It’s no secret to anyone listening that country music, once a proud American traditional style made up of Appalachian roots, blues, and European folk traditions, just ain’t the same. Gone are the homespun recordings and the cowboy tales. In its wake, a new version oft dubbed pop or “crossover” country has taken its place and taken over the charts, largely while eliminating many of the tenets and traditions that made this uniquely American art form what it was.
But there are still plenty of artists interested in country music as a continuation of tradition. While not technically or sonically as rudimentary as early country acts sounded, (his music has the twang and production of late 60’s and 70’s legends Merle, Waylon and Willie) Denver based Andy Hamilton and his Rocky Mountain Contraband have serious chops and a back-to-basics approach all their own. Taking sounds and cues from those AM radio crooners and American outlaws and bringing them into our modern conscience with an updated sense of humor is more than enough for me. The superb songs on their newest self-titled offering bear that out, but Andy Hamilton and Co. have something even more important. Something that’s absent in the modern era of auto-tuned artists and hick-hop charlatans masquerading as country music: real soul, undeniable musicality, and songs made with honesty and heart.
How did you get your start in country music? Was the genre something you always enjoyed, or did you come to it later in life?
Andy Hamilton (guitar/vocals): I grew up hearing country and southern gospel from my granddad; he was a southern Baptist preacher and used to have a radio show in Knoxville, TN. It always gave me some kind of sentimental feeling hearing that music, but it wasn’t ‘til I was in my 20s that I really discovered an appreciation for it. Over the years I had written a handful of country songs, never expecting to do anything with them. But then maybe five years back a good buddy of mine got cancer and when I was asked to contribute a tune for a benefit compilation, I recorded this sorta gunfighter ballad I used to play. After the comp came out I got a slew of emails from venues wanting to book us, so I figured alright, maybe it’s time to put together a country band.
Have you played any other styles before country? Do you think they’ve informed your music now?
Oh yeah, I played in rock-n-roll bands since I was a teenager. I studied classical piano and jazz guitar ‘til I was maybe 16, then I hit that point in my life when I needed the exact opposite. I found myself totally enamored by all the classic rock riffs and just couldn’t get enough. Still to this day when I hear a Zeppelin tune or some Creedence I can’t help but crank it up. Just the other day The Rolling Stones came on in my truck; that opening riff in “Brown Sugar” and I got thinking how many hundreds of times have I listened to this tune and it’s still so damn good!
I hear old country greats like Gram Parsons, Waylon Jennings, and the Flying Burrito Brothers in your sound; but are there any modern practitioners and musicians you take from, country or not?
There are some really amazing singers and musicians doing it right: Zephaniah Ohora is a country singer out of Brooklyn, of all places. He just released one of the best country records, hands down. My buddy turned me on to John Moreland a few years ago. John writes some of the most heartbreakingly honest songs and delivers them in such a way that you gotta have a heart of stone not to feel something.
Your music seems to take a lot from older country and western acts rather than modern ones. Do you feel you have any relationship to the modern country aesthetic or scene?
Classic country resonates with me more than anything. We like to draw from the old greats, then make it our own. I’m a huge fan of Faron Young, Roger Miller, Moe Bandy, Willie and Merle, of course. There are a handful of newer country artists who are keeping it honest; Zephaniah, as I mentioned, Amber Digby, Casey James Prestwood. I know a handful of players in the modern country scene; they’re all really great people.
How do you feel about the sound and style of modern country music?
Man, drum machines and autotune have no business in country music. I have to say this, there is a lot of music that’s churned out and mislabeled as “country”…it’s being marketed by the powers-that-be as something it’s really not. I’m not gonna name names, but I think it’s pretty apparent when some pop artist just bought a pair of boots and a new hat. Then there’s the recipe for writing modern country songs that just sounds like bros at a frat party: it’s so transparent and soulless. But some folks really like that stuff. I mean REALLY like it. It’s just not for me.
Can you tell me a bit about the Rocky Mountain Contraband? They’re an exceptional bunch of musicians. Where/when did they come into the fold?
I started this band a few years back with my good friend, Dave Barker. He’s a killer drummer and had been playing pedal steel guitar a few years. We wrote and recorded a full album, then ditched it. Playing country music is a different animal and we realized if we were gonna do this right, we had to really study the music and learn how to play our instruments. We didn’t want to come off as rock musicians “playing country.” You know? We didn’t want to fake it. Both of us play with Casey James Prestwood & the Burning Angels as their hired guns. That gig has opened some doors to studying under some really big names in the genre. I feel really fortunate for that opportunity and how it’s forced us to progress as musicians.
How long have you played in the Colorado scene?
In Colorado alone I’ve been playing since the late 90s. I was in a handful of rock, metal and psych rock bands. Here in Denver I had a band called Houses that was one of my favorite bands I’ve ever played in. There was some real magic there.
Do you enjoy it?
I really like playing in Colorado. People don’t come out to dance like in Austin or Nashville, but man, there’s so much opportunity to experiment with new sounds onstage and the crowds are really accepting.
Anything you’d like to see more or less of in Colorado music?
I would love to see more country players. We live in the West; this is it, man! But where are the country players? We’ve got a good collection of bands here, some are more true to classic country and some are doing their own thing. I just hope it continues to grow.
This album was recorded all over Denver in various studios. Was this happenstance or something you were actively going for?
It really came down to time and money. We did a couple tunes with our buddy, Chris Fogal at Black In Bluhm. Chris has a great ear and is fun to work with. The Christmas tunes we threw together pretty last minute, so we recorded those with our own gear at Dave’s shop. In the future I would like to spend a good week in the studio, getting sounds we like and really crafting songs.
How long did it take to come together? And how was the recording experience for this batch of songs?
All in all it was a few days. We had a couple guest musicians, so some of the instruments were tracked in Nashville, then sent back to us. The overall experience was a little disjointed. I really like to connect with the people I’m recording with as much as possible, and that proves challenging when we’re working all over the place. But everyone was super easy going through the whole deal and I think it all came together nicely.
What would you like listeners to come away with after listening to this EP?
Well, I hope listeners can hear the effort we put in and appreciate the musicianship. I would love more people to discover a love for country music. There’s so much more than the tripe what’s fed to us on the radio and sadly, much of that gets overlooked because people don’t know where to find it. But it’s out there.
Any release / show plans here in Colorado?
No release shows for this EP. We did just play a couple weeks ago and I failed to mention we had new tunes out. I’m not great with self-promotion. My plan for this year is to write, record, and release as much music as I can when I’m not out on the road. I’ll book a release show when we put out our first vinyl.