Austin’s The Whiskey Shivers call themselves "a freewheelin', trashgrassin' folk tornado." Since forming in 2009, when stand-up bassist Andrew VanVoorhees answered a Craigslist ad from a man named Bob (frontman and fiddler) looking to form a bluegrass band, Whiskey Shivers have been tirelessly honing their string-based stomp sound from coast to coast. Current had a chance to catch up with the band’s banjo-man James Bookert in anticipation of their show at The Ark.
Current: Your current tour is taking you to a variety of venues—burger joints and BQQs, townie bars, festival grounds, sit-down venues like The Ark, a winery. Do you have a preferred type of venue to play? And be honest (I don't think they serve whiskey at wineries).
James Bookert: That’s a great question. A while back, I think we’d have all said rowdy bar shows were our favorite. But I think that’s changed in a way. One of our favorite shows on tour was in Jersey at a place called The Lizzie Rose, which I definitely expected to be a rowdy bar, but instead was this quaint little house next to a bike shop, with about a 50 person capacity, the majority of whom were 60+, and it was awesome! I’ve never seen 80 year old women chair-dance like that!
So, that said, I don’t think that there’s necessarily a favorite type of venue anymore. It’s probably as fun to meet people at a rowdy rock show as it is to meet a 90 year old couple who love bluegrass and saw Flatt & Scruggs play the first time they came through their town.
Your studio albums capture the energy of your live shows pretty well. Is studio time more welcome after a long road trip, or is a long road trip more welcome after a time in the studio?
I think it goes both ways. I think we were all itching to get on the road after the record was complete and share these songs, because we’re really proud of them you know? But at the same time, we have these new song ideas we’re kicking around that we’ve been recording as we go along the road and have time to jam with each other. So it’ll definitely be good to work some of that stuff out in the studio.
I imagine the writing process is a good time for you guys. Where does it land on the serious-to-silly spectrum?
Oh man, literally anywhere and everywhere in between. The fun part is there’s really no bad ideas, and it’s super democratic. For instance we have a song called “Hot Party Dads,” that came from me being super uncomfortable around all the macho dudes at a University of Texas tailgate party and just screaming into the mic, “where’s all the hot dads?” between songs.
Do you prefer to perform your freshly written songs over the old ones?
I like ‘em all. I don’t think there’s any songs I’m tired of playing. On this tour, we’re playing mostly stuff off the new record, but we throw in some old ones and some even older traditional ones. And occasionally, upon request, we’ll play some super old songs that we just barely remember, which is always fun.
Do the old songs get jealous?
Yes. They tell me so in my dreams.
Set the scene of the first time you got together and played. Where? What song did you jam on? Who's call was it?
Well, Bobby and Andrew met on Craigslist. Andrew had an ad calling himself the best bass player in Austin when he got a message from Bob Fitzgerald, who Andrew thought was going to be some old random fiddle player, because his name just sounds old. In any case, they started jamming with our good friend Marcus Haddon (of the awesome local band Shivery Shakes), playing “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”—during which Marcus knocked an entire shelf of photographs and knickknacks on to the ground.
My favorite part of the story is that Bobby insisted it was a band when nobody else was taking it too seriously.
I think of performing cover songs as sort of a public service, like offering some fundamental human right—nostalgia. Playing old standards like "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms," "Old Home Place," and "Shady Grove" is like a universal provision. Can you talk a little bit about playing cover songs and what they mean to you.
Well, they’re songs we know and love. I think anyone who plays most any instrument sat in their room for hours on end learning songs note by note. I remember learning Green Day and Nirvana records, and I feel like it’s just an extension of that.
Personally, I think it’s important to preserve traditional bluegrass tunes and present them to audiences who may not have heard them before. Kind of a fun way to pay homage to our heroes and hopefully function as somewhat of a “gateway band” to some of those greats. Because, I think that a lot of people have a deep love for bluegrass, but really just don’t know it quit yet.
The Whiskey Shivers play on Tuesday, October 21, $15, 8pm, The Ark, 316 S Main St, Ann Arbor, MI 48104, (734) 761-1451