On true talent, impossible moments, and Them Dirty Roses
THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON SEPTEMBER 14, 2021
With enough exposure to live entertainment, consumers begin to see through the smoke and mirrors. We learn to identify when someone possesses true talent versus those who can entertain because of the technical wizardry of many people working together behind the scenes. It is the difference between a performer and an artist. Both are capable of entertaining us, but one has an undeniable gift, and no matter how big or small the crowd is that witnesses their talent, everyone walks away knowing they saw something special.
Finding those true talents is tough. As much as the internet may have lowered the barrier to entry for anyone hoping to share their gifts with the world, it also made things easier to fake. We've all heard about these overnight music sensations who turn out to be kids in their bedrooms that are good at using production software. You probably also know of professional singers who cannot carry a tune without the help of a program. Maybe you witnessed a concert where someone on stage was pretending a prop was real to enhance how the audience experiences the event. That could be anything from a group using a wall of fake amplifiers to appear larger than life or a backing musician taking center stage to "perform" a solo that is actually playing from a pre-recorded MP3. These things are neither good nor bad. It's called SHOW business, after all.
Still, I would argue that no amount of digital wizardry or expensive stage production can replicate the way exposure to authentic talent makes us feel. When you witnessed someone doing something that may otherwise seem impossible, you begin to believe in yourself and others differently. Experiencing true talent can help you dig a little deeper, work a little harder, and dream a little bigger. It shows you that the only impossible things are the things that we do not attempt. That sounds corny, and it feels corny to write, but it is nonetheless true.
What makes all of this so exciting is that you cannot predict when these moments of authentic greatness will occur. You can hedge your bets by looking into every artist you discover, sifting through their history for work ethic and early demos, but more often than not, their live show is the only true proving ground. You can bring all the lights and magic you want, but audiences typically know when someone is selling talent rather than embodying it. True talent never appears like it's trying to impress you because it understands your approval does not matter. It's not that the artist doesn't want you to like them — virtually all creatives, myself included, count external approval among our 'essentials' for a happy life — but confidence and comfort in one's abilities does change the artist-fan relationship because the creative is focusing on the quality of the product rather than reception. They're doing what they do to the best of their abilities, and whether or not you like it or even approve of it is out of their control.
On Thursday, September 9, a last-minute offer from a music publicist I've known since 2008 got me out of my house and back into a music venue. I only had time to try a few songs from Them Dirty Roses before agreeing to cover the show, but that was more than enough for me. As I saw it, the night would either involve live music or another night playing Splitgate at home. Both are good options, but picking live music is the right choice nine times out of ten.
It was our third consecutive night at a gig that week, but the first in The Stache, a small room that doubles as an entrance to The Intersection venue in Grand Rapids, MI. You could smell the end of summer in the air, and the cool evening temperatures provided proof that fall was already en route. Everyone gathered outside was wearing jeans with some combination of layers on top. There were hoodies over t-shirts and flannel long sleeves tied like crop tops over spaghetti straps worn by women with cowboy hats that have never known the touch of dirt. It was a working-class crowd numbering in the dozens, and one could hear conversations about the many troubles plaguing the world as we made our way inside. Life is always a struggle in one way or another, but lately, it’s every way all at once.
Them Dirty Roses hail from Alabama with a sound deeply rooted in the region's muddy rock and roll stylings. One listen to any song of the band's breakout 2017 self-titled EP, and it's clear these modern good old boys have lived a lot of life in their short time on this planet. Their songs share stories of whiskey-drinking, cocaine-snorting outsiders raised in the holler on a mixture of classic rock and outlaw country who can shoot, drive, and perform better than anyone you know. It's what one might imagine The Dukes Of Hazzard would sound like as a band, only with more drugs and none of the racism. So, in other words, a better Dukes of Hazzard.
Almost everything else you need to know lies within the group's song, "Grew Up In The Country":
Born and raised in the 'Bama clay
Where my daddy's rock and roll took a hold of me
Skynyrd and Hank, they taught me
How to bend a string and break a heart
Southern way's just the way we are
I grew up in the country
With a 12 gauge shotgun
I grew up in the country
Underneath that sweetgum
I'll chase it, rock and roll
Don't forget, nah everybody knows
That I grew up in the country
And the country grew up in me
Made my way, to Tennessee
With a band of Alabama boys like me
Found a space, to let us play
I crank back a shot, and turn it on
Soon we have the whole damn crowd singin'
"Grew Up Country" has it all. There are thick power chords, thunderous drums, and an instantly memorable hook. You get a sense of who these men are, where they're from, and what it is that they've set out to accomplish. It may not be much, but it's all they've ever wanted, and they're coming to a stage near you to bleed themselves dry under neon lights until God or Mother Nature strikes them down. They are the living embodiment of what Thoreau meant when he wrote, "Life isn't about finding yourself; it's about creating yourself. So live the life you imagined."
