(originally published in Star News, with additional interview material below)
By Brian Tucker
For over ten years people have known Justin Cody Fox as lead singer and powerhouse guitar player for Medusa Stone, a bluesy hard rock and roll trio with Dave Morse on bass and Jeremy Summers on drums. Much has changed – Fox has two children and married, and the band has taken a backseat. For two years plus Fox and Morse have been playing smaller, acoustic driven shows. The music has evolved too.
Fox will have an album release show for Go Down Swinging Saturday at Waterline Brewing Co. with Rebekah Todd and Striking Copper.
It’s evident that family life has affected how he makes a living as a musician and what he’s writing about. For new songs he’s gone deeper, moving away from the fireworks of Medusa Stone. Fox’s singing is different, more internal, especially on the soulful “You’re My Faith” and the personal “Don’t Wake Me Now.” While there a few nods to past playing (the groove heavy “Hurt Me”), many songs celebrate having a family and supportive wife.
Changes began when Medusa Stone went on hiatus. Fox needed to keep working and Jason Jackson from local country band Eastbound hired him. Later, Morse joined too, on rhythm guitar.
“For over a year we were playing nothing but country music, five nights a week all over North Carolina and South Carolina,” Fox said.
The work influenced his new music as a deft blend of rock and roll meets country and ultimately helped him relax. Fox and Morse struck out as a duo and stayed busy, performing five and six nights a week.
“I think those influences have always been there. I’m a lot less timid to show them now that I don’t have an image of a band to worry about. (I wanted) to write songs I thought were good and not worry about genre. There’s still a big blues influence on the record.”
But playing out so much took its toll. Fox became sick and learned of small polyps on his vocal chords, akin to a callous on them.
“It comes from stressing your vocal chords – clearing your throat a lot, overworking yourself. I was singing three to four hours a night, ten or eleven days in a row. I don’t think a lot of people realize how hard and how long local and comparatively lower level musicians have to work to make a living. Most venues expect you do a three hour show. Some expect four.”
The new album was also half done (heavier vocals had not been recorded yet) and possible long term effects of being sick weighed heavily. A self-described hypochondriac, Fox wondered if he’d have to find a singer and only play guitar. How would he make a living if he couldn’t sing? Plus, his wife Laura was pregnant with a second child.
“The doctor said to take ten days off. I took five days off, the most I could afford, tried not to talk. That’s impossible with a three-year old. I’m recovered now, it’s just about being careful. But it was scary.”
Fox is always aware of his job, and that it’s hard leaving to go play. His wife is supportive even as his son isn’t aware the work is different from other dads.
“He’s seen me play huge outdoor events. We were watching Aerosmith play a huge stadium on television. He says, ‘Daddy they work just like you work.’ He doesn’t see the difference between the two, which is probably a good thing.”
Additional Q & A with Justin Fox
A lot of the new material relates to family, and a shared life.
Fox: Absolutely. I wrote the majority of it for the new album, like “Better Days” and “Light Inside of Me” were written before. “Better Days” was written when I was 18 but I never have a place for it on and album.
Did lyrics for it change over time?
No. I had a book…we had nine songs for the record and I had a book of songs I haven’t used. (Producer) Worth (Weaver) asked what we had left and I played him a couple. I was looking for something to add to the content of the album. He liked “Better Days” and said put it down. We did a rough version to decide what it needed to be right, so we added keys and backup vocals. That was it.
Medusa Stone is on hiatus?
Medusa Stone is still something we can do if we need to, if a show offer is there, but the only the shows we do is if House of Blues calls or it’s an opening spot. Dave (Morse) and I really have been doing what we do now about since I quit the guitar shop. I was seeing the more I booked and worked the more secure money was coming in compared to teaching guitar lessons. You don’t know if your student is going to show up, or renew. I have about ten students now because I’m so busy. Jeremy (Summers) was at a phase then drumming-wise, he didn’t want to play much, unless it was opening spots, didn’t want to play around town. So Dave and I started filling up a calendar playing acoustically.
Was that country influence always there?
Last year I did a seven song release, an acoustic album with a soft release. I recorded in Nashville and it definitely had a country flair to it. I wanted to follow that up on this record, in a way, it’s not country music but its Nashville-esque, if you can say that.
Some of those songs I’d written before. I think being myself…I have people around me – Worth producing it and Dave my right hand man every step of the way, but when it comes to writing and planning a record it starts with a concept inside your head first. What it was for me was to not worry about an image of a band, with Medusa Stone.
I felt like every record had to be progressively more rock and roll, heavier, just to keep up with the image of the name itself. Medusa Stone sounds harsh. I love that kind of music but I also like sensibly written music as well. I just love songwriting in general and I got more into that taking breaks and playing acoustic guitar.
