If you think gospel is only for true believers, you haven’t heard Holy Hootenanners.
The ten members of this Mahtowa, Minnesota, country-gospel group hail from diverse musical backgrounds and cite influences from Wilco and the Jayhawks to the Roe Family Singers. Dubbed the “Lutheran Grateful Dead” by Pastor Peter Kowitz of United Lutheran Church, the band writes and plays for both religious and secular audiences. They formed in 2013 through Salem Lutheran church, a parish of about 100; after cutting their teeth playing Sunday services, they graduated to shows at bars, festivals, and county fairs.
On Thursday, Holy Hootenanners celebrates the release of The Rumble at the Turf Club. It’s their third album overall but their first of all original songs. In these 13 spirited tracks, Holy Hootenanners will take you to church, but not without some boot-stomping along the way.
We spoke to band member Jeff Gilbertson (guitar, bass, brass, vocals) about the group’s unique niche in the Minnesota music scene.
City Pages: Is it ever difficult to convince secular audiences to give Holy Hootenanners a chance?
Jeff Gilbertson: We don’t feel like we play “preachy” religious music. It’s saints-and-sinners kinds of songs. It toes the line between the two. Some of our music in our live shows would be like Johnny Cash’s religious type stuff where it works in both worlds. It’s realistic music that people can relate to.
CP: Is there a story behind the new album’s title The Rumble?
JG: There is. Our mandolin player and one of our vocalists, Brooke Anderson, has really become probably our most prolific songwriter. “The Rumble” is one of the songs that she wrote. It came from some readings from author Brené Brown. That title track delves into the internal struggle that people go through dealing with “Am I good enough? Am I going to be perceived in a good way?” There’s another song that deals with going through your darkest times. We have some happier moments in there, too, ‘cause life’s kind of like that: it’s filled with ups and downs. The Rumble seemed to really speak to us as a title for the album.
CP: That title track has a line that goes, “Practice love, don’t just be in it.” It’s a great philosophy. What does practicing love look like in the real world to you?
JG: To us as a band, practicing love means being active in the community and showing people that you care and holding each other up. In our small town, everyone requires help in different ways. To me, it’s being proactive in your daily life to be connected with people and show that we’re all in this together.
CP: One of the spiritual teachings that’s hard to accept – especially in the current state of the world – is “love your enemies.” Do you have any thoughts on how to make that easier?
JG: It’s a very hard concept for me right now as well. I think the biggest thing for us as a band has been to bring it down to the smallest level, that we are people and we have different reasons for believing what we believe, different backgrounds or upbringings. I just try to remember that deep down, we have similar needs. It’s not always conveyed in the same way. It is a tough time.
CP: The music industry is known for being somewhat seedy. Is it challenging to be a “wholesome” band?
JG: We don’t worry about it too much. We just want to be ourselves. You’ll find your audience if you stay true to what you believe and to what feels right to you and don’t worry too much about what other people think. Obviously, you want it to catch on and have an audience to perform for and create music for, but the biggest thing is being true to your own beliefs and believing in your own art.
CP: Would you say that making music with the Holy Hootenanners is more of a calling than a professional goal?
JG: That’s probably true. It doesn’t feel like work. We sometimes travel on our shuttle-bus to a gig and have a guitar out, playing, and it’s pretty common for us to have a discussion, like, “Man, this is really crazy how we all came together in this little town.” Our town doesn’t even have a population on its sign. It just says “Mahtowa.” [At the time of the 2010 census, Mahtowa’s population was only 370.]
To me, it’s got to be a calling of some sort that we all came together. Part of our calling is that all of the money we make from gigs and selling CDs goes towards a project. Our church purchased this four-room schoolhouse about the time our band was starting and we wanted to turn it into a community center, which we’ve been gradually doing. Everything that we make, other than band expenses for gasoline and recording, goes to that project.
It’s already really far along. We have more ideas in mind for it, but right now we hold concerts there. We had a polka fest last March with the Chmielewski [Family Funtime] Band. We had a New Year’s Eve party there. People can rent it out for graduation parties, wedding receptions, retirement parties. Then our church uses it for Sunday school and confirmation and things like that. That adds to our calling. We have this common goal that we’re always working towards. We don’t bicker over things like money – I’ve been in other bands where that’s easy for that to happen.
CP: Is it difficult to coordinate so many band members to make an album or play a show?
JG: It can be at times. As long as we have bass, drums, a couple female vocalists, keyboard, and lead guitar, then we’re okay. We’re at our best when we have everyone, but there are times when life dictates that we can’t all be there.
CP: You’ve played in so many settings – outdoors, churches, clubs, bars. Do you prefer one setting over the others?
JG: My personal favorites are concerts in the park where people come and bring their lawn chairs and we play for a couple hours. Some of the atmospheres can just be so nice in these towns. It’s aesthetically pleasing to see the bandshells, the nice manicured lawns that the park has, and the sun is setting and there’s a little breeze. I just love the feel of those types of concerts. But we love playing at places like the Turf Club, obviously, or in the Duluth area there’s a lot of places we like to play. I like the variety, I guess. It’s fun to be able to do so many different things. We also visit other churches and play for their service. I’m one to talk and mingle with other people, so it’s fun to get to know other people that way, too.
Where: Turf Club
When: 7 p.m. Thurs. Aug. 10
Tickets: $ 8 – 10; more info here