I first met Ryan Malott, mastermind and sole original member of the local "Country/Punk" band 500 Miles to Memphis, four years ago. The band, a trio at the time, was fresh out of high school. Malott was 19.
He contacted me out of the blue about his band's new CD. He was persistent but polite, looking for some press for his fledgling group. I didn't know it at the time — or maybe I didn't believe it — but they were headed out on a long road trip that would literally take them all over the country.
I gave the CD a listen, expecting a generic, rough-around-the-edges Punk band playing Johnny Cash songs. Some of that record was just that. Back then they were less graceful at actually blending Punk and Country, more or less alternating between Punk and Country. And the playing wasn't exactly expert level.
But I heard something on that CD: Malott's genuine, raw-talent songwriting touch, especially on the tracks "Nother Year Down the Toilet" and "Fireflies." His writing on those songs seemed like a different person than the one bashing out more Emo-y Punk Rock.
It certainly didn't seem like the work of a 19-year-old.
I set up an interview with the band, and Malott was last to arrive. Breathlessly coming through the door, he said something about being stuck at work in the small town of Milford, where he lived.
While amiable, Malott seemed a tad nervous, unsure of what to say. It was his first interview.
He told me about his brief move to Dallas, where he saw his first live Country band. This was a year prior, when he was all of 18.
I was somewhat stunned that this person sitting in front of me was the one who exhibited such a natural songwriting ability and had an instinctive, effortless style that didn't come off like someone trying to force a Country square peg into a Punk Rock round hole. Malott said he'd heard Country music all his life thanks to his grandparents but never thought much of it, especially when he got into high school and discovered Punk.
The song "Nother Year Down the Toilet" feels like it could have been written 50 years ago. There were no phony hiccups, no "hillbillied up" gimmickry — it just flowed like it was written by someone whose DNA was imprinted with traditional Country music.
I knew from those songs that Malott was a special talent. Talking with him, it was clear he was still pretty naive about it all.
I asked him if he'd heard Uncle Tupelo. He had no idea what I was talking about.
"Nother Year Down the Toilet" could have been an Uncle Tupelo song. And he genuinely — I could tell by the confused look on his face — had no idea that they, the grandfathers of this AltCountry thing, had even existed.
That's when I was convinced that Malott wasn't just goofing off, trying to create a novelty act. It was no "See the Incredible Rowdy Band That Mixes Country Music With Punk Rock!" stunt — although Malott was fine with marketing the band that way. The "hybrid" was just the way his songs came out.
He later tells me that he would get upset when he heard groups somewhat similar to his, like The Old 97's, a band he discovered only a year ago.
"I heard The Old 97's and I was like, 'Wow,' " Malott now says. "It hit me like a huge tidal wave. I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm not original! I thought this was totally new and no one's ever done this.' "
Four years ago, beneath the youthful wonderment and idealism, I could see that Malott was serious about his music career. He possessed a drive that seemed to say, "This is what I was meant to do. There's no way this isn't going to work."
So far so good. Today, Malott has a record deal, an electrifying band lineup, tour plans that include overseas gigging and a new album that stands as a bold statement about the fragile human condition and its ability to regenerate.
But, boy, it wasn't easy. It took way more than 500 miles to get to where Malott is today. And 42 different band members to help get him there.
High, lonesome, deep
As it happens, I not only popped Malott's interview cherry — I'm also popping his "interview to talk about the big label-released album" cherry as well.
Malott, with his trucker cap and part-hipster/ part-Milford-boy sideburns, is eager to discuss the band's new album, Sunshine in a Shot Glass, their first for the respected North Carolina-based Punk indie label Deep Elm Records.
We meet at The Poison Room downtown. It's the first night of Eric Diedrichs' freshly relocated "Songwriter Night," something that — in its years at Allyn's Cafe — aided Malott and most of the other current 500 Miles band members' development as musicians.
"It's so perfect that we're meeting at Songwriter Night," Mallot says as we talk by the club's back door next to a row of garbage cans. "That's how Stephen (Kuffner, current guitarist) and I met. That's how I've met a lot of musicians in this town. That helped me get over some of my fears of playing live. It helped me hone my craft and my songwriting, hearing other songwriters and what they do. I feel like I owe a lot of my growth as a musician to Songwriter Night."
Four years ago Malott was thrown by the simplest questions about his music. The concept of a "songwriting process" seemed to be something he never thought about. But now he's effusive and reflective about his music and writing, a sign that he's found his voice and has become more comfortable in his own artistic skin.
Malott says he remembered Deep Elm from some records he heard in high school. He sent a disc — an EP version of Sunshine — to the label on a frustrated whim.
He was bummed about getting nary a single response from anyone after sending out bushels of discs to every label he could think of, everything from AltCountry haven Bloodshot Records to Punk indies to majors. Deep Elm contacted him two days after getting the disc.
