It’s a steamy summer night in Atlanta, the crowd already glistening with sweat as it waits patiently in the packed venue. Finally, The Whiskey Gentry takes the stage, an odd conglomeration of banjo, fiddle, mandolin, drums and guitars—odd for a rock club, anyway. The room comes alive as the music starts, the deceptively “acoustic” band unleashing a whirlwind of sound. Blending traditional bluegrass instrumentation with the energy of punk and the songwriting depth of country, Atlanta’s Whiskey Gentry whips the diverse audience of liquored up frat boys, hardcore country fans and local scenesters into a frenzy, mixing frantic instrumentals with edgy rockers and neo-honky-tonk weepers, and they don’t let up until the last note rings loud and clear above the cacophonous applause.
The number of road dates the band manages to play while still holding down full-time jobs is impressive, as is its willingness to perform just about anywhere a crowd will gather. Proving that hard work and commitment really do pay off, The Whiskey Gentry has risen from a local bar band to a popular and respected touring act in the Southeast. A big part of the formula is the band’s deep connection to its rowdy and dedicated fanbase.
The tight-knit lineup doesn’t hurt either. Over the past few years, singer Lauren Staley Morrow, her husband and lead guitarist Jason Morrow, banjo player Chesley Lowe, fiddler Rurik Nunan, mandolin player Michael Smith, bassist Sam Griffin and drummer Price Cannon have gelled into a tight collaborative entity. While days crammed together in a van can—and often do—break a band, The Whiskey Gentry has managed to survive a solid two years on the road.
The band spent the first half of 2013 in Athens working on the new record, Holly Grove, with producer/engineer John Keane once again at the boards. As they prepare to kick off the album’s release with a short European tour, Staley Morrow reflects on the sessions. “I think this time around we took a few more liberties in experimenting with our sound,” she says. “We were less scared of trying new things and more confident that whichever path we chose for a song would be the right decision. Also, working with John Keane again made us feel very relaxed—we feel pretty close to him as a person, now that we’ve known him for a few years and worked on two full-length records with him. Overall, I think it makes for a more mature-sounding record.”
Once again, Keane added his exceptional steel-guitar playing, giving the record a deep country feel. His musicianship, and his ability to hear the big picture and coach the artists he’s working with, had a tangible positive impact on Holly Grove. “He is so good at guiding vocalists along,” Staley Morrow says. “He can hear harmonies in his head, and really made us sound better. John has a really good relationship with my husband, Jason, and it seemed we could be more open and say what we wanted, and he could tell us what he thought.”
With Holly Grove, the band was intent on expanding its sound beyond the sonic palette of the previous record. There are moments on the record that are clearly unique for The Whiskey Gentry, but they weren’t always easy to achieve. “There were times we were driving John crazy to the point where he said ‘I don’t know what you are doing,’” Staley Morrow says, laughing at the recollection. “Jason is more fearless and experimental than I am, and nine-tenths of the time he is right. He wanted guitar feedback on ‘Reno,’ and when we listened back, it worked.”
Another new twist—on twang-punk anthem “One Night In New York”—is the appearance of guest vocalist Butch Walker, a longtime friend of Staley Morrow’s. “When I was 15, I was a huge fan of his old band, Marvelous 3,” she says. “A local radio station, 99X, was running a contest called Rock N Roll Fantasy Camp, and the winner would get the chance to sing with them on stage at Music Midtown 2001 (in front of 90,000 people). I won the contest and sang one of their songs with them. Cut to today, and Butch and I are still friends. I’m not quite sure what he saw in me then, but he’s taken me under his wing and has been a proverbial musically inclined older-brother figure to me. So when we wanted to have someone duet with me on Holly Grove for the song ‘One Night in New York,’ it seemed only fitting that it would be him. Furthermore, we’re going to be supporting him on a few of his tour dates in September. It’s just really cool to see how our friendship has come full circle.”
Staley Morrow notes how the whole band contributed to the new record. “We were all proud of our first album, Please Make Welcome,” she says, “but listening to it now, it seemed really safe, and we are not ‘safe’ people. It was not really reflective of what we do live. When we were traveling in the van, we all discussed what we wanted to do, and we wanted it harder, but not ‘rock.’ Holly Grove is closer to our live shows, it captures who we really are, and shows how we have grown together, becoming more cohesive.”
So how does the new record stack up against their debut? First, the similarities. Morrow’s voice is as clean and honey-sweet as ever, and her attack on each song validates her commitment to the music. Bookending the album with a pair of twangy, well-constructed empowerment anthems lets listeners know that she owns it. The band is tight, the arrangements consistent, the Appalachian influence still present, and there’s plenty of diversity in the material. But with Holly Grove, you get more sounds, more guitars and more risk-taking. With increased input from the entire band and a stronger dialogue with Keane, the music takes on a greater sense of collaboration and depth. The story songs, exemplified by the title track, dig a little further into human emotions triggered by events beyond our control, yet the band never loses control, musically. All in all, it’s a more cohesive, yet expansive portrayal of the band’s strengths and abilities.
The record will likely help them capitalize on their fortunate affiliation with the Atlanta Braves, which has given them tons of local exposure, and also made a dream moment possible. “Being chosen as their 2012 Band of the Year was a huge honor for us,” she says. “And [getting to sing the] National Anthem … was nothing short of surreal for me. Once we met the folks who handle entertainment for the Braves, Jason told them to let us know if they ever had any openings to sing. Out of the blue, they contacted us a few weeks ago and asked us to come down. Jason and I sang it together down on the field, and it was a really touching moment considering how much Braves baseball means to us.”
When opportunity knocks, The Whiskey Gentry answers.