“Walk tall man, be the best you can. Leave a good path when you walk this land. Spread good word, with faith in hand, and most of all…walk tall man.”
Southern culture isn’t exactly in vogue. Historic statues are being torn down, Confederate flags are retired, even the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum changed their name to erase references to the South. What cancel culture and so-called progressives seem to forget is that there is a lot to be admired, and indeed, desired in Southern heritage. Respect and giving thanks and hard work are positive attributes, as evidenced by the preceding quote from The Georgia Thunderbolt’s song Walk Tall Man.
The Georgia Thunderbolts are TJ Lyle (lead vocals), Riley Couzzourt (guitar), Logan Tolbert (guitar), Zach Everett (bass) and Bristol Perry (drums). Couzzourt and Tolbert phoned in to talk about the Thunderbolt’s debut album Can We Get a Witness. With their polite Southern drawls they described how the band came together, how a planned record and tour were derailed by COVID, and their optimism now that the long-delayed album and tour are finally back on track.
Tolbert explains that the band was originally formed in 2016. “From day one we started writing songs. We played a little show at a county fair where we opened for the Kentucky Headhunters. That’s how we met Richard [Young, Kentucky Headhunters lead vocalist and record producer]. We started playing the show and a few songs in, Riley looked over and saw Richard sitting in a lawn chair watching our whole set. After the show we talked to him for a while and he asked us if we wanted to cut a record.”
That was easy, right? A chance meeting leads to a record deal? But, as people who know the music industry are aware of, things are very rarely that simple. Tolbert continues, “We said ‘sure, we already have songs written.’ It might have been 2018 or 2019 when we started going into the studio where he’s from in Glasgow, Kentucky, and started knocking out a few songs. I think we went up there three or four times and recorded 17 songs. It took a span of a year and a half to get it all recorded and then that’s when Mascot Records signed us.” Couzzourt continues the conversation, explaining, “We weren’t signed when we cut the record. We actually released the record independently. When Mascot signed us, we actually had to go back in and use most of that money remixing and mastering everything because they had heard a song that we did on the new board our sound engineer had bought, and they were freaking out over it. They said ‘every song has to sound like that.’ And then we literally sat in a cabin in Kentucky for two weeks mixed and remixed and had it mastered again to satisfy Mascot. If we wanted to make this guitar heavier or this lick sound better, if we thought something sounded out of tune, we redid it. We made the album as perfect as we wanted it to sound, even though we didn’t want it to sound perfect. We wanted it to sound like an old-school rock ’n’ roll record, which I think we accomplished. This is the product we came out with and I think it’s gonna be a blast when everybody gets to hear it.”
While there are some fans of music who are aware of, and indeed enjoy hearing about stories “behind the music,” others simply listen to a song and don’t give much thought about the process. That process can be both complicated and time consuming, with the possibilities for endless tinkering limited only by budget and deadline. Couzzourt explains with a chuckle, “You know how musicians are, you sit and listen to something until you’ve convinced it’s out of tune but another musician says ‘you’re an idiot. That’s perfectly tuned.’ After we mixed the album on the newer and more expensive board, it was every easy to tell the difference. Nobody is ever going to hear what we did before because that will never be released, but we can definitely tell the difference. I listen to old burnt CD’s where our sound engineer would just burn a CD and write ‘GTB Mix’ on it, and I compared it with the album and it’s like… you know, some things you like better the way it was before, but some things are definitely better the way they are now.”
The title track to the album speaks volumes about working hard, finding success and telling the doubters where to stick their criticism. The lyrics to the chorus are “Can I get a witness? Someone say they were wrong, all the times I said I’d make it but they left me alone. Now can you hear this? People singing my song, all the doubt they had about me but they know they were wrong. There’s just one more thing to ask before I end this: Could I get a witness?” Tolbert says, “It’s crazy, most of the people that the song’s about are those who just like to put others down and are negative and never think that you’re gonna go anywhere. And then when you’re finally doing stuff they want to come and eat off your plate.”
The track on the album that is one of the strongest and gets plenty of accolades is Spirit of The Working Man. There are two distinct instrumental parts to the song: Couzzourt and Tolbert’s twin guitar leads and a bruising power chord chorus. The leads have a haunting, wistful feel while the chorus and blazing guitar solo shifts the song in an entirely different direction. It’s impossible to describe in print how powerful the song is, so listen to it here before reading further:
Lyrically the tune continues the embodiment of the traditions of the South described earlier: hard work, giving thanks and respect. Couzzourt says “It’s basically written about us. It’s really about the way we are as people. Giving the shirt off your back to someone in need. To me, that’s one of the stronger songs lyrically that we have because any of these blue collar dudes out here working and providing for their families, they just listen to that song and they like it. I don’t care what genre of music they listen to, it’s just one of them songs that are about the working class of America. We’ll always stand behind that. Every one of our parents have worked for what they have. Whenever you grow up in that kind of household and you see what it’s like to have to work for your money you’re not greedy, you’re not money hungry. A lot of these artists who hit it big think ‘I got all the money in the world now and I don’t care about my old friends or my cousins’ or stuff like that. That song is basically how we grew up watching our parents. I don’t know how to explain where I’m going but I think everyone knows what I’m trying to say. You just listen to the lyrics.”
As for the guitar work that goes with those lyrics, it’s just as powerful as the words. “That little riff thing, Logan actually came up with that little bump and back and forth riff. He kinda started putting harmony on it and we were like ‘dude, that’s so sick! It’s kinda like witchy.’ It’s kinda got a dark type thing to it. When I started playing the riff and he put the harmony over it…it’s kinda got that grove like I’m just soaring through space, whatever that means. When I’m on stage and I’m playing it I feel like I’m flying through space on a carpet, it’s crazy [laughs]. Tolbert continues, “That’s one of my favorite songs to play live, too. The chorus comes in and it just basically punches you in the gut. It goes from mellow, cool like flying though space to getting hit by a plane. It’s like what happened, I just got knocked off my broomstick” [laughs].
Every recording artist in the world has been affected by the seemingly endless pandemic, and The Georgia Thunderbolts are no exception. Both record and tour have been delayed for over a year, but things are finally beginning to shake loose. “We were supposed to release the album about a year and a half ago,” says Tolbert. “Then COVID hit, and and us being a new band we wanted to put out a little bit of music for our fans so we released a few songs on the EP. We got lucky, because Mascot wasn’t gonna do anything with us for the year 2020. They decided to do that EP and it worked out good because we’d rather have something out there than nothing. We’ve been a band for five years now, and people say ‘you’ve been together for five years and you still don’t have anything on Apple Music or Spotify?’ ‘Hang in there, we’re workin’ on it,’ we tell ‘em. So now we’ve finally got something to show people.”
Yes, the South has seen its culture and ways under attack lately. But if there’s a lesson to be learned from The Georgia Thunderbolts and their impressive debut album, it could very well be this: Wherever life takes you, however winding the road, always strive to be a Walk Tall Man.