Stomp your boots!” yells Dirty River Boys singer Marco Gutierrez into his mike. “Stomp your boots on this hardwood floor!” His band is playing Gruene Hall, a 137-year-old honky-tonk in a thick, green, swampy town near the southern tip of Texas called New Braunfels. Gutierrez whips the crowd into a semiballistic fury as he launches into a song. The heavily tattooed drummer, Travis Stearns, alternates between playing the drum set in front of him and pummeling the box on which he’s sitting with his bare hands. The upright bass player’s instrument is stamped with the words DITCH THE BITCH, LET’S GO RODEO. The raucous, beer-fueled crowd laps up every second of it, shouting the band’s name at the top of their lungs.
“They’re just a bunch of hell-raisers,” says country singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard. “They’re these wild young roots-rock hellions singing songs that come from a higher place only true poets know. I don’t see anyone else in Texas doing what they’re doing.”
Ricocheting seamlessly between country, bluegrass and rock, the Dirty River Boys—along with up-and-comers Whiskey Myers and Turnpike Troubadours—are wrenching country music out of a staid rut and turning it into something else entirely. Just as music out of Nashville has taken a turn toward overproduced sounds made by truck-worshipping, back-slapping rhinestone cowboys, these three bands in the barren Southwest are tearing through honky-tonks, ripping up dive bars and forging a gritty, raw new iteration of the genre.
“These days country music is all pseudo cowboys wearing cowboy hats and singing about things they don’t know about,” says Dirty River Boys bassist Colton James. “It makes me ill. It’s not country. It’s not authentic.” The band’s musical influences run the gamut. “Some nights we get more punk, and some nights we get a little more country,” says Stearns. “Some nights we hush it down and get seriously singer-songwriter. We just try to sound like ourselves.”
Turnpike Troubadours have knocked Texas on its sizable ass by selling out shows across the state. Their music can best be described as Townes Van Zandt meets Bob Dylan meets William S. Burroughs. “Turnpike Troubadours came out of nowhere and freaked people out,” says Fort Worth radio DJ Shayne Hollinger, referring to the band’s hometown of Stillwater, Oklahoma. “They’re on some next-level shit.”
And then there’s Whiskey Myers, a six-man outfit hailing from tiny towns in east Texas. Their music is a Zeppelin-inspired, Skynyrd-loving backdrop of sexy slow guitars with a motorcycle-racing edge. If the lyrically minded Dirty River Boys are the state’s burgeoning poet laureates, Whiskey Myers are the raucous backwoods boys raised on Southern rock, porch swings and hand-me-down rifles. “Lightning,” a song off their most recent album, details running around drunk with “every pretty little whore” in town.
“I was pretty fucked up when I wrote that song,” admits lead singer Cody Cannon, “but our songs are fucking honest. We don’t cover up. It won’t sell as many copies, but fuck it.”
But honesty is what audiences want: Early Morning Shakes, Whiskey Myers’s latest album, debuted at number one on the iTunes country chart. The Dirty River Boys and Turnpike Troubadours have experienced similar success, and they’re doing it without record deals or national radio airplay. At a time when Top 40 country music has been spit-shined, polished, perfumed and commodified, America’s heartland is thirsty for a new sound. These roughneck raconteurs are ready to deliver.
THE DIRTY RIVER BOYS
“Gonna take you down to the river; you’re gonna learn about the times, man. Bloodstains will make you shiver; you’re gonna feel it in your spine, man.”
—“Down by the River”
“I still get mad nervous,” says Stearns before a set at Gruene Hall. “You got to harness that adrenaline, not let it go down. We’re out there for the sake of our own sound.” To promote their latest self-titled album, the band toured New York and Boston last fall. “We want to get outside of Texas,” says Stearns.
With dozens of venues like Gruene Hall, the state’s oldest honky-tonk, Texas is fertile ground for bands that don’t play by Nashville’s rules.
UPPER LEFT:Named after the Rio Grande and their hometown of El Paso—an area bassist Colton James calls “the saddest, slowest, whiskey-drinking, heartbroken, everything’s-gone-to-hell kind of old-school country”—the Dirty River Boys sing tales about life overlooking Juárez, Mexico, a city embroiled in gruesome violence. “Our music represents where we’re from,” says drummer Travis Stearns. “It’s in our blood.”
BOTTOM LEFT: Female fans swarm a sweat-soaked James, who says he has slept with 275 women. “I want to tell you so many wild things!” says the bassist, adrenaline pumping. The rest of the band met James in 2010 when he filled in at a show without knowing any of the music. “He winged the whole set,” says guitarist Nino Cooper. “After that, he was in the band.”
RIGHT: As teenagers, vocalist Marco Gutierrez (left) fell in with punk, Stearns got into classic rock and James listened to heavy metal, resulting in the band’s stitched-together sound.
“My first rifle was a .243, Papa gave Daddy and Daddy gave to me…. I still fly that Southern flag, whistling Dixieland enough to brag.”
—“Ballad of a Southern Man”
“Work felt unsatisfying, so I said fuck it,” says Cannon (second from right) about the birth of Whiskey Myers seven years ago. The band members moved to Tyler, Texas, a town of fewer than 100,000 people, and quit their day jobs. “We went to the big city to chase our dreams,” says guitarist Cody Tate (third from right), laughing. Adds Cannon, “It was seven people in a Suburban, towing a shitty trailer with holes in the roof.”
“We’re not on a label,” says vocalist Cody Cannon. All three of the band’s albums have been self-released, and their success has been mostly due to word of mouth. “No big radio stations, no fancy-ass shit.”
Friends of the band socialize with fans at a Whiskey Myers show. “People relate to us more than someone who’s like, ‘Let’s get fucked up tonight!’ ” says Tate. “We sing about drinking, but there are other reasons people drink. It’s not always a party.” Some of the band’s ballads luxuriate in avoidance and pain, while others dive unapologetically into Southern pride. “We say what we want to say,” says guitarist John Jeffers.
“Could you spare a cigarette; I hate to be a bum. But here’s to hopin’ she’ll still come;
I’m too old to be this dumb.”
—“Empty as a Drum”
“Our original intent was to play 250-person bars. Just play the hell out of it, drink beer and ride around the country in a van,” says lead singer Evan Felker (far right). But after their second album, 2012’s Goodbye Normal Street, everything changed. Radio stations picked them up, they toured outside Texas, and they made enough to graduate out of a van. “What’s that line from Almost Famous?” asks bassist R.C. Edwards (second from right). “ ‘Make us look cool’? We’re not cool. We’ve been working our whole lives to get here.” Despite their success, the Troubadours remain unsigned.
LEFT: The Troubadours probe their emotions and poke where it hurts most. In the bluesy acoustic “Empty as a Drum,” Felker croons about the quiet, uncertain loneliness of waiting in a bar. “You look at Jerry Jeff Walker, and his songs aren’t about popular topics,” says Felker of his idol. “He’s writing a story. That’s where I try to be. Write what you know.”
RIGHT: Kyle Nix’s soaring fiddle catches Felker’s tenor, and together they dance a line between mournful and hopeful. “They’re not talking about going down by the river with their big truck and their lady looking good,” says record producer Mike McClure. “It’s an emphasis on great songwriting; it’s a breath of fresh air.”