A really big influence on this record was when Medusa Stone took their first break two years ago, when Jeremy took his first break, retiring from drumming altogether. I realized I had to figure another way to get income coming in and Jason Jackson offered me a spot in Eastbound. He lost another guitar player and somehow I convinced him to hire Dave on rhythm guitar for over a year playing nothing but country music, five nights a week all over North Carolina and South Carolina. That had to have had an influence on me, especially seeing how well written a lot of country music is. It goes back to my childhood too; all that was playing in my house and grandparent’s house was classic rock and 90s country.
The new album is less showy, less about fireworks. It reveals a different side to you musically.
That’s something we tried to concentrate on this record, there’s maybe three solos on the record where I really let loose, even vocally. Worth said, let me produce it and let’s feed the songs what they need and put out something that speaks for the songs and North Carolina. Each song has a guest star, either from Wilmington or North Carolina.
All the keys were recorded in Atlanta by Rhett Huffman, but he’s from Wilmington. I think Worth wanted to make a statement with how he recorded and mixed it and the quality he put into it. I wanted to make a statement that just in North Carolina, centered around Wilmington, we have a record that sounds like it could have been recorded anywhere in the world.
This album is like sunshine, especially following good and bad things for you the last several years.
I think it’s me taking a breath and saying I’m a musician, I want to make records, and I’m not held back any restrictions. Just being happy with the whole process, I think that’s what was most relieving in this process for me – being in the moment and enjoying every bit of it.
I did have a slight delay. I was working so much last year that I couldn’t get in the studio that often anyway. I had played so much I got sick and couldn’t take a break, I had ten or eleven shows in a row. I got a couple of little polyps on my vocal chords and lost all but my lower range for three weeks. I took five days off, the most I could afford. The doctor said to take ten off and not to talk. He put me on steroids too. I have to be really careful now that I have rehabilitated myself. But once you have those, if you push too hard or you don’t sing properly, they will come back.
And how did it happen to you?
It comes from stressing your vocal chords, like a callous on them. It’s not as bad as a nodule (a solid mass that needs to be removed), it’s a swelling of the vocals chords. I was half way done with this record, something different from everything I’ve done, and the most intense vocals weren’t done. I had to heal up and go back and deal with them in that first session. Back in the studio was very stressful because you don’t know if you’re going to be able to hit those notes.
Was there concern about things long term?
There were a couple of days where I was thinking I’m gouging to have to find a singer and change things. Can I just rely on my guitar playing, how am I going to make a living if I can’t sing? Laura was pregnant at the time; I can’t take any days off. And I think hitting thirty my voice may have changed in general. The whole timbre of my vocal on the record is lower.
You sound different, not just musically, but more personal.
We’ve been rehearsing for the CD release and there’s a more laid back feel to the performances. It’s nice though, because songs like “Light Inside of Me” and “Hurt Me,” there are still some rockers on there. We were working on “Hurt Me” last night, it’s got a killer groove anyway, and its nice to go back to that heavy rock feel groove for a few songs in a set.
It’s been a decade for Medusa Stone, you’re still friends, still playing, and there’s kids.
That’s changed a lot of stuff for me, how I view life. I think musicians have a lot of issues with self-worth, especially if they’re not famous or super successful because they feel like they’re choosing a lifestyle that can be super detrimental to a family. I think I deal with that a lot, wondering am I doing the right thing for my kids to be pursuing this, or should I fill out an application at GE or something. It’s always in the back of your mind and it’s important to talk to your partner about it and make sure you’re on the same page. Fortunately for me I have Laura’s support and on the other side I’m working as much as I can as a musician.
How aware is he of what dad does opposed to what other dads do?
It sucks to leave for six nights a week. I’ll make dinner for everybody and then go out and play. I’ll say, ‘Daddy’s going to work, I love you.’ (My son) doesn’t want me to go but he knows what I do. I don’t think he puts that connection together that dads do other things but he is aware that I play music for work. Sometimes it’s cool and sometimes it’s not cool. We were eating at a restaurant an doing an acoustic thing there’s a lot of restaurant gigs. He said, daddy do you work here? I said, ‘Well, sometimes.’
How did “Popcorn Sutton” come to be a song?
That’s a song that started as a concept. It’s older, probably two years old. We were watching the Popcorn Sutton documentary about moonshining. He was from North Carolina and lived in Tennessee, supposedly the last moonshiner. He lived his life by his own rules. I thought it was an old school, outlaw kind of thing, the last of those guys. I thought it would be a good term – “I’m getting buzzed like Popcorn Sutton tonight, you’re gonna drink some good moonshine and get wild.” I started conceptualizing, how can I make this into a song? I came up with the theme of being from the city, being unsatisfied with your daily life and fantasizing about wanting to be a moonshiner, and committing to that life.
And “Don’t Wake Me Now”?
That song describes how I had to step up my game and how hard it is to play music full time. I was supplementing it with lessons and working at the guitar shop but once Dave and I committed to this five six nights a week thing I was really tired. (My son) had just been born and we were getting back at three every night. I was having to get up with him and sleeping on his schedule. I felt like I was holding on to this dream that I didn’t want to wake up from yet, wasn’t ready to stop. That’s why I wrote it as don’t wake me, I’m not ready to stop dreaming yet.