What's on the road ahead for The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow?
Like any sustained creative effort — a novel, a film, a painting — an album is equal parts snapshot and ceaseless panorama, capturing a moment in time but forever unfurling around its creators as consumption reshapes the record's resonances.
It is too early to tell what the image of "Band Together" will look like to each of the five singer-songwriters — Tory Hanna, Billy Keane, Chris Merenda, Greg Smith and David Tanklefsky — in The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow. The Western Massachusetts band hasn't yet released the Blackwing-sponsored album, which will go on sale Jan. 7, 2020, but will be available in CD and vinyl form at the group's Saturday, Nov. 30, Stationery Factory show in Dalton. But if the process of making the group's first full-length record is any indication, an endeavor The Eagle has tracked in periodic installments for more than a year, you can be sure that the project will leave a different impression on each of the musicians.
"In one way, in short, we've come together a lot. I think musically this band is tighter than ever, and this record helped us get there," Hanna said recently. "On the other hand, I think there's a lot of perspective differences."
Hanna said that he was "naive" to think that five singer-songwriters would all have the same goal for the album. Those differences emerged when asked, for instance, about Blue Elan Records' decision to pass on the record. The Los Angeles-based label had been in talks with the group for weeks, attending the band's show at The Hotel Cafe in LA this past June. Originally planning to release the album in late spring, the Roadshow had held off in hopes of landing a deal with Blue Elan.
"It was a quite-slow no. They said that they would be interested in talking to us about another release, another album in the future," Hanna said.
Blue Elan did not respond to multiple interview requests, but Hanna said he thought the label's choice was "based on the product." The Pittsfield resident had been hoping a contract could secure the group a booking agent to get them more exposure and better gig guarantees.
"I'm disappointed, man. I put a lot of hopes into this record that if we did it right, [meaning], if we succeeded to make a dynamite, badass product, an album that was undeniable, we would leverage those things," Hanna said.
Though he acknowledged that the news wasn't great, Smith wasn't as distraught as Hanna.
"The chances were slim, anyway, of that one situation with that one label panning out at this one time," Smith said.
Keane reckoned with the outcome differently over time. When the album-making process began, he hadn't been dead set on the group needing label support, but he knew the album needed "to do something" to keep him engaged. The Blue Elan situation wasn't a good sign.
"I think it was super demoralizing in one sense because it was like, 'Gah, back to doing everything on our own.' And that kind of was the way it was for a couple months," he said.
A string of sold-out shows, a complimentary letter from one fan and a request for handwritten lyrics from another pulled Keane out of that state.
"It's very motivating, and it reminds you, 'Oh, yeah, we're doing it because we love to do it, and people really appreciate what we're doing. That, at the root of it, is what we're doing here,'" Keane said. "So, I think the group needed that really badly. We needed those good shows really badly. And now that we've done it, people are more gung-ho than ever."
But the band needed more than just enthusiasm to get its album printed and pressed; it needed money. To support the record — which was estimated to cost between $15,000 and $20,000, according to manager Brian "Boots" Factor — the band had raised money on PledgeMusic, a crowdfunding platform. The campaign exceeded 100 percent of its goal. But PledgeMusic Co-Founder Benji Rogers announced in May that the company was headed for bankruptcy, and in October, a Variety report suggested that it's unlikely musicians will ever recoup their money.
"We got so screwed with Pledge," Keane said.
At this time, the group isn't pursuing legal action after seeking advice from a lawyer, according to Factor. After the PledgeMusic news broke, the band announced that it would still fulfill its fans' orders, but money was still tight. A donation from Hudson Whiskey, a brand that has backed the band for years, helped significantly.
"We would be nowhere without Hudson Whiskey," Hanna said.
Another saving grace was Blackwing. The Stockton, Calif.-based company famous for the 602 pencil used by John Steinbeck has recently gotten into the music business. Annie LaRue, who works in business development for Blackwing, said the brand associates record-making with its writing utensil origins.
"We kind of tailor to the analog lifestyle," LaRue said.
Among others, Blackwing has worked with "Band Together" producer and Washington resident Johnny Irion in the past, putting out his "Driving Friend" record. Steinbeck was Irion's great-uncle; Steinbeck's son, Tom, introduced Irion to Blackwing.
Irion reached out to LaRue after Blue Elan passed on the Roadshow.
"We definitely jumped on board, especially after the whole PledgeMusic disaster. We were just happy to help," LaRue said.
Blackwing is facilitating the printing of about 300 records and a portion of the Roadshow's CDs initially. Unlike its deal with Irion, Blackwing isn't selling the album and donating money to its foundation, which supports music and arts education; with "Band Together," the Roadshow gets all the proceeds. Essentially, Blackwing is sponsoring the album and promoting the group.
"It's not a record deal. We haven't signed a contract with them," Hanna said. "What they're doing is trying to get us out there."
LaRue listened to the album once before giving it the go-ahead. She liked that the band had collaborated with accomplished artists, such as Arlo Guthrie, Pat Sansone of Wilco and Steve Gorman of The Black Crowes, and tracked the record to an early 1980s 24-track Studer A80 tape machine.
"That's just what the Blackwing ethos is all about," LaRue said.
The Studer's presence is easy to detect on "Don't Cross My Land," Hanna's anthem about the Standing Rock protests. Toward the end of the album's second track, everything goes silent. Everything, that is, except for the tape, which is audibly rolling. It's the coveted warmth Irion and the group sought when choosing to work on the Studer.
