For Savannah musicians Craig Tanner and Thomas Oliver, their upcoming duo gig is a family affair.
Though it’s a relatively recent development, a musical collaboration between the first cousins has been a long time coming.
“I’m a little bit older, so we didn’t really grow up together,” Oliver explains. “Our families lived in Atlanta, but we never played music before he got to Savannah.”
Though Oliver had a closer connection with Tanner’s older brothers, his work as an author and journalist was quite influential on Tanner.
“I’m kind of a political junkie, and I love to read, so I had more of a connection to him from a distance, because I followed what he did at the paper,” says Tanner.
Tanner is a nonstop feature in the Lowcountry’s music scene, performing by himself, alongside Adam Nye in their duo Harbor Pilots, and in American Hologram.
Oliver often performs near his home on Tybee Island and in Savannah. From toe-tapping, catchy country tunes to haunting, wistful story-songs, the prolific writer is refreshingly versatile in both style and narrative.
While both Tanner and Oliver are known around town for their guitar and vocal skills, they also both act as quiet forces behind the scenes, nurturing up-and-coming and established performers in the area. Tanner hosts popular open mic nights at Abe’s on Lincoln and Molly MacPherson’s Scottish Pub; Oliver books the Savannah Songwriters Series, providing an all-ages, listening room environment to hear songwriters in the round. He also acts as host for the monthly event, introducing the players and singing a few tunes of his own.
On top of his own shows, open mic hosting, photography gigs, and being a new dad, Tanner has become a sought-after producer; he’s currently working on releases for songwriters like Phillip Wise and Britt Scott, Savannah band My Maiden Name, and several more local acts.
When Tanner moved to Savannah around four or five years ago, Oliver was running an open mic night on Tybee Island. Tanner, a budding musician, and his eventual Abe’s open mic co-host Mr. Williams, trekked over the bridge to give it a go.
After reconnecting, the cousins and multidisciplinary artists began collaborating in a variety of ways: Tanner shot photos for Oliver’s album Edge of America, and soon, the two began jamming.
Oliver invited Tanner to play the Savannah Songwriters Series.
“It sort of freaked him out, but it sparked his interest in getting serious about songwriting,” remembers Oliver.
“That was a big deal for me at the time,” Tanner affirms. “I wrote [American Hologram song] ‘Same Blue Sky’ in a rush to have one last song to play my four songs for the Savannah Songwriters Series. That got me really going on the songwriting thing, so I have Thomas to thank for pushing me.”
On Thursday, the cousins team up to present Oliver’s newest EP, When You Kissed Me, produced by Tanner.
Last year, Oliver got the idea for a “song blog,” wherein the dedicated writer would post a demo of new song, along with lyrics and context for the listener, as frequently as possible. At the time, Tanner was first trying his hand at recording and production, laying down tracks for American Hologram’s Same Blue Sky.
“I’m a major introvert, and from my photography days, I kind of realized that I love the timed process as much as I love shooting,” says Tanner. “It’s a long time tinkering by yourself. I had ProTools and an interface, and I said, ‘Instead of spending $5,000, give me a chance to buy some plugins and take our time and learn as we go.’”
He fell in love with the process.
“Besides writing, recording is my favorite thing connected to music,” he shares.
After Same Blue Sky was complete, Tanner was hungry to keep learning and recording and began recording Oliver’s song blog tracks as simple, straightforward live demos.
“He’s a prolific writer,” Tanner praises of his cousin. “He writes all the time.”
Fascinated by the project, Tanner saw an opportunity for Oliver to grow.
“I said, ‘I’d love to produce an EP for you and take four of these songs, go ahead and flesh out arrangements and record them.’”
Oliver agreed, suggesting that he surrendered creative control and let Tanner pick the tracks.
“He came back with the four he picked, which was really interesting to me—it’s not the four I would pick!” says Oliver.
“It was just intuition,” Tanner says. “It was sort of like how I run my life: there were just songs that jumped out at me. They’re fairly different songs, they really run the gamut. ‘When You Kissed Me’ is very dark—it was recorded that way. I imagine someone sitting drunk at a piano...and it’s almost silly, it was just that those four songs really, from the first time I heard them, struck a chord.”
“The grouping he did made it more interesting; he was clearly bringing his own artistic vision to the project,” says Oliver. “That made it very different from most EPs and CDs where you take your music to the studio. It was quite different from anything I’ve ever been involved in, and made it more interesting for the both of us.”
“We laid down rhythm guitar, and he never really heard anything else until I had recorded everything!” Tanner says.
Oliver’s past work has a distinct roots country feel to it, laced with pedal steel and standard country arrangements. With Tanner at the helm, his songs take on a new kind of atmospheric country sound.
Tanner opens Thursday night’s show with an original set and will join Oliver on guitar for a few songs, including cuts from When You Kissed Me. For music lovers throughout Savannah, this is a family reunion worth crashing.