IT'S BEEN JUST A LITTLE OVER A YEAR since local “roots-a-billy” band The Train Wrecks released their debut CD, Whiskey & War.
During that time, the hard-charging quartet of Jason Bible, Markus Kuhlmann, Eric Dunn and Stuart Harmening have sold over 1,200 copies of that album on their own, and kept up the frenetic pace of their fabled live gigs in bars, clubs and restaurants scattered throughout Savannah, Tybee and the surrounding area. Lately, however, they’ve been expanding not only their repertoire of twangy, rocking originals and Americana covers, but their touring range as well.
Frontman Bible says that even though it’s taken the band a few years to get to this stage, on some level, all of them hoped the day would come when they’d be hitting the road and making new fans.
“I’d like to think that was inevitable,” says the singer-songwriter. “We’ve (finally) got a van now and that meant a bigger commitment on everyone’s part. Currently we’re playing Charleston, Bluffton, Beaufort and some other smaller markets like Statesboro a couple times a month. We’ve also played a bit in Jacksonville. We want to stay within a four or five hour driving radius, because just going back and forth to Atlanta in that van costs around $160.”
That $160 must have seemed like a very small price to pay for the opportunity to open for legendary Tx. songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker (“Mr. Bojangles”) in front of a large crowd at one of that city’s most prestigious outdoor venues, the Botanical Gardens.
It seems The Train Wrecks beat out a large number of Atlanta-based alt.country and folk acts for this coveted gig by wowing the show’s promoter months before with a memorable performance on River Street during the 2008 St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
“We thought nothing of that show,” explains drummer Kuhlmann. “But it turns out the guy who handles their Summer Concert Series stuck around for the full gig and we didn’t even know it. He called us a few months later and asked if we’d open for Jerry Jeff. After we all fell over and dropped our pants, we were like, fuck yeah we’ll do it! I mean, that’s a major gig! John Hiatt was there the week before us, Lucinda Williams was there the week after us, and then they had Buddy Guy.”
The band members all agree that show was one of the most memorable —and well received— they have played to date.
“It was a great experience,” Kuhlmann elaborates. “We walked out on stage and there were 2,000 people waiting for us to start. The rush was unbelievable. But we pulled it off. We sold a lot of merch and afterwards in the crowd, people said we sounded great. Then, Jason and Eric went out with Jerry Jeff at Smith’s Olde Bar that night and drank him under the table! (laughs) It was a great night and a great situation.”
“I hope it turns into something bigger. It seems like more people are getting on board lately — more than any other band I’ve been in, and I’ve been doing this for a while.”
There’s no way to accurately predict whether or not the band’s stock will continue to rise, however, one thing is certain — their next Atlanta appearance would seem to be a pivotal moment of sorts in their quest for greater notoriety.
In a development that —to a man— the group seems genuinely agog at, The Train Wrecks have been named finalists in the Independent Music World Series, a nationwide competition designed to discover, publicize and reward the best unsigned musical acts in the USA.
Sponsored by Disc Makers (one of the largest and best-known domestic manufacturers of custom-pressed CDs and DVDs), the contest is open to any artist or group which plays original music, and whose members are not currently signed to a major label (or an affiliate imprint of a major). The country is broken down into four distinct geographical regions, with each region holding its own showcase, and crowning a solitary winner.
The Train Wrecks have been named one of the six finalists for the entire Southeast (which includes 12 states), and will compete against the other five acts on Thursday, Sept. 11 at mid-town Atlanta’s music venue Vinyl.
Besides bragging rights and the nationwide press that can come from winning such a competition, the group stands to walk away with over $50,000 worth of brand-new musical and recording equipment, including having their next album (which they’re currently writing songs for) pressed for free.
Bassist Eric Dunn says everyone in the band was amazed to learn they’d made it to the highest level of a competition that had close to 3,000 entries in this region alone.
“Stuart entered us back in early June on a lark, and then first, we heard we’d made it into the top 200. So we were Semi-Finalists. Then a few months later, we learn we’re in the top six.”
Harmening, too, could hardly believe their album had emerged as a standout among such stiff competition.
“When I heard we’d made it to the final six acts in the whole Southeast, needless to say, I was stoked,” he offers enthusiastically. “We get a thousand bucks and some assorted prizes just for going, but the exposure we’ll get is pretty incredible.”
“We’d probably do it for free, because it seems like agents, promoters and producers come to these things to sniff out promising new acts. It’s worth taking the time to go up there just for that.”
Bible admits all the gear they might win would come in very handy for any working band, but he’s most excited at the potential of walking away with something less tangible, but potentially much more beneficial to a group such as his.
“If we win,” says the energetic vocalist, “we also get the use of an independent A & R rep for free for a full year. It would be great for us to have someone to help shop our songs to TV and film producers.”
Kuhlmann says their group doesn’t sound much like any of the other finalists they’ll be appearing alongside in the high-stakes showcase.
“There’s one group up against us from Birmingham, Al., and they kind of have a Nickel Creek thing going on. Then there’s a sort of ‘lounge metal’ act out of New Orleans, two rappers and a soul group. It’s a pretty diverse crowd, actually.”
Each act will have their work cut out for them, as they have a maximum of 20 minutes on stage to wow the judges and the crowd — which makes it very hard for an eclectic group such as The Train Wrecks to fully convey the totality of their talent.
“We’ll only be able to play five or six songs, tops,” Kuhlmann says with a discernible sense of frustration. “Some of our tunes are almost six minutes long, but some are a lot shorter. So, we’re trying to mix it up a little bit. I just want to play as much in the time we’re allowed, and demonstrate all we can do. We need to make sure we show off the unique abilities of everyone in the band.”
“And,” he adds with a chuckle, “we want to look as professional as possible — like we know what we’re doing.”
For his part, Bible says that a recent road trip to see his hero Bruce Springsteen in concert has only reinforced what he already felt about his chosen profession: Namely, that integrity and dedication are the two keys to succeeding in the world of roots-based rock and roll. He’s hoping his band will be able to display both of those attributes at this competition.
“The Boss show changed my life,” he gushes. “It was so exuberant, and the energy was just so amazing. That’s what I aspire to do: go around giving people hope and putting a smile on their face. Whether it’s for two people or two thousand. As for this show, we’ll try to kick ‘em in the ass, and just see what happens from there.”
Regardless of the final outcome of this high-profile contest, Kuhlmann says it’s just another step in his band’s evolution.
“Even if we don’t win, it’ll be a great opportunity. We are a bar band in the sense that we play in a lot of bars, but I don’t think that’s a true representation of what we’re capable of. If we were in more ‘concert situations’, playing shorter shows of nothing but our best material, we could just kill ‘em.”
Harmening agrees, adding that while he’s happy The Train Wrecks have been taped to take part in such an event, it’s just an unexpected bonus. For him, the real prize is simply getting to share their own original material with an ever-growing audience.
“We’re just trying to keep our music as real as possible and hopefully, good things will follow,” he says. “If shows like this are stepping stones to another level, that’s awesome. But first and foremost, we’re musicians who love to play. That’s the bottom line. Opportunities like this are cool, but we’re gonna continue to do what we do whether they come up or not.”
The Independent Music World Series feat. The Train Wrecks
When: 8 pm, Sept. 11
Where: Vinyl (Atlanta)