Interview: 49 Winchester’s Isaac Gibson on the journey to their first major-label release

Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins

The challenges of forming a band with your friends in a town so small there is no local music scene.

Americana fans will probably have picked up that there is a bit of a buzz around the latest album from New West Records’ recent signing 49 Winchester, ‘Fortune Favors The Bold’. What may not be apparent is that the six-piece band is eight years old and was formed by like-minded friends in the small town of Castlewood, Virginia, and named after the address of frontman Isaac Gibson’s boyhood home. They have achieved their recent breakthrough not by luck but by sheer hard work, attention to detail, and an unflinching belief in their own talents. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with primary songwriter Isaac Gibson over Zoom to discuss the genesis of the new album, how a group of teenage friends from a town so small it didn’t even have a music scene built a professional career, and how Appalachia and his mother’s literary gifts have provided the inspiration for 49 Winchester’s songs. While the band grew up in the heart of Appalachia and there are clear local colourings on their music, Isaac Gibson explains they have a multitude of musical influences over and above the country and bluegrass of their home area. However, he also accepts that he can’t do anything about his accent that makes his vocals sound country through and through. He also confirms that his father is the seventh member of the band and is their bus driver and merch man, and he has only missed one show in the last eight years.

How are you, and where did you get that beard from?

Things are good, but it is busy, busy all the way. On the beard, I’ve never shaved it off, haha.

‘Fortune Favors The Bold’ is your first major label record I believe?

Yes, the new record is on New West, and they are just fantastic, man. They have absolutely knocked the ball out of the park in terms of their press and their promotion. I don’t think there is a better label for artists than New West.

You are probably working as hard as you have ever worked at the moment, but is it any easier with a major label behind you?

No, it doesn’t become any easier per se. There are responsibilities that now fall on them that no longer fall on us, but there is more work than there has ever been just because of the scale and scope of things for 49 is bigger than it has ever been. It isn’t really any easier even though they alleviate and do for you because it just tees up more work, if you know what I mean, haha. But that is what we are here for, we are a very blue-collar kind of band, that’s for sure.

You guys are all childhood friends from a small town, why have things worked so well for 49 Winchester?

I think we understood early on that we had something good, and if we didn’t quit, we could continue to grow it into something even better. That has just really been our mantra from day one, man. Just sticking to it, trust in the process, doing things the right way at every turn, be it an interview, soundcheck, anything. We try to do everything the right way, we try to handle the business the right way. We are really proud of what this thing has grown into now, and this is a definite learning curve from when we started out because, as you said, we are from a town of almost no one, haha. We didn’t know where to play, we didn’t know what to do. We have grown this from literally a seed of something so absolutely small. The way it has kind of taken an uptick for the better has been a whirlwind, and it is something we are really excited about and we are just getting into the groove of things.

Is ‘Fortune Favors The Bold’ a pandemic album’?

The pandemic lasted so long that I guess it is kind of a pandemic record, haha. 49 ‘III’  is what we really think of as the pandemic record, and it really helped us a lot. Instead of coming out of the other end of COVID with momentum lost, we gained a lot with that record. We were fortunate enough to grow through that period. When we were recording ‘Fortune Favors The Bold’ there were still mask mandates, a lot of venues were still checking vaccination records, and things like that. I guess the pandemic lasted so long, we put out two pandemic records, haha.

Where did you get the inspiration for the songs from?

They come from the heart. Most of what 49 is just a little slice of Appalachia. The way I sing, the way I talk, and the melodies I choose, it is stuff that is rooted in the mountains of Appalachia. That is a big part of it, and I think another big part of it is from my mother who is a fantastic writer. She is not a songwriter, but she loves to write, and she is just top-notch. A lot of it is also just personal experience because I’ve always been someone who writes from experience, trying to tell someone else a story. My songs have always been about just being honest, being open and transparent, playing the things I want to hear, and saying the words I want to say to make me feel better. People seem to have latched on to that, and I think they will continue as long as I’m genuine and keep doing the things that got me here.

You’ve mentioned Appalachia as an influence, but how much of an influence has Appalachian music been on your own music?

