In love, life, or game, one of the most difficult decisions is when to call it quits; rare is the Bjorn Borg, who quits while his star is still near its apex. That's the type of decision Knoxville's lively Americana sextet the Dirty Guv'nahs made in May when they announced their farewell tour. It comes after nine years of making music and on the heels of their most successful album, last year's Hearts on Fire, which topped Billboard's independent Heatseekers chart.
"We have six guys in the band, and five of them are married, and there are also four children in the equation," says singer James Trimble. "We love music, but when you get down to it, we love our families more. And it was getting really hard to say this is worth it, being gone all this time."
The Dirty Guv'nahs released four full-lengths and several EPs over the last six years showcasing a blend of Southern boogie, folk balladry, and rootsy rock that passes for Americana, a genre that still strangely lacks much commercial radio bandwidth. Trimble and his mates keenly felt the lack of radio support, and he points to their lack of a big single as one of the biggest determining factors in their fate.
"Essentially, if you want to grow your business without the hit song, you really need to go out there and do 180 to 200 dates [a year]," he says. "The reality that sunk in is that 90 percent of our fans are Southeastern and we've never had a hit song, a song that suddenly made a thousand people in Portland, Ore. huge fans. It was always this grassroots, word-of-mouth, good live band, but the ways bands really blow up, it comes down to a song because of the amount of time it takes."
This is the sad truth of the post-digital music world — like the rest of America, there's less and less room for the middle-class. When the Dirty Guv'nahs quit their day jobs and took touring on full-time four years ago, they made a pact to only play about 100 dates a year, so they might still enjoy some semblance of a normal life without burning out. That was enough performances to get them around the Southeast, where their energetic shows and homespun flavor had built strong loyal followings. But it didn't get them across the rest of the nation, slowly building those crowds from the 10s and 20s and into the 100s. Without a hit to propel them, they began to feel the diminishing returns — despite the fact that the last 12 months have been their best ever. After all, Hearts on Fire was their first to crack the Billboard Top 200, debuting at No. 102.
"You can't even say that if we did 200 shows a year we would grow beyond regional. There's no way to know that. There's no guarantee with any of it," Trimble says. "We just had a meeting around the end of the year and said, 'I think it's time to stop touring.' In today's music economy, there's no making records and make a living off of it. If you stop touring, you're really done."
In some sense, the entire experience is found money. They didn't set out to be a band. They weren't even really musicians. Only the drummer Aaron Hoskins had ever been in a band before. Trimble had never been a singer. He got the role, he's joked before, because he was the worst guitar player among them.
"We walked into this wide-eyed and innocent, but that's the only way you can chase a dream," Trimble says. "I was a concert junkie. I spent more time in high school and college going to shows than almost anybody I know. When I graduated and was trying to figure out what to do next, it was not in my mind I was going to be in a band."
The Dirty Guv'nahs will be leaving behind not only a fine catalog of albums and songs — from the '70s Cali rock of "Morning Light" to the horn-laden, Southern soul of "Good Luck Charm" and the anthemic, country-tinged longing of "3000 Miles" — but also great memories.
Trimble recalls opening for the Band's late leader Levon Helm at his famous Midnight Rambles twice and joining him on stage for an encore of "The Weight." He'll also cherish the DG's two Bonnaroo appearances, particularly the second one.
"We were asked to be the opening band for the entire festival, meaning we played at Thursday at noon and there were no other bands playing," says Trimble. "We took the stage to over 10,000 people. That was the only time in the history of our band when we stepped on stage and I wasn't crying, but I was overwhelmed with emotion. It was like I had to shake the goosebumps off my arms."
They may record again, but their days of touring are over, relegated to scrapbooks and fond remembrances. But the final stretch isn't a shabby way to spend one's 20s to early 30s. After all, the band has nine shows in five cities left to go in the farewell tour — and they're all sold out.
"We're putting together a set that really tells the full story of who we are," Trimble says. "We wanted to go out on our own terms and go out on top, and we picked the places with our biggest fans and, really, that we just liked to play the best."