49 WINCHESTER CANNOT BE TIED DOWN. Six years after their inception, the Castlewood, VA quintet are no longer “the new kids on the block”, and have inspired a wave of young bands in their region with their seamless fusion of rock&roll, country, and blues, and with their infallible DIY approach to everything surrounding their music. In our short conversation, I learned more than I ever have about them as people and as musicians; which is odd considering I’ve known the band almost since they began, and even played drums on their self-titled debut album.
Talking to the guys in their van right before they took the stage at Barley’s Taproom in Knoxville, TN, we discussed how they came into their own, following the footsteps of local bands they adored. Singer Issac Gibson, the most vocal of the group, enlightened me with musings on the recording and touring process, how they are sticking to their guns and staying on the road, and how they fought back against a period of doubt about the band’s future to create a stunning and true-to-themselves sophomore album with The Wind.
They recently re-released the aforementioned debut album due to popular demand, and we took a trip down memory lane recalling the process of making it. As much a family as they are a band, each member (sans Jake Quillin) joined in to tell the tale of how this now phenomenally successful group, who met each other at a local park one random day, are quickly joining the ranks of all their heroes—who they will soon be calling peers. We discuss how they are melding genres to form a sound that sounds more like them than anyone else. Whether they are a country band making soul music, or a soul band making country music, one thing can be assured: they are a fascinating and entertaining live act to watch, and can only soar higher from here.
Floyd Strange: So how are the shows going, guys? You’re playing a lot right now.
Isaac Gibson: The shows are going great. We’re getting to travel around and spread our music. Get to play for different crowds every night and it’s a lot of fun so far. We’ve got a busy schedule coming up. Lots of new original songs. Everything’s going swell, man.
FS: That’s great. So, I somehow missed this last record when you put it out but I just recently got it. I know that a lot of these songs, or at least some of them, you were working on back in the day—right after the first record, right?
Chase Chafin: Yeah.
FS: I think “Foggy Eye”, “Off the Ground”, maybe a few other things?
FS: Was it a conscious decision to start off with those tunes you’d already had, and then fill it out?
Isaac: It was. It wasn’t necessarily a process of filling it out, it was a process of feeling it out, you know what I mean? Those are the songs we sort of established a backbone with for the new record, as far as how we wanted it to sound… We actually finished those songs literally days after finishing the first record. It was kind of heartbreaking that we didn’t get to record them [then]. But we knew that our next go around in the studio [the new songs] would be super tight and super polished.
Isaac: I think that those songs probably embody the sound of the record than anything else does. That was sort of the keystone for it, you know?
FS: Right, and the album is called “The Wind”?
Isaac: The Wind.
FS: Chase and I were talking earlier about how the songs all kind of flow really well into one another. The sequencing on this record… it feels a lot more thought out.
Isaac: We wanted to make a record that people could pop into their car, or stream on Spotify—however you might listen to it. We wanted to do something [where you could] listen to a whole album, that was cohesive and worked within itself. That was a decision we sat down and made together. How do we want this album to go? What track is going to lead into the next? What’s going to feel right and how are we going to capture what we want to put across with this record?
FS: Was this [current lineup] the lineup on [the record]?
Chase: Other than Noah.
Isaac: This was before we got Noah.
FS: When did you come in, Noah?
Noah Patrick: Almost a year ago, actually… Maybe 10 months or so.
FS: What do you think about playing with these guys?
Noah: It’s a lot of fun. I grew up with them. They pretty much taught me how to play from the first album. It was the first thing I learned to play by ear. [They] taught me a lot.
Isaac: Noah’s younger than us, you know, he just turned 21, so when I was a senior he was a freshman or whatever… I never knew Noah until after we had [been] playing for a while. I heard him at Chase’s house, we were jamming and [Noah is] there and he starts doing these weird things on a lap-steel, which he had never played before. It’s not even his original instrument—
FS: —Whats your primary instrument?
