Bluegrass and the outlaw country of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash have influenced The Workers. The local band's working class sentiment seems to be exactly what would appeal to small town bars or country hot spots. And yet, the one venue the band was told it would never be invited back to is a country-styled bar in Bozeman.
"The bartender told us, 'We'll not be able to have you guys back. You're good, but you're not what these folks want to hear,'" recalls mandolin player Trent Atkins. "What we play is some sort of country music, but we're not really a country band in the way they wanted us to be."
Between sets at the Bozeman bar, Atkins heard pop country tunes from the likes of Jason Aldean and Dierks Bentley blasting from the speakers. Aldean and Bentley are the type of country stars who have foregone the edge of Cash and Haggard for uncomplicated songs about faith, patriotism, SUVs and the virtues of being a hick. The bar's music illustrated exactly what the crowd was looking for and exactly what The Workers weren't willing to provide. In fact, Atkins says, the band was happy to not fit the mold.
"It was a total source of pride for us," he says. "I'm talking cowboy boots, big belt buckles, but probably never have baled hay—they were that kind of country."
What differentiates The Workers from a lot of other country bar acts is that this band plays more originals than covers. The musicians are also influenced by other forms of music beyond Americana roots, everything from the blue-collar music of Bruce Springsteen to the improvisational style of Phish (save for the lengthy jamming).
Atkins even admits to a soft spot for rap, and The Workers covers Snoop Dogg's "La Di Da Di" and "My Medicine." The rapper originally dedicated the latter to Johnny Cash.
"Snoop Dogg is on my top-five list of people I'd like to spend the day with," says Atkins. "So I know a lot of his songs."
The Workers—which, besides Atkins, includes guitarist/singer Scott Hohnstein, upright bassist Bob Finnegan and electric drummer Sid Kaste—formed in March 2008 and released a debut album called Call to Order at the end of the year. Since the release, the band has consistently played every couple of weeks at places around Missoula like the Old Post and Union Club.
Atkins and Hohnstein share vocal and songwriting duties for The Workers. Both grew up in Ohio—Hohnstein in the suburbs, Atkins in the country—and met while getting undergrad degrees at Ohio State University in Columbus.
"We were raised in different parts of Ohio and so I think our songs speak to people across various socio-economic boundaries," says Hohnstein. "We definitely have similar backgrounds in terms of certain types of rock, but I've been more into the indie rock and Trent comes from more bluegrass. I think the fusion of it is a good thing."
Atkins attributes his musical influence to growing up in the rural Midwest, but within a Southern household: His mother was in a gospel group that put out albums in the 1960s. His grandfather was a Baptist preacher and his father was a deacon. He recalls driving around in a fast car with his grandmother helping her sell beauty products, a memory that he turned into a banjo-based tune called "I Used to Sell Avon with Grandma."
Atkins says the religious music mixed with traditional country helped shape him. From the time he could talk, he would sing, and at the age of 5 he got a guitar. He also rebelled.
"I always said the Mason-Dixon line ran through my backyard," he says, "because I was raised by Southern parents in Ohio. A big part of my material comes from being raised in a very fundamentalist family. Once I went to college and learned about the rest of the world I found it completely impossible to believe what they believe. My music's really not anti-religious as much as it is reflecting upon being raised in such a strict religious environment."
Atkins eventually drifted from his Ohio home. He got his master's degree during which time he had only scattered free time to play music because he had to work three jobs to get through school. That changed when he moved to Eugene, Ore., where he was a fully funded doctorate student at the University of Oregon in special education.
Atkins also picked up the mandolin and taught himself to play, which, he says, put him back in touch with his roots because it brought him back to bluegrass. He got a job at the University of Montana as a professor of special education. Eventually Hohnstein moved to Missoula to get his doctorate and ended up an adjunct professor in Atkins' department.
"In just our four-piece band we actually have eight academic degrees," laughs Atkins. "Well, we like to think we're smart but we don't always seem that way."
The academic degrees might explain another aspect of the band. Songs like Hohnstein's "Chip of the Block" delve into issues about American Indian rights, and others take on the cause of Chinese dockworkers and unions. It's working man (and woman) music but from a sociological perspective—something you don't always hear from country songs these days unless you're listening to Steve Earle.
The Workers are currently finishing up their sophomore album, which Hohnstein says will deal with the idea of work, love and heartbreak, as industrial workers find themselves laid off and headed toward lower-paying service jobs. It's a theme that carries The Workers name well, even if it doesn't always speak to crowds that are drawn to popular country music.
"I think our name speaks to the times and it speaks to the past," says Hohnstein. "We're in a period that is echoing the things that came before it as far as the working man and the common man being left out."
The Workers play the Union Club Friday, Jan. 15, at 9 PM. Free.