by David Ray Skinner
I first arrived at Carson-Newman in the Fall of 1970 and, as I navigated my way across campus and through my first classes (wearing my silly orange-and-blue freshman beanie), I was both excited and terrified. I had brought my guitar from home (which served as a wooden security blanket) to college, and one night I was sitting on my bunk and strumming in (what then was called) New Men’s Dorm.
I had been mulling over the fact that back in Nashville, as a senior in high school, I had performed in local venues, coffeehouses, churches and even on local Nashville TV with my singing and songwriting partner, Johnny Armstrong. So, because Johnny was a year younger and still in high school, I was considering my future as a solo performer.
Just then, a fellow freshman walked past my open door, did a double-take and paused in the doorway. He introduced himself as Paul Dunlap, said he was a music major and asked if he could bring in his guitar and pick with me. After an hour of playing music—everything from the Beatles to Flatt & Scruggs—I realized he and I could perform as a duo.
For the next few nights, we spent hours playing songs that we both liked and working on the harmonies. On the second or third night, another freshman who lived on our hall, who introduced himself as Millard Filmore Strunk, joined us and added an additional harmony. I had never even considered three-part harmony, but the sound of our voices together was intriguing, especially when we sang our own versions of songs by Crosby, Stills & Nash, a trio that had perfected three-part harmony.
The next afternoon, while I was at the bookstore (upstairs above the student center in the Baker Building), buying books for the semester, I got one of the “Student Kits” they offered. The Men’s kits were obviously different from the Women’s kits, and I was examining mine on the path from the student center on my way to class at Henderson—hm-m-m, toothpaste, razors, deodorant, shaving cream…Suddenly, I was stopped by a senior on the path, and much to my surprise, SHE KNEW MY NAME! She had heard that I could sing and play the guitar. She asked, would I be interested in performing in the Freshman Talent Show? It was to be next week in front of Henderson Hall.
“Could I invite my band?” I asked.
She seemed pleasantly surprised. “Of course, that would be great!” she said. “What’s the name of your band?”
We hadn’t even considered a name. In desperation, I looked around, fidgeting, and in the process, dropped the “Student Kit.” As I grabbed the rolling can of shaving cream (as it tried to return down the sidewalk back to the Baker Building), the disclaimer on the side of the can flashed in the late afternoon Jefferson City sunlight: “CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE,” and I muttered it as I crammed the kit’s items back into the box.
“That’s a great name,” she said.
“What’s a great name?” I asked.
“Your band’s name—‘Contents Under Pressure.'”
I wasn’t so sure at the time, but the name stuck. That Fall 1971 semester was a busy introduction to college. I was taking my Art intro courses, and ROTC; Paul and Filmore were in various music classes together, and Filmore was not only in ROTC with me, but he was also busy pledging Philos. By the time the second semester of our Freshman year rolled around, he had convinced Paul and me to pledge, along with Dan Schlafer, who we knew from a “rival band” on campus, “The Fellowship of Christian Athlete Chorus.”
There was always some sort of get-together, coffeehouse or student concert on campus back then. In addition to our band and The Fellowship of Christian Athlete Chorus, there was “The Popcorn Papas,” and “This, That, and the Other,” which featured future Philo, Joe Holbert (he always claimed to be “the Other”). I’m not quite sure how we convinced Dan to join Contents Under Pressure in the Spring of 1971, but somehow we did, and four Philos became a four-man band.
One of our first concerts with the four of us was at the Planted Vision Coffeehouse (across the street from Alumni Dorm and on down the street toward town) in April of 1971. The audience was filled with Philos, including Mike Murphy, Steve Petty and John W. Walker III, all of whom can be heard in the live recording made that night. The reel-to-reel stereo tape recorder was sitting on a chair in front of us, with mics sitting on the ajoining chairs…a pretty simplistic and primitive way to record a concert, but I’m still grateful to have an audio record of that night so long ago. We had taken a break and when we returned to “the stage,” I introduced our cover version of The Incredible Stringed Band‘s “Big Ted,” an anthem dedicated to vegetarianism, the obvious meaning which we didn’t “get” until many, many years later. For whatever reason, when I introduced the song, the crowd went wild, shaking the chairs and knocking one of the mics off. As I tried to retrieve the mic, I lost my pick and asked the audience if they had a spare one…actually, someone did. The recording is controlled bedlam: click to listen.
In the Spring of 1972, Ms. Sandra Skeens, who directed the Carson-Newman Male Chorus, invited Contents Under Pressure to go on tour with them. We sang in high schools and churches throughout Tennessee and Georgia, hopefully recruiting potential Carson-Newman students. We would do a morning concert in a high school assembly and then, after a quick lunch, travel to another high school for an afternoon assembly. Then, at night, we would perform at a church, after which, members of the congregation would house us for the night in their homes. They would then feed us breakfast and get us back to the church, where the bus was waiting to whisk us to that morning’s high school assembly.
In 1990, after the four of us had long gone our separate ways, we performed a “Contents Under Pressure 20-Year Reunion Concert” at Carson-Newman’s in the music building auditorium during Homecoming that October. We performed the same set that we had performed in our early ’70s concerts, including “In About 50 Years,” a song I had written for us in the Summer of 1971. It was a song cautioning to not grow complacent, because one never knows what will happen in the future. Ironically, the song was written over fifty years ago…hopefully, we heeded its warning. I supposed we’ll find out. In the meantime, here’s the live recording of the song from the 1990 concert: click to listen.