Blackfoot Gypsies

As Matthew Paige, lead singer and guitarist for Blackfoot Gypsies, recalls, the band’s first album, 2012’s On the Loose, was the result of classic DIY spirit and led to an unintentional altered state.
“At that point, everything we were doing was self-financed,” Paige explains. “We couldn’t afford to print covers for the LPs, so we made a stencil out of an old, plastic, water bed sheet and spray-painted the covers. We were set up in an unventilated attic and ended up getting violently high from the fumes. Even after they were dry, the covers would stick together and you had to peel them apart to sell one.”
Three years later, Blackfoot Gypsies’ live performances are inducing pure rock & roll highs in audiences, without the aid of inhalants. While the sonic highway they’re burning rubber on has been traveled by an endless variety of rock bands, there’s no denying that Blackfoot Gypsies are leaving their own personal tire tracks on that road, and seeing them tear by is sure to inspire white-knuckled excitement.
With the release of their new album, Handle It, on Nashville-based indie label Plowboy Records, Blackfoot Gypsies are hitting the touring circuit hard and winning fans the old-fashioned way — one sweaty, full-throttle, live performance at a time.
The onstage chemistry of the band was not instantaneous. The Gypsies’ brew of roots rock has been simmering slowly, beginning, like so many Nashville tales, with a move to the
Music City.
“In 2010, I moved to Nashville from Oregon,” Paige says. “I’d been in bands since my teenaged years, and I really liked old school country music and blues. I definitely wanted to start a band and advertised for a drummer. I got responses from three other people who were really ridiculous, and then Zach showed up.”
Nashville native Zach Murphy played drums in various bands before hooking up with Paige.
Although the original plan didn’t specifically call for the band to be a two-piece combo, the two young musicians were soon rockin’ it as a duo.
“We needed to start playing shows,” Murphy says, “and we didn’t have the right people, so we just went out and did it.”
“We were doing just what we wanted to do,” Paige says. “But making enough noise to fill out the sound was a challenge. I started playing through two amps, and I played in open tunings almost all the time because you can hit all the strings and make the
most sound.”
The pair spent the next two years building their reputation through raucous live performances and two self-released EPs, Blackfoot Gypsies (2010) and Dandee Cheeseball (2011). While adding extra members or seeking a record deal may have made their path easier, Paige and Murphy preferred doing what seemed right at the time.
The hand-to-mouth career arc of the band found its ultimate expression with the release of their first LP in 2012, On the Loose. After self-financing the recording of the album, Paige and Murphy found that the money had run out on the verge of the record’s release.
“The records were sitting at the pressing plant for a month or two,” Murphy says. “We thought we were going to have to do a Kickstarter just to get them. But we had prereleased it online, and somehow we got hooked up with an app called Band of the Day. A lot of people in Spain ended up downloading it because of the recommendation. We were totally like, ‘Where is this coming from?’ We suddenly had $5 in our account and then $800 dollars, and it was like, ‘Thank you, Spain!’ ”
More hard touring followed on the heels of the album’s release. But after three years of bashing it out with just guitar and drums, Paige and Murphy felt it was time to expand the lineup.
“There’s really only so much you can do with a two-piece,” Murphy says. “We had to be either super quiet or super loud. You have to do everything in extreme. For some people I think we were too much for them — just a violent onslaught of noise.”
“We wanted to expand musically,” Paige says. “We tried to do our best, creating a full spectrum of sound. But when Dylan and Ollie Dogg joined, the sound really
started melding.”
As if the universe was telling Paige and Murphy the time was right, both new members arrived within weeks of each other. “I played a couple of shows with them without Ollie Dogg,” bass player Dylan Whitlow says, “and then he played a couple with them without me, and then we all just
came together.”
Originally from Gettysburg, Pa., Whitlow began playing music when he was 11. After moving to Nashville, he played in several bands and had crossed paths with Paige and Murphy before signing on with Blackfoot Gypsies in the fall of 2013.
“I’d been playing guitar for about five years,” Whitlow says. “So I hadn’t played bass in a while, and it’s really my favorite instrument. I had gotten to know Matthew and Zach from playing around town. One day, Matthew said he wanted to add a bass player, and I said, ‘I’ll do it!’ ”
For harmonica player Oliver “Ollie Dogg” Horton, joining a band was a new experience. “I was raised in Nashville,” he says. “Growing up, I always wanted to play some kind of instrument, but I couldn’t afford it. When I was 16, a girlfriend gave me a harmonica. I taught myself how to play, and I started jamming around town with other people, but I had never joined a band.”
A gig at the Marathon Music Works led to Paige and Murphy meeting Horton’s cousin, who was working at the event. “He told them about me,” Horton says. “I met them a couple of weeks later, and played with them at The 5 Spot. They just let me be loose. That’s how I like to play — loose — just take it and make it work. I’ve been playing with them ever since.”
Although Whitlow and Horton were both natural fits, adjusting to the expanded lineup took some effort. “For three years we had trained ourselves to create all of the sound,” Paige says. “We had to learn how to share and make it more powerful as a unit, rather than just filling the void. We had to learn how to create space for the other guys.”
With the full lineup in place, the band began recording a new album on the classic analog equipment at Fry Pharmacy Recording in Old Hickory. With studio co-owner and house engineer Scott McEwen behind the board, and Kevin Lennon as producer, the band laid down 10 tracks of butt-shakin’ country blues rock. With confidence in what they had accomplished, the group decided to shop the album to labels, rather than going for the DIY spray-paint route.
“We got introduced to Shannon Pollard at Plowboy Records, and he really liked it,” Paige says. “We looked at the other acts on the label and their whole philosophy, and it was the right fit. We met Sean McPherson about the same time. He came on board as our manager and helped negotiate the deal.”
Released in April 2015, Handle It expands the grits ’n’ gravel sound heard on Blackfoot Gypsies’ earlier releases. It’s the same mix of juke joint blues, front porch pickin’, and snotty-nosed rock & roll that’s powered great records from Bo Diddley to the Animals, from the Faces to the Georgia Satellites, and beyond. It’s a very deep well that many other bands have drawn from, but “startling innovation” isn’t the goal here. Blackfoot Gypsies are following a simple and proven rock & roll formula — put yourself into your music and just play the hell out of it.
“You can tell there’s a buzz in the air,” manager McPherson says. “By and large, it’s being built by their live shows, record store appearances, and word of mouth. We’re really seeing a difference when they play towns they’ve been to before. As Matthew said recently, the best barometer was the record store guy actually gives a shit
this time.”
“For us, it’s not, ‘Look at this awesome new style of music!’ ” Paige says. “We’re just playing what we play in a way that makes the music a living, breathing thing. That’s the way you connect with other people. It’s like Willie Nelson said, ‘How do you get a million fans? One fan at a time.’ ”
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