"If you don't know the way to Kansas, follow me 'cause I'm going there"
— from "Way to Kansas" by Carrie Nation and the Speakeasy
Two songs into a raucous set by Carrie Nation and the Speakeasy in a Wichita bar, the power fails and the crowd groans. Undeterred, band members motion the audience toward the stage, where they sing and play their instruments — acoustic guitar, banjo, stand-up bass, trombone and washboard — with even more fervor to be heard over the once-again appreciative crowd.
The episode seems to capture the spirit of Carrie Nation and a number of similar bands that have emerged in Kansas over the past couple of years. Born in acoustic jams from Wichita to Lawrence, nurtured at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, groups like Carrie Nation, the Calamity Cubes, Acoustic Salvage, Fast Food Junkies, Dead Man Flats and Hipbilly have injected their own brand of electricity into the music scene.
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The bands don't all sound alike, but they do share a common approach. They tend to take older American music forms — folk, bluegrass, vaudeville — and filter them through the rock 'n' roll they grew up with.
"It's a little harder, a little faster," says Tyler Grubb, whose brassy slide trombone helps define Carrie Nation's sound. "All the bands from Wichita and Kansas, they've got a little raw edge to them."
And, as Grubb cheerfully acknowledges: "We're young and we party."
As stories behind band names go, Carrie Nation and the Speakeasy have a pretty good one.
"We were running a speakeasy out the basement of our house," Jarrod Starling, the band's frontman and chief songwriter, says.
"To pay the rent," his brother, Zachary, the band's percussionist, interjects.
"We sold a bunch of liquor and stuff," Jarrod continues. "We'd play and have other bands play. That's where a lot of the local draw came from. Just a bunch of kids looking for some down-home music and dirty entertainment."
Incorporating Wichita's famous prohibitionist into their name seemed like a natural.
Jarrod Starling had left town for college in Florida, but found himself listening to and writing the kind of bluegrass and alt-country songs he associated with Kansas and the Midwest. When he returned, he began putting together a band that would be able to mine numerous veins of American music.
On stage, Starling's beard and conductor's cap make him look like he stepped out of a daguerreotype; his gravelly shout of a voice adds to the effect. Zachary Starling plays what he calls a "junkyard trap set" — a 20-gallon bucket used as a bass drum, a snare drum and cymbal attached to a tube from a moonshine still, a washboard and a set of claves.
Matt Dreher plucks at a banjo, Brody Wellman slaps a stand-up bass, and Tyler Grubb flies around a mandolin. But it's Grubb's other instrument — the trombone — that gives Carrie Nation a unique sound every time he picks it up. His tone is punchy, with plenty of slinky glissandos for what Jarrod Starling calls "that circus element."
Most of the songs are performed at break-neck speed, with melodies and chord progressions that call to mind everything from bluegrass to Dixieland standards. It's good-time music, and points are not deducted for the occasional missed note or cue.
"I'm bent, I think it's from the whiskey. And I'm broken, I think it's 'cause of you"
—from "Bent" by the Calamity Cubes
On Thursday, the members of Calamity Cubes were sitting beside a river in Minneapolis, Minn., chilling between stops on a tour of bars, pizza joints and other small venues that's also taking them to Wisconsin and Colorado. It's not unusual for them to drive hundreds of miles for shows that may barely fill the gas tank. Last-minute cancellations are not unknown, and sleeping on couches is practically a given.
The payoff comes when the Cubes — Joey Henry, Brooke Blanche and Kody Oh — find a receptive audience for what they describe as a Kansas style of music.
"I think it's safe to say there's a Kansas mind-set of music right now, and that gospel is spreading across the country," Henry said by telephone. "When we're on the road, it's not unusual for people to say, 'You guys are from Kansas? You sound like it.' "
The trio's sound leans toward what's called hard country, with a dose of bluegrass and enough trashing around on stage to do a punk band proud. They came together three years ago when banjo player Henry and guitarist Blanche met during an open mike night. Oh later joined on stand-up bass.
"We spent a winter together in a concrete warehouse, listening to music and drinking, writing, playing acoustic shows," Henry said.
In Wichita, they've found regular gigs at a half-dozen clubs, including Kelly's Irish Pub, Rock Island Live and Lizard's Lounge.
But if Kansas music has a spiritual center, Henry said, it's the annual Walnut Valley Festival held each fall in Winfield — not the main stages with their established bluegrass performers, but in the campgrounds where a jam session is going on somewhere for two weeks straight. Bands form or add personnel, and connections are made that can lead to that next road trip.
"Winfield is a gathering of the tribes, not just for Kansas but across the country," Henry said. "You don't have to play there professionally, you just go and kick it in the campground. If what you're doing tastes good, they're going to dig it."
"Some folks they don't like it when you're winning, some folks they don't like it when you're sinning"
—from "All The Same" by Split Lip Rayfield
To a group, this new wave of bands cite Split Lip Rayfield as a big influence on their music.
Together 13 years, Split Lip is one of the few Wichita bands that have made the leap to full-time touring, averaging more than 100 shows a year around the country, including one this month at the famed Red Rocks Amphitheater outside Denver.
Split Lip helped pioneer the sound sometimes called "thrashgrass"; its performances on Winfield's unofficial stages were legendary. The band's mandolin player, Wayne Gottstine, isn't surprised that other musicians are trying to follow in Split Lip's footsteps.
"That kind of music is popular because at its basic level, it's reasonably simple," Gottstine said. "It's a good stepping stone. It's something you can do pretty much anywhere. You don't need electricity necessarily. It's got an 'everybody involved' type of feel."
Of course, picking up an instrument or putting a band together is one thing. Making memorable music — and a living doing it — is another.
Asked which of the local bands he's impressed with, Gottstine said: "Carrie Nation is really moving forward. They're really starting to get tighter. It takes a long time to get a band working really well."
At the Carrie Nation and the Speakeasy gig, the band proves it can make the music work with nothing but acoustic instruments that settlers might have carried across the prairie 150 years ago. Of course, they're happy when the power comes back on.
"You gotta draw from the past, but respect the present," Jarrod Starling said.