Author Archives: Buddy Roberts

Beth Thornley brings magic to movie & TV soundtracks

Beth Thornley.Early into a conversation with Beth Thornley, it’s easy to forget you’re talking to a successful professional musician.

Unprepossessing, enthusiastic, and down-to-earth, the California-based singer exudes a charm reminiscent of the girl next door or down the street, which for some Birmingham residents, she was.

The Magic City native still maintains local ties and appreciation for the musical training she received in her hometown.

“I didn’t listen to the Stones or the Beatles or Dylan until I got out of college,” she said, a nod to the “very classical background” she grew up in as the daughter of a music minister and a classically-trained singer. Earning a music degree from Samford, she had planned to teach college-level choral music until getting sidetracked by pop. The detour took her to Los Angeles, where she initially stayed on a friend’s couch while working to establish herself as a musician.

Almost a decade later, she’s performing at clubs, coffee houses, and pop festivals in Southern California, with three independently-produced albums to her credit. Her self-titled debut was met by favorable reviews, and more than half of its songs have been used in film and television soundtracks. Its follow-up, My Glass Eye (featuring a haunting cover of “Eleanor Rigby,” the bittersweet hometown tribute “Birmingham,” and the Beth-recommended “Beautiful Lie”), earned for her further accolades and more TV and movie exposure.

Moviegoers currently have the opportunity to hear the title track from her third album, Wash U Clean, when they go to see the adult comedy Magic Mike (currently playing in theaters here in Birmingham). Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the firm’s cast includes Matthew McConaughey and Cullman native Channing Tatum.

“I don’t know much about the movie except that my song is in it,” Thornley said recently, adding that she planned to find out with everyone else when she saw the film on opening night. “I don’t even know how the song is going to be used.  It could be featured or it could be barely audible or somewhere in between.”

However the song is used, it’s Thornley’s latest addition to a growing list of movie soundtracks that includes The Perfect Man, Between, Play the Game, and Girl in Progress. Her music has been featured in such television shows as Scrubs, Friday Night Lights, Life, Newport Harbor, Beautiful People, Ringer, Suburgatory, Jack and Bobby, and Paris Hilton’s My New BFF.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to receive phone calls saying, ‘This is what we need. Do you have something or could you write something?’ I love those phone calls. I wish I could get more of them.”

Describing her sound as “The Beatles meet Ben Folds meet Death Cab for Cutie,” Thornley embraces comparisons with such established artists, which frustrate other emerging musicians.

“The music business is so much about marketing. The record companies look to see where the fan base is, which is where they can make the most money. That leads inevitably to new artists being categorized by comparisons to established musicians. But a lot of people like to know who you sound like, and they need to know a little about how you sound. It’s human nature. There’s a comfort in being able to identify someone with a sound you’re already familiar with and knowing right away if it’s your thing or not. If I were famous, I might feel differently, but it can actually give a new artist a helpful foothold.”

So can digital media. “A few years ago, independent artists didn’t have such an effective means of promoting themselves. It’s been very beneficial for us.” Visitors can listen to samples from her albums, buy CDs, and learn more about her music on her website. Individual tracks are also available from iTunes.

Thornley says she gets back to Birmingham a couple or three times a year to visit relatives and friends and stopped by Silvertron Café to hear Libba Walker sing.

“She’s the best. And, of course, I made sure I ate some fried okra while I was there.”

Lopez reminisces about life Behind the Plate

Behind the Plate CoverJavy López looks forward to spending a couple of days in Birmingham this week, and not just because being back in town reminds him of the old days when he and the Greenville Braves were beating the Barons.

“We always did good against them, but there are a lot of Braves fans in Birmingham, no doubt,” the three-time All-Star catcher said, anticipating a visit to Regions Park to throw out the first pitch when the Barons host the Pensacola Blue Wahoos at 7:05 p.m. Thursday.

The last time he played Birmingham was 1992, which he remembers as a very good year. “We were sick of winning that season,” he said with a laugh by phone from his home in Suwanee, Ga.

“We finished 106-42, won the (Southern League) championship, and then I got called up to the big leagues and went straight to the World Series.”

López has detailed his meteoric rise from the minors in his new book, Behind the Plate: A Catcher’s View of Braves Dynasty. He’ll greet fans and sign copies at Books-A-Million in Brookwood Village at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 6. The autobiography, compiled from interviews he did with sports journalist and Braves historian Gary Caruso, was published in April by Triumph Books.

“The book is for my family, fans, and friends who have constantly been asking me to write it,” López said. “Even my kids pushed me to do this. Fans who wonder what it takes to get to the big leagues and what occurs behind the scenes can find out, and my family can read it and learn a lot of things about me they didn’t know. There are things in the book that I’ve never talked about before.”

