By: Thomas D. Mooney
Some bands sound a lot older than they look. They speak of experience and are wise beyond their years.
With The Dirty River Boys, they sing and sound like restless drifters who have rolled into town like a tumbleweed from the great American Desert. They sing about characters who are genuine, yet hopelessly broke down by life and all its struggles. They could definitely use a few shots of whiskey to make their day better. But it’s not that The Dirty River boys are all sad songs and waltzes, it’s that they’re just damn good at it.
Their brand of folk and alternative country is a little rougher around the edges than most. It’s gritty. Yet, when you take it all in, it goes down smooth.
Earlier this week, New Slang caught up with The Dirty River Boys. They are playing The Blue Light this Saturday with another Lubbock favorite, The Wheeler Brothers.
New Slang: I was reading a Dallas Observer article featuring you guys where you listed your top five Texas venues. The first listed was Lubbock’s Blue Light. What makes The Blue Light so special for you guys?
Marco Gutierrez: The one thing really cool about The Blue Light I think that’s helped out a band like us, is that it’s a multi-genre venue. I think that in itself really helps us out.
Travis Stearns: Yeah, like I said in that interview, the people at Blue Light are all good music listeners. They’re able to pick the good stuff from the bad stuff. If you play a good show and just pour your heart out, they just give so much love. We’d have a rough week [of shows], then play at Blue Light, and it’d make the whole week and whole tour worth it.
NS: Something else I’ve read about you guys is that you didn’t start out playing acoustic instruments in the band. You started out mainly all-electric with a full drum kit, but had to adapt to playing small venues and bars where you just couldn’t fit the equipment and where it couldn’t handle that much sound. Do you guys think you’ll ever make that switch back to being full electric?
TS: Yeah, we’ll probably go metal. I’m not talking double-bass drums. I’m talking triple-bass drums and dueling electric solos [laughs].
MG: Yeah, we tried electric at first, and like you said, smaller venues, had to adapt to them. And we loved it. That’s kind of what The Dirty River Boys are right now. And, I don’t want to speak for the whole band, but I don’t want to end our career on acoustic instruments and not do any branching out at all. That being said, I think eventually, when the time is right, we’ll bring in some electric guitar…we’ll just keep adding to the show.
NS: Personally, I think that adds so much to the music. I mean, obviously if you’re playing acoustic-based instruments, that’s what the sound revolves around. But, when you see it being performed, there’s this added character and feel to the experience. There’s some element that builds with it. Would you guys agree?
Nino Cooper: I think our acoustic show is different from your regular acoustic show. We have a lot of rock and roll energy. We have some guitar licks that don’t really sound acoustic. Travis plays the cajon and he can make it sound like a full kit at times and then he can back off and make it sound like the wooden box it is. There’s a lot of dynamics you get that aren’t in a normal acoustic show.
TS: Yeah, Nino is absolutely right. You know, when we were back in El Paso, we had to bring out the acoustic instruments to make a living. And in that time, we really learned how to play the acoustic instruments full-time. A lot of bands these days, they only play them when they have a radio gig or not enough room on stage. So, we’ve made a living out of playing our acoustic instruments and with that, we’ve been able to put a show together. So, when we’re up there playing, it’s a lot different. It’s not a band that’s playing acoustic because there’s not enough room for electric. At this point, it’s what we do. It’s really ingrained in us.
MG: Yeah, there’s something I kind of want to add to this. You know, before we started doing this whole acoustic thing, we all played electric guitar and we all had rock and roll bands. So, I think it’s all kind of transferred over into our acoustic music. That’s something we really bring to the stage. We all have passion for this and we’ve got to show it off.
NS: Yeah. It’s something that I really can’t express enough (and hence the numerous questions about it). But, there’s obviously this certain feeling and connotation that people get when they hear or see the word acoustic. For whatever reason, they automatically will think of Ben Harper, Hawaii-campfire-beach-surf pop. You guys really have some serious punch in there. So, when you’ve played a show and people are coming up to you who haven’t heard your music before, what are their reactions? How surprised are they?
