Some call Knoxville's Dirty Guv'nahs a Southern rock band, but they probably don't sound a lot like most of the outfits you've heard the term applied to. They're a damn sight more primal, for one thing, plying nasty, raw-boned rhythms and searing guitar sounds pilfered from early Rolling Stones—Brits who, by virtue of their abundance of stateside influences, were Southern rockers by proxy.
And they bear little or no trace of the bands most often associated with the genre—Skynyrd and the Outlaws, et al.—bands whose Southern experience was filtered through layers of bombast that had scarce else to do with Dixie. "I was told recently that our music was very Southern, but not in a bad way," chuckles guitarist Justin Hoskins, dishing the Dirty on his two-year-old outfit at a local diner.
The Guv'nahs' origin is writ large in the sound of their just-released debut CD, Don't Need No Money; it's a raucous, loose-knit, egalitarian affair, with many of the band's six members trading off instruments. That's in keeping with the same spirit in which the Guv'nahs were born—as a result of a series of off-the-cuff jam sessions in the basement of a rental home shared by Hoskins, bassist/percussionist/harpist Mitch Stewart, and lead vocalist James Trimble back in late 2005.
"We weren't really thinking in terms of having a band; the pieces just fell into place," Hoskins says. "There was this series of strange events that led to these jam sessions. Then one day we decided to be a band, and we had a gig booked for the very next day."
Their coalescence into a full-time outfit was organic, says Hoskins; all of the new members shared a love of roots rock and '60s/'70s sounds—soul and blues rock and psychedelia, Hendrix and the Stones and Janis and the Allmans—that made for an easy transition.
"One person pegged our sound as being one-half Exile on Main Street-era Stones and one-half Songs from the Big Pink-era Band," Hoskins says. "That is probably the best compliment we could get."
"Our music appeals to a broader range of generations, which I think we all like," says Stewart. "You get younger people, and you get people our parents' age watching a set."
It helps, too, that the Dirty Guv'nahs have one of the most combustible frontmen in Knoxville in the person of James Trimble. Even on record, Trimble's voice and presence seem almost too large to be contained within the confines of so little digital air space. His voice is powerful, rich and soulful, but he bellows just as often as he sings, coming off like some wandering Pentecostal who's been twice possessed, torn between belching hellfire and speaking in tongues.
"At our first practice, he was already standing on a table, ripping lights down off the basement ceiling," remembers Stewart. "And it's obviously natural for him, not a put-on. It just flows out of him."
"I get a huge smile just watching him when we're on stage," says Hoskins. "And yet sometimes I can't even watch. It's like, 'What's he doing now? Oh, he's out in the crowd!' He's outrageous. I've told James he's the kind of frontman I would pay to go see."
Hoskins says Guv'nahs have played "pretty much every bar there is to play in or around downtown," but your best chance to see them most months is at Barley's in the Old City. They've played plenty outside of Knoxville, too, around the southeast, in Auburn and Louisville and Nashville and Asheville, and most of the other usual suspects, and as far north as Cincinnati.
Theirs is a mission, says Hoskins, a mission to reawaken the slumbering spirit of rock 'n' roll, long ago left to lie sluggish and beaten, weary of the artifice that's too often allowed to pass off as rock music. "There's something a lot of people don't understand about rock 'n' roll; and that's the fact that the roll is just as important as the rock," Hoskins says. "Rock is a broad term; it can refer to a lot of things. But when you bring in the roll, that's when you get people dancing. And if there aren't any people dancing at one of our gigs, then we're not doing our jobs."