Photo | Courtesy Jerry Powell
A veteran local songwriter is making his contribution to an Azalea City musical legacy that was started by Jimmy Buffett. Songwriter Jerry Powell’s debut album, “Highly Recreational Man,” is making its presence known in the world of trop rock. From tracking at his 500-square-foot home studio to the album’s distribution, “Highly Recreational Man” has been a DIY undertaking by Powell that has resulted in success.
The south-of-the-border sounds of the album’s lead single, “You and the Yucatan,” has taken the number one spot on RadioA1A’s “Trop 40 Chart,” where it has spent months on a steady climb. Streamed from Islamorada, Fla., RadioA1A’s constant online stream is one of the world’s best sources from “Tropical Americana.” Powell owes the track’s success to trop rock’s dedicated followers, who want nothing more than to fill their minds with visions of the beach.
“It’s the escapism thing,” Powell said. “We’re unique here in that we have access to the seashore, but millions of people are landlocked. I think it’s a nice pleasant thought, then they put that music on. It helps them get away from the day-to-day stuff and put them in a place that is relaxing. I’ve always thought that there was something therapeutic about the beach.”
While “You and the Yucatan” might be new to the world of this genre, Powell says this track first came to life in the early ’90s. Powell’s experience during a vacation to Quintana Roo, Mexico, inspired him to start dabbling in trop rock.
During that time, he says, Cancun and the surrounding area was “serene and not as crazy” as its modern persona. Powell’s experience inspired him to write songs capturing the peaceful spirit of the area, including “You and the Yucatan.” When he sat down with his guitar, Powell began to pen a song that captured the attitude and the twin-trumpet, mariachi sounds of his Yucatan experience.
“I wanted to do a song about getting away from the daily stress of life,” Powell said. “There’s an island down there called Akumal. It’s the most beautiful place that I’ve ever seen with all the palm trees and clear water. I have a line in there about Akumal and Cozumel.”
While “Highly Recreational Man” is being embraced by fans, this album also contains tracks that showcase Powell’s songwriting versatility. In addition to beachside tunes such as “Somewhere There’s an Island” and “On the Gulf of Mexico,” Powell taps into the early days of rock ’n’ roll for tracks such as “The Open Road” and “Rockabilly Rock & Roll.”
However, he says one of his best songwriting methods is character studies, which appears on this album in the form of the rollicking country song “Zip-Ho the Discount Clown.” A performance at a mall opening inspired Powell to write this tune. Part of the event included an army of clowns Powell says rolled out of a large white van and spread amongst the crowd. One of the clowns approached a musician who was sharing the bill with Powell. Unfortunately, this fellow musician had an obvious phobia of clowns. This memory coupled with an experience with a birthday clown led to the song’s creation.
“On the way back home, I was thinking about it,” Powell said. “I know several people who have seen these horror movies where the clown takes an ax and kills somebody. I was thinking about how clowns get a bad rap sometimes. I thought that it might be nice to have a discount clown. Then, my wife hired a clown for my 40th birthday. He came and had the balloons and all that stuff, but he just sat there. She said, ‘That was a big disappointment.’ I forgot his name, but I called him the ‘Discount Clown.’ The mind works in mysterious ways sometimes.”
While he is thrilled at the acceptance of “You and the Yucatan,” this track is not Powell’s first hit song to receive mass attention. One of his first tastes of musical success came while Powell was working as a staff songwriter at Tree International Publishing in Nashville during the ’80s. Powell says his run at this publishing company resulted in a number of “beautiful country songs.” However, the heads of the company explained to Powell they wanted something different from him. Powell retorted with a song called “Bodine Brown,” which was lauded by Barry “Dr. Demento” Hansen on his nationwide radio broadcast, “The Dr. Demento Show.”
“[Tree Publishing] would say, ‘Jerry, these [country songs] are great, but we have 40 other writers who can write beautiful songs,’” Powell explained. “They said, ‘We want something different.’ One day, out of frustration, I thought about the most bizarre and different thing that I could think of. I like character songs. I wrote a song about a girl who plays her armpit.”
Another one of Powell’s hit songs came from a more inspirational mindset. In the mid-’80s, Powell and fellow songwriter Tim Lovelace collaborated on the Southern gospel anthem “An Old Convention Song.” The Cathedral Quartet brought this song to the public. This group even performed this gospel song on NBC’s “Today.” In recent years, “An Old Convention Song” has experienced a resurgence through the vocal group Ernie Haase & Signature Sound. Between “An Old Convention Song,” “Bodine Brown” and the sonically diverse tracks found on “Highly Recreational Man,” Powell is truly a man with a song for all occasions.
“I take a certain amount of pride in my diversity and being able to write songs that speak to people in different categories,” Powell said.
As far as the future is concerned, Powell says he will continue to work with RadioA1A to spread his original material around the globe. He says “Somewhere There’s an Island” will be his next single. Powell also says he is making plans to go on tour with RadioA1A and a number of their other artists featured on the show. Otherwise, Powell is promoting this album through any outlets he can find, which is resulting in further notoriety. “Rockabilly Rock & Roll” has made an appearance on the Cash Box Chart. Those wanting to experience Powell’s musically versatile world should catch one of his monthly shows at Butch Cassidy’s.
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