Making the Devil Pay

The Hotshot Freight Train gets a boost and a new record out of their label

All four members of the Hotshot Freight Train have 40-hour-a-week, nine-to-five jobs in Knoxville, so they cram live shows out of town in when they can get them. Earlier this month they left town at dawn and drove to Greenwood, S.C., for an afternoon gig, then played in Valdosta, Ga., that same night. And the trip didn't get any easier from there.

"We spent 19 hours in the van on Saturday alone," says guitarist Josh Hutson. "Have you ever heard of the Georgia National Fair? It's huge. We couldn't find a room anywhere near Valdosta."

They drove all the way back up to Macon before they found a room. "We checked in at 4:30 a.m. after getting up at six that morning," says drummer Caleb Tipton. "And our first two rooms were dirty!"

Despite the lack of accommodations that weekend, things are looking up for the Hotshot Freight Train. In August, when they were just a couple of weeks away from recording their first full-length album, they got a call from Matt Jenkins, owner of the West Virginia-based Future Destination Records, who wanted to sign the band to his label. The opportunity took the band's members by surprise.

"We don't know how it happened," says bassist and lead singer Joshua Tipton, Caleb's twin brother. "We met him about six or seven years ago, and we've toured with a bunch of his bands, but we've never sent him a press kit or anything."

The group won't get rich from the deal, but Future Destination paid for their studio time in Nashville in early September, and financed pressing and distribution for The Devil Pays in Counterfeit, due out on Oct. 23. (The band will have early copies available at its CD release show at Old City Java on Saturday; the disc is also for sale on their website.) The financial support breathed new ambition into the band members, all of whom are headed into their late 20s and had considered the band a hobby—a serious hobby, but a hobby nonetheless—until this summer.

"As old as we are, a lot of our friends see this as kind of a Don Quixote thing," Caleb Tipton says. "They think we're seeing windmills. You don't want to feel like you have to prove yourself, but this gives us an excuse to do something we enjoy.... If somebody like Matt has faith in you, you want him to be proud of it, too."

Their renewed enthusiasm shows on The Devil Pays in Counterfeit. The Freight Train (the Tipton brothers, Hutson, and guitarist Greg Barker) mixes power-pop harmonies with raw-sounding alt-country and rock 'n' roll, a sound suited for the clean but quick production on the disc. The lyrics tend toward melancholy, sometimes, as on "Appalachia" and "My Dear, Sweet Little Faith," setting hard-living ruefulness against backwoods religious imagery. But the bitterness of the lyrics is always tempered by brash sing-along choruses and big guitar leads.

"We still had a really good time recording it," Joshua Tipton says. "But we also felt more responsible about the final product. We play music for selfish reasons. It's what we like to do, but the kind of support we have now validates why we do it."