by: Thomas D. Mooney
Hey folks. This is what country roads actually sound like. This is what windows down on the highway sound like. This is what real southern rock sounds like.
For whatever reason, there’s always been a misconception that southern rock is more about attitude, guitars, and good times than lyrical substance. Anyone who’s ever really listened and studied the discographies of Lynyrd Skynryd, The Allman Brothers Band, Little Feat, and others know though, that’s simply the case. Sure, those dual guitars, gravely voices, and Jack Daniels bottles littering the stage are part of what make southern rock a distinctive sound. But it’s certainly not the only thing.
Whiskey Myers luckily figured that part early on. It’s obvious that they have a certain affection to the greats of 1970s. They wear those influences on their sleeve. But it’s not in that “we’re making rock n’roll with a southern grit and we should probably name drop a few of these bands to give us some street cred” kind of way. They’re just as much historians and scholars as they are guitar axemen, storytellers, and performers.
There’s no faking it with this group.
Their latest album, Early Morning Shakes, is really a godsend for all intents and purposes. Yeah, their previous albums have been solid, but Early Morning Shakes, it’s on another level–not just setting a new standard for Whiskey Myers, but really, for an entire branch of the American Music tree.
You’re seeing a band mature before your eyes–even when they’re singing about those early morning shakes, Jack Daniels in coffee, and bad habits they just can’t seem to break. But that’s really not even where they shine most. We already knew they had those four or five songs you’d hear on the radio or on a venue pre-show playlist. You knew they had an “Early Morning Shakes,” a “Dogwood,” and a “Headstone” in them.
It’s the songs that you may never even hear played live that make this record an instant classic. It’s “Colloquy” that makes the record complete (Secretly, the best song they’ve ever written and recorded).
It’s not that WM hasn’t been trying to make great all-around albums in the past though. It’s not due to a lack of effort in the past. It has more to do with them hitting their stride artistically–the beginning of their prime years.
In more ways than one, it feels as though Whiskey Myers has gone from straight Lynyrd Skynryd disciples to another band with southern roots: The Drive-By Truckers. Don’t get me wrong. There’s obviously still a love and passion for southern rock music flowing through the Whiskey Myers sound. But, it’s not as though DBT don’t know how to play guitars or give a rebel yell. Folks seem to think first of storytelling when it comes to DBT, which is very understandable.
Whiskey Myers probably has a little more pop sense than DBT, but storytelling is all over Early Morning Shakes.
I’m not even sure if they would say they’re consciously approaching music differently; they’re just better. I have no doubt they feel this is their best effort yet though. I’m sure there’s not an exact “lightbulb” moment–other than the general writing and creation process of Early Morning Shakes as a whole.
Working with producer Dave Cobb had to have had a positive impact on the band. After speaking with Whiskey Myers bassist Gary Brown earlier last week, I get the impression that Cobb was exactly what the band not only wanted, but needed; a figure who’d recognize their best qualities and help them preserve their absolute best in a damn near perfect album.
Whiskey Myers is playing this Friday with Turnpike Troubadours, Dirty River Boys, Dalton Domino, and Hunter Hutchinson at this year’s Kalf Fry at the Lonestar Amphitheater. As mentioned before, we caught up with Gary Brown last week to talk about Early Morning Shakes. Kalf Fry tickets are available from Roadhouse Tickets and can be purchased here.
Watch/Listen to “Early Morning Shakes” below.
New Slang: On Early Morning Shakes, you guys worked with producer Dave Cobb. He’s worked on some amazing albums–recently Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. How’d you guys end up working with him?
Gary Brown: We got to know him through his cousin Brent [Cobb]. He did some writing on Firewater with us. He co-wrote a couple and wrote one of them on there. We wound up meeting him and became familiar with his work. He’s done some really cool stuff with the Rival Sons (Pressure & Time) and Jamey Johnson (The Guitar Song). It’s just a little bit different. We thought it’d be a really good fit to work with somebody like that. We all thought he did an incredible job. He’s a real musical genius type.
NS: Yes. The albums I’ve listened to that he’s worked on, they’re all so different. It’s not like he has a distinct sound and then molds the artists into that sound. It feels as though he’s been able to enhance what the artist wanted done. You guys went into your first recording sessions, for the most part, with the songs still unfinished and really in that skeleton phase. Was that the plan going in or is that just kind of what happened?
