Real swell year

Americana act Mornin' Old Sport moves out West to release its debut LP

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Scott Nanos, Jeff Price, and Kate Smeal made it to Oakland
PHOTOS BY ADAM JOSEPH BROCHSTEIN

emilysavage@sfbg.com

MUSIC In Jimmie Rodgers' 1930s-era song "The One Rose," the country music pioneer wistfully croons "So blue, so lonesome too, but still true/Rosie haunts me, makes me think of you/You're the one rose that's left in my heart."

Midway through Mornin' Old Sport's surreptitiously upbeat, plucky country-folk ditty "Katie" — off the contemporary band's debut self-titled full-length, released July 10 on Misery Loves Co. — singer-guitarist Scott Nanos harmonizes with fiance-bandmate Kate Smeal about their complex love story. "The shadows are calling my number/I know I'm just waiting in line/but I'll sing my vows as I'm pulled underground/I'm Katie's and Katie is mine."

Complicated love, it seems, is universal. While the song is toe-tapping fun, like a candlelit county fair square dance with checkered tablecloths and corked bottles of homemade moonshine at the ready, the message is a bit deeper: I'm in burning love, but eternal commitment could drag me to an untimely death of spirits.

And yet, "It is very loving," Nanos insists over a pitcher of beer near Embarcadero, mere weeks before the band's summer tour. "It doesn't really sound that happy to me," Smeal laughs after repeating the hook. "Fatalism and love are the same," Nanos returns.

"It's just a really sad love song," Smeal concedes.

Mornin' Old Sport is not solely based on this core romantic relationship, there are other types of connections in the now-Oakland based band, those of the blood-brother variety. Like the one between Nanos and fellow Berklee College of Music classmate Jeff Price — the band's drummer who helped produce the album, which Price's real brother mastered in their parent's Colorado recording studio. The Price family runs the small Misery Loves Co. record label (the father was a session musician beginning in the 1960s).

Nanos and Price have been making music together since the first day of college in Boston in 2006, and have been living together just as long. There, at the Massachusetts music school, the band began in earnest — but with a twist. While it started with a few more members, the name Wiffle Bat, and a wholly different sound (Smeal describes it as "circus indie rock"), it eventually whittled to the Mornin' Old Sport trio.

The three say they organically fell into the music they make now, which is reminiscent of pre-war Americana, early country, jazzy standards, the vaudevillian spirit of Tin Pan Alley, and twangy folk, with influences like Gene Autry, June Carter and Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell, Doris Day, the aforementioned Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Williams. But have they wedged themselves into a vintage corner?

"I was thinking about this the other day, because it is something that mentally I've confronted within myself," says Nanos. "But everything that's coming out right now is derivative; it's derivative of the '80s, or chillwave is slightly derivative of the late '70s psychedelia, and late '60s. It's just a matter of what you're using as a jumping-off point."

Nanos' major at Berklee — music therapy — was one factor leading to these earlier eras as jumping points.

"My field work in music therapy stirred up a romance with 1930s, '40s, and even '50s music because I was doing a lot of work with older adults, ages 60 to 90. So I'd do Tin Pan Alley songs, and maybe some Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald," says Nanos. "I really started to fall in love with those styles, of which Kate was already a huge, avid fan."

Adds Smeal, "My parents always sang to me, and then I started studying jazz in early high school — that lead the way for me because I really enjoy old throwback country music that has jazz elements to it."

"I think our relationship and also music therapy made me enamored with vintage music," Nanos concludes.

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