By Jim Hannaford
Photos by Stephen Anderson, Barbara Beaird, Leigh Ann Edmonds, MCE Photography/Chad Edwards, Neil Ladner, Keith Necaise and Frank Serio
Looking out for his musical future, Anthony Crawford ended up reaching back to his past, to a time when he was a budding musician in Birmingham. This recent journey has been a rewarding one not just for him but also for fans of Sugarcane Jane.
The talented multi-instrumentalist has been a recording and touring pro since he left his hometown of Mountain Brook for Nashville almost 40 years ago, making music with some of the top names in the business. For the last decade he and his wife, Savana Lee, have enjoyed their own success in the Americana field with the sweet sounds they make with their memorably named duo. They recently decided to put together a full band, in part because of an opportunity to go on tour with old friend Dwight Yoakam, with whom Anthony performed and recorded in the mid-90s. But because the opening act’s job is to excite the crowd and build anticipation for the headliner, they knew that a duo wouldn’t do. When they were thinking about supporting musicians they could call on to flesh out their sound and create more energy, an interesting possibility from his past emerged.
“Savana and I were playing at a festival a few months back, and I was on stage setting up, and I heard this great pedal steel that was playing over the sound system,” Anthony says. “I asked the sound guy who it was, and he said it was a group called Rose Colored Glasses, and it was Pete Nice playing steel. And Pete was at the festival, too (to play with a band called The Starlings). When we got through with our set, I walked right up to him and asked him to join our band.”
Pete and Anthony were big-time pals growing up but had drifted apart as adults. They learned to play guitar together as kids and ran track alongside one another at Mountain Brook High School. During their teen-aged years they performed as a duo, first at school events but later at popular night spots such as The Lowenbrau and Joe Bar in Five Points. They even recorded an album in Nashville before parting ways – Anthony soon hit the road with a dizzying succession of world-class musical artists while Pete started a family and a career in construction and, later, high-end home decor, while still playing music on the side.
They also reached out to ace drummer Leif Bondarenko and hotshot lead guitarist Gary Edmonds, and the new backup band (soon dubbed The Bucket Fillers) was instantly thrilling crowds with its natural chemistry and professional prowess. On the road with Yoakam, their explosive energy grabbed attention at theaters and casinos in the Mid-Atlantic region and up the Eastern Seaboard.
“We had standing ovations at every show,” a jubilant Anthony said at the end of the triumphant run of shows in August, “and we sold everything we had but a couple of CDs.”
They’ve kept the five-piece band together for a string of club and festival dates since, even though, on paper, it may not make financial sense. It’s part of a concerted effort to take Sugarcane Jane to the next level and in front of new and bigger audiences, even though it comes with a price that includes extended periods of time away from their three young children.
“We’re going out on a limb, but we just feel like it’s going to pay off for us in the long run,” Anthony says. “We felt like we had kind of reached a glass ceiling with the acoustic duo.”
Brushes with greatness
Anthony worked off and on with Neil Young for years starting in 1983 and later toured with Steve Winwood. He has also toured or recorded with a long list of other stellar artists such as Eddie Rabbitt, Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Pegi Young, Blackhawk, Steve Forbert, Nicolette Larson, and Tanya Tucker. Many others, including Yoakam, Sawyer Brown, Kenny Rogers, Lee Greenwood, and The Oak Ridge Boys have recorded his songs.
He got his start on the road in the early 1980s after he got word that country hit maker Sonny James, who was nearly 30 years his senior, was looking for someone who could play banjo, sing harmony, and help out driving the tour bus.
“He wanted to know if I knew how to double-clutch, and I said, ‘Of course I do.’“ He had to learn that last part literally on the job but recalls that, after maybe grinding a few gears at first, he became so smooth at it that he was soon pressed into double shifts behind the wheel on longer trips.
It’s not his nature to boast of his accomplishments, but he has some great stories. He says the only time he was ever star-struck was when Paul McCartney sauntered up backstage after a Neil Young show at Hyde Park in London. Just minutes earlier, Sir Paul had joined them on stage for the Beatles classic “A Day in the Life.” As the others had already taken off for the dressing rooms, he found himself face-to-face alone for a long and awkward moment with his favorite Beatle – he was virtually speechless for the first and only time of his life.
