Raised on the southern edge of the Midwest and the northern border of the South…a hometown boy who is often on the road…Jeffersonville’s Nick Dittmeier and his band, the Sawdusters, release their first full length album tomorrow. It’s a product of years of work. Much like the man himself–a man of two worlds–the album is an energetic, fast-paced record blending country and blues with a bluegrass feel.
by Donovan Wheeler
photos by Perrie Juran
Every Saturday evening, my grandma would sit at her bedside next to her end-table (a now 110-year-old Singer Treadle Sewing Machine) and listen to her single-speaker desk radio which echoed live broadcasts of the Grand Ol’ Opry in beautiful, scratchy monotone. In those days—the late 1970’s—the Opry had largely transitioned away from the Hank Williams, Chet Atkins, Marty Robbins era and was now touting tracks from the likes of Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard. But even as the Disco Culture enveloped the rest of their world, Opry listeners were still craning their necks to that twanging, warbling instrumentation and the lingering, howling vocals which signified country music.
Midwest Heart, Southern Blues—the first full-length album from Nick Dittmeier and the Sawdusters—takes me back to those nights next to Grandma as she soaked in the Opry. For starters, the album mixes the pacing and rhythm of a bluegrass set-list with the vocal and instrumental style of those classic Opry singles. But for additional measure, several songs incorporate melodic blues riffs which modernize the record while keeping it fundamentally moored to its country origins.
“The songs are short and fast,” Dittmeier told me when we spoke in December. “They try to be catchy and relatively upbeat. The work is the product of all the shows we’ve played. We started playing these tracks at gigs before we put them on the record, and then—once we actually completed the album—we knew that we were going to be playing them just as often, if not even more than that…so we wanted to be sure that the stuff we were playing was fun and that we enjoyed it.”
Breaking away from earlier solo EP’s which Dittmeier described as “more progressive,” he and his new band set out to make an album they could look back on as more traditionally country. For Dittmeier—a Jeffersonville, Indiana native who lives with his wife in the same neighborhood where he grew up—the timing has been right.
Nick Dittmeier: “I feel as if I’ve been playing in bands forever, but I feel like I’ve finally hit an ability to be consistent on a level that I’ve never had before. When I was younger I thought I was there, but obviously I wasn’t.”
Donovan Wheeler: What do you mean?
ND: “It’s about being able to walk out there on stage and deliver a performance that’s within a consistent range of expectation—both in term of the technical performance and the energy. Because we’re going to have bad days in life. Things are going to happen in our personal lives, and if you’re consistent…if you’re really professional…then you’re going to have to be able to put that aside and deliver a great show. Part of what makes that effort possible is that, as group we’ve bought into what we’re doing, and we can see that our work is going to pay off down the road. That’s really important.”
The group Dittmeier refers to is something more than the supporting musicians he relied on as a solo performer. Comprised of guitarist and vocalist Zane Hilton, bassist Aaron Waters, and drummer John Clay Burchett; the band as a whole has taken a more involved role in the recording effort. They initially formed when Dittmeier sought out Hilton (whom he met while playing with Hilton’s brother) who himself brought in Waters. To round out the act, Dittmeier turned to his past co-workers and found among them one the reliable drummer he knew he could count on.
“I feel as if I’ve been playing in bands forever, but I feel like I’ve finally hit an ability to be consistent on a level that I’ve never had before. When I was younger I thought I was there, but obviously I wasn’t.”
ND: “[John Clay Burchett] actually played drums on the first EP and contributed some vocals to the second, but he wasn’t a consistent member of that original backing band. But he was always around and is very talented. Every time I had a recording project I could hit him up. So when we needed a drummer, he was the logical choice.”
DW: So how do you guys work together? How is this record a group effort?
ND: “I want the other guys to bring their ideas, and I don’t want to try to micromanage things. On ‘Centralia’ for example all the lead material is Zane’s. He crafted it, and that song really has his stamp on it. And that process…letting everyone have some ownership of the album was very important to me.”
DW: Let’s start with the song writing process. Do you have a routine?
ND: “I don’t particularly feel as if I have any control over it. I suppose it’s much like other artistic mediums. Ideas happen, and I don’t often know why or how they do. You need to try to accept it in the form as it comes to you and make whatever you’re creating the best it can be with the talents and skills you have.”
DW: Which in your case means what? When something does hit you what do you do with it?
ND: “I don’t ever sit down and go through a concentrated effort when I’m writing a song. I’ll have an idea for a song, but then I’ll stand back and let it happen. Once it does happen, however, I try to make the rest of it happen quickly. I don’t like to dwell on ideas for too long.”
DW: When your record comes out tomorrow, what then? How are you going to market it?
