Beyond the Music with Scott Sechman: Norman Harrell

OBX musician Norman Harrell once poured a drink on Jimmy Buffet's head. It's a story that deserves an encore.

There’s an old saying about nice guys…they always finish last.

But in my experience, when it comes to musicians, that old adage is more false than true. In fact, the larger truth is they finish. Period. In a trade and craft as fickle as music can be, that’s something to be proud of.

Norman Harrell has carved himself out a career. A first-rate musician and vocalist, Harrell has survived not only the rigors of the music biz, (including a stint with the country-rock outfit “Snuff”), but the trials and tribulations that come in the form of a massive heart attack. He’s lucky to be here.

That’s what I mean about finishing.

Thankfully, for his friends, family and fans, he’s on the mend and looking forward to making his joyful noise and sharing it on the OBX.

I caught up with Harrell, and here's what he had to say:

Q: What brought you to the Outer Banks?

A: I have been fishing on The Outer Banks since I was 3, played music here since 1979 and moved to OBX in 2009 to run a studio with Chuck “Coyote” Larson. After being injured in an auto accident in 2006, I focused on recording and local gigs with Laura, my bride. We’ve been playing together for over 15 years.

Q: How would you describe your music?

A: My original songs have a variety of influences. From country to Latin. Some, a bit jazzier. I like harmonies and harmonizing. Our cover tunes range from the ’50s to early-2000’s. Laura’s musical interests are similar, but she’s a little bit heavier on the Emmylou. We try to make songs our own while retaining the signature licks and message.

Q: Who is your greatest musical influence?

A: The Beatles. Lennon and McCartney. Then there’s Clapton. Learning cover songs over 50 years makes for a lot of influence from so many. Poco’s vocals? The Eagles? All a part of me.

Q: What is it about music that touches you?

A: Music stimulates my soul. It teaches lessons. It tells stories. The instrumentation and vocal can lift you up or smooth you out. A song can change the way you feel.

Q: What was the first concert you attended?

A: A Tonight Show taping, 1968 or so. Canned Heat was the guest band and they played “Going Up the Country” which really got me started. The Fillmore East on Second Avenue was the place to go and The Vanilla Fudge blew me away, but a high school dance band with a B3 playing “Devil With a Blue Dress” did me in around 1965.

Q: Are you self-taught?

A: I started drum lessons when I was 6. I took some guitar lessons from John Griggs, Jeep Bennett and Dean Keenhold in the ’70s.

Q: Besides guitar, what other instruments do you play?

A: I started playing guitar at Chowan College — in 1972, sophomore year, inspired by Ricky Winters. My mom was a church organist, so we always had a piano. Seriously undertook bass guitar in 1997, when I returned from Nashville, to round out Snuff 1999.

Q: How many different musical projects are you involved in?

A: Laura and I are currently my only project and that’s enough for now. Coyote and I will always sit down and do amazing things with a 45-year history, and Snuff may do a show again, one never knows. I also have a home studio for small ideas.

Q: What's your favorite venue to play on the Outer Banks?

A: Por Richard’s ¬— because it’s personal after so many years. Manteo friends have a love of our music that answers the question of why we play. Because of love…

Q: Musicians usually play for those “moments” when everything clicks. What’s yours?

A: It was with Harrell, House and Martin (Robbie House, Vernon Martin) at The Sunset Grille in Virginia Beach, early 90’s. Bruce Hornsby was in the audience. We closed with “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” It was like a dream... we knew we had really nailed the whole set, we hit the last vocal note. There was a millisecond of silence... a standing — jumping, screaming — ovation of earthquake proportion, including Mr. Hornsby. That and the night Jimmy Buffet poured his beer on my head after “Margaritaville” because I played a lick he hated. I poured mine on his head in retaliation. I call that above and beyond the average show.

Q: What do you do in the off-season?

A: I’m retired and recovering from a widow-maker heart attack and open-heart surgery.

Q: Was there a person that motivated you to pursue music?

A: My dad was trumpet player on “The Tonight Show,” “The Marv Griffin Show,” and Broadway shows. He toured and played the world with Woody Herman, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. He also taught music in the school systems, as did my mother, who was also a choir director and organist.

Q: If you could perform with anyone, who would it be?

A: John Lennon, and learn as I soak in the greatness.

Q: What one song have you wished you'd written?

A: “Leader of the Band” by Dan Fogelberg.

Q: If you could choose a time period in which to perform music, what would it be?

A: The ’80s and ’90s, when I was young, had cool hair, a falsetto, and I could still get it up.

Q: Do you listen to new music?

A: I listen to 99.1, The Sound for a great cross section of then and now, but I couldn’t name a new band if I fell over it. I’ll eave that up to John Harper and Doug Dino.

Q: Have you ever considered music quitting and doing something else?

A: I’ve worked in Tidewater music stores as a manager and salesman for the better part of my “off the road” career, but I can’t do anything but music related activities.

Q: McCartney or Lennon?

A: Lennon.

Q: Where were you the first time you performed onstage?

A: The Center Theater In Norfolk Va., I was 5 dancing for Eva May Morris Dance School. First drum gigs were in 1965. I was 12; and my first guitar gig was 1972. I was 19.

Q: When you write a song, is it positive or negative inspiration that drives you?

A: Eventually positive messages and meaning emerge, though, a negative word may be heard in the beginning. I want to be happy, not sad.

Q: Do you have any hobbies that aren’t music related?

A: I like to fish and travel

Q: Your favorite album?

A: Rubber Soul. I can completely relate to the way each song lines up with life, love and everything. Major influence.

Q: Your favorite song?

A: Crazy Love by Rusty Young because it reminds me of my wife, Laura.

Q: How do folks find out where can you be heard this season?

A: We play Poor Richard’s and Basnight’s regularly, and Laura plays Sugar Creek on the deck in the summer. Like us on Facebook; Acousteventsobx, or The Acoustaholics OBX

Q: If you were me, what question should I be asking you?

A: How come you still work the bars for the same pay you got 30 years ago?

Transplanted to the Outer Banks from the wilds of the L.A. area, singer-songwriter Scott Sechman has shared stages with Bill Medley, Tom Rush, Al Wilson and the Grass Roots during his ongoing music career. He has contributed to Mojo and various online outlets. His column, Beyond the Music, appears Fridays in Coast.

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