Interview: The Whiskey Gentry

Atlanta-based, The Whiskey Gentry, whose album Dead Ringer on Pitch-A-Tent Records was released earlier this year, pushes the band to a fuller more adventuress guitar powered sound.  Fronted by the effervescent Lauren Staley who, alongside husband, Jason Morrow, has been blending country with rock’n’roll, bluegrass and gritty honky-tonk whilst performing over 150 dates a year, including such festivals as Shaky Knees, Shaky Boots, Merlefest, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and FloydFest.  Americana-UK’s Maurice Hope catches up Staley in between dates. 

How did you and Jason first meet?
Jason and I first met on December 21, 2007. My friend was playing trivia at a bar in downtown Atlanta, and she asked me to come join them. As soon as I saw him I immediately knew something was different about him. We clicked immediately, we talked about music, bands we liked and the bands we were in. We went on our first date four days later on Christmas day.

What are Jason’s main influences?
Jason grew up in a very musical family in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. His Poppy played bass in a country band, and his uncle (Poppy’s son) still plays drums in a country band. Jason’s Poppy taught him how to play bass, but being a teenager at the time he wasn’t interested in playing George Jones or Loretta Lynn songs. He wanted to play punk rock. He was listening a lot to Bad Religion, Dinosaur Jr, Green Day, Dagnasty and the Beastie Boys etc. To this day he’s still influenced by a lot of those bands, but he’s definitely embraced the country influences he heard so much as a kid. It’s something deep seeded in his subconscious, I think. I believe he knows his childhood was very special, to be surrounded by such love for music and such strong, southern roots in music.

When did you start the band?
Jason and I started the band in early 2009.

Growing up in Georgia, what music did you listen to and were any of your family musicians?
I listened to so much music growing up. Although no one close to me in my family are musicians, my parents and my brother love music. As a child, I remember so many types of music being played in my house. Anything from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to The Allman Brothers, Steely Dan, The Moody Blues, Sting, Depeche Mode, Dwight Yoakam, U2, The Eagles, Bonnie Raitt, Wynonna Judd, Vince Gill, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine. You name it and we probably had the record or tape! Music was everywhere for me as a kid, and I adored it. You asked me if there are any musicians in my family? There is a long-standing family rumour that we are related to the composer Robert Schumann but we’re still trying to confirm it!

At what age did you first pick up a guitar?
I got my first guitar at 15. It was an Ibanez ‘Learn The Guitar’ starter pack. A real turd of an instrument, but I was just happy to have it.

Was there a special moment in your life when you decided you were going to make music?
Actually, yes! I had been to see a band called Marvellous 3 play the Tabernacle here in Atlanta. I was so blown away by their lead singer, Butch Walker I thought to myself ‘that is what I want to do with my life’. I was 15 at the time. Fun fact, Butch would sing a song with me on our second record called “One Night In New York”.

Can you remember your first record purchase?
My first record purchase was, are you ready for this? The Batman Forever Soundtrack. Ha! I bought it because U2 had a song called “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” on it, and I needed to own that song. Fun fact; I am obsessed with U2. They are my favourite band of all-time! The next CDs I bought were Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Beatles), Jagged Little Pill (Alanis Morissette) and (What’s my Story) Morning Glory? (Oasis) I was a strange kid.

Country music and bluegrass music were clearly big influences on you too. Did you get to see many of the stars before taking up music as your profession?
I grew up listening to a lot of country music from the 90s. People like Garth Brooks, Dixie Chicks, Vince Gill and Dwight Yoakam among others. I used to sit in front of the TV and watch country music for hours on end. I swear I think I learned to sing from Patty Loveless and Natalie Maines. However, I was in college before I started listening to bluegrass and old Appalachian music. I was in a Southern Folklore Class in college where we learned Broadside Ballads. Ultimately, it became singing songs passed down from those who emigrated from the UK (and Ireland) to Appalachia. It was a major influence on bluegrass music. Furthermore, our banjo player Chesley Lowe shared so much knowledge about the genre with us and we fell in love (with the music). It is hard to watch bluegrass pickers play music and not be completely blown away. Since starting this band, we have been lucky enough to play some festivals with Doc Watson, Tony Rice and Sam Bush.

On fronting the band, who is it that makes the most of the decisions? I guess the pressure is shared with Jason?
Yes, Jason and I share the decision-making roles in the band. Typically, we don’t make many decisions without consulting the other first and that definitely takes the pressure off. I can’t imagine leading this band without him by my side. We make a good team.

Have you any particular goals other than making one album better than the last?
I think our greatest ambition right now is to just keep moving forward! We want to be consistently touring the US, mainland Europe and the UK. Playing festivals and writing good tunes. We want this to be our reality every day of our lives forever!

What have been your greatest moments to date?
Opening for Dwight Yoakam, playing on the same stage as Noel Gallagher, getting to tour Europe, playing in the desert under the stars with Cracker, and recording Dead Ringer at Echo Mountain.

What do you find is the hardest part of the music business?
I think any answer I give here will sound jaded, and negative and ungrateful. I don’t want to focus any energy on that. Everyone knows the music business is hard, but I do feel pretty blessed to be able to do what we do. It gets better for us every year, so that is a good thing!

How differently did you approach Dead Ringer to your previous albums?
The biggest difference is that we knew we wanted to record the record live. All of us together in a studio room and recorded straight to tape. That’s the main reason why we chose to record at Echo Mountain. We had heard it was an amazing studio that used to be a church, and we’ve known a lot of great bands that sing its praises. The nave and the altar of the old church is now their large recording room, and the stain-glass windows are still there. The whole vibe of the big room is really special so we know it would be a good place to record. Plus, Asheville is one of my favourite cities on the planet. I keep saying I’m going to move there one day. North Carolina is a beautiful state, especially up there in the mountains. There is something really magical about that area and about Asheville.

