In a way, Wartime Blues happened while no one was looking. Members of the local folk rock band played songs together at summer potlucks in 2006, during a year when commercial venues were few. It was a heavier do-it-yourself scene then: Musicians like Two Year Touqe, Good Neighbor Policy and Travis Sehorn performed at house shows and, often, these underground parties would turn into evening jam sessions for anyone who brought an instrument.
"All these people would come around and start playing," says Nate Hegyi, Wartime Blues' frontman. "I don't think there was ever really a moment of asking anybody to be in the band. We just kind of kept gathering people."
Over the last four years, however, house shows have given way to shows at venues like the Badlander and Palace, and in that time, Wartime Blues has solidified itself as an octet comprised of Hegyi (lead vocals/guitar), Ben Prez (mandolin/vocals), Sam Luikens (banjo/vocals), Lisena Brown (keyboard), Bethany Joyce (cello), Jese Netzloff (guitar), Martin McCain (drums) and Tyler Knapp (bass). The band recorded an EP in 2008 at the SnowGhost studio in Whitefish, and self-released a full-length album called Doves & Drums in 2009. It's become a staple at places like the Top Hat and the Badlander, and the band has gotten used to touring a few times each year, playing in small and large venues from coast to coast. It's one of the aspects of being a band they love the most, says Prez.
"Sometimes I'll just catch myself running the register where I work," says Prez, "and somebody's T-shirt will remind me of blasting down the highway, or Sam getting pulled over for the second time, or going to weird diners in Kansas. And each show you have to win over a new group of people. Sometimes you play well and sometimes you drink too much. In Louisville we drank bourbon and so I don't remember that show."
Recently, Wartime Blues has experienced interest outside of Missoula. This July, National Public Radio NPR picked Wartime Blues' "Robert Ford and Jesse James" as an interlude between economic stories on "Weekend Edition." During their recent Midwest tour—the third tour of the year—the band met Leroy Bach (from Wilco and Iron & Wine) at a Chicago bar called The Whistler and he invited them to play a show at his house the next night. The experience, Hegyi says, reminded them of the house shows where they first got their start.
"The scene in Chicago seems very collaborative and supportive," says Hegyi. "Sometimes you do get an idea of some towns being cutthroat a little more, but Chicago seems like a nurturing scene. It was really good for us to be there."
In August, Wartime Blues recorded at the Horseshack in Rock Island, Ill., as part of a project called the Daytrotter Sessions. The studio invites bands to take two hours out of their touring schedule and record a few songs, which are then put up on a website for the public to download for free. It's no small deal to get an invite, either. The studio has recorded Bonnie Prince Billy, Kris Kristofferson, Tegan and Sara, Blitzen Trapper, Vampire Weekend and numerous other top indie artists.
"It was really big for us," says Hegyi. "The studio [captures] that band at that moment on their tour, playing the same mic as every other band—all live and no overdubs."
Wartime Blues—and Hegyi in particular—has a reputation for strong songwriting and magnetic lyrics. The title track to Doves & Drums, for instance, offers a slow building Americana sound that evokes Bruce Springsteen's brooding Nebraska. In the song, Hegyi sings nostalgic lines like, "I remember when there was love, kissing in the river when we were young—so young and restless," and a chorus of yearning "la la las." It's a signature sound, though Hegyi says he would like to change things up a bit and write more about his experiences growing up in Wisconsin ("Midwest Fuckup" is a recent song he wrote) in a less earnest manner.
"When I first started writing," he says, "those heavy influences came out: Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen. I think I finally feel much more comfortable with myself. The stupid shit gets thrown away pretty quickly. I'm starting to get much more of a sense of humor with my writing. I hope I am."
In the spirit of change, Wartime Blues will play the entire Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots album from The Flaming Lips for Halloween, which will have them dabbling in psychedelic rock—a far cry from the roots sound they're used to. It's just for a night, but it proves that Wartime Blues is looking for new directions—even if they sometimes wish to revisit the old, laid-back potluck days.
"Back then, we'd always play 'One More Cup of Coffee,'" says Prez of the Bob Dylan song. "And we could never finish it. We'd be 13 minutes in and just trail off. I kind of miss that."
Wartime Blues plays the fourth annual Halloween party at the Badlander and Palace Saturday, Oct. 30, at 9 PM, with Fireballs of Freedom, Tonsofun, Traffic, The New Hijackers and DJs Kris Moon, Monty Carlo and Brand One. $15.