Channeling his restless energy has always been a tightrope walk for Jason Bible. As a kid back in Colleyville, Texas, the headstrong future frontman for the Train Wrecks was hell–bound to turn himself into a professional soccer player, and nothing was going to interfere.
Ah, but fate dealt him another card. When he heard Bob Dylan – specifically, “The Times They Are A–Changin’” — he cashed in all of his athletic chips.
“I was kind of a serious individual at that time,” Bible says, “but I saw that as something that I had to do. I said ‘I’m going to get a guitar, and a harmonica, and that’s what I’m gonna do.’
“I felt like I wanted to say something instead of kick something.”
Bible, who’s 33, has been doing little but making music ever since. In their five or six years together, the Train Wrecks have become the hardest–gigging band in Savannah — the four musicians are playing somewhere, either together, individually, as a duo or as a trio — just about every night of the week.
In music–biz speak, the Train Wrecks is an alt–country band, cut from the same cloth as Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, Steve Earle’s Dukes or any number of artists who play countryish music, double–timed, with big drum beats and snarling electric guitars.
But that’s a 2D definition, as is Bible’s own tongue–in–cheek description of what they sound like: “Johnny Cash on amphetamines.”
The live show is packed with adrenalized covers from the likes of Cash, Dylan, Springsteen, Gram Parsons, the Stones and even Hank Williams. It’s gritty, it’s loud, and yes, it rolls along like a blue steam engine huffing out of the Sun Records station.
They’re all sweatbox rockers, with a good bit of twang and attitude, but Bible’s own tunes – character–driven story songs about outlaws and other desperate men – are just as gripping. Onstage, he’s a whirlwind, whether he’s hammering on an acoustic guitar or tearing into his white, southpaw Stratocaster. His sandpaper singing voice is deep as a well and can produce the most spine–rattling screams.
“There’s a lot of things that work for me in a performance setting,” he explains. “Once the guitar’s out, and the mic’s up, that’s when everything else goes away. That’s when you’re ‘in it.’
“Call it mojo or whatever, it’s kind of out there on the breeze and you just bring it home.”
Even drummer Markus Kuhlmann finds keeping up with Bible somewhat intense. “The energy level and the excitement level of this stuff, for him, is way past 11,” Kuhlmann says. “Jason’s like ‘blinders, Train Wrecks, as soon as I get an idea I’m gonna throw it at you without even thinking about what else is going on.
“That really does wear me out sometimes, it’s just so high energy.”
Back in the saddle
Since the end of 2009, the Train Wrecks have been assembling — whenever they happen to have some time off — at Elevated Basement Studios, where they’re recording their second CD, provisionally titled Saddle Up and Ride, with co–producer Miles Hendrix.
It follows 2007’s Whiskey and War.
“We’ve really wanted to make another record,” bassist Eric Dunn explains. “After we made the last one, we took all the money and just kept it ourselves. Didn’t re–invest back into the studio. And we didn’t write any new songs for a while. It took us a while to get back to it. It’s hard for all of us to get together at the same time.”
Many of the new songs, including “Tennessee Mare,” “Hang Me High,” “Fortune and Fame” and “Head For the Hills,” have been in the band’s live sets for over a year.
“Not to take anything away from the tunes on the first record, I think these songs as a whole are a lot stronger,” says Stuart Harmening, who plays dobro, slide and lead guitar and the occasional banjo. “We’ve had more time to really develop them. I’d only been playing with the guys a few months when we cut that first record.”
In fact, each member will have songwriting credits on the new album. Many of Bible’s tunes were co–written with his longtime lyric collaborator, Atlanta–based Dave Williams.
The mesmerizing “Cold Stone,” for example. “We wanted to use ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ as a template, and write a southern kind of song that you could pull out of a piano bench after the Civil War,” says Bible. “And we got close.
“‘Tennessee Mare’ came about when I said to Dave, ‘Let’s do a spin–off of Tennessee Stud’ and write a story.”
The characters in his songs are raw, strong–willed and determined, like Jason Bible himself. “A lot of bands are writing about heartbreak,” he offers. “Ryan Adams covered that, man. And Paul Westerberg. Hank Williams covered it! I like writing about hope.
“I think as I grow older, and the band matures and we all go through this thing together, the music will get better. Every show, we get better. And that’s what we kinda strive for.”
