It’s a Saturday afternoon in early September, sound check time at Whiskey Girl Saloon in good ‘ole Cowtown. I enter the back door to an empty bar, save a handful of small tables, chairs, and a serviceable dance floor in front of the stage. On said stage is Bryon White, the gregarious mouthpiece of The Damn Quails and Red Dirt legend Mike McClure. Both rocking out, garage band style minus the flannel shirts and long hair. Actually, between these two veterans, I don’t think there was any hair involved at all.
They finish up, Bryon steps off, lights a cigarette and smiles as he extends his hand to shake mine.
“Good to see you finally, I feel like we already know each other.”
Indeed it feels that way, he and I have been interacting online for a couple of years; especially on Twitter which seems to be his preferred social media platform for spreading unfiltered red dirt truth to those souls who wish to be enlightened (or entertained).
Bryon and his buddies are also a fan of bits, most involving sharp objects and Bryon enthusiastically rattling off some memeable poetic nonsense. It’s my kind of humor – uncomfortable, goofy, and usually irreverent.
Bryon: “So, should I be in my uniform for this?”
Bryon: “My Skinner jersey…”
Me: “Of course.”
He heads to the back and I start looking for Gabe Marshall, the other half of The Damn Quails. No surprise, the guy is nowhere to be found. If you’re assigning roles, Gabe is the Ray Teller of this Penn and Teller duo. You won’t find him frequenting any social media so getting a feel for the guy has been a bit more challenging. He’s no mute but compared Bryon you might mistake him for one.
A minute later Mr. Red Dirt Success comes back in a red button up Rawlings jersey. It’s sans logos or number on the back.
Me: “So what makes this a Skinner jersey?”
Bryon: “It belonged to him, got his body fluids on it and everything!”
I didn’t ask if he’s ever washed it, my guess is no. I’m sure to Bryon, the funkier the better and if it’s stained with Tom Skinner DNA then he considers it a religious relic on par with Shroud of Turin.
Uniformed and ready, we head out back and plop down at a picnic table with the entire band, including the once missing Gabriel Marshall. Bryon and Gabe front the group, splitting both songwriting, singing duties, and guitar. Kevin “Haystack” Foster (fiddle, steel guitar), Adam “Biggie” Rittenberry (harp), Dillon Sampson (bass), and Thomas Young (drums) complete the covey of The Damn Quails.
The band has been through quite a bit since Gabe and Bryon assembled the group in 2011 and put out “Down the Hatch”, getting rave reviews and good radio play on Americana stations across the country. But legal issues with the record label soon plagued The Damn Quails and until resolved, hamstrung their ability to put out a follow-up. It took four years for the drama to subside and The Damn Quails found themselves loaded with new songs but no money, so they turned to their fanbase and did a month-long Kickstarter campaign, raising an impressive $54,000.
“It was the most kick-ass and the most terrifying month in my life,” Bryon matter of factly claims.
The fruits of that fundraiser yielded “Out of The Birdcage” in 2015 with Reckless Kelly’s Dave Abeyta at the production helm. Well received in it’s own right, it yielded the title track “Out of the Birdcage” and two of my personal favorites, the bluesy “Tightrope Walker” and the more rockin’ “Tough Luck and Cryin’ Shame”.
Not doing much to market themselves, The Damn Quails toured relentlessly, building their fan base via their live shows. But as many in this scene can attest, being on the road so much takes its toll on all involved and The Quails were no exception. After a show in Houston in May 2016, The Damn Quails tour manager went missing. The band put the call out to all social media and a few days later they found him in Colorado. It was soon after that straw that the band decided to call it quits indefinitely.
Fortunately, “indefinite hiatus” doesn’t always mean “forever” and during the summer of 2017, Bryon White made the joyful announcement:
So now that you’re caught up, here’s what they had to say on the night of their first show back in Texas.
You all have endured your “break” and with everything you’ve been through have proven to be pretty resilient. Can I come crash with you guys when North Korea decides to nuke us?
