[TWANG-ROCK] When Nick Foltz's input dislodged from his bass during a recent Truckstop Darlin' performance, he ran offstage mid-song in search of a quick fix. Within less than two tunes, he had found a soldering gun backstage, melded the piece in place on the instrument, and rushed back into the spotlight as his band reached the cue for the next bass line.
Truckstop Darlin' has had to figure out a lot on its own. Between soldering parts, raising money, producing promotional videos and recording albums, the band has stayed pretty busy since forming via Craigslist in early 2010. Since then, the quartet self-released two full-length albums, including the LP fresh out this week, Hope and the Heart it Breaks. Recorded and mixed by Matt Phelan, who is conveniently the brother of frontman John Phelan, both albums stick to similar conventions of drums, electric guitar, bass and pedal steel. The new disc, however, reveals another facet the group is figuring out—a shift toward rock music.
"You just have that fear of getting pigeonholed real quick out of the gates," John Phelan says in regard to 2010's self-titled debut, which was indeed swiftly pinned as alt-country.
The band's new direction raises the question: Can it drift from its designated genre and still utilize such a classically country instrument as the pedal steel? Depending on your perspective, the pedal steel is either what lodges the band in the ever-expanding alt-country territory or what differentiates it from typical rock acts. After sneaking in only a couple nods to rock 'n' roll on its mostly swinging first album, the group brings a heaviness to the new record—from the rough guitar distortion of "I See You" to the driving, '80s-style rock cadence of "Same Old Story." On songs like "Threats, Bruises and Flowers" and "Dead Roses," Portland native Michael Winter's pedal steel plays more like a shape-shifting melodic tool than a traditional country music component.
"The role of the pedal steel changes from song to song. It'll take what might be a horn part in another type of song, or it might take the string part, or the backing vocals," Foltz says. "It's a real versatile instrument."
Even as the band enters rock territory, there's still no denying the hints of good ol' Southern influence lingering at its core. With three of the four members hailing from Tennessee or Kentucky, it's easy to pick out the occasional Nashville twang in Phelan's raw and raspy vocals, or hear a Donald "Duck" Dunn-inspired bass line from Foltz.
Still, after being compared to outfits such as Whiskeytown and Drive-By Truckers following the release of their first album, the boys of Truckstop Darlin' are forging a genre-bending path that's a little harder to peg, and feeling pretty good about it.
"We had someone come up to us and say, 'You guys are like Nirvana with a pedal steel for a lead guitar,'" Winter says. "That sounded awesome."
SEE IT: Truckstop Darlin' plays the Star Theater, 13 NW 6th Ave., on Saturday, June 9, with River Giant. 9 pm. $5. 21+.