"We're still honest and good, just a lot hairier," says Bill "Smitty" Smith, drummer for indie-rock sextet Truth & Salvage Co., coming to the Grey Eagle this week. That band (well, most of its members) used to be Asheville's stomp-boogie band, Scrappy Hamilton, but moving to Los Angeles has a way of changing things.
And not just, as Smith suggests, 'fro growth.
Smith, along with guitarist Scott Kinnebrew, keyboardist Walker Young and bassist Joe Edel headed west in 2005. There, in the land of sunshine, movie stars and epic traffic, the band that once donned thrift-store suits, pork-pie hats and sousaphones began its metamorphosis.
"Scrappy, in the heyday, was hot jazz and ragtime. Over time, we listened to different things," Kinnebrew says.
No longer on a steady diet of vintage New Orleans hokum, the musicians took in pop and rock, much of it harkening back to the '70s. There was an indie-pop iteration of the group, shortly after relocation. On New Year's Eve 2005, Scrappy returned to Asheville to play a one-night stand at Stella Blue, introducing material from the album Once or Twice Every Thousand Years. But that record's slightly garage-y, unpolished turn was still a couple years shy of what Kinnebrew calls "a mature fruiting; a culmination of influences."
That culmination has a name. It's Truth & Salvage Co., a faded jeans + four-part harmonies + jangly guitars + retro organ amalgamation of time, space and decidedly '70s fashion sense. "It's less forced," says Young. "Instead of trying to throw our music into any one genre, we're trying to write more freely."
In Scrappy, Young played piano, accordion and (?!) clock. In T&S Co. he's the suede-hatted, Neil Young-looking keyboardist and singer of "Pure Mountain Angel." That song, with it's 3/4 tempo and desperado lyrics, calls to mind The Stones' "Wild Horses" and The Band's "The Weight," but no one in T&S Co. is willing to commit to a strict country-rock classification.
"Depending on who's singing and who writes the song it differentiates the element of rock or the element of country," Young says.
The group is about to release a four-song EP, Kinnebrew says. Each song represents a different T&S Co. writer. "As they were written, each song differed significantly in style and presentation, but listening to it as an EP, the music sounds unified and the transitions are smooth."
After years of playing together, the group honed its sound enough so that, a couple years back, Scrappy Hamilton side project The Denim Family Band attracted the attention of talent manager Pete Angelus. The burgeoning band was then helping lead a growing L.A. roots-music scene in no-cover bars like Hotel Cafe and Crane's Hollywood Tavern. Angelus thought the band might be of interest to one of his clients: Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson.
Last summer, Robinson showed up at a Denim Family Band performance. Since then, the group formerly known as Scrappy Hamilton (and also at times going by the names Quartermoon Serenade, the Sounding Arrows and The Loyalhearts) got yet another name and signed to both Sony's Megaforce Record and Black Crowes' Silver Arrow Records.
"It took a while for it to come about," says Kinnebrew. "Last January, we were invited to Chris's house in Topeka Canyon for a week of pre-production.
"It was a great experience. [Robinson] has been very supportive of our group and our sound. We sing a lot of four-part harmonies and having Chris Robinson there as our singing coach was pretty amazing. We'll all guys who grew up loving the Black Crows." The Robinson-produced EP is due out in September; a full album will follow in early 2010.
The new sound is also familiar as a perfectly worn pair of jeans. Check out "Call Back" on the band's Web site. Young's vocals are rich with rocker bravado and aching nostalgia: "I got them hobo blues, whoa, keeps callin' me right back home to you." The organ packs the '60s psychedelic punch of Big Brother and the Holding Company; the guitars are as twangy as the Flying Burrito Brothers, the percussion drives the whole song into a ridiculously hooky bridge: It has all of the elements that have spelled commercial success for the Black Crowes, and hopefully will do the same for T&S Co.
This former-Asheville, former-novelty act stands poised for widespread recognition — opening for the Black Crowes' fall tour, bringing them to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Oct. 2.
"Scrappy had a good run," Kinnebrew says. "When we decided to shed the same name and start over, it was a relief to be able to finally let go of it. What we got out of it was priceless because it got us here."
And the new name? It rang true, says Smith, "because we believed in this so much, we've had to salvage everything in our lives." In that spirit, the band promises that the Grey Eagle show this week will include "Alligator Crawl," a Scrappy Hamilton classic.
who: Truth & Salvage Co.
what: L.A.-based indie-rockers formerly known as Asheville's Scrappy Hamilton (Mad Tea Party opens)
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, Aug. 22 (9 p.m. $8 advance, $10 day of show. www.thegreyeagle.com)