MG: Oh yeah. The first time people see us, they kind of jokingly say, “do you think you guys can put some more energy into it?” So that’s kind of what we do, bring energy.
TS: Yeah, first timers, when they see us play, they’re either a fan or they’re not. They either get it or they don’t. The ones who get it, they’re probably surprised with what we’re doing up there. And if anything, they see how much fun we’re having.
NC: Yeah. I mean, what’s the point in doing something for a living, if you’re not having fun?
NS: Something that’s really important and interesting to me when hearing music, especially artists from West Texas, is how the area they’re from comes through the music. With you guys, being from El Paso, I think the landscape just comes oozing out the speakers. You guys sound like West Texas. How has El Paso, and West Texas in general, effected the music?
MG: Well, to be honest, I think growing up in El Paso–a lot of bands that come out of Texas are surrounded by the whole Texas music scene–so coming from El Paso, we didn’t hear any of it at all. So there was a different element in that since there was really no music scene–as far as Texas music goes. So when we started playing music, we started making our own sound without really being influenced by others around us. If that makes sense [laughs].
NS: No, it makes perfect sense.
TS: Hell yeah, it makes perfect sense. We made our own, man. We all had bands we grew up listening to. But we didn’t have other bands out there helping us or giving us a direction. Just did it on our own.
MG: Yeah, but that’s not to say that we don’t have our alternative country [and] Americana influences here and there. But living in El Paso, the desert definitely has a certain landscape to it. But I think that’s a very minimal part to what influences us.
NS: I’ve talked to other bands about this who are from Lubbock about this where it’s not necessarily the landscapes that have help create your sound, but just that isolation. It’s really where you have to create your own sound because there isn’t a strong music scene where you are constantly in contact with other bands. In a lot of ways, you’re alone. Living in West Texas can feel so desolate.
NC: Yeah. One of my favorite bands from Lubbock is the Thrift Store Cowboys. And I think they kind of have the same of thing as us in that they’re original. Like they don’t sound like anyone. So yeah, I think the whole West Texas living really breeds originality and innovation.
NS: What’s up next with you guys as far as studio work and new releases?
NC: Well, we’ve got enough material written to record probably an entire record-and-a-half. We’ve just been so busy, we’ve not had the time needed to get into the studio. So, in the next couple of months, we’ll definitely start recording a lot of it. We’re definitely going to get a full-length out. We just need to get a break in the schedule.
NS: You guys have this video version of “Carnival Lights” where the intro is you guys singing Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.” That’s an interesting choice. Why’d you guys include that there?
NC: Well, I remember we were out in L.A. recording our record and we would listen to that Hank Williams song. And we just thought it’d be cool to incorporate an old-school country-gospel song. And “I Saw the Light,” it’s a real uplifting song and we thought it’d be kind of weird and cool to have it opening into a real dark song. So there’s a little bit of contradiction going on there.
NS: I want to talk about the song “Union Painter” for a bit. Can you guys talk about how that song was developed and where the story of it originated?
NC: I was doing some community service at the Rescue Mission in El Paso and I met this homeless guy there, his name is Tom, and he was kind of in charge of signing my hour sheet [laughs]. Why I was in there, I won’t into details on that [laughs]. But Tom, I got pretty well acquainted with him and he ended up telling his story of how he ended up there at the Rescue Mission. He was kind of a wanderer, drifter type. So what really inspired me on this song was his story…It was a touching story and I sat down one day and wrote a chorus, “They said I’d find Jesus, that’s what they raved. But I wound up in prison just before I was saved.” So it was about his struggle with alcohol. And he was a union painter and he wouldn’t do any other painting unless it was a union job. He’d wait around for months, just for someone to give him a call about a union painting job in whatever town, whatever state. So then he’d catch a bus or something to get there. But other than that, he wouldn’t do any other work. But he took a lot of pride in being a union painter. On his way up to a job in Nevada, his car broke down, he ended up going to a bar, and he ended up getting in trouble and arrested. And he ended up just being stranded in El Paso. So lyrically, I don’t know, I just sat down and wrote the damn song [laughs].