Songwriter looks back at career as local frontman
by Jon Reed
The Dexateens were effectively banned from the bar for it, but that didn’t matter. Blaine Duncan and his band, the Lookers, played their set, drank their fill and were ready to leave the makeshift stage on the floor of Egan’s Bar and rejoin the crowd. Ashley Hill, then the manager of Egan’s, wanted just one more song.
Duncan gave it to him. Then, he took the guitar from his shoulder and drove the neck of it through the bar’s low ceiling tiles, destroying three of them.
Duncan feared he wouldn’t get paid. He feared he wouldn’t be invited back, just like the Dexateens weren’t when they took their instruments to the ceiling. Instead, Hill gave the band more money than he had ever given them before, as extra thanks for a great show.
Egan’s only admits those 21 and older, so no high school students were in the crowd that night. If they had been, though, there’s a chance they would have seen Duncan a few days later, teaching their English class.
Duncan, 35, had already become a fixture on the Tuscaloosa music scene when he started teaching at Tuscaloosa County High School in 2008. At first, he didn’t tell anyone. His students didn’t know for sure, though some would ask him about it. When he told his fellow teachers after a few months, they were excited about it. They asked him what it was like to be in a band. They told him to tell his students, but he didn’t want it to become a distraction. To this day, he still brushes off questions about it in class, thinking students are just asking him in order to get him off task. This year, though, Duncan is more willing to talk about his guitar-slinging, folk-country singing side job with some students.
“It’s the good students who seem to ask me more about it, who I wouldn’t mind seeing [at a show],” he said. “They’re mature enough to have a discussion about a song like ‘I Don’t Smoke Dope with Satan.’”
Duncan will play what may be his last show with the Lookers Saturday night at 9 p.m. at Green Bar. The show will be open to anyone 21 and older, and there will be a $5 cover at the door. The Bear and Doc Dailey & Magnolia Devil, both bands from Muscle Shoals, will open for the Lookers.
Playing guitar backwards
Born in Sulligent, Ala., Duncan got into music for a simple reason: He wanted to impress girls. At age 16, he started playing drums with a band of his high school friends.
“I was a bad drummer,” he said. “I got to where I could keep a beat, but that was about it.”
They only played four shows, mostly high school get-togethers. When the band would practice, Duncan started playing around with his bandmate’s guitar, and the lefty took some abuse for the way he played.
“I picked up his guitar and turned it the wrong way,” he said. “I remember everyone saying, ‘You’re playing that backwards, you’re playing that wrong,’ but it felt right, it felt great.”
When Duncan arrived at the University of Alabama in 1997, he started playing guitar regularly. He and a friend would play together two or three times a week, and Duncan learned how to play guitar, continuing to play a right-handed guitar left-handed, the strings upside down.
Duncan didn’t start writing songs until he was in his twenties. While he was in high school, he drew inspiration for his drumming from contemporary bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Once he started writing his own songs, though, his tastes shifted to folk music and old country music. His songs draw from talents as diverse as folk singer John Prine and Tuscaloosa music staples the Dexateens. In his song “I Don’t Smoke Dope with Satan (Since He Left Me at the Mall),” Duncan bemoans contemporary country music, singing, “I don’t listen to country music radio anymore. They don’t play Merle Haggard like they once did before.”
Duncan said he’s always agonizing over his songs and feels like they’re never finished.
“It creates a lot of stress for me because I’m never satisfied with a song, with its lyrics,” he said. “I’m not very productive. It takes me months to write a song.”
The rise of the Lookers
Duncan’s songwriting ability and belief in original music gave birth to the Lookers during his second time around at UA, when he was studying to become a teacher.
Duncan was playing an open mic night in 2006 and performed a song he wrote as a tribute to local, original music. Mikey Oswalt, now 37, was in the crowd and liked what he heard.
“I thought, ‘I want to be in a band with this guy,’” Oswalt said.
The two met that night, and Oswalt began playing drums for what became the Lookers. After going through a few bass players, they settled on Ryan Akers. David Phillips joined on guitar.
The Lookers started out playing the two bars in Tuscaloosa that would take a chance on original music: Egan’s and Little Willies, which is now called Green Bar. The band toured across Alabama and Mississippi, all while Duncan continued teaching at County High. His full-time job limited practice time and show opportunities to days he doesn’t have to give quizzes or grade papers.
“We’re weekend warriors,” he said.
The Lookers and other local musicians form a tight-knit community in Tuscaloosa. Since the Lookers came on the scene, they’ve shared the stage with major acts from around central Alabama, including the Dexateens and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires. The camaraderie in the scene is apparent on and off stage. Sweet Dog, the drummer for the Dexateens, was in the studio when the Lookers recorded their self-titled album in 2009. Ham Bagby, who now takes the stage in Tuscaloosa with his own band, the Siege, played bass for the Lookers for a while. These musicians pursue the same goal Duncan is so passionate about: They focus on their own original music.
“He’s really big on the original music scene,” Oswalt said. “He doesn’t like playing covers. If he plays a cover, it’s usually from a local band or something really obscure.”
Duncan’s attitude toward cover songs limits the places he can play in Tuscaloosa, but he still does his best to draw crowds by playing as passionately as he can.
“Bars are going to book what brings money,” he said. “If people aren’t coming to see Blaine Duncan and the Lookers, that’s not the bar’s fault. That’s not students’ fault. That’s Blaine Duncan’s fault.”
Duncan said he likes playing venues where the crowd is close. The band’s CD release party at Little Willies was one of his favorite shows because the fans were excited and involved in the performance.
“He always struck me as someone who’s easy to approach after a show,” fan Wes Webber said. “He’s very easy to have a conversation about music with.”
One last look
Oswalt will step back behind the drum kit for the Lookers Saturday for the first time since tennis elbow and his job forced him to leave the band in 2010. Oswalt has always remained close to Duncan and the Tuscaloosa scene, even playing on a bowling team with Duncan’s wife.
Though Saturday’s show will be a reunion of sorts, the Lookers have not been able to maintain steady growth in the past few years. Duncan routinely drives to McCalla to practice with his bandmates, who live across the Birmingham area. The drive has put a strain on the band’s progress.
“That’s part of our hiatus, which very well could lead to our demise,” he said. “Once we got to practice, we would just be sort of tired and watching the clock and not progressing.”
Duncan said, despite the lack of growth in the band’s music the past few years, he still wants to keep playing, regardless of who shares the stage with him. He also said he’s always up to play an acoustic solo show.
“It’ll probably be more sporadic, not as regular,” he said, “but as long as I’m healthy, I’ll probably keep playing, even if it’s by myself.”
This article originally appeared in the April 19, 2012, edition of The Crimson White.