Make Like A Shovel | Futurebirds

Words by: Donovan Farley

For the fourth installment of “Make Like A Shovel” (check out volumes one, two and three) I’m highlighting Futurebirds out of Athens, Georgia –a band whose reverb-soaked brand of bittersweet psychedelic country-rock sounds what I would imagine Gram Parsons fronting Crazy Horse might have sounded like.

While I’ve been using the “Gram Parsons meets Crazy Horse” analogy for years when describing Futurebirds to new listeners, it would be more accurate to say their sound is akin to multiple versions of Parsons fronting the legendary band, as the group boasts three prolific songwriters in its ranks.  With Carter King, Thomas Johnson and Daniel Womack unselfishly sharing frontman duties, Futurebirds’ ability to successfully meld its varying tastes, influences and personalities lies at the heart of their appeal (the Sweetheart Of The Rodeo era of The Byrds meets Crazy Horse perhaps).  For instance, I’d be willing to wager all the whiskey in Ireland that the sextet is the only band that has both opened for Widespread Panic and received a 7.5 album review score from Pitchfork. 

[Photo by Caitlin Webb]

I asked guitarist Daniel Womack about Futurebirds’ being one of the few groups that can cross the arbitrary lines between the indie and jam scenes when we spoke earlier this month via email. “We really appreciate all the positive reception we’ve gotten from all the varying outlets,” Womack wrote. “I guess when it comes down to it, we just love all those different types of music. We all have roots in jam, country, pop and everything our parents listened to. Going from opening for a band like Widespread Panic and building a set that will hopefully be in accordance with their fans’ vibes, to opening for a band like Grace Potter & The Nocturnals can be quite challenging.  We’ve been fortunate with that, though, because we’ve been exposed to the reactions of a wide range of fans.  And we’ve learned a thing or two.”

[Photo by Caitlin Webb]

It makes sense that Futurebirds began in the music-obsessed bohemian college town of Athens, Georgia (which Womack called “the perfect incubator for young bands”) as much of the band’s music strongly evokes the sort of nostalgic feeling that college memories (or any fond memory of one’s youth) often bring out in people.  Like a stunning Southern girl you once loved, bathed in sunlight and smiling mischievously at you from behind a solo cup, recalling a feeling beautiful but bittersweet. Her smile comes with the knowledge that it, like all things in life, is fleeting, and Futurebirds’ music often feels like a sunshine and whiskey-soaked attempt at celebrating and remembering these moments, while clinging to them for dear life. Whether ruminating on the inevitable loss of youth (“Virginia Slims”) or the inevitable loss of… everything (“Death Awaits”), Futurebirds choose to not go gentle into that good night, but to rage with everything they have against the dying of the light. 

Since forming in 2008, Futurebirds have made their bones by not only churning out consistently compelling records, but touring incredibly hard and gaining a reputation for their wonderfully unhinged live show.  I’ve now seen the band at NYC’s Bowery Ballroom (check out the fantastic show here), at Portland’s Mississippi Studios, all over Athens, in Atlanta and in front of untold thousands at Bonnaroo, and each time I’ve marveled at how much the band puts into every second of every song onstage.  King, Johnson and Womack become men possessed onstage thrashing and whirling around to such a degree that at times one of them leaves the stage with an injury incurred via a bandmate’s guitar. 

[Photo by Caitlin Webb]

Keeping this whirling hurricane of guitars (barely) tethered to the Earth are bassist Brannen Miles (who has also penned a terrific song or two himself), drummer Johnny Lundock, and pedal steel maestro Dennis Love.  Love’s gorgeous playing basically serves as the fourth voice in the band and is Futurebirds’ secret weapon, an island of delicate beauty in an ocean of reverb.  Miles uniquely nimble work on bass has a feel of a player who’d be perfectly fine just closing his eyes and jamming for an entire set, and few drummers move from thunderous crashes to delicate flourishes as ably as Lundock.  

As much having three frontmen is at the core of what Futurebirds is all about, the group is undoubtedly a band that is the sum of all its parts, a cohesive unit that acts and reacts to each other like a living organism.  Womack explained the group’s dynamic by telling me, “I don’t think there is a closer group of guys on the road. Seriously. We all share a common vision for Futurebirds, and that has been something that’s developed over time.” 

[Photo by Caitlin Webb]

That shared vision is apparent in the band’s ability to create goosebump-inducing covers of Stevie Nicks (“Wild Heart,” above) and Brooks and Dunn (“Neon Moon”) and also have half the band perform occasionally in a fantastically-named Grateful Dead cover band called Bobby’s Shorts (the band’s first drummer Peyton Bradford also penned a tune called “Keith and Donna”).  It’s an intoxicating mixture few bands possess: the ability to entwine melancholic introspection with a desire to live every damn second like it’s your last on Earth, and it’s one that makes Futurebirds one of the best bands in music today. 

2015 is going to be a big year for the band, with constant touring, a Record Store Day release with fellow Athenian T. Hardy Morris and a new album in late summer or early fall.  I was lucky enough to hear a little of the new record and it’s excellent, definitely an album and tour worth looking forward to, and a big step up for an already excellent band.