For most of the members of the local honky-tonk revivalists the Drunk Uncles, playing hardcore ’60s-era country music is a default position. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Jeff Barbra grew up in Blount County listening to Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and George Jones. “All I’ve ever done is listen to country music,” he says. Fiddler Gordy Gilbertson spent the late ’60s and early ’70s touring Canada and the Midwest in country bands. Brock Henderson is one of East Tennessee’s most accomplished steel guitar players.
But even though drummer Eric Keeble was familiar with country, he didn’t get involved with it until he joined the Drunk Uncles.
“My dad listened to country music when I was a kid,” he says. “But I was interested in other stuff. As I got older and finally started listening to more country, I realized why I didn’t appreciate it when I was a kid. This music ain’t for kids. Songs about life ain’t for children. It’s for adults who go through hard times. I appreciate it as I get older and have a chance to experience more.”
The Drunk Uncles specialize in songs about hard times, and songs about songs about hard times. On their 2009 debut, Smashed Hits, the group covers classics by Buck Owens, Tom T. Hall, and Hank Thompson, and offer a handful of originals based on Owens’ Bakersfield sound from the mid-1960s. The original songs, from Barbra and fellow Uncles singer/songwriter Mike McGill, channel the spirit of those covers but also comment on country songs—Barbra’s barstool weeper “Only Sad, Sad Songs Make Me Happy,” name-checks a catalog of country hits (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today”); McGill’s drinking anthem “Lately” is about being sad and listening to country music. (The chorus concludes with the line, “Don’t worry, it’s just a song.”)
The band, which also includes bassist Aram Takvoryan, recorded Smashed Hits in just a few days last fall. The album capped a surprisingly successful first year for the Drunk Uncles—they opened for Billy Joe Shaver and the Kentucky Headhunters at the Shed in Maryville, and played Tennessee Shines with Buddy Miller at the Bijou Theatre in December.
“Last year was a whirlwind,” Barbra says. “It was full of blessings and opportunities that fell in our lap. It’s been so easy that we’ve been lazy musically, because it’s been so easy. Our goal this year is to practice more. It seems like we did most of our practicing last year at shows.”
Barbra and the other Drunk Uncles regard their music as an antidote to contemporary country. Barbra released a solo disc titled Country Music for Country People a few years ago, and the band hangs a banner that reads “Kill Nashville Pop” on stage. (It’s part of a grassroots campaign to support veteran Nashville performers and songwriters, including Larry Cordle, who wrote the George Strait/Alan Jackson hit “Murder on Music Row.” The Uncles recorded Cordle’s “Drunk Talkin’” on Smashed Hits.)
“Taylor Swift writing about losing her pencil, that’s not country,” Barbra says. “I don’t have anything against that stuff, but don’t call it country.”
Gilbertson, who stopped playing music when he moved to East Tennessee in 1978, says he’d given up on hearing the kind of country he used to play until he saw Barbra perform songs from Country Music for Country People.
“I thought, ‘I haven’t heard this in a long time,’” he says. “There are old-timers out there like me who don’t listen to country music anymore. People are amazed that people are doing stuff. That’s our reward.”