Isaac: He’s a great fingerpicker—
Chase:—banjo player, too.
Isaac: We heard that lap-steel sound and thought if we could dig deep into this it would be a really good addition.
Bus Shelton: And he didn’t practice hardly at all, and then at the next [practice] we were like ‘that sounds great’.
Isaac: He has a bigger knowledge of music theory than most of us so it was kind of a natural progression for him to take off on an instrument that’s in a strange tuning, like a lap-steel is.
Chase: It really adds to the sonic depth of the show, too.
FS: You all talking about growing up together kind of leads into my next question… Strangely enough, as long as I’ve known you guys, I never really knew how it got started. When did it all begin?
Isaac: Chase and I grew up next door to each other. We’ve been like brothers since we were old enough to talk, basically. We grew up on Winchester street, Castlewood, Virginia. My home address was 49 Winchester Street, which is how the band got its name—but that’s for another time [laughs]. You might ask us about it later.
FS: Is that where you started playing together?
Isaac: Yeah, for sure. That was home base. Me and Chase and Bus—
Bus: —Ran into each other. At the park [in] St. Paul. Isaac was playing acoustic and a kazoo, playing [a song by] Pokey LaFarge. We hung out on the stage at the park and jammed until the cops told us to turn it down… [to Chase] Was that the same day?
Chase: It was late, yeah. We stayed until 12:30 or 1?
Bus: We were gonna form like, a metal band.
FS: You played electric?
Bus: Yeah. Then Isaac broke a string and started playing acoustic and that’s kinda… long story short—
Isaac: —That’s the weird part about it all. We got together and we had totally different skillsets, musically.
Bus: Different backgrounds.
Isaac: Bus was playing in a metal band at one time. Chase and I were always sort of on the same page, but his interests always varied slightly from mine. And I loved old, pre-war ragtime and blues. But we got together, and actually were originally a three piece string band, just two guitars and a banjo—
FS:—when was this?
Chase: Like, 2013. Fall 2013.
Chase: And by about January we were recording the album.
Isaac: Actually when we were recording the album, we didn’t even have a drummer. [to me] You played all the drum tracks on that.
FS: Yeah. I did it.
Bus: Which sounded great, by the way.
FS: Oh, thank you.
Isaac: And we had just found Dillon, you know. We just found a guy in Castlewood, a town of like 1,500 people or something. It’s so small.
FS: Dillon, how did you find these cats?
Dillon Cridlin: [mimes silently]
FS: He’s miming something right now that may or may not be appropriate for all audiences.
Dillon: It just kinda… clicked. Yeah.
Isaac: I had known him forever too. Dillon didn’t go to school with us, he was a St. Paul kid. But they’re basically the same thing… I had known him for years and years.
FS: [to Dillon] When did you start playing drums?
Dillon: Maybe like a year before I joined the band?
Dillon: They kinda got me… they put the flame under my ass and got me started.
FS: Because I remember those early shows—I think we did one or two together? I played Wise with you guys and…
Bus: Acoustic Coffeehouse.
FS: Yeah. And the whole time you all were like, ‘We’ve got this guy and we think he’s going to be really good.’ Turns out to be Dillon.
Isaac: The cool thing was that we got to go into this whole experience together. None of us had ever played in a band before [seriously], we had never buckled down and made a run at it, as far as music is concerned. We were all on virgin ground when we got into this….That’s why its been so fun being able to now travel the country with these guys, and to have people come up to you after shows and say ‘Man, that was tight. Man, that was killer.’, because it was really a process…
Bus: It was hard, you know? It was hard at the start.
FS: What was hard about it?
