Mark Harrison skews the place-name song so effectively with "Tennessee," the track that leads off his new full-length as leader of Snakehips, that the rest of Must Be Present To Win sounds merely superlative by comparison. With its British Invasion-meets-blues guitar riff and glam-rock dash, "Tennessee" seems imbued with the spirit of its locale: "Guns in bars, Auto-Tune," Harrison half-sneers, and he name-checks "suburban sprawl, hellish heat, Southern drawl." Musically, Harrison is a graduate of the Memphis-run School of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, which boasts such alumni as Chris Stamey, Teenage Fanclub, Jon Tiven and Elliott Smith. And while some of these students foreswore classes early, or had run-ins with the teacher, Harrison makes classically structured Memphis-style Nashville power pop that suggests he's learned some lessons.
Born in 1963 in Alaska, Harrison grew up in Murfreesboro and took guitar lessons with his brother, Price, when they were teenagers. "We discovered at a pretty early age The Velvet Underground and Dylan and all of those kind of things," says Harrison from his Nashville home. "I came to Nashville my senior year, and Price and I had started a little high school band, and we played some parties, you know."
Harrison says his high school band received an invitation to open for Nashville rockers The White Animals around that time, but couldn't make it. He'd never been to Memphis before, and in 1981 began attending Southwestern at Memphis, a liberal-arts school that is now Rhodes College. He entered the city's woozy post-Stax, post-Big Star music scene, which featured Chilton himself — home from the rock 'n' roll wars and hanging out in Midtown Memphis — playing guitar with the avant-garde rockabilly group Tav Falco's Panther Burns.
"I had a good friend, Lewis Duckworth, whose brother, Jim Duckworth, played with the Panther Burns and The Gun Club," says Harrison. "He gave me all these Chilton records, and within a year or two, I was meeting all these people. Tav used to throw these weird parties, down on the bluff in the big cotton rooms on Front Street. I met [Panther Burns drummer] Ross Johnson, and he ended up playing with me in one version of Snakehips that never recorded."
Recorded in Nashville and Memphis, Must Be Present To Win continues Harrison's work with the various versions of Snakehips. "Only One" has the emotionalism of a Grin track, while the country-tinged "Live Free or Die" lifts a melody along the lines of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and marries it to a nuanced folk-rock arrangement.
Harrison has a subject — his Marc Bolan-esque vocals help focus the satirical, observational lyrics he's penned for "Swinger," which is about casual sex and self-delusion. Similarly, "Tennessee" is hardly a candidate for a sanctioned state song. Working in the apolitical genre of power pop, Harrison makes his points with the same gnomic precision he wields while fashioning his spare, allusive arrangements.
Harrison has kept Snakehips going since their 1993 debut full-length, Lit, and has collaborated with his brother on various projects. When he played with Tav Falco's Panther Burns in the '80s, he got to hang out with Chilton — after class, as it were. As Harrison says of the Memphis seekers who have inspired him, "Some of the things they were doing back then were so far out of the mainstream, and I can't imagine them now. There was this attitude of fearlessness: 'What does it matter, just play.' People just do not do that anymore."