By Ryan Meehan
It all started in the small town of Lyle, MN (pop. 500) with a skid loader and a fence post, when Six Mile Grove frontman Brandon Sampson was 7 years old. He injured his hand when helping his dad on the family farm. The physician recommended guitar playing for rehabilitation, and a few weeks later, Sampson came home from the music store with a new guitar. His younger brother Brian threw a fit, and was appeased with a shiny drum set. And so the seeds of Six Mile Grove were planted. The brothers spent years pounding away on their instruments in the kitchen of their great grandmother’s old house, as well as singing in church with their mom, an organist and devoted music lover. Soon Brian’s friend Barry, from across the woods, wanted to join the noise, and so his years of piano lessons began paying off. The boys realized they would need a bass player, put an ad in the paper, and dug up Dezi Wallace from the “big city” of Austin, MN, who arrived courtesy of his mom, as he did not yet have a driver’s license. Fast forward 15 years, and Six Mile Grove has a lot to be proud of. They have weathered the ever changing music scene as a primarily self-managed, self-produced, and self-recorded band. Their music has evolved accordingly, as an organic, honest voice that has not been tinkered with or tainted by the lure of record labels or flashy music producers. You’re sure to find influences of Minnesota music’s founding fathers; from Bob Dylan to the Jayhawks, Six Mile Grove honors it’s roots, but has also managed to forge it’s own sound and space on a stage without compromise. They harken most to the genre of Americana, which recognizes the value of songwriting and musicianship over radio charts and record sales, and reflects that in artists as diverse as Emmy Lou Harris and Lyle Lovett. In addition, their friendship, touring and recording with legendary Johnny Cash guitarist Bob Wootton, has lended even more distinctly to their “good all-American boy” sound and style. Six Mile Grove is releasing it’s sixth album this Spring 2012, titled “Secret Life in a Quiet Town.” In this album, Sampson muses on the responsibilities of providing for a family, keeping love alive, and fighting for what’s right in the world. These themes resonate with all the members of the band, as guys with day jobs, wives and kids. You’ll hear the whines and growls in Nelson’s piano and lead guitar licks; the take-it-easy pace of Wallace’s bass, and the simple to furious tempos in Brian Sampson’s drums. Here at FOH we’re in luck, as 6MG’s Brandon and Barry are our guests today in 5 Questions.
FOH: Who directed the video for “Steel Mule” and what’s the story behind that song and the video that accompanies it?
BRANDON: The video was directed by Dave Dennison, an Emmy-award-winning television photojournalist who is a big fan of our music. I started writing the song “Steel Mule” about an old tractor, The Bates Steel Mule, and how it reminded me of my Grandpa Russell, a feisty 80 year old farmer. The Steel Mule was considered a very hard working, stubborn machine, and I wanted to relate that toughness to my Grandpa. But the song ended up more as a love song, about the tenderness between my Grandpa and my Grandma Gladys, and all the changes they have seen in their long life together, and how their strong partnership has helped them weather all those changes. Dave fell in love with the song, and basically directed the entire video based on his personal inspiration. We filmed it down at my parents’ farm, which has been in the family for over 100 years, and carries a lot of memories and tradition. And it features my Grandma and Grandpa. They really like being celebrities.
FOH: Could you briefly tell us a little bit about how you got together? Did you all have very similar musical tastes at first and everybody was dead set on playing the same style or was there ever any disagreement there?
BRANDON: I hurt my hand in a farming accident when I was a kid. The doctor suggested guitar playing for my rehabilitation. I came home with a new guitar, and my brother threw a fit, so my parents bought him a drum set. We spent our childhood making noise together. And since my mom is the church organist, you can bet we were singing every Sunday. Eventually, we put together a little band. Barry, my brother’s best friend, put his piano lessons to good use and joined us. Then we put an ad in the paper for a bassist, and quite frankly, Dezi was the only one who responded. That was almost 15 years ago, and we are still going strong. We have some similar musical interests, and some differences, but the places where are tastes are different is what makes our music dynamic. We’ve always had a simple policy that if you don’t like an idea or a song, you have to be able to offer a better idea, and that has served us well. There have been moments we have had to work through differences, but that’s part of the creative process. And fortunately no one is super dramatic, no one has mental health issues or drug problems, so we’re all able to stay pretty reasonable even when we disagree about something.
FOH: How does the material on “Secret Life in a Quiet Town” differ from that of the first five records? Is there anything within the writing process that you have changed in the past five years?
