Bonnaroo, 2022. The afternoon sun burned hot; the air under the tent sweltered. For the hundreds of people taking in Whiskey Myers’ ferocious, guitars-forward attack from beyond the covered area that was the packed “That Tent” during the coveted Friday 4:45 to 5:45 official kick-off-the-weekend time slot, they would’ve given anything to be in that organic sauna closer to the stage.
For the scrappy band of good friends from Palestine, Texas, they’d come to play. And they played hard.
Bonnaroo was a triumph. But it was one more tour de force performance in a 12-month cycle that included headlining Red Rocks after selling the legendary natural amphitheater out in 24 hours and two sold-out nights at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the second added after the first went clean in minutes. Oh, and they opened for The Rolling Stones at Soldier Field.
“Let’s be honest,” guitarist John Jeffers levels up. “Even if we could sell out Soldier Field on our own, it still wouldn’t be as cool as playing there with the Stones!”
Laughing now, CAA’s Meredith Jones remembers her first meeting, back in 2016, with the scrappy rockers who were doing strong regional business in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
“They mostly booked their friends,” Jones says. “And they hung out all weekend having fun with their friends. People came in from all over the country for it.”
“We all travel so much,” lead singer/songwriter Cody Cannon explains. “So we just hung out the whole time, seeing our friends – and getting to play. To bring everybody together, our fans and our friends, that was a blast.”
Somewhere between the six-string swagger of Southern rock and the hard-charging, improv aspect of jam bands, Whiskey Myers – and their presence physically and especially musically on Paramount’s “Yellowstone” – ignited a national fervor for Red Dirt Music. An outlier of alt-country with more thrust, Southern cousin of The Black Keys or spiritual grandchild of Waylon and Willie’s Outlaw Country, Whiskey Myers is currently taking a regional movement global.
Cannon, lead guitarist/rhythm guitar/vocalists Jeffers and Cody Tate, drummer Jeff Hogg, percussionist/drummer Tony Kent and bass player Jamey Gleaves are like the Allmans, Mudcrutch or Lynyrd Skynyrd in those bands’ early years: a group of friends from a town nobody paid much mind to who united to twist music from different genres into a sound of their own and have fun doing it. Twangy guitars, blues-dripping grooves, but with the kind of thump that sells beer. For all that, there was never a master plan or a clamoring for fame.
“We just wanted to be out in the world,” Cannon offers, “play in bars and get paid in pizza. We were kind of wild and ignorant, not worried about the consequences. We were out there, playing music together … and learning.”
Several years ago, WHY & HOW founder and CEO Bruce Kalmick heard about a different band with Whiskey in their name. Intrigued, the young manager hit MySpace, accidentally landed on Whiskey Myers instead, listened to a bit of the about-to-be-released Road Of Life and hunted the band down immediately.
“They are the modern day example of the greatest that American folk and Southern rock have to offer,” Kalmick says. “And consumers worldwide have been patiently waiting for the second coming of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band; now they have it in spades.”
WM were on their way back home from another run of shows when Cannon’s cell phone rang. It was Kalmick, a real manager, wanting to talk. So they turned the van around and headed to Austin.
Kalmick shared the band’s reticence about major labels and selling out. His master plan was classic Red Dirt playbook. Kalmick says: “The strategy was to tour until the wheels fall off and get the hell out of Texas/Oklahoma to prove [what this band was]… and that worked. They never stopped touring.”
Eddie Kloesel, WHY & HOW’s VP of Touring and Sponsorships, spent a decade as a tour manager. Now handling Whiskey Myers’ daily management, he identifies the band’s ability to connect. “I think the word ‘authentic’ is thrown around way too much, but these guys are truly ‘what you see is what you get.’ People relate to them because of that.
“They have the ability to allow the person watching the show to get lost in the moment; anyone who comes to a Whiskey Myers show forgets their worries and feels the music. They have also created a culture with their fans where everyone is welcome, and a Whiskey Myers fan loves another Whiskey Myers fan just for their shared love of the band’s music.”
Cannon reinforces: “We just got in the Suburban, then a van. We never thought about getting a record deal or getting on the radio. Do a [TV] talent show to get a bunch of attention? Nah.
“And also, it was a little ‘stick-it-to-the-man’ and just play shows. We did come from that Red Dirt scene – Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, even pieces of the Midwest. When we were young, that was plenty.”
Cannon, Kloesel and Kalmick agree on two things: Jones is their stone cold MVP, and the band did all the work they were asked to.
“We were fortunate that we were able to do the things we were doing, go somewhere and sell out a bar,” Cannon continues, considering where they were and what happened. “But you never know how long it’ll last. We figured we were fortunate to be there, doing whatever, going ‘round and ‘round Texas. Then came [CAA’s] Meredith, and she just changed our career.
