music (2006-14)

Path of Least Resistance

The Whiskey Scars follows its gut

ENTER THE SCARS: A family portrait.

by Leslie Wylie

The final reverberations of pedal steel uncoil reluctantly, giving in to silence with a rueful shrug. The five members of Whiskey Scars set down their instruments, and a couple of them pick up their beers. They all seem lost in thought.

After a moment of stillness, Kat Brock pipes up from behind her guitar, breaking the basement practice space’s airy quiet. “This might be stupid,” she says, “but what if we try….” The next moment is devoted to a rough draft of gestures as Brock articulates her proposal—something about dynamics, boring into certain phrases and letting up on others.

Everybody nods their heads. Why not.

Why-not has become something of a motto for the band in the past few months. Why not give something a chance. Why not make a mistake. Why not celebrate the things they’ve done right.

The Whiskey Scars’ existence, in and of itself, is a poster child for such a philosophy. The band started out last fall as a seat-of-the-pants experiment—a honky-tonk side project, a Thursday night gig at the pub that paid the rent. The first time they played out, they had only three rehearsals under their belt, but there was already something special about it, an honesty that would draw bigger crowds with every week.

It was a welcome distraction for the band members as well, all of whom were still coming down from recently dissolved musical projects. “Our schedules cleared at the same time,” recalls drummer Jamie Cook. If they had one thing in common, it was the fact that they had nothing to lose. Bassist Jonny Sexton explains, “We started off with a major attitude. There was no self-consciousness. That gave us so much freedom to get into this and let go.”

The Scars’ roughshod set list, comprised of mostly broke-heart country ballads and beer sloshing anthems, was a direct reflection of the band’s devil-may-care mentality. But there was an earnestness nestled in with the music’s dust and gravel pathos, a sense of resolution, of striking a balance between caution and bravery, happiness and pain. “Sometimes you’ve gotta go crazy to get by/ Sometimes you’ve gotta fuck up to find out who your friends are….” It was, essentially, the stuff scars are made of, the marks that wounds leave behind even after they’ve healed. Reminders of the ghosts you can’t get away from or erase, because they’re literally, physically part of you.

Whatever it was, people got it—much to the band’s surprise. Brock explains, “We started noticing that people knew the words, and they were telling us that the songs meant something to them. We didn’t realize we were having an effect on anybody except for making them want to get drunk.”

Not that getting drunk wasn’t part of it. Some of the Scars’ finest hours were perhaps their least memorable from an audience perspective. There was the Thanksgiving show when they climbed up on the bar, inspiring a chain-reaction of shots; “It was magic,” Sexton says. The holiday sing’n’drink-a-long, “12 Drunken Days of Christmas,” was another slurrily poetic moment.

One month bled into the next. And while the band endured no pressure to polish its music—audiences even seemed to appreciate the occasional mid-song train wreck—the Scars started wondering, in the words of pedal steel player Tom Pryor, “What would happen if we actually put our creative minds and work ethics into this project?” Brock adds, “The little mistakes weren’t charming anymore; they were just drunk mistakes.”

So they started practicing more often, and pushing themselves to write more songs. All without ever abandoning the why-nots that had gotten them where they were so far—they were just having fun.

“There’s no pressure. There’s nobody saying, ‘everybody’s in, or out,’” Cook says. It’s been something of a revelation for the Scars, all of whom are well-versed in the hardscrabble mentality that artistic achievement is a byproduct of suffering. “This is the first time I’ve been in a band that it hasn’t taken over my life,” Brock says. “I’m not just a musician trying to make it as a musician. I think that’s one reason for its energy; we’re not all banking on this.”

The band’s success, in that context, seems ironic, but it’s an irony the Scars are willing to embrace. After this week’s CD release show, they’ll cut the Preservation Pub shows back to once a month—“Playing week to week is band suicide,” Sexton says, “we’re lucky we’ve gotten away with it so far”—and start testing the waters of Nashville’s music scene.

They’re not attached to the idea of being well-received by Knoxville’s western neighbor, a notorious graveyard of stomped dreams. But they wouldn’t be surprised if the city liked them, either. As guitarist Matt Urmy points out, “Every door we’ve come to so far with the band has opened.”

Which is usually an indication that you’re on the right track. And when you’re pretty sure you’re headed in the right direction, why not see where you end up? m

What: Whiskey Scars CD Release Show