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Friday, November 23, 2018

Rise and Shine: Bishop Gunn by Tom Scarborough


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RISE AND SHINE
Bishop Gunn Puts Natchez, MS on the Rock-and-Roll Map
© 2018 Tom Scarborough


Bishop Gunn (Photo courtesy of Anthony Scarlati)
It’s a warm spring evening in early May at the First Annual Bishop Gunn Crawfish Boil in Natchez, Mississippi. Darryl Grennell, the charismatic mayor of the city, bounds onto the stage wearing a t-shirt that reveals a sleeve of tattoos covering his left arm. On the Natchez bluff, 150 feet above the Mississippi River—on the same ground where Spanish soldiers occupying the town drilled nearly 250 years earlier—the mayor surveys what is perhaps the largest single-day event crowd in Natchez history, and approaches the mic:

“Let’s bring Bishop Gunn up here…come on up here boys.”

Nearly four thousand fans from as far away as Chicago, Washington state, Arizona and Oregon let loose a lusty, well-lubricated roar as the four members of Bishop Gunn—the fast-rising young rock band from Natchez--trot up the steps to receive a heroes’ welcome, and the key to their hometown.

After the mayor has left the stage, the band—Travis McCready, Drew Smithers, Ben Lewis, and Burne Sharp—take their places and McCready’s guitar detonates with the opening chords of “Silver Street,” like a derecho exploding in from the west:

“There was blood on the sidewalk / Full moon in the sky/ Lawmen standing ‘round making small talk / As the coroner closes the dead man’s eyes.”
Travis McCready (Photo courtesy of Anthony Scarlati)

McCready’s dark lyrics of murder on Natchez’s most infamous street are rendered all the more ominous by the setting sun balanced on the flaming horizon like some portentous End of Days prophecy.

Over the next ninety minutes, Bishop Gunn storms through its catalogue, including all the cuts from its debut album, Natchez released the previous week.  Recorded at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio by Mark Neill, and at the Purple House by Casey Wasner—both Grammy winning producers—the record has already climbed to Number 4 on Billboard magazine’s Blues chart.

McCready seemingly has no existential destiny other than to be a rock front man. He has the classical features of a Donatello sculpture, and the stage charisma of Robert Plant or Roger Daltrey.

But it is his voice, a summoning of Otis Redding, Bob Seger, and mid-register Plant that electrifies the crowd. It emanates from somewhere near the soles of his feet, courses through his body gathering strength, and erupts as a protean blast of molten rock and soul redemption.

During the infectious soul-infused single, “Shine,” three young musicians from Natchez High School supply the Memphis-style horn fills that, along with lead guitarist Drew Smithers’s deft phrasings, showcase the song’s unmistakable Muscle Shoals imprint.

Travis McCready (Photo courtesy of Anthony Scarlati)
The song concludes, and the young horn section’s members grin in delight as they revel in the crowd’s thunderous cheers. On this night, Natchez, Mississippi feels like the best place on Earth to be, and Bishop Gunn—perhaps the best emerging band in America.

Five months later, on a humid October day, drummer Burne Sharp greets a visitor at his recording studio in Natchez with an easy grin and a firm handshake. Inside the studio, all 6’3 of Travis McCready is sprawled out on a leather sofa in the control room, which is dominated by Sharp’s API console. Ben Lewis, the bassist, strolls in a few minutes later and offers a friendly greeting. Fed Zeppelin, the porcine house feline, settles on the visitor’s lap.

The three members of Bishop Gunn (the fourth member, lead guitarist Drew Smithers did not make the trip) are in their hometown for a couple of days at the tail end of a national tour that has seen the band play fifty-eight dates in eighteen states since mid-May. In July, the band opened two shows for Lynyrd Skynyrd in New York City.

