19 Wheels – 19% interest, too
A funny thing happened on the way to alt-country for 19 Wheels. Formed as a rootsy outfit in 1994, they’ve got the trucker name, a single (“13 Seconds to Burn”) about wantin’ to bust out of prison, and a hellishly catchy tune called “Country Girl” chock full of twangy guitar. Yet they find themselves gravitating more toward modern rock than rig rock.
“I’ve been kind of struggling with this for a while,” says guitarist Scott Owens, who wrote five of the album’s 11 songs and came up with the band’s name. “When the band was formed, I was intent on sustaining that kind of a country-rock vibe. But my roots owe more to classic rock and stuff like the Replacements and Husker Du. There’s a lot of that Midwestern twang thing in there that’ll never go away, but we’re definitely starting to get into a little different territory, a little more aggressive, a little quirkier and even a little psychedelic.”
Lead singer Chris Johnston is a big Son Volt fan who says he’s tried to adapt the layers and loops and tempo changes of Jay Farrar tunes to his own songwriting. But Johnston’s baritone voice is the most Son Volt-like part of 19 Wheels’ sound, and Johnston says his band’s country roots have dropped farther from the surface of their sound than he would have predicted.
“I find Wilco’s step to the side really interesting,” Johnston says of that band’s recent move toward pop and guitar rock. “It’s great to see how many ways this thing can go.”
The title doesn’t reflect the many moods on Six Ways From Sunday, the band’s first long-player, which came out this spring on Chicago’s Aware Records. Along with Beatles hooks and Replacements growl, there are surprises like “Settin Sun”, a quietly religious ode featuring slide guitar and accordion that suggests the BoDeans’ better days.
One country song yet to be written hit the band last year in Boston, when their van, trailer and gear were stolen from a hotel parking lot. After playing with borrowed gear for a few months and receiving what Johnston called “an incredible amount of generosity” from friends and supporters, the Wheels were able to find replacements for their gear, including Gibson Les Paul Special guitars, a Les Paul bass and a silver-sparkle G&L tele. Bass player Tim Marzorati joked that the ripoff ended up being “nothing that a little 19-percent interest won’t cure.”
Owens says he hopes to plug into the broader musical palette of roots-rock when alt-country fans (whoever they are) hear the band. “I think it’s cool that people appreciate that (country) aspect of what we do, but I hope people won’t see us in No Depression and come see us and go, ‘What the hell is this?’ ” Owens says. “The concentration is always on good songs, whether they’re country or whatever.”