“There are good people out there who occasionally do bad things – and I’m one of them,” says Andy Vaughan. He’s talking about the inspiration behind Sinners and Saints, the new album from the country-music quintet Andy Vaughan & the Driveline. “I’m a decent person, but I’ve definitely screwed up.”
The disc’s title track explores the blurred line separating the sin-inclined and the saintly, the existence of noble villains and flawed heroes, and the vast grey area we all fall into. He confesses in the refrain: “You might think it’s strange, but the good guys and bad guys/ Both hold a place deep in my heart – I never could tell them apart.”
Sinners and Saints is the third record from this “Best Richmond Country Band,” as Andy Vaughan & the Driveline were judged by the readers of the Richmond-area Style Weekly. The second, 2012’s widely praised Searching for the Song, confirmed their status as standard bearers of the Bakersfield sound made famous by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard (Vaughan says he plain idolizes Haggard).
“Listening to the eleven tunes on Searching for the Song is like feeding quarters into a dusty juke box in a throwback honky tonk,” wrote No Depression scribe Ben Bonin of that disc. “Andy Vaughan and the Driveline … is committed to tried and true country … from the 1960s and 70s – an aesthetic that sits just fine with this reviewer.”
Sinners and Saints finds singer-guitarist Vaughan, pedal steel player Slim Stanton, lead guitarist Ray Fralin, bassist Erik Kutzler and drummer Chip Farnsworth digging deeper into the latter decade. “This record has deep roots in classic country but leans more heavily toward ’70s-style country rock – especially in the drum beats – and the countrypolitan sound,” Vaughan explains. (The band’s name is, after all, “a ’70s country truckin’ thing.”)
He calls “Her Body’s on my Mind” “a Conway Twitty sexy cheatin’ song.” Its distinctly rock rhythm, meanwhile, recalls the famous half-time “Waylon beat,” which asserts itself throughout Sinners and Saints. Vaughan says he admires the mature songwriting and sonic sophistication of the period, singling out Bobby Bare’s take on the Kris Kristofferson song “Come Sundown” (1971), Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Middle Age Crazy” (1977), and Haggard’s end of-the-’70s Back to the Barrooms LP.
Vaughan has also been influenced by his father, who sang and played guitar and mandolin. The son grew up tagging along to the father’s Bluegrass Clippers gigs and festival appearances. He started the Driveline in 2010 as a side project near the end of his tenure with the rockabilly and roots rock outfit Hamburger James. “Practically every song I wrote started as a country song,” he says. “And then they got the rockabilly treatment. But there were some that needed to stay country songs,” Sinners and Saints closer “The Devil’s Already Got Hold of My Soul,” for one. “It never really fit anywhere else,” he continues. “But it was a natural for Sinners and Saints.”
With their debut full-length, 2011’s Long Gone, Andy Vaughan & the Driveline began establishing the qualities they’ve come to be known for; in addition to their orientation west, notice was taken of Vaughan’s understated, emotionally direct vocals and gift for country songcraft, the lush and lively stringwork of Stanton (who studied with Buddy Charleton, of Ernest Tubbs’ Texas Troubadours), the neat, propulsive groove of Kutler and Farnsworth’s rhythm section, and harmony vocals from every member. Current Telecaster master Ray Fralin was recruited in 2012 after the departure of the Driveline’s original lead guitarist. Richmond fiddle player Jesse Wells guests on Sinners and Saints; Stanton lends accordion and resonator guitar.
Hundreds of shows in Virginia, North Carolina and the Mid-Atlantic earned the group a devoted following, which proved a godsend when funds ran low during the making of Sinners and Saints. “We put everything we had over the better part of a year into recording the album, but then we hit a wall,” Vaughan says. “So we launched a Kickstarter campaign. It’s all or nothing with Kickstarter, which was kind of nerve-wracking. But we knew our fans would come through.” The campaign allowed them to finish the record and prepare to tour.
Andy Vaughan & the Driveline will expand their fan base in 2014 with dates as far south as Athens and Savannah, Ga., and as far north as Philadelphia and Wrightsville, PA – all new cities for the band, which can also be said of Charleston, S.C., and Wilmington, N.C. Their live show is a pure expression of the band’s profound understanding of traditional country music “and the way it resonates down deep in the bones,” as Outlaw Magazine contributor Dave Pilot put it, reiterating, “I mean they inherently feel it in their marrow.”
Thus Vaughan is well aware that traditional country music has long been populated by sinners and saints. But even as a kid watching westerns on TV, he knew there was something more to it than straight-up heroes and villains. He cites Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name Trilogy, reflecting, “Clint Eastwood is the protagonist, but he’s a terrible person. Which made me see that the guy you’re rooting for doesn’t have to be a perfect golden-boy character. He does things that are wrong. He’s fallible.
“In the earlier westerns, it was one or the other – the good guys wore the white hats and the bad guys wore the black hats.” But, as Andy Vaughan & the Driveline make clear in Sinners and Saints, “the reality is that the hats we’re riding around in today come in many shades of grey.”