“She was able to really see down the road. She’d say, ‘Next year, we’re gonna do this, then the year after that, we’re gonna…’ She had a plan, and we really trust her. So we went out and did it.”
Jones will let you know that the band didn’t lose any money that first year she sent them into the rock rooms across America. “I’d flown out to the Grizzly Rose and saw their set … To me, they were an act like The Black Keys or Kings of Leon, real lean rock with a show that was just electric with the energy and charisma coming off that stage.
“Whiskey Myers is a blue-collar situation, singing about American values. The band didn’t over-produce onstage, just brought loud rock, guitar-driven music,” Jones continues. “When we changed the rooms, the response was intense. People like you and me, promoters who’re used to those big productions were taken aback by how little they bring. But I think [their lack of production] lets the music hit people even harder.”
While never wanting to bite off more than they can chew, Jones admits, “We go big in Dallas, Oklahoma City, Rogers, Arkansas. We sold out our first arena in Pikeville, Kentucky – and just put up four arenas in Tupelo, Huntsville, Macon and Jonesboro, Akansas. Given who they are, if we’re trying to take them into a big metro area, we may opt for the outskirts of town…
“They spent a summer doing an amphitheater run with the St. Augustine Amphitheater, Freedom Hill in Detroit, Red Hat in Raleigh, Metropark in Charlotte, TCU White in Noblesville, Indiana. They’ve got a West Coast run all the way down, Spokane, Seattle, Reno, Santa Barbara, LA, San Diego and over to Las Vegas. The crazy thing is, even when they’re not selling out a few of these amphitheaters, Whiskey Myers is still breaking food and beverage records in the venues.”
Beyond the churning musical momentum, lyrics that speak to the harsh realities of working people pushing back against a system that may well crush them and shows like Red Rocks where fans traveled from 49 of the states and several countries for the special touches like Tornillo’s mariachi horns, WM understands who their audience is. By being who they are, they’ve also created honest music that struck a chord with Andrea von Foerster, the music supervisor for “Yellowstone.”
With “Stone” – and the band – appearing in the fourth episode of its premiere season and more than a dozen song placements, even casual music fans were exposed and felt the conviction in the scrappy band whose self-titled 2019 album topped Billboard’s Country Album and No. 2 on Active Rock charts. Having worked with Grammy-winning Producer of the Year Dave Cobb, the band’s last two albums were self-produced at Texas’ iconic Sonic Sound; sitting in a circle, feeding off each other’s energy and licks, they crafted albums that reflect a band’s kineticism instead of layered parts that are buffed to perfection.
Whether it’s Firewater’s aching acoustic guitar/harmonica confession of a love poor kids can’t have in “Broken Window Serenade,” Mud’s dobro-driven portrait of making it work as teens having kids in “Trailer We Call Home,” Tornillo’s harmonica-blasting, gospel chorus punctuated surge of passed through generations survival in “John Wayne” or sinewy blues of facing adult responsibility in “For The Kids,” Whiskey Myers offers sobering pieces of broken lives that go unseen. The ballast of the music flares in a way music lovers like, the truth soothing those looking to not feel so alone.
That chemistry endures. Kloesel points to 2011’s Firewater, which is about to be certified gold, “plus it has two gold singles and one platinum single, all released independently. That speaks volumes.” As does the endorsement of The Rolling Stones, who still vet the acts who open for them. While no one will explain how the Chicago booking happened, Jones hesitantly admits, “The Stones have reached out for other dates.”
For a band raised by parents listening to the Stones, Marshall Tucker and John Prine, that’s a strong cup of coffee. Cannon respects the band enough to not talk and talk about the experience; he knows the potency of their stadium-sized legacy.
“When I shook Keith Richards’ hand I looked into his eyes, knowing where’d he been, that he’d seen some things,” the songwriter/vocalist marvels. “You can sense it when you’re with him; you just feel it. Mick Jagger, too, is the ultimate rock ’n’ roll showman.”
When Whiskey Myers hits La Cygne, Kansas, as September turns to October, they’re ready for the second Firewater Festival Sept. 29-Oct. 1. This year, they’ve drafted Blackberry Smoke, the Old 97s, Nikki Lane, Read Southall Band, 49 Winchester and the Quaker City Night Hawks among those who’ll rock this year’s three-day camping/back-to-nature experience.
“It’s a supercool place in the mountains,” Cannon enthuses. “Bring your RV or your tent; there’s cool places to camp. They have cabins and stuff there, too. It’s the whole thing, really. People come to get away, and they really can.
“It’s lightning in a bottle. People are gravitating more and more to acts who aren’t so cheesy. They’re gravitating to the music when it’s hot, when it’s happening like it is out there. You know, people really seem to want real bands. And if that’s what they’re looking for, well, that’s all that we are … all we’ve really ever been.”