Signs that a country band has made it big are easy to spot. Getting booked on the Grand Ole Opry alongside Vince Gill and Aaron Tippin. Playing to a full house at the Ryman Auditorium, the “mother church of country music.” Landing a record deal and earning buzz-building reviews for your music.
But when people keep stealing the street sign that inspired your band’s name, that’s when you really know you’ve hit the big time.
All of the above has happened to 49 Winchester, the rocking country band born in Russell County and named for the street address in Castlewood where lead singer and songwriter Isaac Gibson grew up and where the band started when the members were still in high school.
About a decade ago, the teenage band members had not settled on a name until Gibson noticed the writing on his parents’ mailbox along Winchester Street.
“I looked at the mailbox and there it was,” he said.
Others noticed, too. People keep swiping the Winchester Street sign.
“The street sign has been stolen about a half-dozen times,” he said.
That’ll happen when a band works hard, plays hard and builds a national following. 49 Winchester’s traditional country sound, spiked with classic guitar-heavy Southern rock, shares much with the likes of Drive-By Truckers, Chris Stapleton, Turnpike Troubadours and other hard-rocking bands, who sometimes get affixed with the grizzled old “Outlaw Country” label.
Even as 49 Winchester rolls across the country on a national tour and plays the festival circuit — which included a spot on the Grand Ole Opry on Tuesday and also a “hometown” gig at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion on Sept. 10 — the members have never shaken the dirt off their Appalachian roots. Images and references to Southwest Virginia flow like cold mountain creeks through their new album “Fortune Favors the Bold,” their first for New West Records.
That longing for home is most overt on the song “Russell County Line,” Gibson’s ode to the mountains. The band shot a video for the song at sites around Castlewood.
And if you wonder where my heart is when I’m out on the road
Lord, it’s right at home, I left it honey just for you to hold
And if you wonder how I’m doing, know that I am doing fine
But I wish I was in Virginia on the Russell Country line
Gibson, who was traveling with the band through Colorado, Wyoming and Montana recently, said during a telephone interview that “Fortune Favors the Bold,” the band’s fourth studio album after three independent releases, shows the results of near-constant performing and touring.
“We’re a lot better musicians than three or four years ago,” Gibson said. “We worked on our chops in front of people.”
The band consists of four Castlewood friends — Gibson, bassist Chase Chaffin (who grew up across Winchester Street from Gibson), guitarist Bus Shelton and Noah Patrick on pedal steel guitar. The six-man lineup is rounded out by keyboardist Tim Hall and drummer Justin Louthian.
“We were just hillbilly kids from central Appalachia,” Gibson said. “We loved music and just wanted to pursue it as far as we could.”
Gibson played guitar and wrote his own songs as a teenager, even though most of his friends at Castlewood High School didn’t know about his artistic talents. He said he privately wrote poems and songs, and he enjoyed forensics competitions, which require some public speaking.
“I was self-taught,” he said. “I hunkered down, sacrificed my social life to write songs and learn licks.”
Chaffin and Shelton became his music buddies, and soon the boys were woodshedding their skills at the Gibson family home. Their first gig was at a Heritage Days festival in the neighboring town of St. Paul not long after high school graduation.
“All of the crowd was our friends and family,” Gibson said. “We were super-green. All of our first music experiences are with this band. I’d never sung in front of people, unless you heard me through my bedroom door.”
The band continued to play after high school, even as members worked day jobs. Gibson worked for his family’s masonry and building business, which allowed him freedom to play music on the side.
By the time the band felt seasoned enough to play a real show, they booked a set at the beloved-but-now-closed Willow Tree Coffeehouse in Johnson City, Tennessee. They continued to get gigs in Tennessee and Virginia, and started recording original songs.
Much of the band’s early material from their self-titled debut in 2014 bears folkier hallmarks, displaying bluegrass and Avett Brothers-esque influences. Gibson was into acoustic blues and jazz in those days, favoring the likes of young musical throwback Pokey Lafarge.
Then, Gibson started listening to edgier alternative country bands from the 1990s and 2000s such as Drive-By Truckers, Old 97s, Lucero, Bottle Rockets and other bands he has missed when he was younger. As 49 Winchester distilled those influences and the group matured, its sound became bigger, twangier and louder. Their exciting live shows got the attention of New West president John Allen, who contacted the band through social media.
“John Allen reached out to Chase … and said, ‘come make a record,’ and we did,” Gibson said.
“Fortune Favors the Bold” is a solid collection of Southern-fried country rock with the occasional tear-in-my-beer weeper. The album has a fuller, better-polished sound than some of the group’s early work.
The popular music website Saving Country Music gave the album a positive review, awarding it an 8.2 score on its 10-point scale, calling 49 Winchester “one of the most buzzed-about bands in roots music.”
The review continued: “It didn’t happen by accident, or via rich benefactors, or machinations of the music industry. It happened via the boldness and talent of this band, and we’re all fortunate that it did.”
The group produced the album with the help of Stewart Myers, who contributed studio “wizardry,” Gibson said.
Some of that studio craft includes the “Abbey Road”-style harmonies that provide the first sound on the album at the beginning of “Annabel,” a pretty lament that blends a tremolo-guitar hook straight from a Spaghetti Western into Gibson’s soulful voice sailing over a lovely chorus backed by more Beatles-y background vocals.
“Russell County Line,” the song featured in the Castlewood video, is another pretty tune built upon acoustic guitar picking and sprinkles of piano. Even though the record includes its share of barroom rockers, the softer sides of Gibson’s writing come through repeatedly.
“People might say, ‘Oh, they’ve abandoned what got ’em here,’” Gibson admitted. “But we play what we want to hear. We’ve changed sonically, but we don’t sound like anyone but 49 Winchester.”
In keeping with the band’s smalltown roots, the group recorded the album not in Nashville or some other pop-music big-city capital, but instead at White Star Sound in tiny Louisa, Virginia (population, 1,810), about 30 miles east of Charlottesville in the Piedmont flatlands. The town is probably more famous for being near the epicenter of a powerful 2011 earthquake than for being the epicenter of a burgeoning country music scene. The solitude is why the band chose the studio, Gibson said.
“It’s a killer studio,” he said. “It was the perfect place to tinker around. You could get out and breathe. It really was the middle of nowhere. All you could do was play foosball and drink beer.”
That ethos has served the band well so far. As Saving Country Music put it: “The chemistry of this band, the exuberance and infectiousness of their live performances, and the hometown hero aspect of their story makes you want to egg them on even more.”
In fact, Gibson’s parents — who still live in the house where it all started — are among the most vocal and visible hometown fans. His mother recently posted a picture of the eponymous mailbox on one of the band’s social media pages with the message: “Don’t forget where you came from.”
“People ask all the time, ‘When are you moving to Nashville?’” Gibson said. “And the answer is ‘never.’ Look, we love being on the road and playing to people. But I like fishing and putting my legs up on the couch. Then I’m anxious to get back out there again. It’s the yin and yang of road and home. Southwest Virginia is the best place. Folks don’t have to live in New York or LA to get a music career off the ground. Thanks to the internet, I can do Zoom calls and do everything by remote. That changed everything. Where I was born, where I’ll die and be buried, that’s here. I’m glad to stay in Russell County. There’s no place like Appalachia.”