I first met Jesse — as a civilian, not a musician — on Castle Street during a grass-roots effort to paint the walls of the recently opened Gravity Records. We were dousing the store with a vibrant sky blue, and soon-to-be-married Mr. and Mrs. Stockton were my “banter in-between brush strokes” partners. Months later, I heard Jesse open for the accomplished Americana outfit James Justin & Co. at Reggie’s 42nd Street Tavern. He gracefully thanked the audience, then made way for the headliners. The energy of his own set seemed to linger in the air. My next Stockton show was intentional. Last August, I managed to corral him and new music partner Philip Stokes to my grass-roots recording studio, where I produce a biweekly music-intensive podcast called Sonic Byways.
We gather in the warehouse chambers of downtown’s Art Factory on Surry Street, around a mixer, two mics and a laptop. Overhead fans spin in tired circles but offer little relief from the humid air. The guys take their shirts off. “I prefer it this way,” says Stockton, with a nod to the heat. “We’re both from North Carolina, around WinstonSalem and Matthews . . . the hotter, the better.” After a long stint of solo work, Stockton tells me, he was looking for a music partner. Did he ever consider posting come-jam-with-me fliers at local coffee shops? “You know, I’ve contemplated it,” he says, with a chuckle, “but with the amount of weirdos I’ve met just trying to sell a dryer on Craigslist . . .” And so he recruited Stokes, a friend and accomplished guitar player, to play bass. Never mind that Stokes didn’t play bass. He would figure it out. Two days later, the Fourth of July, they played their very first gig. “It was awesome,” says Stockton. And their duo (with guest appearances), Moonlight Company, was born. Currently at No. 2 on ReverbNation’s Americana charts, Stockton’s sound is getting noticed. Think Townes Van Zandt and Doc Watson, with a blast of coastal Carolina sunshine. But when asked to define Moonlight Company’s sound, he pauses. “That’s one of the hardest questions to answer. There’s mandolin, guitar, banjo, bass . . .” “. . . We’re from the South,” adds Stokes. “[Our music] is always gonna have that sort of Southern twang.” The Art & Soul of Wilmington
“Sometimes it’ll be soft and gentle and beautiful,” says Stockton, “sometimes it’ll be with a screaming rock ’n’ roll voice.” Talk turns to the Wilmington music scene and the preponderance of Ultimate Cover Bands throughout the summer, and covers bands in general, which seem a safe bet for area clubs. Original local music does exist, we agree, but one has to dig for it. And keep digging. Between venues like Goat and Compass, Ted’s on the River, Satellite Bar and Lounge, and Duck and Dive, home to one of Moonlight Company’s weekly gigs, live music is found nearly seven nights a week. But original work is a precious commodity. Stockton has a solid set list of personally penned songs, with lyrics that deal with a myriad of topics: love, mischief, life experience beyond — and because of — a rigid, ultra-conservative upbringing. “My parents were super-Southern Baptist,” he says, admitting that many of his opinions, lifeviews and rebellions are provoked by “those two people.” Of course this influences his music. In “Wedding Day,” we hear about Dad’s conspicuous absence at the June ceremony, while “Sinner” amplifies Stockton’s head-turning vocals: Like a bird seeking shelter, waltzing in helter skelter . . . you were on my mind. But like all good bands, the guys keep a couple of blistering covers in their crowd-pleasing arsenal; and not the usual suspects. “We do ‘Bad Bitch’ from Ween. And ‘Psycho Killer,’” says Stockton. “But [our] version’s a little more sped up, in a bluegrass kind of way.” Frenetic, psychokiller bluegrass, with a little bit of country in the mix. “Oh, it’s always gonna have country in it,” he proclaims. “I can’t help that.” Today’s music interlude is duly enhanced by the rich acoustics of the Art Factory sound stage. Stokes hangs his head over his guitar, resting his arm lightly across the sound hole. The opening chords of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” causes their listener to smile, and Stockton’s vocal rendition ultimately makes the song his own. It’s rhythmically different than the original. Twangier. More stripped-down. Stockton’s “Harvest Moon” is blue, and warm — and in the way that good music does, it reflects something in all of us. b To hear complete interview — with musical interlude, visit Sonic Byways with Jamie Lynn at jamielynn.podbean.com and look for “The Topless Episode: Jesse Stockton and Philip Stokes.” For all Jesse, all the time: www.jessestocktonband.com. Jamie Lynn Miller is a writer, rock climber and radio host from Aspen, Colorado. While pursuing her MFA in creative writing at UNCW, she’s trading ski wax for surf wax.
November 2013 •
The Art & Soul of Wilmington