Whiskey Shivers Bring “Trashgrass” To The People
Donning his signature shoeless and shirtless attire, fiddler and singer Bobby Fitzgerald carries a playful country sensibility as he swaps stories of the road with his bandmates. The members of Whiskey Shivers are backstage at Austin’s Red 7, ready to open for the Legendary Shack Shakers. The mood is light, possibly because it’s a hometown gig, which always means a crowded room filled with friends ready to get loose. Or maybe the band is just feeling good about playing one of the last shows of what’s been a big year for them.
Whiskey Shivers spent much of 2014 on tour and in September released a self-titled album (their third) produced by renowned singer-songwriter Robert Ellis. After all, it’s not every day a band who embraces the label “trashgrass” as the best way to describe their sound–and whose very name alludes to good times and bad decisions–manages to break out of playing local Austin bars to touring nationally and garnering praise from major media outlets. But these boys have worked hard to get this far and their humble approach to success lets you know they damn well deserve it.
(Photo: Arthur VanRooy)
“Andrew [VanVoorhees] and I met when he posted a hilarious self-glorifying Craigslist ad about his magical abilities on the upright bass,” reflects Bobby Fitzgerald. With the exception of that initial online encounter, the members of Whiskey Shivers – Bobby Fitzgerald (vocals, fiddle), Andrew VanVoorhees (bass, vocals), Joe Deuce (washboards), Jeff “Horti” Hortillosa (vocals, guitar), James Bookert (banjo) – came together as natural as their music sounds, meeting through shared friends and neighbors in the Austin music scene. Like many bands that involve banjos, fiddles and washboards, it was upon loosely jamming together that they decided to start an actual band and in 2010 Whiskey Shivers was born.
The members of Whiskey Shivers are quick to point out that they all listened to different music growing up, but one thing they did all share was having grown up in small rural towns and the fact that, as Andrew VanVoorhees confesses, “none of us really grew up listening to bluegrass.” However, that small town upbringing may have triggered a mutual curiosity in playing music grounded in bluegrass, old timey styles, and country. Though they’ve never thought of themselves as bluegrass musicians, the band members found that their chemistry allowed them to play better and dive deeper into the genre.
“It took a little bit of time for us to really get into each other’s rhythms and feel it out to smoothly meld together, but once we started clicking it was just like that,” says guitarist Jeffrey “Horti” Hortillosa, adding, “We played faster without even meaning to, actually.”
Most of the band also loved punk rock and, combined with “drinking a lot of Four Loko back in the day,” and a desire to keep their audience dancing throughout a set, Whiskey Shivers started to develop a “trashgrass” style that married the fast and loose energy of punk rock with Appalachian roots music and bluegrass. Like many unplanned milestones in the life of Whiskey Shivers, the band didn’t set out to create that style but it all just seemed to fall into place organically. “I wouldn’t say that we sat down and decided to meld bluegrass and punk. We kind of just really aren’t bluegrass musicians, but we rock and/or roll so it was just kind of a natural element I guess,” says Bobby Fitzgerald.
Whiskey Shivers gigged constantly and it wasn’t long before word spread around Austin about the bluegrass playing, booze swilling band of revelers who often danced barefoot in the middle of a crowd while playing “Rocky Top.” The group managed to bring that same energy and freewheeling party spirit to every show regardless of how many people came, and soon emerged as one of Austin’s most exciting live acts.
Whiskey Shivers in action (Photo: Arthur VanRooy)
Any smart band knows that if you hit the same market too many times you run the risk of overexposure, and with local momentum in their favor the band decided it was time to hit the road and give the rest of the country a taste of Whiskey Shivers. They also decided that after self-producing their first two albums – 2011’s Batholith and 2012’s Rampa Head – it was time to see what an outsider could bring to their sound. They had always admired Robert Ellis, “a Texas scene guy” who has become well known as a stylist of country music, and after a few encounters they eventually invited him on board to produce their new album.
“[Robert’s] name just kind of came up and it just made a lot of sense. He’s really into blending genres and not being defined by one thing while also being very good at anything he does,” says Horti. “He’s also pushing the envelope, and that’s something that we’re trying to do too,” adds Andrew VanVoorhees.
Bringing a talented musical force like Robert Ellis into the mix gave Whiskey Shivers new perspective and allowed them to form a more cohesive sound that still captures the uproarious energy of their live show. The band’s ability to contrast more serious material with humor is best heard when the ominous “Graves” is followed up by “Hot Party Dads.” Presenting the two songs side by side fit into the mentality of the band and their performance style, which puts positivity and good times above all else.
“If you stack that [serious] stuff up too much you get like a big ditch in your record. It’s hot and energetic, then it lulls out, then it gets hot and energetic again. Things hurt, but the best thing you can do is laugh about it and run around,” says VanVoorhees.
This mentality is the first thing that hits you when listening to the album or seeing Whiskey Shivers live. Even on “Graves,” which brings to mind a prison chain gang’s call and response, you can still feel the band’s joy in being able to make music and play shows that let people forget their troubles for as long as they are playing. Call it bluegrass or “trashgrass” or old timey folk, but Bobby Fitzgerald sums up what Whiskey Shivers does best. “Everybody’s fighting the hardest fight of their life every day and all our music is trying to do is be honest, talk about it. You can only feel better about [life] when you can point at it, call it out, laugh at it, dance to it, cry about it, drink to it, throw up, whatever.”
Satisfied with the interview, the members of Whiskey Shivers cheerfully hop on stage at Red 7 to familiar applause. They grin with delight as if it’s their first time playing in front of an adoring crowd. Over the next year they will experience this same moment over and over again, and, at least for now, audiences far and wide will put their troubles aside to join in on the musical party.