The text came from the editor with the contact information for a Todd Austin. “Another one for the music issue,” the text read. “He’s around today, give him a call — killer story.” A few hours later, Toddzilla, the Minister of Funk himself, walks into a restaurant in 5 Points.
For over two decades, Todd Austin’s been a ubiquitous presence in Nashville’s local music scene, first as the lead guitarist of the hard rock band Ravenheart, then as the axe-wielding funkmeister of the rock and funk combo The Jones, and then ringleader and mastermind of the glorious explosion of kitsch culture madness known as JonesWorld. Offstage, he’s also maintained a steady presence as the official “Electric Guitar Dude” at Corner Music in 12 South. Whether he’s dressed in his sharp-cut purple zoot suit or just ordinary street clothes, there’s no mistaking the mile-high, super-charged mullet and roaring personality of Toddzilla.
One might expect an epic and legendary tale to accompany Toddzilla’s ground-shaking image, but when he sits down at the table, orders a beer, and begins the interview, Todd Austin’s story is very mortal.
“In 2010, I had an especially bad divorce, truly horrible,” he says. “It was so bad that at the end of it, my attorney refused to take any money. Two years later, partially due to the stress of going through the divorce and partially due to genetics, I had a heart attack. I was only 45, but when the cardiologist came in with the results of the angiogram, his face was as white as a sheet. I had 90 percent blockage in one artery and 100 percent blockage in another. He said, ‘We’ve got to do surgery now, or you’re not going to be here in a day or so.’ ”
Four years after the shock of confronting his own mortality, Austin’s life has been transformed. He’s continued to stage JonesWorld events, formed the power trio FunkHammer, and is playing guitar in the successful Prince tribute band Purple Masquerade — while maintaining his steady presence as the go-to electric guitar expert at Corner Music.
“The bad news was I went through all that shit, but the good news is I’ve probably done more great living and experienced more amazing things in life in the last four years than I did in the whole 45 before that,” Austin says. “I’ve bashed my head against the monolith of trying to play original, noncountry music in Nashville for over 20 years. My faith was tested for a long time, and I had some really hard years, but it really is like the sky’s opened up to me.”
Like many musicians, Austin’s love of music began at an early age. A native of Greensboro, N.C., he was born into a creative family — one of his sisters is an accomplished opera singer, while another sister was a state champion flutist. His siblings were attracted to more classical forms of music, but a rowdier sound spoke to him.
“I went to a school that was 50 percent white and 50 percent black,” he says. “All my black friends listened to P-Funk, Prince, Cameo, and Morris Day and The Time, and all my white friends listened to Van Halen and AC/DC. I always loved funk music, but I never played it. At the time, I was totally focused on being the rocker.”
After graduation, Austin spent a frustrating year at North Carolina State, struggling to find a career that held his interest. Transferring to Middle Tennessee State University, he enrolled in the school’s recording industry management program. In addition to earning his degree, he also married while at MTSU.
“I graduated in 1988, and I never intended to stay in Nashville, but my wife, Tara, got a job with Warner/Chappel right out of college, so we stayed,” he explains. “We were playing music together, but she had the day job with the career path, and I concentrated on the rock & roll thing.”That “thing” was the hard rock band Ravenheart. With Austin as the guitarist and main songwriter and his wife as the lead singer, they tumbled into the small, but vital Nashville rock scene of the early ’90s. Trying to make a name for themselves, they struggled through the rough and rugged terrain of being rock & rollers in the pre-“It City” era of Music City.
“For those of us that were here in the rock scene in the late ’80s through the ’90s, it was like battling a mudslide on a mountain,” Austin says. “For every step up, there would be two steps back. I had a lawyer one time who said if he had a rock band in Nashville, he’d call it ‘The Nashville Stigma,’ because there ain’t nothin’ bigger than that.”Although Austin encountered one obstacle after another on the rock & roll road, he soon found a perfect day job.
“Our bass player had an aquarium maintenance business, and I was working for him,” he says. “One of our clients was Corner Music. One day I was there working on the fish tank, and I told Larry Garris (owner of Corner Music) if you ever need a guitar guy, give me a call because sucking fish poop is not my life’s dream. A couple of months later, he hired me, and I’ve been there for 20 years. It’s been an amazing gig. It’s one of the epicenters for the music industry in Nashville because all the pros come through there. Networking is a part of the job every day, but even more important, people get to know you as a person. I’ve been able to earn a lot of people’s respect, and that’s been priceless.”
Shortly after joining the staff at Corner Music, the expiration date on Ravenheart ran out when the band lost its drummer and bass player. It turned to out to be a good opportunity to explore a different musical direction, and Austin looked to the past for inspiration.
“When I was 14, I saw the great funk rock band Mother’s Finest, and they absolutely blew my doors off,” he recalls. “I wanted to go in that direction, take a turn to the funk. We chose the name ‘The Jones’ because we wanted something so simple it was stupid.”
