Nice of them to invite you. They said it was a social. That was all. Show up for great music and a great time. Maybe get your freak on. Who knows.
It started right when you opened the door. A skinny guy with black hair, bright blue eyes and a wispy goatee handed you a glass full of ice and bourbon when you walked in. Off to your right, one guy leaned against his pool cue and watched some woman in leather chaps and a blonde ponytail line up a shot. A bunch of guys crowded elbow-to-armpit against the bar. Tucked into a corner on the other side, a five-piece band, including the dude who handed you the bourbon when you walked in, milled around the stage, checking plugs, plucking out a few notes. Then the drummer smacked his sticks together six times. The opening notes of the first song blasted through you. It's tight, sounds like country. One of the guitarists, older-looking than the others, stepped to the microphone and sang, "Well, it was a day like this one, cloudy with the sky so filled with rain."
The social is just that all the while you're there. The band played stuff you knew, stuff you didn't. People danced to it, others raised their drinks and yelled. In between songs the band cracked jokes, talked trash, some members said a few blue words more than once. There were lots of jokes about schwantz size. It's what you would expect with hard-core country music and lots of liquor flowing around.
You'd been handed two more glasses of bourbon since you came in. Time to pass some of it. Guys had been going into and coming out of a red door behind a pair of semicircular booths, some holding glasses similar to the ones you drank from, others with white Styrofoam cups. You staggered toward it. On the door, on the sign where the word "Men" should be embossed in a plastic fake-wood was the word "Social!" You pulled open the door. And stopped.
Sweet Smokin' Judas on a bicycle. The urinal trough was full of ice. In the toilet, a pony keg, shining with condensation, sat atop a nest of ice cubes. The seat had been taken off and was propped up against the wall. Someone had taken a marker and drawn a pair of eyes on it and strands of hair down both sides. Now it looked like a cartoonish Barbara Striesand holding a long 'Oh' sound. A stack of cups sat on the back of the tank. You thought of the ice in your drinks. And how they were offered to you without even asking.
Well, there's always the dumpsters in the back.
Welcome to a Dallas Alice social.
He's called The Colonel. His real name is Justin Hughes. He's young, slim, with short brown hair in tight waves. If he were dressed in a suit, he would look as if he'd just finished a successful day at the brokerage and was now relaxing in the lounge at a nearby upscale restaurant, shoulder-to-shoulder with his colleagues. The bourbon on the rocks in front of him his reward, his eyes roaming over to a table against a window where three young women are chattering with kilowatt energy about something apparently exciting. Lipstick shades. New innovations in pantyhose, maybe. One of the women notices him, makes a small smile and the air crackles with invisible lightning as he makes eye contact with her, then she abruptly turns back to the lively discussion on hosiery and cosmetics. Maybe later, he thinks.
Instead, he's wedged into a semi-circular booth in one of the oldest bars in the city. There are tears in the red vinyl big enough that you can look down and see the wood frame dusted with small pieces of brown foam rubber. The black-and-white linoleum tile on the floor is worn, faded in places that make it look as if someone had spilled a gallon of Liquid Chessboard and didn't mop it up. There's a smell of spilled beer and cigarette smoke spread over a layer of must. Standing at the bar several feet away, two regulars talk in a volume as if a jackhammer was running next to them.
The Colonel has just informed his bandmates seated at the table that he had taken out a new life insurance policy on himself that morning. In four days, their plans are to load up a van after one of their shows at Air Devils Inn and drive straight through for 40 hours to Washington state. The girl at the table talking with her friends about pantyhose vanishes with a blast of reality.
At one side of the booth, the band's lead guitarist and senior member (in terms of age), Louisville music veteran Nick Reifsteck, leans on the table, shakes his head and grins. "We are so gonna die," he said. The rest of the band erupts into laughs and chortles.
