Album: And then there was Dust
Song: Daddy Said
Home: Raleigh, NC
Years that the band's been active: about 5
Influences: Roy Acuff, Woody Guthrie, punk rock, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell
Bio: Dust Bowl native Kevin Wolfe, songwriter and lead vocalist for the four-piece Hearts and Daggers, writes like he's channeling his forebears, a hardy bunch that stuck it out in the region through the hardest of times. Like so much of the Americana crowd, Wolfe grew up with country music, turned to punk rock in an effort to put the music of his youth in the rearview as quickly as possible, and then returned to his roots with lessons learned and stories to tell.
With kindred spirits Marshall Miller (drummer, raised on Neil Young), Steve Judge (bassist, George Jones scholar), and Tim Shearer (British ex-punker and the latest in a long line of H&D lead guitarists) joining Wolfe for the dusty ride, Hearts and Daggers have released their debut full-length. The result is a spirited hunk of roughed-up Americana that suggests Tom Joad's ghost sitting in with the early-days Old 97's and that carries genuine, real-stories emotion.
CST's Take: Students of country classicism, and celebrators of the rugged stories central to it (albeit with those tales reshaped by leader Kevin Wolfe's personal travels), and purveyors of bruised-and-boozed rockin' country.
Country Standard Time: Let's start with the band name. The dichotomy makes me think of "Love" and "Hate" on Robert Mitchum's knuckles in The Night of the Hunter and the whole Saturday night/Sunday morning thing. Where did the name come from, and what do you hope folks will think of when they hear it?
Kevin Wolfe: The dichotomy was part intentional and part not. Our very first bass player came up with the name at practice one night, and it just stuck. But the dichotomy completely sums up our songs and the conflicts of human nature. Two sides to every story. Our songs about the man that is very in love with his woman, but knows that it's better for both of them if he leaves and drives off into the night. Or knowing that after your woman leaves you, in one sense you are free, but in the other, you're still dragging her memory around like a ball and chain. The songs are all about trying to bring real life to paper and then to music. Honestly, I'm not sure what I want people to think of when they hear the name Hearts and Daggers. The saints and sinners theme is so prevalent in our work, albeit unintentional, that that wouldn't be a bad thing to think about. On the more simplistic side, I'd love for people to think of Hearts and Daggers as a group of four guys that love old country music that are just trying to be original and put our own spin
CST: The songwriting on "And then there was Dust" pays tribute to many themes and images associated with classic country music, including leaving trains, open highways, and empty bottles. What is it about those themes that appeal to you, and what is it about vintage country music in general?
KW: Part of the appeal is that those themes are a very real part of life. The other part of these themes is that I've lived them. People always say, "Write about what you know." So that's what I'm trying to do. I don't always frame the themes in a modern time, but my experiences are an integral part of the song. Vintage country music to me is about hope and the blues and salvation. It's a very accessible music that loads of people write off because of the "country" label or the fact that a lot of it can sound arcane. It's the soul within the songs tearing through the speakers that can't be matched by 95 percent of the music coming out today including mine; it sticks with me and keeps me up at night. The singers of old country music lived it!
CST: That said, Hearts and Daggers isn't a time capsule band. There's a definite rock crunch, and some of the stories are set in the Now and not the Then. How do you approach that balance?
KW: Honestly, it's just what happens when pen hits paper a lot of times. I'm a bit of a history nut, so the old days have always been fascinating to me. That seeps through sometimes. Talking with my grandparents before they passed has always been a huge source of inspiration for me. The roots of where I come from and their impact on my songs are tremendous. I really believe that you can't truly know yourself until you know where you come from and who your blood kin was. That topic constantly haunts me.
Approaching the balance isn't honestly something that I give a whole lot of thought to. I'll bring a song to the band and generally it ends up sounding nothing like I had imagined in my head. Once we get a collection of songs together, we'll test them live for a while to see what works and then think about putting them on a record. That's kind of when the balance and cohesiveness comes into it. I think it works nicely on "And then there was Dust."
CST: The opener Daddy Said grabs your attention right off the bat, with its sound and its story. Can you tell us about how that song came about and whether there's any added pressure when you write a song that mentions Johnny Cash?
KW: I was actually sitting on my porch a few summers ago and was listening to the Drive-By Truckers record "The Dirty South." The song Carl Perkins' Cadillac came on, and there was one line in the song that I heard for the first time (even though I'd listened to the record a hundred times): "you ain't no Johnny Cash." I turned the record off and started thinking about my own life and how Johnny Cash was such a major figure in my formative years. It seemed like my dad was constantly playing him during the summertime when we were doing chores outside.