"I couldn't believe that they actually listened to everything that comes in — they really do," Malott says. "They called me up and set up an interview. We just talked, and six months later we were back in the studio recording the record."
As we talk throughout the night, the other band members gradually turn up over the course of three hours. First it's Jeff Snyder, who looks like the classic modern Rock star — angular haircut, skinny as a pencil, stoic but charming. The bassist is the second longest tenured member of the band, behind lap steel player and veteran local musician David Rhodes Brown (more on him later).
Snyder played in local bands, most recently Legal in Vegas, then a glammy '80s Metal outfit. While his tastes are varied, Snyder says Roots Rock like The Old 97's is where his heart is.
He began wondering why he wasn't playing in a band like that. Then he met Malott.
Snyder has been in 500 Miles to Memphis for about a year. Malott guesses he's the band's fifth bass player.
I jokingly ask Snyder if he's worried about job security, given the high turnover rate of band members. It's clear, as each member shows up, that there is a tight camaraderie; Malott and Snyder seem especially tight.
So Snyder laughs at the concept of "job security" and jokes that he's made himself indispensable by handling all of the band's finances.
The band's revolving door of membership suggests that Malott is a bit of a tyrant. But 500 Miles to Memphis is his baby — he writes all of the songs and for the longest time handled every aspect of the business side — and he knows how he wants the band to sound.
Malott says that when he started he let the abilities of the band members dictate his songwriting. Then he decided to stop compromising.
He says the turnover is as much about personality as anything.
"Half the guys I've kicked out of the band were just guys I couldn't get along with," Malott says. "Not that they were bad musicians. I just couldn't get along with them on the road in a confined space."
After some horror stories about previous members (including a punch-up with a bassist), Malott insists that the current lineup — the core of which is rounded out by Kuffner, also the singer and guitarist for local band Crazy Ivan, and drummer Kevin Hogle, who also plays with MOTH — is the quintessential one. (Brown plays about half of the band's shows, while violinist/fiddler Paul Patterson re-creates his parts from the album only on special occasions, like their CD release party this weekend.)
Malott doesn't foresee the band changing. For now.
"The lineup we have right now is completely solid," Malott says. "I've said that before — like, 'I think this is finally the band' — and then something happened. But this is the best the band's ever sounded. It's like I've always heard it in my head. There's not one piece of the puzzle missing right now."
If you were looking at a photo of the band and playing a game of "One of These Things Is Not Like the Other," I would seriously recommend an eye check-up if you didn't pick David Rhodes Brown. Brown is over 60 and has been a big part of the Cincinnati music scene for decades, from his days as founder of the popular Roots outfit Warsaw Falcons to his current role as a member of Hillbilly/Rockabilly greats StarDevils.
As the band begins to tell stories of touring and living with Brown, it's clear they could go on all night. They are hysterical.
Brown sounds like a no-bullshit, git-r-done guy with a colorful eccentric streak. The band members repeatedly refer to him as "a cowboy."
"Dave is a character," Snyder says with a grin. "A great character, but a character nonetheless."
"When I first met him, I thought I was in some kind of novel or some sort of Twilight Zone," Kuffner adds. "Three or four weeks into rehearsing with the band, I kept asking when Dave was going to show up and he never did. He didn't even know I was in the band. So we had a show, I get up on stage, carrying my amp up, and he's looking at me like, 'What the hell is this guy doing?' And he goes, 'They didn't tell me it was fucking you playing with us, motherfucker! Well fuck yeah, let's give it to 'em!' Gives me a big handshake, lights up a cigarette. And that's all he fucking said to me all night."
Brown, who adds lap steel parts that can be both switchblade sharp and ocean-wave cool, literally joined the band. He wasn't necessarily asked — he just showed up.
Malott and local musician Elliott Ruther put on a tribute to Hank Williams a couple of years ago. Malott says he kept getting voice messages from "this old guy" asking about playing the tribute.
"I just kind of blew it off, didn't even think about it," Malott remembers. "We were getting ready to take the stage and this 7-foot-tall cowboy walks in with his lap steel. He sets up on stage and says, 'Hey, I'm playing with you tonight.' I just thought, 'Alright, sure, let's try it.' He's up there making all these beautiful sounds, exactly what I had always envisioned in my head and could never play, so after the show, I was just like, 'Will you join the band?' halfway joking because I thought, 'He's never going to go on the road with me.'
"He was immediately like, 'I would love to play with you.' The rest of my bandmates (at the time) were like, 'No, we don't want him in the band, he's too old.' I kicked out every single band member. Kicked them out so I could get Dave. He just understands the music so well. He doesn't understand the Punk side of it, but he understands the Country side, and that's the most important side."
