Knoxville's Dirty Guv'nahs Set Their Sights on a Changing Music Industry

Armed with their own 21st century business plan, the swaggering blues rockers have shunned record labels to release their own album

James Trimble is sitting upstairs at a Market Square cafe on a recent Friday morning. He's wearing sneakers and a Patagonia pullover, with his ever-present iPhone nearby, and he looks like a lot of other young creative professionals in Knoxville. He spends his time like they do, too: a lot of phone calls and e-mail, meetings over coffee or happy hour, brainstorming sessions with his coworkers, occasional trips to Nashville for networking.

Except Trimble isn't a website designer or a media professional. For the last six years he has balanced a part-time job at the University of Tennessee with his role as the lead singer for the Dirty Guv'nahs, arguably Knoxville's biggest band.

In September, Trimble made what might be the biggest decision of his life so far: He and the other members of the band quit their day jobs to commit full-time to the band. Now the group's business responsibilities and creative output are their daily occupations.

"It's our job," Trimble says. "There's a lot involved—families, girlfriends, spouses. You can play a show in Atlanta in front of 250 people one month and come back three months later and it's 170. Then the next time it could be 350. And your living is made on how many people come to shows, because nobody's buying records. It's so temperamental. You can't play every city on a Friday night."

Amid the continuing decline of record sales, the ongoing tightening of commercial radio playlists, and the decade-long collapse of the major-label music industry, the Dirty Guv'nahs—Trimble, guitarists Michael Jenkins and Cozmo Holloway, keyboardist Chris Doody, bassist Justin Hoskins, and drummer Aaron Hoskins, ranging in age from 24 to 31—have survived. They have methodically built themselves a reliable paying audience across the Southeast without the benefit of a label or professional management. Aside from a booking agent, the band members handle their own business. Their success has come not just on the strength of their bluesy, swaggering brand of Southern rock 'n' roll and a reputation as tireless performers, but by having a sensible 21st-century business plan and sticking to it.

"One of the things I heard that I recently latched onto is, instead of thinking, ‘What can I do to blow up and become the next Adele or Mumford and Sons?'—artists that get crazy popular but still get regarded as ‘authentic'—focus on things you know you can do that will increase your crowds 20 percent next year," Trimble says. "What can you do to have 20 percent more people come out to your show? The Adeles and Mumfords didn't know they were going to be that big. They just created something that suddenly connected with a crapload of people."

The Dirty Guv'nahs have taken control of their own destiny, and made the most of it. Few local bands ever get to play the Bijou Theatre, quite possibly the crown jewel of Knoxville's concert venues. Even fewer get to play at the top of a bill there. This weekend, the Guv'nahs will headline a two-night stand at the Bijou—their second two-night performance there, and seventh and eighth headlining shows there overall. With a new album due this summer, the Guv'nahs seem poised to spread their massive local popularity even wider.

There's risk to the band's approach, though. If their plans don't come through, they'll have no one but themselves to blame.

***

The Dirty Guv'nahs began almost by accident. None of the six original members had ever been in a band before when, brought together by a mutual appreciation of the Rolling Stones, the Band, and the Allman Brothers, they started playing informal jam sessions together in late 2005.

Their inexperience showed—the band's first official gig in 2006 was scheduled a day in advance, and they held their first recording session in a basement studio.

By 2008, though, the band had settled into an upward groove—both creatively and in terms of local and regional popularity—that has remained almost uninterrupted ever since. They followed up their debut EP, Don't Need No Money (which the band now considers a demo, rather than an official release) with 2009's self-titled full-length and 2010's Youth Is in Our Blood. Each recording—the first in a basement studio in Seymour, the second in Athens, Ga., the third at Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock, N.Y.—represented a noticeable step forward in sound quality and professionalism.

With a regular regimen of shows around Knoxville and in Chattanooga, Nashville, and Atlanta, Trimble gained control over his rough-hewn, soulful howl, and the rest of the band found its footing as an ensemble. (The addition of Holloway on lead guitar in 2009, to replace founding member Mitch Stewart, was a bonus; though he is only 31 years old, the gifted Holloway was already a veteran of several touring Knoxville bands, including the R&B ensemble Dishwater Blonde.) On stage, they appear larger than life: Trimble's wild-man enthusiasm carries him across whatever stage he is on, Holloway fills the spotlight as lead guitarist, and the Hoskins brothers anchor the band's shuffling boogie rhythms. During the band's 2009 album-release show at the Square Room, a line of teenage girls sang along to every single song with the kind of swooning dedication usually associated with much bigger acts.