Rock music has a long history of promising young acts finding emotional and financial support from fans long before the industry takes notice. I've heard such acts referred to as "adopted bands," but other terms and phrases exist. These fans are often older and/or financially successful, and they help promote artists by providing them with places to stay while on the road, extra drinks at a gig, and even cash. This breed of silent arts investors, who have existed in one form or another since the Victorian era, play a pivotal role in developing new music. They make it possible for artists who otherwise may be too broke or disheartened to continue by giving them whatever support they can provide. Them Dirty Roses had at least a handful of these supporters at the gig, and each one wanted to have their moment with the band. "Can we buy you shots," they asked, more than an hour before the band's set. "Of course," the band replied. Artists never turn down free stuff.
I believe Them Dirty Roses were on stage for less than one full minute before I turned to Laura and said, "they get it." She nodded in agreement with me, and without saying a word, turned back to the band. We listened through the first two songs without exchanging another glance or phrase. Instead, we gave ourselves to the music. To say we left our bodies may be a bit of a reach, but in no time at all, Them Dirty Roses were able to find that sonic space where everything seems to makes sense for everyone present. All of a sudden, we were no longer merely a room of individuals experiencing a smaller group of individuals making noise. As a temporary community, we were together living in a space made possible by the men on stage. It felt separate from the world we'd left when entering the building, and because of that, we felt a sense of lightness that our souls had not known in some time.
But I keep coming back to the "why" of it all. Why did Laura and I feel this connection to Them Dirty Roses? Why did a room full of strangers suddenly feel a sense of togetherness when the band started playing? Is there a label, phrase, or term we can give to that moment of connectivity, and if so, what would it be?
That kind of thinking is how I ultimately ended up in music. When I'm at a show, only a fraction of my brain thinks about the people on stage and what they're doing. A much larger part of me is taking in the experience as a whole. I love to lose myself in the economics of live music, both financial and otherwise, and how the components work together to create the energy that ultimately radiates from a concert. I want to know why seeing my favorite artist feels good but not as good as when an unknown artist gets on stage and blows me away. I would like to understand why Korean pop artists are making so many people feel less alone right now. Even more than that, I would like to understand the people who ironically love Imagine Dragons. I never got that band, but a lot of people seem to love them. Why is that? Will someone pay me to figure it out?
(Spoiler alert: If Imagine Dragons' publicist gives me a ticket to their next tour, you can bet your butts that I will have a Spin Cycle detailing the experience by the following week.)
I don't think there are easy answers to any of these questions, but the pursuit of understanding is what motivates me. If you can let go of the idea that all art must serve you, then you can learn to immerse yourself in all forms of creativity. I would much rather spend my time experiencing things that are entirely new and unfamiliar to me than watch the same twenty-five bands I keep in regular rotation once or twice a year annually until they quit or I die. If you give me the opportunity to see something that I would otherwise skip or not think to see, then there is a great chance I will go. If we're totally honest, it's far more likely that I'll do your weird thing than keep the plans I made to see an artist I've seen before.
What I saw in The Stache that night with Them Dirty Roses was rock and roll distilled down to its purest form. There were minimal lights and virtually no stage production, nor were there any VIP booths or giant video screens projecting the performance for people in places with poor lines of sight. There were only a few dozen people in the room, but they were there for the right reason. Them Dirty Roses has no clout. The group is active on social media, but they are not viral sensations by any means. Kids don't make TikTok dances to "Cocaine & Whiskey." The people standing in that room were either there because they knew the band or took a chance on someone new. They were true music fans, and Them Dirty Roses rewarded them for their dedication to curating the future of the art they love by bearing presenting its future.
Them Dirty Roses may never take over the world. Hell, they may break up before 2021 ends. HOWEVER, what I know, and what is extremely clear to anyone who sees them perform, is that this band is actively doing the work required for greatness. They have the innate ability to step on stage and instantly fall into sync with one another. When they perform, it's as one unified vision and sound. That kind of devotion and craftsmanship is increasingly rare, and I would argue that lack of professionalism leads many to declare rock music dead. But rock and roll is very much alive, and it goes by the name Them Dirty Roses.