By Davis Coen
After a long lull in their live performances, Oxford rock band Southern Groove Redemption is finally back into the swing of things.
It’s common that musicians, who are skilled at multiple instruments, come from musical backgrounds – as opposed to just randomly developing such a versatile approach to the craft. Southern Groove Redemption’s (SGR) lead singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Zechariah Lloyd Tillotson (also known as Zach), is no exception to that trend.
“My parents were both musicians,” said Tillotson, a native of Vicksburg, MS, who relocated to Oxford in 2009. His purpose of moving was admittedly to follow a girl, but he eventually became enrolled in classes at Ole Miss, and his path began heading in an unexpected direction. WIth him, he brought a lifetime of experience, having always been around the musicians in his family.
“My mom played in the church growing up, my dad played drums, and my uncle was a drummer, so I woke up to my mom playing piano every day, and always had a drum kit set up at the house.”
Tillotson remembered starting on drums around the age of 11 or 12, and then being on the drumline in high school, and then subsequently in college. “Sometime during college, I picked up the guitar and started playing and writing,” he said. Also, it wasn’t until 2013 that he started trying to pursue playing and singing, “as something for myself,” he simply put it. “I’d done the drum thing forever, and still did it at that time.”
He reflected on the year that he first arrived into town, as somewhat more of a vibrant time for the City’s musical culture. This is an argument that many folks who have lived in the community for over a decade, strongly uphold. There were simply more venues then, willing to host live music on and around the Square, than there are today. Ajax Diner, The Blind Pig, Parrish Baker Pub and Two Stick, were among those hiring bands to perform on a regular basis around the time of Tillotson’s arrival on the scene. Ironically, the State’s blue laws regarding alcohol sales were a little stricter then, but there were more opportunities to catch live music because of more venue options.
“The music community here was so tight knit back then, and at the same time really welcoming,” said Tillotson. “It was easier to put a gig together because everybody was playing with everyone – and I got to know a bunch of people here really quickly.”
Regarding the band’s ear-grabbing and standout name, Tillotson said, simply: “It just sounded good.” He had envisioned forming a band cut out of the same cloth as classic 1970s Southern rockers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet and The Allman Brothers, all known for having multiple – sometimes dueling – electric guitars, and the name turned out to be a good fit.
He credits drummer John Bonham, of the groundbreaking British hard rock group Led Zeppelin, as his greatest influence starting out, after borrowing his uncle’s copy of Led Zeppelin II on vinyl, and listening on what he described as, “one of those old record players, with the earphones attached.”
Tillotson said, “I would sit in his room trying to figure out what he (Bonham) was doing…that double-kick stuff, with the single bass drum pedal; that was always wild to me. He was my biggest drum influence, for sure.”
Two standout cover versions, that Tillotson said he will always look forward to playing in live sets, are Skynyrd’s radio friendly “Gimme Three Steps,” and a rendition of “I’m a Ram,” written and famously recorded by legendary soul and gospel singer Al Green in the early 70s.
As far as his own material, Tillotson said he’s planning to meet with a production company in March to discuss the prospect of a studio recording project.
Among potential songs for the album, are originals titled, “Peaches,” “Hard Time Livin’,” and “Change is Comin’.” The latter, is a swampy and bluesy, trance-inducing guitar and vocal based song, written about the mother of his now nearly teenage son, and the changes he went through after they split up. “I was in a rough spot and my life, and a lotta things were changing, and ya know, I just tried to lean into the change.”
Becoming Southern Groove Redemption
Guitarist and singer, Jason Cain, grew up in Brandon, Mississippi, but spent years of his adulthood in Nashville, TN, Gainesville, FL and Austin, TX, before eventually returning to his home state, simply by coincidence and, much like Tillotson, following his non-musical pursuits. After getting his PhD at the University of Florida, he moved back to be a professor at Ole Miss. “I moved here really for the job, more than anything,” said Cain.
