Freddie Snell, known locally as White Bay Freddie, is a Murfreesboro native who spent more than a decade living a dual life—the pirate’s life in the British Virgin Islands and a general contractor’s life in Murfreesboro. His two homes couldn’t be more different, but Freddie plays music whether he’s at the Bunganut Pig in the Boro or a bar on the beach. Here, the local music-making sea rover talks White Bay, the buccaneer life and Keith Richards.
When did you start playing music?
I started taking piano lessons at 8 years old, but I messed around with it prior to that. My mother was a piano teacher. I started playing guitar when I was 12.
How did White Bay Freddie form?
I had my first garage band when I was 15, and I pretty much had some form of a band ever since. When I was living in the British Virgin Islands on an island called Jost Van Dyke, I was living in a place called White Bay. A promoter from St. John came over and asked me if I’d play for his place on St. John. He didn’t even know my last name. In the Virgin Islands, people try not to have last names. When he got back, he just decided that everyone knew me from White Bay, so he would call me White Bay Freddie, and it stuck. I didn’t know it until I got to St. John, and it was on the marquee. Friends of mine in Van Dyke ran up to me and said, “Are you the famous White Bay Freddie?” I said, “What are you talking about?”
When did you first go to the Virgin Islands?
It was 1994, and I had decided that I had been working as a general contractor building houses and doing remodeling for a long time, and I was tired. I decided to take some time off. I picked the Virgin Islands because I had never been there. It just looked interesting. When I got there, I started off in St. John, and it was nice, but then a guidebook said Van Dyke was the party island of the BVI. I found it to be absolute paradise. There were 150 people that lived there, and at that time there was no electricity. There was a campground with a little kitchen and bar. It was just about the most perfect setup I could find. Beautiful beaches, beautiful water. I’m a scuba instructor as well, and having a beach where I could go out to a pretty reef and dive was too good to be true. That’s where I made my main place to be for about 10 years for the winter season. In the summer, there’s nobody to entertain or go scuba diving with, and there are hurricanes. And there’s no waterskiing, and I’m a hardcore water skier. I would generally stay around Murfreesboro until just after Christmas, then head back to the sunny beaches by New Year’s Eve.
How often do you go back there now?
I have a son we call Trey who just turned nine. Until he can travel with me, I just don’t do much. Since Trey was born, I’ve been to White Bay maybe four times, and I really can’t stay more than a week at a time. It’s hard to do, because it’s so much a part of me.
Is it true you’ve played with Keith Richards?
The way I like to say it is Keith Richards played with me. He walked into a bar I was playing in White Bay and picked up a guitar that was on the wall for decoration. It had a broken neck. I said, “Keith, you want a guitar?” He said, “You got a guitar, mate?” I had a Stratocaster sitting there. He played a little riff on it, and then all the electricity on the island went out. Down there, blackouts are no big deal, it happens, and I can take anything. We call it “typical tropical.” But I was thinking, “Not now! Not right now!”
No one could hear us play, so Keith and I walked down to the beach and started talking. People were running up and down the beach, waking people up and getting people off sailboats. “Keith Richards is on the beach talking to Freddie!” Thirty people gathered around really quickly. Keith was really fun; he wanted to know what I was doing, why I was down there. I told him, and he looked at me and said, “You know Freddie, if I didn’t have to do what I do . . .” I looked at him like he was crazy. Then he said, “Wait, check that. If I didn’t love what I do so much, I’d be right down on this beach with you.” I said, “Well Keith, whenever you get done doing what you love so much, come on down.”
The electricity came on later and we played from 2-4 in the morning. I saw him a couple nights later at another bar. He called me over, turned to his handler and said, “Give me some money, I want to buy Freddie a drink!” She said, “I thought you had the money!” He said, “You mean I’m broke on this island? That won’t do. Watch this, Freddie.” He walks up to a table of tourists and offered them a picture with him for 20 bucks. They dropped the 20 on the table, and he did that five times in less than 5 minutes, and bought me and everybody else in the bar a drink [laughs].
He showed up at my birthday party a couple of days later, and it was a big music thing. We were playing, and Keith jumped up onstage. He played with all of us. We played a lot of reggae and my stuff, and at one point, Keith and I and a local musician sang “One Love,” singing into one microphone. That was a magic moment, right there. That was Feb. 20, 2000.
How did your pirate persona develop?
Being down in the Islands, there’s the history of piracy and all that kind of thing. The way we were living on that campground was a fairly piratical life. We weren’t using guns and cutlasses and cannons, but we were using guitars and scuba equipment and sailboats, and were still taking treasure from the tourists—it’s just called gratuities now.
