Two weeks ago I was serenaded by an 84-year-old woman who knows the topography of the heart. She sang over a background of plastic eggs being stuffed with foil-wrapped chocolates. The song had two verses and a bridge. The woman told me she wrote the song half a century ago. A couple days later I met a woman in a coffee bar who had all the trappings of a Southern belle, and a beautiful soul to match. She told me a tale that was nearly word for word what the other woman’s song had been.
Both women described themselves as being country. It was part of their shared experience (which also happened to include leaving a first husband). It was the sort of challenge of the sentiments, the testing of one’s mettle, that create the formative experiences of so much of the populace, particularly of their demographic. This sort of ugly, make-or-break challenge is what unites us as humans living in a world that is not always so nice to us. It is the part of all of us that is, at least a little bit, country.
The Whiskey Gentry; comprised of Lauren Staley on vocals and acoustic guitar, Jason Morror on electric guitar, Sam Griffin on bass, Nico Lembo on drums, Rurik Nunan on the fiddle, Michael Smith on mandolin, Chesley Lowe on banjo, and Les Hall on keys; is an Atlanta band who has figured out how to encapsulate the most trying parts of the human experience in songs that simultaneously bemoan, empathize, extoll and uplift the extremes of life. They released their third album this month, titled Dead Ringer. In it, they combine rock, country, and bluegrass to tell a story about where they are as a band following two albums and hundreds of shows. Any band at their level has gone through their fair share of trials and tribulations, but as individual musicians and artists, they bond over the shared experiences, to the listener’s benefit.
The first track on the album is called “Following You”, and features windswept vocals and guitars as driving and reliable as some people claim American automobiles to be. Lauren delivers the lyrics like a fabric store worker unrolling a bolt of linen, urging the listener to seize the day, despite past failures and the dimness of future prospects. “Rock N Roll Band” is a ballad about dreams. A track that would go well with cheese curds and neon Leinenkugel signs, the vocals carry the banjo, guitar, and drums through the whirlwind lifestyle of musicians on tour.
The vocals in “Looking For Trouble” have the smooth and controlled melodic temperance that opens the world’s oyster shell for vocalists. But the track doesn’t shirk its roots. With verses that are wide and open like the dusty road and a break you can slap your boots to, the song takes a step toward rock, throwing on a purple feather boa and making some intense eye contact towards the end. In “Dead Ringer”, Lauren sings of chasing her dreams only to be compared to someone else. Although she has been performing in the shadows of her predecessors, the thing about shadows is that as the world turns, they move. Perhaps the sun has not yet shone upon Lauren and her band as brightly as it could, but that time will come. Emerging from the shadows, in Dead Ringer, she sets herself apart. (Plus, I like to know when I’m dealing with someone with an English degree.)
Down home strings (post-electricity) joust over the pound-pound-pound of the drum, and as the other instruments come in (swaying bass and laughing fiddle) la soirée a commencé. The band pays homage to the greatness of France and “blacking out in a foreign land” with breakneck delivery. Then the album slows down. “Kern River” reveals a tale of fluvial misfortune with a lugubrious mountain range of phonation. The music is slow-moving and thick, like the water under the bridge I used to jump off of. Lauren vows to stay away from the location of the traumatic event; “I may drown in still water, but I’ll never swim Kern River again.”
From one tale to the next, Dead Ringer shifts into a different mood with “Martha From Marfa”. Every once in a while you cross paths with someone whose life has gone in such an interesting direction, you question either their motives or their know-how for arriving where they did. “Martha From Marfa” recounts the story of a lady who survived a difficult youth to make it big in an unexpected way. Metallic plucking leads to amped up guitar strumming in “Say It Anyway”. Lauren’s vocals are like a warm bowl of cheese grits, with just the right amount of pepper (sausage on the side). Gliding and swooping lend themselves to precise lyrical delivery, with the occasional twang for flavor. The banjo chimes in to make its point, while the guitar and drums guide it all forward. “Drinking Again”, a ballad of potency, opens with the strong wail of a country woman, grabs a bottle, and sprawls its long limbs out toward Zydeco town. A life without potency is impotent.
With a reflective pulsing beat, “Seven Year Ache” uses the second person to deliver the verses directly to the consciousness of the listener. It explores the cracks hidden within every thinking human. This is the sort of song to look out the window on rainy days to. This is the sort of song to drink alone to. (Or not.)
The next track begins simply, with Lauren’s vocals and slow, deliberate flatpicking. “Is It Snowing Where You Are?” is a subtle message of love, with softly drifting percussion. In the break featuring a mandolin solo that proves that a stringed instrument does not have to be loud and clunky to transduce the energy of a musician’s spirit to acoustic bliss. Various possibilities of isolation are examined in “If You Were An Astronaut”, where Lauren vows to travel the seas and cosmos to get to her theoretically stranded dearest. Even in the most mundane possibilities, she humbly declares her intention to stand by her companion through thick and thin, wet and dry.
Dead Ringer is an album of an honest human experience, replete with all the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that unite people across the South, the country, and the world. In a world where the most powerful people win the tympanic real estate of the masses with disingenuous lyrics, the Whiskey Gentry can provide solace to anyone with a beating heart and open ears. The Whiskey Gentry sing tales of woe and emotional tangles that are relatable, honest, and beautiful. This is the essence of music: preservation of the stories that bring people together, an expression of the shared human experience.
The Whiskey Gentry is touring hard these days, with dates in the Carolinas through the end of the week and a show at Taste of Alpharetta on May 4th. Give Dead Ringer a listen, head out to a show, and show them some love.