[Interview] The 8th Annual Merry Y'alltide with The Whiskey Gentry and Friends

[Interview] The 8th Annual Merry Y'alltide with The Whiskey Gentry and Friends

It was a cold breezy night when the crowd filled the Variety Playhouse bundled with love and joy. The mic stands on the stage were wrapped with red, gold and silver garland and tied with big red bows. Strings of white lights dangled against the backdrop with the band’s flag in the middle. Large multi-colored Christmas lights illuminated the speakers and monitors. The stage was set. It was time for the most anticipated show of the year for The Whiskey Gentry, their Annual Merry Y’alltide. Opening acts included folk duo City Mouse and New Orleans style jazz band, Blair Crimmins & The Hookers. Amidst her busy day, Lauren Staley, lead singer of The Whiskey Gentry, shared her time with me.

How’s your day going?

The day is going good. I am always pretty high strung this day only because it’s like you’ve been planning a party that you have been thinking about the entire year. I’m starting to feel better and less stressed.

What is this event?

The first year that we were ever a band we played a kind of pseudo Christmas show. We ended up playing close to a Christmas stop in December. So, then we decided that we were going to cover a Christmas song and it was “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues. That was kind of a Christmas song and kind of not. Then, the next year we were like 'that was super fun we should add in another Christmas song' and it slowly morphed into this eight years later. Now, it’s like this full on Christmas thing. Every year we try to out-do the year before. This year we got the choir. Next year we’ll try and do something else. Ya know, I’ve wanted a snow machine forever. They’re very expensive to rent. So, it’s our annual, more importantly, it’s the largest show that we do in Atlanta which is our home market. We go on tour throughout the year and then this is the biggest show that we do for our Atlanta fans every year.

Are you guys big into Christmas? I’ve seen videos of you and your husband with the dogs.

We love Christmas. But it’s honestly been more fun to enjoy Christmas being in the band because of this show. I think we’ve always loved Christmas, but we get more into every year because we’re like 'We’ve got our Merry Y’alltide' and we just get super excited for it.

Do you guys do Secret Santa or White Elephant within the band?

No, we don’t. I did buy [gifts] two Christmases ago. I bought the band all tour jackets that had their names embroidered on them and on the back it had our logo. And ya know, no one has ever bought me a Christmas present and they don’t even wear those jackets! So, they won’t be getting any more Christmas presents from me!

Speaking of jackets, I saw that you did the Dead Ringer jacket. What’s up with the new album? Can we get a release date?

Well, we’re not suppose to tell a release date yet because we have a whole PR thing going on, but it’s gonna be within the first four months of the beginning of next year. I know the date. I don’t want you to print it, but it’s... We’ve been working on it for quite awhile, but I think we are trying to do everything right now and not rush to get out. Get all the team in place and get everything in its right place to ensure that it can be the most successful that it can be. You gotta give it a chance to have legs before you throw it out there.

Do you feel that this is a good representation of the band as a whole?

Definitely. I think it changes every record. We have it mastered and it’s been sent off to be printed. It’s funny to listen to this now and go back and listen to the other ones. It’s seriously like a step, each record, somewhere different. This one is a little less bluegrassy than the first two. Especially, the first one. It’s a little bit more rock'n'roll which makes more sense in some degree because a lot of our players come from that background. I know I say this with every record I put out, but I really do think this one - between the production value and then where we recorded it and the producer we had - everything on it is just sounds huge and big and really cool.

Have you debuted any songs at your shows?

By the time Holly Grove came out, we got done working that record cycle, we had a lot of songs already recorded and written for the new record Dead Ringer. We’ve been road testing those songs for a year and a half to two years. Some of them are ones that people have not heard before and some of them, well, I would say half of them people have. Which is cool because when we got to the studio we knew it and we knew what we needed to do. We’ve already played these a ton. There are some that people haven’t heard, but there are quite a few they have.

Are you gonna play any tonight?