Most recently, the band has shared multi-city co-bills with the Marcus King Band, and Whiskey Myers. In Spring 2019, Bishop Gunn will open for Guns and Roses guitarist, Slash, on the final leg of his European “Living The Dream” tour. Released within the past month, the video for their song “Alabama” was reviewed by Rolling Stone literally hours after it hit the bandwidth. In an industry ecosystem known for devouring the weak, the insipid, and the foolish, Bishop Gunn is well on its way to becoming an apex predator.
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The band now resides 400 miles up the Natchez Trace from its hometown outside Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee—close enough to Nashville to be in proximity to the tools and the connections of Music Row. But it is to Natchez that Bishop Gunn routinely returns to recharge the band mojo when the members are not on tour or recording. While in the old river city, the band hangs out and jams at Smoot’s Grocery, and drinks glasses of Bishop Gunn Ale at the Natchez Brewing Company. They remain local guys without any pretense or rock star affectation.


Travis McCready working the stage. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Scarlati)

Bishop Gunn is not an easy band to categorize. Rolling Stone magazine recently listed them as one of the top ten new Country bands to watch, even though only one song on their debut LP can be remotely construed as a twanger. Billboard Magazine tossed them into the Blues blender. Others describe the band as Southern Rock—an uninspired assessment most likely based on the band’s home state.

None of these attempts to define Bishop Gunn are altogether wrong, but they provide only a partial taxonomy of the band’s sound. Indeed, the band’s music is a dense construction of Delta blues motifs, Memphis soul, four quarts of dirty motor oil and metal shavings, a shot of Nashville and a chaser of Allman Brothers—all wired, taped, and packaged into a straight-up rock-and-roll time bomb, circa 1974. 

Along with other neo-classicist bands such as Greta Van Fleet, the Sheepdogs, and Black Stone Cherry, Bishop Gunn is poised to reintroduce a generation wandering the digital deserts of Electronic Dance Music to mechanical instrumentation, and the human voice. There is, however, another element—a rock-and-roll God particle—infusing Bishop Gunn’s music with a dynamic totally and uniquely the band’s own: Natchez, Mississippi.

Born in this struggling river city of 15,000, Bishop Gunn speaks the language of its people. It’s the musical dialect of a Southern town with a complicated history that resonates with the weary accent of hard times. Since 1960, Natchez has lost half its population and nearly the entire industrial base that once supported the town’s thriving local economy.

Says, McCready, “We’re a band from Natchez, MS. That’s something to be proud of. We want to bring Natchez to the world, and to show everyone the history and culture of our town. Natchez is a diamond in the rough ”

Bishop Gunn first showed up on the Natchez music radar in 2015, when the band played its inaugural gig at the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race, an annual festival held the third weekend in October that draws thousands of visitors to Natchez. “The gig was supposed to be a one-off,” recalls McCready.

The band’s set was so well received though that McCready and Sharp decided to continue writing and recording music together at Sharpe’s studio in town.  Sharp laughs, “I was getting a bunch of recording equipment in for the studio that I really didn’t know how to use yet. So I told Travis, ‘You just sing, and I think I can figure out how to record here pretty quick.”

Over the next few months, Sharp and McCready labored in Sharp’s studio writing and mixing songs. The following July, Bishop Gunn played its first date as a full-fledged band at a now defunct bar called the Devil’s Punchbowl. Dub Rogers, the former owner, recalls that night:

“The bar was a blockhouse out on Highway 61, next to the Kaiser gas station. It was summer and the air conditioning was broken. The guys brought every damn piece of equipment they owned, and more than a 100 people crammed into that little building to hear them. It was just like rock and roll is supposed to be—loud, hot, sweaty and nasty.”

Several months later, the band made its second appearance at the 2016 Great Mississippi River Balloon Race and, again, was enthusiastically received. Kid Rock, and Mike Wolfe of “American Pickers” fame came to Natchez to take in the event and see Bishop Gunn’s performance.

McCready laughs as he recounts the weekend. “So Kid Rock and Mike came down to Natchez with our manager and booking agent.  Well, the next day after our set, our agent, and our manager flew out and left Kid Rock and Mike with us from Friday to Sunday—so we were basically put in charge of handling Kid Rock in Natchez. You can imagine how well that went.”

