The road, the wide-open expanses it connects, and the promise of the new life it offers our country's hard-working denizens — these are subjects surveyed by Brad Heller and the Fustics. The North Carolina-based roots rockers have burnished their regional reputation the last six years, following the lead of artists like Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, and, more recently, Steve Earle, Fred Eaglesmith, and Chris Knight.
"Chris Knight is awesome — and that's actually a good comparison to what we do," says Heller from his Wilmington, N.C. home. "I like to tell stories rather than preach. You can dress it up and still get your point across, and he does a great job of that. I've always thought Springsteen does a really good job when he wasn't overt about it, because you don't want to punch anybody in the face with it. You kind of want them to form their own opinion."
Last year marked the Fustics' coming out party in the form of their 10-song album, Beyond This Life. It came five years after their debut, The Conscience of Sins. It demonstrates a much tighter, more polished, and more eclectic band. Heller sings about bleak, dying rural landscapes through the eyes of a windblown character on the loping country-blues "Western Skyline," counsels a rebel to avoid a coming storm on the smoky, slow-burn rocker "December's Coming" (a tune that recalls Springsteen's "I'm on Fire") and confesses he's not living for today so much as for "Beyond This Life" on the title track.
"That song is basically about how from this life it's only going to get better. It only can get better because this life can be so brutal at times that you live for something better," Heller says.
For his own part, Heller can't imagine anything better than what he does. He lives for the art ("and the booze"). It's an attitude that developed as a youth growing up on a ranch in Arizona. Attending Catholic school, he chafed at the conformity and the suburban life he saw in front of him.
"I just got tired of the status quo," he says. "The idea of making money and watching Wheel of Fortune at six o'clock with a half-glass of really bad bourbon bored the shit out of me."
He spent three summers between school years at Youngstown State hitchhiking and traveling the rails all along the Western Seaboard and across the Midwest. He witnessed the badlands of Montana from the vantage of a moving train and swore to himself he'd never work a nine-to-five, if there was any way he could help it.
It wasn't until he'd graduated that he picked up the guitar and learned to play it while traveling through small Midwestern towns as a minor league baseball player for a couple years.
"You learn a lot of discipline. You basically learn to suck up your pride a lot, and I think that's carried over to music a lot when you're playing in front of five people, five hours away for $50," he says.
Heller moved to Wilmington in 2002 and started an acoustic trio that was an early forerunner to the Fustics. In 2002 they released It's Only Your Life Anyway, featuring many songs that Heller still plays. More lineup changes followed as he assembled a more traditional guitars-bass-drums quartet.
"You get a full tight band, and you have a lot better chance that people will listen. You throw in a couple Johnny Cash covers, and you'll have an even better chance," he laughs.
Unlike many less ambitious bands, the Fustics pushed out into the surrounding area, traveling for three or four days, a couple times a month, slowly building their audience from Maryland to Tennessee and Georgia. The addition of drummer Ronn Pifer in 2006 solidified the lineup. Things have grown from there.
The bandmates spent the last six months working on their third album, American Burden. The title track's about our convoluted pursuit of happiness and contentment, which for many only results in frustration and loneliness. Pifer — who worked at the famous Record Plant in California during the '90s — is helping produce the album, which they hope to have out by the end of October.
"This is, for want of a better term, our opus," says Heller. "We really touch on a lot of different genres and to capture our live sound in the studio, showing the rock energy we have when we play live. I think we succeeded, and I'm really excited about its release."
But regardless of how it's received, Heller's dream of making music helps him stave off bitterness. He takes solace in the little triumphs of a band trying to make its way.
"This guy from Houston heard us play 'American Burden' live and said it was the best song he's heard in 20 years," Heller says. "I sent him a copy months ago. He told me he continues to listen to it and how classic it is. That alone is the kind of stuff that keeps you going, you know?"