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Whiskey Bent Valley OBoys

New Old Tunes with the Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

Kevin Gibson

The Whiskey Bent Valley Boys never make music with aspirations of stardom. There are no pyrotechnics in the band's live show, and they don't wear spandex on stage. Ever.

Instead, they sit around in a circle and play old-timey songs, music that our great-great-grandparents used to play on the porches of shacks and dance to in barns during the Great Depression. This quartet that hails from PeWee Valley brings a great deal of passion and energy to these songs in the process, and as a result has built quite a following both locally and regionally.

Ironically, it's almost as if this old-time sound is a little bit punk.

"Old timey music is like the punk music of that time period," Chance Wagner, the Valley Boys' guitar and "banjer" player, asserted. "All those people were, like, insane. Guys back in the '20s were getting in fights and stuff. And it's DIY you don't have roadies or anything."

He then noted a story about Charlie Poole, a much-revered banjo player and bandleader of the North Carolina Ramblers, who recorded a lot of popular music for Columbia Records back in the 1920s and 1930s. The story certainly backed up the punk-meets-old timey Americana theory: "At a dance, he broke his banjo over a policeman's head," Wagner said.

It is also worth noting that Poole died of heart failure after a thirteen-week drinking binge he was 39. Let's face it, you don't get much more punk than that. Eat your heart out, Sid Vicious.

Chance Wagner - Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

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Chance Wagner - Whiskey Bent Valley Boys Chance Wagner - Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

JR McFinnigin - Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

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JR McFinnigin - Whiskey Bent Valley Boys JR McFinnigin - Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

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Whiskey Bent Valley Boys Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

Mason Dixon - Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

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Mason Dixon - Whiskey Bent Valley Boys Mason Dixon - Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

Leroy Jones - Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

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Leroy Jones - Whiskey Bent Valley Boys Leroy Jones - Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

Photo By Paul Moffett

Whiskey Bent Valley Boys Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

Photo By Paul Moffett

Whiskey Bent Valley Boys Whiskey Bent Valley Boys

"We're really aggressive with what we do," said fiddle player JR. "We do lot of drinking music foot-stomping, dancing music. We have a whole lot of energy. We bring modern kind of feel into it, but we stick to the traditional kinds of melodies and sounds."

Hey ho, let's go. OK, maybe that's taking it a bit too far. But they certainly do possess a stage energy that would make any punk rock group proud.

Hunter Embry books the band often around town, and has been following the band for pretty much all of its six years of playing together.

"I saw what I believe was their first show ever several years back at a friend's house in Pewee Valley," Embry said. "They were young, strange looking and playing music my grandpa listened to, but there was some sort of raw, gritty energy to their sound that made me feel like it was music not for old folks, but for myself and my friends. It wasn't a bunch of beautiful harmonies, it was folk music at its core."

And that's exactly what they're after: an authentic sound with original energy and presentation. Why? Well, because they simply love the music and want to preserve it in modern culture.

They mean it when they tell you they are heavily influenced by artists like Roscoe Holcomb, The Stanley Brothers and Tommy Jarrell, and they want to present music by those artists as well as the originals they write in the style of old-time folk music with respect to how the music was originally played.

If they wear overalls, a straw hat or a vintage silk vest on stage, it's not a gimmick, it's an homage. The stand-up bass Leroy Jones plays is there to capture an authentic sound that will complement the songs.

And founding Valley Boy Mason Dixon, who brings clawhammer and three-finger style banjo, mandolin and guitar to the band, makes it clear that his group is not out to get rich or famous from this music.

"We aren't in it to be a Trampled by Turtles or Old Crow Medicine Show," two bands that look to old-timey music for their respective styles, and have found some mainstream success. "We have a nice living and we're not killing ourselves" with non-stop touring. It's about preserving the music.

"We're a lot more traditional than" Old Crow Medicine Show, Dixon continues. "Traditional as in the style of music and we play lot of melody-oriented stuff; they play more rhythm-oriented [music].

"It's about sharing the old songs. A lot of the songs we play, people think are ours," he said. And all too often, the band's response is, "Hey, it's from 1890."

ON THE ROAD TO EVERYWHERE

Oh yes, and about the touring don't get Dixon wrong: The Whiskey Bent Valley Boys do get around.

The cool thing about playing old-timey music is that you can fit in pretty much anywhere, and succeed in front of almost any audience. The Whiskey Bent guys know that, and they embrace it like an old friend. They have been touring for the last four years, and making appearances all over the airwaves as well, with enthusiastic responses.

There is vitality in the folk music they play that started with the original musicians who wrote and played the music, and from the people who enjoyed it then. It gets passed down through generations in a variety of ways.

"A lot of the fiddle tunes just came over from England and Scotland and stuff," Wagner said, "and they changed over generations."

As a result, the music speaks to almost everyone, because so much of the music we hear today derives from this early form of American music.

