For the last couple of years Cabbagetown’s Whiskey Gentry has been blazing a trail across the Deep South, gathering a massive number of rabid fans wherever they play. Their cranked up “Pogues go to old time Nashville” style is addicting and infectious, and their live shows are memorable parties. With one excellent album under their belts, the band is currently planning a three-night stint at Smith’s Olde Bar on July 12, 13 and 14 to record a live album. But before that we get the chance to hear them a few blocks from home at the second annual Tunes From The Tombs festival this weekend. The two-day event (Sat. May 19 and Sun. May 20) is a benefit for the Oakland Cemetery and features a ton of great local, regional and national acts on several stages throughout the amazing and historic cemetery. The music starts around 11 a.m. and lasts until dusk. Tickets are $10 each day, or $15 for both days.
With the Whiskey Gentry closing out the event Sunday night at 6 p.m., ATLRetro.com decided that lovely and talented lead singer Lauren Staley Morrow would be a mighty swell Kool Kat Of The Week! Following a busy weekend on the road, Miss Lauren was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
ATLRetro: How did you first get involved in music, and when did you ultimately consider yourself a professional singer?
Music was always a big deal in my household as a child. None of my immediate family are musicians, but they are all avid fans. I got my first guitar for Christmas when I was 14 and started officially writing songs then. Unfortunately, I spent the next six years trying to hide the fact that I could sing from everyone. I was always so nervous that I would only play my music to a very select group of friends in my bedroom closet so my parents wouldn’t hear. I moved to England to study abroad when I was 20 years old and played my first open mic there. After that, I was hooked to performing live. I don’t do drugs or jump out of planes or anything like that, so I get my adrenaline rush from performing in front of people. Despite all that, I don’t know if I consider myself a professional singer just yet! I’ve always thought that once I was able to make a full-time living from music, then I would consider myself a professional. I’m not there just yet – but soon!
Who are some of your most important musical influences, and why do you consider them so essential?
Gosh, my musical influences are all over the place and keep evolving through the years. U2 is my favorite band of all time, and I loved Britpop when I was in high school. When I moved to England, I was so homesick for the South that I started listening to a lot of alt-country, Americana, and old country. I also started reading a lot of Southern folk literature and listening to Child Ballads (written tunes that influenced old-time and Appalachian music). That was really when I felt my Southern roots started working their way into my songwriting.
What do you think brought about the vast difference between the type of country music you play, and what is heard on commercial radio?
Currently, I think there is a great divide between those of us who want to honor a more traditional type of country music versus the amount of that which is played on commercial radio. Thankfully, I feel like people are ready to embrace country acts that aren’t so commercial but have the ability to cross over into the mainstream without losing their integrity. I was very encouraged to see acts like The Civil Wars, Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons rise to success this past year. Even the Zac Brown Band, who is very successful in commercial country markets, stay true their sound without writing about “honky-tonk badonkadonks” and “red solo cups.” I think that’s an encouraging sign for those of us who want to honor the country genre that’s inspired us without looking like a bunch of hacks trying to make a dollar on CMT.
Please tell us a bit about the members of the Whiskey Gentry, and how you found them. Why do you think this lineup “clicks” so well?
The Whiskey Gentry really began when I met my husband, Jason. We knew we both wanted to play music together, and we assembled the rest of the players in the group. Jason was in punk bands with Price Cannon (drums) and Sammy Griffin (bass), and we found Chesley Lowe (banjo) through a good friend. The five of us were the core band for a long time aside from a few hired guns along the way. Last year, we were introduced to Michael Smith who plays mandolin, and we finally met a fiddle player, Rurik Nunan. We also met Waylon Elsberry who plays harmonica and lap steel and can write one hell of a tune. Having spent the last few months on the road every weekend, I feel like we’ve finally found the band line-up we want forever – all of these guys are like my extended family. Like any family, we have our issues and disagreements. But at the end of the day, we all understand, respect and love each other immensely.
How did the Whiskey Gentry develop such a rabid and large fan base? What do you think is the most interesting aspect of your audience?
Initially, I think it helped that we all played in relatively successful local bands before forming The Whiskey Gentry, and we all had large social networks who, through word of mouth, told friends about our band. Over the years, I think we have made a name for ourselves through our live shows. I’ll meet people who will say, “I saw you guys last month and now I’ve brought 10 friends!” It’s a loyalty that has carried us from show to show and town to town. I think the most interesting aspect of our audience is how diverse it is – I don’t feel like there is any certain group that responds better to us than others. We have fun when we play, and I think people like to see that energy, regardless of background and musical tastes.
What do you see as the greatest attribute of the Atlanta music scene? What do you think is the greatest need in the local music scene?
I think one of the best things about the Atlanta music scene is that we have a lot of really great venues run by really great people who are willing to help up-and-coming acts get gigs in the city. We would have never been able to get a start in this town if it weren’t for a few concert promoters and venue booking agents who took a chance on us, and now, we have great relationships with those people and they continue to help us to this day. As for a need, I’ve been really excited to see Music Midtown making its comeback the past two years. Other cities around us have huge music festivals that not only draw in loads of revenue for their respective cities, but the festivals also help people pay attention to that town for music. Atlanta has a lot to offer musically that’s not just hip-hop or rap, and I just hope the city continues to show that.
I’m very proud of PLEASE MAKE WELCOME, and I think it does a great job of capturing our live sound. Having said that, however, I do feel like there is something undeniable about coming to one of our shows. It’s a party. People are screaming and dancing and singing the words, and we want to display that through a live recording. Also, as musicians, I think the live shows really showcase the musical abilities of the people in the band. We feed off of the energy from the crowds, and it just makes everyone play so well. Also, the live record will not take the place of a second album – we plan on releasing our second record next year, and the live album will be sold in coordination with that.
Do you have anything special planned for the upcoming Tunes From the Tombs show that you are willing to share with us? We know y’all love to whip out the odd cover tunes…
Ha! Who knows what we’ll come up with – we learned “Sabotage” in the van home from Virginia two days after MCA died and played it at show that evening. We love a good cover tune.
If you could book a “dream gig” who would you have on the bill with the Whiskey Gentry, and why?
This is tough. We all come from so many different musicial influences that I would want to honor all of them at our dream gig. Here’s the line-up: U2, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton and Gillian Welch all signing three-part harmony to every song, Social Distortion, Flatt & Scruggs (you said dream gig!), Gram Parsons (dreaming…again), Weird Al Yankovic, a comedy hour with Louis CK, Madonna, Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams, Wilco, Bad Religion and OutKast.