Nick Dittmeier & the Sawdusters have announced the release of new album Heavy Denim, out July 15 on sonaBLAST! Records. To offer a preview, the band has also released new track “Hotel Pens,” which is available to share.
Dittmeier & the Sawdusters understand that to stay relevant, country and Americana—like any long-running musical genres—must be unceremoniously leveled from time to time. Blasted by a cold steel wrecking ball, and reassembled into new forms atop the rubble. And what better moment for a scheduled demolition than with all of planet Earth in a holding pattern, straddling the deep chasm between past and future. Into this void arrives Heavy Denim, an album that artfully sidesteps any slavish, formulaic adherence to roots-music traditions.
“At the height of the pandemic” Dittmeier says, “it became clear to me that—with everything we’d been through—there was going to be a different mind coming out the other side. As a band, we decided we weren’t going to try to go back and replicate who we were, or the reality we were living before covid, before all the civil unrest and the national racial reckoning. A lot of people were fixated on getting back to quote-unquote normal, but to me it seemed pretty obvious that wasn’t even on the table.”
In early 2018, Dittmeier and the Sawdusters released acclaimed Americana / alt-country set, All Damn Day, the Southern Indiana band racking up press at Wide Open Country, PopMatters, No Depression, Cowboys & Indians, Saving Country Music, Americana UK and more. They followed with a lengthy tour of the U.S. & Europe, then the four-song EP Companion in November of 2019. Heading into March of 2020 they were pretty damn beat.
“I know a lot of other artists who, initially, wanted to dig in and do all this work, but I didn’t feel like doing anything,” Dittmeier says. “I had been going through some significant burnout leading up to the shutdown. It was a healthy and necessary thing for me to take a little break.”
After a few months of rest, as the summer wore on, Dittmeier and a reinvigorated Sawdusters—featuring the new rhythm section of JD Mackinder on bass and Josh Bradley on drums—started writing and rehearsing. Their eyes were on the horizon as they worked hard to figure out what the band’s next phase was going to be.
“In roots and country music, there are a lot of weird, stupid rules,” Dittmeier says. “Unspoken things you just don’t do—or at least they’re frowned upon. I realized that there were blind spots in my development. Maybe I’d constructed them myself, maybe they were just my own perception. But I knew that, while I had some time, I wanted to learn and explore—to apply some new technology to our sound, and to find different ways to play together as a band.”
Forcing themselves out of their comfort zones, they began stripping back their roots-rock bluster and leaving room for new textures: drum machines, loopers, synths. The band’s resulting third LP, Heavy Denim—recorded with co-producer / engineer Jason McCulley at Louisville’s Dead Bird Studios—finds Dittmeier and the Sawdusters fearlessly reinventing their sound. At a glance, the record features a minimalist, hard-grooving, synth-peppered country stomp (“I Suppose”); some alt-country / post-punk fusion with Gang of Four-indebted disco-rock beats shrouded in steel guitars and piercing Telecaster licks (“Save Me from Myself”); a breezy, arm-out-the-truck-window country ballad set to a thumping analog drum machine on cruise control (“You Don’t Know the Truth”); and a set of rowdy, Texas-style country and blues-rock riffs riding a slow-and-steady beat over sparkling synth arpeggios to an anthemic Petty-channeling jangle-rock chorus (“Hotel Pens”).
“So much of trying to make this record, and intellectualizing what it was gonna be—it was all about thinking outside the box, and not making the move you did before,” Dittmeier says. “Though I don’t feel like I’m fundamentally changing who I am. I think you could put Springsteen in that category. I was listening to Tunnel of Love the other day—in a similar way, a lot of what we did on the album was almost hidden, sleight-of-hand stuff. Just using different types of equipment we weren’t using before, trying to develop those tools and make them our own.”
Heavy Denim is in the tradition of Dire Straits’ spacey, synth-anchored early-’90s country curveball On Every Street ; Alabama Shakes’ transformation from gritty Southern neo-soul revue to danceable indie-rock darlings on Sound & Color; and the symphonic R&B/art-folk Sturgill Simpson wove on the astral loom that is A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. With its refreshing creativity and sonic adventurousness, it’s one of those rare and wonderful records that expands the boundaries of its genre—a gleaming, silver-wrapped gift dropped on Dittmeier’s turntable by celestial travelers from some future honky tonk.
And it’s not just the sound of the album that sets it apart; lyrically and subject-wise, Heavy Denim bobs and weaves around convention and cliché, dodging expectations. A modern Americana record with songs about hard-luck convicts exploited by the system, police gangs, The Wire, serial killers and their victims, social justice and civil unrest, smashed TV sets, escaping your hometown, survivor’s guilt… and, uh, hotel pens, it’s whimsical but substantive. Just like the album title.
If you’re into the Americana scene—if you’ve spent more than a few nights at The Basement East in Nashville, The Continental Club in Austin or maybe the Grand Ole Echo in L.A.—you know that these bands wear a lot of denim. Dittmeier and the Sawdusters are no exception.
“At shows, we’re always making fun of our band and the other bands about how much denim is on stage,” Dittmeier says. “It’s just this funny staple of the genre. So naming the record Heavy Denim signifies that it’s a heavy version of what we were already doing. But it’s also a metaphor for us protecting ourselves—having to cover your nuts and be ready to deal with all the serious stuff we gotta get through.
“Making this record was about strengthening the relationships with the people I’m closest to—as a band, as creative people, just having to rely on each other on both a personal and professional level and really take care of each other. The album title is a reflection of us all looking out for each other, trying to protect each other and move forward.”