Living out of an RV, driving around the country, getting by playing cheap bars for a hundred bucks a night. It's what music industry folks call "paying your dues" and it's been the Dirt Drifters' modus operandi for years. Set list? They make it up each night. Vehicle trouble? Pull up a chair. They've got stories.
So it goes for a modern roots-rocking band which singer-guitarist Matt Fleener describes as "each member's second chance at life." The five men of the Dirt Drifters hail from different states and professional backgrounds but share a seemingly irrepressible need to follow their muse. And with an ever-growing following, a major-label signing to Warner Bros. Nashville and smoking debut single ("Something Better"), their persistence is certainly paying off.
Needless to say, however, success has been a long time coming.
Fleener and his brother, vocalist-guitarist Ryan, moved to Nashville from Oklahoma in 2000 hoping to hit big as a country duo, a dream they chased for six years. Lead guitarist Jeff Middleton came to town from New Jersey around the same time to be a songwriter, ultimately finding more success in the corporate world. Bassist Jeremy Little, the group's resident Tennessean, started out playing in rock and Christian rock outfits out of Chattanooga while nurturing a quiet interest in country music. And drummer Nick Diamond walked away from a lifetime of playing in Louisiana churches to try his sticks in the perilous world of secular music.
"None of us are really 20 years old and startin' young and this and that," Matt Fleener says. "We're all kind of experienced and weathered and have been through the ringer, and it was like, 'Hell. Let's put this band together.'"
He adds, "The whole intention was just to see if we could travel out on the road and sell CDs and T-shirts. It was kind of an old-fashioned way of thinking."
It's an approach that requires serious commitment and perhaps a bit of desperation to pull off -- and after their time in Nashville, this fivesome had accrued their share of both. Among the many career non-starters the individual members experienced before hitting the road were a slew of Nashville publishing deals that never resulted in significant cuts.
"I was like, 'Well, that's just another thing'," Fleener says. "Nobody wants to record our songs. Let's have a band and we'll record our own songs."
That's just what they did, embarking on economy-class tours in a homely 1982 Fleetwood Southland.
"It was like Cousin Eddie's RV, dude," Fleener says. "It was terrible."
They've kept at it steadily for the last several years, playing everything from three-hour bar gigs to half-hour opening slots for major acts like Billy Currington. And they've persevered through some significant trials, too, like their vehicle burning to the ground in front of (not in, it may bear noting) a Hustler Hollywood parking lot.
"We borrowed some money and bought a newer RV," Fleener explains. They just had to keep moving.
Many miles later, that spirit of blue-collar resilience drives "Something Better," the Dirt Drifters' first bid to country radio. The song and its accompanying video depict a life of dizzying malaise as a ragged Fleener drags himself through storms of dead-end jobs and fickle girlfriends, always "waitin' on that rainbow." It's a true bar-band record, with smoky vocals, fuzzy electric guitars and skittering drums -- the perfect introduction to an act whose concerts are most often characterized as "loud."
"It's a rock 'n' roll show," Fleener admits outright, though traditional country fans needn't recoil. The group's recordings have some of that rockabilly chugga-chugga rhythm that hasn't been heard in the mainstream for a while, along with generous helpings of steel guitar. Willie Nelson even drops in for a clever cameo in "I'll Shut Up Now," a topical cut off their upcoming album for Warner Bros. Nashville.
But the Dirt Drifters want to transcend crude genre expectations, more interested in offering fans an organic, polished music experience -- country, rock, in-between, whatever. And clearly, they're willing to do the homework -- or roadwork, as it were.
"We all kind of want it easy," Fleener says. "But the truth is, if you get it easy ... it doesn't last. It broke my heart when I found out all these bands I grew up loving didn't even play on the records and didn't even write some of the songs. ... When you push play on a Dirt Drifters record, you're getting us. This is 'live and die by your own sword' with this band."