During their trademark instrumental stretches, the seasoned indie rockers of Dixie Dirt will sometimes turn their backs on the audience, forming a close triangle around drummer Pete Bryan. Bassist Brad Carruth explains, “The audience feels vulnerable when we play, and when we turn our backs, we’re vulnerable at times.”
That vulnerability abounds at a live Dixie Dirt show. Audience members may freefall in their own cells of lonely thought, but at the same time there’s this togetherness—everyone is bobbing heads and mouthing words, communing for the nurturing they came here for. The music is cathartic and conflicted, a slap of pain that wakes you up and gets inside you.
The band members share that physical impact, often chanting guttural sounds and experimenting onstage. To them, playing music is a way to escape thought, to just feel. “That’s the nature of everyone that plays music, you don’t really think about anything,” says Carruth. “I try to let myself go and sort of sink into it. It’s the feeling you get from playing music, it’s so you don’t have to think about it. You feel a lot, but it’s not mental.”
In real life though, there’s plenty to think about, like rent checks and day jobs. In the past, Dixie Dirt’s members have been notoriously gloomy; they’ve been called “melancholy” countless times. They’ve trash-talked Knoxville; they’ve threatened to move; but things have changed. “We all kind of made this decision this year that we want to pay our bills playing music,” says singer/guitarist/songwriter Kat Brock. “We used to have this bleak feeling about this town, and we thought the only way we could do that was to play in other towns…but we finally realized we had it good here. Before we were all moody, depressed motherfuckers.”
Part of Dixie Dirt’s new outlook is due to finding, or rather, accepting, some outside help. After about a year of begging on her part, Blue Cats booking agent Lenore Kinder finally convinced the band to take her on as their agent. As a veteran of Knoxville’s music scene, Kinder has the knack for dealing with merch, publicity, and other things that the scruffy, dreamy band members typically ignore. “The two things that have made the difference is doing this record on our own and Lenore Kinder,” says Brock. “We all have this affinity for her. She takes care of us, and she takes care of business.”
While Kinder has been hyping the band, scoring them a spot opening for Rilo Kiley at Sundown in the City and on Bonnaroo’s new regional stage, the band itself has been tucked away in a little house on Forest Avenue creating its third album, Pieces of the World. They recorded, mixed and mastered it themselves, and the usually self-deprecating foursome talk about it heatedly, even throwing out uncharacteristic words like “proud” and “awesome.”
“It was really amazing how much we could get done not having someone else there sort of disrupting our space,” says Carruth. “It was like the record just appeared.”
In the intense week-and-a-half marathon recording session, the band pulled some all-nighters, but, “We all enjoyed it so much,” says Bryan, “that we didn’t think, ‘Oh God, I gotta go to the house and record, or I gotta sit and mix.’” Brock adds, “It was more, ‘Let’s go grab some beer and hang out with our record.’”
Like most Brock fare, Pieces’ 10 songs stab at the modest moments in life, like listening to a bedmate's breathing, as well as some of the most painful and human moments. Says guitarist and keyboardist Angela Santos: “Personally, I think that—don’t blush, Kat—but what makes Kat such an amazing songwriter is that she writes about things that are close to her. She doesn’t try to project herself or fabricate bullshit situations for the sake of being poetic.”
A prime example is the song "15th Street," an intimate account of a long walk home, clinging onto someone through Fort Sanders, one of Brock’s muses. “The Fort just seems to stay in this exploration phase,” she says. “If you live here, you don’t really want to grow up because you know that’s just a created thing for you to have to do. That’s why it’s been so good to write here and be in this energy and environment where we can play any hour we want and nobody’s going to call the cops. It’s free, you can do whatever you want, feel as much as you want, don’t feel anything at all. Just get drunk, sit on the porch, yell at cars.”
Brock rambles on sagely, a seeming well of passion and uncommon clarity. But anyone who’s seen Dixie Dirt live has experienced that. They may turn their backs, but they always come back to electrify us, let us know we’re not alone, free us from thought, and command us to feel.