“On Saturday night, we were at the Under-the-Hill Saloon. The bar wouldn’t sell Rock a bottle of Jim Beam over the counter, so Burne asked his brother, Chapman, to go to the liquor store and get Rock the biggest bottle of Jim Beam he could find. There was a cop sitting in his car out front, and Chapman says to the cop, ‘Hey, uh, Mr. Kid Rock says we gotta get to the liquor store real quick. And the cop says, ‘Alright, get in.’ So Chapman gets in and the cop turns on his lights and off they went to the liquor store. Only in Natchez.”
Ben Lewis and Travis McCready, 1st Annual Bishop Gunn Crawfish Boil, Natchez, MS(Photo courtesy of Anthony Scarlati)

Travis McCready came up sturdy. The son of a metal worker, it seemed foreordained that he would spend his working years behind a welder’s mask, like his father. His young years were rough. Painfully shy and afflicted with a speech impediment, Travis fought his way through elementary and middle-school, defending himself against the physical and emotional predations of his schoolmates. 

“I couldn’t pronounce my ‘Rs’,” remembers McCready. “When I would try to say a word like ‘world’, it would come out as ‘wulled.’ The interesting thing is that when I sing now, you can hear traces of my speech impediment—like anytime I sing the word ‘heart.’”

Music provided Travis with only a partial escape from the hardships of growing up different. “I sang when I was a little kid, then I kind of put it away. My grandpa told me one time, ‘You shouldn’t try to perform in front of anybody until you know what you’re doing’—he was an accomplished steel guitar player—so I didn’t until I was seventeen.”

In high school, McCready was artsy with long hair, and weird enough by local standards to be picked on relentlessly. But he was a fighter.

Says Aubrey Preston, the band’s manager, “Travis came from one of those environments where you get in an argument—the next thing to do was fistfight until near death. He’s just a junkyard dog—he was fighting his way all the way through. He’s had like twenty lives or something.”

Most musicians in Natchez work regular day jobs to pay the bills, an imperative that deters them from traveling any distance to take other bookings. This was the trap McCready found himself in—playing gigs until two or three in the morning and, after a few hours of sleep, putting in a full day torching and bending metal. For a musician on fire to pursue his passion, McCready knew his aspirations would suffocate if he didn’t devote himself entirely to his music.

In 2016, McCready showed up at work one morning:

“I got my bucket of tools and I brought them out into the middle of the shop and left them in the middle of the floor—then I left. Some of the guys were saying, ‘You’ll be back.’ But I never did.”

One evening, McCready played a reception at the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau, where he encountered the man who would alter his and Bishop Gunn’s trajectory—Aubrey Preston.

Preston is the founder of the Americana Music Triangle, a Nashville-based organization dedicated to spreading awareness of the rich musical legacy of the area between Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans.  Within this fertile womb of ground, nine distinct genres of American music have gestated.  The 40 million visitors annually who come to this region to glean the musical and historical culture of the Triangle represent tremendous economic potential for towns like Natchez. To this point, it has been a lode of mostly missed opportunity. It is Preston’s mission and passion to change this.

It was during one of Preston’s trips to Natchez to work with local tourism leaders, that he first encountered McCready.

“The city had asked me to come down and speak about what we at the Triangle were doing. That night, the local CVB had a reception—typical kind of thing, meet and greet, and a bar. They brought over Travis, Burne, and Hudson Laird, who was the first lead guitar player in Bishop Gunn”.

‘They were playing some cover tunes—Bob Seger, that sort of thing.  I end up talking to Travis. He stood up and he’s like this really good looking 6’3” kid singing out of his mind and playing guitar. I shot a little video, sent it to my wife and said, ‘Is this as good as I think this is, or am I in some kind of reality-distortion field?’ She texted back, “Yeah, it is that good.”

Preston resolved to bring McCready to Nashville where he could write songs and connect with people who could help him develop his career. McCready made the trip to Nashville with Sharp as his wingman, but he was not synching with Preston’s plan to develop him as a Music Row singer-songwriter. 

“They gave me a recording of some music they had done. So anyway, I sent them home, and I didn’t bother to listen to it that much, but then they got back home and I listened to it, and its like this really hard driving rocking thing that they had recorded themselves. So I kind of pulled my chair up a little closer and started listening to them.”

“Finally I just decided this needs to happen, and I connected them with Casey Wasner, a young producer I’ve helped who just won a Grammy for producing the recent Taj Mahal/Keb Mo album.”

