As I grew up in the early 1990s, the country music from that period of time — roughly 1990 to 1995, or when I was 3 to 8 — holds some of the strongest memories for me. Even so, I've sometimes found it strange which songs chose to stuck with me the most. One great example would be "Feed Jake" by Pirates of the Mississippi. This song, a modest #15 hit on the country charts but still a popular pick to this day, is certainly one of the boldest and best of the early 90s, but at the same time, I still wonder whatever drew me to it in the first place.
The Pirates were founded in the late 80s by lead singer Bill McCorvey, guitarist Rich Alves, bassist Dean Townson, drummer Jimmy Lowe, and steel guitarist Pat Severs. According to an archived version of their website, they originally called themselves the We Don't Want a Freaking Record Deal Band, and then The Cloggers, after seeing fans wearing clogs. They ultimately settled on the name Pirates of the Mississippi, after a song they had written which was inspired by Lowe. Jimmy Bowen's Universal Records (not to be confused with the current Universal Music Group) picked them up, and they were supposed to release an album as early as late 1988. However, Universal was in the process of being bought out by Capitol, so the Pirates played the waiting game. In the meantime, Alves co-wrote Alabama's #1 hit "Southern Star."
Finally, in 1990, they hit the Top 40 with a rollicking cover of Hank Williams' "Honky Tonk Blues." After it came "Rollin' Home," a "Six Days on the Road"-esque song about missing his baby while out trucking. From the first two singles alone, the Pirates seemed to be following a complementary path to The Kentucky Headhunters. Both were rockin' country bands who loved to play it loud, but tempered with a respect for the genre's history — most notably in the fact that both bands kicked their careers off with turbocharged yet reverential covers of far older material.
It was in 1991 that the Pirates made their most successful ascent up the charts with "Feed Jake." This was probably the band's trump card in separating themselves from the Headhunters stylistically, as it was a minimalist ballad that dug surprisingly deep: the narrator reminisces on a childhood pet, while at the same time observing stereotypes towards homeless people and homosexuals. (Surprisingly, this song came out nearly a year-and-a-half before Garth similarly pleaded for tolerance in his gospel-tinged "We Shall Be Free.") As I said in the intro, I have no idea what drew four-year-old me to this song; maybe it was because I had just lost my own dog, a Cocker Spaniel/poodle named Taco, when a neighbor poisoned him. But even without that kind of attachment, I identify greatly with the message of tolerance for others — a message that I, often an "outsider" due to my own personal quirks — always take to heart.
And a look at the Top 40 on June 8, the week the song peaked, shows "Feed Jake" to be in stark contrast with its surroundings. Another hot new band, Diamond Rio, was sitting at #1 with "Meet in the Middle," which displayed equally-tight musicianship but a more overt bluegrass flavor. Most of the surrounding songs were equally traditionalist-leaning — the Western swing of Joe Diffie's "If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)," Mark Chesnutt's "Blame It on Texas," and Clint Black's "One More Payment"; Alan Jackson's loping "Don't Rock the Jukebox"; nostalgic song in the form of Alabama's "Down Home" and Don Williams' "Lord Have Mercy on a Country Boy". Nothing overly deep — but outside Travis Tritt's "Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)," nothing parallel to the rowdiness of the Pirates' first two hits. Finishing off the first album was the amusing tale of night-before antics in "Speak of the Devil."
The Pirates' second album, Walk the Plank (har har, I get it), brought them an almost-hit in the harmony-driven "Til I'm Holding You Again," and took them into the Top 40 for the last time with the Lee Roy Parnell co-write "Too Much." While as sturdy as their predecessors, these songs had one strike against them, as Confederate Railroad had emerged, taking a virtually-identical path to somehow greater success. They offered that seemingly-unique blend of grit and smarts through sentimental ballads like "Jesus and Mama" and "When You Leave That Way You Can Never Go Back," pleasing country stories like "Queen of Memphis," and tongue-in-cheek novelty like "Trashy Women." While Railroad's reign wasn't terribly long — they never hit Top 40 again after 1995 — they were more commercially successful.
Not that the Pirates were going down without a fight. A Street Man Named Desire, their first album for Liberty, took the homelessness tropes in a new direction. The title track, a tale of a man who loses his job, house, and woman, was full of the misery that makes a good country song. But it may have been a little too much for the average listener. Dream You fared no better with its own title track, and by 1994, the band left Liberty. Greg Trostle (whose only previous credit was on Lionel Cartwright's 1991 album Chasin' the Sun) took over on steel guitar, and the band moved to Giant Records. Two singles — "You Could Do Better" and "Sure Sign," the former of which also got a music video — were released from an album also titled Sure Sign that never saw the light of day. (I could only find the former, and it's jut as good as anything else they did. The production's slicker, but the cheeky lyric "You could do better than me, but I'm glad you don't" could easily have come from their debut.) Finally in 1995, the band, now minus Trostle as well, released Paradise. This album also saw no chart action, but its easygoing title track (about being stuck with the one you love) was later a minor hit in 1996 for John Anderson. By 1996, the Pirates had called it a day. McCorvey went on to write Montgomery Gentry's 1999 hit "Lonely and Gone," as well as Mark Wills and Jamie O'Neal's 2001 duet "I'm Not Gonna Do Anything Without You."
Alves and McCorvey reunited in 2006 as a new version of Pirates of the Mississippi, releasing Heaven and a Dixie Night independently that year. I remember this album's first two singles — "Drinkin' Money" and "Kickin' Up Dust" — getting some spins on a local station. While I was happy to hear a DJ say the name "Pirates of the Mississippi" again, and while the songs were almost as energetic as their 1990s peak, the lyrics were mostly composed of party clichés. The rebooted version of the Pirates didn't last long, with McCorvey later opting for an acoustic trio called Buffalo Rome before opening a liquor store in Brentwood, Tennessee. Pat Severs played in the house band for the talent show Nashville Star from 2003-2008; Townson died of unknown causes in 2010; and Lowe worked as a computer programmer before joining another group called The Chessmen.
Pirates of the Mississippi seem indicative of the turmoil that the genre was undergoing in the early 1990s. With the "class of '89" shaking things up by bridging the gap between commercial appeal and traditional-mindedness, an act like the Pirates seems like it should've fit right in. But again, they were in the shadow of the even more off-kilter Kentucky Headhunters and the more commercially successful Confederate Railroad, the talented quintet instead got lost in the shuffle for the most part. "Feed Jake" also had the group walking a tightrope, as its pro-gay message was rather controversial at the time, and its overall slow, minimalist style at odds with both the mainstream and the band's own pumped-up sound. By all accounts, "Feed Jake" is one of the biggest fluke hits of the 90's, but in my opinion, it's one of the best flukes in country music history.