Malone’s musical roots run deep, beginning with the formative ‘70s bands Dustwoofie, the Cartoons and the Continental Drifters; the last of which spawned a stripped-down band known as the Subdudes. With a single tambourine for percussion and a keyboardist who favored accordion, the Subdudes almost single-handedly bucked the ‘80s trend of mile-high production, proving that memorable songs, soulful delivery and true chemistry were all you really needed. The original quartet disbanded after 1997’s Live At Last album; Malone first joined the short-lived supergroup Tiny Town (with Pat McLaughlin, Ken Blevins and fellow Subdude Johnny Ray Allen), then made his solo debut with 2001’s Soul Heavy. But solo projects were put aside as a reshuffled Subdudes lineup appeared in 2004, producing another run of first-class albums before disbanding—for good, it seemed—in 2011.
He formed another short-lived band with his older brother Dave—whose own longrunning band, the Radiators had also just broken up—but wound up gravitating to the funky New Orleans club Chickie Wah Wah, where he played regular gigs to work out a new batch of solo songs. The first result was Natural Born Days, recorded with an all-star cast including keyboardist Jon Cleary, guitarist Shane Theriot, bassist David Hyde, drummer Doug Belote and singer Susan Cowsill. Reviewing that album, OffBeat magazine’s David Kunian notes, “It’s a crime that Tommy Malone isn’t better known around the world. He is a triple threat—beautiful singer, fine songwriter, and killer guitarist.” No Depression’s Alan Harrison confided that after listening to the album, “My pulse was racing far too fast for a man my age.”
Malone’s only regret was that he didn’t finish Natural Born Days in time to play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2013, so he resolved to have the followup ready for a spring 2014 release. But despite its quick turnaround, Poor Boy sports the finely crafted songs and soulful delivery that fans have come to expect from Malone.
Once again he assembled a cast of old and new musical partners. Anchoring the studio band on Poor Boy is coproducer and multi-instrumentalist Ray Ganucheau, who played in the ‘90s incarnation of the Continental Drifters before joining Malone to record and tour behind Soul Heavy. Representing another Drifters lineup is drummer Russ Broussard, who joined that band in the later ‘90s and now plays regularly with his wife Susan Cowsill and with bluesman Johnny Sansone. Completing the core band is Sam Brady, a key part of Malone’s road band over the past year.
Another old musical friend, co-writer Jim Scheurich—a bandmate from Dustwoofie days, and a frequent collaborator on Natural Born Days—again contributes to a handful of tracks. Ex-Tiny Town mate Pat McLaughlin co-writes the lively “Bumble Bee”—a song that literally had us laughing for two hours,” Malone notes—and ace Nashville songwriter Gary Nicholson co-authored “Once in a Blue Moon.” Malone wrote the remaining tracks on his own including “Talk to Me,” which draws an especially soul-baring vocal. “That’s just one of those times when you dig down deep and say what you need to say. We cut it with almost nothing besides voice and 12-string. If it’s real, it’s real.”
“Time to Move On” and “We Both Lose” both take a more pointed look at friendships gone south. “There’ve been a few of those in my life, a couple people that weren’t doing me much good emotionally,” he says. “But I don’t like songs that point the finger too much, so I tried to be a little more delicate with those.”
One surprise highlight is Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother,” the first cover tune on a Malone solo album. “Still pretty timely, isn’t it?” he says of the 1972 track. “And I’ve always been a huge Stevie Wonder fan, in fact Talking Book was the first album I ever bought. To this day I think it’s his best record.” An even earlier influence gets recalled on “You May Laugh,” which sports an unmistakable British Invasion feel. “My brothers and I all watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and we all got guitars afterwards, I was only seven but they were a huge influence, on me and so many other Baby Boomers.”
Another longtime influence is his hometown of New Orleans, where he’s now resettled after a few years as a Katrina exile in Nashville. The Crescent City feel is hard to miss, whether it’s the funky groove on “All Dressed Up” (“my party song for geriatrics,” Malone laughs), or his evocation of debutante balls in “Pretty Pearls.” “As everyone knows, trying to sum up New Orleans is like trying to explain rock and roll to an alien. But it’s my home and it feels good—the language you hear on the street, the craziness in the air and the obvious things like the great food. And I rekindled a few old friendships, which really helped on this album.”
Look for Tommy on the road this spring and summer, with keyboardist Brady joining him as the Tommy Malone Duo. And to everyone’s surprise, he’s also signed on for a string of dates with the other original Subdudes—keyboardist John Magnie, bassist Johnny Ray Allen, and percussionist Steve Amadee—together for the first time in 17 years. So far they’re taking it slow, doing selected dates including a New Orleans club show during Jazz Fest. “I think our days of being constantly on the road are over, but it’s not often you get four guys with this kind of chemistry and this much good music,” he says. But Malone plans above all to follow his muse, whether as a solo artist, band member or collaborator. “I just plan to continue doing what I do best, and that’s writing, recording and playing new material.”
“Bands like this and men like this once thundered across the American music scene in mighty herds. Few are left now. Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty come leaping to mind. Bar bands — guys who pour their hearts out — have gotten a bad name of late. Because of their refusal to do any one trick over and over and their tendency to produce what the uninformed may refer to as pastiche, albums like this often go overlooked. That’s a real shame. Tommy Malone‘s band is a facile instrument, pliable and expressive enough to be the perfect vehicle for his accomplished songwriting. And it’s the song that’s the thing. Tales of heartache exist peaceably with the odd murder ballad and tender musing. Malone‘s voice is mature, and his arrangements are impeccable. There used to be a lot of Tommy Malones. Let’s hope he doesn’t go the way of the buffalo.” – Rob Ferrier, AllMusic.com