Daddy Said is basically the story of Johnny Cash's influence on my dad's life and subsequently mine. My dad worked at an amusement park in Oklahoma during his high school years. He was kind of a jack of all trades. He was a lifeguard, he ran and fixed the wooden rollercoaster, that kind of thing. They also had a stage at the amusement park and national country and western acts would play there on their way through Oklahoma. He's told me the story a thousand times, but Johnny Cash showed up to play and was completely crazy on meth. He'd been going so hard, my dad said, that he couldn't even sing a note of the show. But my dad said it was the best show he's ever seen. Still.
So, as I got into music and went my own rebellious way, I hated Johnny Cash. Didn't understand it and didn't want to. It wasn't till I got my heart broken really bad that I picked up Johnny Cash again. So Doggone Lonesome, Blue Train, Cry Cry Cry and Home of the Blues. Gems! Then I moved away from the South for a few years, and it was over for me. Johnny Cash was the sound of home and the South. I came back south eventually and had written a bunch of country-ish tunes. My dad heard me playing and singing them one night and told me, "Son, you ain't no Johnny Cash." Broke my heart into a thousand pieces. But the songs were pretty crappy. I can admit that now. And I'm still no Johnny Cash, but he's come to terms with that.
CST: The one song on the record that's not a band original is Butch Hancock's Boxcars. I'm always fascinated by the thinking that goes into choosing a cover song, so why, out of thousands of possibilities, Boxcars? And if you had decided to include one more cover on the record, what would it have been and why?
KW: I saw The Flatlanders at SXSW in 2004 and afterwards got completely immersed in Joe Ely's solo work. I brought his version of Boxcars to the band, and everybody said, "How in the hell are we going to do that?" There were bongos and other assorted craziness on his version, but I said, "We're gonna play it like Hearts and Daggers." So we stripped it down and roughed it up and started playing it live. Everyone in the crowds loved it! It's got a great beat to it, and it gives us a chance to let loose at the end. A perfect live song. So when it came time to record the record, it seemed pretty natural to include it. Plus, the themes in the song meshed amazingly with the other songs. I just wish that I'd written it.
As far as another cover on the record, it'd be a tough call. I mean, we've covered everybody from Steve Earle to Jimmy Martin to George Jones to Johnny Cash to John Mellencamp to Tom Petty to the Dead Kennedys. So, it's a really wide range, but the one song we were playing live a lot at the time of the recordings was John Mellencamp's Rain on the Scarecrow. Great song about family generations and the death of the farmer in America. It would have worked equally well on the record as Boxcars, I think. At the same time, live, we never really wanted to cover the super-obvious songs, like Folsom Prison Blues or Small Town. It never suited us. You can walk into any honky-tonk in America on any Saturday night and hear those songs. We always wanted to give the crowd something familiar, but not something they're necessarily gonna hear live from most bands. So far, it's worked out pretty well.
CST: And the one total wildcard on the record is Bluefield Breakdown. Talk about that one, please….
KW: I used to download Garrison Keillor's "A Writer's Almanac" podcast every day and would take that five minutes to start my day. He always reads a poem at the end of the podcast, and it was an early December that he read "Bluefield Breakdown" by Rick Mulkey. I was floored. I probably listened to the poem 20 times in a row. It basically said everything that I had ever wanted to say in a song. Brilliant and sad and beautiful. I knew we had to use it on the record somehow, and sure enough that's what came out.
I originally wanted to press the record on vinyl only, and Bluefield Breakdown was going to be track 1 side 2 - the halfway point, so to speak. I just couldn't get this poem out of my head so we kind of did it off the cuff in the studio. I played the toy piano, and we added some banjo via Chandler Holt from Chatham County Line. Greg Elkins mixed it for us and added some pedal steel licks in there as well. We wanted it to be pretty weird and kinda spacey. I hope the gravity of the words comes through.
CST: Fifteen years ago, the Triangle area of North Carolina was ground zero (or at least one of a couple ground zeroes) for so-called alt.-country music, a descriptor that could be applied to the work of Hearts and Daggers. What's that scene like today in the Triangle region, and did/does that earlier heyday have any influence on the band?
KW: The scene today is fairly sparse. Hank Sinatra and American Aquarium are the only ones that I can think of off the top of my head. I know that Steve Howell from the Backsliders has a new band, but I haven't heard them. Hank Sinatra is generally on the more rock end of things, and American Aquarium in my view has a bit more of a mass appeal than we do. We're definitely more aggressive live. Maybe that's the punk rock influences coming out, I don't know. There are some other bands, but mostly they are rooted in the honky-tonk or rockabilly or bluegrass genres.
As far as the bands 15 years ago, none of them really influenced us too much. We never set out to be an Americana band in the vein of anyone else; it's just the direction our songs went. So I never looked back to Triangle bands as inspiration. The only band from that era that I consistently listen to these days is the Backsliders. Man, they could write a song and play some honky-tonk!