It is one of those things that is kind of hard to put a finger on because of the way it is translated in 49. You can’t listen to us and say those guys listen to a lot of bluegrass music but at the same time you sort of can. You can see there are metalheads in the band, and there will be hard moments that we love, you can tell that I love funk music and soul, so I guess the influence of Appalachian music, mostly bluegrass and country music, is there. Bristol, Virginia, which is kind of where we are based out of, biggest claim to fame is as the birthplace of country music, the big bang, so to speak of country happening in 1927. Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family cut some of the first albums that were ever referred to as country music as opposed to hillbilly music, or whatever they would have called it before that time. So there is a definite heritage here in this part of Central Appalachia that is entrenched in country and bluegrass history.

What was Stuart Myers like to work with?

He is great. Having him in the studio was like having another band member almost. If ever there was a place where I was hung-up instrumentally, I could say should I do this, that, or something else, and Stu always just seemed to have the right answer. We were very aware of the importance of making this record, we know it had to be exactly the way we wanted it to sound, and we knew the message we wanted to get across with it. The message was explaining to the world where we are at musically now, who we are which is a big wow electrified country band, and Stu helped us capture that a lot.

Are you planning to work with him again, or is it too early to say?

I guess it is always too early to say until you put the pen on the dotted line, but yes, Stuart is world-class. He’s a great engineer, but he also pitches in with some background vocals, he plays a little percussion on the record as well. He is a great musician, he is a great dude. So yes, he is great to work with and we admire him a lot and are very grateful for what he has done for us.

You are the prime songwriter for 49, but who does the arrangements?

Usually, I write lyrics and chord progression, and most of the time there will be an idea for a guitar line or a guitar riff, whatever it might be that carries things. But I will usually have the melody established, I will have progression established, the lyrics established, and I will bring the guys a basically finished solo song, and then let them fill out their parts. Generally, we just crunch our heads together to see if this works, or it doesn’t. We ask each other whether this works or not, and I’ve always afforded my guys the freedom to play the things they want to hear within the song, and I think that is a big part of what makes 49 what it is. I’m a tyrant, haha, the way I write but the band have taken me this far, so I trust these guys, their taste musically, and the things that they do when they flesh their parts out.

As you’ve already mentioned, there are various genres on the record, it certainly isn’t all country music. Was that deliberate or simply a natural development?

That is natural, completely. It is definitely not deliberate, we didn’t set out to say one song should sound like this, this should be a funky thing. We do things like that in terms of the vibe of the music, but we didn’t put a genre label on things like this is the rock song, this is the country tune, and this is blah, blah. Great songs sort of just write themselves, it is just something that floods into my head. My writing process is so different from other people’s that I sometimes feel it is not even me who writes the tunes. I feel like they just slip up on me and hit me in the brain somewhere, and then just flow onto the page, they did the job themselves. All great songs for me are written quickly, and they just flow off the top, and that is usually how it goes down.

You mentioned your mother’s influence, but who else made you want to become a songwriter?

This is probably back to my mom again. She was the major music listener in the house, and she listened to a lot of great female vocalists, so I grew up appreciating Bonnie Raitt, stuff like Aretha Franklyn, and a lot of the R&B and soul stuff I got into on my own as well. Vocally and lyrically I have two little different sets of heroes that I looked up to, lyrically Ben Nichols from Lucero, I’ve listened to a lot of Drive-By Truckers and I’ve always loved their songs, I’ve listened to a lot of Slobberbone and Brent Best is one of my heroes in the alt-country world. Then I have another set of people who I admire and look up to like Aretha Franklyn, Toots and the Maytals, I love reggae. I just love all kinds of stuff, man, haha. It is an unusual thing, and I think it has benefited us and it has served us well in our music. It has allowed us to stay fresh over the course of eight years, and things still feel fresh and still sound fresh which is important.

The way you have described your music you could have been describing a jamband, but you seem to have escaped that particular fate up to now?

I think the vocal is a big part of what has done that. There is a lot of emphasis on vocals, and I sing like a hillbilly, it is very hard to escape the country sound when you sound as I do, haha. The jam scene is not something I’ve ever leaned into heavily, that is not really where I come from musically, but it is something that, as I’m exposed to it more, I see and admire and love it more. So there has been some of that, that has found its way onto the playlist and influenced a few things for us as well. We take stuff from everywhere, man, haha. We are not a rock band, we are not a country band, we are not a soul band, we are not a bluegrass band, we are not anything man, we are just a bunch of hillbillies playing what they hear in their heads, and people like it, haha.

You have a growing live reputation, how much of the live 49 Winchester is captured on ‘Fortune Favors The Bold’?