Bryon: Sure, we can crash with Mac (Mike McClure). He’s got a lot of space, a water supply, several weapons, goats, costumes… all that we need to really survive!
What did you do during the hiatus?
Gabe: I played some shows and festivals here and there but mainly just wrangled new babies. We had twins back in September last year and we have a three-year-old, so my hands were full.
Dillon (bass): I went back to did a six-month run with Dolly Shine and then played with Jamie Lin Wilson.
Adam (harp): I was a cook.
Bryon: We just kind of needed a break. It had been nuts and we had been doing it night after night for a really long time and it really wears you out. Just the number of miles we traveled once you think about, was quite harrowing.
Bryon, you were still doing a solo show here and there but you also started doing these ‘Red Dirt Success’ live streams on Facebook. How did that start?
Any changes to the band? I hear you have a new keys player starting tonight.
Bryon: Yeah we have Sevans (Henderson) sitting in with us. The kid is really good.
Gabe: Other than that we pretty much have the same lineup as before.
Did you talk to each other and write during the break?
Gabe: We don’t really have any songs that Bryon and I co-wrote but we both have a bunch of new material. Problem is that the band hasn’t been playing together again long enough to work them into the sets.
Can we expect a new record soon and are you going to go the Kickstarter route again?
Bryon: I don’t think any of us know right now, eventually yes, but we’re really just interested in playing shows at the moment. The stage is it, it’s the godliness of it all. The two or three hours up there every night is where the magic happens.
“Down The Hatch” was more Red Dirt compared to “Out of the Birdcage” which leaned more rock and blues. Where do you think you guys sit?
Bryon: I don’t know. I think it really just depends on where we are at the time we sit down to record. That’s the cool part. You get into that studio with five people playing at the same time, get those rhythm tracks down, and it’s like catching a wave.
Adam: Even every night things can change. I know, at least with my playing, about every fifth time we play a song, it’s going to change.
Bryon: Yeah, setlists suck. We’ll get bored and go with the raw movement of the show.
Tom (drums): It’s fairly unbridled.
Let’s talk lessons learned. I’m sure there isn’t a day that goes by without you thinking about Tom Skinner. What was the best lesson you’ve learned from him?
Bryon (laughing): Getting good hotel breakfasts. I’ll never ever go hungry because of that. You go in like you own the place and if you need a key you’ve got a hundred of them.
Gabe: Skinner was staying with us at a hotel that didn’t serve breakfast so he walked to the hotel across street and decided to eat there.”
Bryon: It was a great lesson. I’ll never starve. (laughs) We had a cool moment when we were playing in Ardmore, Oklahoma and it was storming outside. We got to this break and there was a big crackle in the speakers and the whole system goes out. I yelled out ‘Thanks Tom!” and then it popped right back on. Mac and I started laughing. Skinner is always around dancing and casting lightning bolts.
What about Mike McClure? What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from him?
Gabe: Stop caring… stop giving a shit about what people think of you.
Bryon: Songs are king. It doesn’t matter what else is happening as long as the song is there. His songs are spectacular, he never stops writing. He sits there in his basement with a mechanic’s uniform on and a notebook. He’ll mess around on a keyboard for twenty minutes, stoking the fire and you think he’s been screwing around all day. Then all of a sudden you realize he’s got something worked out and done, brilliant and beautiful in its own way.
Tom: He’s a lifer in every way.
Regardless of whether The Damn Quails survive or go on permanent hiatus, it’s pretty clear all of these guys are lifers. Bryon’s stage presence is manic, his head tilting and bobbing spastically, beating the strings of his guitar into submission. His voice has a bit of an Irish timbre and full of rhythmic inflections that match his body language. Gabe’s approach is quite the opposite. It’s straightforward and chill; managing to squeeze in drags of his cigarette without missing a cue.
That night the whole band was in their element and clearly glad to be back. They were playing for a few hundred but enthused like it was ten thousand. Lots of hugs and drinks flowing after the show.
If you want to hear more from The Damn Quails, you can watch other parts (the less serious parts) of the interview here, otherwise find them in all the appropriate places.