Nobody said being in a rock band was easy. And if anybody did, he lied. For countless groups, there comes a time when the very real demands of earning a living and raising a family take precedence over the passion for playing soul-stirring rock 'n' roll in a hazy bar until 3 a.m.
The Dexateens aren't quite there yet. Though the specter of such a decision has begun to haunt the corners of their musical careers, the Alabama quintet intends to keep cranking out their signature brand of shoutable, grits-and-gravy country punk rock for the foreseeable future. There's talk of bringing their grand experiment to an end, but that's nothing new—frontman Elliott McPherson jokes that he's been trying to break the band up since their first recording session back in 2000. "At that point we'd been playing together for about a year and a half," McPherson says. "We just thought that would be a good last hurrah to document what we did."
Fate had other plans, though. The band met up with Texas punk pioneer Tim Kerr (Poison 13, the Monkeywrench), who took a liking to them and convinced them to do a recording session with him. "We looked at it the same way, that we were going to do something we would really be proud of in 20 years. And he helped us realize what we're really good at—helped us just let go and be free as musicians."
Kerr, who once described the Dexateens as "what the Meat Puppets might have sounded like if they had come from the South and not the Southwest," would produce the band's self-titled 2004 record and the 2005 follow-up, Red Dust Rising. Hardwire Healing followed in 2007, with their latest album, Singlewide, dropping in May of this year.
The band's sound has evolved considerably over their 11-year history, with the aggressive punk sensibilities of their debut giving way to the considerably more mellow acoustic grooves on Singlewide. The growth extends to their lyrics, too; the brash attitude of songs like "Cherry" and "Stranglehold" has been supplanted by pensive, almost melancholy songs like "Caption" ("If there was a movie of your life up on the screen/Would you change the order/Would you find the missing scenes?").
"I think of a lot of it is just growing up," McPherson says. "In the early days we were strictly a punk-rock band and we didn't really have the twang. It wasn't about the guitar solos or the songwriting nearly as much as it was just about attitude. Now we pay more attention to things like songwriting and melodies and guitar and stuff like that."
After more than a decade of making music, the Dexateens have come to a crossroads. Their lives have changed dramatically over the years—most of the band's members have families now, and day jobs that once paid the rent have become careers that pay the mortgages. They've also dealt with some major line-up changes, including the departure of founding member John Smith. "I think he just was done with music—done with sleeping on people's floors and playing for 75 bucks," McPherson says.
They received a shot of adrenaline, though, when Dexateens fan Lee Bains III joined the group, rounding out a line-up that now includes Matt Patton on bass, Brad Armstrong on guitar, and Brian Gosdin on drums.
"He's brought so much to the table musically," McPherson says of Bains. "He's full of raw emotion on stage, and he brings us to the next level, because he is ready to whip ass every night, and we feed off that. He's probably the most special thing that's happened to this band in the past couple of years."
The Dexateens will be making some decisions soon. They're heading back to the studio in January, and the experience will be a major factor in deciding where they'll go from there. "It's really hard to keep the band kicking ass," McPherson says. "You need to be home making money, but you're out spending money for something that could very well be seen as a selfish thing. The band is just right there on the edge of being able to at least break even, but not quite, so it's kind of a stretch. It's a frustrating thing, but I will say this: With John gone now, I feel like the band is playing as good as we've ever played."
Bains is in a different place. His musical career is just beginning, and he can't think of anywhere he'd rather be. "All I've ever wanted to do is play honest music with my best friends," he says. "Meeting folks in different places, sleeping on floors in different places, and eating greasy plates of grits and eggs in different places.
"When I was little, my daddy used to carry me to see my grandparents in Bessemer, Ala., on Sunday evenings, and on the way, we'd listen to the Allman Brothers with the windows down. I remember listening to ‘Ramblin' Man' and thinking how great it would be to live like that. One day last spring, the band was on the road and heading from Nashville to Chattanooga. As we were passing through the mountains on I-40, with the sun out and shining, ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed' came on the radio. As that guitar line started, I looked around at the guys, and at the mountains, and just thought to myself, ‘Dang. This is it. This is it.'"