By Randy Fox
“I was at my day job last week,” Blackfoot Gypsies drummer Zack Murphy says, “and I heard these Music Row bros that were moving into the office building. ‘Hey!’ one of them said to another one. ‘We’re writing a song about moving in. Come on up and get some Dickel!’ All I could think was, ‘God, I want to shoot all of you. You’re the reason I’m still working this shitty day job.’ ”
The rest of Blackfoot Gypsies crack up with laughter around a table at The Family Wash. It’s a Monday afternoon and the band is finishing a working lunch — sitting around sharing stories from the road and answering questions about their new album, To the Top. Murphy considers how his last statement sounded, and then backs off a bit.
“Well,” he says, “I hadn’t had my coffee yet.”
Day job frustration is commonplace among musicians in any town, but especially so in Music City where the class divisions between musicians are an ever-present fact of life. It’s a very old story. Bands slug it out for years — long nights playing club dates and even longer days spent on the road, living on top of each other in a van that can break down at any moment; making records they pour their souls into, only to be greeted with indifference; toiling for years, becoming a “cult artist” — a star to some, while scraping by on a hundred bucks a week.
Meanwhile, in another part of Nashville, there’s a different class of musicians. They’re sitting in offices, taking meetings, and writing songs about pickup trucks, girls in Daisy Dukes, and partying on a Friday night. That’s not to say they didn’t face lean times on their way up to the world of baseball caps, sippin’ whiskey, and comfy writing rooms, but at some point, they gave up the rock for the gold.
The Blackfoot Gypsies long ago planted their flag firmly in the rock. Formed in 2010 by Oregon-transplant Matthew Paige and Nashville native Zack Murphy, the duo spent three years bashing out minimalist DIY roots rock at clubs and small music fests, along with self-releasing two rowdy EPs and a full-length album, On the Loose.
Looking to expand their sound, Paige and Murphy recruited bass player Dylan Whitlow and harmonica player Oliver “Ollie Dog” Horton in the fall of 2013. With the complete Blackfoot Gypsies lineup in place, they began refining their sound through scores of live dates sandwiched between day jobs. After self-financing the recording of a second album, the band signed with Nashville indie label Plowboy Records.
Released in the spring of 2015, Handle It demonstrated just how far the band’s sound had progressed from the lo-fi riot of their early days. While garnering critical acclaim, it was just a gateway to the true hard work. The last two years have been filled with live shows, hard traveling, their first European tour, and the recording of a new album. The school of rock & roll is not easy, but the Blackfoot Gypsies have obviously learned from every minute of it, whether they’re kickin’ out the jams on stage or reflecting on their experiences as a travelin’ band.
“We’ve definitely progressed,” Paige says. “We’ve picked up on that reading of the minds that comes from playing together. We’ve gotten wiser with our moves, and better at connecting with our audience. And Ollie Dog is a full-blown cult figure, that’s a pretty big deal.” Ollie Dog laughs at the comment. Although he’s several years older than the other members of the band, and has played music since his teenage years, joining Blackfoot Gypsies was his first time as a full-fledged member of a band.
“It’s been good,” he says. “It’s what I was looking for, being part of a band, and seeing pretty women wherever you go.”
“Ollie Dog’s wisdom is priceless,” Paige says. “He always knows when trouble is coming. If we listen to him, we avoid a lot of trouble.” Ollie Dog laughs, then says, “You just have to call on old pappy.”
Proof of the band’s progression and the rock & roll wisdom they’ve acquired is evident from the moment the needle hits the groove of their new album, To the Top. While Handle It was a strong record that positioned the Blackfoot Gypsies in the forefront of Nashville’s roots rock community, the opening notes of To the Top announce the arrival of a truly great rock & roll band — no other qualifiers required.
“Working with a label upfront was very different,” Paige says. “We had a budget for the first time, and that was very cool. We could get horn players and other studio musicians and didn’t have to worry about being in the studio too long.”
