Growing up in southeastern Tennessee, singer/keys man J. Roddy Walston was always surrounded by pianos. The experience helped shape his approach to mixing rock ‘n’ roll with related styles of Southern music.
“My grandmother was an amazing gospel and honky tonk player, so there was one in her house, one in our house. Every house in my family had one,” Walston says, speaking last week from a recent tour stop. “But it was almost off-limits if you couldn’t play it, like, ‘Don’t bang on that. It’s not a toy.'”
And while music was highly encouraged, it was in a formal way that he dreaded. “It was like, ‘Oh, you like piano. We’ll get you lessons,’ or ‘Sit down with your grandmother and learn some stuff,'” Walston says. “I was a shy, nervous kid, and I hated being one-on-one with somebody telling me to play it correctly, so I sort of played in secret for a long time.”
Today, Walston leads a rock band centered on his raucous piano and grimy and gravelly voice.
Comprised of Billy Gordon on guitar, Steve Colmus on drums, and Logan Davis on bass, the Business are one of 2010’s breakout bands, gaining critical acclaim and legions of fans from last year’s self-titled album on Vagrant Records and three nationwide tours.
“Don’t Break the Needle,” the first hit off the record, somehow straddles the line between an old-time piano ballad and classic punk song, and it features some great sing-along lyrics. Walston has made a point to combine big sounds with meaningful lyrics.
“It’s a very fine line,” he says. “A song suffers if it’s too hyper-political or has an agenda, and if you’re going for a high-energy thing, the lyrics can suffer. So it took a lot of reworking, just constantly changing the songs until they felt right.”
Within a year after moving to Baltimore with his first band at 21, everyone quit and Walston was stranded in a place that was nothing like his old home. The song “Brave Man’s Death” is partially based on his life at that time.
“It was a combo of knowing some pretty terrible characters and just feeling bad about the state of my mind,” Walston says.
“A lot of my songs are a combination of my reality with people I know or have encountered,” he adds. “It’s not an exact autobiography. It’s not literally my story.”