At Bubbapalooza at the Star Bar back in May, Torchy Taboo told me that she was really digging this new rockabilly band called The Stumblers. Now I know Torchy well enough to know she doesn’t mess around with her rockabilly, but when this quartet hit the stage in those ace cowboy shirts and started playing, let’s just say they weren’t stumblin’. Not that would expect anything klutzy coming from a line-up like vocalist/rhythm guitarist Keith Martin (Brandy, Car Thieves, Pickman’s Model), David Stuart (Hallows Eve) on lead guitar, veteran drummer Robbie Whelan and prolific English bassist Paul Diffin (recently The Psycho-DeVilles and Linda Gail Lewis, but also London acts The Big Six, Sugar Ray Ford and The Hotshots, and The Blue Cats).
While Keith and David have punk and metal band roots, sometimes your first love is your greatest one and for them, it was the southern roots music of the ‘50s and the ‘60s. Ask the boys what they play, and they’ll tell you that they are a four-piece traditional country band. Later that night I cornered Keith in the stairwell heading down to The Little Vinyl Lounge to ask when he’d be up for an interview, and he suggested a downstairs gig Friday July 22 with Vermont country-Goddamned-music band JP Harris & the Tough Choices at The Basement underneath Graveyard Tavern.
Needless to say, it’s two months later and that show is now this week. Lucky for ATLRetro readers, Keith still was more than happy to take a break from honkytonkin’ to divulge the origin story of The Stumblers, give a crash lesson in the history of “hillbilly jump,” talk about their pronounced predilection for dive bars and share some shopping tips on finding cowboy shirts as cool as theirs.
How and when did you fine fellas get together?
Robbie and I have been friends for years but had never played together. We started back in 2007 to work on what would become The Stumblers. The first go at it was great, but soon life began to kickus in the teeth with a series of personnel issues. Our bassist took a job in Florida, our lead player had to quit for personal reasons, and to top it off, Robbie was called up and deployed to Iraq. The night he shipped out, I promised Robbie that I wasn’t giving up, and that by the time he came back I would have the players we needed to keep the band alive.
During this time my other old friend David Stuart decided to come out of semi-retirement and try his formidable hand at country music. I gave him a few reference songs and he took off like a bat out of hell. My friend Mike Bourne of Atlanta Boogie told me I should “Call Paul Diffin; he lives and breathes the stuff you’re doing.” After looking up Paul on the Internet, and realizing that he was the bassist for some of my favorite English bands, I immediately called him. Two minutes into our first get-together with this new line up, I knew we had a magical combination.
What’s in the name The Stumblers?
Anyone who has ever been in a band knows that coming up with “the right name” is one of the most annoying and frustrating undertakings ever. We had the traditional list where everyone tries to come up with a good name that makes a statement about your intent and style, etc. You know the kind where you’re trying to say something that doesn’t make you seem like a fool or a pretentious ass. This time the hand of fate was on our side; the answer came to me in a moment of un-clarity so to speak. After a long night of playing and an even longer night of drinking, I was attempting to climb the steps of my front porch. Inebriation got the best of me. As I lay sprawled out in the driveway with remnants of a broken flower pot scattered around, I thought “The Stumblers… yeah, that’s a good name”
Why do you call your music “hillbilly jump”?
Well, essentially we are a ‘50s country band. Prior to the rise of rock and roll, no one really knew what to call the fusion of of styles we generally now call rockabilly. Country bands were incorporating everything from bluegrass, to jump blues, to jazz and western swing and blending them with into something generally called “Hillbilly.” Elvis was originally billed as a “Hillbilly Cat” and many people used the term “Hillbilly Boogie” to describe hot country music. “Hillbilly Jump” comes from a 1947 Hank Penny song of the same name. It has been used by many classic musicians and modern players such as Wayne Hancock, Big Sandy and Deke Dickerson to help describe a sound that is a form of swingin’ country music.
When you ask a musician what their music is about, I think 90% of the time you get a garbage answer. Everyone wants to say that they are totally unique or that they refuse to play other people’s songs. But the truth is that everything derives from something else back to the first caveman to bang on a stump trying to impress a girl. And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We unabashedly play a mix of classic and rare covers as well as original songs. What matters to us is the interpretation through our own and the audience’s experience of the music. We want to share music that moves us with our fans. I suppose the Cliff Notes version of that is—We aren’t a neo-rockabilly, psychobilly or pure country band. We play Hillbilly Jump music, and it sounds like the name implies.
How did you get hooked on the holy trinity of Johns—Horton, Cash & Burnette? Was it a childhood affliction or an adult discovery?
