Moonshine Ink | November 2011
This story was published in Moonshine Ink, an independent monthly newspaper in Truckee, California. Read the story on MoonshineInk.com.
After some 60 hours driving across the country and back in a 15-passenger van — which is affectionately named Willy, is stamped with a Keep Tahoe Bluegrass sticker, and has something like 300,000-plus miles logged on its odometer — the five musicians of the Dead Winter Carpenters had a day off. And by day off, I mean they had the afternoon booked with this interview and rehearsal afterwards.
I asked them how they keep up that pace.
'Caffeine,' said Jesse Dunn, who plays guitar and sings vocals for Dead Winter Carpenters.
'You get used to it,' said Jenni Charles (fiddle, vocals).
'A good ol’ shot of whiskey always does a body good,' said Ryan Davis (drums).
'Sometimes when you’re sitting in the van, though, you’re not doing anything all day — you’re hibernating,' said Sean Duerr (guitar, vocals).
Charles finished Duerr's thought: 'So when you get on the stage, you’re ready to get all the energy out that you’ve been keeping quiet all day. You’ve been mellow and then you get to burst out.'
From one town to the next, state by state, the Dead Winter Carpenters are exposing the nation to music born and bred in Lake Tahoe, where four out of five of the musicians call home. Tahoe is as much a part of the Dead Winter Carpenter's brand as their signature antlers and a bottle of Jameson, the musicians’ preferred whiskey.
'We’re proud of where we’re from,' Davis said.
This last trip took Dead Winter Carpenters to Ozark, Ark., where Yonder Mountain String Band featured them in the lineup for the Harvest Festival. The festival was yet another turning point for the Dead Winter Carpenters, which are starting to establish themselves on the festival circuit, playing this summer at High Sierra Music Festival and Strawberry Music Festival, and recently, the Hangtown Halloween Ball in Placerville.
'We got to hang out backstage with people that we really look up to,' Charles said about the Harvest Festival. 'We keep running into the same musicians now that we get to go to the festivals so much. It's really cool and inspiring.'
While focusing on bluegrass, the Dead Winter Carpenters play everything from rock and folk to reggae and hip hop.
They’re known for performing foot-stomping, rowdy tunes, but are also famous for putting a bluegrass spin on covers like Tupac's 'California Love' or M.I.A.'s 'Paper Planes.' Each of the musicians comes from a very different background musically, and they are all talented songwriters. Before Dead Winter Carpenters formed, Dunn, Duerr, and bassist Dave Lockhart were members of folk bluegrass group Montana Slim String Band. Meanwhile, Davis and Charles played together locally in Truckee Tribe and the Rusty Strings. Davis has also worked in alternative music projects, and Charles simply has music in her blood. Charles’ father, Pete, toured throughout the '70s, performing music with Eliza Gilkyson, Rainbow Riders, and Neil Young's band, Crazy Horse.
'It seems like our music is a separate thing than I really have ever exactly heard before,' said Duerr.' 'A lot of different things coming to create one thing.'
Dead Winter Carpenters became an item when the musicians’ other gigs slowed down. They stepped on stage for the first time together at the Crystal Bay Club, performing an after-party for a Yonder Mountain String Band show in March 2010. '
'That was a big jumping point,' Duerr said, noting how the initial Crystal Bay Club show solidified the band's commitment.
'People started talking about it immediately after.'
From the Red Room to the Crown Room in Truckee/Tahoe to playing in all 50 states, the Dead Winter Carpenters have come a long way. While word is spreading about the band's off-the-hook, slam-that-shot-of-whiskey live shows, they are also budgeting time to get back into the studio. After releasing a self-titled debut album last year, the Dead Winter Carpenters are planning to record new material this January.
Still, the Dead Winter Carpenters have no illusion that they still have a lot of work to do. Two days after they performed in front of a local crowd numbering close to 3,000 at the Truckee Amphitheater last summer, they played for a few dozen people in Eugene, Ore. That was the first time the Dead Winter Carpenters visited Eugene; they said it takes a couple times coming through a town to get your name out.
'You have to cover ground in order to play in front of new people all the time,' Duerr said. 'At this point, it's not so much about how much we make or the money. It's about getting the music into people's hands.'
But as much as the Dead Winter Carpenters are focused on the road, it's safe to say that they enjoy coming home and playing in front of a Tahoe crowd.
'If you have a home market that supports you, it's easy to keep going out on the road and create other new markets,' said Dunn.