The Barstool Romeos ready to soothe some aching country hearts this weekend
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
You can’t win if you don’t play, say lottery enthusiasts.
Perhaps nobody — at least in the East Tennessee music community, anyway — knows that better than Andy Pirkle.
Thanks to a scratch-off ticket that awarded him $500, Pirkle found new direction and a new band. And while his old project — the garage-punk outfit Speed Shifter — wasn’t a band he disliked being a part of, his new one — The Barstool Romeos — is a better fit.
“Speed Shifter was a hard-rocking bar band,” Pirkle told The Daily Times this week. “I didn’t have any problem with fronting that at all, but I was born and raised here in East Tennessee and steeped in country music and honky-tonk and more roots-oriented rock ‘n’ roll. I listened to WIVK every morning on the way to school with my mama driving, and my grandmother always had the radio on. In so many ways, it’s like I belong where I’m at now.”
And he might not have gotten there if it hadn’t been for that lottery ticket. His band dissolved around the same time Pirkle was going through personal turmoil, and he had no idea what he wanted to do next, he said. All he knew is that getting on stage and belting out rock songs didn’t feel like the best fit anymore.
“I was done with rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “I guess I was feeling foolish, being damn near 40 years old and going out and playing these rock ‘n’ roll shows for a bunch of kids that kept getting younger and younger, and fewer and fewer.
“I had no freaking clue what I wanted to do next, but I’ll tell you what I did — I hit the lottery for $500 on a scratch ticket, and I went out and bought a Chinese-made Martin copy (acoustic guitar) and put a pick-up in it. I started hanging out with Mike McGill, and we started writing songs.”
Pirkle had been playing guitar off and on for years, but Speed Shifter – formed with his old friend Greg Swift (a veteran of local outfits Torture Kitty and Kidsnack) — was his first band. Pirkle — whose sister is Sarah Pirkle, a Blount County-based fiddler and wife/musical partner of Jeff Barbra — has run in Americana circles for years. McGill frequents those same circles, playing in The Drunk Uncles with Barbra, and when the two sat down in the basement of McGill’s house to work on original music, a band was born.
“What I found out is that I could come up with an idea for a song, or an idea we’re trying to convey, and Mike would just start blurting words out, just thousands of them,” Pirkle said. “Sometimes, when Mike was trying to convey the idea, we were just using each other as a sounding board. It’s like we were playing ping-pong or tennis, knocking this ball back and forth, only it happens to be a song. And we’d usually do that until we got something workable.”
The guys focused on Hank Williams and other hardcore honky-tonkers as a frame of reference, penning raucous, bruised-hearts-and-aching-livers songs as “Cheap Bourbon Whiskey,” a track that seems tailor-made for a place like Toot’s Little Honky Tonk — the Downtown North bar celebrating its 10-year anniversary this month with a Saturday night performance by the Romeos. As good as Pirkle’s Elvis-meets-Danzig voice inflections were for Speed Shifter, his marinated baritone sounds even more natural as half of the singing team leading The Barstool Romeos.
“That kind of chemistry doesn’t happen overnight,” he said of his partnership with McGill. “That’s learned. That happens from getting to know somebody. Mike and I spent a lot of time together over the last couple of years, writing songs together and sharing things we wrote separately. It gets to a point where you just kind of read your buddy.”
At first, the band was known as Andy Pirkle and the Axis of Evil — a name that never sat well with its namesake.
I really didn’t like the name; we’d just been trying to come up with one for so long that we got tired of people asking, so I just said it,” he said. “Everybody loved it but me, and I just went along with it. I didn’t think it was a terrible name, but it didn’t fit what we were doing. I knew we were going to change the name eventually.”
When bass player Josh Sidman came up with The Barstool Romeos, doors began to open, Pirkle added — there’s little confusion about the type of music the group plays or the type of venue in which that music is enthusiastically embraced. And with the Romeos working on a debut full-length album at Music Row Studios in Maryville with engineer Scott Rader, Pirkle hopes those doors continue to swing wide in the years to come.
“With the exception of the drummer changing (Blount County musician Eric Keeble is back on the kit after starting out as the Axis of Evil’s original drummer), it’s been the same unit all the way through,” Pirkle said. “I think what we do comes from that level of cohesiveness. I feel like we’ve all grown as musicians and performers. We can read each other, and we know what’s coming next.”