By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Robert Jason Vandygriff loves Dallas.
So much so, in fact, that the guitarist/vocalist of local country punk trio The Von Ehrics named his band not so much to pay honor to the legendary wrestling family that was recently inducted in its chosen sport's hall of fame, but, rather, it was to pay kudos to the city itself.
"We love Dallas, and in the Von Ehric family name is something very identifiable about Dallas," the verbose and affable Vandygriff says from a tour stop in D.C. "There's a legend behind that name which is specific to the city, and that is what we liked about it."
On tour in support of the band's just-released, third full-length effort, Loaded, Vandygriff and his fellow Von Ehrics (bassist Jeffery Mosely and drummer Gabe Aguilar) are at the apex of the band's nearly decade-long career. Once satisfied with banging out standard, three-chorded punk rants, Vandygriff and his music are just now starting to grow up. Well, at least a little.
"The whole new record has a different tone to it," Vandygriff says. "It's not just about the road, the whiskey and having a good time." Not that there'd be anything wrong with that. But after 2003's Damn Fine Drunks and 2006's The Whiskey Sessions, Vandygriff and crew thought it might be time to add just a touch of maturity to the band's typical roar.
And, despite the first impression left by the album's name, Loaded is about a lot more than that. Packed full of catchy hooks and relatively restrained vocals, there's not a weak moment amongst the album's 10 tracks. "Just Leave Me Out" comes out of the gate smoking with a hook and chorus reminiscent of early Goo Goo Dolls records—you know, before that band started looking in the mirror and playing power ballads. But it culls from other influences too. "Someone told me that song sounded like Social Distortion, and another guy told me that it was like a Riverboat Gamblers song," says Vandygriff. "Either comparison is all right by me."
Elsewhere on the disc, the album cuts a little closer to the band's early inspirations with two cover choices: Billy Joe Shaver's "Old Chunk of Coal" and Steve Earle's "A Week of Living Dangerously." Both songs are punked up, but not beyond recognition, and each song lends itself well to the new album's insightful disposition. But, says Vandygriff, the weather during the recording process might have had something to do with that as well.
"We recorded Loaded in Madison [Wisconsin] right after Christmas, and it was a very different process for us," he says. "The weather was miserable and depressing and colder than hell, but maybe it helped us focus."
Songs such as "Jimmy Blades," "I'll Like Yours" and "The Worst Is Over" definitely find The Von Ehrics hitting on all cylinders. The songs fly by at a rapid pace but somehow manage to leave a lasting impression.
"It's a formula we use—country songs sped up," Vandygriff modestly offers.
But one gets the impression that Vandygriff knows better—like that he thinks his trio has finally come to a point where it's OK to move beyond the standard formula, and even beyond the standard comparisons.
Nowhere is that more evident than on Loaded's final track, the acoustic country blues of "Lost. Found. Free."
"I have been working on a pure country side project for a couple of years," says Vandygriff. "I just haven't been able to put that band together, so a song that was meant for that made its way onto this Von Ehrics record."
Whatever the circumstances, "Lost" is a remarkable conclusion to an already terrific album, a mature statement of purpose that goes far beyond any fast-paced country song, punk-influenced or otherwise. In three minutes, Vandygriff finds the intensity of his punk rock heroes in the deceptive simplicity of Cash, Haggard and Jennings.
"It's really just a reflective gospel song," Vandygriff says. "Of course, no one but me would sing it on a Sunday."
Even with the new ground broken on Loaded, Vandygriff knows that some area fans will still compare his band to some other regional heroes. Still, that doesn't mean he has to sit back and enjoy it—especially when he disagrees.
"A while back there was a writer who was asking me about bands like Old 97's and Slobberbone, but I just don't see the comparisons," says Vandygriff. "I mean, we have country influences, but when I was growing up, the two bands I had to catch every time they played were Hagfish and Reverend Horton Heat. I mean, I grew up in the country and was exposed to country music, and that influence might be making an appearance now, but The Von Ehrics will always be, first and foremost, a punk band that just happens to wear cowboy boots."
The boots, as far as Vandygriff is concerned, is where those comparisons should end. For a few reasons.
"If I were as good-looking as Rhett Miller," Vandygriff adds, "I'd probably be doing a hell of a lot better. There might even be a few more girls at our shows."
With or without females, though, the crowds at Von Ehrics shows across the country have been growing—the band will play a three-night run in New York City before returning to Dallas for its local CD release show at the Double Wide. Not surprisingly, given his affection for the city, Vandygriff is anxious to return and play before a home audience, anxious to be a part of a scene that he believes is down but not out.
"There's always been more money in Dallas than say Austin or Denton, and that screws with the venues," says Vandygriff. "It's more of a business thing. There are some great bands here, and as far as putting out great music, I think Dallas is holding its own against any city in the country."
Reassuring thoughts, but Vandygriff says he means every word of it—although he is a little doubtful of a certain local venue's commitment to the local scene.
"The people who run House of Blues—I don't know how they feel about Dallas having a good music scene," says Vandygriff. "It might be better for them if Dallas has a shitty scene in Deep Ellum so that everyone has to go to the House of Blues."
Still, whatever his qualms about that venue, Vandygriff refuses to tone down his optimism for the local scene.
"You know, I have some shoulder problems these days, and I'm getting older," he says. "But I want to keep doing what I do for the people of Dallas. It's always felt good to be here."