The men of Knoxville's Gun*Slinger don't want to be seen as some sort of chic retro act, nor as worshipful revivalists; they just want to be taken for what they are, mostly—a band of misfit mid-twentysomethings articulating their unspoken rage and anomie through the timeless lingua franca of rebellious rock 'n' roll.
What makes that difficult is their not-so-timeless patois—call it hair metal if you will, though that's a lazy and largely inadequate label—which harkens back to a style of rock that took hold when the lot of them were still in the crib.
"We don't want the stigma of the '80s, and we're not a tribute band," says lead yowler Cole Graham, relaxing on a couch in the home several of the band members seem to share in the no-man's-land between Knoxville and Seymour. "It's what we like and what we want to do; we wanted something reminiscent of hair metal but with a little less glitter, a more modern feel."
Gun*Slinger took shape at open mic night at a bar in Maryville in early 2008, starting with singer and rhythm guitarist Graham and lead guitarist Marcus Ott. Though he lacked Graham's immersion in metal culture, Ott's background in outlaw country and blues made him something of a kindred spirit. "We were the two guys with long hair and leather jackets, so we started talking," Ott laughs.
"We bonded over Aerosmith," Graham remembers. "I told him I was looking to form a modern-day hair metal band, and he was game for it. And so the excess drinking and the working to play really fast lead guitar took off. Faster! Faster!"
Drummer Blake Rider, who had cut his teeth playing honky tonks in Madisonville, and bassist Ryan Scott, a metal vet, were soon added. Taken as a whole, they're a potent outfit—and maybe a lethal one, if not handled carefully, like an angry snake with a mouthful of venom.
Ott plays guitar with the kind of versatile athleticism that recalls the best '80s axemen, from his twisting, pummeling rhythms to controlled, magnificently tasteful melodies to harmonics that come screaming off his pickups like slasher-movie sound effects.
And Graham has the charisma of a true frontman as well as the note-perfect chops of a great lead singer. Even with his mop of golden locks wrapped up haphazardly in a toboggan, he bears a slight resemblance to former Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach—or maybe he would, that is, if you replaced the girlish delicacy of Bach's features with a certain Southern pugnacity. There's something dangerous about his presence, a wildness in his eyes, as if, despite his basically amiable way, he could blow up any minute.
All of which can make for great rock, whether it's of the hair-metal variety or otherwise. But right now, Gun*Slinger has little to show for its efforts other than some home demos; the immediate goal is scrape up funds for a full-length recording, the songs for which have already been written.
Gigs around home aren't easy to come by—other than the Longbranch and Big Daddy's in Knoxville, a lot of their shows are on the festival circuit. Because while old-school metal of various kinds has made a comeback, at least in some quarters, there's still some resistance to a genre that at one time was looked upon with more contempt and derision than possibly any other in the history of hard rock.
"To survive in the market today, you almost have to do something that is a little more aggressive," Ott says. "We try to do that, but also keep our roots, do something that's hooky and catchy enough where the audience can join in sometimes."
"We want to captivate audiences the way those bands did," adds Graham.
Maybe it's a hair-metal thing, too, that while most fledgling and unsigned rock bands have reduced their rock 'n' roll wish list to more modest (less honest?) and attainable goals, the guys in Gun*Slinger aren't afraid to harbor arena-sized dreams.
"Everyone wants to be the next Aerosmith; we wouldn't mind it either," Ott says. "If nothing else, though, we'll say what we gotta say. And that's what we gotta say."