The Guv'nahs quickly developed a regional following and became one of Knoxville's most popular bands, graduating from Preservation Pub to Barley's and from there to the Square Room, the Bijou Theatre, Bonnaroo, and, last fall, a headlining show at the Tennessee Theatre, a rare accomplishment for a Knoxville band.

"That was a goal we had from a long time ago—we said we want to play the Tennessee Theatre one day," says guitarist/songwriter Michael Jenkins. "We grew up seeing shows there. To have the opportunity to play where all these amazing shows happened, to get that level—it's awesome."

The band expects its steady rise to continue this summer with the release of the Guv'nahs' as-yet-untitled third album, the bulk of which was recorded at two different Nashville studios in January and produced by Virginia singer/songwriter Ross Copperman.

"Nashville's just such a professional city," Jenkins says. "They do it all day. They know what things are supposed to sound like. We went in and took a lot less time than we were planning on because it was just moving so fast, and everything was so efficient. ... It was our first time working with a real producer. It's good to have an outside voice to say what's good and what's not. They really challenged us to play better and bring more life to the music. In terms of songs, I'd like to think this is a step in the songwriting, a next step in terms of thought and emotion and really realizing our songs connect with people and knowing that when you're writing, and the importance of it."

An important example of the band's grassroots popularity: Last fall, when they announced a $20,000 Kickstarter fund-raising campaign to pay for those recording sessions, fans pledged the full amount in three days. The Guv'nahs eventually raised more than $36,000 through Kickstarter to record and promote the new disc.

he new disc is an important—and potentially treacherous—next step for the Dirty Guv'nahs. So far the band's reputation rests mainly on its live performances, which is fitting for a group that makes essentially all of its money from touring. The first two albums are accomplished, especially considering the circumstances—small budgets, lack of studio experience, a young band still working to find its voice—but they pale in comparison to seeing the Guv'nahs' often-exhilarating live show.

As far back as 2009, around the release of The Dirty Guv'nahs, the band members regarded a full-time pursuit of music as a major goal. "We see this as the record that propels us to making music for a living," Hoskins said in a Metro Pulse interview then.

But the band's steady climb out of the Knoxville bar circuit may reach a plateau soon without something to boost them out of regional clubs and into bigger—and better-paying—venues. The old model—a hit radio single—no longer seems to apply, especially for traditional rock bands.

"It sounds kind of corny but at this point, all you have is fans," Trimble says. "That's all you have. We take almost all our cues, as far as trying to build, from the Avett Brothers and from My Morning Jacket, because of the way that they've built consistently."

The markers of success for those bands that the Guv'nahs hope to emulate—niche radio airplay, the kind of buzz that influential music websites and blogs can provide, and festival appearances—are often what separate part-time bar bands from career professional musicians. But without some kind of top-level recording to promote, none of those factors has much traction. Bloggers need MP3s to post, college radio stations need songs to add to their rotation, and publicists need albums to send to festival organizers. Live music is where bands make money, but albums sell bands to tastemakers and promoters, who in turn sell the band to fans.

The Guv'nahs' model—handling almost everything themselves, without the support of a label, publicist, or management—isn't unique now, but it is unusual. The band is an entirely grassroots organization aiming for long-term, big-league success on its own terms. When the Guv'nahs announced their Kickstarter campaign for the new album, Trimble wrote the following on the band's website:

Putting out an album to impact the music world on a National scale costs a TON of money. Many major record labels will spend at least $50,000 – $100,000 just on recording the album, and then an additional $50,000 to $1 Million on the promotion of the record. THE PROBLEM? If you go with a major record label then they own your record… that means that they make the business decisions for you and even determine much of your creative control musically. We've had serious interest from major record labels, but we want to do this our own way and live outside the walls of major record labels.

WHY?

Because we want to make music for our fans… and only for our fans.

Trimble recognizes how the cycles of recording and touring now overlap in more complicated ways than they have in decades.

"You dream about getting bigger, having more fans, making enough money to make records that you dream about creating one day," he says. "One thing I think about all the time is making enough money to put on the shows that I dream about putting on, as far as production and lights, the things that make rock 'n' roll concerts really amazing."

