Following in the steps of Deadman Flats and Fast Food Junkies, 80 Proof Engine of Newton is attracting a following while spreading its own version of progressive bluegrass.
The bluegrass movement started up in the Wichita area about 10 years ago, and the distinctive style has flourished in the past five years.
“People are starting to get used to it,” banjo player John Moser said. “We feel like we’re part of the fan base that’s helped create it a little bit.”
The term bluegrass is kind of a misnomer. It also could be described as acoustic rock with punk influence.
Jarrod Starling, with Carrie Nation & the Speakeasy, refers to the style as “aggressive Kansas acoustic rock.” He stays away from calling it “bluegrass” because he said it was too specific. His band has been a big player in Wichita for a long time, and its music played a major influence on the four members of 80 Proof Engine.
“It’s pumped-up party bluegrass,” Dustin Nesser, upright bassist and vocalist for 80 Proof Engine, said. “It’s not your grandpa’s bluegrass, that’s for sure.”
While traditional bluegrass has gospel roots, 80 Proof Engine has an edgy sound with a working class ethos of partying.
“We are an eight-cylinder alcohol-fueled machine,” Nesser said about the band’s name. The eight cylinders are represented by the eight hands pumping away on stage.
Nesser and Moser started the band five years ago with two others who placed too much of a priority on having a good time and not enough on working to get better. Moser introduced mandolin player Robby Bailey to the movement while they were students at Pittsburg State University. Moser had a couple of CDs, and two would ride around the countryside listening to bands like Split Lip Rayfield that were making a name in Wichita. Bailey later would drive to Newton to hang out with his new fishing buddy and listen to 80 Proof Engine. One of the originals left the band, and Bailey filled the vacancy.
“When there was an open spot, I just kind of took it,” Bailey said. “I knew I wanted to play music with my friends.”
Moser said the band started to click with the addition of Bailey because all three had the same mentality of making good music through a regime of practice and better organization.
Guitarist Russel Baldridge completed the band. He was waiting to go camping with the band at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield a little over two years ago when the guitar player didn’t show up. An aerospace engineer by day, Baldridge got to know Bailey through Wichita’s underground punk scene. Baldridge had played a little with the band previously and knew some of its songs. The day before 80 Proof Engine went on stage, he rehearsed with the other three.
“I wasn’t good when I first played,” Baldridge said. Since then, the band has developed cohesiveness via a shared dedication. 80 Proof Engine has been playing every weekend for the past three months, and the band recently has released “Nasty Grass,” its first recording with the current four members.
“They have definitely gotten a ton tighter,” Starling said. “They’ve worked their (butts) off to get where they are.”
Starling said he liked to book 80 Proof Engine in Wichita because the band fills seats. According to him, the band is writing good songs and doing it the right way, much the way his band started before it began touring the coasts. Starling said one key was not to play too often in one market, which cheapens a band by oversaturating the market.
Nesser writes most of the lyrics, but everyone contributes by writing his own solos and giving input on how a song should be arranged.
“We all kind of know what a song should sound like, when it sounds good and when it doesn’t sound good,” Nesser said.
Fan favorites include “Ain’t Goin’ To Work” and “Whiskey River.” The band plays regular shows at Sadie’s Dog Bar in Newton, but it also has performed in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas City and Joplin, Mo.
While many songs are about drinking, women and heartbreak, others tell stories. “Sarah Got a Snakebite” was influenced by life on the Oregon Trail as settlers headed west, and “Duel” is about a confrontation in the Old West.
Since he was in fifth grade, Nesser dreamed of being in a band so he could be on stage making music with his buddies. This group of buddies became much closer through the grind of putting together “Nastygrass.”
Moser said recording an album could be a tedious process, involving playing the same songs over and over again to work out any imperfections. Once it was done, however, it felt like a weight had been lifted off of them.
“We connected so deep on some of that stuff; it’s wild,” he said.
An increasing number of music lovers are starting to take note. The band is getting invited to different kinds of shows, gigs for which it struggled to make contacts previously. Bailey credits the album as a stimulus.
“I feel like it’s been worth every minute so far,” Baldridge said. “We’re all growing as musicians because of that.”
How far 80 Proof Engine steams ahead on its winding journey remains to be seen, but none of its musicians are stopping to look at postcards. They’re having too much fun enjoying the ride.
“If something ever comes of it, that’s great,” Bailey said “I’m not counting on it. I have other goals in life, and so does everybody else. We’re just doing it right now because we have so much fun doing it.”
Story by Blake Spurney