High up in the vacant and soon-to-be renovated penthouse apartments of Missoula’s Babs building, the eight members of The Wartime Blues practice their songs surrounded by dust and debris.
Sometimes, self-taught keyboardist Lisena Brown says the band sounds so good in this space, she stops mid-practice, as if forgetting she’s part of the band, to just listen to the acoustics—the sustain of mandolin and haunting harmonies echoing throughout the room.
“We used to practice in my living room, which was [also] my bedroom, which is also everything else,” says Brown, “and it didn’t work very well. Having [this] space has made us so much better.”
What began as a simple bluegrass trio—Nate Hegyi, Ben Prez and Sam Luikens—has sprouted into an instrumentally robust folk rock group in just two years.
“The beginning was three dorks playing mandolin, banjo and guitar,” says frontman Hegyi. “It was fun, it was good, but the sound in my head wasn’t there yet. The sound we have now is where I wanted it to go.”
With the later additions of cellist Bethany Joyce, keyboardist Brown, bassist Tyler Knapp, guitarist Jesse Netzloff and drummer Martin McCain, the group is now set to release its first EP, The Wartime Blues: The Snow Ghost Sessions.
The album’s recording occurred as an on-the-fly escapade, according to Hegyi. In June, a musician friend hooked The Wartime Blues up with a gig in Whitefish and the added opportunity to have that show recorded by producers from the Flathead’s Snow Ghost Studios. Snow Ghost producer and talent scout Keith Garner liked the band’s set enough to invite them to come back and record at the studio in the winter. But when another band cancelled over the summer, Snow Ghost asked The Wartime Blues to fill the slot—with only a few weeks to prepare.
“At that point everything in my mind was put on the back burner. Music was put on every burner,” Hegyi says. “I talked to the band that night. I was like, ‘Do you want to do this? This is short notice. Is this a good idea for us?’”
They decided to take the plunge and started practicing three hours a day, every day, to tighten up their sound, taking only three days off during the entire month of July. That led to three days in the Whitefish studio, which Brown and Martin describe as “a mansion built around a recording studio,” featuring top of the line equipment and instruments.
“I didn’t know what to expect before going up there,” says Brown. “I was really excited and once we got up there it was absolutely amazing.”
While the size of The Wartime Blues risks over complicating or muddying the band’s sound, The Snow Ghost Sessions comes across simple enough to produce a refreshingly depressing tone. Nothing gets sugar coated in Hegyi’s raw and surprisingly aged vocals, and especially not in his lyrics. In “Coming Home Mississippi,” a track about a U.S. veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, Hegyi sings, “Just one man ridin’ down that long highway/Just one man comin’ home/ While the leaves in the train tracks shatter like gunshots/ the flowers blossom in blood.”
“I’m interested in a country that’s lost its innocence and ideals,” Hegyi says. “It continues to go on and I write in an attempt to figure out what happened, why it happened and its effects.”
Though his stories detail fictional characters, they evoke familiar personalities. Not every song screams a heartbreaking message, but it’s these tracks that find The Wartime Blues at their best.
“I always picture Nate like a Play-Doh machine for songwriting,” says Brown. “Everyday is seems like he comes to practice with like three new songs—and they are all really good. He’s like a maniac and I have never seen anything like it.”
Hegyi says the EP’s release date, September 11, was purposefully chosen to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11. But his social cynicism and dry humor is tough to read, especially when he says with a straight face and even voice, “I figured so many other businesses and people profit off the national tragedy, that we would jump on the bandwagon and try too.”
A Canadian native who now holds dual citizenship, Hegyi—who wears a weathered American flag at his shows—claims he is not really politically minded but that he does have a sense of patriotism. From the sound of The Wartime Blues, it’s a grassroots and everyman definition of the term.
“People are miserable out there,” Heygi says, “and there are a lot of people who aren’t talked about that deserve our attention.”
The Wartime Blues plays their CD release party at the Badlander Friday, Sept. 12, at 10 PM with Point Juncture, WA. $5.