On paper (which it was; the members of Dallas Alice had produced a formal itinerary a small, stapled booklet detailing the schedule, estimated drive times, driver rotation schedule and budget, with a cover page containing the band logo; all that was missing was a companion PowerPoint presentation), their upcoming tour concept looked tortuous: leaving the parking lot of Air Devils Inn early on a Sunday morning after a long Saturday night show, the two-day drive to perform at the Sunbanks Rhythm & Blues Festival in Electric City, Washington near the Grand Coulee Dam in the eastern portion of the state, then into Ketchum, Idaho, deathplace of Ernest Hemingway, for a gig at a place called Whiskey Jaques, followed by a return to Washington and a show opening for surf-rock legend Dick Dale in Seattle, then the long drive back to Louisville.
Family trips of that length risked turning into nightmares of foul-temper flare-ups, getting lost, bad road food, rest areas that should be cauterized with kegs of Lysol. But the men of Louisville's Dallas Alice are pumped about the thousand-mile journey.
"The five of us hanging out on tour," said lead vocalist and acoustic guitarist Sean Hopkins, "is a good f--ing time!"
And he's probably right, considering that the band fell together over the past few years, through gigs that were quite fluid, as measured in ounces of alcohol consumed. "It was inevitable," bassist and co-founder Nate Thumas said, "it just had to happen."
A score of other Louisville musicians had joined the regular informal Dallas Alice Wednesday Poker Nights (when the band has its formal meeting and song ideas are exchanged, rejected, admired and ridiculed over glasses of bourbon and a worn deck of cards): danny flanigan, Brigid Kaelin, Dan Cannon and John Mann. Some returning, others not. One night, some time in 2003, Nick Reifsteck took his turn at playing lead guitar for them and merged into the permanent lineup.
"I never formally joined the band," Reifsteck said. "I've just been sitting in for three years."
"There is a common law marriage," Thumas retorted. "You're on the CD!"
"Yeah," said Hopkins, "and if you leave we're taking half your stuff."
"So that would be half of nothing?" Reifsteck asked.
"Well, I want some guitar picks," Thumas said.
But even though they have such a fluid origin in terms of how they formed and how much they drink, the band does have an alcohol consumption rule: the Nate Rule, named by Thumas himself.
"It's no bourbon until the third set," Thumas explained. And it has already been violated once.
"One band member - and we won't name any names -" Hopkins said, "started drinking brown liquor before a show. And that resulted in that one person playing the last set of the show on his ass."
Indeed, as reflected in their stage personas, frequent alcohol consumption (augmented by support they get from Knob Creek bourbon, thanks to the efforts of Thumas' cousin, who works for the distiller) is common in the lyrics of the songs from Dallas Alice. So is coal mining, crushed hearts from augered-in relationships, hypocritical Bible thumpers, conflicted getaway car drivers, depressed small towns of boarded-up stores and acres of weeds where once enough corn grew to feed a small country, the ghost of a guy who committed suicide in a flophouse motel. And, contrary to the amount of alcohol they collectively consume, the sound is as crisp as a plate full of bacon fresh out of the skillet.
"We're about people having trouble with their lives," Thumas said
The stories their songs tell are rugged, but they're as intimate as small-town gossip, or the whispers adulterous couples give each other while a jealous spouse waits across the street for one of them to come out. As if John Steinbeck and Jim Thompson were on tour with a young Waylon Jennings, slamming down Route 66 on a cloud-thick afternoon in a big Pontiac and trading words over a passed-around bottle of corn liquor.
"People listen to us for a myriad of reasons," said Thumas. "It's not just the songwriting or the playing. They like the group, they like the personalities on stage, they like the way we put on a show. We have fun. You come out, it's a party."
"We're entertainers," drummer Matt Nofsinger said. "Most bands will give you an hour, hour-fifteen tops. We've played five-hour gigs."
"People show up," Hopkins said, "we turn it up to 10 and when everything's broken we stop."
Or, put another way, Dallas Alice is so damned. . .well, social. In fact, the entire package of their CD Social! is a microcosm of what and how the band plays.
The cover features a close-up of a glass of amber-colored whiskey. A fistful of glassy ice cubes float in it. Next to the glass, a matchbook with the CD's title. Open the cover and the album credits are printed over a door coated in streaky red paint. Where the word "Men" would appear on it is, again, Social!
