With the release of Forever, Josh Fleming has now led the Vandoliers for four years, spanning three full-length albums of country punk raucousness. The twangy, genre-bending group has become one of the best countrified outfits in town, which is a considerable feat, given that before he created the Vandoliers, Fleming was the leader of punk trio The Phuss, an act that had made considerable positive noise on its own in the years leading up to Fleming’s roots transformation.
“It was sort of a random thing for me to start writing these kinds of songs,” Fleming says over the phone. “But I’m really glad I started when I did, because look how well so many country bands from our area are doing right now. It’s like ’90s Deep Ellum good. You got the Texas Gentlemen, us, Joshua Ray Walker and even Charley Crockett all doing great things. We’re all from the same streets.”
As is the case with much of the six-member group, Fleming’s non-country background has helped give a fresh, decidedly nontraditional spin to the country sounds he says he’s been influenced by his entire life.
“I’m being honest about where I come from, and that’s the trick,” he says. “In Texas, you’re surrounded by country music of all kinds in every bar, restaurant, grocery store, CVS and gas station. Even though we’ve all loved different types of music over the years, we’ve all been engulfed by country music, and I found myself relating more and more to so much of what I was hearing, which gave me an appreciation for country music.”
Although he cites greats like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and even Marty Stuart as his gateways into country music, Fleming and crew haven’t wasted any time making a brand of music that likely isn’t going to be made by anyone else. For one thing, Fleming’s raspy growl is an effective tool that ensures a significant amount of distinctiveness, to go along with other key signifying elements.
“Dallas is such a melting pot for music,” he says. “Charley Crockett plays country music and has a trumpet player, and we play country music and have a trumpet player, but it all sounds completely different from one another, which is really cool.”
By staying busy with both a heavy touring schedule and releasing music, the Vandoliers have been making quick work of becoming a cohesive crew. Their two previous records, 2015’s Ameri-Kinda and 2017’s The Native both offered catchy, energetic barroom singalong tunes, but Fleming feels Forever brings something new to the dance.
“We’ve really found our sound, and that’s the coolest thing ever,” he says. “I don’t feel like we’re trying to catch up to anyone. We made this record by simply being a band in a room together. There aren’t any hand claps or ‘ooh and aah’ sounds or extra ear candy. It’s just us doing what we do.”
What the Vandoliers do is produce a varied mix of country, rock and even Tejano that isn’t out of place being compared with iconic super group Texas Tornadoes. Tracks such as “Miles and Miles” and “Sixteen Years” show off the expertly placed touches of trumpet and fiddle effortlessly folded into rollicking punk landscapes. But the writing on the new album is also as strong as it’s ever been for the group. Fleming wrote or co-wrote each of the album’s 10 tracks, which included some help from another fellow noted for his impeccable ability to roll poetry into a barn-burning cowpunk package, Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s.
Although Miller assisted Fleming in understanding songwriting as an art form through an array of notes, texts and calls, the friends officially teamed together to write one of the best tracks from the record, “Fallen Again.” Digging into Fleming’s self-described “situational depression,” the song plunges deep into despair with lyrics like “Barely holding on to the end of my rope / Here I am, caught on the edge.” But as Fleming points out, “There is hope in the song,” because in the chorus, he’s seeking help, singing “Can you spare some water, brother, I am dry / Can you give me a hand, I’ve fallen again.” The song’s greatest achievement is in how such a downer of a topic can be placed against an anthemic, swelling and sweeping backdrop, turning it into a majestic fist-pumper.
Fleming admits a bout of “situational depression” led to him writing this song, which became a way to climb out of a hole he’d sunken into.
“When I wrote that song, I hadn’t been talking about my situational depression a lot,” he says. “So writing the song was an outlet. And it’s not that I can’t get out of it when I feel like I’ve been thrown into a tunnel. Thank God, I have my wife, but there are times where crippling self-doubt will keep me in bed for a few weeks. In those times, I know there’s no reason for me to be afraid, and I know I’m thankful for what I have, but for some reason, there’s a piece of my soul, heart and brain that just turns on me and buries me.”
After only four years of traveling this specific sonic path, there’s plenty to be excited about for Fleming and his band’s future. The name of the album, Forever, merely hints at the group’s dedication to the cause. Early on, each member had their loyalty permanently inked for all to see, with “VFFV” standing for “Vandoliers Forever, Forever Vandoliers.” Regardless of where this new record takes them, they’ll each have a lasting reminder of some great music made once upon a time.
“I’ll never regret getting my Vandoliers tattoos,” Fleming says with a slight chuckle. “Because I’m not the only dumbass who did it, and it’s been a great team-building thing. I want us to be more of a team or a gang than a family, because too many families fight and we’ve chosen to be a band, and nothing says forever like a tattoo.”
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