Dave Wilson is leaning against a table in Mitch's on Hillsborough Street on a Saturday afternoon, halfway staring into his half-empty glass of Bass Ale from the half-empty second pitcher. He's in the middle of a monologue about the travel habits of his absent bandmate Johnny Irion, and his other bandmates--bassist Jay Brown, drummer Zeke Hutchins and steel guitarist Greg Readling--are about to lose their liquid.
"Johnny wants to rock. Real bad. He's stuck in a folk revolution that's going nowhere. He married into an acoustic guitar, and he's fucked. So he will fly at any expense from any part of the fucking globe to rock for two hours with us and go home," Wilson says, trying to grit away the smile and pretend this isn't funny, just as he lets Zeke join in on a chorus of "two hours" and "go home." "But I understand. If I had made the same commitment in my life, I'd be on that plane, too, man. God."
Such a rant is funny in isolation. But considering the context, it's hilarious.
Brown, the bassist in Stillhouse and Tift Merritt's backing band, picks up on a thought that started before Wilson's bit, explaining, "You have to have a calendar to be in this band, and there has to be a lot of Blackberry wireless communication to make this happen."
"We could all just have a hole in our calendar and go on vacation. But, lately, it's been like if there is a hole, we say, 'Oh, let's do this,'" Hutchins, three seats away, elaborates.
Post-sip, Wilson continues: "I need a break from the acoustic guitar myself. I fucked myself just as bad as Johnny did."
To wit, Wilson is the lead vocalist and lyricist for Stillhouse, though he pulls the same duties in Chatham County Line, a rising bluegrass band that has toured Europe and released two well-received albums of traditional, gather-round-the-mic music with a freewheeling-rock bent.
For Irion, Stillhouse is rock 'n' roll escapism from the stringent itinerary he keeps with wife and collaborator Sarah Lee Guthrie, literally the third-generation heiress of American folk as presented and preserved by grandfather Woody Guthrie and father Arlo. Guthrie and Irion spend most of the year on the road, and Readling casually refers to them as "real road dogs" with a respect that implies he doesn't understand how they're able to stay on the road so much and stay sane. And that comes from no stranger to the road. Readling has toured as a former member of Merritt's band and as the bassist in CCL. Sometimes, dreadnoughts get old.
For Wilson too, Stillhouse is the same electrified utopia. But they can still rib Irion.
"He spends more getting here for a show than we all make on it," Hutchins laughs.
Such a commitment to a band with one independent record out is not surprising, though, especially given the pitfalls and roadblocks that have already slowed Stillhouse's progress. Their first album, Through the Winter, was released last October--only seven years after the band formed through impromptu jams in 1998.
But pitfalls and roadblocks isn't exactly accurate: Along the way, Tift Merritt & the Carbines--of which everybody in the band has been a member, except Irion--have achieved critical acclaim, a measure of popular success and a Grammy nomination; CCL grabbed a premier spot at this year's Merlefest and have recorded for the BBC. If Stillhouse has taken a backseat, it understands why.
Because of the relaxed, do-it-when-possible nature of these five joking, toast-prone buddies, it's remained important for everyone involved. It's music that's a hobby for otherwise-occupied musicians, and it shows on record. Through the Winter is a relaxed affair that takes an apparent litany of B monikers--The Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, Badfinger, The Band--and rolls them into one loose-fitting, all-encompassing, low-pressure pleasure. In fact, because Stillhouse has always been such a come-as-you-can franchise, it almost didn't occur to them they had a real record.
It was Ryan Pickett, a sound engineer with a studio in Durham who records bands when he's not on the road with My Morning Jacket, who urged them to stick with Stillhouse. When Pickett would come off tour, he would listen to Stilllhouse takes and work on early mixes, sending them off to the band's members. After some cajoling, Stillhouse finally followed Pickett to a makeshift studio at Jim Denny's home in Rougemont for a three-day session, set on finishing a record.
"We were at a good place making the record. It was a good state of mind for recording," says Readling, the most reticent of the bunch.
"Ryan is like one of us. He's doing it in his free time just because he wants to get together with us and do it. It's not an official role," Hutchins says of Pickett, who is--it seems--something of a sixth member. "It's fun for us all."
While CCL was touring through the Midwest in July and Merritt was living in Europe, Hutchins and Brown went on the road with Guthrie and Irion and finalized the logistics for releasing Through the Winter.
"It's like painting a picture. First you draw in an outline and you fill in some colors, and it may not be working, so you start over," says Wilson, just back from a European vacation with CCL and Hutchins. "Two-and-a-half years later, you might have a finished product. I mean, some label could buy this record from us and ask us to re-record these songs. But we'd just take their money and make another record."
The search for a label hasn't been the most active quest imaginable, primarily because none of the members knew how much time they could commit to an upstart band. Especially when other projects are winning awards and selling records.
"We couldn't make any promises about how much we could support it or tour, so we decided we would put it out ourselves," says Hutchins. He polished his D.I.Y. stripes when he and Brown spent an afternoon blow-drying shrink wrap around the first pressing of 500 discs.
But no one in Stillhouse is content to let the stuff sit on the shelf. They're having fun writing songs and making music. But, if a label wants to act on it, Wilson says he could use a new suit.
"We're going to keep putting it out ourselves until somebody snaps to attention and says, 'Here's a few thousand dollars. Go buy some outfits.'... It's just about having a good time," says Wilson, who is giddy that the band is already getting attention from the BBC and will play a festival in Holland in April. "It's a hobby, like fishing or hunting. Yeah, we're hunting for a hit."
Again, watch the beer.
Stillhouse plays The Pour House on Sunday, Jan. 15 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5.