There’s a whole lot of spitting going on whenever Chuck Whiting gets together with His Rowdy Friends. And not the kind that involves a mouthful of chaw and a spittoon – although both would feel right at home with the trio’s take on Western swing and Hillbilly blues. Spitting is just the way the band jams on ideas and turns conversations into songs.
“Our biggest strength as a band is that we’re all friends,” vocalist/rhythm guitarist Chuck Whiting told Recoil on one of his few free Friday nights. “We hang out even when we’re not playing music. We play Mega Man together, we go to strip clubs. And I think you can tell the difference between a band, where all the members are tight, and a band that’s just a lead singer and his hired hands. Our dynamic is definitely dynamic, even though I do all the songwriting, none of our songs would exist if it weren’t the three of us together.”
Together with his brother, bullfiddle player Andrew Whiting, and lead guitarist Nick Lancaster (who joined the band in 2012) Whiting has wrangled a wide variety of influences into a sound he’s proud to call their own. Growing up with a dad who loved The Beach Boys – and discovering punk rock bands like The Mr. T Experience, Screeching Weasel, Descendents, and The Queers, as a teenager – Whiting started playing guitar and writing songs at 14. Over the last 13 years he’s performed in Michigan, Tennessee and Texas, where he spent four months in Austin playing open mics and going to Dale Watson shows.
“I decided to form a string-band trio because of my love for Wayne Hancock and Hot Club of Cowtown,” Whiting said about why he started the Hastings/Kalamazoo-based trio in 2010. “I think there’s something really punk rock about not having a drummer. That and drums can be a huge pain in the ass. We can fit our entire band and all our equipment in my van.”
Individually the band members are all over the musical map, with Lancaster listening to more rock, funk, and blues, Andrew Whiting bringing in bands like Radiohead and The Strokes, and Chuck Whiting taking influence from traditional roots music like Hank Williams, Bob Wills and Jimmy Rogers. They take it all in within the premise of a Western swing band, and just spit out their own sound within that context.
“My biggest source of inspiration as a songwriter? Honestly…women,” Whiting confessed. “Whether it’s a stripper I dropped eighty bucks on, some girl I made out with at a party, or a co-worker I’ve had a crush on for five years, nothing inspires me to sit down and actually finish a song quite like girls do. And I think that’s pretty deep.”
The band will release their new album, Sex, Drugs, and Western Swing, at Tip Top Deluxe Oct. 18. The 10-song set is the follow-up to 2011’s Calamity, a Jammie Award nominee heard on community radio stations WYCE and WIDR.
“Tip Top is my favorite bar in the world,” Whiting said, adding that it’s where they opened for such influences as Wayne Hancock, Lucky Tubb, Eilen Jewell, Tom VandenAvond, the Bellfuries and others. “[Tip Top co-owner] Ted Smith has been one of our biggest supporters and we wouldn’t think of debuting our new album anywhere else.”
Besides their range of influences and Texas experience, Whiting said what makes them stand out in the strong West Michigan music scene is their element of humor.
“I try to write songs that, if nothing else, will make people laugh, and I try to be relatively zany onstage,” said Whiting, who occasionally goes by the nickname, The Honky Tonk Buddha. “Nick and I both do stand-up comedy on the side, and I think this band’s emphasis on humor is another thing that sets us apart. Most people aren’t usually expecting a honky-tonk band to go for the laugh. But, at the same time, we’re not a comedy act.”
They are “super tight” with the other area bands like JukeJoint Handmedowns, The Tony LaJoye Trio, and Midwestern Lull, and got guitarist Mark Lavengood of Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellies to play on two songs on their new album.
“I think my favorite Michigan band at the moment is Black Jake & the Carnies,” Whiting said. “To me they represent that crossroads of punk and roots music that I love and I always get super wasted at their shows and get up on stage and sing with them.”
Besides looking forward to playing the next Buttermilk Jamboree – where the band played some of their most memorable shows the last three summers – Chuck Whiting & His Rowdy Friends hope to play as many music festivals as they can next year.
“I imagine after the album is released, we’ll all take a huge collective sigh,” Whiting said. “Then I have a bunch of new songs that I want to make into a solo album. Nick and I will focus a little more attention on our stand-up comedy for a while. And then we’re planning a small, un-ambitious East coast tour for next spring.”
Chuck Whiting & His Rowdy Friends will release Sex, Drugs, and Western Swing Oct. 18 at Tip Top Deluxe. The band will also play the Hastings Harvest Festival Oct. 5 and the Kalamazoo Valley Museum Oct. 11. For more, click over to reverbnation.com/chuckwhiting.–Eric Mitts