THE COAL MEN prove to be Natural Wonder at the Wash

-Peter Cooper

- photo by Cris Lane

After 12 years of van rides and rehearsals….. after thousands of miles….. after John’s Alley in Moscow, Idaho and the Sportsman’s Tavern in Buffalo, New York, and Vnuk’s Lounge in Cudahy, Wisconsin….. after taking comfort in the small pleasures of critical raves (“fearless emotional candor,” wrote a Vintage Guitar magazine reviewer, while Music Row’s Robert K. Oermann wrote, “These folks deserve stardom)….. after all the things that fall under the heading of “Paying Your Dues,” this is what it looks like for one of Nashville’s finest rock ‘n’ roll bands, The Coal Men:

The Family Wash in East Nashville. Chatty, Friday night crowd. A (deft) replacement bass player named Jared Manzo, because Jason “Hitch” Hitchcock is taking some time off. Nothing palpable to lose or gain, on a casual, hometown, tip jar gig. The kind of gig that lesser bands tend to slough off.

Also, the kind of gig that makes Nashville a special, enlightening and inspiring place, because lesser bands here don’t wind up headlining even small and funky hangs like the Wash on a Friday night. It’s a world-class music town, and Manzo, frontman Dave Coleman and drummer Dave Ray know better than to simply move through the motions. A disciple of the late and lamented rocker Duane Jarvis, whose onstage motto was “Every night different,” Coleman isn’t wired for routine, and Friday’s Coal Men show traded on dynamics and visceral flights rather than aural choreography.

That’s not to say that the three-piece isn’t tight, or that the songs and arrangements ever seem haphazard, just that there’s nothing rote here, even in between the songs. Before launching into a strutting new rocker, Coleman devoted the song to famously troubled starlet Lindsay Lohan, who Coleman said “Reminds me I am not a total screwup.” And prior to singing spot-on harmonies on a song about Tennessee, Ray noted that mid-state living space in the state is currently available: “I have a room to rent, near Hundred Oaks Mall,” he said. “Real neat and clean.”

When not hawking his rental commodity, Ray drummed with a rock ‘n’ roller’s steady pulse and a jazzman’s touch, and his harmonies shimmered over Coleman’s lead vocals. Manzo integrated himself nicely into the mix, managing parts that are intriguing without being muddy or busy, and his Rickenbacker bass layered a distinctive treble pop atop the low-end underpinning.

For his part, Coleman, 32, is a distinctive yet versatile (that’s a tough trick) guitar force. In his 20s, some folks talked of him as a budding Kenny Vaughan or Buddy Miller, and he’s now squarely in that league. He makes a three-piece sound like a five-piece, never relying on the kind of silly, flurried-high-note tricks that draw applause without providing substance. His tone is unassailable, and he is essentially producing as he plays, subtly answering vocal lines, bass riffs and even drum fills with pretty-as-you-please six-string responses. He also provides strong vocals and a song sense that ranges from the earnest guitar pop of show-opening “Natural Wonder” to the hooky aggression of “My Last Goodbye,” which would fit happily at home on a late-1970’s Nick Lowe album.

All of that and 12 years of van rides will get you a Friday night gig at the Wash, where patrons drop some cash in the hat that gets passed around, and maybe that cash buys enough gas to get the band halfway to Cudahy, the next time the boys play Vnuk’s Lounge. That’s the way of the musical world, and it’s neither just nor righteous, but it makes an East Nashville Friday night into something approaching the “Natural Wonder” of which Coleman sings.


Peter Cooper is the roots music critic. He is a touring singer-songwriter, a recording artist, a music columnist for The Tennessean and a senior lecturer in country music at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music. His pieces have appeared in Esquire, The Oxford American, Nashville Arts Magazine and numerous other publications. He was chosen Nashville’s best music journalist for eight consecutive years by readers of the Nashville Scene, and he is the 2011 recipient of The Charlie Lamb Award for excellence in country music journalism. Cooper also co-produced I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow, a heralded tribute album featuring Hall, Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Bobby Bare and many other music greats.

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