The result of that collaboration with Wasner was Bishop Gunn’s first EP that showcased their evocative lyrics, slicing guitar, and McCready’s muscular vocals.

Not long after the EP’s release, however, the band foundered. Preston had been pressing for the band to relocate from Natchez to Leiper’s Fork full time. McCready and Sharp were willing, but Hudson Laird and bassist Dan Scott elected to stay home in Natchez.

McCready recalls, “We had a bass player married with three kids, and Hudson, our guitar player, didn’t really want to do the traveling thing. So me and Burne went up by ourselves to Leiper’s Fork to start whatever the next chapter was going to be, and we just started writing a bunch of songs.”

 Without a lead guitar or bass player, Bishop Gunn was, for the moment, dead in the water.

Sharp remembers, “We were back to the initial plan of let’s work on Travis as singer-songwriter, and I was going to work on producing. But one night we were walking down the road in Liepers Fork and there was this little band playing outside at one of the little spots in town. Aubrey, our manager, spotted the guitar player, and said ‘THAT’s the guitar player we need. He plays slide, he looks good—that’s the one!” 

Soon after this initial encounter, McCready and Sharp ran into the guitar player again at Carter Vintage Guitars in Nashville where he worked.  Sharp chuckles as he remembers, “Travis and I looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s ask him if he wants to jam with us.’ It was kind of like being at a party and asking a hot girl out on a date. We invited him out to the farm to make some demos with us, and he did, and he’s still with us.”

Burne Sharp (Photo courtesy of Anthony Scarlati)
The guitar player was Drew Smithers. Originally from Connecticut, Smithers’ parents had been fans of the Grateful Dead, and they gave their son a vast and diverse exposure to music. He was considered one of the top high-school hockey players in the nation, and he was heavily recruited to play college hockey.

One night, he accompanied his parents to see the Allman Brothers during their annual stand at the Beacon Theater. The experience transformed him.

Smithers recalls, “I was stunned by what Butch Trucks and Warren Haynes were doing. I walked in a hockey player and walked out a guitar player—a Mississippi guitar player. I wanted to play Mississippi style-that Allman Brothers thing just floored me. I picked up the guitar and blew off the hockey thing.”

After graduating from Columbia College in Chicago with a degree in music, Smithers moved to Nashville, and began studying guitar under Jack Pearson. Pearson did a stint with the Allman Brothers and is, by consensus, a guitarist of near-celestial stature in the music industry. Pearson persuaded Smithers that he needed to learn to play in standard tuning, rather than in the open tuning Smithers had taught himself. 

With the addition of Smithers, the band now had a pulse, but they were still down a bass player.

Preston remembers, “So, I was still trying to push Travis to write songs the Nashville way. Well, we did that for several months and I could see he just really wasn’t going to mix into that Nashville thing very well. So one day I called the three of them together, and I said, ‘Guys, you just want to rock, don’t you?’ They were like, ‘Yeah!’ I said,  ‘Alright, we’ve got our guitar player, we’ve got to get a bass player—a real one.”

“Of course they just race ahead. They said, ‘Let’s get Ben!’

Ben Lewis was part of the network of Natchez players who played with, and filled in for other musicians when needed.  A well–respected local songwriter and guitarist, he had cut a solo CD, “This Town,” in Sharp’s recording studio. One of the cuts on the CD was ”The Devil Is A Woman,” a song that is evocative of some of Lowell George’s best work. The song would later be re-recorded for inclusion on Bishop Gunn’s debut album.

A former Marine who had served a tour in Iraq, Lewis was working as a respiratory therapist in Little Rock. Periodically he came home to Natchez to play gigs, write songs, and record in Sharp’s studio. In 2017, Lewis made the decision to move back to Natchez full-time, and even bought a house on the other side of the ravine from Sharp’s studio.

“By that time, Burne and I had already made the move to Leiper’s Fork, and Ben was coming up to jam with us and Drew,” says McCready. “Finally, in March, after having just bought a house in Natchez, he rented out his house and moved into the farmhouse with us.”

With the addition of Lewis, Bishop Gunn was at full-strength and hungry to hit the road.

