A new supergroup of Utah musicians is reviving old-school soul
The group includes singer-songwriter Ryan Innes, The National Parks frontman Brady Parks, and a few musicians from the band Fictionist, among others
If you ask Don Stirling about his favorite music, be prepared to clear your schedule.
He’ll take you on a dizzying roller coaster ride, starting with Motown, diving into the Sunday night he watched The Beatles perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, flying through the decades to mention his admiration for Pink and then looping back in time to talk about Frank Sinatra.
He’s got story after story after story. And he’s so excited to share them that he often jumps ahead before finishing one. For Stirling, music is a strong passion — one of his biggest passions. And though he’s had glimpses of success over the years as a songwriter, it never manifested into a full-fledged career.
Instead, Stirling worked for NBA Properties in New York and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. He was a senior finance adviser for Mitt Romney during his presidential runs. He was executive vice president of marketing and communications for Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment and, to date, is the executive director for the Miller Family Office.
But as Danny Ainge — Stirling’s longtime friend and current CEO of the Utah Jazz — has publicly said, Stirling “would much rather talk about music than about his day job.”
Now, what Stirling really wants to talk about is Soultown Revivalists, a Utah-based supergroup of musicians who have brought to life a handful of R&B-esque songs he, along with longtime friend and collaborator Sam Cardon, wrote during the pandemic. The group includes singer-songwriter Ryan Innes, The National Parks frontman Brady Parks, and a few musicians from the band Fictionist, among others.
The title song from the debut album, “Burning Daylight,” currently sits at No. 1 on Spotify’s “All Funked Up” playlist. The third single, “Love Has a Way,” releases Sept. 29.
And while it all started with Stirling’s lyrics, the project transformed into something much bigger than he ever could’ve imagined.
A songwriter’s ups and downs
Although he can only play a few chords on the guitar and “can’t sing a lick,” Stirling has long been drawn to the art of crafting lyrics.
As a college student who got his “heart crushed,” the humanities major spent a couple of hours in the Brigham Young University library writing a song called “Who’s Gonna Keep Me Warm.” That song, co-written with fellow BYU student Kevin McKnelly, would land on a five-song demo that they took to the L.A. area after graduating. It was there, while working during the day as gardeners, that they wound up mowing the lawn of a woman who got their demo in the hands of Phil Everly — one-half of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame duo The Everly Brothers.
Everly cut two of their songs. “Who’s Gonna Keep Me Warm” went on to become a top 40 country hit in 1983. Stirling, who was 25 at the time, relished this personal victory and was thrilled when Everly performed the song on “American Bandstand” and gave him a shoutout. But to his dismay turned amusement, Everly introduced the song to host Dick Clark as being written by Kevin McKnelly and Don Johnson.
“That’s my claim to fame, ‘American Bandstand,’ and he screws up my name!” Stirling said with a laugh, noting that Everly called him up shortly after, apologizing for the mix-up and attributing it to a case of nerves. A couple of years later, Stirling and McKnelly had a song in the movie “Once Bitten,” an early film role for Jim Carrey. Although the song wound up on the soundtrack, it got cut from the movie.
“Maybe we’re not supposed to be famous,” Stirling recalled thinking.
It was with this checkered songwriting past that Stirling came to meet Cardon, a composer and arranger, at the wedding of a mutual friend. They quickly formed a friendship and decided to collaborate. Stirling, who was working for the NBA at the time in New York, would bring his lyrics to Cardon in Utah on his way to visits to the West Coast. They released several songs together throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, including two full-length albums under the name Northern Voices.
And then it would be roughly 20 years until their next collaboration.
An unexpected collaboration
As Cardon tells it, putting together a Motown-inspired album with Stirling “was completely random.”
The pair both have a shared interest in the genre. Cardon hails from Farmington, New Mexico, which he acknowledged is “not exactly the soul music capital.” But thanks to two players on his high school basketball team, Alfred Sowells and Barry Newton, he learned about Curtis Mayfield, and got lost in Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book” album. It was an introduction, he said, that changed his life.
When Stirling showed Cardon some lyrics he’d written for a song titled “Meet Me at the River,” Cardon immediately thought of Al Green and asked Stirling if he had any interest in doing a soul record. Stirling didn’t hesitate.