Cain believes that he first crossed paths with bandmate Tillotson in early 2017, and was asked to be in the band that fall. They started playing live shows shortly thereafter. He fondly recalls when Penny Bar, below Moe’s BBQ off the Square, began booking live music the following summer. “We played a couple of shows over there that were a lot of fun. It’s such a small space, we’re a pretty loud band, and it was packed out,” he recalled. “I just remember, that having a real vibe.”
At the time, not long after turning 40, Cain was reminded of hard rock bands he played with when he began doing live shows in the late 1990s, at similarly small, crowded spaces; “when it was probably a little louder than it should be, but still with the energy kinda right.”
Early on, SGR played at Rooster’s Blues House on the Square, but according to Cain, the group’s most pivotal early local show was a February 2019 appearance at nearby venue, Proud Larry’s, on S. Lamar Blvd. “Everyone was packed in there, and digging it,” he said enthusiastically. “The band was really right that night. It was nice to be playing rock music and have that many people – not just with their arms crossed watching, but – really into what’s going on, kind of sweating along with the band. That’s always my favorite.”
Having experienced living in other major music towns, like Nashville and Austin, Cain spoke on some of the positive aspects of being part of the Oxford music community, and his appreciation for its unique culture and supporters.
“I think one thing here is that people still genuinely like music,” he said. A great compliment to Oxford’s appreciation of music, coming from someone who spent multiple years in Bat City, on two different occasions. “Music’s almost an aesthetic out there, something you do because you’re supposed to, it seems sometimes.”
As another high compliment to the local music scene, now when comparing the two big college towns, Cain feels there was a certain air of obligation for Austin folks, to go out and support live music. Whereas in Oxford, he feels folks just seem more naturally engaged. Not just “people in their 30s and 40s, but still a lot of college kids that really enjoy live music are here,” he said. “It’s not the same everywhere.”
While in Gainesville getting his PhD, Cain got a taste of the music scene there, and in contrast considers the one here as, “in some ways more healthy.” He said, “as much as people gripe about it from time to time,” and having experienced a variety of different circumstances, his appreciation has become high.
Apart from having a love for live performances, Cain is also seasoned in the recording studio, having worked in numerous for over a span of two decades. After that much time, he admits that he has some strong opinions about recorded music, especially here in a progressive digital age. Many have to do with his general disapproval of the ‘click’ track – an almost ubiquitously used rhythm-keeping tool in modern recording – in favor of the natural ebbs in flow of musicians naturally carrying on the rhythm together.
“I really enjoy the pressure of recording, like coming on and trying to nail stuff,” he said. “Rock music’s always at its best when it’s unpredictable and a little edgy. You don’t listen for it to be perfect, you listen to it because it’s exciting and spontaneous.”
Despite his strong inclination toward organic time-keeping, Cain agrees that playing to a click, and actually making the drums sound ‘natural’ (and being able to drift on and off of a click), still sounds good, and is “an art completely in itself.”
All for the good of the whole
While Tillotson sometimes longs for the most recent heyday of Oxford’s music scene, of the earlier 2000s, Cain offers the balance of the optimistic enthusiasm of a musician who’s much newer to town, and unable to compare it to anything but the other places he’s played.
Although the description ‘Southern rock’ can be a very broad stroke (and somewhat of a redundant term) SGR gives it a different treatment, with the versatile musical background of its personnel. Three of the group’s core members; Daniel Hodges (alto sax), Adam Davenport (trombone) and Jesse Martin (bass), played for the Ole Miss Band, “The Pride of the South,” at various times.
As was the case with most bands over the last couple of years, the SGR project was put on the back burner while members had to pursue other interests – and ways to pay the bills. Now they’re ramping up their mission, with renewed purpose, and are expected to be seen and heard only more and more in the days to come.
Tillotson’s other venture, a local food service company called Rebel Chefs, which mainly focuses on serving the fraternities and Sororities at U of M, recently had a well received pop-up event at Bar Muse, a popular craft cocktail bar inside of Oxford’s Lyric Theatre.