I just spent a week and a half on the road with the band Swampbird. All the new people and places were so stimulating and fun that I completely and unashamedly abandoned my attempt at keeping an online tour diary (although at one point that seemed a promising endeavor). I haven’t wanted to analyze the trip because I’ve been completely immersed in it. So instead of trying to recreate a tour diary from memory (and a sleep-deprived, partied-out memory at that), I’d like to use what I’ve learned and experienced on tour to try to answer a question that might be on your mind: Is Swampbird for real?

The band certainly has its detractors who would say “no.” I’ve talked to people who view the band solely as a group of self-aware liberal art school graduates who put on a campy southern shtick and sing about cliché country experiences they’ve never actually had. Truly, Zac Hale has never “shot [a man] for a mean look in his eye.” While singers and bands stretch the truth or write completely fictional songs all the time, I think Swampbird gets criticized because their fictions seem so far-fetched from who they are as people offstage. Yet this criticism is only valid if you think Swampbird is trying to be serious. So the question remains: Is Swampbird for real?

If you asked the band this question at their very first band-practice in the fall of 2010 at Hendrix College, they too would have said “no.” They’ve expressed to me multiple times that at first they really just used the band as an excuse to drink whiskey and party. Their very first songs (like the song “Bottle”, quoted above), were silly caricatures of the country-western style. They were just having fun playing music, cracking each other up, and performing at house parties. The problem is, when you try to write a caricature of a country-western song, you end up sounding a lot like a country-western song. The other problem is, the Swampbird boys are actually talented musicians and thoughtful songwriters. Thus, even though they were not exactly “serious” about the band, they consistently entertained both themselves and their audiences with their performances and Swampbird gained enough momentum to continue past the band members’ college life.

Flash forward to 2015 and Swampbird is still having fun playing music and cracking each other up, but they have clearly upped the ante. They still perform the freewheeling Hendrix-era classics like “Bottle” and “1,2,3,” but now accompany them with poignant and nuanced autobiographical numbers like “Ally’s Song” and “Brussels.” As the songs have matured, so have the venues. Though I’m positive they’d still enjoy rocking a house party, Swampbird now performs on major stages both in Arkansas and around the country. They’ve even filmed multiple professional music videos, one of which (Matter of Time) has over 10,000 Youtube views. Swampbird has left the swamp.

Despite all of this, I admit that I too wondered if these guys were actually serious about music, or merely using it as a fun drinking game. Regardless, I agreed to go on tour with them because I wanted to see some exciting new places, because I knew I would enjoy playing their songs, and because I like all of the band members as people. But like the beginning of all of my good relationships—playing in bands is a lot like dating by the way, but that’s for another blog post— I was just looking to have a casual good time and ended up connecting in a much deeper way. From Alabama to Maine, Swampbird showed me an amazing good time and won me over both musically and personally.

The tone of the tour was set on our drive to Birmingham. Dylan, who is currently in Canada, homeless and recording an album with Daniel Romano (aka living his dream), needed to call to cancel his electricity at his former apartment. Discovering he had a refund check in store from his initial deposit, he asked Zac if he could have it sent to his house and then asked the customer service operator if he could put it in the care of his friend. All parties agreed. When she asked Dylan for the name of his friend he had a moment of inspiration: “yes it’s first name Za, that’s Z, A.” spoken calmly “and last name Kale, like the leaf.” Forever after on tour Zac Hale was referred to as Za Kale, most often in a Jamaican accent. From “Wawawawawawawawa,” to “praise him” to “can you feel it” to “take me home tonight,” the inside jokes amassed on tour and the laughs came easy. Our second to last show was at a brewery in Portland, Maine on a beautiful sunny, temperate afternoon. The combination of an emotional tour, sleep deprivation, chemical enhancement, and cowboy music had us compulsively laughing onstage both between and during songs— it was great.

Indeed I’ve learned that the best way to approach Swampbird is with a touch of humor— they do. Honestly I laugh every time I hear the opening line to their song Gasoline: “Momma I quit talkin’ to Jesus, but I’m too ashamed to let you know, I put my faith in this goddamn rodeo.” From talking to him I understand that this is actually pointing to a real sorrowful feeling and experience in Dylan’s life, but this line is delivered in such an over the top classic-country way, that it is always funny to me. Swampbird intentionally exists in this grey area between humor and heartbreak and I think this is a brilliant element of the band— you can choose to either laugh or cry within the same song. This is nothing new; from it’s earliest incarnations, country music has always walked this line. Just ask Hank Williams. Yet Swampbird’s playful and sometimes irreverent attitude is perhaps what rubs some listeners the wrong way and leads them to question the band’s sincerity. I believe that they are simply following in the footsteps of innumerable self-aware country artists who weave between irony, obscenity, and honesty (e.g. Kris Kristopherson, David Allan Coe, Drive-by Truckers, etc.).

