The Dirty River Boys Come Clean

Combining country, folk, blues, rock and whatever else catches their collective fancy, El Paso’s The Dirty River Boys could very well be your next favorite new band.  DRB’s Nino Cooper talks with Pollstar about the up-and-coming group from El Paso.

Originally a three-piece acoustic band consisting of Cooper and Marco Gutierrez on guitars and vocals while Travis Stearns handled drums and other percussion instruments, The Dirty River Boys expanded to a foursome with the addition of stand-up bassist Colton James.

Make no mistake, The Dirty River Boys can rock as hard as any act armed with a stack of Marshalls, albeit, maybe not quite as loud.  Citing influences from Hank Williams to The Rolling Stones to Ryan Adams to Rancid, this isn’t your typical coffee shop folkie sound.

Touring in support of their new self-titled album released earlier this month, The Dirty River Boys are also making an impact through their lyrics.  “Down By The River,” which the band co-wrote with Ray Wylie Hubbard, is a tale of the all too often drug wars that occur along the country’s southern border. Co-written with Cory Morrow, the LP’s lead single, “Thought I’d Let You Know” is a downright rocker.

While talking with Pollstar, Cooper described how the band’s music evolved naturally and that he and his bandmates never wanted to pigeonhole the group as having one defining sound.  Maybe that’s why listening to their music can feel like going on a wondrous adventure.

Photo: Todd White

How did it all begin?

Travis, Marco and myself quit our jobs to do music full-force.  We were playing as a three-piece acoustic everywhere that would let us play, including restaurants, hotel lobbies and Sunday brunches.  We sort of fell into our acoustic instruments by necessity.  A lot of these places didn’t want a full band, a full drum set. So we toned it down and Travis got on a cajón, which is a wooden box.  We were doing that for about a year.  Every once in a while we’d do a show where we would only play our original tunes. A lot of the hotel gigs were three-hour shows where we would mix in covers and originals. 

After about a year of doing that our manager, Patrick Dean, was in town with Cory Morrow.  They came over after a show Cory had in El Paso.  They saw us playing at a little bar called Aceitunas [Patrick] hired us for a showcase in Austin. That was about five years ago. 

We did the showcase and then Red 11 Music, which is our booking agency, picked us up.  We started hitting the road as an acoustic three-piece, crashing on friends’ couches and that sort of thing.  [Red 11 Music] kept us busy for about a year.  That’s when Colton James joined.  [About four years ago] Marshall Foster, who was kind of our tour manager at the time, introduced us to CJ.  We were looking for a bass player and we were playing a show in New Braunfels at a place called the River Road Icehouse.  CJ came and winged the set, jumped into the band and has been with us ever since.

What were bandmembers’ day jobs before this became a full-time gig?

Marco was going to the University Of Texas at El Paso and was working in the tax accessor’s office downtown. Travis was a cook at a really good restaurant in El Paso called G2, and was doing music as well. I was running an electronics recycling company.  So we all came from different backgrounds and played music on the side.  Being from El Paso we had to give [the music] our full attention.  In order to hit the road it takes a lot of work and persistence to begin building a name for yourself.  That first initial step is the hardest part, I think.

For The Dirty River Boys, was the first step playing live or recording music?

It was getting live gigs because we had to survive.  After doing that for a while we were able to go into the studio.  We recorded our first two EPs – Long Cold Fall and Train Station – out in California in Thousand Oaks at a place called Revolver Recordings.  That was the second step for us. The first was playing as many live shows as we possibly could.

When did the signature sound of the band and its overall presentation first come into play?

I think it naturally evolved.  We never had a plan of what exactly we wanted to be.  We never wanted to pigeonhole ourselves in one specific genre.  We all have very different influences and we wanted to let those shine. … This last record in particular, we were able to take the time … to produce it the way we wanted to with Frankie Smith.  I think our influences really show.  You’ll hear a country-sounding song, a rock ‘n’ roll song, a folk song, a kind of an indie-sounding song.

But at the same time throughout these kind of genre-shifts there still remains our cohesive Dirty River Boys element.  We don’t want to be genre-specific.

DRB performances posted on YouTube show a band that’s professional yet isn’t afraid to get a little sloppy at times.

There are certain songs that need not be tight.  Then there are other songs that need to be completely produced.  I think one of our biggest influences is Ryan Adams. … He’ll go from genre to genre on records but yet it still sounds like Ryan Adams.

All four of us sing and all four of us switch instruments at times.  We all bring songs to the table.  It’s really a melting pot.  It’s both a blessing and a curse. … America is basically a melting pot of many different cultures and I think “Americana” is a good way to describe our music.  It’s a melting pot of genres.

And now you’re getting comparisons to Mumford & Sons.

At times we have.  We’ve had reviews that have said “If Mumford was from Texas they would be Dirty River Boys.” Our live shows have a rock ‘n’ roll energy to it.  We do play electric guitars at times and Travis plays his full [drum] set at times and there’s definitely an electric element to us.

With everyone bringing songs to the table, does everyone attack tunes from their own points of view?

We bring an idea to the table and sit together and work out all the musical arrangements.  This is sort of a recent thing for us. For the first few years we’d bring a new song to the table and we’d just wing it the first time at a show.  We did that for a long time until we’d get the song right.  The first few times the song would be a train wreck.  So we decided that we all needed to up our game.  Recently we started rehearsals and working together on the musical arrangements.

Even with honing the songs, are you still leaving room for improvising and those sparks of genius that may occur during a performance?