Yeah, we definitely are playing a lot off the new record tonight which is always funny to do when people maybe want to hear some older stuff. We are putting some older stuff in there and a really special surprise for “Preachers Daughter” with the choir. It’s gonna be so cool. I’ve just been listening to them and it put me in a better mood. I was such in a bad mood and then I heard them. I was like 'oh my God.' We’ll do a mixture or both, but there is a lot of new stuff. I always just feel like when you go to those shows and are like 'well I hope they don’t play all the new stuff,' but I’m not really like that. I’m like, unless you’ve gotten to the place where you are like Sting and you’ve got 25 hits, people wanna hear the hits. For us, it’s like, we don’t have any chart toppers so just play what you play.

Tell me about your fanbase. How’s your interaction been over the years and where you are now?

[violin plays] Is that how they warm up? That’s amazing. I need to do that. Oh my God. That’s why they’re all better singers than me.

Which band is that?

It’s Kevin Lemons and Higher Calling is the group and he’s got like 200 singers that sing with him. He’s the choir director, Kevin Lemons and his choir is massive. They do all kinds of events, they play around and they tour. So, he has six of them here tonight. Sorry, I was like, I don’t even warm up. I drink whiskey and then I’m like alright I’m good.

What kind of whiskey do you drink?

Jameson.

Have you had Jameson 12?

I don’t know. We’ve had Castmates. That one’s good. Someone bought us a really nice bottle. It might have been the 12 for Jason’s birthday. That’s typically what he gets for birthday presents. Here’s a bottle of whiskey. Which is funny because when we started the band I hated the taste of whiskey. People would buy us shots all the time and I would literally have to turn my back to the audience if someone brought me one from the crowd. And I be like take it and then gag and swallow it down be like egh eh. Over the years I’ve gotten so use to it because it’s what people assume that we like and well, I actually prefer vodka.

Tito’s? Mine too.

Yeah.

Whiskey has been an acquired taste for me like beer. Do you drink beer?

No. I don’t like beer. I mean I’ll drink a beer if I have to like if it’s at Braves game or something like that I’ll drink a beer, but I don’t like to drink beer typically.

Fanbase. It’s all across the board. It’s very different. There’s gonna be a bunch of young kids here tonight that are between 10 and 15 (years-old). There’s people that are in their seventies and I know there’s a couple of people who are in their eighties gonna be here tonight. So, it’s just all across all reaches. There’s really not a certain demographic of people. It’s like because there are so many different facets of the sound it kind of reaches a little bit broader. There is something for everyone. This particular show is interesting because it’s a lot of our friends and family. Every year they’re like 'we can’t wait for the Christmas show.' We are surrounded with a lot of love and support for this show in particular. Which is always really nice because it can be a little overwhelming doing everything and I can get kind of nervous. But then it’s like 'oh I know all you people.'

Speaking about family, do you have any Christmas traditions that you guys do aside from the show?

We have a lot of different things that happen over the holidays. We got Jason’s, you know my husband that plays in the band, we got his family. Then my parents are divorced so we’ve got offshoots of having to figure it out. Well you really get like six Christmases and it takes like two weeks. But I don’t know if we have, ya know, (traditions). I think that’s what is so special about this is that it has become a tradition. There are families that I think have a lot of traditions. We don’t really have a lot. I do gingerbread houses with my niece and nephew every year. Which is super fun and cute. We go over to Jason’s family on Christmas Eve and I get to hang out with his nephews and stuff. Just the family stuff.

And he’s from Atlanta too right?

Yeah, he has spent the majority of his life in Atlanta. He is from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He moved here when he was in eighth grade. He’s been here the majority of his life. He lived in Woodstock.

Is there a favorite Atlanta spot that you guys like to go to? What is a favorite that you would recommend to someone who has never been to Atlanta before?

Well, we always say The Local because Jason and I met at The Local.

Monday night karaoke?

No, we met at Wednesday night trivia. It used to be trivia on Wednesday nights and this was nine years ago this month that we met there. The Local and our friend Kevin owns Home grown which we love. We always recommend it for people to go eat at. Jason is more the social butterfly than I am. He goes out more. We used to live in Cabbagetown so he goes to Milltown. It’s just a fun bar ya know. It’s not pretentious. It’s just a good’ol bar. I can’t really think of anything else. I sit at my house most of the time.