Bishop Gunn went into Casey Wasner’s Purple House studio in Leiper’s Fork in January 2017 to begin recording their debut full-length album, Natchez. After producing Bishop Gunn’s EP, Wasner had a good handle on the band’s musical vocabulary and the sound they were dialing up.

The six tracks we did for Natchez took almost a year to make. They have the sound the band loves, the big tone, the heavy kick drum, the powerhouse vocals. They’ve got the kind of power and tone that causes your clothes to ripple if you turn it up loud enough,” explains Wasner.

In December 2017, Bishop Gunn scored a major coup. The recently renovated Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama was open and ready for business. The band was invited to take the studio out for a shakedown recording session.

If recording the remaining tracks for their debut album in one of the most storied studios in music history was not exciting enough, there was another surprise for the band. Mark Neill, the Grammy-winning producer behind the Black Keys 2011 album, “Brothers” would be producing the remaining tracks on the album.

Neill recalls, “So Aubrey sent me some of the band’s stuff.  When I heard it, I thought, ‘Huh, that’s weird. That’s like the strangest combination of Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers I’ve ever heard in my life.’ And for a minute, I didn’t even like it. But then it grew on me and within a couple of listens, I’m like, ‘No, there’s something here that’s deeper—I can feel it.”

Drew Smithers (Photo courtesy of Anthony Scarlati)
The pairing of Neill and the band was not without creative tension. Neill is recognized in the industry as a recording purist, eschewing all things digital in preference for live takes, no headphones, and as much analog hardware as can be crammed into the studio. For a young band accustomed to loops and beats run through Pro Tools on a laptop, Neill’s approach seemed positively antediluvian.

“So I’m this guy walking around snapping his fingers, with a pompadour, and at first it was just very odd to them,” Neill recollects.

“But I saw them develop right in front of me. I literally saw it, minute by minute. Drew and I would talk later and he’d be, like, ‘Man, I can’t believe what we just did!’ Every single minute of that process was exhilarating. The incredible thing is that we recorded those songs in five days.”

Of all of the songs on the album, “Alabama” undoubtedly has the weirdest provenance. Preston remembers, “Travis, Ben and Nicolette Hayford wrote ‘Alabama’ after the album was in the can—we were done with it.  We had ten songs in the bag and then they wrote that one.  They sent me a demo of it and I was like, ‘Holy shit—do you all realize what you just did? You just rhymed Savannah, Alabama and Louisiana in the same song! This HAS to be on the record—we have to go back. This song has got to be recorded on Alabama soil!”

Preston put in a call to Rodney Hall at Fame Studio to set up a date for the band to record “Alabama.” Hall’s father, the legendary Rick Hall, was the founder of Fame. From the studio’s control booth he had launched the careers of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Etta James, among others.

On January 2, 2018, the band was on the road to Muscle Shoals for the session when they received a phone call from Preston who gave them the devastating news that Rick Hall had passed away that morning.

Despite losing his father only hours before, Rodney Hall insisted that as long as there was good music to be recorded, his father would want the studio to remain open. 
McCready reflects, “So we just kind of reluctantly put it in gear, went down there and recorded the song the day Rick Hall died. So we show up, and Rodney Hall asked us what song we want to cut. And I told him I was a little leery about that because, I mean, the hook line is “Hope I don’t die in Alabama. And he said, ‘Well, is that your best song?’ I said yeah, and so we cut it. It was a very strange day.”

(Photo courtesy of Anthony Scarlati)
Natchez is a ferocious record, dripping with the sweat of a Mississippi summer. It is beaten into shape by the band’s blunt-trauma rhythm section, finely scored by Drew Smithers’ arcing guitar, and consecrated by Travis McCready’s soul-drenched vocals. There are no indie pretensions here, none of the contrived corporate dreck that currently fouls the bandwidth.

The album rumbles out of the gate with “Southern Discomfort,” a gritty elegy for the small-town Southern working class that echoes McCready’s own struggles. It is not so much a proletarian howl as a weary sigh--“Down South that’s the way shit goes.”

The final cut, “Alabama,” is a chilling psycho-Gothic cautionary tale of a chance road encounter—set to the haunting cadence of a prison chain gang. The spaces in between are filled with ruminations on the road as escape from intimacy (“Wheels”), the virtues of older women (“All The Ways”), and the most inspirational anthem to despair drinking in at least a decade (“Making It”).

