Songwriter, actor, multi-instrumentalist (and pirate) Tom Mason sips his coffee at Bongo East and recalls a trip to the Virgin Islands around a decade ago. He was playing guitar for Eric Brace’s band, Last Train Home — two weeks of seaside bars in an island paradise. (Nice work if you can get it.) One day, with an afternoon to kill amidst the warm breezes and sunlight dancing atop the sea, Tom fancied writing something locale-specific. So he wrote “Pirate Song,” a jaunty, swashbuckling ditty that made up for in charm what it lacked in a title.
That was where the matter lay for a while. A couple of years later Mason was in the traveling theater company of the musical Ring of Fire, and one night after the show, the whole cast and crew were holed up in a motel without much more to do than pass a guitar around. When the axe made it into Tom’s hands, he chose — apropos of nothing — to play “Pirate Song.” The snarling, minor key chantey, tailor-made for swaying and clinking beers, went down a storm. “Tom,” someone said, “you’ve got to write a musical!” So that’s what he set out to do.
“I started studying up on pirates and found how it is really an interesting time in history,” he says. “Writing songs for a stage musical probably helped keep me away from the hokum (read: Arrrrgh, mateys!), as I was trying to make these people come alive, the characters in the songs.”
What Mason got for his efforts was 13 well-crafted tunes about pirates and piracy. They weren’t all pastiche sea chanteys, English accents, and “yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum!” Indeed, they were solid songs and not so far removed from artists who look backward some centuries for melodic and subject matter without forsaking modern ideas of what a song should be. “You’ve Never Seen the Likes of Me” had much in common with Richard Thompson’s reminiscent side, and “In the Service of the King” would fit in well on most any of The Pogues’ albums. But derivative they were not. The collection of songs he wound up with more than held up on their own.
The problem — so far as writing a musical theater production goes — was Mason had not a scrap of dialogue, much less a cast of characters or plot. All he had were songs. And when one has a baker’s dozen worth of songs in Nashville, one most likely does one of two things. You either peddle the songs on Music Row (not bloody likely in this particular case), or you make an album. He did the latter.
“I got [drummer] Paul Griffith and [bassist] Lorne Rall and a bunch of friends together, mainly friends from East Nashville, and we made a record.” Mason says. The album, The Blue Buccaneer, was released in 2011.
And then fate stepped in, dancing a jig. “I found out there were all these opportunities to play — maritime festivals, tall ships festivals, and pirate festivals,” Mason says. Invitations to play poured in, from all around the U.S., Europe, and Australia.
As the travel itinerary grew, so did the band, as often as not incorporating local talent in whatever environs the buccaneer minstrels found themselves in. “I always wanted a bigger band — I love it when it grows,” he says. “We’ve become like The Pogues or The Waco Brothers or these other bands that are huge and kind of crazy. I feel like that’s kind of like a pirate crew.” Said crew has come to include bagpipes, banjo, and the de rigueur penny whistle. And perhaps it goes without saying that they all dress up as pirates onstage.
“Something I’ve found about this band that’s different is that the crowds we draw are less self-conscious,” Mason says. “We all know how self-consciousness is the enemy of art, but it’s also the enemy of fun. And if people walk into a club or a festival or something and see this band dressed up as pirates, they let their guard down. They’re already outsiders, and they stop worrying about themselves as much as they ordinarily would, and we end up having these great sing-alongs, which makes it more communal.”
So do they all become pirates for a night? “Yeah, we bring a few extra hats,” he says
While the first record was ostensibly a solo album, he has since released two more full-length recordings with the rowdy crew credited to Tom Mason & The Blue Buccaneers — 2012’s A Pirate’s Christmas and 2014’s The World Is Ablaze. He also released the single “Talk Like a Pirate” in 2013 in commemoration of Talk Like a Pirate Day. And yes, there is such a thing; it’s Sept. 19.