But lift the CD from its clear plastic tray. There's a picture of the urinal trough loaded with ice cubes. On the back, a glass full of cubes (with only the vaguest clue as to where they came from), drained of its contents and a solitary match left in the book.
The music contained on the disc, however, is like tube of Thermite that burns a hole into the Montana-sized belt buckles of today's country music superstars. Into the first bars of the opening track "Law or Two," you'll want to hoist the glass of whatever you're drinking and bellow out a "Yeah!"
But all the lyrics don't revel in the act of drinking alcohol. In fact, they tell stories. A few of them about coal mining.
"I played drums in bands a long time ago," said Hopkins, "and I started writing these songs. They were all terrible. So you sit and write about what you know. All I know about is coal mining and drinking beer in a cornfield on the weekend. There's sort of a small-town vibe about it."
"We kinda grew up in the same area [of western Kentucky and southwestern Illinois]," said drummer Nofsinger, gesturing toward Hopkins and Hughes. "It was our bread and butter. It either killed you or left you jobless."
The three coal-mining songs on Social!, "December 21st, 1951," (about a mining disaster at the Orient Mine Number Two in West Frankfort, Illinois, that killed 119 men) "200 Cars," and "Coal Miner" frame the recording in that small-town vibe that provides the atmosphere for "Roger Dodger," the hypocritical holy-roller who always drove a brand new Buick and who was found passed out in a bar holding a racing form and "Free Coffee," about a small town where farm foreclosures are high and where its Main Street is full of empty stores.
One song that does break up and out of the vibe is "Shambles," written and sung by Nick Reifsteck. The song, originally performed with his previous band, the Serotones, in 2000 on the CD Black Dog, is based loosely on the suicide of Louisville-native Michael Dorris, author of two novels about coping with fetal alcohol syndrome. His wife, novelist Louise Erdich, was divorcing him. Accompanying that pain came charges of sexual abuse of his adopted children.
Dorris took the quick way out of his turmoil. He checked into a motel room in New Hampshire and suffocated himself with a plastic bag tied around his head.
The story is told in the persona of the dead man's ghost, like the traditional, mournful ballad "Long Black Veil." Except in this story, the music has a tight rock hook peppered throughout with buckshot and a taste of twang from Dallas Alice.
"It's a much better version than the one that's on Black Dog," Reifsteck said. "These guys make it better."
The story-songs from Dallas Alice come easily to the band. For them, it is less like spending years to chisel a perfect human form from a big chunk of granite and more like whittling a whistle from a stick found in the yard.
"I'm not smart enough," Hopkins said, "to work metaphors in to make stuff sound like I'm intelligent. I like to write A to B stories. That's why I like 'Shambles.' It fit real well with the songs we picked to put on the record in that narrative style."
Nofsinger said, "It's definitely not like the Springsteen 'Born to Run' thing where you spend a couple years on a song trying to get it right."
"You get on the horse," Thumas said, "put your quarter in and see how long you can hold on. Luckily for us we've been able to hold on this long. When Sean pulls out a new song. . ."
"Always on poker night," Colonel Hughes reminded them."
." . .halfway through a gig, it's never really that bad. Show us the A part and the B part, then we'll figure it out. We'll all fall into it and two gigs later we've got a new song in the bag."
The story of how Dallas Alice came together, kept a regular gig at Air Devils Inn, made a CD loaded with fine country songs that tell rugged stories, survived a 10-day tour out to the west coast and back, all while filling their bellies and bloodstreams with bourbon is either:
a.) typical of a group of gregarious guys in their early 30s (with one being in his mid-40s) who like each other's company enough to play music together, or
b.) a tale that illustrates how five completely irresponsible, reckless guys living in a fantasy world like the one described in "Big Rock Candy Mountain" (with its whiskey lake and cigarette trees) take their lives into their own hands each time they show up to play for a gig.
Regardless of which choice you make, for the men of Dallas Alice it's all a part of being social.
"No matter what we do to try to self destruct," Thumas said, "it always ends up working out."
Social!-ize some more at www.dallasalicerocks.com.