Trailer Trash's Nate Dungan: "Honky tonk music comes right up out of the ground"
Photo courtesy of trailertrashmusic.com
When you walk into Lee's Liquor Lounge, located on downtown Minneapolis' fringes for over half a century, whether it's your first visit or 40th, the whiff of nostalgia and shiver of magic you feel is pretty undeniable. But there's more to it than the bar's wood paneling, its mounted mountain lion, the sound of clinking beer bottles or its throw-back appeal. It's all in the music, and the dancing. For years, Lee's has been one of the best places in town to listen (and dance) to a consistently strong roster of country and rockabilly music - and other stuff too, see standing appearances by E.L.nO. This is in no small part thanks to Trailer Trash, a honky-tonk band that's been a mainstay of the local country scene and of Lee's now for two decades, playing a regular gig there for as many years as of this month, in addition to its popular annual tradition, the Trashy Little Christmas Show.
The band's lineup is comprised of some of the best talent in the region, but their success, and indeed the vibrancy of Lee's and our local country scene at large, has a lot to do with the enthusiasm and smarts of guitar player/vocalist Nate Dungan. On the occasion of the band's 20th anniversary playing Lee's, we checked in with this influential music booster and man about town -- or more accurately, man about the outskirts of downtown, and the Fair Midway.
Gimme Noise: The date nearly flew by us, but we noticed that this month marked a momentous occasion for Trailer Trash: Twenty years of playing a regular gig at Lee's Liquor Lounge. Why Lee's? Can you tell us how you got your start there, and what's kept you around for so long?
Nate Dungan: Twenty years flies by fast when you're having fun. I have no idea why we've lasted so long; maybe it's because we never took ourselves too seriously. We've always been about playing good music, and keeping the dance floor going. I think we just got lucky; we're the perfect marriage of a band and a bar. That and the fact that our fans are awesome. We have the best crowd in the whole wide world! They love good music and they never like to be pandered to, plus they are really smart and good-looking.
Maybe it's a cliché, but we actually enjoy making this music together, and it's contagious. The lineup has changed over the years, but we have always shared a passion for honky tonk music. The original members are Jon Duncan (keyboards), Randy Broughten (pedal steel) and me on guitar. Keely Lane (drums) arrived in 1996, Dave Weeks-Wynne joined in 2007, and Randy Anderson (guitar) came on board last summer. The creative friction is positively explosive. The other reason is of course, Louie Sirian, the owner of Lee's. Everything clicked with him right from the start, so here we are twenty years later.
You grew up in Tennessee; by comparison, Minnesota's hardly known for its hoppin' honky-tonk scene. But you've definitely etched out a country scene in the Twin Cities, nonetheless. How did you do it, and is there anything you miss about being in the South? What makes our country scene unique?
Ha! Country music was going strong long before Trailer Trash; just ask Joe Savage, Dan Lund, or Sherwin Linton! There used to be country bars all up and down Lake Street. The Flame Café was the hub of the action, where Great Tapes is now, at 15th and Nicollet. The bands were legendary, too: Texas Bill Strength, Chill Hillman, The Houle Brothers, The Sky Blue Water Boys, Whiskey River, and so on. This area has long been a hotbed of pickers and songwriters that go to Nashville, too.
Quite honestly, there is a much bigger live music tradition here than there is, or ever was in Tennessee. That's why I like it here. If you want to see people making music for music's sake, and crowds enjoying it, this is where it's at. The difference is that up here we have the influence of Bakersfield and Western Swing. That honky tonk music comes right up out of the ground. It is made for farmers and oilfield workers to drink and dance to. It's relatively easy for a four-piece band to play, and it gets the dance floor jumping right away. Plus, the Midwest has the tradition of big dance halls, which just don't exist in many parts of the South. In that sense, we have much more in common with Texas than you might think!
I was lucky enough to get into a country band called Stetson in 1990. That's when I really started to have fun. Turns out there are a ton more places to play and more money to be made up here than there ever was in Nashville or Knoxville for our type of band. The VFW circuit was a blast! The pedal steel player, Al Udeen, had played with all the greats through the 60s, 70s and 80s and he was a link to that tradition. The band leader, Roger Reini, had a hit song on WCCO called "Breaker, Breaker," during the CB radio craze. They taught me how to be a professional hedonist, country-style.
Trailer Trash started as a way to bring the VFW experience downtown. We played the 24 Bar, which now gone, until Louie was nice enough to give us a house gig at Lee's. It was off the beaten path, relatively unknown, and we played in cozy obscurity for almost a year. Then one night, people started coming in, and it took off from there. We played every Wednesday for six years, then switched to the first Friday of the Month, and we've been doing it for the last 14 years.
For over a decade now, you've been booking talent for the Bandshell at the State Fair. In that time, you've brought some truly impressive country acts into the fold, which Fair goers then get to essentially see for free -- bless you for that, by the way. How did you get that gig, and what's your secret for always guaranteeing such a successful -- and eclectic -- lineup?
The secret is the cheese curds, but don't tell the bands that! JK JK. I got to know the people after we played the fair several times, and when the position opened up I went for it. It helped that I had booked Lee's for five years, and learned something about marketing and promotion. I also worked at City Pages, before that, selling ads to music businesses. All that figured into what I do now.
My idea of fun is good music and lots of it, so hopefully that's what you'll see when you go to the fair. We look for a balance between good taste and what tastes good. The state fair has to be all things to all people, so it's gotta be family friendly, entertaining, engaging and professional. We try to present a wide variety of types and styles to appeal to all walks of life. And we are always open to feedback.
What has been your most memorable experience of booking for the Fair?
My most memorable experience? Way too many to pick just one, but just a few: Brandi Carlile singing Tammy Wynette. Tommy Emmanuel warming up back stage. Los Lobos being so cool. Hank Thompson being Hank Thompson.
And who has been your favorite act?
My most favorite act: The Hacienda Brothers, in 2007. I'm glad we did that one, because Chris Gaffney is gone now. R.I.P.
My least favorite act: the last one of the year, because then it's all over until next year!
What can we expect out of Bandshell entertainment this summer?
A whole lotta big fun, we hope! The official announcement for the state fair lineup is later this month.
Since you're so expert on both what's new and what's old in country music: What's one up-and-coming country act you think folks should check out, and one under-acknowledged old-timer?
Here are a couple of ladies who will rock your world: My favorite new act to come down the pike recently is Sarah Gayle Meech. She is a honky tonk troubadour of the first order. My favorite under-acknowledged act is Rosie Flores. She is a national treasure who is truly in a class by herself.
Twenty years is a long time, and we hope you - and Lee's - will be around even longer. Do you think we can expect another twenty years out of the band, and out of Lee's? What songs will you be playing for your 40th anniversary?
Thanks and let's hope we have a crowd at that age! Seriously, it takes great audiences to make great music. If I'm upright and breathing, I know I'll be playing my guitar. What will we be playing? Hank, Lefty, George, Johnny, Willie, Waylon, Merle, Buck, Paycheck, and maybe a Ramones tune.
Any final words of wisdom?
Mamas, don't let your cowboys grow up to be babies!
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