Natchez is an unalloyed resurrection of everything rock music once was—raw, defiant, ecstatic, and redemptive—before the industry clubbed it to death like a baby harp seal. If any album today has the potential to call all God’s children home to rock-and-roll, Natchez is that album, and Bishop Gunn is the messenger.












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Thursday, November 1, 2018

On the First Cold Day of 2018

Today felt like first winter when you're kind of delighted it's Christmastime but the sky is pewter and the air is cold and you wonder if it's ever going to be a bright, sunshiny day again. Halfway between desolation and utter joy.
You think of all the dead, but also of the children who still wonder at the magic. And the knowledge that one day in the not-too-distant future, you'll be among the dead they're missing at the table, wishing you could make it easier for them.
In the meantime, the constellations turn in their heavens and never notice the tiny starts and finishes of the ants who live upon this hill. And people wonder why I never make the bed.

11/01/2018

Monday, July 2, 2018

Politics of Summer



Summertime.
Garden-district cottage.
Cats on the porch.
Ancient oaks. Peaceful.
Shady.

Tomatoes -- blood red --
and mayonnaise,
salted, peppered,
waiting
on the table.

Last week a feather
in the kitchen.
Yesterday a wing in the hall.

A cardinal batters
the bedroom window,
knocking to come in.
A wren batters from within.
How do I get out?
How did you get in?

Last night, a fight. Barking
In the den.  Flick the light
and then, a raccoon
dashes for the door.

Soon half a squirrel,
intestines twirled
on the front steps. Cats
draped on benches,
lick themselves.

Sweet scent of summer
Smells like death.

~ Elodie Pritchartt
07/02/2018

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Remembering the Enslaved: Delia -- A guest post by Tom Scarborough


This is an oil portrait that has been in my family since the 1840s. It is of an enslaved woman named Delia. 

She was the house servant to my great, great, great grandfather, William Bisland, at Mount Repose, the family's plantation near Natchez, MS. 

It was painted by James Reid Lambdin, a relative of the Bislands by marriage. Lambdin also painted the official portraits of presidents Zachary Taylor, and William Henry Harrison. 

This painting hung in the library of my grandparents' house in Washington D.C. for several decades. I remember being entranced by it when I would visit them. It is currently on exhibit at the Mississippi Museum of Art, in Jackson, MS. 

I went to Jackson last week to see Delia for the first time in at least twenty years. It was strange seeing in a public space, this painting that was a part of my ancestors' history, and a poignant reminder of their implication in the system of American racial slavery. 

William Henry Harrison

Zachary Taylor


Having done my graduate work in the study of the plantation slave economy, I am fascinated by the historical nuances of this painting. 


My Natchez family was deeply involved in the slave economy, owning over 400 human beings spread over five plantations, from Natchez, to Terrebonne Parish, LA. 

I don't know if the family commissioned this painting; if so, it would have been very unusual as slaveowners did not typically commission portraits of their human property. Oil portraits of enslaved persons are exceedingly rare. If they did, however, it would speak to the bonds that sometimes did form between bondspersons and those who kept them in thrall. 

More likely, Lambdin painted Delia on his own initiative, and then gave the painting to his in-laws. 

I love her expression--strong, proud, unbroken. She is dressed in what were most likely her finest garments--for her this must have been an event of special meaning. My aunt and I have both tried to track down any evidence that might indicate what became of Delia, but documentary evidence is scant. What little I have gleaned indicates that she may have moved from Mount Repose across the river to New Providence Plantation, in Concordia Parish, another Bisland plantation. But no records have yet been found to shed light on her life during, or after the Civil War.

It was wonderful to once again see this woman who has been a part of our family for nearly 175 years, though not by her choice. I am delighted that she can now be viewed and appreciated by the public. I encourage all of my friends in Natchez and nearby to make the trip to the museum, perhaps in conjunction with a visit to the new Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.

Tom Scarborough lives in St. Francisville, Louisiana, where he and his wife, Denise, own and operate the Nouvelle Candle Club, and parent a precious, precocious, politically savvy  cat named Andy.