Born in Tifton, Eric Dunn was the first Train Wreck to arrive in Savannah, when he was in the first grade. The familial connection was strong – his grandmother was Sally Beaumont, one of Savannah’s most popular lounge pianists in the 1940s and ‘50s. Harmening’s “Song For Sally,” which will be on Saddle Up and Ride, is an instrumental tune dedicated to Eric’s semi–legendary grandma.
As it turned out, Dunn was one of the first people Jason Bible ran into when he arrived from Texas, guitar case in hand, in 2001.
Together they gigged at open mic nights and in beach bars; once, they were the opening act for a swingin’ evening of downtown Karaoke. They often played for burgers and beer.
Kuhlmann, from Sumter, S.C., was the drummer for the Savannah rock band Hazel Virtue. He did his first show with Bible and Dunn on a whim, with no rehearsal.
“I’d seen them play once,” Kuhlmann, who’s also a guitarist, a singer and a songwriter, recalls. “They opened up for Hazel. So this one night I just showed up with my drum kit at that joint Capone’s, on the south side. We set up in the corner and just played.
“It wasn’t like death metal or King Crimson, so it wasn’t crazy time signatures. It wasn’t like GAM. It was pretty straightforward music.” Kulhmann admits he was never much of a country fan, but by the time he met Bible and Dunn, he’d been listening to a lot of bands like Son Volt and Wilco, and doing some serious re–assessing.
And just like that, the Train Wrecks were a trio. During the recording of Whiskey and War, Bible got a phone call from Stuart Harmening, who’d been assigned to write a “little blurb” about the band for the Savannah Morning News.
“They were kind of new–ish at that point,” Harmening says. “So I went and checked them out, and I thought ‘Man! My dobro would sound awesome with these guys.’”
A native of Birmingham, Ala., Harmening grew up around music – his dad was a bluegrass dobro player – and he was not only proficient on acoustic and electric guitar, dobro and banjo, he was relatively new in town and looking for the perfect gig.
“Playing music live,” Harmening says. “is totally addictive, especially if you’ve had any sort of recognition. It’s like a drug, to be onstage and interact with people. You can’t get enough of it.”
Still, Harmening — a schoolteacher who also coaches kids’ soccer — is the one who’s most likely to miss performances on weeknights.
“It’s kind of a weird mix,” he laughs. “I have to be a sort of upstanding citizen on the one hand, and rock ‘n’ roll on the other side. I try to keep those worlds separate.”
Tonight, the bottle let me down
The last few years have not been without growing pains. Bible admits that his fondness for hard liquor nearly derailed the Train Wrecks before the Saddle Up and Ride songs ever got near the recording studio.
“What’s changed for the band in the last year — and I think they would all agree — is that I put down the whiskey bottle,” he says. “For the guys, for my wife and for everybody in our organization, that’s been the best damn thing. Because I’m not having to hear on Monday how I pissed Eric off, or he quit, or I fired myself or pissed on the floor at Fiddler’s.”
Bible remembers some performances that he’d just as soon forget. “By the third set,” he says, “I’ve had so many shots of whiskey I can’t strum. I think I’m strumming. I think I sound great.”
Still, says Kuhlmann, “We’ve all had our moments. We’re not called the Train Wrecks for nothing.”
To a degree, it was Bible’s all–encompassing passion for the music of his hard–living heroes that drove him to two–fisted drinking every night.
In Jason’s early days in Savannah, Kulhmann recalls, “He would get a gig and then lose it because he would just be so hammered. They’d have to carry him out of the bar, stuff like that.
“I’ve had to carry him out, put him in the car, drive him home, lock him in his truck with the keys on the dashboard and leave.”
Yeah, Bible says, “We all fell out. We’ve all turned green at our amps. Whether it’s too many gigs in a week, or just drinking five, six nights in a row.”
Those days are over — although the boys will still knock back a beer or two during their late–night sets, Bible says he’s now gone 14 months without a sip of whiskey.
“I learned that if this band’s going to be successful it hinges on me being present, and showing up to every show professionally,” he adds. “We’ve all kind of gotten to the point where we want the music more than we want the party.
“We’re trying to put our best foot forward with every song and every show, and just make people see that you’re giving everything you have. If you’re having fun, they’re going to have fun, and you make them feel they’re part of what you’re doing.”
The Train Wrecks
With Josh Robert & the Hinges
Where: Live Wire Music Hall, 307 W. River St.
When: At 10 p.m. Saturday, July 24
Important stuff: This show is being recorded for a live Train Wrecks CD.
Artist’s website: www.thetrainwrecksband.com