I grew up all over the south but mostly on a farm in south Alabama. When I was young, there was not much to do but read books, listen to music, or fish and shoot guns. My parents had a huge collection of books and records. Some of my first clear memories are sitting with my daddy playing records for hours. He had box sets of The Grand Ole Ory and Hank Williams [Sr.] that I just about burned a hole through with the needle. My favorite record as a kid was probably a split between THE SPECTACULAR JOHNNY HORTON” and Johnny Cash‘s FOLSOM record. I was reading allot of Shel Silverstein then, and when I realized he had written “A Boy Named Sue,” that sealed it for me.
I came to Johnny Burnette in my teen years after back-tracking from The Yardbirds’ version of “Train Kept a Rollin.” Those Grady Martin and Paul Burleson guitar sounds and impeccable vocals just suck you in. All of his Coral era recordings are pure joy and musical genius.
When did you first pick up a guitar?
I always loved to sing and my guitar playing is really so that I can have accompaniment. I was probably 10, and I picked up a guitar at a gathering of musicians at the Hennis household back in Chatom and banged on the strings. They tried to explain to me that I was holding it backwards, but I didn’t listen. It wasn’t until after we moved to Atlanta when I was a teenager that I really began to play. I sang in Choir and had passed my first audition for the Atlanta Boys Choir, but my voice began to change early and that plan went out the window. My mother bought me a used black Gibson and I began to really try and learn how to play. I’m still trying actually.
Why do The Stumblers like playing dive bars?
Primarily because they will hire us. But there is an honesty to a smoky old juke joint and a flashing Pabst Blue Ribbon sign that draws me in. A lot like the music, I think it’s some sort of genetic memory out of my subconscious that draws me into a place like the Star Bar or Southern Comfort. The people and the atmosphere in lowbrow places feel like home.
Where do you get those awesome cowboy shirts?
We get them from a few places. When we can we like to support Horsetown since they are local and are really nice folks. But we also get shirts directly from www.Rockmount.com when Horsetown is short on shirts that meet our standards for garishness. Dressing the part is a tradition in country and rockabilly music, and we feel like it is important to keep that up. When we put on a show, we are there to make a spectacle of ourselves. People pay good money and take time out of their lives to come and see us. We owe it to our fans to give it everything we’ve got and that extends to a visual show as far as I’m concerned. I hate it when a great band looks like they just rolled out of bed and hopped on stage. Somehow it seems disrespectful to the audience to me.
Anything special planned for this Friday night’s show?
Our friends JP Harris & the Tough Choices are special by themselves. They are flat-out the best honky-tonk band I have heard in years. They don’t get to Atlanta very often and you do not want to miss your chance to see them. The plan is for each band to rotate sets until the crowd gives out or the law shuts us down. We will be debuting a few new original songs that we are hoping our fans will love as much as we do. And bringing back some old favorites that we haven’t played in a while.
Have you got any recordings planned?
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions and that sums up our recorded output thus far. Paul is a gifted recording engineer and has put out some great work over the years with the likes of Linda Gail Lewis, Rip Carson and Pat Rayfield. We are currently rebuilding his studio and writing new material for a recording to be released this year. So for all of you that keep asking me for an album, it’s coming as soon as we can get it to you.
What’s next for The Stumblers?
We would like to do a little touring, but the allure of sleeping in a van and eating Ramen kind of loses its luster as you get older. We are working with a few sponsors right now that I can’t mention yet to get us on the road and playing for a broader audience. After this Friday, we have quite a few shows coming up, including Hell on Wheels again this year [Oct. 29] with the good folks at Garage 71. The best way to know when we are playing is to follow us on Facebook. We have bookings out to December at this point. We would love some more gigs outside the perimeter, so if anyone has connections out in the ‘burbs, please pass them on. At the end of the day, we are just looking to do great shows and meet
great people. We don’t have rock star dreams. We just want to share what
we love with as many people as will listen.
What do you do when you’re not strummin’ & singin’?
Robbie, Dave and myself are all photographers, and that is how we originally met. We are lucky enough to make art and play music full-time. Paul is a professional bass player with several gigs outside of The Stumblers and a stay-at-home dad to two beautiful sons.
As for hobbies, personally I enjoy shooting target and skeet, as well as restoring my old ‘64 Ranchero and my 1920s house. The other guys in the band have various hobbies but mainly are wondering if I’m going to embarrass them in an interview and trying to figure out what gibberish I am talking between songs.
What question do you wish someone would ask you and what’s the answer?
“What is your bank routing number so that I can wire you all this money?” If they emailed email@example.com, I would answer quickly and truthfully.