I think it definitely reflects it, just our level of musicianship and how polished we are, and stuff, has grown a lot since our last record. There is a whole lot of that, that is translated onto this new record, but you are still never going to get it, I can’t really say never because we don’t know what is going to happen, and for us, we thrive when we are feeding off the energy from a crowd, and we love that interaction. That give and take is what really drives us musically, we’re a touring band and we love to play live, that is where the energy comes from and that is what fuels us, that catharsis, that release. The beauty of our music is at the live show, but we are still so proud of what we have done with this record, and we think we were able to capture a lot of that energy on this one more so than on anything other we have recorded in the past.

Was that down to 49 or did New West help?

I think it is mostly us and Stuart. Having a real quality engineer who knows what he is doing and who is able to capture some of that emotion, some of that feel, and some of that sound helps. Stuart is very good at what he does, and we’ve become very good at what we do and we take pride in that. I don’t want to say we are so much better than we used to be because that sounds big-headed, but we have grown and we have been able to get that point across on this record. This record feels like an arrival, and the earlier ones feel like part of the journey to this point.

Is your dad still your bus driver?

Yes, dad drives every mile, he sells t-shirts at every show, he is our merch man slash bus driver slash head-knocker and bouncer when we need one, haha. We value him greatly, he has been a big part of the process since day one, he is the seventh member of the band and he has only missed one show in eight years.

Have you any plans to tour the UK?

We don’t have any set in stone plans, but we definitely have plans, we haven’t bought any plane tickets but it is being talked about right now. We are so excited about that, not just for the fact that it will be great playing shows to new fans and being able to spread your message in a totally different corner of the globe, but just to be able to say that a bunch of redneck kids from Castlewood, Virginia, went on a world tour, haha. So we are looking super, super forward to Europe. We’ve even talked about Australia being a place where our sound would fit well, so there are definitely places across the world we are looking forward to getting in and rocking people’s faces off.

You are very loyal to your hometown, what do the other locals think of you?

It has grown a lot in the last year. Sometimes in a place this small that doesn’t have a well-established music scene, it is not a city like Dallas or New York where there are 200 other bands that sound like you, that you can associate with and grow, it is a hard vote to win sometimes, the local people. At first, everybody loves you, and then as you start to grow you play away from home a lot, and you miss those faces and you don’t see them as much. It also means that if you are doing things right your hometown shows when you do come back are growing and getting bigger every time. This last album release show in Bristol several thousand showed up. I think that our little section of the world is starting to catch on. We are really happy about it, man, and having that hometown support is really important and is something we have worked hard for.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

It is getting to be summertime, and I mentioned this earlier in an interview, and I’m sitting outside listening to a lot of music right now. I love Jimmy Buffet, there is nothing better than listening to songs you know by heart, so that whole record is getting played well. I think he is a lot like me, haha, he is some redneck from the middle of nowhere somewhere in the South, and he has made a living off of it. I’ve been digging back into some stuff like Toots and the Maytals, there is this female country singer Emily Nenni, I’m not sure whether she is from Nashville or whether she is a Texas gal but she is just fantastic and I can’t get enough of everything she has, all her recorded material is just top-notch, her songs are great, her vocals are unique. I guess she has been the soundtrack for the last couple of weeks for me and my girlfriend, Olivia, for sure.

How strong is the brand around 49 Winchester, I couldn’t help but notice the tattoo on your hand?

I think the name lends itself to that, it is kind of something singular and stands apart from a lot of other band names just from the fact there is a number at the beginning of it, it places us first in alphabetical order at all festivals, haha. There is definitely something that sticks in people’s heads about the name and the band itself. I think that initially, that is just curiosity, because there are always people coming up to me asking about the band name, what it means, and how did we get the band name. The 49 is kind of the thing that people think of, and that is something that stands out in their minds, unless it is just one of those random people who walk up to me after the show, or out on the street, and are like, are you from 49 Remington, and I’m like, no, haha. The brand is certainly growing though, and we are becoming more recognisable, and we are really proud of that and looking forward to good things happening, for sure.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

See you soon, haha. That is our sincerest hope, we’ve made some connections over there in the UK, and we are looking forward to growing that branch and spreading the 49 gospel on that side of the pond.

49 Winchester’s ‘Fortune Favors The Bold’ is out now on New West Records.

About Martin Johnson 387 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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