THINGS SEEM to be moving in the right direction for Donald Merckle’s band American Gun.
The critically-praised Columbia, S.C. roots-rock quintet celebrates the release of their latest indie CD this weekend with a local show, and is riding a wave of positive press that’s increasingly positing the band as one of the finest underground Americana groups in the Southeast.
Comparisons to such beloved stylistic predecessors as Son Volt and the long-gone Whiskeytown (featuring what many like to refer to these days as a “pre-annoying” Ryan Adams) abound in reviews of the group’s live shows — and their prior CD Dark Southern Hearts. That’s a fair cop, as the group is not afraid to wear its influences on its collective sleeve.
In fact, that’s almost a requirement for operating in the catchall Americana genre, where, unfortunately, it’s often less about what you actually create than how many lines you trace back to other respected artists through your songs. That’s a big part of the draw and charm of this most unabashedly reverent of rock and roll niches.
Some listeners want a few butterflies once they notice Merckle’s group covers the old Appalachian ballad “Moonshiner” on The Means & The Machine. Will their arrangement draw more from the earliest known archival recordings of the sad, bootleggers lament, or from Bob Dylan’s long-hidden ‘60s demo? Or will it incorporate the slightly more hopeful strains of Uncle Tupelo’s bittersweet 1992 version?
Waiting for that track to cue up near the end of this impressive record makes for a pleasant form of anticipation. Merckle acknowledges that while it was once commonplace for rock bands to interpret other artists’ work on their LPs (as is still the case in the jazz, blues and country worlds), it’s a bit unusual these days. Still, he and his fellow Gunners weren’t too overly concerned with how such a move might look.
“We felt like we really made the songs our own,” he reckons. “‘Moonshiner’, being a traditional tune, isn’t so much a cover in our eyes, but there’s no hiding the fact that we love Uncle Tupelo’s version of it.”
It’s that sense of deep-seated familiarity with many different aspects of the roots-rock and alt.country genres that helps elevate American Gun beyond the rank and file cow-punks now crowding the marketplace. The band —whose instrumentation includes both acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums, mandolin, harmonica and keys— seems quite capable of churning out no shortage of color-by-numbers rave-ups straight out of the Westerberg canon or bourbon-soaked ballads torn from Steve Earle’s chapbook. Yet, despite the unavoidable fact that American Gun don’t quite hold themselves in the cocksure manner befitting those elder statesmen of the form, they seem less interested in penning crowd-pleasing retreads than digging deep enough into their own bags to offer up something quite demonstrably their own.
They are, however, savvy enough to know a shrewd move when they see one. Case in point: convincing ex-db Chris Stamey (a cult star in the power-pop and indie.rock milieus) to mix their album in his N.C. studio after they produced and tracked it in their own hometown.
“Todd (Mathis, guitarist and AG songwriter) and I were familiar with Chris’ work with Whiskeytown but even more so with Mayflies USA,” says Merckle. “The further we dug for information, though, the more we realized he was the best man for the job. We sent him what we had and he immediately wanted to be a part of the process. He almost instantly understood the direction this album needed to go. We were very lucky to have him aboard.”
The group also scored when esteemed pedal steel guitarist Al Perkins (who’s worked with such greats as The Flying Burrito Brothers, Michael Nesmith and Steven Stills’ band Manassas) signed on to add his own tasteful, soaring licks to four of the album’s cuts. His playing helps elevate the final product to a higher plane altogether.
For now, Merckle and company play road gigs about eight times a month, but with kudos rolling in and a promising deal with North Miss. All-Star Cody Dickinson’s new download-only record label Diamond D., they feel it is only a matter of time before their music reaches a significantly wider audience.
“We feel if you listen to our album and see our show we’ll have you hooked,” says Merckle. “We put a lot of work into every sweat-soaked performance, but it’s fun. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
American Gun plays The Jinx Friday at 11 pm with The Train Wrecks. Sample their music at: www.americangun.net.