The band works about half the weekends over the span of a year. Mason has his hometown band with players who may be chained to mortgages, and freer spirits who come with him for road dates, along with designated pirates who join the band in different areas of the country, or abroad.
Prior to the piracy business model, Mason was much loved for his bluesy, lilting solo work, his slide guitar playing, and genial, low-maintenance ability to complement any act he might be playing with, at home or on the road. He released four solo albums and several singles over his 22 years in town. “I made a record here called Where Shadows Fall, then an instrumental Christmas CD, and then a record called Alchemy, which was pretty ambitious, with a lot of characters in it. It came with a 16-page booklet. I’m really proud of it, but it was expensive to do.”
A smiling, ebullient gent, with long, curly strawberry brown hair and a matching goatee, he came to Nashville in 1993 after two years in Chicago. He was born in the magic ’60s and raised in Minneapolis. (Two decades in Music City has bleached much of the “you betcha” from his accent.)
“I had two older brothers and two older sisters, and they turned me on to John Prine, Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Doc Watson, and a lot of old blues,” he says. “I was really lucky.”
Mason first picked up the guitar at the age of 11, and he caught the slide guitar bug that very first day. “My brother open-tuned a guitar for me, taught me two chords, and off I went playing ‘Waiting For the Man.’
“I started getting into theater in high school,” he continues. “I went to theater school as a kid, and gave it up for rock & roll in college.”
Indeed, while he matriculated at the University of Minnesota in the early ’80s, he joined a band and moved into the band house, where rehearsals were a daily thing. They heard about a hot guitar player and invited him over for a jam. That is how a shy, bespectacled Paul Westerberg wound up in the group for a few months. “We hired him for his guitar playing,” Mason says. “He never once told us he wrote songs.
“I wasn’t emotionally into the college thing so much, and I saw this ad for what turned out to be an Elvis impersonation act, but I didn’t know what it was from just reading the ad,” he says, “All I saw was that it paid $300 a week for a traveling musician who played keyboard and guitar. So I got on the road with this Elvis impersonator, playing these little towns. I barely played keyboard, but they had this keyboard that one pedal you pressed would bring the orchestra in, and one pedal you pressed it would bring the horns in. That gave me a lot of stage experience. I was off doing that for a year, and then I came home, moved to Chicago and started doing originals.”
He cut a couple of 45s with bands, and also made cassettes to peddle, producing them at home on a dubbing deck and putting artwork on the J-card — whatever it took to get the music out there.
Having moved to Nashville in ’93, he became immersed in both the acting and music scenes, often getting work in the former because he could sing and play multiple instruments, which proved useful for some roles. He appeared in videos for Ricky Van Shelton and Alan Jackson. “And then I was in The Green Mile. If you see the scene with 400 prisoners working on a chain gang out in a field, you can’t miss me,” he says with a laugh. “I tried to find me by getting the DVD and pausing it, and I couldn’t. But you know, show business!”
Recently, in addition to The Blue Buccaneers, he did a couple of years playing with Phil Lee. “He’s such a great entertainer, in a real old-fashioned vaudeville way,” Mason says. “He was a joy to play with.”
And what is next on the horizon? Well, what else? Talk Like a Pirate Day is right around the corner. In Nashville that day, Mason and The Blue Buccaneers will be playing not once, nor twice, but a full four times. “In East Nashville, we’re starting out at the Shelby Bottoms Nature Center at 10 a.m., we’ll finish the night out at 10 p.m. at the new Family Wash, and in between, we’re going to do the library on Thompson Lane, and one in Spring Hill.”
Does he expect pirates to come out? “Yep. We’ll have little pirates for the early show, and big pirates for the later one. In the morning we’ll have kids acting like adults, and in the evening we’ll have adults acting like kids. And it’ll be a perfect antidote for the Americana Music Association conference.”
When asked if he can be quoted on that, Mason roars with laughter; then after taking a sip of his coffee, says enthusiastically,