Knoxville’s Just Say Maybe have a history worthy of a rock ‘n’ roll tell-all—theirs is a fraught narrative that includes a lost record deal, many membership changes, a prison term, and the tragic death of a longtime friend and bandmate.
But surviving original members Tom Appleton and (Preservation Pub promoter) Scott West are both possessed of a special kind of perseverance, a headstrong fortitude that won’t allow for quitting. And Appleton believes that with the turmoil of recent years behind them, JSM’s best days are yet to come.
“I think we’re at a point where we’re enjoying just playing the music,” says Appleton, JSM’s lead vocalist and guitarist. “Back in the day, we were trying to make a living at it, and there was pressure to ascend to some type of success. That pressure isn’t there now, and we’re enjoying it more than ever. We take it seriously. But we take it seriously as a matter of pride, rather than as an obligation.”
To wit: the band began in the mid-‘90s as the four-piece Facedown, with Appleton, West, singer Mike Walls and drummer Dustin West—Scott’s cousin and Appleton’s best friend from high school. The band eventually parted ways with Walls, and rebooted as the three-piece Boy Genius, with Appleton on vox.
Then things got crazy. In the wake of a massive mailing campaign by Scott West, Boy Genius was signed by hip-hop/R&B label Tommy Boy Records, as part of an ill-fated attempt to diversify their roster with a smattering of alt-rock performers. The band released one EP on Tommy Boy’s dime before the label’s fledgling rock division fell apart, scarcely a year after the band’s signing.
Boy Genius soldiered on for some time after being dropped, until Scott West’s well-chronicled legal issues—he was arrested in 2007 for investing money from his brother’s marijuana trafficking operation into downtown properties—resulted in his going to prison for four years.
Flash forward to 2011. West is released from prison, ready to work—and play music—once again. But now he had visions of a new, and very different musical endeavor.
“Basically, Scott thought he was going to start a new band with bongos and horns, some kind of bongo instrumental jam thing,” Appleton chuckles. “So I said to Dustin, that’s cool, we can just do our own thing. But Dustin said, look, we have that chemistry with Scott. Let’s get him in here for one practice.
“If we get him in here one time, he’ll forget about that bongo band. And it turned out that Dustin was exactly right.”
The trio reformed under yet another name—Just Say Maybe—in recognition of the fact that they were performing all-new material, with only one song held over from the Boy Genius days. But then catastrophe struck, again, when Dustin West was felled by a stroke in spring of last year.
West appeared to be making a gradual recovery the first few days after his stroke. Then his health took an unexpected turn for the worse, in the form of internal bleeding that doctors just couldn’t stop. He died on Easter Sunday of 2013.
Appleton says he and Scott considered ending the band. “We thought we wouldn’t continue, initially,” he says. “But then there was the realization of how pissed-off Dustin would be to know we just quit. Dustin loved music. So after we digested it, we realized that we had a lot of music left in us. And that we should go find someone to connect with.”
That someone was JoJax drummer Andy Cosby, who had already subbed for Dustin when the latter injured his shoulder in 2012. Cosby brought his own singular skill set to the kit, but echoed enough of Dustin’s aggressive, hard-hitting spirit to put the veterans Appleton and West at ease with the transition.
“There’s an assimilation period,” Appleton says. “You have to understand each other. But once we put aside our preconceived notions, and let Andy be who he’s supposed to be, then it all worked out great.”
JSM’s next move is to put out a record, a release that will showcase the last songs that Appleton and Scott West wrote with Dustin. Appleton says the trio will enter Eric Nowinski’s Rocksnob studio sometime in the coming weeks.
“There’s no timetable for getting it done, though,” he says. “We’re just going to go until we’re happy with it.
“All we want to do right now is put out this record with the songs that Dustin did, and to play great shows. There’s no one pressuring us to finish. There’s nothing other than our personal drive to make it as good as it can be.”
Just Say Maybe will play Scruffy City Hall Saturday, Feb. 22, a bill that will also include very special guests