These days, the world of roots music is full of bands named “Whiskey This” or “Whiskey That.” At first glance, the Whiskey Gentry might appear to be just one more of those, but the source of the name serves to separate it a bit from the pack:
“It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry — a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis. . . ”
— Hunter S. Thompson
How did the band end up with a name used a half-century ago by that famously deranged social observer to tag a certain display of Southern upper-class decadence and decay?
The Whiskey Gentry
“I had gone with my bandmates [in a previous band] to see ‘Gonzo,’ a documentary about Thompson,” says singer Lauren Staley, speaking just prior to setting out on an East Coast tour from her Atlanta home base along with husband Jason Morrow, who plays lead guitar and keys in the group. “And they said that quote in the movie, and I was like, ‘Oh, that would be a good band name. I put it in my phone: ‘next band name, colon, the Whiskey Gentry.’ So when we found our bandmates, I was like, well, I’ve already got a name! I looked up the quote again, and we all laughed at it. We joke that if the shoe fits. . . ”
The band itself came into being out of Staley and Morrow’s relationship. When they met in 2007 they were both playing in separate bands. The two started dating the following year, left those bands, and started playing music together; they decided to “join forces,” as Morrow puts it. He had been in several punk rock bands, and at the time was doing something called “punk rock karaoke” with a couple of players who would end up in the Whiskey Gentry. “So, when we started playing songs together,” Staley says, “Jason said, ‘I can get a band together pretty easily; I know a lot of people.’ ”
What they came up with was a singular mix — of hardcore country, jacked-up electric bluegrass and breakneck cowpunk, and a recurring Celtic strain —
When asked, Staley and Morrow have a hard time putting a specific tag on that sound. Morrow suggests “Americana with roots in old country and an upbeat twist on it.” One thing they’ve learned not to call it, though, is bluegrass. That was something they used to say, until their banjo player and “bluegrass mentor” Chesley Lowe joined the band. Staley recalls him pointing out that “you cannot call yourself ‘bluegrass.’ You have a drummer, you have electric instruments. Just be mindful of saying that around certain people, because that’s not what bluegrass is. So we were quickly schooled on the way of that.”
Their follow-up, “Holly Grove,” which came out earlier this year, doesn’t show any radical departure from the sound of its predecessor, although there might be a bit more of a honky-tonk presence. But both Staley and Morrow think that the new record is a much more confident effort, a view that’s confirmed in the listening. Staley also says that “Holly Grove” feels more collaborative; the band’s lineup was finalized between the two records (including the addition of a fiddle player, Rurik Nunan) and the members have spent a good deal of time in close quarters and have gotten to know each other. “So, to me, it feels like a more confident, less tentative record. I think we knew what we wanted. Jason was very good about thinking outside the box in the studio, and taking risks.”
Its collaborative character extends to the songwriting. All but two of the songs on the first record were written by Staley; on “Holly Grove,” the songs are credited to the band. She explains that she had written many songs on “Please Make Welcome” for her old band, so they were fleshed-out ideas going into the Whiskey Gentry. “I think that it was more important for this record to give credit where it was due and say that it felt more like a collaborative record in terms of songwriting and the effort that was put forth in every aspect of it.”
Morrow adds that when the band first went into the studio, it had never done a full-length record. The members were all worried about the way it was going to come out. “We did it, and this time we went back, knowing we could do it and saying, ‘Let’s try some stuff that we haven’t tried before.’ ” In retrospect, he says, “Please Make Welcome” strikes him as “very vanilla, very clean, very safe. I feel that ‘Holly Grove’ is tracking more towards where we want to go as a band and as songwriters.
“I feel this band is just starting to figure out where it’s going to go,” he concludes. “I like the first records, obviously, but I think the new stuff is going to be that much better, because we’re starting to really find our sound.”