Not, he added, that a reader has to be a baseball or Atlanta Braves fan to appreciate López’ story, which begins with how he learned to play baseball on a neighborhood basketball court in Puerto Rico and continues through a difficult language barrier and other struggles on his way to the major league record of 42 home runs in a season by a catcher. It also includes being named MVP of the 1996 National League Championship Series, playing on 11 of the Braves’ 14 straight division-winning teams, and how, after spending two seasons with the Orioles and Red Sox, he dealt with a failed comeback attempt with Atlanta four years ago.

“The book can teach anybody what it takes to get what they’re looking for in life,” he said. “It was hard for me to make it. I had to go through a lot of barriers and overcome a lot. It wasn’t easy to get to my goal, but what helped me get to it can help someone else get to theirs, whether they’re a baseball or Braves fan or not.”

López remains associated with the Braves organization and still has vivid memories of his first season on the roster. “When I got called up, (Atlanta) was already on fire. The Braves had gone from worst to first the season before, and everybody was pumped up. That’s what I came into as we were going into the World Series. Some guys play their whole careers and never make it to the playoffs. To go straight from the minors to the World Series was an amazing experience.”

So was catching Kent Mercker’s no-hitter against the Dodgers in 1994.

López wasn’t having a good day at the plate. Midway through the game, he was 0-4 and had struck out three times. “I was so furious because I was struggling offensively that I didn’t pay attention to what Kent was doing. It wasn’t until the seventh inning that I realized, ‘Wait a second. We’ve got something going on here.’

He had one more at bat, a fly ball for an easy out. “I didn’t even care any more. All I wanted at that point was to get that no-hitter done.”

López has filled his memoir with such stories and said that readers expecting accounts of contention and scandal are likely to be disappointed. “For some reason, people find controversy interesting, but this book is just good old baseball stories.”

Night, Night, Birmingham shows city off to kids of all ages

Laurel, Maddie, and Michelle. Photo by Buddy Roberts.While Laurel Mills and Michelle Hyde collaborated on their first children’s book – the whimsical bedtime lullaby Night Night Birmingham – they fretted a little about how it would be received by members of its target audience.

Such as Hyde’s two-year-old daughter.

“What if Maddie didn’t like it?” she said. “I hesitated to show it to her at first. She’s shut down some really good books.”

Mills had similar concerns about her four-year-old cousin. “He’s very straightforward with me.”

They needn’t have worried. Reviews from children have been overwhelmingly favorable, and they haven’t been bad from parents, either.

“It’s great,” said Hyde, whose vivid illustrations complement Mills’ concise rhyming text. “People are excited about it. There’s been a lot of support. Birmingham is really nice.”

Take a listen to Laurel and Michelle reading from the book:


The support may reflect Mills’ and Hyde’s love for the Magic City. Mills is a third generation Birmingham resident who returned to her hometown after spending time in Chicago and Washington, D.C., while Hyde relocated here from Pennsylvania. They first worked together at the now-defunct Lipstick magazine and developed the idea for Night Night Birmingham after Hyde received a children’s book about the landmarks of Philadelphia as a baby shower gift.

“There was nothing like it in the Birmingham market,” Mills said. “So we chose to highlight places that are iconic to Birmingham, places kids would either recognize because they’ve been there or want to go to after seeing Michelle’s drawings.”

Published in August, the book is available throughout metro Birmingham. A full list of locations is available on their website, Mills and Hyde recommend it as a holiday gift.

“For people visiting Birmingham, it can give you everything you did in book form. You can relive memories of your trip through the book,” Mills said. “Grandparents are telling us they like it for their grandchildren who live far away. Through the book, the kids can remember what they did at grandma and grandpa’s. And it’s great to help children who live here learn about their hometown. Kids want to be proud of where they’re from.”

“I hope it comes through a lot in the book how much we both love this city,” Hyde said. “The South doesn’t always have the brightest of lights shining on it, and we’re proud of the way we can show off Birmingham through the book.”

Getting to know Kurt Jenkins

Kurt Jenkins. Photo by Buddy RobertsKurt Jenkins was a couple of hours away from a performance at Railroad Park, spending the afternoon blending into the décor at one of his favorite hangouts.

“I like coming here,” he said, taking in all of Mountain Brook’s Continental Bakery with a gesture that almost bumped into a rack of baguettes. “It makes me feel like I’m in France.”

Ensconced at a table in his blue shirt, gray waistcoat, and tan boots, Jenkins had a distinctly European look himself. The front man for local alternative pop band Skyway Spirits, one of the Birmingham Arts and Music Festival’s scheduled headliners with a set starting at midnight Saturday (8/13) at Rogue Tavern, serves on the festival’s executive committee and readily fielded questions about the band, its intriguing name, and what he aspires to be as a performer.