Not everyone will appreciate Swampbird’s lyrics— this is fine (I’ve written before that it is better to be loved by some and hated by others than kinda-sorta liked by all). Yet if you listen to more than the words, you’ll notice that Swampbird does some very interesting things with the musical elements of their songs. None of the band-members are classically trained, but they use what they know about music in very clever ways. Going from loud to soft (and vice-versa) is something that everyone innately understands and responds to, yet many young bands totally disregard this effect and very few bands I know utilize dynamic volume as well as Swampbird. Furthermore, most bands overall play far too loud and drown themselves out— Swampbird doesn’t necessarily play soft, but stays low enough for every part to be heard coherently. Harmonically the band isn’t reinventing the wheel, but they are not writing the same I-IV-V chord songs that everyone and their mom has already written. They often use familiar chords and progressions, making their songs easy to listen to and understand, but vary them enough to keep both the audience and the musicians entertained. I’d like to pull out my music major/gigging guitarist credibility card and tell you to trust me when I say that Swampbird writes musically rich songs. They also build in moments of improvisation into most songs so that live performances are not merely cookie cutter renditions of their album recordings, but spontaneous and unique moments. I took full advantage of this fact and flexed my improv muscle at every gig we played on tour (Zac and Dylan delightfully laughed at me for never playing the same thing twice). I had so much fun playing these songs.

In addition to their song structures, Swampbird also handles the logistics of band management with great organization and planning. Dylan did a wonderful job of booking this tour, asking other bands and artists about each venue, and making sure travel lengths and lodging plans were all feasible. Additionally Zac operated as band treasurer during the tour, keeping tight records of all of our income and expenses (he also did a wonderful job calling and researching rental cars for the ride home). Pete Campos operated as band manager/free-safety, taking care of our payments, selling merchandise, driving the van, and selflessly letting us have the best sleeping spots wherever we stayed. Paul and I pretty much just played drums and guitar. Additionally when faced with difficulties, the band was never too flustered, but handled it with reason and direct solutions. In Boston, we stayed at the house of Dylan and Zac’s larger than life college buddy Conner (affectionately known as “Corn-dog”). We all stayed up far too late drinking and telling stories, and in the morning Dylan and Conner were abruptly awoken by Conner’s roommate: “Conner! You gotta go to work, you’re late! … Oh, dude, your van’s getting towed.” Dylan ran outside just in time to see the van getting pulled away. Dylan went back inside, slept another hour, found the place it was impounded, walked all the way there, paid for the van, and returned to pick us up.Naturally he was a bit surly about the whole ordeal, but simply solved the problem without even waking us up.

Yet the true measure of a band’s viability is not in its organization, songwriting, or attitude, but in the way it relates to people. Fans are a band’s life-blood. From my very first Swampbird show, July 27 at The Whitewater Tavern in which dozens of people were singing along to the swamp songs, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well people respond to this band live. Excluding Knoxville (Knoxville was a bummer except for all the money and pizza the venue gave us— thanks Barley’s), we either played to current fans or won new fans everywhere we went. Our last performance of the tour was an impromptu outdoor show literally on the sidewalk of downtown Portland, Maine in the middle of the afternoon. We had a few friends come listen and Paul had some family there supporting him, yet the majority of the audience members were simply passersby who decided to stick around. No one is going to get rich playing on the side of the road, yet the street is the oldest stage in the world, and perhaps the truest test of your appeal as an artist. There was no reason for anyone to stay and hear us play— if anything there was reason for them not to stay, assuming they were on their way to some other location— yet we won them over merely by merit of our sound (well, perhaps our look as well, but whatever it takes).

So, is Swampbird for real? Undoubtedly, yes. They are playing major shows, going on national tours, recording and selling albums, filming widely seen music videos, getting great press, and writing good music. Yet this doesn’t mean that they take it all too seriously. They still like to laugh, party, and hangout and during live performances you can tell that they are enjoying themselves. Personally, I find their attitude refreshing. Too many artists are completely humorless about their art. Certainly art can approach any subject, and certain tragic topics deserve to be handled solemnly, yet ultimately the act of creating art is obscure, ineffable, and useless. I appreciate Swampbird for having fun with it.