Heck, anyone over 40 can probably remember hearing this kind of music on "The Andy Griffith Show." Many probably don't realize that the Darlings, the family that would sometimes creep into town with their musical instruments in tow, were played by the real-life band the Dillards (along with actors Denver Pyle and Maggie Peterson).

"Most of the stuff around town is considered bluegrass, whereas we're more traditional, old time," Dixon said. "We have some parts of the Dillards, Tommy Jarrell, and Roscoe Holcombe."

And the folks in the Southeast and all along the Appalachian trail are in on the Whiskey Bent Valley Boys' love of this traditional music. The band has been hitting Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Florida pretty regulary.

In addition, they played the Galt House and Churchill Downs during Derby week, have opened for Ralph Stanley, J.D. Crow and the aforementioned Trampled by Turtles, and have done TV shows from Louisville to Bristol.

In June they will travel to Gatlinburg, where they will live and play through mid-August, performing five days a week on the street as part of the Smokey Mountain Tunes and Tales Festival. This will be the Boys' second year in a row as acts at the festival.

"We went down and auditioned back in March," Dixon said. "Last year there were over 300 acts [that auditioned]; I think they pick about 15 acts."

But they started small, like all bands do. "We played a lot of house parties; our first big gig we were probably not ready for we got a radio gig in Knoxville, Tenn. We just loaded the van and jumped in. I had played a bunch, so to me it wasn't as nerve wracking as it was for everyone else."

In fact, the band members veered off into rock before Whiskey Bent began, as young males are inclined to do. Dixon was a member of MSD, a successful hard rock band that was described by this magazine thusly: "Picture Marilyn Manson meets the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Add elements from every horror movie and nightmare you've ever experienced. Now couple `the look' with some 'killer' music."

Wagner said: "When I was in high school, I was into punk rock. But I kind of always grew up around bluegrass and Hank Sr. and stuff. I got into Elvis big time, then I started going farther back: Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, all these '40s and '50s folk guys. Something connected with me I'm a United States history major. It just made sense. I had always played guitar, so I started playing banjo."

JR and Dixon have known each other most of their lives. "We found [old time music] together," JR said. "His parents were great musicians. He said, 'Get a fiddle; I've got a banjo. Let's see what we can do with this.'"

Dixon said he simply got fed up with the rock music business, and turned back to what he grew up with. "My parents are rooted in bluegrass," he said. "The music industry was just garbage, the bands that were coming out were garbage, so I started searching back. I got into Johnny Cash and then I found out hardly any of those tunes were his. I found out who wrote it and then you just keep going back and back."

GOING BACKWARD TO GO FORWARD

Whiskey Bent just finished recording a new EP at Deadbird Studios; the unofficial title of the EP is Two Old Dogs, which sounds about as old-timey as you can get. One of the marks of this kind of music is that there is humor infused in it along with the love, longing and pain of everyday life.

Some of the songs they play bear titles like "Shuckin' the Corn", "Rabbit in the Log" and "Whiskey Before Breakfast." They also bust out songs people recognize, such as "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms", "She'll Be Comin' Around the Mountain" and "O Death."

"Because they play old-time music," says Embry, "they get a lot of gig offers that most bands wouldn't. They can set up and play anywhere and for anyone, young or old. Their music appeals to a huge demographic. But I still think what sets them apart is their energy and rawness. JR's voice could make a squirrel cry."

Dixon said the band recently played at the Yum! Center as part of the Great Bands Live showcase and contest. "It was eleven rock bands and us," he said. "We made it to the final two.

"We can play anywhere," he added. "We could play a wedding, play a funeral, play any type of event."

"At high profile events, you can play and just be in the background," JR noted.

"Or, you can just play in the street and make money," Wagner said.

"Their image is what sets them even further apart as a live band," Embry said. "When they leave town, they play to the stereotypes that a lot of people have set in their minds about Kentucky and the people who live here. There are a bunch of guys on stage in overalls, flannels, straw hats, long beards, and they can flat-out play. They push their accents a little harder and flat-out sell the Whiskey Bent Valley Boys to each and every person they play for."

They recently played a good, old-fashioned square dance, with a real, live square-dance caller.

"Square dances were also a big part of American history," Wagner said. "We met this guy from Nashville, and he's just trying to preserve this" culture. Just like the Whiskey Bent boys.

"This kind of music has so much history behind it," Wagner added.

So, while they Whiskey Bent Valley Boys haven't really invented anything, like so many modern bands try their best to do, they've more than done their part in preserving the music from which today's would-be indie-rock and punk gods originally sprang.

The irony is that while to the Whiskey Bent Valley Boys, rock has gotten old-hat, the music on which America was built sounds fresh and new.

"Playing old time music," Wagner said, "a lot of people listen to it and think we are just doing covers. But it's more about preserving an American tradition. These are songs that meant something to somebody at some time.

"It's about preservation of America this is what everybody was doing 200 years ago when you didn't have genres. It was such a part of American life then, and it's important to acknowledge that. And it's important now, too."