It was a warm April night in 2007. Blair Crimmins was home after a day spent drinking beer at the annual SweetWater 420 Festival in Candler Park. He leashed up his 70-pound bulldog, Mama Cass, jumped on a skateboard and let her take him for a ride. "I was just swaying in the breeze, having a blast," Crimmins says. The next thing he remembers is waking up at Grady Memorial Hospital three days later. He'd fallen and hit his head on the concrete, resulting in a massive concussion. Though doctors expected a full recovery for the 27-year-old, things were never quite the same.
Back then, Crimmins was the guitarist and anguished frontman for alternative rockers Bishop Don, who were finishing their second album, ironically titled That Should Heal Nicely.
The short list of side effects from his fall included tinnitus, from a bit of his skull fracturing into his ear canal, and temporary loss of his sense of smell. Suddenly, he also had no desire to hear an electric guitar ever again.
"I'm pretty sure that when I hit my head it rearranged the circuitry upstairs in some way," he says. The spill on the skateboard seemed to have altered Crimmins' entire musical being, which led to the formation of Blair Crimmins & the Hookers, a group whose sound evokes the hot jazz, ragtime and blues of the 1920s. Still a rocker at heart, Crimmins' marriage of these distinct musical worlds wound up creating a timeless niche.
Though he finished the record, his days with Bishop Don were numbered. "I was pushing different sounds onto the band that weren't working," he says. "Members were getting angry, people were getting kicked out."
He eventually walked away from the group altogether to re-examine his musical interests. "I had become disgusted with how seriously you were supposed to take yourself in a rock band, expressing feelings that are supposedly unique to you, and how everyone should think that you're an artist. I liked the way the music of the 1920s was for everyone to enjoy."
Around the same time Crimmins was moving into a 100-year-old house in Cabbagetown, his grandmother passed away. Both events only added to the time warp. "She left me tons of old furniture, pictures and old books," he says. "I was just swamped with nostalgia. I was surrounded by all of that energy and it just created my own little work environment."
His new songs began blending ragtime and rock 'n' roll, and he spent much of 2009 rounding up players to fill out what he hoped would become a traditional Dixieland horn section. The current incarnation of the Hookers includes Adam Hopkinson (drums), James King (trumpet), Travis Cottle (trombone), Norm Ficke (clarinet, sax), Dustin Sargent (bass), Matt Wauchope (keys) and Nathan Greene (keys and accordion).
In June 2010, he released The Musical Stylings Of..., a CD that kicks off with "Old Man Cabbage," the romanticized version of the story Crimmins tells when he's not comfortable talking about his traumatic brain injury. "I say that I was possessed by a ghost who makes me play ragtime music," Crimmins laughs.
Other songs, "Oh Angela!" and "Mean Mean Man," rattle with a fiery, haunted energy channeled into a banjo and horns, while "Checked Out Early" snakes along with a demonic groove.
Any of these numbers could have been recorded a century ago, and there's not a clear-cut single, but that's by design. "I constructed the album to work as a whole," he says. "I don't want to get sucked back into the rock mentality and think I have to write a hit song or present myself in a certain way. If I feel like making a country album tomorrow, I'm going to do it."
On Fri., Feb. 4, Crimmins will celebrate his 31st birthday by releasing a 10-inch single featuring the songs "State Hotel," a downtrodden jailhouse dirge, and "You Can't Fake a Smile," an up-tempo horn jam sure to get any dance floor moving. Neither song strays too far from the sound that defines The Musical Stylings Of..., but they capture the group locking into a more confident stride.
"I've never felt so comfortable in my own skin as an artist," Crimmins adds. "Maybe that's not from hitting my head, maybe it's from growing up, or a combination of both."
Either way, he's staying off of the skateboard from now on.