Big thanks to Nick, Morgan, Conner, Tim, and the Mallet Brothers Band for giving us places to stay and showing us the time of our life!


Last month Trent Whitehead, lead guitarist of the rambunctious alt-country outfit Swampbird, abruptly sent me a facebook message asking if I wanted to fill in for him on Swampbird’s East Coast tour (Trent couldn’t get away from work for the necessary two weeks). Though I had never played with the band before, I knew from previously seeing their energetic shows and meeting all the band-mates that it would be a fun time. I said yes. After confirming it with me, Trent asked his bandmates Dylan Vernon (guitar, vocals), Zac Hale (bass, vocals), and Paul Fennig (drums) if it would be ok if I substituted for him. They said yes.

There is a symbiotic relationship between myself and the band. I play lead guitar, filling out their sound, and they take me around the country, letting me continue to live out my dream of traveling and playing music (if you ask me I think I’m getting the better end of this deal). I certainly hope Swampbird continues to grow and have great success, and I hope I can contribute to that success while I’m on tour with them, but because I’m not actually in the band, I also have a close eye on how this tour is benefiting me personally and musically. Namely, I am getting to witness and sample other music scenes around nation (I may want to move to one of these places someday) and practice playing a country-rock guitar style that I don’t often get to perform. I am thankful and humbled that they’ve agreed to bring me along and am looking forward to the wonderful highs and lows of life on the road.

Though late nights and ample adult beverages will surely threaten my productivity, I aim to keep a consistent tour diary as we travel to some really cool places:

7/31— Birmingham, AL | Secret Stages Festival

8/1 — Knoxville, TN | Barley’s

8/2 — Asheville, NC | Jack of the Wood

8/4 — Washington, DC | Hill Country

8/5 — Brooklyn, NY | Bar Matchless

8/6 — Cambridge, MA | Middle East

8/8 — Portsmouth, NH | The Press Room

Friday July 31st, 2015. Day one.

We met at 10:00am to pack up the tour van at Dylan’s downtown Little Rock apartment. There I met the fifth Swampbird Pete Campos, a self-described “cog in the machine” for Sticky’z and Rev Room in Little Rock. He’ll be handling the driving, merchandise-dealing, and kitten herding for the duration of the tour. We were on the road to Birmingham by 11am. The spirits were high, and the jokes were base. I was happy to be on the road again.

Our soundtrack for the first leg of the journey was Canada based singer/songwriter Daniel Romano. Romano’s songs are all about heartache and call to mind singers like Faron Young and Merle Haggard. Though he has an absolutely classic-country sound, Romano feels that most of the artists we refer to as “country” today have strayed from the genre’s roots. Thus Romano has coined a new term to describe his genre: Mosey. It’s great driving music.

Dylan was already a huge fan when he heard that Daniel Romano was playing a show at J.R.’s and needed an opener— he quickly assembled a band to play the show, mainly so he could hear and meet his idol. Months later, Dylan was looking at Romano’s tour schedule and noticed a two day gap between his shows in Shreveport and Nashville. He contacted Romano’s manager Kay Berkell and asked if they wanted to do a show in Little Rock with Swampbird. She exclaimed that they had in fact been trying to book a show in Little Rock and would love to. More meetings and correspondence followed and culminated in Kay asking Dylan if he wanted to record an album of his own originals with Daniel at his Ontario studio. After Dylan checked multiple times to see if she was actually serious and not just being nice, she insisted that she was and said they would be free to start it August 9th, the day after Swampbird’s last show of the tour in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Thus, after we wrap up the tour, Pete, Paul, Zac, and I will rent a car and travel home to Arkansas and Dylan will drive the van to Ridgeville, Ontario to cut an album with his musical hero.

I am naturally the outsider in Swampbird (having spent only a handful of days around them), so I enjoy getting stories on the background and futures of my momentary bandmates. Although the band currently resides in Little Rock, it turns out that all of the members are transplants. Dylan is originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana but moved to Arkansas in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. He finished up high school at Subiaco Academy and then attended Hendrix for college. Zac grew up in Huntsville, AL and chose Hendrix because it gave him a nice scholarship. Dylan, Zac, and Trent met at Hendrix and quickly began to hangout and play music with each other. Though, the band was at first just “an excuse to drink whiskey on weekdays,” by the end of college it was a musically viable entity and they decided to pursue it in Little Rock. Paul is originally from Des Arc, AR but moved to Little Rock in 2003 after finishing college at Lyon in Batesville. He had been in numerous Little Rock bands such as Frown Pow’r, The Modedz, Tsar Bomba, The Yips, and Life Size Pizza by the time The Swampbird dudes were in need of a new drummer. He joined them in 2012 and his first gig with the band was at Riverfest that same year.

