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Getting to Know Pullman Strike

by Bryan Reed

Getting to Know Pullman Strike

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Picture by Sarah Blumenthal

November 1, 2011

No Depression, the magazine, was founded in 1995, and would come to be the authority on the burgeoning genre called alternative country, which its editors described as anything "too old, too loud, or too eccentric for country radio." The magazine itself proudly wore the perfectly-fitting tagline, "alternative-country music (whatever that is)."

The important part, of course, is the snarky aside, “whatever that is,” as the genre came to embrace all sorts, from rowdy rock bands to genteel folk singers. So long as the song was the driving force, it seemed almost anything could be welcomed under the Americana umbrella.

While alt-country reached its peak sometime near the turn of the millennium (perhaps around the moment Wilco decided to pick up a more experimental bent for 2001’s landmark Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), and even No Depression ended its print run in 2008 (though it maintains its website), one Charlotte band is living up to the spirit of its ’90s forebears.

“It’s a hard thing to explain our band,” said Pullman Strike’s co-founder and pedal steel guitarist Wesley Hamilton. “If I say we’re a country band, they’re going to automatically think we sound like Toby Keith, or if I say we’re an alt-country band, you’re going to think we sound like Waylon Jennings. But if I just say we’re a rock band, they say, ‘well, that’s a broad statement.’ I usually try to say stuff like, ‘Well, we’re kind of like a Southern Rock band, but we don’t sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd and we’re not cheesy.’”

The band’s background doesn’t exactly suggest its results, either. Bassist Josh Robbins played in the mostly defunct punk band Meth Mountain; Hamilton in the blistering hardcore band Obstruction. All of the band’s members come from non-country musical backgrounds, even if country records were never far from the stereo. Fittingly, the band isn’t entirely comfortable with being dubbed “alt-country.” But, as drummer Daniel Beckham said, “There’re worse things to be called.”

When Hamilton and acoustic guitarist Dan Smith formed the band, Hamilton laughed, “We wanted to sound like an old country band, and then we weren’t good enough to do it, so we ended up sounding like we sound now.”

“It’s louder,” Smith agreed. “There’s more rock parts to it, and more wailin’.”

Frontman Evan Stepp joined soon after, and brought with him guitarist Neil Mauney. Meanwhile, Hamilton’s roommate Robbins picked up the bass for the band. Beckham joined after answering an ad on Craigslist.

“It actually ended up where we knew a lot of the same people, so it ended up not being too weird,” Hamilton said.

The band released its self-titled EP, a collection of five demo tracks, in July 2010, and set its sights squarely on the twangy momentum of its alt-country forebears.

Even as it adds new elements to Pullman Strike’s sound, the band’s new long-playing debut, People We Know, does little to challenge the idea that whatever alternative country is, this band is it. Its members might cite, in the words of Robbins, “indie rock that has more of an oomph behind it,” bands like Archers of Loaf or Dinosaur Jr, whose guitar heroics leave a heavy mark on Pullman Strike songs like “Do It Right.”

“Springtime” boasts a healthy dose of the heavy indie rock stomp Archers of Loaf mastered on songs like the Icky Mettle hit “Wrong.” But the members of Pullman Strike also cite archetypal alt-country acts like Uncle Tupelo and The Old 97s, and more punk-fueled ones like Lucero.

Even Pullman Strike’s punk-to-country narrative follows the alt-country by numbers storyline. But it feels somehow removed from the vanguard of ‘90s bands that spilled forth from scenes in Chicago and Raleigh. And on bittersweet story-songs like “Home” and “Tow Truck,” the band’s core of heartfelt country songwriting is right there, up front.

“There’s a lot of bands that are kind of coming from the same backgrounds that we did, but aren’t trying to be basic punk bands,” Robbins said of Charlotte’s local music landscape. “Bands like Blossoms — I’d lump Great Architect in there, too, because a lot of them come out of a punk background but they’re not necessarily playing punk, but the ethic is there. There’s a growing camaraderie that people are playing something different, but still doing it themselves.”

For Pullman Strike, the lessons of punk linger not only in the band’s willingness to turn up and stomp a distortion pedal from time to time, but also in the methods by which the band operates — independently. People We Know was released in September by Robbins’ Self-Aware Records label. Touring is an obstacle for the band, but that’s not a worry because there are other avenues to pursue success, and the DIY-ers are determined to follow them.

“Playing house shows is awesome,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, the band is finding its footing within the local scene, among dissimilar bands with similar backgrounds, and among more presently like-minded bands, such as the Wiggle Wagons and Old Milwaukee.

Still, it feels reductive to call Pullman Strike just an alt-country band. The sextet’s work today shows a steadily developing ensemble still finding ways to cultivate the middle ground between indie rock crunch and country creak. “We play what we know,” Hamilton says.

Whatever that is.

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Tags: Pullman Strike, alt-country, punk, country, rock, band

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