Whose idea was it to have a bigger guitar input on Dead Ringer?
It wasn’t really a thought out idea. It’s just the direction everything moved in. The guys who play mandolin and banjo in the band couldn’t tour or be around as much in the writing process because they now have families so we worked with what we had. Which are mainly guitars!

What made you call up Les Hall to produce the album?
Les was a very close friend of Jason’s and his family. They met roughly twenty years ago in Columbia, South Carolina; they were both living there at the time. Les was a local legend in Columbia, a very respected and highly regarded musician. He’s toured with many big bands and produced a lot of records. He moved to Georgia about five miles down the road from where we live a few years ago. We all started hanging out, and he would play piano with us at shows. When the time came to discuss recording the new record it seemed like a no-brainer to ask Les, considering how close he had become to our music.

How did you like working close together with the band and recording together live?  You certainly obtain a lot of energy doing it that way.
Yes, we certainly think the energy is different on this record than it was on our last two. We attribute the majority of that to recording live together. There’s a life to these songs that we didn’t feel before. It was the most fun recording experience I’ve ever had.

I have seen you quoted as saying Les brought a lot of fresh ideas to the table. What kind of ideas did he come up with?
I can’t specifically recall the exact ideas that were his. His vision is all over every song on the record. He constantly had progressive ideas, and he definitely pushed us to get out of our comfort zones. When we would doubt something, he would reassure and remind us that we wanted this record to stand out from the last two. I believe it does!

Rock & Roll Band has a bubbly feel. Fans of Eileen Jewel will love this, and bluegrass fans of a Catholic taste.
Yes, it’s definitely upbeat. In that song,  I wrote about the emotions you go through touring, and of being the only girl in an all guy band. Everything starts out awesome, and you’re invincible and conquering the world. Then a month later all of your clothes smell, you’re delirious from lack of sleep and miss you’re your friends and dogs. And you think you may murder everyone around you!

Looking For Trouble has a spirited honky tonk edge to it.  It’s the kind of music to lift people’s moods. Did you have that in mind when you recorded it?
Looking For Trouble is in a major key, so it may sound happier, but lyrically it is pretty heavy. Musically, we took some liberties with the sound. It is super fun. People seem to respond really well to the song and seem to relate to it.

No more so, I hasten to add, than the accordion fuelled Drinking Again. What a great song that is! Where did you get the idea for that song?
We are good friends with a band from New York City called The Defibulators. The lead singer, Bug, and I were talking about something on tour one day and he said, ‘By the time I start drinking again, something something….’ I don’t know why but it stuck in my head and the song was born. It evolved from that conversation.

How important to you is it to make people forget their troubles?
I think if people forget their troubles while listening to our music then that’s fantastic!

I was thrilled to see the Merle Haggard song on the album, and what a great song you picked. Kern River has to be one his best songs he ever wrote, not just during the last thirty years but of his whole career. I take it you are a fan?
Yes, Jason and I went to see him play in Atlanta a few months before he passed away. The show was incredible and he played “Kern River” that night. I’d never heard the song before, and I was totally blown away by its story.

Did you get to meet Merle?
Unfortunately no we didn’t.

I notice you do a number of festivals.  Have you any particular favourites?
Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion collectively is our favourite. They have had us back for six years in a row this year, and it feels like we’re coming home to see family every time. They are some of the kindest, music-loving folk around. We played Merlefest last year, and that was an amazing experience as well. The fans are so engaged and supportive.

What was it that tempted you to record Rosanne Cash’s Seven Year Ache?
Jason always really liked the song. His mom was a big fan of it when he was growing up. It’s such a wonderful song, the lyrics, the melody and the groove. Everything. We love playing it live.

When it comes to writing, do you and your husband set time aside and away from home or do you just work on tunes in the kitchen or a room set aside for music at home?
We don’t typically set up time. Songs just seem to come to us both when they are ready to hatch. We record song ideas and melodies on our phones and we’ll work on our own, and then we’ll bring them to each other for input and ideas.

Do you write the lyrics first and then the melody?
Nope. Typically, the melody comes to my head and then the lyrics.

Is the workload shared or does one of you tend to write the lyrics and the other come up with the melody?
Generally speaking, I write the majority of the lyrics and melodies, because that’s what I tend to relate to when I first hear the song. Jason, on the other hand, is much more music theory inclined than me so he will figure out chords and arrangements.

Finally, what a fantastic finale in “If You Were An Astronaut. I could not think of a better song, or way to end the album. Could you tell me a little about how you came to write it?
Thank you! It’s a special song to us too. Jason wrote the chords and melody after a late night out in Reno, Nevada. He kept asking me to write lyrics to it for months, and I couldn’t think of anything. One day he said, “You love space, then why not write about space.” Right then, I was in the parking lot of my local grocery store and the first two verses came quickly to me but I couldn’t think of a third. A few weeks later we went to Joshua Tree, California to play a show and stayed the night in the same hotel Gram Parsons died. The next morning, the third verse came to me out of nowhere! I was singing it in real time as the words came to my brain, and I started crying, Jason also started crying, and our friend Matt who was with us, he was also in tears. It was a really special moment and is one we’ll never forget. We joke that Gram gave us a little gift that morning.

Dead Ringer is out now

Author: Maurice Hope

Work for CEF, live in Hexham, Northumberland. Americana, country, folk and bluegrass Journalist since 1988 and currently write for Americana-UK.com, Flyinshoes and live reviews for Northern Echo and Jumpin’ Hot Club. Enjoy photography, walking, natural history, travel, reading and writing poetry.

Leave a comment..