On April 23, 2006, The Dirty Guv’nahs stepped on stage for the first time…we thought it would be the only time. In fact, we, was just a group of random acquaintances–six guys that didn’t even know each other as friends, but who had been brought together by a series of random events, a benefit concert in downtown Knoxville’s old city, and a multitude of ridiculous late night conversations.
Our first show transpired because a friend of ours happened to be looking for a benefit concert opening band, promoted by Diana Warner and headlined by Sister Hazel. Justin Hoskins had an easy answer. At dinner with Diana, he said, “I’m in a band…we’ll be one of your opening bands,” to which she wisely replied, “You’re not in a band. I’ve known you for ten years! But if you are in a band then you can be the opening act.” Justin assured, “I am definitely in a band. We just started.” And the band literally began in that breath. We decided to name it after a friend of ours whose nickname was, “The Guv’nah.” The Guv’nah loved rock music, as we all did, but none of us had actually been in a band. The Guv’nah had recently broken his ankle and was on crutches, so he was unavailable to be in it, but he helped orchestrate the formation of the band and our members. Like I said, most of us didn’t know each other, so The Guv’nah was our only connection. Let me back up for a minute:
After Justin’s dinner with Diana, he went home to tell his roommates (which included me at the time) that we had to start a band, because we were committed to a show he’d booked for us in ten days. There was a lot of laughter, but he was completely serious. That’s where The Guv’nah came in. We practiced for a few nights but sounded pretty horrible, so The Guv’nah insisted that other people join. Eventually we got to six members, and thinking we sounded decent enough to play in front of people, The Guv’nah was satisfied…honestly though, we still sounded really terrible.
The day of the show came, and we played four cover songs along with three original songs to a near-empty parking lot of people. It was amazing. I was twenty-three years old and had never sung in front of people until that moment. In fact, I was only elected lead singer by default because of my poor guitar playing. “James, you should just be the singer,” Justin told me after a few practices.
The rest of our story is just as ridiculous, but it’s very far from fun and games, jokes and luck. We’ve worked harder on this than anyone I know, many of us working close to eighty hours a week for four years now in order to sustain both the band and a daytime desk job, grad school…it’s been different for each of us. We have all sacrificed, which is what’s really drawn us together as a unit. It’s been difficult passing up other careers, grad school opportunities, and accepting disapproval from certain friends and family, because we want to make rock music for two cents an hour. For clarification, we’ve had an unbelievable support base from friends and family, but there’s always that uncle who calls you an idiot for being in a band, or there’s that high school buddy who says stuff like “when are you gonna give up on this man?” Despite all of the challenges, it’s just worked. We’ve always felt that we had something special that shouldn’t be given up on, and we’ve pushed through because of it. Feels good to be making, like, ten cents an hour for our hard work as opposed to the previous two cents an hour…we’ve almost given up so many times… but fortuitous little things happened along the way that convinced us to stay in the game.
One such occurrence was in April 2009, probably our biggest watershed moment, when we rented out the Bijou for a cd release show. We sold about two hundred tickets ourselves, in advance. The Bijou holds 750 people, so we thought: this is good, at least it won’t look completely empty. Our hope was that 350 would show up for the show. We were shocked when 695 people paid at the door that night. I literally felt as if I was living in a dream–it was insane.
Another monumental moment for The Dirty Guv’nahs came when I got a call from Levon Helm Studios in August 2009, and they asked us to come up to Woodstock and record an album with them. Sure, it wasn’t a call out of the blue… I mean, we’d probably sent them between ten and seventy-five emails the previous year–apparently persistence works. The phone call went like this, “Hey, this is Justin Guip with Levon Helm Studios. I finally listened to some of your demos, and one or two of them actually sound really good. When can you come up to Woodstock to record an album?” Us: “December is the only time that will work cause a lot of us are still in school.” He said, “Ok. Ten days in the studio will be $X (enough to buy a car)… y’all good for it?” Of course I said, “Sure.”
That’s a very abbreviated version of the story. The truth is that we said, “yes” to the amount well before we had the money. In fact, our band account had very little in it when we booked the studio time. Fortunately for us, Levon’s studio didn’t request a deposit. It was September 2009, and we only had until December ten to come up with the money, as well as write twelve more songs to record a new album. Needless to say, none of us slept much at all during that seventy-five day stretch. We stressed about where the money would come from, called everyone we knew in the music industry (which was only about seven people), and began mapping out how much money each of us would need to contribute to make our recording dream happen. We still didn’t have enough, so we prayed for a miracle–the real kind of prayers you pray when you are sick and throwing up all over the bathroom floor because you drank too much or had food poisoning. We were earnest, and we were crazy. We still are.
Believe in what you want, but ten days later the miracle came in the form of a call from a New York City marketing company that worked on contract with a Fortune 500 company. They found us on MySpace and had a promotional opportunity for the exact dollar amount we needed for the studio time. We accepted it and immediately fell out of our chairs!
The cd we recorded is out now, and it has done well for a local/regional band, but we’re already working on some fresh new music. We’ve also got a new booking agent who is kicking ass for us, and we’ve got our first manager who believes in us, and whom we fully believe in. Things are looking up, and we’re dreaming even bigger. Just like any business endeavor, you’ve gotta dig in and be committed to the long difficult hours and challenges specific to your dream. In the music industry, one challenge since the digital revolution, is that everyone thinks music is free–like music is something that’s ok to be stolen. But what can you do… ? Work harder. It’s really the only answer, and with a band, the hardest work is not in making the music, or getting creative with marketing or your business ideas. It’s sticking together as a team while doing all of that and only making two cents an hour.
As you read this, we’re gearing up to go on the road to Austin, Texas and the SXSW Music Festival, which is one of the biggest music festivals in the world. We’ll be there along with the other 250 plus bands that are still chasing the dream…the dream of playing music and inspiring others for a living. Music still matters, and that’s why we’re still doing it.
Hope to see some of y’all at one of our big hometown shows at the Bijou Theater on April 22nd or 23rd. Tickets are $15 for each night, or $25 for both nights. Each show will be different, and we’ll have lots of guest performers with us each night. Tell everyone and your moms: http://www.knoxbijou.com/
Check out the Dirty Guv’nahs at www.thedirtyguvnahs.com .