Looking for sunshine in all the wrong places
The cornerstone of Sunshine in a Shot Glass is the Abbey Road-like suite of songs that ends the album.
"Let It Rain," a sarcastic "life of the party" song, bleeds into the title track, a soul-crushed lament that comes off like a suicide note in Country ballad form as Malott talks about being "ready to drown." It's a stunning piece of songwriting that resembles Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone."
Then, for the finale, the band raves up on "The Regret," a rocket-propelled Honky Tonk thrash-about that runs as fast as it can to that light at the end of the tunnel.
Malott calls the new CD a concept album and, though he says he had it planned out that way, listening to it you get the feeling that he was simply writing about his life. And when that particularly downtrodden period was over — voila! — concept album.
Without the final trilogy of songs, it would be harder to figure out that the album was meant to stand as a thematic piece of work. The "story" goes something like this: Boy meet girl(s), boy meets booze, boy meets drugs, boy loses girl(s), boy loses mind, boy quits drugs, boy feels better, boy has hope.
Malott doesn't hesitate when asked if Sunshine is completely autobiographical.
"Every single song," he says, emphatically. "One of the songs ('My Time Is Up') was so personal I could barely sing it without crying. It's about my grandpa. I don't make up stories, I just write everything from how I feel. That's all I know how to do. I'm not good about making shit up."
Given the darkness of the album, the autobiographical admission is enough to make you worry about Malott's well-being. While he says he's better now, the album did come out of some very serious depression and substance abuse issues.
Malott had reached the proverbial end of his rope, and that's when the last three songs were written.
"(The song) 'Sunshine in a Shot Glass,' it's the hangover, the part where you've been drinking yourself to death and you're ready to die," Malott says. "And I was at that point when I wrote that song. I didn't know if I could go on anymore. I was so fucking depressed about life in general.
"My music wasn't going anywhere, nothing was happening. I'd worked on this band and I felt like I wasn't getting nowhere. I was in tons of debt. I couldn't stop drinking. I was doing a lot of coke at the time."
Leading up to that fertile writing spike, Malott's cocaine use had gotten out of control. He says he went on a two-week bender of coke and beer.
"I spent all the money I had saved up, every penny, everything I worked for, gone," he recalls. "I couldn't afford (coke) anymore, so I really couldn't do it. It wasn't a choice to stop doing it — I just didn't have the money to do it. If it was available, I would have jumped on it.
"The last time I did (cocaine), we were in Dallas. We played a great show, stayed up all night and didn't go to bed until 11 o'clock the next day. We had to be in Austin to do a show at 9. You know how those hangovers are — coming down off of that drug is the worst feeling on Earth. That's where some of my most depressed moments came from, when I was coming down off of it. I felt like I was an empty shell."
Malott blew the Austin show. His heart racing, the band was unable to play more than six songs due to his panic attacks. There were a lot people there for the show, but Malott just couldn't bring himself to finish. He went to the band's van and slept it off.
"That was when I had the realization that I couldn't do it anymore," Malott says.
He says he's now sworn off hard drugs.
"A lot of good art comes out of anguish," offers Kuffler, who has the perspective of being a fan of 500 Miles to Memphis before joining the band. "The common thread is struggle. People are always searching to grow, and that's something people can identify with in the music of 500 Miles, whether you like Country music or Punk music or whatever. You can tell there's a story behind the songs, there's personality behind the songs."
Malott's girlfriend walks up to our little makeshift interview "room" and greets him with a warm hug.
"I'm more happy now than I've ever been," he says, so I ask him whether, since Sunshine is so effective because it's so real, he can keep writing great songs without experiencing turmoil. In other words, if Elliott Smith had found some good anti-depressants, would he have turned into John Mayer?
"I told him, 'I can break up with you if you need some material,' " his girlfriend jokes.
"Nah, there's plenty of stuff to write about in the world," Malott says.
Malott and the rest of the band still indulge in alcohol. Booze has been made out to be a vital component of the Rock & Roll lifestyle, and the band loves to hang out with friends and fans after a show and toss back a few.
But Malott says they've cut back on drinking before they play, for the sake of professionalism.
Sunshine is littered with boozy imagery, and Deep Elm plays up the "hard drinking" aspect heavily in the band's official record label bio. Words like "whiskey-soaked" are common in write-ups and reviews.
Given his brush with substance abuse problems, I ask Malott if he's worried the band will become pigeonholed as "the drunk band," where, like with The Replacements or Guided By Voices, people go to the show as much to see them drink as to hear them play.
"When the record came out, I just thought, 'What's the point? Why are we going on the road?' " Malott says of his epiphany. "I really thought about why I'm doing what I'm doing. You're not there to party and get drunk. Yeah, it's fun and helps pass the time. But the reason you're there is to impress people and make them fall in love with your band. And you're not going to do that if you're drunk all the time."
