‘I don’t think there’s a better feeling in the world than finishing a new song’: Rob Aldridge Talks New Proponents Album

Rob Aldridge & The Proponents’ barroom-damaged 2018 self-titled debut was a barnburner, the muscular sound of a group in love with the raging guitars of good time 1970s rock ‘n’ roll. Released two years later, the breezy EP All Along After All found Aldridge distancing himself from his FM roots, backed by psych-pop mavens The Pollies, and delivering high-concept, lush, and ethereal songs. The rousing spirit of the band’s Muscle Shoals/Huntsville, Alabama, roots had vanished.

Aldridge and The Proponents find some middle ground in 2022’s Mind Over Manners. Their affection for classic rock is intact, but the driving narrative is socially urgent. MoM reveals Aldridge as a songwriter who is both emboldened and tempered by the pandemic, fatherhood, and social movements like Black Lives Matter and the struggle for gender equality. He is also living under the canopy of loss: Stone Anderson, the band’s bassist and, more importantly, Aldridge’s friend, died unexpectedly in April. MoM carries the weight of a memorial and a timestamp.

The album’s second single, the sinewy “Poor Taste” ( a duet with Wanda Wesolowski), evokes the toxic relationship trope, the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton-esque couple from your circle of friends. From there, Aldridge shifts from the domestic to the more profound. He walks the tightrope of the politically-motivated songwriter, the creator at risk of sounding trite, opportunistic, insincere, or just vague enough so as not to offend. Yet he is in control of his thesis. He is achingly blunt but avoids the sloganeering and score-settling that derail many topical artists. In the title track’s video– a montage of Civil Rights-era footage– history speaks for itself, alongside Aldridge’s lyrics that ask white opponents of riots to understand that disturbance and disorder aren’t created in a vacuum.

Aldridge spoke with Sound and Soul in anticipation of Mind Over Manners’s January 21st release.

The progression of your sound from your debut to Mind Over Manners is dramatic. What happened between 2018 and now?

That first record with a band– I’d done all this stuff before and did a big production thing. We started it in Nashville at Welcome to 1979 and then FAME Studios here in the Shoal and finished it up. All that’s cool, but live, my band was a four-piece– me and Rob Malone on two guitars, and bass and drums. Me and Malone, on the rides to gigs, were listening to stuff like The Faces or Mott the Hoople, bands that would go in the studio with these vicious guitars with no reverb or anything, just banging out songs. We shaped that record to be four guys in a room just playing rock ‘n’ roll songs on what they got. We wanted to make a record that we could be completely faithful to live and have some fun playing rock ‘n’ roll.

So we did that, and I scratched that itch. Between that record and this record, I did an EP with my friend Jay Burgess, who fronts The Pollies, who do a lot of cool psych-pop/soundscape stuff. He’s really good at getting those kinds of things. On the EP, I used The Pollies and went down that road and took that experience and applied it to this new record. I had some deeper songs going on than I did with the first one. I let Jay Burgess guide me, and that’s what we got.

You mentioned having some touchstones in mind for your previous record. Did you have any artists in mind when you recorded MoM? Anyone who was a guiding light?

Not really, particularly. My bass player who, unfortunately, passed in April was the younger guy in the band; he was my finger on the pulse of things that are trending and younger and indie. He was showing me a lot of bands, like Mild High Club. I was kinda listening to that for the song “Little Lou” from our record. It kind of got some of those vibes, but nothing particular on the whole record influenced me. I listen to a lot of different stuff, but I was just in a songwriting place where I wasn’t writing as many banging rockers like the first record. I wanted to serve the songs more than serve the sound that we already had.

Lyrically, the album is a lot weightier than your debut. Can you talk about your writing process?

With my songs, I try and be brutally honest. I’ve had to explain to my wife a couple of times, like the song “Shit Show”. (Laughs) We’ve had our ups and downs, so I’ll take my own experiences, but then also it’s not all just me. I tie in other stuff. It’s sort of an amalgamation of different people’s experiences and made-up experiences. I try and put myself into a character and use what I know and what I’ve seen with other people. I highlight those in-between moments in your life that nobody ever really thinks about. I’ll try and dig into those little moments and swim around. Usually, I don’t even have the song idea yet until I do that, and then it takes me there.

