‘Songs by Honeybird’: Two Uncle Green Bandmates Reunite for Peter McDade’s New Southern Rock Fueled Novel
In 2018, when Atlanta history professor and novelist Peter McDade needed a singer to embody the fictitious 1960s Southern rocker Harlan Honeybird who was emerging from his laptop, his first call was to a former Basking Ridge, N.J. third grade classmate. It helped the creative process immeasurably that McDade’s childhood pal is also Jeff Jensen, his longtime Uncle Green bandmate.
McDade was crafting a half-century old musical mystery involving the long haired musician son of a segregationist biscuit king and failed politician who ran for office on the racist right of Herman Talmadge. In contrast, Harlan Honeybird was the young weed wielding frontman of a Macon-based 1967 pre-Allman Brothers era Southern rock act that included Harlan’s sister Darlene on bass and his best friend Nate, the band’s Black drummer.
“Jeff was all in in 30 seconds,” recalls McDade on a Zoom call last week with Jensen. Adds Jensen: “And then, six months later, I realized I should probably get started on those songs Pete wanted.” Counters McDade: “It took me four years to write this thing. I wasn’t in a huge rush!”
The collaborative result is “Songs by Honeybird,” McDade’s Atlanta-centric new novel out Tuesday with an accompanying eight-song soundtrack of Honeybird songs with lyrics and drumming by McDade, vocals, guitar and harmonica work by Jensen and the rest of the Honeybird Southern rock sound created by former Michelle Malone and Drag The River guitarist Jonny Daly, former Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, vocalist C.G. Brown, keyboardist Kris Hauch and pianist/organist Bill Shaouy. Good Graces vocalist Kim Ware and Hauch, meanwhile, wrote the music for and contribute vocals on the book’s other key musical plot points. McDade even recruited a member of Atlanta rock royalty to create the book jacket — longtime Swimming Pool Q’s vocalist and Athens book designer Anne Richmond Boston.
The novel opens with the break-up of Ben, a doctoral candidate and Georgia State University history professor and Nina, a budding musician and student who waits tables at South City Kitchen. For his dissertation, Ben is busy researching the mysteries behind the tragic demise of Honeybird, a Summer of Love era interracial rock act whose rise is cut short when Harlan and Nate die in a fire under ominous circumstances. Ben’s relationship with Nina abruptly ends when she informs him that her dog Sid is speaking to her, setting up a second novel-length mystery for readers.
McDade says he didn’t know that race would play a role in “Songs by Honeybird’s” plot until he was staring at the manuscript’s first draft on his computer screen. “It was fun to contemplate the idea that if Honeybird had made it, the Allman Bros might be a footnote in Southern rock history,” he says. “With my writing, the themes always come last, the characters come first. It wasn’t until I had the whole incredibly awful and sloppy first draft that I realized race was a theme. I wish those elements were artifacts where you could open this book and say, ‘Oh, yeah, remember when we used to have problems?’ But as we’re having this conversation, the first Black female judge nominated for the United States Supreme Court is on live TV being asked completely insane questions about CRT.”
During the pandemic shutdown, Jensen says he was grateful for the creative writing assignment helping to create Harlan Honeybird’s musical backstory. “Pete threw me very few breadcrumbs,” says Jensen. “I was two songs into it when Pete tells me, ‘Oh, by the way, did I mention Harlan died in a fire?’ I decided not to read the book in advance. I think that’s been the key to writing the songs and trying to pull this off. I’ve overthought this a lot already and I probably would have overthought it more if I had read the manuscript.”
When he hit the studio to create Harlan’s musical persona with his and McDade’s musical friends, Jensen says he intentionally walked a fine line in just how Southern he was going to take his performances as Honeybird: “I’m a 56-year-old white guy from New Jersey. I’ve got Southern roots, my mom grew up in North Carolina and I’ve spent a lot of time in Atlanta and I’m a historian so I understand a lot of it. But I still reached out to Pete when I sang ‘lawd’ on one take to make sure that’s how Harlan would say it. I was always on the edge of play-acting. I didn’t want it to be silly.”
Jensen says recalling his eighth grade love of Lynyrd Skynyrd helped get him into the Honeybird creative mindset. “If somebody said, ‘That sounds like Skynyrd,’ I could say, ‘No, Honeybird came first. Skynyrd ripped us off.’ Once we all bought into that premise, the recording process was a lot of fun!”
Earlier this month, Jensen and cinematographers Halley O’Malley and Joel Boyea even headed to Macon and Allison Lake Wildlife Trail in Jones County to shoot a music video for the fictitious band’s equally fictitious hit single, Heavy, Heavy Hands.”
While Jensen and company were creating the Honeybird sound in studio, McDade was trying to find a publisher who wouldn’t object to one of the novel’s key characters — a talking dog who may or may not be the reincarnation of Siddhartha Gautama, known more popularly as the Buddha.
“I’m at peace knowing some readers might not be able to accept it,” says McDade with a laugh. The idea was to write it in a way that if you, the reader, believe the dog is talking, then he’s talking. The reader can also choose to believe this is a young woman going through some stuff who is processing things through conversations that may not be actually happening. It works both ways.”
McDade reached out to Wampus Multimedia founder and creative director Mark Doyon (who had published McDade’s 2017 debut novel “The Weight of Sound”) to see if he might consider reading the manuscript. “I didn’t tell him anything,” says McDade. “I just sent it off. Luckily, he was all on board. He had no problem with Sid. He saw it as crucial to the story. If I had gone with a larger press, my guess is I would have been asked to lose Sid.”
Likewise, while in the studio creating the “Songs by Honeybird” soundtrack, Jensen and McDade had complete artistic freedom, after spending most of the 1990s attempting to please record label exec ears at Atlantic Records and Sony Music during their Uncle Green band recording days. “Making a whole bunch of records together over the years, we learned it’s not only the finished thing that matters but having fun while you’re doing it,” says McDade. “If you’re lucky enough to get to [create] with your really good friends, that just brings it up a whole other notch. And to be able to still get to do this in our 50s and not have that pressure? That was terrific as well. This isn’t a book for Random House or a record for Sony.” Adds Jensen: “Right. There was none of that ‘we gotta make a single,’ from the record label days.”
Says McDade: “In the end, it was really just for us. The people you wind up playing with at this age, the ones who are still alive and still doing it, are still doing it because it’s fun. That was our entire goal with this — old friends having fun together.”
The official book release party for “Songs by Honeybird” will take place on Thursday, March 31 at 7 p.m. at Waller’s Coffee Shop in Decatur. McDade will discuss the book with friend and “The Magnetic Girl” novelist Jessica Handler, followed by a Q&A and a one-off performance of the songs from the project by Honeybird with Jensen on guitar, vocals and harmonica, Uncle Green bassist Bill Decker on bass, McDade on drums and Uncle Green vocalist Matt Brown singing “Glorious” from the novel with a guest appearance by Good Graces vocalist Kim Ware, who wrote the music for and sings on “All I Have (Long is Samsara)” for the project. Decatur’s Little Shop of Stories will be on hand selling books.
A digital download of the soundtrack is available for $5 here.
For more information about “Songs by Honeybird,” go to author’s official website.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.