Recently, James Trimble, lead singer of roots rock band The Dirty Guv’nahs, made a terrible mistake: While driving around the band’s hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, he turned the car’s radio to a pop country station. He listened to three songs before turning it off. He’s lucky to be alive. “It was all garbage,” Trimble says over the phone. “I was trying to listen to it, and I realized that today’s country music doesn’t reflect the South that I know. It’s not my story. It’s not the band’s story.”
To be clear, The Dirty Guv’nahs are not a country band. But often times, Southern rock is mistakenly lumped into the genre. “Just because I sing in Southern rock band and I have a country drawl, people want to categorize us as country,” Trimble says. “There was a time I would have been OK with that. But not now, not anymore.” Trimble is right; now seems like the perfect time to disassociate from the barrage of bro-country that’s bumbling its way onto the radio.
The Guvs are a high energy rock band, pure and simple. And when you’re a high energy rock band, there are certain clichéd expectations: party hard, rock and roll, blah, blah, blah. The kind of expectations that eventually lead to the voice-over guy on VH1’s Behind the Music saying “…and then the wheels came off.” These expectations become even more troublesome when you add a heaping helping of down-home southern stereotypes, making it difficult for a band like the Guvs to break through the Mason-Dixon Line and build a national audience. But they are doing it one show at a time. A recent sold-out concert in Washington, D.C. is proof of their growing popularity outside SEC country.
“I feel like so much of the national view of the South comes from the whole summertime, flip-flop, girl-in-a-tank-top music,” Trimble says. “It’s easy for people who like that kind of music to romanticize that image and say that the South is just about a big party. And for people who don’t like that kind of music, well, it’s easy for them to write the South off as being really ignorant.”
So how, then, does a Southern rock band like the Guvs deal with these conflicting stereotypes? Trimble and guitarist/songwriter Michael Jenkins start by crafting thoughtful, narrative-based songs that highlight hope, community and kinship. Then they fill three studio albums (plus a live album) with soulful, rollicking rock and roll. Add a touch of bluesy twang. Mix in six whiskey-drinking dudes who believe in what they do and are humbled that they get to do it. The result: urgent, earnest sing-along songs that sideswipe Southern stereotypes.
“Music is tough enough to make a living off of,” Trimble says. “If you’re not pretty darn excited about the music you’re making, then it’s not worth it, not even as a hobby. I’ve got to care about what I’m doing to continue this life of travel and being on the stage.” And the stage is like a second home to the Guvs. Their shows are raucous events that feel more like a friend’s house party than a concert.
After all, they are one of the most sought-after college campus bands in the Southeast. Mention The Dirty Guv’nahs on campuses like UGA and UT (where all the members graduated from) and there will be no shortage of skimpy-skirted coeds cooing choruses or bushy-banged frat boys ready to reel off the number of times they’ve seen the Guvs live (and how drunk they got, of course). According to Trimble, the band has experienced major growth on and around campuses all over the South this year, particularly LSU and University of Arkansas. Apparently, the kids just can’t get enough. “It’s pretty incredible to see this type of growth in these college markets,” says Trimble. “We played Fayetteville, Arkansas a few weekends ago and there were 500 people there, and the last time we played there, a year and half ago, there were only 50 people.”
When the Guvs come to Charlotte on Friday night, they will be upscaling from The Visulite, a venue they have played numerous times, into the larger Neighborhood Theatre. Bigger rooms and bigger crowds are a big deal for the band — but this growth has not been overnight. Not hardly. It has taken The Guvs four albums and eight years of endless gigging to reach this level of success, and they don’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
“We’ve tried really hard to grow organically,” admits Trimble. “One city and one venue at a time — similar to the way The Avett Brothers have done it. Now, we are light years away from them in terms of success, but we view the band and our fans with that same grassroots mindset as them.”
Like the Avetts, the Guvs’ appeal doesn’t just stop at the student union. A cursory glance around at a Guvs’ concert will reveal a fanbase that ranges in ages and attitudes, including a handful of gray-hairs sprinkled in the crowd; forty and fifty-somethings basking in the exuberance of lost youth. The chance to relive the “glory days” is often more appealing than than the actual “glory days” (you kids will understand that some day). The Guvs aren’t getting any younger, and Trimble, who recently turned 32, understands that the stories of our youth always shine brightest in hindsight.
Trimble co-writes almost of all of the lyrics along with guitarist Michael Jenkins. The Guvs’ songs hinge on stories of hope and struggle — stories about friends who find themselves crying and thriving in the throes of love and heartache, loss and laughter. The sing-along nature of their songs make the profundity of their lyrics easier to swallow, especially for the cheap-beer swilling twenty-somethings who clamor to see them play live. However it’s easy to imagine these same kids the day after the show: knee deep in a hangover, earbudded-up, sprawled out on a futon in their shitty rented apartment, letting the songs off “Hearts on Fire” wash over them and seep into their restless souls. Because when the party ends all you have left are the words you wish you had said to your friends and loved ones. Trimble and Jenkins have a knack for capturing those words and setting you free.
“When an artist sits down to write a song, are they trying to write something that comes from a place of hope and struggle?” Trimble says. “Are they writing a song that tells a story that is real? Or it just a fictitious mess that makes people want to get drunk? To me, that’s the lowest common denominator. To me, that’s not art. I want to keep creating music that is taking the band to a higher and higher place.”
The Guvs are clearly a band with a message and a mission. It’s time to ignore all the force-fed, dumb-downed Southern stereotypes that saturate television and radio. It’s time to wake up and change the station. “Music is supposed to make you think,” says Trimble. “Not make you go numb.”
Check out The Dirty Guv’nahs Friday December 5th at Neighborhood Theatre.
Listen to Hearts on Fire by The Dirty Guv’nahs.