Local talent abounds in Calhoun County, but there’s a certain standout act that deserves a shout-out. Highland Groove has been a prominent musical fixture around Anniston, Oxford, and surrounding cities of Calhoun County for the past two years, but their evolution dates back much further. Two key members of the band, Nick Preston (bass, vocals) and John Flannigan (guitar, vocals), go back many years in friendship and playing together, formerly as the Stone Rollers. On the recent name change, Nick told me, “We didn’t really like ‘Stone Rollers’ because everybody thought we were a Rolling Stones cover band, and so we were wanting to change it from the get-go. When our keyboard player left, we decided to change the name, and since we practice on Highland Avenue, we just kind of fell into that.” Since they teamed up with Justin Ridley on drums (and background vocals), Highland Groove has quickly become a “funky” force to be reckoned with.
Every Sunday for 8 years, this band has developed its sound in a little apartment above a garage–a bohemian rehearsal space brimming with posters and banners on the walls, souvenir stickers decorating a small fridge, ambient stage and hanging lights, and an eclectic array of music gear. The synergy was tight as they started off a rehearsal I was invited to with a cover of Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine. The jazzy groove of Justin’s stellar drumming, paired with Nick’s vibing basslines, were a perfect backdrop for John’s soulful vocals and synth-like rhythm guitar. Flannigan and Preston trade off on lead vocals, and they are joined sporadically by a fourth musician–Jada Wilson, who provides extra lead or backing vocals, percussion, and synth.
Highland Groove, which can be described as a jam band, produces a blend of varied styles and sounds inspired by artists/bands such as Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Black Crowes, Gary Clark Jr., Tedeschi Trucks Band, Eric Church, The Band, and Mac Miller…just to name a few. While the musicians enjoy covering a diverse catalog of cover tunes (as well as original compositions of their own), they like to re-imagine the arrangements on some of the classic songs they play, showcasing their progressive improvisational skills.
“We like music with groove–groove, funk, rock, and a little country,” John shared. “I think all three of us have their own individual style, something we gravitate towards. When we play together, it comes together that way–a nice little mash-up. I’ve got more of a hippie background like Allman Brothers, Panic, that kind of thing. But they see stuff different than I do, because of their different backgrounds. That’s what gives it this nice, rounded feel.”
John Flannigan picked up the guitar at a young age and was in a high school band with Jacob Whatley, a former member of the Stone Rollers. He also developed his unique guitar styling in groups like the blues band Blue Roots.
Nick had played with musicians around town and been in bands including the WAIO worship band. In the Stone Rollers, Nick covered rhythm guitar and keyboards, but when their bassist left the band, Nick decided, “Why don’t I just play bass? It’s fun and there’s not a lot of bass players around, so it’s something you just kind of champion.” He picked it up with some mentoring from Gadsden bassist Jon Player.
While John and Nick have more history together, Justin Ridley was referred their way through Jacob Whatley, who had collaborated with him before. Justin took up drums at the age of 7, and had an extensive background playing in various church bands around Anniston, R&B bands, jazz & gospel groups, and a pop-funk band. He has definitely become an irreplaceable member of Highland Groove, tying the other instruments together with his cutting-edge rhythms. He expressed that rehearsing with the band is the highlight of the week for him. “All of us have professional jobs, but to me, it’s always something to look forward to–shows to look forward to. Friends look forward to coming to the shows, which is always great. It’s great for this area and surrounding areas, having good live entertainment.”
The members of Highland Groove work hard to put on the best shows possible, and can be seen locally in an upcoming show Saturday, September 17 at Coldwater Mountain Brewpub as part of its Summer Concert Series (they were also the first band to kick off the series). Fans and music lovers can also check them out at Oxfordfest on October 1, or in Gadsden during Iron Bowl Weekend at Chestnut Station.
Highland Groove has also steered in the direction of bigger bookings like corporate gigs, weddings, parties, and special events of late. They recently performed for the 50th Anniversary of ERA King, as well as a gig at Talladega Speedway.
There’s definitely a camaraderie between these three. As Nick put it, “We’re a brotherhood. We’re family. If we didn’t have this band to play in together, we would all be sad!”
He also shared that Highland Groove would like to take a break of a few months in the near future and do some recording of their original tunes. “We want something tangible that we’ll always have. We’re always gigging, so we prepare for the gig and haven’t had time to record.”
All three band members expressed gratitude to the fans who have come out to their shows, spending their time and money in support of the music. John bookended the conversation with a tongue-in-cheek assurance to those that attend one of their shows that, “We’re gonna play well. You can expect that from us. It won’t be a hack show. Folks are always impressed, but I think they just have low expectations.”
All of us laughed over that one, but there’s no joking about the fact that you can indeed set your expectations high when you check out Highland Groove at one of their upcoming shows.