Bus: It was just— you know—sort of booking shows [saying to ourselves] ‘Do we have enough material? Is anyone going to like the material?’. We were like baby deer. [laughs]
Isaac: We were the new kids on the block. We really were. When The Rickshaw Roadshow was together, when This Mountain was together, when Amythyst Kiah was popping up—there were a lot of super super bands in that Tri-Cities scene that we really looked up to. And it’s so cool to see new bands spring up… To me, one of the best parts of the process is to see these new bands spring up that really enjoy our music and look up to us and say ‘That’s super sick, man. I really love what you’re doing.’ because that was the same way we felt about so many bands before us.
Bus: Especially [The] Rickshaw [Roadshow], This Mountain…
FS: I was going to ask, what was the story where you found a CD of the first [Roadshow] record? At some place in Abingdon?
Chase: It was in a cardboard sleeve…
Bus: Oh, we found it on a stage.
Isaac: I think it was at the Bonefire?
Dillon: Yeah that’s it. Bonefire—
Bus: —Bonefire Smokehouse. Abingdon, on Main St.
FS: And not too long after that we became acquainted. I became very familiar with you guys really quickly… We all were kind of amazed at how quickly you guys seemed to find a very original sound that was also very familiar to a lot of people. A lot of people could attach themselves to your sound because you took from all these different styles, right—
FS: What were you listening to growing up that formed this sound?
Isaac: Bus, you go first.
Bus: Well, I grew up listening to, I guess—I didn’t really have a musical taste—it was Lynyrd Skynyrd—
Isaac:—[to Bus] You were a big AC/DC fan—
Bus:—AC/DC when I was a kid. And then when I got to high school it was… way heavy metal. Slipknot, Stone Sour, all that stuff. That influenced the way I play guitar a lot. One of my heroes is Jim Root, for sure.
Isaac: That’s always been a theme. A constant thing. I can hear it—you know I can hear it when [Bus] plays country licks.
FS: Yeah, I can hear that in your tone.
Bus: I mean, it’s working out for him. [laughs]
FS: What about you, Chase?
Chase: Some of the influences? Definitely old country, blues… a lot of modern stuff. I just really love rock&roll, the whole history of it… Pretty broad [spectrum], I’m just glad to be able to channel some of [that music] with these guys.
FS: What was it like switching from banjo to the bass?
Chase: It’s great. I love it.
FS: Is some of the pressure off, now?
Chase: No, it’s just a lot more powerful instrument.
Bus: The banjo is so hard to play live.
Isaac: Bass carries more weight, for sure. I think it fits Chase’s thing better.
Chase: Yeah. I’ve always been a bass player, really.
Isaac: That’s another thing that was [similar] with Noah, when he joined the band playing lap-steel, he had never played lap-steel. It was the same situation with Chase. He had never played banjo, I was the banjo player—I was a banjo player, never the one for the band—but Chase just flew in there and—
Bus: —made it his own thing.
Isaac: He knew enough about it. I think that was a big thing on the first record: how differently the banjo was played than a [traditional] banjo player would play it.
FS: [to Chase] You played it more like a guitar player.
Chase: Yeah, I had a different kind of attack to it.
Bus: Everyone thought we were bluegrass. They see there’s a banjo and [it’s like] ‘Oh you play bluegrass?’ and we were like ‘No, its pretty rocking stuff.’ I guess folk rock… is really what it started out as.
FS: What were you listening to, Isaac?
Isaac: As far as guitar playing and things like that… when we first started the band, like I was saying, it was old blues. Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt, even as far back as Blind Lemon Jefferson, guys like that… I love finger style blues that’s really hot, fast, right-hand stuff. But as we started playing [together more], I felt more of this country sound coming out of us, that sort of leaked out behind the rock&roll, I started listening to a lot more country music and that’s sort of where I’m at now.
Bus: I think that’s where we’re all at.
Isaac: We don’t want to make a mimic record at any point, you know, we don’t want to be a straight country band.
FS: Yeah I don’t think you ever could. You really have a sound that’s all your own.
Bus: I don’t think it would work correctly. Like, it would just fall apart and then [it’s like] ‘Well, let’s do something else.’
