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Milwaukee’s .357 String Band Travels Beyond Regions

Feb. 12, 2010
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Lightning From the North is, in a nutshell, a response to people asking us what a bunch of Yankees are doing playing bluegrass,” Derek Dunn, guitarist of Milwaukee’s self-dubbed “streetgrass” quartet, the .357 String Band, explains of their newest release.

“To me,Americana, country, bluegrassmusic, etc.,became ‘de-regionalized’ a long time ago, starting with the advent of radio,” Dunn says.“We’re proud of the culture we do come from and I feel that our roots in a Northern city as opposed to a Southern farm are an influence that very much comes through in our music.”

The music of Dunn and band mates Joe Huber, Rick Ness and Billy Cook has struck a chord with many regions, including Milwaukee, the States and even Europe—especially Europe. The .357 String band has traveled overseas several times, and plans to make a return trek in March. First, the streetgrass crafters give their hometown this Friday’s Turner Hall Ballroom release show for Lightning From the North, an album that also knows no regions or boundaries.

“We've always made music that was a reflection of who we were, and what we were doing and thinking at the time we created it,” Dunn says. “People always say they want honesty and integrity in their music, and to me that's what change represents.That is the human condition, and music is a reflection of the human condition—change is the only constant. Me writing the same songs that I wrote when I was 22? That would be dishonest.”

Lightning From the North,recorded with band friend Andy Gibson in Nashville, is filled with moments of maturation, both from being in a working band and experiencing everyday life.

“I wrote the song ‘’Til Peace Or Hell’ for my friend Reed, who passed away a year ago.He sangsome backup vocalson our first album, and Lightning From the North is dedicated to him.I was hanging out with Reed a week before he died,” Dunn recalls. “Looking back on it, I'm so grateful I had that chance to hang out with him again.He was a fantastic musician and a great songwriter.Reed was always kind of shrouded in tragedy for me, and I went home feeling pretty depressed.I wrote the verses to ‘’Til Peace or Hell’ that night, one week before he died.I wrote the chorus after Joe called me and told me he'd passed on.”

Dunn and the rest of .357 not only write from the heart, they play that way, too, holding steady even during rough patches. “[Talk about] when playing shows can feel like punching a clock,” Dunn says of a2007 show in Sturgis, [S.D.]. “We were playing two two-hour sets a day, to crowds of middle-aged bikers screaming ‘Free Bird!’ and ‘Skynyrd!’ in our faces, while we're sitting there trying to play original songs.”

But even rough times can produce valuable lessons, and Dunn notes the band’s progression. “Somethingwe didn't really do with our other albums [was to] actively promote them ourselves.We definitely learned that the whole PR aspect of being in a bandis something you can't afford to be ignorant about, so we’ve slowly been educating ourselves about howindependent radio stations work, how weeklies work,what a press release looks like, all that sort of thing.…

“What can you do but keepslaving away, making the music you love, and hoping people continueto notice it and appreciate it?”

The .357 String Band releases Lightning From the North on Friday, Feb. 12, at 8 p.m. at Turner Hall Ballroom. Also playing: 6 Day Bender and Pupy Costello & His Big City Honky Tonk.


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