We rolled into Birmingham around 6pm, set to play at a German restaurant and bar called Das Haus as part of the Secret Stages festival. We met a kindly artist and festival worker named Soso who clued us in to the location of the Secret Stages VIP room where we could have our fill of food and drinks. After satiating ourselves with delicious Tacos and local beer, we loaded in our equipment and prepared to play the first show of tour (and my first real show with the band). I comforted myself by using a cheat sheet taped to the back of my guitar to remind me of all the songs, chords, and keys. We played well, and the crowd was extremely supportive. Our 45 minute set blew by in no time because we were having so much fun.

In fact, the fun continued until well after our set. Still riding the high of the performance, we bounced between the VIP room and the various stages to check out the other bands. Secret Stages is not an outdoor festival— it exists within about a square mile area of downtown, and all the shows are at actual music venues in the area (Parthenon, Rogue Tavern, Pale Eddie’s, M-Lounge, Lobotomix, Easy Street, Das Haus). Quality control at the festival was extremely high— I didn’t see a single band I didn’t enjoy, and a couple of them truly blew me away. A band called Twin Limb performed immediately after us at Das Haus and had a lot going for them: 1. The Look— the band consisted of two pretty girls and dude who looked like a caveman from the future. They arranged themselves on stage with the girls sitting facing each other at the front of the stage and the dude standing in the back, forming a radical triangle. 2. The Instrumentation — The girls played drums and accordion and both sang, while the future-man in the back played guitar and electronic-sample sounds. 3. The Sound — despite being just a three-piece the sound was large and rapturous with beautiful vocal melodies ringing out over big beats and heavily effected guitar and accordion.

After the Twin Limb show, Lacy, the accordion player/singer in the band, recommended we check out their friend’s band called Landlady. Pete confirmed that Landlady was definitely a worthwhile show, but before we could do that, we needed a refill at the VIP station. Two hilarious things happened there. First, Paul discovered an unwrapped (yet hopefully unused) condom in the diet coke cooler and very politely informed one of the festival volunteers of the situation. Second, Dylan, while chatting up a local PYT, knocked over a large precariously built display of all the Secret Stages bands arranged like the periodic table with the brim of his cowboy hat. It seemed an accident waiting to happen, but he profusely apologized to the staff to prove he wasn’t a complete drunk idiot.

After the VIP room shenanigans, Dylan and Zac went to see an interactive psychedelic band called Space Face while Pete, Paul, and I went to check out Landlady. I really can’t remember the last time I was so swept away by a musical performance. The lead singer/keyboard player was a short guy, with a huge voice who bore a striking resemblance to Rod Serling. He was supported by a bass player, guitarist, and two drummers who traded turns playing drums and auxiliary percussion— all were extremely proficient on their instruments and provided backup vocals as well. The songs shifted seamlessly between composed, precisely executed sections and free-for all percussive freakouts. Many bands are talented but not very original. Many other bands are original but not very talented. Landlady was both— the songs were intricate, difficult, and unique, and they executed them flawlessly. I recommend them.

After the shows we reluctantly regrouped at the van and drove to Zac’s high school friend Nick’s house to crash. Exhausted, I laid my sleeping bag on the floor and passed out, while Dylan, Zac, and Nick talked, drank, and reminisced into the wee hours.

Saturday August 1st, 2015. Day Two.

We woke around 11am, still groggy from the night before, but the promise of free lunch got us on our feet and moving. Another of Zac’s childhood friends named Rachel invited us over to her house for BLT’s and delicious homemade cookies. She and her husband are sponsors of Secret Stages and enjoyed hosting bands as they travelled through. It was a big happy lunch with two bands and family members all eating and talking. We filled up to our heart’s content and then hit the road to Knoxville.

On the road we entertained ourselves by sharing shameful and hilarious high-school stories. These I can’t print, but suffice it to say that Zac Hale was a rockstar long before he was in Swampbird and I know the whole band a lot better now.

