Philip Creamer chased his classic-rock dreams from Texas to Tennessee, and found a home in East Nashville that's just right
If you’ve ever known a born-and-bred Texan, you know that leaving Texas isn’t something to be taken lightly. Dallas-born Philip Creamer admits he’s been irreversibly marked with ”the everything’s-bigger- in-Texas mentality,” but ultimately, he didn’t find his home state sufficiently expansive to accommodate the whole of his ’60s- and ’70s-influenced pop-rock aspirations.
”I’m kind of a hippie and I’m just a huge fan of rock ‘n’ roll and power pop,” Creamer says. ”My music, you know, I don’t think was ever really going to find its perfect home in North Texas.”
Creamer moved from Dallas to Nashville’s Inglewood neighborhood in September of 2015, along with his wife, Sam, and 1-year-old son. He’d spent the previous eight years with Dovetail, a band he formed in 2008 with his brother, Daniel, and close friends from the Dallas-Fort Worth music scene. Dovetail garnered popularity outside the Big D and in 2012, released an album of vintage-flavored contemporary rock, cowritten by the Creamer brothers. Two of its songs took Grand Prize honors in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, but career-wise, the Big Payoff remained elusive.
”Things were just not hitting at the rate that I wanted them to,” Creamer says, looking back on his family’s decision to relocate to Music City.
Back in DFW, Dovetail’s remaining members morphed profitably into The Texas Gentlemen, a cadre of crack musicians that has backed Kris Kristofferson, among other notables. It’s a curious dichotomy – though clearly capable of typically Texas-centric music-making, Creamer’s bandmates were also crucial to bringing Dovetail’s clean, melodic pop-rock sound to life.
Meanwhile, Creamer was pressing into his decidedly non-rootsy, Anglo-rock-inspired vision in an Americana-saturated music town 650-odd miles to the northeast. Eager to expand, not abandon his musical vision, he held to his hope that he would find kindred musical spirits in his adopted hometown – musicians with whom he could develop the kind of easy, intuitive rapport he enjoyed with Dovetail.
During his first few months in Nashville, Creamer began by employing the most practical tool he owned: a more than 3 1/2-octave range, which he’d begun developing as a teenager, learning to sing along with the fluid, muscular voices of such marquee-toppers as Stevie Wonder and Freddie Mercury. Along with building a client base as a private vocal coach, Creamer found an especially fitting platform as a guest vocalist on classic-rock tribute shows, with such stalwart Nashville bands as The Long Players and Sons of Zevon.
With The Tennessee Help, which he founded with bassist Chase McGillis and Truth & Salvage Co. singer/guitarist Tim Jones, Creamer staged half a dozen benefit shows at The Basement East, covering the likes of Van Morrison and Joe Cocker. For many local players, classic rock is a welcome indulgence, enjoyed between bread-and-butter gigs. For 34-year-old Creamer, it’s remained a primary draw, tracing back to when he and a buddy first discovered The Beatles at age 12, and began to unravel the history of classic rock via homemade cassette recordings of a Dallas FM station.
While he’s conversant with contemporary rock, Creamer believes that ”when you start expounding on ’60s and ’70s pop-rock, everything’s there that you need and more.”
Creamer significantly upped his Nashville rock-sector credibility in December of 2016, after being asked by Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman to handle vocals for the Misty Marathon Hop, an all-star night of Led Zep covers sponsored by Lightning 100. With his elastic vocal range and seasoned stage presence, Creamer was clearly the man for the job, and people took notice.
”That was a big, big thing for me,” he says. ”That night I basically met and worked with dozens of musicians I look up to, and love.”
One of Creamer’s most ardent supporters: guitarist and fellow East Nashvillian Audley Freed, who has tapped the singer to appear on his Audley Freed & Friends classic-rock covers shows.
”There aren’t many frontmen/singers – especially of his caliber – around anywhere, so to have him in the neighborhood is fantastic,” says Freed, whose resume includes stints with Sheryl Crow, the Black Crowes, and a slew of others. ”Obviously there’s no shortage of amazing musicians all over Nashville, but I’m not sure there’s anyone who does what Philip does: that classic sort of flamboyant rock ‘n’ roll frontman that understands the music on a deeper level and can sell it.”
”He’s got real classic-rock crooner pipes,” adds Wilco’s Pat Sansone. ”Yes, with great technique, but also with so much depth and musicality.”
Sansone and Freed first heard Creamer at the Family Wash in March of 2016, fronting the then-dissolving Dovetail. The Dallas crew came up to rejoin their frontman after Joe Firstman – leader of East Nashville band Cordovas, and a musically simpatico friend – learned that Creamer had moved to Nashville, and offered some valuable local exposure opening for his band. Sansone came to sit in with the headliner, but ended up being knocked out by the unknown opening act.
”Audley and I were loving it,” Sansone recalls. ”The band was tight, amazing harmonies, some sophisticated musical elements, and the tunes were drawing from a lot of classic rock and pop that we both love.”
Sansone introduced himself to Creamer after the show, as did Freed. Plans were later made to begin work on an album, with Sansone producing and Freed on guitars. That Family Wash encounter, Creamer says, was ”kind of a quintessential Nashville moment. I met the two guys who would become my collaborators, mentors, friends, and biggest advocates that night. Those musicians reaching out and bringing me into their respective worlds has made a massive impact on my career, and more so my development and place on the scene.”
Creamer spent nearly two years methodically assembling his solo debut, which will hit the streets in vinyl form on Sept. 21. Titled Creamer, it will feature a dozen tracks recorded to two-inch analog tape at Nashville’s Club Roar, produced by Sansone and Josh Shapera. Some of the songs are holdovers from the Dovetail days, with writing input from brother Daniel; others came together solo, here in Tennessee. Throughout, the album’s tracks create an introspective mood as often as not, employing an intricacy and restraint more in keeping with Creamer’s soft-rock and lush pop-rock sides, at times evoking glimpses of ELO and Queen, Creamer’s reigning influence.
The album’s more rock-leaning lead-off single, ”Drugs No More,” is one of his most recent compositions, with a direct message Creamer says reflects the fearlessness he’s gained from soaking up ”the spirit, the energy, the focused direction that all these really great Nashville artists have.
”Here, I’m brushing shoulders with so many artists who are very clear what their vision is,” he explains, ”and that has rubbed off on me.”
Creamer’s hope of expanding his original musical base has come to pass, too: Along with Audley Freed and Ontario-based drummer Dave King (who anchors the touring lineup that’ll soon hit the road), the album features Dovetail mates Scott Lee on bass and Daniel Creamer on a variety of analog keyboards.
The last three years in Nashville have indeed been a time of growing: In addition to building his team of collaborators, he and Samantha have produced two additional Creamers – the first on either side of his family to be born on non-Lone Star turf. The most stalwart of Texans might consider their bi-state brood a blended family, and yet Creamer’s transplanted Texas-Tennessee life is fulfilling the artist’s dream.
Creamer and his band will debut material from the new album here at home, as part of September’s AmericanaFest, during a showcase at the 5 Spot – a twist that Sansone admits might seem a little like a contradiction.
”What Philip does as a writer and singer is a little outside of the general vibe. It doesn’t have a blatantly Americana foundation,” he says, ”which I think sets him apart and makes him a special part of the current Nashville scene.”
It was those artistic idiosyncrasies, after all, that led Creamer to Tennessee, where he found a rough-hewn, roots-centered movement in full bloom. Still, the big patchwork quilt comprising the city’s red-dirt-flecked Americana scene has proven to be an accommodating one. It may not be the Big D, but in Nashville, Creamer has found a home that’s just the right size.