When Knoxville's Dirty Guv'nahs first hit local clubs in 2006, vocalist James Trimble was the band's rapaciously memorable calling card. Howling and moaning with the fervor of some deranged backwater Pentecostal preacher, prowling stages and climbing tables like a wild animal, Trimble brought brazen energy and a streak of scarifying unpredictability to the Guv'nahs' scruffy Stones-like jams.
But four years, one EP, and two full-length albums (the band recently released their second CD, Youth Is in Our Blood) have wrought serious changes in the Guvs' frenetic frontman. He's still a powerful singer, and a more than able showman. But the full-throttle, athletic bellowing of the band's early days has been supplanted, gradually replaced by a supple, versatile, honey-and-whiskey tone that recalls at different times the likes of Levon Helm, a touch of Steve Winwood, a hint of Gregg Allman, even latter-day classic rocker Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes on a track or two.
"I feel like I've figured out who I am as a vocalist," Trimble says. "Early on, it was like I was trying to be the loudest, and sometimes it sounded like I was trying to be someone I wasn't. The more comfortable I got with saying ‘I'm a singer in a rock 'n' roll band,' the more comfortable I got with my voice."
Likewise, the band as a whole has come a long way since the pleasing but primitive Rolling Stones workouts of their inaugural EP. Youth showcases a young band wholly at ease melding their particular stew of classic- and roots-rock influences (and unlike most rock outfits, the Guv'nahs readily own up to their two preeminent guiding lights—the Stones and the Band) in a way that's familiar, yet still their own. It's roots rock with a searing raw edge, blues rock with heartland soul.
"It takes a while for a young band to learn how to write a complete thought," Trimble says. "For us, I think the evolution was the product of playing a few hundred shows, seeing what works in front of an audience."
A certain amount of success has followed them, too: local recognition, a regional following, sold-out shows, an appearance at Bonnaroo. All of which was followed by an offer to record at Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock, N.Y., with producer Justin Guip in December of last year. To a band of Band acolytes, the offer was more than a dream come true.
Trimble says Helm's associates rented them a huge seven-bedroom house—at rock-bottom rates—for the Guv'nahs' two-week stay; all six members (including brothers Aaron and Justin Hoskins, Cozmo Holloway, Chris Doody, and Michael Jenkins) plus wives and girlfriends made the trek to Woodstock. "The whole first day was just spent getting to know us," Trimble says. "They were interested in us as people. That's one of the things that really interested us in them. It was a really relaxing atmosphere.
"The studio itself is a big open barn," he continues. "One big room, and the ceiling is like 50 feet high. It's a big cavern that you're playing in. We'd get a tone out of a guitar, and [Guip] would be like, ‘You can only get that kind of tone in a barn.'"
Now, with Youth Is in Our Blood in hand, the Guv'nahs have the equivalent of a top-notch portfolio to lure potential record-label suitors. According to Trimble, however, the band has already had plenty of serious interest from the music industry; he and his bandmates are more concerned with finding labels whose interests dovetail with their own.
"We've had interest from a number of labels and management groups, but we're holding out for a team we feel we can collaborate with," he says. "There are some we talked to who had a pretty clear plan of recreating who we were; we're usually able to sniff that out pretty early."
One label in particular wanted to team the band with a Nashville songwriter and position them as a contemporary country act. "They wanted to control our band—change our brand, record a CD with songs other people had written," Trimble says. "They wanted to take over, and we weren't interested in that.
"We have confidence in ourselves as musicians and as businesspeople. We want to pursue our own, new path as opposed to walking the old path in the music industry. The old path with the record labels obviously isn't working so well anymore."