In the dog days of January 2004, Tift Merritt’s backup band was at loose ends — hanging around Raleigh, North Carolina, while Merritt was out in Los Angeles making her Tambourine album with George Drakoulias. But before they’d become Merritt’s country-rock Carbines, they’d been a rock band called Stillhouse. So guitarist Dave Wilson, drummer Zeke Hutchins, bassist Jay Brown and keyboardist Greg Readling spent a lot of time that month in their practice space, “getting our ya-ya’s out,” Hutchins says with a laugh.
At one of those informal jam sessions, Wilson hooked up a microphone to an old two-track tape deck and hit “RECORD” just for the heck of it. Nobody gave it much thought at the time. “But when we were listening to it later,” Hutchins recalls, “it sounded as good as it felt. That’s when we started talking about how we should make a record, if we ever had the time.”
Going on three years later, Stillhouse finally has a record out. Produced by Hutchins’ long-ago Queen Sarah Saturday bandmate Ryan Pickett, Through The Winter (Vella Recordings) is a solid collection of spare songcraft that recalls 1980s-vintage rootsy guitar-pop bands such as the Rave-Ups. It’s a dark and moody record, with more than one tune sung from beyond the grave (most notably the album-closing revenge epic “Sold American” — not the Kinky Friedman song — in which a farmer goes up to Washington, D.C., to “pay my taxes in powder and lead” after his son is killed in Vietnam). In a nod to the album’s genesis, a picture of that old Akai tape deck is in the credits. It’s a relic in more ways than one; Wilson says you can’t find tape for it anywhere anymore.
It’s a minor miracle that Through The Winter exists at all, because finding the time to do it was almost impossible for everyone involved. Even after Wilson and Readling left Merritt’s band later in 2004, they had to juggle work on Stillhouse between records and tours with their bluegrass band, Chatham County Line. And various people from the Stillhouse orbit were also playing occasionally with Thad Cockrell, Caitlin Cary, and Johnny Irion & Sarah Lee Guthrie, among others.
“Ryan was out on the road with My Morning Jacket, too,” Hutchins says. “Finally, we said, ‘Hey, we need to make our record!’ We could’ve said forget it, we’re all too busy. But Ryan especially kept pushing. Whenever he had any time at home, he’d work on mixes. Then he would send them out to Jay and me, we’d listen in the van and call back with comments. Overdubs went the same way, whenever Ryan and at least one of us was in town.”
From the results, you’d never know that Through The Winter was assembled piecemeal. It helps that Wilson writes a lot of songs for both Chatham County Line and Stillhouse, so he had plenty of material to draw from. But there’s no telling when or if a second Stillhouse album might emerge, or even whether or not Stillhouse will tour this go-round.
“Good question,” Wilson says. “Not at all, probably, if I want to keep my relationship and other stuff going. Especially if we try to include Johnny [Irion], Zeke and Jay, that can only happen sporadically. And I’m having a great time playing acoustic guitar with Chatham County Line, getting our stuff on the radio, getting known. Stillhouse is kind of like a hobby, which music used to be. Only now it’s a job. But it gets to be a hobby again with Stillhouse.”