Kevin Palombi knows about hard times, even if he didn’t know at the time.
The guitar player for Whiskey on Sunday — which opens for the Johnny Cash tribute Cash Unchained on Friday at The Open Chord in Knoxville — got his start on the instrument because of them, he told The Daily Times recently.
“I had a bicycle, but we didn’t have a garage because we were moving to an apartment, so my dad traded me his guitar for my bike so he didn’t have to tell me why we had to get rid of it,” Palombi said. “He showed me a couple of chords, and then I discovered guys like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings through skateboarding video game soundtracks, and that’s how I fell in love with country.”It’s little wonder, then, that Palombi was drawn to the hardscrabble country tunes of Blount County-based singer-songwriter Michael Roberts, his bandmate in Whiskey on Sunday. The two met at open mic nights around town, and Palombi discovered an authenticity in the growling vocals and vicious strumming by Roberts on songs that speak of hard men, hard drink and hard times.
“There are a lot of people putting stuff together that has really catchy chord progressions and clever overlapping to catch your attention, but Michael is one of those people who’s really real,” Palombi said. “He’s one of the first people I heard play music where I said, ‘I want to know the lyrics to his songs. I want to listen closer.’ You could tell he’s really got a heart for the songs he’s singing, and every time I’ve seen him play, he’s got a style and a sound I haven’t heard from anybody else.”
Roberts, a Blount County native and a Heritage High School graduate, first picked up the guitar when he was 12, but he didn’t start getting serious or writing his own songs until a few years ago, when one day a switch flipped and the words came pouring out, he said. He draws on the Chris Knight school of songwriting, spinning tales of woe and regret, and Palombi is one of the few musicians he’s met locally, he said, whose style compliments his message.
“He’s somebody who really feels it and gets into it,” Roberts said. “When a lot of people get up on stage, they’re like background music, but with Kevin, you can tell it’s his passion. He sticks out.”
Those open mics eventually led to nights spent with guitars in hand and a bottle close by; they bonded over a love of lyrics by other artists that resonated with both of them and quickly discovered that shared a mindset for the kind of music they wanted to make.
“I like to say we’re a country band with a little bit of a blues problem,” Roberts said.
“I call it Appalachian blues-rock,” Palombi added with a laugh.
They frequently perform as a duo, but they’re looking to expand the lineup and build on the sound; Whiskey on Sunday is visceral as an acoustic act, with Roberts’ gruff and raw playing and singing an ideal counterbalance to Palombi’s nuanced and intricate playing. By plugging in and going electric, they hope to pack an even mightier punch, Palombi said.“We’re looking to melt some faces with Whiskey on Sunday,” he said. “We want people to hear the message and what we have to say, but I think the vibe of a Whiskey on Sunday show should be showing up to have a good time. Michael’s music is a lot of storytelling; when he plays a solo show, I want to hear every word of it. But Whiskey on Sunday might get a little too rowdy sometimes, which is what we want.”