There were brushes with Bruce Springsteen (Anthony showed him the chords to “Down by the River”) Joe Walsh and others. He laughs about the time Faron Young offered him a shot of banana liqueur in a Nashville motel room. And he will never forget the time he performed “Blackberry Blossom” and “I’ll Fly Away” with country patriarch Roy Acuff at the Grand Ole Opry. But there are plenty more experiences he’s forgotten completely, and he has kept surprisingly few mementos.
“I didn’t really realize how special it was. I was just living it,” he says. “I never thought, ‘Wow, this is something I’m going to look back on and this is going to be a great story to tell some day.’ “
The Crawfords live at the end of a mile-and-a-half red dirt road in a secluded but not remote patch of woods near the small town of Loxley in Baldwin County. They are surrounded by nature, and their only close neighbors are members of Savana’s extended family. Just steps from their two-story dogtrot-style house is Anthony’s cozy but state-of-the-art studio where they have crafted most of their own seven albums and where he has also recorded three solo albums. As a busy producer for hire he has lent his expertise and instrumentation to the works of a couple of dozen other artists over the last few years. He can track virtually any instrument himself, and having Savana there to add harmonies certainly sweetens the deal.
Their three adorable and precociously creative children have names that reflect their parents’ passion for music. Nine-year-old Loretta Raine, six-year-old Levon Cash, and three-year-old Dusty Lee are already showing talent in a range of artistic pursuits.
Savana grew up in nearby Robertsdale, where her father was the principal and her mother the school counselor. (Now retired, Grandma and Grandpa live nearby and help out with the kids.) She was already playing piano when she sang in public for the first time at age five. Later, she took up clarinet and trumpet. As an adult, she pursued music on her own briefly in New Orleans and then Nashville, where she co-owned and managed a recording studio. One day Anthony came in to record, and their vocal harmonies were undeniably great. They sing like birds, yes, but perhaps more soulfully.
As they got to know one another, they realized they had something in common besides the love of roots music that was about to help bind them. Though he had grown up in Mountain Brook, his parents had relocated to Daphne down on the Mobile Bay, just eight miles away from Savana’s.
During Sugarcane Jane’s early years, Savana played acoustic rhythm guitar before switching over to snare drum, which she played along with Anthony on guitar and bass drum (yes, simultaneously). She took up the bass ukulele – a smaller version of a bass guitar – a couple of years back as another way of filling out the duo’s sound, which has elements of bluegrass, country, and folk, and a dash of rock ‘n’ roll.
The business end
Savana has always booked the shows and tours and promoted them through social media and the website that she designed. She has used her graphic arts skills to design their CD covers, posters, and other promotional materials. And she’s the one who has kept them stocked with the all-important merchandise to sell at shows. She has coordinated itineraries for the band and made the hotel reservations, conducting a lot of their business while in the car going from show to show.
This is, of course, in addition to her duties as a mom.
“It’s certainly a challenge,” she says. “The reality of it is nowhere near as glamorous as it might seem. We’ve never had a honeymoon, and we’ve never taken a vacation – we just work hard.”
Because of the heavy workload, they recently asked Birmingham music veteran Rick Carter (of Telluride and Rollin’ in the Hay renown) to come aboard as their manager. Like the hand-picked band members, he and Anthony go way back – Anthony was even a guitarist in Telluride briefly before setting off for Nashville.
“It’s just one of those organic things that made sense to us,” says Savana. ”Rick is so knowledgeable and experienced, and he has such a good reputation in the industry.” Of the new band, she says: “We’re not just bringing in random players. We have a relationship with these guys, and that makes it feel really comfortable.”
Talking from the road, after a dozen or so shows under his belt on pedal steel, lap steel, mandolin, and occasional harmonica, Pete Nice was thankful to have made the reconnection with his old friend and was excited about the new music they are making.
“It does seem like a real twist of fate,” says Nice. “This all coming down like it did, the timing of it all, is perfect. I am happy to be a part of it – absolutely.”