The recording studio itself was a sight. It had tall ceilings, but stuff was everywhere -- old instruments, expensive recording equipment and boxes of who knows what. Mics were set up to capture the sound as it bounced around the cluttered confines. Oh, and by the way, the producer said, the analog recording equipment would pick up a slight hiss. Is that OK?
Yes, John Cranford replied. This is what I want.
The studio fit Cranford & Sons' idea for their self-titled debut album well. The four-piece band is a throwback. They play a combination of bluegrass, Celtic and roots rock they call Lowcountry Stomp. It's not supposed to sound like it comes from an antiseptic studio, all auto-tuned and precise. It's meant to sound like a howl from a muggy bayou bar.
Hear them for yourself at their CD release party Friday at The Smokehouse on Hilton Head Island.
They recorded at Retrophonics Studio near St. Augustine, Fla., with producer Jim DeVito, who has worked with Rod Stewart, Tom Petty, the Allman Brothers and other legends. His studio is lo-fi on purpose. Cranford and his gang were seeking a retro sound that feels more at home on vinyl than MP3. Cranford played a guitar that could have been ordered out of a Sears and Roebuck catalog. Microphones older than his 27 years picked up his gravelly vocals.
"We could have done this in John's bedroom with a computer," said drummer Randy Rockalotta. "But this feels real. It's raw."
The group itself has only been around since September. A Wisconsin native, Cranford joined together with fiddler Eric Reid, bassist Phil Sirmans and longtime island percussionist Rockalotta. They've quickly found a niche on the island, routinely playing to audiences at The Boardroom, Skull Creek Boathouse, Wild Wing Cafe and the Hurricane Bar. Their aspirations reach beyond the Lowcountry, too. They have plans to tour the Midwest later this year and one day soon hope to find themselves as an opening act for a group like the Black Keys.
When the band started thinking about recording, Retrophonics was the first studio to come to mind. Rockalotta had recorded there with other groups, knowing how DeVito could get the sound they desired.
They recorded on and off for four months. They'd travel to Crescent Beach, the small studio just steps from the ocean, and record for 12 hours straight. All in all, they were in the studio for maybe two weeks.
"It happened real quick," Rockalotta said. "But it's so good for something that was made on a half a shoestring budget."