We definitely don’t want to take that away –[From] the audience’s energy we’ll get new ideas – “Let’s play this song instead of that song” or “Let’s try this.” At the end of a song [someone] will change the ending or [do a] solo.

Has The Dirty River Boys ever busked on the street?

One time we did.  We were in Knoxville, Tenn.  We grabbed our instruments out of the van and walked out onto a patio in downtown Knoxville and busked it.  We opened up our little case for storing harmonicas and people threw a couple of bucks in (laughs).

What kind of room works best for The Dirty River Boys?

There are different rooms for different types of shows.  The listening room works well for our toned-down set and our story-telling songs.  We like the rowdy rock rooms and we like the theatres.  A theatre is a happy medium between a listening room and a rock show [where] we can incorporate those ends of the spectrum.  I think as we embark on this record release tour, we’re playing all kinds of different venues. For example, Billy Bob’s – “the world’s largest honky tonk.” We’re playing theatres like the Castle Theatre in Bloomington. We’re playing the Bottom Lounge in Chicago which is a rock room.  I’d like to think, because our sound is totally diverse and we’re able to go from folk to rock, we can fit into any of those rooms. … We tailor our set to the room.

What do you see when you look out into the audience?

We just started our record release tour last weekend.  At Billy Bob’s we had an incredible crowd.  To look out and see a crowd of people singing the songs you wrote years ago … is moving and incredibly motivating.  It’s the thing that keeps you coming back for more.

There are good shows and bad shows.  There are shows where we show up in a new market and there’s 40 people there and maybe two of them are singing the words to the songs.  We do our best every night. We give 100 percent every night and if we can turn one person into a fan every night, I think we’ve made a success.  We do our best to engage with the audience.  Have them right up in front with us.

Can you still picture yourself as a fan of another act where you’re in the audience singing along to someone else’s songs?

Yeah.  We all started out as music fans before we became musicians.  For me, the first concert I ever went to was Steve Miller Band.  I remember being out there and being in awe of the show.  Macro is a big Rancid fan.  He just saw Rancid in Austin at the Moody Theatre.  That is one thing that will never leave us.  We’re all still music fans at heart.

Are you using social media to build your fan base?

We try.  We have management calling us and complaining all the time that we need to be on social media.  We try to communicate with our audience as much as we can on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all the social media outlets.

It’s a different game today with social media shrinking the wall between artist and audience.

There’s so much noise out there, so many entities on social media that you just have to get out there and hit the pavement and play as many shows as you can.  There’s a lot of persistence and work involved.

Plus if you don’t step up your game to cultivate fans, there’s plenty of other acts willing to do so.

It’s just a combination of putting efforts into all the pieces of the pie – the live show, social media, records, the merchandise – there’s so much work that goes on behind the scenes other than writing songs and playing them.

Do you see your relationship with your bandmates as a working experience or is it more like family?

It’s definitely like a family.  We all have respect and we all love each other. We’re all as different as you can possibly be as far as our backgrounds and our influences.  I always like to say that if there’s proof that music can bring people together, we are it.  DRB is proof of it.

What moves The Dirty River Boys from city to city?

We just got a new van. We ran our old van into the ground.  It had about 300,000 miles on it.  [Our new van] is a 15-passenger with air bags, suspension and a trailer which has all our gear and merch.  We have a Behringer X32 monitor system.

Who does the driving?

 Luke Wilbanks, our tour manager, puts a lot of work into us being on the road. … Does most of the driving as well.

It sounds as if the people working with you give you and your bandmates enough space so that you needn’t worry about getting to the show, box office receipts or other behind the scene needs.

We have a really solid team behind us.  Luke, our tour manager; Tim, our merch manager.  Our booking agency, Red 11; our publicity company, Shorefire.  We have a good, hard-working team behind us that believes in us.  I think we’re very lucky for that.

Where would you like to see The Dirty River Boys in five years?

Still making music.  Still creating music and continuing to evolve.  Playing shows all over the nation and, hopefully, all over the world.

Photo: Todd White
“We all have respect and we all love each other. We’re all as different as you can possibly be as far as our backgrounds and our influences.”

Upcoming Dirty River Boys shows:

Oct. 23 – Tulsa, Okla., Mercury Lounge
Oct. 24 – Tyler, Texas, Stanley’s Famous Pit Barbecue
Oct. 25 – Temple, Texas, Bend Of The River Ranch (Hayseed Festival)
Oct. 30 – Amarillo, Texas, Golden Light
Oct. 31 – Lubbock, Texas, Amphitheatre @ Lone Star Event Ctr.
Nov. 1 – Oklahoma City, Okla., Wormy Dog Saloon
Nov. 4 – Cambridge, Mass., Middle East Upstairs
Nov. 5 – New York, N.Y., Mercury Lounge
Nov. 6 – Washington, D.C., Gypsy Sally’s
Nov. 7 – Cleveland, Ohio, Beachland Ballroom
Nov. 8 – New Hope, Pa., Triumph Brewery
Nov. 11 – Nashville, Tenn., High Watt
Nov. 13 – Austin, Texas, Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater (Appearing with Cory Morrow)
Nov. 20 – Corpus Christi, Texas, Brewster Street Ice House
Nov. 22 – Helotes, Texas, Floore’s Country Store
Nov. 29 – Conroe, Texas, Dosey Doe Coffee House
Dec. 4 – Nacogdoches, Texas, Banita Creek Hall
Dec. 12 – Lubbock, Texas, The Office Grill And Bar
Dec. 19 – El Paso, Texas, Tricky Falls

Want more information about The Dirty River Boys?  Check out the band’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed and YouTube Channel