Before 9/11, we were active in a pretty piratical thing about going between the U.S. and the BVI. In other words, we ignored the border and very seldom checked in and out with customs. You can’t get away with that now [laughs]. On the morning of Jan. 1, 2000, the first thing I did in this millennium was an act of international piracy. I took a band from Jost Van Dyke back to St. John without checking in. I was in a BVI boat, which I had no documentation for, and there were guys that never checked in at Jost Van Dyke to start with, so I took illegal aliens back to the United States, never touched shore myself and came straight back to Jost Van Dyke [laughs]. Today, that would be a really huge deal. It was wrong, and had I been caught, I would have been in a lot of trouble, but nobody really expected that to happen. I knew the authorities were all hung-over because it was Jan. 1, so I wasn’t too worried about it.
How do you write songs?
It’s not always the same way. I have written some songs that I struggled with, and I’ve written some in a really short time. Those are the best, when everything’s right and the idea comes and you write down words as you’re banging out a tune on the guitar.
In 1999, New Year’s Eve, I was building a picnic table for a party. It was early in the morning, and this guy walked by with two beautiful young women in bikinis. I don’t know what he was saying to them before or after, but I heard him say, “But if you don’t start in the morning, how can you drink all day?” I literally took a pencil out of my nail belt and wrote the line down on a 2×4. When I finished the table, I made up this whole story about him going up and down the beach, going to all the bars all day. Everyone thinks he’s such a lucky guy with these two beautiful women, but he ends up passing out facedown in the sand, because he had too much to drink.
I was sitting on the porch with a friend one day and this really pretty young girl walked down the beach in a bikini top and a sarong. My friend, he’s an old pirate, he leaned over to me and said in his gravelly voice, “I’ve never seen a sarong look so right.” That’s one of my favorite songs and one that people have always reacted to really well.
What you like most about playing in the Virgin Islands?
The audiences are always there to have a good time. They’re there to listen to the music and be entertained. They really get into the whole thing, the piratical end, because they’re there wanting the experience. I love to play music anywhere, but sometimes in the bars around Middle Tennessee, you’re playing for people who are more interested in who they can go home with, and the music is just background noise to them. I like it when the audience is really engaged in what you’re doing.
I also like the international flavor. I was playing for and with people from all over the Caribbean, England, Australia. It’s just the whole vibe of the island, and there’s something about the rhythm of the sea. The sea is constant. It becomes noise that you don’t really concentrate on, but it’s always there, and it gives a little musical thing to everything that’s going on. Hearing the constant lull coming in is relaxing and soothing and . . . I’m making me homesick [laughs].
And I like never knowing who you’re going to wind up playing with. One night in St. Thomas, Magic Johnson walked in. I tried to get him to sing with us, and he wouldn’t. The band I was playing with always ended the set with “Take It To The Limit,” and when we finished that, Magic walked up to me and said, “Do ‘Take It To The Limit’ again, and I’ll sing it.” We started it up again, and Magic said, “But you have to feed me the words.” I didn’t sing that song; somebody else did. I didn’t really know it, so I got my back to the audience, I’ve got this monstrously giant man in front of me, I’m sweating bullets, but I got it done. Nights like that are pretty fun. That kind of thing with Keith Richards and Magic Johnson doesn’t happen in Middle Tennessee very often.
What do you like most about playing in Murfreesboro?
I love being a performer and being in front of people. I love playing with my band here. The people I played with in the islands, they were all pretty good musicians, but none of them could stand up in front of people in Middle Tennessee and play. We’ve got the best crop of musicians probably anywhere, being so close to Nashville. My guitar player, Tom (Windham), has been playing with me 15 years. Sandy (Goodman) has been singing with me 15 years. One of my drummers has been playing with me since college. They’re old friendships, and you just don’t get that in the islands as much.
My wife Pam is now our bass player. Trey gets up and sings “Volcano” with us. He’s a pretty talented little entertainer himself. I’m really crazy about everybody I’m playing with. The caliber of musicians is much greater here, though the reggae players in the islands who grew up playing are national quality as far as reggae is concerned.
It’s hard to say where my favorite place is one way or another. I have one song called “I’m From Tennessee” in answer to people who ask why I come back to Tennessee when I love the islands so much. It talks about growing up here, being from here, and as much as I love the islands, I can’t imagine myself just pulling up and moving down there. I had that opportunity, but I just couldn’t do it. I had everything in place, but it wasn’t here. There’s too much of me that’s a Tennessean. When Trey gets grown, I’ll see if I can work it out to spend time down there on a sailboat, if he wants to go. By then I’ll be in my mid sixties, and I expect I’ll still be able to then, but we’ll have to see what happens.