Brothers Pearl: The Triad’s Best Local Original Band
Robert “Bobby” Alexander Smith, guitarist and singer of Brothers Pearl, knows that his band isn’t thought of primarily for writing original tunes. So he and his bandmates were suitably surprised and honored when they learned that they won the Best Local Original Band category in the annual YES! Weekly readers’ poll. They also tied with Skulls & Whiskey to win the Best Tribute/Cover Band category. Brothers Pearl are mostly a cover band, but they do have some original songs, and they’re patiently working on some more, with hopes to record and release an EP of new material by the end of the year.
The main original tune they are known for, “Carolina Sunrise,” is a catchy one, though, and it has the virtue of seeming tailor-made for a very specific place and a very specific time. (It gets spun early in the morning occasionally on a station up in the mountains.) Every day, all over North and South Carolina there are people waking up — or, as in the case of the song, staying up all night — to see a Carolina sunrise. It’s a song, like “Here Comes the Sun,” “Damn, This Traffic Jam,” “I Don’t Like Mondays,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Working For the Weekend” and countless others that fits a specific time perfectly. And in this case, it fits a specific place as well. If you know the song and you happen to be awake in the Carolinas as the sun rises, you might find yourself singing its chorus.
“Carolina Sunrise” sounds a lot like many of the covers that Brothers Pearl do in their live sets. It’s got a whiff of Southern rock, a country twang that’s offset by a dash of slow-burn soul. It’s a break-up song, with booze and stoicism twirled into the mix.
“We’re finding that sound a little more, every gig,” Smith said of their blend. “We try to put a Southern sound on everything. Actually, we don’t try, it just happens.”
Brothers Pearl cover classic songs by Tom Petty, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and more. They also play familiar contemporary hits, songs of the 21st century with a classic-rock feel, tunes by John Mayer, Sturgill Simpson, Gary Clark Jr. and others.
I spoke to Bobby Smith last week as he and some of his musician friends were preparing to take a long Memorial Day weekend excursion around the New River. The forecast suggested that they would spend a fair bit of their time being soggy, but that didn’t seem to bother Smith, who seems to take a be-patient attitude with many things.
That’s true of his approach to growing the band and writing new songs, too.
Every once in a while you’ll meet someone who knew they wanted to be a songwriter before they even learned how to play music. But, for the most part, the urge to write original songs, and the confidence to do it, comes from playing other people’s songs, from studying the great pop, rock, soul, blues and folk standards of the past. You get those songs in your fingers and in your head and the logic becomes more internalized. Once you realize that some of the most timeless hits are made up of the same three chords and the most basic set of lyrics, it can impart that feeling that maybe you too could write a song that might have a little life to it. The Beatles stayed busy in Hamburg playing early rock covers before coming back to England and recording a few originals mixed in with established hits. The same thing happened with the Rolling Stones; their manager realized that the real money was to be found in those publishing royalties for writing original songs, so he locked Mick and Keith in a room and said “write something!”
Smith is only 29, but he’s been playing music for over 20 years, having first started playing with his father, who was also a musician and a songwriter.
“I grew up in Rockingham,” Smith said. “My dad taught me how to play drums. I was playing drums when I was 4. I was filling in at the children’s church when I was 7 or 8.”
Smith was the youngest of five kids, and his oldest brother, along with his uncle, also taught him how to play music. While his dad was teaching Smith Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, his brother was teaching him Pink Floyd and Steve Miller. Smith started out playing drums, but had to switch to guitar when he and his siblings moved with his mom to Greensboro. Living in an apartment required an instrument that could be played without annoying the neighbors.
Brothers Pearl took shape as Bobby and the Good Times about five years ago, when Wade Ingram, the other guitarist in the band, was running a nightclub and needed a band on short notice for a Friday night.
“We started by filling in a couple dead nights there and then moved to playing around town. Our crowd just kept growing, and we finally changed the name two-and-a-half years ago to Brothers Pearl.”
The band, rounded out with Jordan Luther on bass and Mike Pitts on drums, stays busy, playing around the Triad, getting up to Virginia occasionally. Their fans — the same ones who voted for them in the readers’ poll — are loyal. Smith said they’ll see familiar faces when they’re playing gigs around the area, from fans who’ve gone on little road trips to catch a live set, and that enthusiasm makes the whole experience much more fun for the members of the band, who might otherwise be facing ho-hum out-of-town barroom crowd. Playing those long nights, with generally around three hours of live music, figuring out how to win a crowd, mixing old classics with slightly more deep cuts, has given Smith and Brothers Pearl a perspective on what makes durable rock ‘n’ roll.
“I think it allows me to be more free,” Smith said. “I don’t feel like I have to be stuck in a niche trying to cut this cookie that everybody’s eating. I’m trying to make songs that mean something, that communicate to everybody.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.