sit down and write a song, but we collaborate about thoughts and ideas. There will be times where one of us will say something out loud or in passing, and it will end up in the other’s song, which I think is pretty cool.
AH: I have been playing the song “High Horse” on my radio show in Greensboro and listeners have really taken note of it. Would you mind sharing with the readers about how that song came to be?
Cameron: “High Horse” is actually the first song I ever wrote; this was back in 2015. I grew up in a small town but ended up leaving almost all of my friends and moving to Knoxville in 2012. It’s just a simple story of coming back home to be with an old flame instead of staying in the big city. For me, I really feel that I learned a lot from moving to the city but the biggest lesson I learned was that city-living was not for me. There is imagery in people moving out of small towns with the idea of enhanced entitlement. “High Horse” is a ballad of a person refusing to accept that entitlement. It debuted, as many originals at the time did, on Caleb’s family’s boat dock after midnight where a few friends would gather every weekend to share tunes and tell tall tales. It was quite the hit on the boat dock, but never gained much on-stage traction locally. It gained popularity in a few out of state shows and Caleb decided it had to make the cut for the second album.
AH: This next question is directed at Caleb. I remember that we met up at the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax, Virginia back in 2019. Is it true that you wrote the song “Wildflowers” around that time? It has a bluegrass type of feel.
Caleb: Absolutely, “Wildflowers” was written right before or after we met. I remember the song starting out as an idea of this boy wanting to be able to remember the bad times and sour memories of a past relationship in order to justify his actions of leaving this girl and he couldn’t. I believe I had a hook that went to this song, but as I wrote with the storyline in mind, it started to go a slightly different direction. That idea had been around in my head awhile, but unlike how I would typically write songs, that one was finished in 45 minutes. Looking back, it could have stood a third verse, but it ended up nice in the studio with Joey’s haunting guitar solo. It does have a folky/bluegrass feel. As much as I would like to be more advanced at acoustic flatpicking, I am just not there yet, so that is my interpretation of that kind of sound.
AH: Who are some songwriters that you all admire? Who would you say has been the biggest influence on the Valley Authority’s sound?
Cameron: This could be one of the hardest questions on the list. I could list many older country music stars: Willie, Merle, Gary Stewart. Musical stylings for me push more towards newer influences in Colter Wall and Turnpike Troubadours, Luke Bell, and Mike and the Moonpies.
Nick: From my standpoint, my biggest influences are probably Brent Cobb, Sturgill Simpson, and, weirdly enough, John Mayer.
Andrew: My favorite writers of all time are Glenn Fry and Don Henley. The Eagles are by far my favorite band. Their songs are just amazing lyrically. I love to listen to James Taylor and stories he can tell in his songs. Ronnie Van Zant is another one of my favorites; I love the lyrics of the Skynyrd songs as much as I do the sound. I really enjoy these songs Cameron and Caleb have written for us, too. I will break a song down lyrically before listening to the beat of it. These guys write some really good stuff, and a lot of these songs have spoken to me personally.
AH: Why did you decide to name the latest record, “Unpopular Opinions?”
Cameron: In making the second album, there was so many choices to be made. As we collaborated, all sorts of ideas were tossed into the air for consideration. It became a running joke to start suggestions with “unpopular opinion, I think we should _____.” We also are aware that we play music some would categorize as noncommercial and not built for mainstream radio. We find our music to be an unpopular opinion in mainstream music. We do not foresee a future in which we will be conforming to any type of commercial music and thus continuing to drive in a direction of unpopular opinions.
AH: Who designed the album artwork for Unpopular Opinions?
Nick: That would be Mr. Joey Clemons, himself.
Joey: With the album art, I wanted something very simple that characterized who we are. The art encapsulated a period of our lives where we got to travel to play gigs and grow together as a band. I figured a hand drawn cover would feel more intimate and personal, rather than a photograph of us posing.
AH: I know the current pandemic has put artists in a relative standstill. How have y’all been coping with the current situation? Are y’all working on new music?
Cameron: We have missed live performances drastically as we were gaining traction in local and out of state crowds. We were highly looking forward to selling our latest album on the road and were looking to use it to build momentum with our newer and existing fanbase. Seeing that the pandemic is continuing into 2021, we will be moving forward with studio recording, crafting live show performance nuances, and building chemistry as a group. We have been building a new 800 square foot studio with complete acoustic treated surroundings, and we hope this can be an avenue to work with other local East Tennessee musicians, as well as having a complete rehearsal space and recoding room to explore our own musical future. We have a ton of unreleased music that we will be cutting this year in our new studio. We will be looking at remastering our first album, as we were very pleased with the recording but not the mixing and mastering on that project. This year we will be moving forward with an experimental funk album in which we will take traditional funk aspects of rhythm and keyed instrument parts and mesh them with non-traditional funk uses of mandolin, banjo, dobro, steel, and possibly fiddle. Alongside this, we are working on a Valley Authority album, round three, that could resemble more of our previous works. Between Caleb and I, there is forty to fifty viable unrecorded songs; thirty or more in which have not even been played at a rehearsal with the entire band yet. Many songs have been written in the downtime caused by the pandemic. The experimental funk record will be completely driven by music and those songs will be written post-music delivery as well, so we really will be narrowing down which tracks will be cut on our next record. Even though we have found an amazing new format in our home studio for expressing ourselves, so much about what we do is built on live shows and interacting with new people and other musicians. We are looking forward to the day in which we can see everyone back on the road again in a safe manner. God bless!
Unpopular Opinions is available wherever you stream your digital music.