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Two minutes before showtime, pompadoured Trailer Trash frontman Nate Dungan saunters up to the mic and orders tousle-headed drummer Keely Lane to unplug the jukebox. "Good evening and welcome to the Minneapolis VFW," he says in his polite Tennessee drawl. He's greeting the crowd at Lee's Liquor Lounge, a downtown Minneapolis bar that feels like a central-Minnesota VFW hall down to its glowing Hamm's Beer signs and ceramic Elvis liquor decanters. In the audience are beehive-coifed dames and graying gents, vintage-clad trendies, five-slapping frat brothers, and dust-covered second-shift laborers. Couples skirting the club's waxed-slick dance floor move forward, ready to pounce.
"First set, we're on the mellow tip," Dungan announces, launching into Merle Haggard's languid "Sing Me Back Home." But by the third song, even the wallflowers have scurried to the floor.
Every Wednesday night at Lee's, Trailer Trash do more than exhume and polish old-time country fossils from Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, and Gram Parsons. They yank twang roots out of modern hits from Prince and Bruce Springsteen, turning novelties such as "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" into syrupy blues workouts. During this particular pre-Thanksgiving show, the band closes its third set with a rollicking version of "1999" that would have the Artist stumbling out of his stilettos. Trailer Trash later rattles the walls, rolling out of Elvis's "Suspicious Minds" into Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" and back again. The guys handle honky-tonk like grizzled cowpokes roping steer, but attack good rock 'n' roll like hormone-ravaged teenagers.
Surprise is part of the band's appeal. As members will tell you, any Trash man can influence what shape the group takes on a given evening. For example, in October one lucky audience witnessed the ensemble wearing Zubaz and mullets, churning out metal under the name Crank Lab, Trailer Trash's unrecognizable yokel of a second cousin. "Crank Lab was all Keely," says burly guitarist Dan Gaarder when I ask who was responsible. "It really put the speed-metal bug in our butt."
This uncommon house band acts as mediator between Lee's day job serving a neighborhood, blue-collar clientele and its moonlighting gig as a scene hangout. The Trash catalog of covers is just down-home enough to keep Lee's earlier crowd mingling into the evening, and the band's playing is nimble and charismatic enough to impress club-hopping hip cats. No other bar in town musters such a diverse patronage. (Even one of the band's homes away from home, St. Paul's Turf Club, has replaced regular Saturday-evening country music with edgier fare.) And no other local band so deftly (or humorously) weaves and reinterprets such disparate genres--metal, funk-cum-rockabilly, country-before-it-was-cool, guitar-swamped dino-rawk, even reggae. "It's not supposed to be music that's epoch-making," remarks Dungan (pronounced "Duncan") before the show. "We're not creating a new era in pop or trying to express some wild side of our imagination through music."
Maybe not, but this workhorse among local roots-sters has, without trying, helped define an era of local music. Along with now-departed warmup act Miss Kitty, Trailer Trash were instrumental in birthing the local neo-swing scene. Dungan was, until recently, a longtime talent booker for Lee's, bringing countless lesser-known alt-country and indie-rock acts to town.
Now, rounding out a banner year for the band, Trailer Trash have just released their wonderful first album of original material, Nearer My Bar to Thee. They were the only twang act among the big names at the governor's inaugural bash in January, and won their fifth Minnesota Music Academy award for best country outfit shortly thereafter. The boys appeared in the locally filmed indie flick Dill Scallion, their third foray onto the big screen since contributing music to the straight-to-video horror thriller Love Gun and popping up in another indie, Herman, USA. (The Minnesota Film Board seems to speed-dial Trailer Trash every time a visiting production needs a Grain Belt-glugging party band.)
Hell, it's been a rewarding seven years since Trailer Trash was booted from the late 24 Bar (bulldozed to make room for the Federal Reserve Bank), and Lee's Pooh-Bah and honorary band member Louie Sirian gambled by giving the new six-piece a regular place to hang its Stetsons.