What other kind of music do you like to sing? What other genres? Could you see yourself as a pop singer?

Probably not a pop singer. I don’t know if I have the voice honestly to be a pop singer.

Your voice is amazing.

Thank you. I sing a lot of '90s music. I would honestly say that I could see myself, if I was gonna play in any other type of band it would be an all female band like Veruca Salt or Luscious Jackson or something like that from the '90s. I would want to play bass in it. I don’t even know if I would really want to sing in it. I just want to learn how to play bass because I think that girl bass players look so badass and I just want to play bass in an all girl band.

Do you guys ever cover any songs in your shows or your acoustic sets with your husband?

Yeah, we do. We typically have covers for obviously tonight. We’ll have a lot of covers because it’s Christmas. On the record we got two songs that are covers. One is an Merle Haggard song and one is a Rosanne Cash song. We do a lot of covers. You kind of have to especially when you do a lot of bluegrass sets with just the acoustic band. You play a lot of traditional bluegrass songs and covers and stuff like that.

Is bluegrass something that you’ve always been around?

No, Jason more so. Definitely, Chesley our banjo player. Chesley really introduced me and Jason, more so me to bluegrass. I had taken a class in college that was more folk songs where Appalachian bluegrass comes from. It came from these people that settle in Appalachia and would create music and sing songs that are typically all about death and someone leaving. They were all in a major key. They sounded happy, but when you listened to the words it was really fucked up whatever this song is about. I was into that more, but then Chesley kind of educated us on the artist that we should be listening to that are bluegrass. Then it just seemed like it just fit. Between me having a more country music side and then bluegrass and then Jason and Sam with the punk, it kind of all just merged in some weird way. Jason grew up playing. His grandparents were big into to honky tonk and his dad was a bass player in a honky tonk band up in Tennessee. He was always more exposed to the honky tonk live music stuff more so than me. I wish I was just cause I was a big fan of music. No one in my family were ever musicians.

How does your marriage influence your music and the energy within the band?

It depends on what day it is. I mean sometimes it can be some very negative energy that influences the band. Typically, though, Jason and I are like the parents of the band. It’s kind of like a mom and dad. You know it’s like a 'mom and dad are fighting' like whatever.

At rehearsal stomping around?

Sometimes. But no, it’s like our child. It’s this thing that we both care about so much and we both have ideas for it. We both have passions for it. Sometimes those ideas conflict, but most the time they work really well together. We have our common goal which is that we want to see it succeed. We just constantly work towards that goal. Sure there are bumps in the road and there are times when we can doubt it. It’s really nice to have your partner and best friend with you and your business partner and your everything moving in the same trajectory as you. When I’m feeling down, Jason will bring me up and when he’s feeling down, I’ll bring him up and just keep on pushing forward to when hopefully we reach a goal. Whatever it does.

Thank so much for your time. Full disclosure, this is my first time seeing you guys. You’ve been a household name.

Well, I’m glad and I think you’ll see a bunch of different music here tonight too. We have a certain sound, Blair has more of a jazzy sound like a ragtime jazz sound. City Mouse is on now and I want to go catch them so I can put my eyeballs on them. They are more of like a folky thing. It’s a really good eclectic night of music.
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We headed back out front to catch City Mouse and she proceeded to make her rounds greeting friends and family. The next time I saw her was on stage opening up with Christmas classic “Hallelujah.” Words can’t describe the chills that covered me from head to toe. It was one of the most genuine heartfelt sounds that I’ve heard in a long time and the rest of the evening went as such. The band delivered. A little bit of country, a little bit of rock’n’roll mixed with a choir, some love and a whole lot whiskey, it was definitely Christmas.

You can catch The Whiskey Gentry for a special acoustic set Saturday, December 17 from 1-4 p.m. at Frye located in the Ponce City Market.

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