Southern Comfort

The Gossip has only one motivator when it comes to playing music: "We want you to dance. If you come to our show and you don't, you should have stayed at home." Any fame or notoriety the Searcy, Arkansas-born and Olympia, Washington-based trio gains will be "nah-ce," as singer Beth Ditto would put it, but the kids in The Gossip never expected to get out of their basement. Ditto never intended to leave Arkansas in the first place, yet a visit to the Northwest after graduating from high school turned into an extended stay, and turned Ditto into a local. Ditto was the last of the group to leave Arkansas--guitarist Nathan Howdeshell had followed drummer Kathy Mendonca after Mendonca enrolled at Evergreen State College. "I had never been much further away than Little Rock, except for a family reunion in Kentucky," Ditto says.

In Olympia, Ditto moved in with Mendonca, Howdeshell, and another friend from Searcy. The band started by accident, as many do when the members live under the same roof. "Kathy was playing drums and Nathan was playing guitar, and they asked if I wanted to come downstairs and sing with them," Ditto remembers. But they'd all been in bands before: In Arkansas, Mendonca and Howdeshell had played together, and Ditto had fronted a pop group.

Still, playing to an audience was a new thing since, as Mendonca says, "I don't think there had been more than three people in the room any time I had played before." The three wrote a few songs in the basement, then Howdeshell arranged for their debut at an upcoming party. Ditto recalls with a hint of resentment, "I didn't even think we were ever going to play a show, and then Nathan set one up without telling us."

The band's act hadn't yet jelled, but it soon became clear that The Gossip wasn't in Arkansas anymore. The foundations of the band's sound and stage act were in place in the early shows: Ditto's bluesy holler, Howdeshell's stammering guitar, Mendonca's caustic drumming, and an energy forged by Arkansas summers and constant Pacific rainfall. The members' personalities took center stage. "I've never been really scared to go onstage, but I like to get nervous, and that's good, because I start to talk out of my ass, kind of like I'm doing now," Ditto giggles. "Kathy was really scared at first; it was pretty cute. She'd tell us to stand in front of her so no one could see her. She's such a showoff now."

In the following months, The Gossip quickly overcame any initial stage fright and took residence as an official party band in Olympia. Playing music neither complicated nor sophisticated, The Gossip was in its element in basements and living rooms, with college kids and college dropouts, smoke, cheap alcohol, and, of course, gossip. "I love playing parties," Ditto says. "I love getting people dancing, and I love seeing how everyone reacts to everything."

With a local fan base and shows whenever it wanted, the little band had already become much more than the members expected. Talk of recording or touring became definite when Sleater-Kinney--friends of the band, and Olympia's favorite export--offered to take The Gossip on its upcoming nationwide tour. The band had been together for a little more than half a year, had yet to release a record (and therefore had nothing to sell on the road), and most impossible of all, none of the three owned a working car, much less a van. Things somehow came together: Local label K Records agreed to put out a single in time for the tour, and a friend with a van was hired to drive.

Playing to Sleater-Kinney's sold-out audiences not only brought attention to The Gossip, but gave the members a chance to see life beyond the small towns they had always called home. Ditto was awestruck by the experience. "I'm 19, and the fact that I got to go across the country and see all these places is amazing to me," she says. By the time the tour was over, The Gossip had fans across the country, and people were eager to hear about the kids from Arkansas. The band literally went national overnight: In a feature covering Ladyfest--a women-centered event in Olympia--Time profiled the band last September. "Our families were so happy," Ditto says.

While the press attention impressed their families and befuddled Olympia townies, it was the live audiences that changed things the most for the band. Crowds exposed Ditto to another side of performing: doubt. "Big shows, at first, made me less sure about this whole thing," she admits. "When we play in Olympia, there are a lot of people there, but it's nothing like those big crowds. Even if there are a hundred people at our show here, I can tell what people are doing, and I can talk to the audience. But at a big show, I can't see anything going on, and that's scary."

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Amelia Abreu