“And it turns out he’s really good at crafting lyrics in that style,” Cardon said. “He absolutely nailed the craft of the vintage soul lyric. … The lyrics are so smart, and there are countless clues and nods to the iconic geniuses who created the genre.”
Songs on “Burning Daylight” pay tribute to legendary R&B and soul artists. The second track, “Thing about Smokey,” conjures up a scenario where a man feels like he’s sharing his girlfriend with Smokey Robinson because she listens to his music so much. “Tina, Aretha and Me” imagines a car ride on Sunset Boulevard with Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin. “Booker T. Rendezvous” celebrates the spirit of Booker T. Jones.
For Cardon, who largely works in instrumental music for film and video games — he’s composed music for the “World of Warcraft” franchise — doing this album was something of an anomaly.
“For me personally, it was a real Mount Everest, creatively, to try and do this in a way that would really pay the proper homage to this music we love,” he said. “It also turned out to be some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my now 40-year music career.”
And that’s largely thanks to a vast pool of talented Utah-based musicians, who brought this soul sound to life in a series of synergistic recording sessions at Scott Wiley’s June Audio Recording Studio in Provo.
A Utah supergroup
Innes admittedly didn’t know what he was getting into when he received a call from Cardon about the Soultown Revivalists project. He knew a number of the local musicians — many of them his good friends — who were going to be involved. And R&B and soul were right up his alley.
Over the years, Innes, a longtime artist out of Utah County who had a run on “The Voice” in 2013 and appeared a few years ago on the short-lived competition show “Songland,” has done a lot of recording for other people’s projects. But Soultown Revivalists stood out.
For starters, in an effort to stay true not only to the sound of the 1960s and ’70s but also to the recording process, songs were recorded live with all of the musicians in the same room. The core band included two drummers and two guitarists.
“It’s just something you don’t do a lot in recording sessions that you actually get to perform together,” Innes said. “It was like we were just jamming, and the record button happened to be on.”
Initially, Innes was only planning to sing on a couple of songs. But they recorded the first track, “Meet Me at the River,” and everything just clicked. It also helped that he’d worked with most, if not all, of the musicians on other projects over the years. There was a camaraderie and, as Cardon said, a clear understanding of the musical language.
“You could hear that I was performing, you could hear that I was having a good time,” Innes said. “You could hear in my voice, just not thinking, which is crazy. You could just tell that we were in it, and that was what we wanted to lean on rather than more of a polished perfection. We wanted the rawness of it.”
Innes ended up lending his voice to 12 songs. He inadvertently wound up with a songwriting credit on the song “Love Has a Way,” his duet with Utah singer Joslyn Poole that comes out Friday, because he got carried away and started ad-libbing, channeling his inner Barry White.
“This tells you we were having such a good time in the studio,” he said.
The entire “Burning Daylight” album is something of a who’s who of Utah artistry. Aside from Innes and Poole, it’s got Stuart Maxfield and Aaron Anderson of the band Fictionist on bass and drum; Parks plays guitar and lends his songwriting chops to a song; Moana Wolfgramm Feinga and Natalia Wolfgramm Pikula of the family band The Jets offer lead vocals; Robbie Connolly, who was in the band Fictionist and now tours with The Killers, lends his guitar prowess from time to time; the Salt Lake City Mass Choir, led by choir director and former Utah Utes basketball player Tim Drisdom, offers background vocals; and Dustin Christensen, an Orem native who had a run on “The Voice” in 2015 and has become a prolific songwriter in Nashville, has songwriting credits on several songs.
And the list goes on and on. Stirling and Cardon really didn’t have to search far to bring this music to life. Above all else, the pair said, the Soultown Revivalists project is a celebration of Utah’s vast treasure trove of musical talent. And they hope to bring this project to the stage for a live show sometime in the near future. In the meantime, a 15-song commemorative album is available for purchase on the Soultown Revivalists website.
While commercial success is always welcomed, it certainly wasn’t the objective when Stirling and Cardon unexpectedly resumed their musical collaboration after two decades to create a Motown-inspired album, of all things.
“It was a real joy to be able to do something surely and purely for the love of it,” Cardon said.
“Coming out of the pandemic, it was almost like a mental health exercise that made us feel so good — and human,” Stirling added. “There was a purity to the process. … We had nothing in mind other than let’s just try to write some of the best songs we’ve ever written, in a genre we both love and which makes us happy.”