We pulled in to Knoxville with plenty of time to load in our equipment, explore a music shop next door, and kick a soccer ball around before showtime. We played at a pizza restaurant & bar called Barley’s, and unfortunately the people seemed more into the pizza and beer than our music. It was a nearly polar opposite crowd reaction than the previous night in Birmingham. We chugged along through our set, but it was difficult to not feel deflated by the crowd’s apathy. We regrouped after our first set and agreed that we should just be playing for each other and not for the indifferent crowd. We started off our second set of music with some of Dylan’s solo material that he’ll be recording later this month. I sat in with him, filling in the spaces between his words with little melodies and chords, and all of a sudden we began to have fun playing. Paul then joined us on stage, providing a nice back-beat for the songs, and by the time Zac got up there I think we felt like a whole new band. Our second set was very strong even though the crowd never really came around. We comforted ourselves with the thought of the nice guarantee we were promised by the venue and the five pizzas they cooked us (eat your heart out Maxine’s).

After the show we drove through a surprisingly active downtown night-life scene on our way to our Marriott Hotel. Pete has the hookup on the Marriott’s family rate, so we can sleep for relatively cheap in relative comfort (five dudes in one hotel room is neither the best nor worst) once in a while on tour.

Sunday August 2nd, 2015. Day Three

I woke up early and snuck out the room to go work out and swim at the hotel’s outdoor pool area. After two days of long cramped van rides, shows, and beer drinking, my body was feeling a bit stagnant, so it felt great to run around, swim, workout, and stretch. I returned to the room as everyone was waking up and we ate cold leftover pizza for breakfast as we packed up our bags.

The drive to Asheville was short and beautiful. Though I have toured like this before, I forgot that one of the most amazing parts of the experience is watching a new city or landscape roll into view— I was reminded of this wonderful feeling as we approached the Appalachian mountains. As we drove through the hills, I texted the one person I know who lives in Asheville. Simon George is an incredible keyboard player and full-time musician living in Asheville and the brother of my good buddy and Oxford American editor Max George. I met Simon last year when he was visiting Max in Little Rock and we had a brief but entertaining jam together on acoustic guitar and Casio keyboard.

I told Simon I’d be in Asheville within the hour and he invited me to come to Burial Beer Co. where Simon’s jazz-fusion trio was playing until 4pm. I suggested it to the Swampbirds, and they all agreed. I greeted Simon and he invited me to join the band for a song on the condition that I play him a solo classical guitar piece first. So I took the stage after their set break and serenaded the beer drinkers with some Carcassi etudes played on a Telecaster guitar. Next Simon and his drummer joined me and we played a jazz-funk tune called Red Baron. It felt musically nourishing to get to dip into my jazz style for a moment during this country-rock tourgasm. I do love to play with Swampbird, yet I’ve incorporated a lot of different style into my musical life (Classical, Jazz, Funk, Soul, Hip-Hop, Country, Rock, R&B) and I am left wanting if I am away from any one style for too long. I reluctantly passed the guitar back to its owner. After they finished the set we bid Simon and his mates a fond farewell and they gave us a tip about a good spot to swim in the nearby French Broad river.

Pete and Paul then went to guitar center to buy some drum gear, while Dylan, Zac, and I went for a refreshing swim. We checked in to the Springhill Suites hotel (another chain in the Marriott family where we get the good discount), and were pleasantly surprised by a large room with two full-sized beds and a massive fold out couch. I took a quick soak in the hot tub (it was a rather leisurely day), and then showered and got ready for the show.

We played at a charming little spot in downtown Asheville called Jack of the Wood. Though we were again playing at a bar/restaurant, the Asheville experience was completely different from the dead night in Knoxville. For one, Dylan and Zac had some friends come and show a lot of vocal support throughout the whole show which was very energizing. Yet many of the people who had never even heard us before payed close attention and enjoyed the show. Despite playing only for tips, we ended up making plenty of money to get us to our next stop of Washington DC. Even more satisfying was the fact that many of the audience members came up and paid us compliments. I had heard a lot of good things from artists and musicians about Asheville before visiting, and based on my brief experience it does seem to be a wonderfully supportive community for anyone pursing art. I think I’ll be back.

After the show we drove back to the hotel where we took full advantage of the fact that we did not have a show the next day. We stayed up into the wee hours talking, drinking, joking, and sending out world-class snap-chats. Some things shouldn’t be written about here, and those are the things you should ask us about in person.

By the way, if you want to follow all of the action during our tour, the best way to do that is to add us on Snapchat (if you don’t have it, get it) at SwampbirdTV. The snaps are golden.