The Driveway Thriftdwellers are from Milwaukee. And Madison. They’re a country band. And a rock and roll band. And if your local record store has an Americana section, you’ll probably find the band’s albums filed there. They started as a cover band. Now they play almost all originals. But they still love playing four-plus-hour cover sets at Northwoods honky-tonks once in a while, too.
It might seem like the Driveway Thriftdwellers suffer from an identity crisis, but if anything, their latest album is proof the band has found its voice.
“We think it’s a really good collection of tunes,” guitarist and lead singer Jon Knudson says.
KING OF MILWAUKEE
The self-titled album—recorded at Wire & Vice studios with producer/engineer Ian Olvera—kicks off with a catchy guitar riff ringing over thumping bass and drums that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Tom Petty record, which is fitting for a couple reasons. The band not only lists the legendary Florida rocker among their primary influences, but the song’s title, “King of Milwaukee,” is a nod to a line from “Honeybee,” off Petty’s 1994 album Wildflowers. As Jon starts singing, there’s almost no resemblance to Petty’s one-of-a-kind voice, but the subtle, somber vocals do come across a bit like a steadier, less-forlorn version of another of the band’s favorite songwriters—Gram Parsons.
As the “King of Milwaukee” chorus hits, the Driveway Thriftdwellers—Knudson, his brother Ryan on pedal steel guitar, Kyle Rightley on lead guitar, Aaron Collins on bass, and Jon Story on drums—show off some of their more contemporary influences. Over a poppy Americana backdrop, Jon lists eight seemingly divergent desires, including homes located in a farm field, the mountains, and downtown Milwaukee. Ryan says acute listeners will notice the lyrics fit recurring themes like travel, wanderlust, and escapism that show up throughout the album.
GHOSTS OF THE PAST
The upbeat second track, “Snow Ghosts And Alpenglow,” is about being a rocker who somewhat begrudgingly comes back to his country music roots. The song is autobiographical for the Knudsons, who grew up outside the northern Wisconsin community of Medford in a home filled with music, especially country.
“My dad had a big stack of guitars that we could pretty much grab and try to play whenever we wanted to, which I did a lot because we had three channels and no video games or internet,” Jon says. “I grew up either running around outside in the woods or trying to play the guitar.”
But, by the time they were teenagers, Jon and Ryan grew to hate country music.
“Part of that was probably because I grew up in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Jon says. “That wasn’t exactly the glory years for country music, although compared to now, maybe it was.”
Through the years, the brothers played in a variety of punk, grunge, and rock bands, although never together. By the time they hit their mid 20s, they found themselves drifting back to country-inspired rock, like Parsons’ Flying Burrito Brothers. When they joined forces in the Driveway Thriftdwellers in 2012, the band—an acoustic trio at the time—played almost exclusively classic country and country rock covers.
The lineup fluctuated in those early years, but the Knudsons, who now live in the Milwaukee area, eventually found stability in Rightley, Collins, and Story, a trio of accomplished (and busy) Madison-based musicians.
As the Driveway Thriftdwellers continued to play out, they started messing around with their own tunes. The band released its first album, Cutover Country, in 2016. While the Driveway Thriftdwellers built a dedicated following and earned a 2017 WAMI Country Artist Of The Year award behind that debut, the band members feel their self-titled follow-up is a significant step forward.
“I wouldn’t say the process wasn’t collaborative on the last record, but this one, almost every song was something where we got together in someone’s living room or basement and hammered out parts of lyrics and changes and other ideas,” Ryan says. “I guess I would say it’s more of a full-band effort, although the last one sure felt like a full-band effort when we were doing it.”
UP AND DOWN
Other standout tracks on the new album include the throwback, honky-tonk foot-tapper “Escanaba” and the subdued “Grandpa’s Tattoos,” a song Jon wrote in honor of his grandfather, who passed away 10 years ago.
“It was a tearjerker when our family first heard it,” Ryan says. “I’m really proud that that’s on the record.”
The album wraps up with “Bad News,” a song that has quickly become a crowd favorite at Driveway Thriftdwellers shows.
“I actually wrote the opening riff for that song while we were setting up for our last album,” Jon says. “We were recording in Madison. The guys were getting their gear set up in an old warehouse there, and I just started playing that riff. I knew it wasn’t going to make that album because it wasn’t a song yet. I just kind of held onto that in my back pocket for the next album.”
Technically, Driveway Thriftdwellers has been out since November, when the band released CD and digital versions of the album.
“It takes so long to get vinyl pressed, and we were a little itchy to get it out there and share it with the world,” Ryan says. “Now the vinyl records are done. We should have it all packaged up and ready to go here [by Friday]. So it’s like a record that’s being released in stages.”
The final stage will take place at Anodyne Coffee’s Walker’s Point Roastery on Friday, January 18, when the Driveway Thriftdwellers host a vinyl release show. Milwaukee’s own Coyote Brother will perform in support. Tickets cost $10, and the show is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m.
“It’ll be awesome,” Jon says. “We’re just really stoked to have this on vinyl.”