GB: Yeah. We had about five songs that we were going to go in and cut originally. Those songs weren’t really finished 100%. Dave kind of had the idea for us to not finish them until we got into the studio. So we went in with those five and some outlines of some others. We also had a few ideas for some others, but hadn’t really worked on them. We first worked on those five original songs. Then there was a string of shows that were canceled so we decided to stay there and finish the whole thing. We wound up doing a lot of writing in hotel rooms and in the studio. It’s a little bit more pressure when you’re doing it that way since you’re really always on a time crunch.
NS: Yeah. I was going to ask if you felt pressure doing it this way. Maybe thinking about working smarter on things. Maybe trying to always have that A game and the creative juices flowing. Was that pressure a good thing for this record?
GB: Yeah it was. It really made us get all of our ducks in a row faster. One of the things that really helped in creating all of the different parts–all of the musical arrangements–was that we were able to play it and then listen back to it immediately. This doesn’t sound right. We need to change this. It was great being able to listen back and make the adjustments then.
NS: Was there anything that you guys ended up not finishing and not putting on the album due to the lack of time?
GB: Well, there wasn’t anything that wasn’t finished that we wanted to put on the record. Everything that we had decided to put on there, we finished. Course, anytime you go into the studio, there’s a few ideas that don’t end up on there. There were a few things that wound up not making the album, but it wasn’t because we didn’t have time to finish them. It was because they either didn’t fit the overall project or we were saving it for something else.
NS: In a situation like this, where you’re writing the album while you’re making it, you’re really ever playing the songs in front of an audience. There’s not any “testing” them out. There was obviously material on the previous albums that hadn’t been played before an audience before the release, but there was also songs that you played a while before. Was there any concern that maybe the reception wouldn’t be what you were hoping for?
GB: Not really. We kind of figured if we thought it was good, then they would too [laughs]. Sometimes it’s hard to gauge how a live audience is going to take a song at a show anyways. I know a lot of people do that. I was reading an autobiography by Gregg Allman and he was saying how they’d record the album, do all the work in the studio on the song, and then they’d go road test the songs before they were put on the record. I’m guessing a whole bunch of stuff didn’t end up being put on albums just because it didn’t road test well. It’s a little different for us obviously. With this record, we were trying to tell a story. It kind of needed all the little parts to make the story come out right.
NS: Yeah. Now “Early Morning Shakes,” the song, it starts the record off. It’s probably the only way to really start this record properly. The term “early morning shakes” though, it’s such a great phrase. Who first mentioned the term early morning shakes? I guess in my mind, I see it being said by someone one day and then everyone realizing it needed to be a song.
GB: That was one of Cody Cannon’s ideas. Once that idea was kind of laid out, it really kind of spelt out what the rest of the album should look like. It was kind of the spark for the story we were trying to tell.
NS: Out of the albums you guys have done, who would be the most surprising “special guest” on the album? Who’s someone who contributed in some way somewhere that most people would probably be surprised by?
GB: I don’t know how surprising it is, but Adam Hood had a co-write on the last record. He came in the studio on the song “Wild Baby Shake Me.” He helped come up with a good, solid chorus for the song.
NS: Was that just a random call up or had he been helping out on that song all along?
GB: I think we kind of had him in mind for that song. He just seemed to fit that style and song for some reason. He happened to be in Nashville at the same time we were recording so we called him up and invited him to come to the studio. He came in and done a little writing there with us.
NS: I was speaking with RC Edwards of Turnpike yesterday. It really fits with you guys as well–this question I’m going to ask you. Their stuff, it does revolve around these characters and stories that are from these small Oklahoma towns. You can say the same thing for you guys when it comes to East Texas. It’s a very Springsteen kind of thing. It’s where he makes you feel like you’re from New Jersey when you’re listening to him. You can get the same feeling listening to your songs. Do you feel any obligation to write about people and things you know–to write about an area you’re familiar with?
GB: I don’t think it’s an obligation thing as much as it’s that you write about what you know. A lot of the things you know, it’s the people you see and encounter at home and how they deal with situations they get themselves in. There’s always something interesting about the people around you. There’s always something interesting.
NS: Yeah. You ever feel you’ll run out of East Texas characters to write songs about?
GB: [Laughs]. Not a chance. There’s a lot of characters in East Texas.