Lauren St. Jane and the Dead Westerns bring some country music out of the ATL
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
It’s hard out there for a country band, especially one struggling to break the ceiling to the next level and do so in a city smitten with urban music.
“Atlanta is the home of hip-hop and rap, so it is hard,” said Lauren St. Jane, front woman of Lauren St. Jane and the Dead Westerns. “We play Atlanta once every three months or so. There is some Americana draw here, and some honky-tonks around town, but it’s hard. It’s a great hub as far as transportation goes, though.”
Which makes it easy for the band to hit Interstate 75 and head north to East Tennessee this weekend. The group will perform Friday night at Relix Variety Theatre in Knoxville’s Downtown North neighborhood and on Saturday on the WDVX-FM “Blue Plate Special,” and the band’s approach to country — contemporary fire combined with loyalty to tradition; the sass and boldness of a Southern girl on the mic intertwined with some musicianship by a couple of guitarists who play to the strengths of their singer and the demands of the song — is likely to win over a number of new fans.
St. Jane grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, but her family came from Alabama. Spending summers on her grandmother’s farm made a huge impression, and a country way of life was imprinted on her at an early age.
“It’s funny; I was brought up on country music, but when I got older, I would think, ‘This is so lame; I’m not going to listen to that,’” she said. “I fought with it for a while, but I grew up wanting to be an author of books. And as music became more a part of my life, I realized I really wanted to be a songwriter.
“Eventually, I just went back to the roots of great country music, to the days when my grandmother really ingrained it into me. I realized that’s where my heart and soul is, and it’s where I want to be.”
Eventually, she paired with guitarist Ryan Stephens, and the chemistry was immediate. A fan of “dirty” rock ‘n’ roll — “Beggars Banquet”-era Rolling Stones and so forth — he appreciated country, but it was that chemistry that made him realize the genre might be a good fit. He and St. Jane wrote three songs in one night, and the first gig was for more than 400 people, most of whom were dancing. Stephens realized that St. Jane was serious about music — not for fame or fortune, but for the sheer joy of the art.
“I used to be a hired gun, and I’ve played with a lot of female artists for a long time,” Stephens said. “This was very different in the way we wrote and played together. It most definitely was not daddy hiring me to help out his daughter.”
Realizing their potential, the two started reaching out into the Atlanta scene to flesh out the band’s lineup. The group grew into a five-piece and hit the road, steadily touring the Southeast and making a name for themselves as a country-rock band straddling the line between traditional and contemporary.
“We all have such different tastes in music, but we love old country,” St. Jane said. “As a songwriter, I love the songs. I don’t necessarily think we have to be that poppy to make it in mainstream country, and we did make it a goal to land one of our songs on country radio. We figure if we wrote a hit for the masses and got people to listen to us based on that, then they would listen to our other stuff.”
That song, “Southern Girl,” got airplay in Atlanta and called attention to the group’s “American Dreams” EP, released earlier this year. With guitarist Ian Campbell joining the band a year ago, the sound can range from full-on electric country rock that rattles the boards of a backwoods roadhouse on a Saturday night to a gentle Sunday afternoon acoustic show.
“Me and Lauren had to duo in a bunch of bars and coffeehouses to get started, but after we decided to take it further and get a band started, from then until now it’s been a baptism by fire,” Stephens said.
“The whole thing started in her head, when she and Ryan got together,” Campbell said. “Now, it’s all of us as a unit. The metal-country thing that Jason Aldean does, the Taylor Swift pop-country — we don’t want to be anywhere in that vein. I don’t think we fit mainstream country too much. We try to be influenced by older stuff.”