Talking With a Dirty Guv’nah
Upon the release of a new album, lead singer for the Knoxville, Tennessee, band expresses the importance of place in making authentic Southern roots music.
The first question I had to ask James Trimble, the Knoxville, Tennessee, native and lead singer for The Dirty Guv’nahs was an easy one: What is a Dirty Guv’nah?
Chris Christie and Eliot Spitzer first came to mind. Did the band, a six-piece crew armed with electric guitars and an infectious enthusiasm in their tunes, name their musical outfit after rubble rousing gubernatorial leaders?
His answer was simple, but significant. The “Dirty Guv’nah” is a real person, a friend of the band’s who first convinced them to play music together for a benefit concert when they were at the University of Tennessee. They grouped together on a whim, and while none of the guys had played music together before they practiced for a few weeks, wrote a couple of original songs and performed a 30-minute set.
The music felt right, and in honor of their friend, the band has been forever since christened The Dirty Guv’nahs. The crew is comprised of Trimble, Michael Jenkins, Cozmo Holloway, Kevin Hyfantis and brothers Justin and Aaron Hoskins. They’ve been touring full-time for about the last three years and have hit the road with bands like Needtobreathe, Wilco, The Black Crowes and The Zac Brown Band. They are currently making their way throughout cities in the Southeast in support of their newest album Hearts on Fire.
The Dirty Guv’nahs’ sound is a sweet mixture of country, gospel and rock ‘n’ roll. Most of the time their songs sound like they’re booming from an old-time tent revival choir (plenty of good organ riffs), but they have the ability to strip down the noise and provide more intimates. They remind me of Brooklyn-based The Lone Bellow, but mixed with Dawes and a heavy shot of The Allman Brothers.
The themes found in their lyrics — faith, work, love and struggle — echo the South from which all the band members hail. While Trimble admits that Hearts on Fire has more of a pop feel than the band’s earlier productions, a dedication to honesty and, as Trimble put it, a desire to tell stories that will “touch people and will matter for a long time” makes for authentic, Southern roots music.
While the band tours the country about 100 days a year, all of its members still make Knoxville their home. Place — especially their town in Tennessee — is important to The Dirty Guv’nahs. “We’re just a group of guys that all grew up in the South,” Trimble says. “None of us have ever wanted to live anywhere else.”
That love of Knoxville bled through the rest of our conversation about music, work and life.
“A lot of people have asked us when we’ll move to Nashville or New York,” Trimble admits. “We want to live in Knoxville. That’s the city that gave us a chance when we were cutting our teeth.” He speaks about Knoxville like a soldier penning letters home from a war … or a musician missing family while on the road.
“Knoxville has all the makings to be the next big, cool city in the Southeast,” Trimble says. “There are more and more venues to play music, there’s Market Square, an open air mall and a lot of shops and restaurants.”
Knoxville is also home, of course, to the University of Tennessee, and an affinity for the Volunteers is evident via The Guv’nahs’ social media accounts: an image photoshopped to make it look like former Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning is promoting their record, pictures of UT’s Knoxville campus and many tweets in support of the basketball and football teams. In the music video for their song “Morning Light,” Trimble can be seen wearing a Volunteers basketball jersey.
What struck me most about my conversation with Trimble — and something made clear by listening through the band’s new album Hearts on Fire — was the resounding message of hope the band is devoted to portraying to their audience. When I asked him about his inspiration for writing music, he told me his recent marriage has played a big role in informing the songs on the new record.
The first track on Hearts on Fire is “Where We Stand,” in which the band sings “Every generation has a past I don’t wanna be a soldier for the last / You don’t have to sound extreme / To talk about what you think is true.” They are lyrics that, according to James, respond to the possibilities created by newness in life: marriages, births, relationships and other changes.
I asked Trimble to tell me a little bit about his songwriting process and what inspires him as a lyricist. For Hearts on Fire, he said it was a book of poems by Garrison Keillor, in which the Prairie Home Companion creator talks about the purpose of all writing being to inspire hope and courage.
“That inspired me on this album” he says. “The purpose of this album is to inspire and give hope.”
It is a message of hope and the belief that “The way it’s been is not the way it has to be” that reverberates through the record and concludes with a trumpet in the last song “Canyons.”
In that track, The Dirty Guv’nahs serenade compellingly that “At the bottom of it all / That’s where you’ll find hope / That’s where you’ll find hope.”
Hope, the South and rock ‘n’ roll.
They’re all vital qualities of what The Dirty Guv’nahs do — and what make them an exciting Southern band to watch.
Trimble feels like he’s just coming into his own as a songwriter and vocalist on this album, and he’s also getting used to the kind of vulnerability it takes to make great songs. “As you progress and play more songs you realize what you do really matters,” he says, “and [you realize] that being an artist really is a profession that’s admirable.”
Fan support for Hearts on Fire has been incredible, and James says their fan base has said this record is “far and away, their favorite album.” Support for the album has shown up on the road, too, as The Dirty Guv’nahs’ recently sold out their Nashville show at Exit/In. Along with the accolade of Hearts on Fire reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart in its first week of release, The Dirty Guv’nahs and their fans have a lot to look forward to.
Photos courtesy of Bullhorn Publicity.