Isaac: We’ve got some new stuff that is—it’s pretty country— but you know, add a full drum set… My thing now is, I’ve started listening to really powerful male vocalists. That was a thing that inspired me a lot to really open up my range on the mic.. You know, I always tell people that I’m a singer, and my secondary thing is guitar playing.
FS: Right… What is the songwriting dynamic like with you guys? Does someone come in with an idea and the rest of you fill it out?
Isaac: For the most part. 90% of the time, I’ll come to the guys with a song I’ve written. Lyrics and structure are basically there. The whole time I’m writing, I’m imagining what Bus’s part is going to sound like, what Chase’s bass line is going to sound like, what the drum track’s going to sound like, how to fit the lap-steel in… Jake Quillin—
FS: —speaking of, we are missing one important person here: JQ.
Isaac:—yeah he’s not here tonight. He’s been playing with us. He adds an enormous amount of flair with his searing hot blues licks.
Bus: Oh, man.
FS: What was [behind] the decision to bring him in?
Isaac: We loved him.
Isaac: We loved him and he loved us. Not just as a musician and from a musical standpoint, but just being around him, as a friend. I’m one of those guys who [is] always nervous about shows, and anytime we play with him, the nerves are off. Shout out to JQ.
Bus: He just kept coming to shows and [saying] ‘Man, I just want to play with you guys,’ and we were just like, ‘DO it.’ and he [would say] ‘I don’t know’…to this day, he’s never had a rehearsal with us—
FS:—Really? He just pops in…
Isaac: But he’s always listened, and was at home playing our songs… It just worked out.
Bus: And we can take turns noodling around… It’s great.
FS: That’s awesome. So, I just saw recently you’re going to re-release the first album?
Isaac: We just did, actually.
Chase: It’s on all the streaming services now, and we’ll have physical copies—in the next couple days, probably.
FS: Was that just something like—you were just ready to do it? Or—
Bus: —we ran out of copies.
Chase: Yeah he hadn’t printed them [the first time]… It’s kind of a gray area still, but…
Bus: We took a big break… And It got kind of stale, and the new record came out and was fresh. [We had] a lot to think about.
Isaac: We sort of just stopped carrying the first album around.
Bus: Then the people that had the second album were like ‘I really miss that first one!’ you know?
Isaac: That was a special one for us anyway, because it was the first thing we did that connected with our hometown crowd. But it was also the first thing we ever did that allowed us to branch out. We could go places. Like have a physical copy of an album, what a dream that was—
Bus:— for a band that played in our bedrooms.
Isaac: It was cool for us. And it still is. I still love a lot of those songs on it, they’re great songs.
FS: I remember just being there when all that was happening, I knew it was something special, man. We knew it was going to be something great. I know you went on hiatus for awhile. What was the decision like to come back? Did you always know you were going to come back?
Isaac: I think so. We had some friends from Johnson City who wanted us to play at their wedding, which they were having at The Willow Tree, which is like home base for us. That’s like, our favorite place in the world. They inquired around, sort of hinted at “Oh, we’d like for you to come play.’ and we sort of thought—
Chase:—What better time?
Isaac: What better time to get back on the horse than right here with a bunch of people that we love, at a place that we love… that was a big propellant. It wasn’t just some dive show we got together for. It was a great thing, it was a beautiful thing. And we had a lot of fun. And that…
Bus: —Lit the fire again.
Isaac: Yeah, for sure. And since then, it’s been nonstop. We’ve been plugging away.
FS: Yeah, it seems like you’re set to take off right now.
Isaac: We hope so. We’re putting our time in, we’re doing everything that we can.
Bus: Paying our dues.
FS: Well, speaking of, I know you’ve got to hop on stage [in a few minutes] so I wish you a good show. Thanks for talking to me.
Isaac: Appreciate you, man.
Chase: Yeah thanks.
Bus: Love you, buddy.
Dillon: Love you.
FS: Love you guys too.
Isaac: We’ll be seeing you around.