To that end, the band deliberated on just what they want out of the upcoming disc before recording. They want to maintain the enthusiasm of their live shows without necessarily replicating a performance, a balance that required attention to both the songwriting and the studio sessions.

"We didn't go into this record trying to make a live-sounding record," Jenkins says. "We realize that the studio is a studio, it's an instrument in itself, I think. We want that energy in our recording just as much as there is in our show. But they're different experiences. I hope this album takes off more than our live shows. It's based solely on the songs.

"Everything needs to be tight—studio tight. It's a different level when you have the microscope on every beat. Live, you get the groove and it's natural. It doesn't matter if the kick and snare are pushing the guitars a little bit. It's how it was played that night. In the studio, everything has a microscope on it. At a show I might not be able to hear my guitar the entire night."

For all their road-warrior rep, though—and even though they quit their jobs in part to be able to tour—the Guv'nahs are disciplined about planning out-of-town shows. Unlike other young bands that play 200 shows a year, hitting every bar or club that will book them, the Guv'nahs play fewer shows, but try to take advantage of the ones they do play.

"We're closer to 100 shows a year," Trimble says. "That's a decision we made from the very beginning. We want to play good shows. That's been our model for the first five-and-a-half years—play good shows. Let's only play Atlanta twice a year if that means more people are going to come, and let's keep our part-time jobs. Let's play Knoxville twice, or three times a year. It would be easy to play here all the time, but then it wouldn't be special. You can plan for your shows and make them exciting to you, as opposed to ‘Oh, we played this set in front of these same people just six weeks ago.' That's not that exciting for anybody."

There are other reasons for the band's approach to touring.

"We're looking to keep our families and relationships intact, and we've all agreed that around the 100-show mark is where that is possible," Trimble says. "Justin handles a lot of our booking, and he'll say, ‘You know, this show could be good, but I could really see it hurting band morale.' Band morale is worth more than actual dollars a lot of times. We could play this show instead of that show, you'd make X more dollars at this one than that one, but band morale's going to be real low if we play that show. That's not the kind of thing we want to do.

"It comes down to, how much sleep are you going to get?"

***

There's no such thing as a typical day in the life of the Dirty Guv'nahs. Before their recent recording sessions in Nashville, the band rehearsed four times a week in preparation. After a recent nine-day, seven-show trek to Texas, practice was less of a priority. Trimble's daily routine can include e-mail and social media promotion, marketing for upcoming shows, pitching the band's music to industry insiders in Nashville, or reworking his vocals for the upcoming album with Jenkins.

"I honestly love the business side of it," Trimble says. "But it's hard. It's not easy at all. But I really love it—‘We spent this amount of dollars on radio advertising this week and 75 more people came.' That's significant! That was worth it. ... There's blocks where we'll be gone for seven days and home for 10, gone for six, home for four. We're already planning out what we're going to be doing in those blocks when we're home. ‘In this period of time, we've got to fulfill 576 Kickstarter orders'—which is going to take 80 hours, minimum. It's going to be a ton of work.

"Another week we're going to start brainstorming ideas for our next music video. The next time we're home—‘Okay, well, who wants to go to Nashville for two days to set up meetings and get this album into people's hands?'"

The flurry of productivity over the last few months might seem like the culmination of a plan that started six years ago, when the band first formed. Every step of the Dirty Guv'nahs' career so far has been a forward one: bigger venues, better records, more fans. Only the departure of Stewart in 2009 threatened the group's momentum, but even that move ultimately turned out to the Guv'nahs' benefit—Holloway's experience and proficiency have anchored the band's increased professionalism.

But the band's rise hasn't been quite as calculated as it looks in retrospect.

"I don't think we've had a five-year plan," Justin Hoskins says. "When I think back, the difference is that five years ago, it was, ‘Let's pack out the Preservation Pub.' It's a little bit different now. I don't think we had a grand plan; we were just focused on that next step. What's the next step? Setting yearly goals, and we've been lucky enough to meet all of our yearly goals. We're about to have our 2012 goals meeting. We'll see what we come up with."

Nevertheless, that focus and attention to detail have been central to the Dirty Guv'nahs' success so far. And the band's new full-time status affords Trimble and his bandmates even more time for both business and creativity—time that they expect to pay off soon.

"After the last five years of touring and finally being able to do this for a living since September, this is my job," Trimble says. "I think the big deal is, we're not writing songs in our free time anymore. I guess that's the big deal. We're writing songs for a living, and performing them."