Recorded at Matthew Stager’s Electric Kite Studio in Madison, To the Top jams the pedal to the metal with hard rockers that invoke the feel of such classic early ’70s musical icons as the Rolling Stones, Faces, and Mott the Hoople, while still sparking and spitting 21st century fire. Tracks such as “I’m So Blue,” “Promise to Keep,” and “I Had a Vision” vibe on the era of classic country-blues-big beat mashups while never falling prey to the cloying trap of retro rock or the carny act of musical impersonation. “We had a lot of time to play these songs,” Paige says, “so it felt like they were good and greased.”
But ass-shakin’ rock & roll is not the only charm to be found on To the Top. There is also the Big Easy-style second line groove on “Back to New Orleans,” the down-home cosmic country jams on “Woman Woman,” and even the sawdust-infused hillbilly stomp with “Potatoes & Whiskey,” a track that features a vocal assist from honkytonk queen Margo Price.
“I had Margo in mind for that one as soon as we wrote it,” Paige says. “We all knew Margo from her Buffalo Clover days, and she came in and recorded with us right before she hit big. It’s all about the timing.”
Combining their DIY ethic and hard-earned experience with an assistance of an artist-focused record label, the Blackfoot Gypsies have managed to pull a blank page from the era of classic rock & roll and write their own story upon it. They’ve produced an album that strains at the seams with great songs and potential hits, rather than a half-empty basket for one or two radio-friendly singles.
“We had to finally stop recording songs,” Paige says. “It wasn’t like we only had 15 songs to record. We just kept going and finally Zack said we have to pick a stopping point. Still, the whole thing only took eight whole days of recording. Matt’s studio was the right place at the right time. He gets such a gritty vibe and he’s knowledgeable and is good at what he does.”
One of the band’s biggest supporters is Plowboy Records General Manager Ben Ewing. A 40-year veteran of the music business, Ewing began his career as an assistant to legendary record man Phil Walden. Ewing knows that enthusiasm for his artists is part and parcel of his job description, and yet when he speaks of the Blackfoot Gypsies, his fervor runs much deeper than standard issue record label hype.
“First time I saw these guys play, it was right after they had finished recording the album,” Ewing says in his thick western Kentucky accent. “I told Shannon (Pollard, head of Plowboy Records) to get ready to call the Brink’s truck because you’re going to need it to haul the money away. A couple of days went by, and I heard the rough mixes on the record. They had put on that record, what I heard live. There’s no gimmick to this. They just took the approach they were going to record what they felt. That’s how they used to make records. They weren’t thinking we gotta record this one for rock radio, and we need one for Americana, and we need another for whatever the hell you call it.”
There’s a palatable excitement as the members of Blackfoot Gypsies talk about their future plans and hopes that their new album might be the breakthrough elevating them away from shitty day jobs and overheard conversations of Music Row bros. But there’s also cautiousness, tempered by long road trips, hours of playing to half-empty rooms, and the knowledge that one can do everything right in the music business and still end up far from the top.
“For us, the business of playing hasn’t changed a lot, but it’s better and there is more of it,” Murphy says,. “It’s still very hard at times because the path is not illuminated. You just have to try things and see if they light up. If someone plays us on the radio, great, but you wonder if people are listening to the radio. We still hear good stations, but there are a lot of towns that if you turn on the radio, it’s like, ‘Oh God, why?’ It’s just another Clear Channel station, playing the same stuff. Then you see more people coming to our shows, and we’re selling more albums at those shows, so it means we’re doing something right.”
Ultimately, keeping the faith for a rock & roll band in the 21st century boils down to the same crazy reasons that have motivated millions to strap on electric guitars and bang out power chords in basements and garages for the last six decades. Rock & roll is a religion where every true believer doesn’t make it to heights of glory, but the one sure way to fail is to waver in your faith.
“You have to find yourself,” Paige says. “You have to understand what you’re doing and know that it’s nothing new in general, but the you element of it is new. Once you can figure how to make the you part of it as loud as it can be, that’s when the juice starts flowing. You have to keep your influences at a certain distance. Do your interpretation of the style or idea. Don’t be them, be you.”