Simplicity also applied to the band’s lineup — guitar, bass, drums, and Austin’s wife as the lead singer. Their look became bigger, brasher, more complex, adopting the cartoonish retro flair of funk outfits like Morris Day and The Time. With all the elements in place, the group began building a Nashville following for outrageous and flashy stage shows built on solid foundation of rhythm and funk, especially at the Outer Limit nightclub on Nolensville Road.
“Everyone in The Jones was going to have a ‘Jones’ name,” he says. “But Randy Woods, the bass player, started calling me Toddzilla and it just stuck. I started introducing myself by that name and even added it to my business cards at Corner Music. Between that and the hair, people don’t forget me.”
Although The Jones may have started as a lean, mean funk machine, it didn’t stay that way for long. The transformation into the massive funk revue JonesWorld began when they sponsored a multiband funk extravaganza at the Outer Limit.
“We called it ‘The Jones presents JonesWorld,’ Austin says. “We transformed the room and had all kinds of crazy decorations hanging from the ceiling and added extra musicians to our lineup, just for that show. It was so much fun we decided to do it again, and then again, then we decided to keep doing it. More and more people started joining us, and the band transformed into a musical co-op of sorts. If you were a friend and we knew you could play, it was the more the merrier.”
With the addition of extra musicians, a horn section, a regular troop of dancers known as the Glitterchix, outrageous costumes, and various onstage characters, JonesWorld has grown into a mixed-race Music City revue of 30-plus members that invokes comparisons to Parliament-Funkadelic or Prince and the Revolution at their wildest. But while Austin was overseeing the creation of an extended funk family, his marriage was on rocky ground.
“My wife was doing well in her professional career and our lives began to arc away from each other,” he says. “We just went in different directions. We were together for a long time, and it was so great for so long, that when it did go bad, it went really bad. Five days after our divorce, she left for LA and has been there ever since, but I decided to stay in Nashville. After years of saying I had to get way from here, I said no, this is home and I’m gonna stay.
“I had always written songs for Tara to sing because she was a better singer than I was, but when she left, I took two steps to my left and became the front man of the band. It didn’t take long for me to realize that’s where I should have been all along. I’m not a great singer, but I sing from my heart.”
Although Austin’s heart had found a new life emotionally, physically it almost ended his life in 2012. After quadruple bypass surgery, he found that recovery was the greatest challenge he had faced.
“It took me almost a year to recuperate,” he says. “I tell people all the time, heart surgery ain’t for sissies. I had a 10-pound weight limit, but luckily my favorite guitar weighed 9.6 pounds. So I sat on the couch and wrote songs. I would have friends come over, and we’d write songs together. Some of them sounded like JonesWorld but some didn’t. So in the spirit of Nashville, where everyone is in four or five bands, I started another band.
Austin’s new project, FunkHammer, was a focused variation of the funk rock JonesWorld. With bass player Golden Hunt, drummer Phillip Kelly, and backup vocalists Brook Kelly and Rudrani Devi, they released the album Lawdhamercy!, and continue to play gigs in Nashville.
“I’m really proud of our record,” Austin says. “It’s the first time I ever wrote songs specifically for me to sing. When I started FunkHammer, I was in my mid-40s, but I finally feel like I’m coming into my own as an artist.”
In addition to that feeling of self-actualization, the years of hard work, building relationships with other musicians, and constantly seeking to express himself differently from others have resulted in unexpected payoffs.
“Over the years, I’ve became known as the ‘white funk guy,’ he says. “For someone from North Carolina who loved funk to be identified that way in Nashville is a real honor. Because of my so-called credentials, I got asked to join a really great Prince tribute band called Purple Masquerade as the only white guy in the band. We got it all together, got our wheels on the ground, played one gig, and two weeks later Prince died. His death was devastating to me. He was a hero of mine and a huge influence, but now everyone wants to hear us play. We just played a gig in Daytona Beach for 4,000 people, and we’ve got shows booked in Canada and Mexico.”
“I never thought I’d be in three bands, but it’s a testament to the landscape of Nashville that you can do that, and make it work,” he continues. “Now I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. Very few people can make a living off original music now, but I get to play my own stuff and go out and be a rock star, playing stuff I love for big audiences.”
It may sound like an unusual formula for success, but it’s a uniquely Nashville equation that produced results time and again. “I meet people all the time and they say, ‘I came here to play music,’ and I think, ‘OK, be ready to hang out for a while because that’s the key.’ You’ve got to hang with it, meet people, and when your time comes, swing for the lights. The longer you can hang in there, the better shot you have at something finally opening up. I went through the darkest period of my life, but suddenly it’s all opening up for me. To be able to have made a life here, play music here, and have people say, ‘Are you talking about Toddzilla?’ — that’s priceless.”