Is lyric writing difficult for you? Is there something that causes anxiety or is it something that comes naturally?

Honestly, I’d say it’s kind of natural. I’ve worked at it. It’s a lot of revision. I’ll get something down and live with it for a little while and go back and revise and revise and “trim the fat,” as Rob Malone calls it, and get it tight, try not to have too much filler, a make every word count. I work at it; it is a concerted effort, but at the same time, I really enjoy doing it. I don’t think there’s a better feeling in the world than finishing a new song.

How influenced was the record by what’s going on these days?

Very influenced by that. For a year-and-half, we were just home and for the most part, watching the news. “Mind Over Manners” was very much inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and everything that was going on in there. And I’ve got the song “Little Lou” about my daughter. Then there’s “Beatlesque Nowhere,” which is my COVID song. It’s not as obvious– it’s more of a stream-of-consciousness song, lyrically, but I was in a delirious place with being home for so long. I wasn’t used to that, and I remember thinking it reminded me of some weird, acid-trippy Beatles song. That’s where that title came from and I kind of ran with that.

There’s a lot of hints, sometimes more obvious in places towards women empowerment. I’ve got two daughters, and spending a lot of time with them at home has reinforced my position on wanting a better world for them, so there’s a lot of girl power in there, too.

Little Lou” is directly for my youngest daughter, and then there’s some lyrics, like on “Twisted Blanket”, that contains a few different stories kind of rolled into one about a female bartender who just deals with men all the time. I tried to imagine what being in that position would be like.

Fatherhood changes you…

We’re a lot further along than we were 50 years ago, but there’s still so many obvious things that need to be fixed and addressed. I did an interview the other day, and they were asking about “Mind Over Manners”, and it’s sort of the same deal with racism. I think the words racism and chauvinist, those words imply a malicious intent, but I think a lot of it is just ignorance. They’re not stupid. It’s just we’ve been indoctrinated into this way of thinking for most of our lives, and we‘ve just got to talk about it, you know?

I’m from the South, from Middle Georgia. I grew up with exactly what you’re talking about. How did you transcend those prejudices? Was there an epiphany?

Not to throw my family under the bus, like I said, I think a lot of it is ignorance. In my family, they’re great people, and we’re not racist, but my grandfather definitely would have been canceled if he took to Twitter and said some of the stuff he said. He was a great brilliant man, but that’s just how they came up.

And I guess just hitting the road and getting out there, in addition to seeing how life is lived in other places. And also, nowadays, we’ve got Twitter– everybody’s closer together in that sense. You can dive into whole other cultures and ways of life just through people’s tweets, getting other ideas about how you can approach life. I think just being open. There’s ways to look at it all around, but you got to be open to it.

I think traveling is essential for everyone. I’d always kind of felt that way. In fact, I was a big Anthony Bourdain fan, and he always talked about that. That was what he preached– to get out in the world and see it. He definitely reinforced what I already felt. It’s important to see how other people live.

Is it ever difficult for you to embrace the label southern rock or say you’re a southern band? I’ve talked to some artists who bristle at that distinction, like it may carry a negative connotation. I was wondering how you feel about that.

I don’t identify with the meaning of southern rock to most people. But I mean, I am Southern and I can’t get around that coming through in my writing, and I am in a rock ‘n’ roll band. In that sense, we are southern rock, but I don’t think it’s how people expect it to be when they hear it. It’s very much inspired by where I come from, and I couldn’t avoid it if I tried, you know? We are southern rock band, but not like you’re thinking (laughs)!

The Drive-By Truckers were an eye-opener for me– that you could be from the South and also be socially conscious and aware. I know you have a connection to them. [Proponents guitarist Rob Malone also plays with the Drive-By Truckers.] Did they have that sort of impact on you?

I actually knew about Jason [Isbell] really before I knew about the whole Truckers stuff, but I did dive into that. That was definitely a phase I went through for a while, going through their catalog. Then, of course, I got it straight from the horse’s mouth when I joined up with Rob Malone, hearing all of those stories from back in the day, like the Southern Rock Opera. It’s really fascinating how they essentially went to school on their own about the history of the South and George Wallace. Rob Malone is basically a historian on Lynyrd Skynyrd now from just from doing that record. They really are committed to their craft and I appreciate their originality and approach to it.