One Wednesday night, before their regular gig at Lee's, I meet with all six members of Trailer Trash, including Dungan, Gaarder, Lane, guitarist Randy "Tyrone" Broughten, bassist Andy Olsen, and keyboardist Jon Duncan. Together, we hunker down in the bar's spotless, wood-paneled basement--"right out of The Story of O," jokes Dungan. Yet the cellar possesses a kind of rec-room sensuality with its trophy shelves and black vinyl couches, and the once-lowly downtown bar has certainly upped its sex appeal since the band began playing there in 1993.
"I would say we're not really legendary, but what happens on Wednesday nights is legendary," remarks Gaarder. "It's not really the band, 'cause the first time we played away from the bar, it wasn't the success that we had here."
Trailer Trash does have its detractors. They may be as much of a local entertainment institution as Governor Ventura, but they weren't the lunkhead guv's pick for his Target Center People's Party in January. "He said he didn't want no goat-ropin' music at his inaugural ball," says Dungan. "But we were Terry Ventura's choice."
"She's country," Gaarder says, with a hint of class pride. "Jesse, I believe, is a Washburn boy."
Broughten corrects him. "He went to Roosevelt," he says.
"If he'd been from Central, he might have been cool," replies Gaarder. "Prince went to Central."
Regardless of whether the new album garners them gubernatorial support, Nearer should at least pacify skeptics who scoff that the band is a one-trick mule for swingers. Heavy on torch and twang, the work is also wildly clever without resorting to shtick. Even non-country fans will grin at Broughten's kiddie caper "Buster Likes a Choo Choo Train" or Gaarder's wistful "Sawtooth Mountain."
Dungan explains that the album didn't emerge from the marathon sessions of recording and mixing that produced the band's previous two releases, 1997's Live at Lee's and last year's Hell, It's X-Mas. "I finally had to realize for myself that recording is a process, not an event," he says. "It's a journey, not a destination."
The group took a whole year with Nearer, recording in fits and starts at various studios, an odd tack for a band that professes to rarely practice (save rehearsing numbers for its annual Christmas shows). Lane says that recording Nearer represented a journey onto new terrain. "We're a cover band," he says. "We were really worried about putting out original material. We were really picky about getting it done right."
While Live and Hell replicated Trailer Trash's onstage chops, Nearer is a better showcase of the band's collective aptitude--and its ability to bump chests with good-ol'-boy greats. The 14 tales of sorry SOBs are delivered in the spirit of Trailer Trash's heroes, free of the kitsch that greased their previous work. "Bedslats" is a loopy floor-shuffler that gently pokes fun at the limited mobility of Twin Cities twentysomethings. "South Minneapolis is hell on bedslats," sings Dungan, a Nashville émigré in the mostly native Minnesotan group. "I don't think I need to tell you that in this town the way the kids move around/From Lake to Franklin, Lyndale to Hennepin/hop, skip, and jump--where you goin', son?/You're moving again."
Speaking of moving, the album marks a departure of a different sort: Dungan left his five-year booking post at Lee's last month in what he says was an amicable, carefully considered exit that was necessary to keep the club's calendar robust. "Five years--we took this place a long way," Dungan says. "It was simply time for me to move on. I think you can ruin it for everybody if you hold on too long, and I didn't want that to happen."
Dungan now books music for the Minnesota State Fair while Minneapolis City Council member Jim Niland has replaced him at Lee's. Both Dungan and Sirian seem pleased with the choice of Niland, but Dungan says it's tough handing over his baby.
Despite the job turnover and the new album, Trailer Trash show no signs of giving up their standing Wednesday gig--or of taking themselves too seriously. When asked about long-term plans, Dungan and Gaarder envision a gospel à la Anthony Robbins. "What we're going to do is issue bonds on Trailer Trash against future earnings," reckons Dungan. "We'll probably start our own TV show and get Louie to be the spokesman. We'll get an 800 number. We're going to be selling our own wine."
"We're just a bunch of ladies trying to make it in a man's world," deadpans Gaarder.
"See," laughs Dungan, "now the cat's out of the bag."
Trailer Trash perform Wednesday, December 15 at Lee's Liquor Lounge; (612) 338-9491. On Friday, December 17 they play their sixth annual "Have Yourself a Trashy Little Xmas" show at Lee's. The group also performs a special kids' matinee version at 2:00 on Saturday, December 18 at the Loring Playhouse; (612) 332-1619.