Music & Nightlife

After years in Hollywood, Charlotte native rediscovers Southern roots

Courtesy of Joe Firstman

Joe Firstman’s story begins like a tinsel town fairytale. He left Charlotte 16 years ago on a Greyhound bus headed for Hollywood. Within three years, he’d released a debut album on Atlantic Records, written with Bernie Taupin (Elton John’s lyricist), and toured with Sheryl Crow and Willie Nelson.

In 2005 he secured a regular gig as band leader on “Last Call with Carson Daly.” It was there he really honed his chops, playing with jazz musicians like Kamasi Washington and exploring a plethora of musical styles. He’s been an indie artist since leaving the show in 2009.

With the Nashville-based Cordovas, he’s come full circle, exploring Southern roots music and stunning harmonies that’ll stop you in your tracks. It’s the kind of natural, organic sound and obvious chemistry that’s become the exception in contemporary music. Cordovas aren’t a typical Americana throwback either, unless they’re channeling the Eagles’ harmonies.

Cordovas play an early show at Snug Harbor Friday.

What’s different with the Cordovas is that Firstman’s not steering the ship by himself.

“You take a Jason Isbell or Margo Price, which is the realm we want to be seen in. That’s a superstar with superstar talent, with a bunch of killer guys around them. We did it the other way,” he explains. “These aren’t side guys. Everyone is well-equipped to lead their own project. We wanted to be able to throw it down live. We didn’t want it to be sterilized by the side-guy vibe. Everybody sings, everybody sings lead.”

“I’ve had many bands over the years and have no problem leading the way,” he says. “I like playing with guys that are better than me and inspire me, guys you work off of. We’re trying to push ourselves each night.”

Cordovas spent the winter in Mexico perfecting its songs and is working on an album being produced by Kenneth Pattengale of Milk Carton Kids.

The pristine sound is a culmination of everything Firstman’s learned over the past 16 years, both on and off stage.

“I think my first record is good. It was exciting and amazing what we did when we were 22, but I didn’t know how to do the job all the way. Not every night. Not pure professional rock n’ roll,” he says. “I didn’t quite understand volumes and intonations. When you have a lot of people accommodating you, a lot of those things will be covered up, but eventually it’s going to be exposed. I had to get completely fluid at my instrumentation and singing. Make sure I’m in tune and blending well. Those natural things you showed up with, that’s just the beginning. This is a job where you’ve got to hone it. Young guys play loud ’cause they don’t know any better. There’s a delicacy and an art to rock n roll.”

Part of the journey was finding his way back to his Southern roots, which he found after moving to Nashville.

“I’ve always tried to live my artistic life by what’s happening, how I was writing, who I was listening to,” he says. “If I was writing a bunch of indie rock living by the beach in California, that’s because I was living on a beach in California away from all those Southern accents.”

“Being from the South is a gift when you’re a musician,” he says. “There’s a way we mouth words and a beat that we have when we talk and a certain way we sing – having that inner-city Charlotte life and then having my folks be from the country and the way my mom sang harmony with her sisters out in Shelby. You’d have to study so much to gather those nuances of Southern music. You can’t trade for that vernacular.”

Cordovas

When: 7:15 p.m. Friday.

Where: Snug Harbor, 1228 Gordon St.

Tickets: $10.

Details: 704-561-1781; www.snugrock.com.

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