ND: “We have to build a bigger fan base: first and foremost. We have to get our music out to people, and we have to approach this album release almost as if it were an information campaign. It’s crazy to realize that, despite all the shows we’ve played this year, that there are still people out there who haven’t heard our music. So getting out in front of people and winning them over is the big step. We want to be in that moment when we face a big crowd every time we step out there. And we knew that we needed to make a good, full-length record just to get all of that started.”
DW: How has that progressed so far? How far out do you travel before you start to feel as if you’re outside that base?
ND: “We’ve been working on expanding our radius. We started at home [The Greater Louisville Area], then grew it to two hours out…then five…and now it’s about eight to twelve. These are distances where you can consistently go, play in front of people, and make it worth your time.”
DW: When you think about the future of the band, where would you like to see it end up? Do you dream big, or do you keep your aspirations mostly grounded?
ND: “The style of Americana country we do is popular, but more importantly, we’re performing in a ‘small world’ atmosphere. The music industry is really capitalizing right now on small bars, small venues, house shows, and local festivals. So we established the mindset that we were going to try to stay unconventional, open-minded, and just learn all that we could in the process. Zane and I have both talked about how important it is to just listen to people and try not to act as if we already know everything.”
ND: “I’ll give you a great example of what I mean: We played at the Switchyard in Bloomington, and we wish there was one of those in every town: places where you can be casual with the crowd, go out and talk about music with them, and also hang out and network with other bands. We met trollkiller there, and have played with them in Terre Haute as well, and that kind of band interaction with people who are like-minded and equally passionate makes all of this worth it. After all, we’re not getting rich doing this.”
DW: Do you consider it bad luck or good fortune that you’re playing in an era where road-touring is critical in terms of income? Do you think: “Man, I wish we could live off of one big record,” or do you think: “We’re so lucky to be playing gigs at this moment in history?”
ND: “My wife and I are both independent people. If we had kids then the situation would be totally different, but we both understand that in the modern music world you have to travel and put on shows. I said to the guys recently that we’re like the Ringling Brothers just driving around and putting on gigs, but it’s not something I dwell on or even feel upset about. There have been a lot of bands who’ve landed those big deals only to blow through all their earnings. And other bands have been promised great riches only to never see it happen.”
ND: “The industry can’t tell you whether you’re going to be an artist or not. And there’s plenty of ways to making a living doing this. For example (and I thought this would have died out by now), but several bands have gotten started with crowdfunding campaigns. And the technology. Thanks to that there’s so many ways to get our music out to people, and thanks to sites like YouTube there’s ways to get our image out to people. These are positives to me. But that old classic model of ‘being in a band…’ that all went by the wayside about a decade ago, and none of that appeals to us, anyway.”
DW: The Internet is your asset, then?
ND: “Oh, absolutely. I remember when I was kid all these hair-metal bands exploded in our consciousness on day, and then the next day no one heard of them again. In the modern music scene you don’t get that. The Internet allows bands to stay relevant. The scale is smaller…it’s more intimate, but it’s also very real because you can personally manage your fan base. This has created a culture that’s more career-oriented, and that’s clearly a positive for music.”
When Dittmeier was a kid, he was surrounded by music. His grandmother who still works with hand-bell choirs in her 80s served as his first, and his father-adept at multiple instruments opened him up at an early age to the image of himself on a stage. As Dittmeier says, “it was never a far-fetched thought.”
ND: “One of the great things about Louisville when I was growing up is there were places were all-age bands could play. I could go and see the older kids I went to school with play with their bands. All of that collectively created an environment where I could easily picture myself standing up there. More importantly, I had this sense of how get my own act started and how to keep it moving once we were up and running.”
DW: Are there very many places like that left today?
ND: “You know, I don’t really know. There was a really big place I used to go to when I was a kid, but now it’s a Buffalo Wild Wings. It used to be a very cool, sort of Broad-Ripple type of location, but real estate prices exploded and now it’s more commercialized. I imagine there are still plenty of places to play now: VFW’s, house gigs, and things of that sort. I have no doubt it was probably easier for me than it is now, but I also that think that—even today—if there’s a group of kids who want to play that badly, they will find ways to make shows happen.”
Finding a way to make it happen best sums up Dittmeier’s journey thus far. From a young-adulthood of what he calls “a lot of hard, crappy jobs” to his maturation as a technical musician, a singer, and a presence on stage, it’s a journey Dittmeier tells well in his first full album. And when he shoulders his Fender and leans into the microphone, he does so as a point of declaration. He’s worked a long time to be able to stand like that, and no matter what’s going on in his life or ours, he’s here do his job as a professional should. We’re going to like it, of course, because he’s pretty damn good at it.