The music of Bradenton, Fla.-based Americana band Have Gun Will Travel is as gentle and sweet as a virgin daiquiri, a pleasant blend of viola, mandolin, lap steel, and acoustic guitar. That mood fits singer Matt Burke's world-weary — but decidedly rancor-free — storytelling approach. Burke's songs range from swelling, waltzing tearjerkers ("Katharine, Don't Fall Off the Wagon") to Dylan-esque ramblers ("Song of Seven Sisters") and breezy, cabaret-tinged jazz-folk ("Land of the Living.) But even when Burke is contemplating this troubled world and offering sorrowful laments, he remains upbeat.
And he's got good reason to be. Have Gun Will Travel's third album, 2011's Mergers and Acquisitions, represents a consolidation of the band's talents, musically and lyrically. The latest LP is highlighted by the tender, ramshackle bluegrass-flavored "Time Machine," a perfect example of Burke's sad-but-upbeat aesthetic. Over a finger-picked acoustic, Burke sings about the travels of his heart and the rusted vehicle he drives as he tries "to concentrate, keep traveling through space and time, daily routines, room keys and checkout times, road maps and highway signs, no looking back, the past is far behind."
That's certainly true for Burke, who first started making music with his brother, Have Gun bassist Daniel Burke, when he was in his tweens. They got guitars from their musician father and worked out any sibling angst along the way. There were no screaming, cricket-bat wielding Noel/Liam-style blow-ups for the Burke brothers.
"To be honest, I find that childish. There's no need for it. We have a mutual respect for each other and rarely disagree on anything," Matt says. "During our adolescent years there were definitely some arguments, but we're long since past that. It's a blessing, to be honest, because we communicate without even having to really discuss things. We've been playing music together so long we just sense where things are going."
Have Gun Will Travel received a lot of local support right out of the chute, especially in Tampa, an hour north of Bradenton. Though Tampa's homebase for black and death metal in America, Have Gun's pastoral country-folk debut Casting Shadows Tall As Giants somehow managed to get frequent airplay on the Cigar City's popular listener-supported radio station WMNF, 88.5. They also received a big profile that same year from the alt-weekly, Creative Loafing, and one of their songs was used in a Chevy commercial. The song, "Blessing and a Curse," ironically enough tells the tale of a crooked police chief's fatal Christmas Eve demise.
"They were going for the sound of the song as opposed to what the lyrics are about, but yeah, it is pretty funny. We got pretty lucky with that deal," Burke says. "We started working with a music licensing company in New York called Music Playground. I think within the first two weeks of working with them, they had pitched that song to Chevy and it was starting to make its way through the decision-making process."
Another local benefactor helped them get their self-released second album, 2009's Postcards From the Friendly City, picked up by iconic alt-country/punk-pop indie Suburban Home. A local blogger's site, ninebullets.net, had caught the label's ear by championing their bands, and when he recommended Have Gun Will Travel, the label heads listened.
Suburban Home re-released Postcards and put up the money for Mergers and Acquisitions, an album that rocks harder and pushes the boundaries of their sound (See "To the Victors Go the Spoils" with its wild song-ending electric solo).
"Mergers and Acquisitions was kind of a landmark, just to get to a third release. A lot of times bands don't make it that far," he says. "It's been a pretty natural progression. With the first two records we got to pretty well establish what kind of band we were, what kind of music we were playing, and what kind of songs we were putting out. Then you get to the third one, and it's like we know that we can do that, so let's mess around and try to do some stuff that's a little bit outside of what we've done in the past. I think we've even gone further down that road on this next one."
It's been about 15 months since Mergers and Acquisitions, and Have Gun Will Travel is itching to release some new music. They finished tracking their fourth album a couple of weeks ago and are in the process of mixing it down for a spring release sometime after SXSW. They haven't named it yet, though they're tossing around ideas.
Burke's equally careful not to define what he and his band do. "I really try not to put any limitations on it. Each of us individually listens to so many different genres of music," he says. "Each song has its own set of influences, and so I try not to put too many limitations on what kind of band we're going to call ourselves and just try to make it sound like it's us doing it."