The subject of distance comes up a lot when talking with area trio 500 Miles to Memphis. There's obviously the name, indicating the distance between Cincinnati and Elvis' adopted hometown. Then there's the spread-out living situation — bassist Wade Owens currently lives in Hamilton and will soon move back to his hometown, Dayton; drummer Lee Steele calls Forest Park home; and singer/guitarist Ryan Malott lives in rural Bethel, where he was born and raised. It's seemingly a logistical nightmare, when you consider practice scheduling and gigs all over Greater Cincinnati, but the band members don't seem bothered by the mileage.
Then there's the matter of 500 Miles' sound, which, almost miraculously, makes energized Emo/Punk and traditional Country music sound like they were born to be inbred bunkmates. They are two sounds more than just a proverbial 500 miles apart, kinda like blending Polka and Death Metal. It's not Punkabilly or AltCountry, but a very distinct sound that seamlessly merges the contemporary pining of Emo, the energy of Punk and the rowdy and hallowed ache-and-rumble of vintage Country & Western, all slathered in enticing Pop melodies.
It's almost as if 500 Miles to Memphis' sound was in the air, just waiting for the band to finally catch up to it. Each member had played in Punk bands. But Malott, the main songwriter in the band, found the Country chocolate to 500 Miles' Punk peanut butter when he moved to Dallas for a brief stint.
On an invitation to start a band in the Lone Star State, Malott relocated only to have the project fall through. But while in Dallas, the lifelong Bob Dylan and Neil Young fan caught a live set from a band playing traditional Country music.
"I thought 'God, what have I been missing out on," Malott recalls. "I just fell in love with it. I went out and bought as many Country albums as I could."
It wasn't his first introduction to the music. Growing up on a Bethel farm, where his family raised soybeans and tobacco, his grandfather frequently listened to old Country music.
"At the time I never got it," he admits. "(I thought), 'What is so good about that? It's horrible.' "
Steele says he also heard countrified sounds a lot growing up; his grandfather played upright bass in a Bluegrass band. "I really liked Bluegrass, but I always thought there needed to be more drums," he says with a laugh. "And that's kind of what we do. There's not a lot of (obvious) Bluegrass (influence) in our music, but it's real fast and there's a lot of pickin'."
After returning from Dallas, Malott was on a mission to start a Punk/Pop band with Country undertones. A classified ad landed Steele, but it wasn't until after several failed attempts with other players that they found Owens. The trio solidified near the end of 2003 and, just a few months later, recorded a self-titled, six-song demo EP, which they've been tirelessly sending to record labels and radio stations to good response.
The band gradually lost the rougher edge, drawing more from classic Country's rustic, rootsy songwriting than Punk's abrasiveness. "With Punk Rock, it wasn't something I fell in love with," Malott says. "It was just something to do while I was in high school."
The band members say they've largely received positive feedback so far, despite their unlikely sound. But, being in their early 20s, they feel like their youthfulness has created an unnecessary stigma.
"We've been through a lot of crap," Malott says of the ageism. "If I was older, I don't think we would have. When people see us get up onstage, they're like, 'Oh boy, these guys just got out of high school, here comes some Metallica.' But I think we make up for it by how we play."
Fellow musicians have particularly taken to the group. Members of Indie Pop trio The Giant Judys have championed them and Lisa Miller of wussy provided them with what Malott considers their greatest compliment, overlooking their ages by saying "don't let the boyish good looks fool you, these guys are old souls." It was a line they liked so much, they quoted it in early press kits.
"That made me feel great," says Malott. "Like, 'Thank God, someone doesn't just see us as a bunch of kids.' "
500 MILES TO MEMPHIS (milestomemphis.com) plays at the Borders in Eastgate at 8 p.m. on Saturday. On Sunday, they'll be at the Southgate House playing in Junie's Lounge before the Drive By Truckers concert.