Did you ever fear backlash from certain fans? The video for “Mind Over Manners” pulls no punches…

Well, we did. I’d be lying otherwise. I wasn’t as worried about it. I was more worried about… I didn’t want to do anything that would somehow inadvertently hurt the BLM movement. The last thing black people need is some white guy coming out and saying something that sets them back even further. I was more worried about it being taken the wrong way by them, but the song is essentially a white person talking to white people about that. I’m not trying to speak for black people on it. The only point I’m trying to make is if you’re going through the history of racism and everything black people have been through in this country and what they’re still dealing with today, how could you blame them for rioting? I’m not necessarily condoning rioting, and I’m not trying to throw off on police or anything. But I mean, shit, it came to a boiling point, and I feel like they’ve tried every way they would prefer them to try. It wasn’t working.

Yeah, I don’t think people understand what it’s like to be backed into a corner.

Yeah, exactly. Jesus, it’s got to be exhausting after all this time. But I don’t care if it pisses off a white person if they’re just not getting it, and they’re not doing their part to understand. I can’t force them to do that. But mostly my reservations about it were just being misunderstood by the black community.

One song I return to is “Mean Grass”. What’s going on with the dual-narrative?

Yeah, that’s sort of fictional story that could be true, I suppose. There’s a little town north of Florence, just on the other side of the border into Tennessee called Iron City. It’s a rough town. It’s a beautiful little town, but it’s rough. I’ve always heard stories and how you shouldn’t go up there and get lost, how people haven’t come back from Iron City. But years ago, I would go, maybe get my mind right, and take a little drive through the countryside up there. There are these rolling hills of grass that grow as tall as a man that were this neon-bright, glowing green. The wind would sweep through, and it was just beautiful. I remember thinking, “That’s beautiful and all, but man, if you were to take off walking through there, that grass would tear you up.”

And so, years later, I was thinking about that, thinking about the town, and I made up a little story about a guy with a drug problem and a girl with plenty of potential who’s being held back by our upbringing, which I felt were pretty common themes, I’m sure, for small-town living. I ran with that and used that grass image– walking through it, it tearing you up, and stripping off all the bad in your life, all your shortcomings, and everything holding you back. You walk through the grass, and it rips it from you. And that’s really weird now that I think about it… (Laughs)

What’s it like persevering without [Stone Anderson]?

I mean, you just put your head down, keep going. He died right in the middle of us mixing and then… You know, making a record is the easy part. Releasing it is what kicks your ass. I haven’t had a lot of time to stop. I definitely feel motivated trying to honor him by making this record what we ways hoped it would be. He was really excited about it. But I wonder if I’ve still got some processing to do…

No doubt. That’s a tremendous loss.

It’s kind of tough. The band was me, him, and Malone. It’s how it sounded when we came together. Matt Ross, our buddy who’s been filling in on bass, is a fantastic bass player, and he’s not doing anything wrong, but it’s weird because it’s going to be a little different even if I’m the only one that feels that it is.

Are y’all hitting the road in the new year?

Me and Malone are planning on doing some acoustic duo stuff. That’s kind of how everything started with us anyway, so we’re really comfortable doing that. But I don’t where we’re going to end up with it, man, but we just got to keep going.

We don’t have a booking agent right now, and between raising the kids and trying to get their record release, it takes a lot of time to sit down and book something, but I’ve actually got plans and some calls I’m going to be on today, and hopefully, we’re going to be in Texas and Chicago next year in the spring and just do as much as we can.

Finally, I wanted to ask you about your favorite winter records. Do you have any that remind you of this time of year?

I love that Paul Simon record Still Crazy after All These Years. It’s got that song “I Do It for Your Love”. It’s got some cool, wintery vibes for me. I think Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky‘s got some wintery vibes going on. It’s kind of funny– when the weather gets cold, you sort of gravitate towards heartier foods, and I gravitate towards warmer production.

Mind Over Manners lands on Friday, January 21st! Like & Follow Rob Aldridge & The Proponents for news and LIVE performance updates!

Charlie Farmer is a Georgia writer and professor who loves his wife, his daughters, his students, his cats, his books, his LPs, and everything else one should love in life.