Malott appreciates the lessons he's learned about himself through his darker experiences. And, artistically, his past struggles have been something of a blessing.
"You know," he says matter-of-factly, "a lot of good songs came out it."
You can take the Punk out of the Country, but you can't take the Country out of the Punk
When Kuffner arrives for the interview, he jumps right into the conversation. He is lean and tall, with sideburns to match, but he looks more like a grad student than a hipster.
"I've read a lot (of the band's press), and I don't think anyone has been able to identify precisely what's going on with this band as far as what the sound is," he says when I suggest the Country Punk label could be alienating to some potential fans. "You hear 'whiskey-infused,' you hear 'Green Day with a fiddle.' I think the best adjectives to describe the band are the really ambiguous ones: 'enthusiastic,' 'high-energy,' 'fun.' Except it doesn't tell you anything (about the sound)."
If you're unfamiliar with the rowdier side of AltCountry, when you hear the phrase "Country Punk," the first thing you probably think of is a hot mess of Hardcore screaming with maybe a little slide guitar thrown in and a few "yee-haws." And lots of drinking songs.
While it's fundamentally a perfect description of the band, the tag doesn't do justice to Malott's songs or the band's overall performance. While Malott did indeed form the band after seeing his first live Country music show and he fell into Punk Rock as a skateboarding high school kid and he says he specifically had in mind starting a "Country Punk" band, listening to Sunshine you never get the feeling that the formula is forced.
Malott's writing transcends both genres, with a confident Pop lilt that's strong enough to get the attention of music lovers who like neither Country nor Punk. His writing style is so natural it makes Country and Punk seem less like distant cousins and more like longtime lovers.
The "Country Punk" tag fits, but the band isn't as obvious as that descriptor would suggest. Still, they seem fine with the label.
"The (record) label said they didn't want to market us as a 'Country Punk' band because they couldn't market a Country band," Snyder says.
"But that's what we are," Malott inserts. "I don't want to change that."
They collectively chuckle as they start recalling some of the strange reactions they've received on the road.
Snyder says, "People go up to Dave and ask (about his lap steel), 'What the hell is that thing, like a sideways guitar?' "
Malott says he hopes that getting in front of different audiences — their versatility has allowed them to play everything from Rockabilly festivals to all-ages Punk venues — will turn on some people to the elements of their music with which they might be less familiar.
"Maybe when we play," Malott says, "there will be some kid in the audience who thinks, 'Oh wow, I like Country music?! I didn't even know I liked Country music.' "
"Yeah," Snyder adds, "maybe someone will hear a lap steel on a Johnny Cash song and go, 'Hey, that's that weird guitar 500 Miles to Memphis used.' "
While it remains to be seen if 500 Miles can be an effective teaching tool for the masses, Malott knows that the band has definitely given him a thorough education. While he's still booking the tours, Deep Elm has taken on promotional and licensing duties while a management company is helping to set up their upcoming U.K. tour and more.
Malott remains grateful for the experience of handling all of the band's affairs.
Throughout our conversation, he uses words like "rookie mistake" when talking about the past, and the amount of "lessons learned" have been endless.
His first tour, Malott routed the band through Tennessee, but, inexperienced, he had them ping-ponging across the state instead of setting up a more linear string of dates. He once sold an old tour van for $150 but forgot to take the plates off, something he learned he should have done when the police were looking for him after his old van was involved in a hit-and-run accident.
He's learned how to write better. He's learned how to be more confident on stage. And he's learned little tricks like, "If you hang out and make friends in every town, you never have to waste money on hotels while on tour."
But perhaps the most important lesson Malott learned was to trust his own instincts.
"I never gave up," he says. "No matter how many band members I went through, I was like, 'I know what I want to do. I don't care how much I suck.' At the time I could barely play guitar and sing at the same time. I just knew that this was what I was supposed to do, where I need to be, on the road, playing and trying to do something with my music.
"After trial and error and a lot of hard fucking work, we finally got to where we are now."
At this point — moments after Hogle shows up — an elderly drunk gentleman comes staggering up to us. It's weird because we were just talking about the ravages of too much drinking and drugging, but he's also singing a song by Memphis' most famous resident: Elvis.
"Y'all in a band?" he asks Malott and his mates, most of whom are trying to avoid eye contact with the hope that he'll carry on.
"Were you just singing Elvis?" I ask the man.
"Elvis is good," he slurs, rummaging through the collection of used but useable cigarette butts in his shirt pocket.
Memphis is closer than you think. Memphis is everywhere.
500 MILES TO MEMPHIS hosts a two-night CD release party at The Poison Room Friday and Saturday. For details, go to myspace.com/500milestomemphis.