Driftwood Soldier isn’t a household name, because mom doesn’t like it when you track mud in from the outside. She says leave your shoes at the door, and leave that light-fingered bassist and his ranting mandolinero on the other side of the door; out on the porch, the stoop, the street, the gutter, where folks like them belong.
That’s OK. Bobby and Owen don’t mind.
They tell their stories where people listen. In basements, dive bars, dusty theaters, and the back rooms of businesses that should know better. They assemble their pile of junk foot percussion and deliver a staggering performance of the ‘gutter-folk’ music that has built an unlikely cross-genre coalition of wide-eyed listeners, now waiting impatiently for their second full-length album, Stay Ahead of the Wolf (out October 18).
The first Driftwood Soldier album, Scavenger’s Joy was laid down live to tape just a few weeks after the duo got home from their first tour together in 2014. When radio stations began picking it up a year and a half later the results were surprising. Not just because stations like WFUV, WNCW and WXPN saw the wild potential in a DIY band from Philly, but because all over the country no one could agree on which tracks were the albums singles, resulting in over half the songs on a CD in a spray painted cardboard sleeve seeing air time on dozens of stations.
In the five years since, the duo has been in constant motion. In 2017 they released Blessings & Blasphemy, a split EP of rearranged Christian gospel and anti-religious originals, exploring the spiritual power of music and the tyranny of religious dogma. In 2018, they recorded an eight song B-Sides EP that was released serially for free to their fans, then vanished into the digital night. They toured Ireland and leapfrogged relentlessly around the East coast, bridging folk, punk, blues, rock, and country audiences with a shrug, a growl, a mandolin held together with electrical tape and an over-driven low end.
Driftwood Soldier makes gutter-folk music, and gutter-folk music is the music Driftwood Soldier makes. It’s not a nostalgic reproduction of an imagined past, or a feel-good celebration of a rosy future. It’s a bittersweet love song to a flawed world. A lullaby that leaves you bleeding. In Stay Ahead of the Wolf, it finds an expression of intensity familiar to their live audiences and soon to be familiar to many more.
Today Glide is excited to premiere the band’s new single, which finds these thoughtfully pissed-off songwriters taking on the quietly devastating folk tale of John Henry. Reminiscent of acts like Brown Bird, Whiskey Shivers, and the The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, the song finds Owen lending his surprisingly smooth – this being gutter-folk and all – baritone to a lively and gothic reimagining of this classic folk song in a way that speaks to our own times of corporate greed, racism, and an increasing class divide. He picks furiously at his mandolin, creating a sense of frenetic tension that adds to the heaviness of the lyrics.
Owen shares the inspiration behind the song:
“I wrote a new song about an old story, because I see it differently. Other versions are all about John Henry vs. The Steam Drill. Man vs. Machine. But I want to talk about the racist corporate greed driving the whole scenario, which people seem to take for granted. I want to ask why a black man in the days after slavery would have to have a superhero’s strength just to keep a backbreaking job with poverty wages. And more importantly, why’s that still true today?”
Photo credit: Liz Kross