Photos Jim Arbogast
If ever a band was aptly named, it’s The Georgia Thunderbolts.
Their sound strikes like lightning from a clear blue sky. Hearing them for the first time, it’s easy to blink-blink and ask, “Now…where did that come from?” This is legitimate, hard-driving rock and roll, old-school style. With a southern drawl. These guys are the real deal.
The band is made up of five young men: TJ Lyle (vocals, harmonica, piano), Riley Couzzourt (guitar), Logan Tolbert (guitar), Zach Everett (bass, keys), and Bristol Perry (drums). Ranging in age from 22-25, Bristol and Riley hail from Rome, and TJ, Logan and Zach from nearby Taylorsville, Georgia.
Rome remains true to its roots as a blue-collar town. For the most part, the locals are working class folks. More blue jeans than suits and ties. Lots of pickup trucks and American flags. But it’s an ever-changing town, too: demographically, economically, socially. This band’s music reflects the richness of the region’s heritage while embracing openness, optimism, and fresh ways of thinking. This is the New South, and it sounds good.
From football to footlights
The origins of The Georgia Thunderbolts can be traced back to the football team at Armuchee High School, where Riley Couzzourt and Bristol Perry were teammates. In the weight room, most of the other guys played rap music while they worked out, but Couzzourt says, “I would play a lot of rock music, metal and stuff. Bristol and I were the only ones who liked it, so that’s what brought us together.” Before long, they were playing music with Zach Everett, practicing, honing their skills, performing at open mic events around the area.
One of those open mic nights took them to Sixes Tavern in Cartersville, Georgia. That was the first time they heard TJ Lyle’s powerful rock-anthem voice. They were floored. Couzzourt says, “TJ has some pipes on him, man, no doubt about it. Everybody knows it.”
Perry says, “When TJ and Logan came along, that’s when everything took off.” The first song the band played together was Stranglehold by rock legend Ted Nugent. It was a watershed moment for everyone involved. About TJ’s vocals on that song, Couzzourt says, “We all heard him and said, ‘Yeah, this dude is what we’re looking for’.”
The combined talents of Lyle, Couzzourt, Tolbert, Everett, and Perry make for a great sound. It’s a big sound that pays tribute to the lords of rock they grew up listening to, but it’s also uniquely theirs. In one press release, Lyle says, “We’re going for that timeless and classic sound with a twist and newer attitude.”
The group’s publicist, Jon Bleicher, founder of Prospect PR, based in Maplewood, NJ, says, “The Georgia Thunderbolts are one of the most exciting bands I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with in the past 15 years. They are raw artists, powerful performers, and all-around great guys.” More and more fans of rock are beginning to come to the same conclusion as Bleicher. The fanbase is building, the band is steadily gaining momentum.
Finding fate at the fair
In 2017, The Georgia Thunderbolts were stoked about opening for the iconic southern rock band The Kentucky Headhunters at the Chattooga County Fair. While the Thunderbolts were playing, a long-haired man chewing an unlit cigar sat in a chair by the stage, watching and listening. This was Richard Young, famed vocalist and rhythm guitarist of The Kentucky Headhunters.
Spotting Young sitting there, the guys were both nervous and excited. As it turned out, they had plenty to be excited about. When the show was over and the band came off stage, Young said, “Hey, y’all wanna come up to Kentucky and make a record?” No one had to think about that; the answer was Yes! “The two bands got together for a photograph,” says Couzzourt, “and from then on we were one big family.”
Richard Young’s influence on The Georgia Thunderbolts cannot be overstated. Young, who has been with The Kentucky Headhunters since its inception in 1986, brings with him a wealth of expertise and insider know-how. He’s been a mentor and has helped the Thunderbolts navigate the treacherous waters of the music industry. And now, even better, he’s the band’s manager. Perry says, “We wouldn’t be where we are without Richard. He knows everybody in the business. If you don’t like Richard, that’s your problem, because everybody else likes him.”
Stepping from the stage to the studio
Taking Young up on his offer, The Georgia Thunderbolts eventually headed to Glasgow, Kentucky, where they learned by first-hand experience what it took to make an album. They traveled back and forth between Rome and Glasgow as their schedules and their finances allowed, a few days here, a weekend there. They found the whole process fun, exhausting, and sometimes, admittedly, quite stressful.
Can We Get A Witness is not the product of a group of image-obsessed record executives who want to shape a new rock band according to some prescribed entertainment formula. This album is personal, an authentic representation of who these young men are, where they came from, and where they fully intend to go. The band penned the lyrics of eleven of its thirteen songs. Only two of the album’s songs are covers; and those two are rock classics worthy of covering: Midnight Rider by The Allman Brothers Band (lyrics by Gregg Allman and Robert Payne) and Be Good To Yourself by Frankie Miller (lyrics by Andy Fraser).
“We write music that’s real,” Perry says. “The way we write a song is we all get in a room together and write. It comes from us; it’s not about outside influences.” Understandably, the only exception to this no-outsiders rule is Richard Young, who is co-writer on five of the band’s songs. “Richard is about the only person who comes in on the process,” Couzzourt says. “He’s got number one hits and Grammy-award winning hits, so if he wants to sit in, we say ‘Sure! Come on in and write with us!”
One of the album’s stand-out songs, Spirit Of A Workin’ Man, might just as well have served as the album’s title cut. It is, perhaps, the most autobiographical offering. From the driving cadence of its rhythm to its honest lyrics, it tells the story of who these five musicians are. They’re writing about a man who will do what he needs to do to get where he wants to go, and who will help others along the way. It’s about the kind of man who can drive a bulldozer or fix the plumbing, and then write a song about it. Spirit Of A Workin’ Man is a song about being steadfast, not looking away from challenges but taking them on headfirst. The song says, “Though he’s young he still wants to succeed.”
That’s The Georgia Thunderbolts. Young, hungry, and talented. And they have the work ethic to succeed. The song goes on to say: “If you wanna make a difference don’t you know you can in the spirit of the workin’ man.” That’s good advice, and advice the band is, apparently, both giving and taking. It is the spirit in which Can We Get A Witness was made.
About the band’s song writing, Couzzourt says, “We try to write about real-life scenarios. In a lot of popular music out there today you’re hearing the same thing over and over again. We’re not hating on those guys — they’re making lots of money, and that’s great, we’re happy for them — but for us, that’s not what it’s about. We want to make a connection with people.”
More than a lucky break
It is important to point out that this debut album hasn’t happened just because The Georgia Thunderbolts are lucky. Sure, they’ve had lots of help — indispensable help — from Richard Young, Mascot Label Group, PR guru Jon Bleicher, and many others. However, the primary engine pushing Can We Get A Witness into the public is the sweat equity the band members have put into it. This has happened because five young men have consistently crawled out of a van — bone weary — after traveling halfway across the country, got up on stage and performed like they had just enjoyed eight uninterrupted hours of soulful sleep. True, like the Beatles, they’ve done it “with a little help from their friends,” but in the dark hours of the night, burning up the miles of asphalt, they’re the ones pushing ahead.
Here, the old proverb holds true: “A man’s gift makes room for him.” The Georgia Thunderbolts’ substantial musical gifts are making room in the marketplace for them. Prolific novelist Neil Gaiman (creator of American Gods) puts it another way: “Often you will discover that the harder you work, and the more wisely you work, the luckier you get.” So, the work is the key; the luck is the result. And these Georgia boys know how to work, and their work ethic is creating its own luck. That is precisely why it is a safe bet that the public is going to hear a lot more from them for many years to come.