BRANDON: The material has changed as we have. The songs we were writing 15 years ago were about long distance college relationships, and the growing pains of becoming adults; the sound was appropriate for the 90’s, more college rock than anything. As we’ve grown up, not only as a band, but as individuals, our songs are becoming more about our families, being dads, being husbands, trying to be good providers while being great artists, honoring our roots as we relate to the struggles and triumphs of our parents and grandparents. Things get more complicated as you get older, and our songs are a way of processing and expressing that. And the sound has evolved too. I think that as musicians we have become braver. We’re taking more risks, we’re getting more comfortable in our own skin, we’re more sure of ourselves, and we’re learning how to say what we want to say, not only in the lyrics, but with our instruments. You can hear it in Brian’s drums… he’s a dad of 3 under the age of 4, and his youngest 2 are twins. That’s hard, and stressful and beautiful, and he can take it all out on his drums. Barry’s kids are wild and hilarious free spirits, and I think the way he plays all his instruments is showing more freedom, and a sense of humor at times. And Dezi, well, he’s laid back. His little son is laid back, and we need someone who can just keep us grounded and moving forward.
FOH: There seems to be a lot of love up in Minnesota for roots rock and alt-country in general…Why do you think that is – is it because of the musical taste that people in the state have or is it more of a cultural thing?
BRANDON: Maybe it started with Bob Dylan… He is certainly a cultural icon, and one that Minnesota can claim to at least giving him the angst to leave and become a great musician… He is definitely responsible for some of my musical taste, and songwriting. And then there are bands like the Jayhawks, and Uncle Tupelo, and the Honeydogs, and the Gear Daddies, who have all been recognized on a national level for establishing a “sound” that has contributed to the history of music in America, as well as a distinct “Minnesota” sound. You can’t escape the familiarity of a Jayhawks harmony, and it is often honored by other musicians. Maybe it’s the humility and the frankness of all the Lutherans here, or the fact that Minnesota is known for it’s love of art in general, and music specifically, while maintaining strong ties to it’s cultural heritage. We have a lot of strong, undiluted German and Scandinavian blood in this state, as well as a deep pride in our greater diversity. Those things all make good soil for great music. And I think many Minnesotans pride themselves for having good taste, and generally the genres of roots rock and alt-country produce good music. It’s also often pleasant to the ear, full of good stories, and instrumentally dynamic, though it’s delivered with simplicity. I think that mirrors a Midwestern sensibility, but who knows.
FOH: Barry – I noticed on your Wikipedia page that it lists a Hammond organ as one of the instruments that you play…Do you actually use a real Hammond for live gigs or is that something that you only use in the studio? Do you feel that you can ever replicate that same tone via sampling?
BARRY: I’ve only used the real deal in the studio and you really can’t beat it. The technology has advanced to the point where unless you’re a Hammond expert, you’re probably not going to notice much of a difference, especially in a live setting. For me it isn’t so much about the sound as it is the feel of the instrument. There is a feeling you get and a connection you make when playing any vintage instrument that you just don’t get when you try to replicate it digitally. All the quirks and nuances really come out and I like the fact that no two instruments are the same. That being said, the logistics of hauling a Hammond and Leslie are daunting to say the least, so I make the compromise for live gigs.
FOH: What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned from (Johnny Cash guitarist) Bob Wootoon? Is his advice and friendship proof that some things within the music industry stay the same over time, and/or has he given you any pointers that show the business is constantly evolving?
BRANDON: The best advice Bob has ever given us is to keep it simple, and to be ourselves. He’s said that what he likes about us is that we’re not trying to sound like anyone else. Bob is a pretty quiet guy; he has a lot of integrity, and has obviously seen a lot in his years. So we just consider it a privilege to get to share a stage with him every once and a while. And more than a friend, he is family. My kids love him like an uncle, and we have spent time with his wife and daughters too. I think maybe that’s the part of the music industry that Bob embodies most, and it’s perhaps a concept that isn’t nearly as prevalent now as it was 25 years ago, is that the people you play with are your family.
FOH: Let’s say I had never heard your music before and I was at an outdoor musical festival that had multiple stages, and there was another band there that I had never heard before a well. What reason would you give to me as to why I should check you guys out as opposed to them?
BRANDON: We’ve never felt like we’ve had to convince anyone to like our music, and we’re OK if you don’t. We try to focus on writing, recording and performing music that we believe in, and we hope that people will like it, and thankfully, some do. We’re not in this business with dreams of fame, or fortune, we just like making music together. We try not to focus on anything that distracts us from making good music, and we hope that our dedication to our craft, if nothing else, sets us apart.
FOH: What does Six Mile Grove have planned for the next twelve months? Anything big in the works?
BRANDON: We’re pretty busy promoting our latest release, Secret Life in a Quiet Town, and have also kicked off another season of the “Americana Showcase” at the Rochester Civic Theatre, which we host, and hand pick local and national musicians to introduce to our audience. We’re also taking the Showcase on the road this year, traveling to other cultural centers throughout greater Minnesota, to bring great music to traditionally underserved communities. By that, I mean cities that most bands don’t think of playing in, because they forget that there are plenty of places besides Minneapolis filled with savvy music lovers. We’ve got some great shows lined up with Bob too. And we’ve got our day jobs, our wives, and our kids to take care of, so that about does it!
Official Website: http://sixmilegrove.com
Six Mile Grove on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=tn_tnmn#!/sixmilegrove?fref=ts
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