A native of Hoover, Jenkins attended college in Orlando, where he played the lead role in a production of Bat Boy: The Musical. He can’t remember a time when he didn’t love music. “I brought Jeff Beck’s ‘Blow by Blow’ to kindergarten show and tell, which was completely inappropriate for a kindergartener to bring. Everybody else brought action figures.”

He started taking piano lessons as a fifth grader and first picked up a guitar in a sixth grade music class. “I remember it being really easy to play. The guitar was a piece of crap, but I got the concept right away. It made perfect sense to me, maybe because I’d taken piano lessons before. I continued playing piano for a couple of years, then I heard Jimi Hendrix, and it was all over. I quit piano the next week and started playing guitar.”

“I don’t want to sound too highfalutin about it, but it was completely free. I listened to ‘Red House,’ and hearing a guy express himself with the instrument like that, I started freaking out. The emotion that came through was amazing.”

Jenkins could be considered an instrumentalist, but is he?  “I can make you think I can play mandolin and bass, but the guitar is the only instrument I can really hang with. I’m trying to get back to my roots with the piano. I want to learn to play it well.”

Jenkins is backed in the trio by Don Tinsley on bass and Jesse Suttle on drums. “A mutual friend introduced us. He told me they’re the only two guys in town you want to work with.” His original name for the band was Skyway Patrol, derived from his obsession with the idea of flying cars. “I’d love to drive on s a skyway, but Skyway Patrol that sounded too much like Snow Patrol, which was a British band from a couple of years ago. I needed another word than ‘patrol,’ and ‘sprits’ just phonetically flows.”

The band performs Jenkins’ original compositions and a few covers. “You have to do one or two covers just to break everything up. An audience can only take so much they’ve never heard before.” He dislikes describing its style by naming influences or drawing comparisons with better-known bands. “It’s dangerous to have influences if you sound just like the music that influences you. I don’t want that. I have no problem being compared to somebody, but if that’s all they see, I’m doing something wrong.”

“At the end of the day, I don’t know what it’s like to write a song. Very few times have I sat down to write a song and had a song come out. It’s not romanticized at all.”

When asked about what inspires his songwriting, the answer is quite simple. “Women. Through the ages, that’s what it’s been, and it still is today.”

“Some songs are definitely written out of sadness and joy. Any kind of art is filtered by what we’re going through. Take Jackson Pollock. I don’t know anything about him, but he was obviously going through some stuff. The work is trying to make that explain something, and the way it’s ingested – particularly music – is not very artistic. Very few people sit down, listen to music, and take it in. It’s background for their conversation. An audience is not obligated to like you or pay attention to you. As a musician, you have to put yourself in a space to influence somebody to want to know you. You have to do something to make someone stop a conversation in its tracks.”

Jenkins performing. Photo by Buddy Roberts.Jenkins prefers performing over writing and recording. “My foundation is in theater, and it’s a lot more fun than writing and recording, which are more like processes. I like it once we’ve got it, we’ve written it, we’ve recorded it…now let’s do it.”

His goal with a live show is “at best, to be mistaken for a god for an hour or two. I’ve never reached it yet, but that’s the ultimate goal. A performance is a symbiotic broadcasting of emotions and feeling. When I see a really good live show, it makes me want to go home and write and play music. Really good performers make you want to be a really good performer.”

He’s seen some really good live shows over the years too.

“Bonnie Raitt, when she came to City Stages a long ago. ‘N Sync, although at the time I didn’t tell anybody I went to see it. My favorite show was Billy Joel, in 2007 when I was in college. He’s older, but he still has some energy and passion, combined with being a great singer-songwriter. Every song he played, the audience knew all the words, and it was great to be singing along with ‘Piano Man’ on a Saturday night. A close second would be Bob Dylan, the last time he came through here. I’d never heard sound like that before. It really was a wall of sound.”

I wondered if Dylan’s set include ‘Like a Rolling Stone?’ “Of course. He’s contractually obligated by God to do that song.”

Although he’s a staunch supporter of the local music scene, Jenkins has high sights set beyond Birmingham. He’s lived in New York, recently returned from doing a couple of performances there, and hopes to make his home there again. “I consider myself a New Yorker marooned in Birmingham for the time being. Birmingham is a tough town to get something going whose purpose is to get out of Birmingham. The shows aren’t much different in New York, but the opportunities are. You never know who anybody is in New York. Some random kid in the audience could be a scouting agent for MTV or a music blogger read by a million people. It’s easy to be a big fish in a small pond, but I’d rather struggle in a big city. It makes you work harder.”

If you miss their show at Rogue during BAAMfest!, they’ll also be performing on 8/20 at 9 p.m. with “Sperry & The Top-Siders” at The Barking Kudu benefiting Alabama’s Lost Birthdays & 10:30 p.m. Friday, September 2 at The Metro Bar.

Visit the band’s website at and follow it on Twitter @SkywaySpirits.

Photos courtesy of  Buddy Roberts.