The Train Wrecks
Friday, June 16, 10 p.m., $$
IT WAS 10 years ago, June.
Jason Bible had been performing around town as a solo act for some time, joined occasionally by bassist Eric Dunn.
When the pair invited drummer Markus Kuhlmann, Dunn’s former bandmate in alt-rock outfit Hazel Virtue, to form a band that blended country, honky-tonk, and rockabilly, The Train Wrecks were born.
As the story goes, the band booked their first gig without even having practiced.
In the months following, The Train Wrecks cemented their title as the “Hardest Working Band in Savannah,” playing multiple gigs a day anywhere that would have them. After time, dobro player Stuart Harmening was added, and in 2007, the band tracked their wild and classic sound in the studio, debuting Whiskey and War.
The 11-track record featured The Train Wrecks’ spirited takes on American classics like “No Depression” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” but most importantly, there were originals that have stood the test of time. Fan favorite “Whiskey Ain’t My Friend (No More)” would stay in the band’s sets for years to come and cemented a sound that honored country and Americana tradition with modern twists.
A decade later, the band has toured the U.S., married, had children, struggled with and found a way through addiction, released albums, sold countless tees and matchbooks.
Band members have parted ways but still remain friends and active musicians—Dunn plays bass in Velvet Caravan and Isaac Smith’s band, Kuhlmann founded Clouds & Satellites and drums in Nightingale News—but despite the changes, The Train Wrecks remain one of Savannah’s most adored and critically-acclaimed bands.
On June 16, Bible, Harmening, drummer Jeremy Hammons and bassist Colin Motlagh will share Once Again, the fourth Train Wrecks album. While most of their LPs could be considered “barn burners,” this record tears through the traditional country sound and truly conveys a Train Wrecks live show, which is a gloriously raw, sweaty, impassioned event.
Watching the band perform, it’s difficult to believe they’ve played those songs thousands on thousands of times; they’re grown men performing like teenagers in a garage with new amps and parents who are out of town. That’s what will always distinguish them; that’s why they’re still called the hardest working band in Savannah.
Before performing Once Again, they’ll play Whiskey & War in its entirety as a fitting reflection on the band’s evolution. What was once a layered and lush feat has been whittled down to a lean and powerful show running on essentials.
“Ten years ago, we recorded as a three-piece, all live,” Bible remembers. “I went on my honeymoon, came back, and we had fiddles, mandolins, B3, accordion...it was like a seven, eight-piece band. It was amazing. Back then, I was not as grounded as I am now, and I came back and said, ‘Wow, we’re going to take this on the road, have this little bluegrass section we can bring out. We’re gonna tour this. Then it came down to doing runs as a three-piece.”
Over the years, Wrecks albums often featured additional instrumentation, but that’s not the case with Once Again.
“This is the most stripped-down thing we’ve done,” Bible says.
“There’s no tambourine, no hand claps, no B3—just a four-piece in a room, and that’s the first time we’ve done that. I didn’t do any background vocals, no doubling. It’s pretty raw.”
Without those traditional flourishes, The Train Wrecks blister like a rock ‘n’ roll band; the twang’s still there, and Bible’s Texas accent shines through, but listeners can hear the distortion fizzle and pop, feel the room shake through the recording. It’s a definite shift for a band that’s become synonymous with old-school country.
“It used to be, you go out of town and the venue owner would ask, when people call to ask what your sound is, what to tell ‘em,” says Bible.
“And I don’t know. Americana? Roots? It depends on my mood. It could be bluesy, it could be folk, it could be storytelling. Now, it’s more rock ‘n’ roll. The next album is going to be even heavier away from country.”
The band got creative in their sessions at Elevated Basement Studios.
“One song is like a Sun Studio attempt—let’s take all the close mics off the drums and see what the room mics and the kick are doing,” Bible explains.
“After the third record, getting stuck on getting that one to the finish line...with this one, I think we know what we’re doing a little more. This one I went to with no deadline, no real thought-out track list, no meticulous record of ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ A lot of it was left up to chance and the band performing in the studio. Some of the lyrics were stream-of-consciousness, last-minute, roll it two or three takes.”
“It really went by in a flash,” says Hammons of their time in the studio. “It was a very quick album for us. We Roll On, we went in and we had everything in our heads—‘This is exactly how this is going to go.’ This one, we came in, knew the song structure, bit didn’t’ know what the end game was going to be. It just naturally unfolded. And the weird thing is, it’s our heaviest album, but our sweetest songs. It’s a very dual access kind of thing where we have songs that are straight-up, kick-you-in-the-head, and then Jason doing a solo song, which is something we haven’t done.”
The addition of bassist Motlagh of recording studio/rehearsal space The Garage Savannah and the bands Bear Fight! and Listen 2 Three helped toughen up the band’s sound.
“Colin has more of a hard rock sensibility as a bass player, and he’s a songwriter as well, a guitarist,” says Bible.
“It’s been really good to have Stu and Colin and Jeremy; the way they work together, where I’m not really leading the show half the time on transitions and things like that—it’s more like riding the wave. If it’s time for that heavy moment, that’s where we go.”
“Colin and I clicked together almost immediately,” Hammons attests. “You usually have to play a couple of shows to click, and it immediately just felt like we’d been playing together for a long time.”
The band’s release party at The Jinx is a showcase of all of the Train Wrecks’ offerings. Bible opens with a solo acoustic set, and then the band will hit the stage to play Whiskey & War and then Once Again.
It starts early, but they’re going to follow the energy of the crowd; if you’ve been to a Wrecks’ show before, you know they give it their all to the very end.
“There’s no way we’re going to stop at one [a.m.],” Bible laughs. “If there’s a room, we’re going to play like a bar band that’s never put out a record.”