"You can hear and feel the tape. It's just amazing," Hanna said recently at The Eagle's Pittsfield offices.
If Hanna sounded a little tired as he delivered the statement, he had good reason: He and his wife, Susie, just welcomed another baby boy, Hudson, to their family. Hanna's energy picked up when talking about the time when Arlo Guthrie, Irion's father-in-law, visited The Stationery Factory to play some harp parts on Hanna's song. Hanna can recall the night in The Stationery Factory studio when Guthrie stopped in quite vividly. Guthrie took two takes and was done.
"He was almost in the head space that I was in for this song and the head space I'm in for this project," Hanna said. "It's going to happen, and it's going to be great, and you trust what's going on."
"Don't Cross My Land" follows "Pass the Peace." Keane penned the album's opener.
"I've been carrying this weight for so long / pass me over that peace you've been dragging on," he sings.
For Irion, Keane's voice shines.
"It's just soul," the producer said at the studio in May.
Sometimes, exposing the depths of that soul can be challenging for Keane; at the beginning of the album-making process, Keane mentioned keeping songs to himself over the years. Keane wrote "Lay Down Your Arms," the record's closing track, when he was going through a struggle with his wife, Waterfall Perry, years ago. Since the album's recording, Perry and Keane split, making it a tough listen for the songwriter.
"It still a tune that means a lot to me. It still means a lot to her," Keane said, sitting in his new Pittsfield apartment. "It's always interesting when you write something super personal; it can almost be a surprise when it means the same type of thing to somebody else, but people have really responded to it."
Since the album's recording, Keane has helped Irion with his "Honor Roll Sessions" concert series in the studio the Roadshow helped Irion build.
"I've got a new love: I love this studio," Irion said in May.
Both creative and business tensions between the band and Irion escalated at times in the process.
"We each had visions, and he wasn't really — I don't know if capable is the word — willing to blend those things together in an easy, open way," Keane said. "So, that is certainly something that I think could have been improved upon if we're going to do more projects like this. Within the context of the album recording process, I don't know how we could have necessarily made that problem go away."
Reached in Italy by video call, Irion said he didn't feel like he would have done anything differently as it pertained to the process.
"There's five songwriters. That's not double vision. That's like f------ six lanes of highway and people drinking wine," he said.
Irion is proud of what the band produced and is honored that the Roadshow picked him.
"For them to take a chance on me, I feel honored," he said in May.
In separate interviews, group members lauded Irion's ability to draw on his connections, bringing in Sansone to play bass, Gorman to drum, Tom Schick to mix and JJ Golden to master, as well as make astute tweaks. One example was adding Hanna's trumpet to certain tunes."He lived in the songs, in some ways, more than we did, and his passion for the project is all over the record," Tanklefsky said.
"Johnny poured his soul into each piece," Merenda wrote in an email.
The Becket musician wrote three of the record's songs — "Following Your Tears," "Perfect Day" and "I Bet the World." Merenda's fast-paced banjo work provides the album with jolts throughout.
"Yee-haw!" Irion said after listening to "Perfect Day."
A popular member of the Berkshire music community, Merenda faced some criticism in the aftermath of the band's Barrington Stage Company concert in May. The show was supposed to celebrate a release of "Band Together" acoustic versions. During a break in the action, Merenda made an insensitive comment that associated someone with an Afro to criminal behavior.
"Although I had been trying to make a humorously sarcastic remark regarding the ridiculous nature of racial profiling," he wrote in an apology at the time, "in the excitement of the moment and in being distracted by tuning my banjo, my words twisted into something closer to the opposite."
The letter also mentioned that two of Merenda's children are African American. The weeks that followed were difficult for Merenda.
"It was frustrating to be falsely accused of profiling and hypocritical for people to profile me," Merenda wrote in an email. "Peace, love and acceptance is what we all should learn from this."
The group has been rehearsing for its stay on The Rock Boat, a five-day cruise that leaves from Miami and travels to Belize and Honduras, in January. As part of the gig, Smith recently collaborated with some of the other booked bands' songwriters on some new tunes.
"It really lifted my spirits. It was a much-needed inspirational endeavor," Smith said.
The Roadshow may also fly to Europe in 2020. The band got placed in touch with a booking agent who breaks American bands into the United Kingdom. "Pass the Peace," "Don't Cross My Land" and "Perfect Day" are all playing on radio stations across the pond.
"That's a better opportunity than what a lot of labels could get us out here," Keane said.
Tanklefsky feels like the group made an "awesome" record. He's pleased with how his one song on the record, "Reasons," came out.
"The song's a little more soulful. It reminded me of an old song by The Band or something. I got to use that part of my voice a little bit more," he said.
Sansone actually shared songwriting credit on the tune thanks to his substantial work in the studio.
"All the ideas he had really made sense for the song," Tanklefsky said.
Tanklefsky also holds an affinity for Gorman. He and Keane had watched Gorman play in Boston a couple of nights earlier, chatting with him after the show. For Tanklefsky, it's important to express gratitude for the group and its supporters.
"In my thought process, if the whole thing blows up and it gets really big, that would be very cool. But if it doesn't, and we're still making music together and enjoying this five years from now, and it's growing incrementally, that's also really cool," he said. "A lot of people that start playing music would dream of playing one sold-out show, and we've done that, like, the last month, every weekend. So, I try to have that in perspective. I think we all sort of share that — that while you want it to get bigger, you also want to appreciate what you have and where you're at."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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