Writing from the Gut: The Hardin Draw

Hardin Draw at the Mercy Lounge. Photo by Rae Marshall

Aaron Swisher playing the mandolin like the lead guitarist in a metal band. Photos by Bracken Mayo

What began as a “joke-type thing” among friends became one of the most hard-to-peg bands in Murfreesboro. It could be called Americana, sure, but I guess it comes down to some very dark country roots, band members’ backgrounds in metal that carry over and a liking for morbid-pop songwriting (Springsteen circa ’95-’05) that make The Hardin Draw just seem so cool. Backstage at Exit/In before their set on July 11, The Pulse got to ask the band about their long-time-coming record, how their diverse musical backgrounds converged and how they all got together in the first place. Apparently, all you’ve got to do is bring along some instruments on your next bar crawl.

How did The Hardin Draw happen?

David Talley: Jason bought an upright bass. Aaron bought a mandolin.

Jason Dietz: I just texted everybody like, “Hey, I’m going to the Handlebar. Everyone bring their acoustic instruments. Let’s just sit around and act like assholes.” That’s how it began, sitting around playing simple chords.

Talley: Then we wrote the riff for “Hollow” and then we wrote the entire thing.

Jonathan Brooks: That was the first time Aaron played mandolin. He only knew a handful of chords, so we were all restricted to the ones we knew.

Talley: I think it got really weird when we started understanding we could all sing, and vocal harmonies came into the picture, and that just freaked everybody out. And also we had a sound. And then John Judkins joined.

Dietz: All of us are just an eclectic group with completely different musical backgrounds. Some of them are similar, but what we listen to for guilty pleasures is different. Nobody in this band listens to John Mayer, except for David.

Brooks: After sitting around, we started hitting bars and would just walk in and start playing. I think when we were asked to come back to The Boro, it was our semi-official beginning.

Dietz: We just played maybe two originals and just learned a bunch of covers. Me and Aaron were babies at playing our instruments.

Aaron Swisher: Jason has enough experience with bass, and I’ve got enough experience with guitar, so it was a little easier to transition, but I’m still not a great mandolin player. I don’t know how to play mandolin. I can just put things together that sound good, and these guys like it.

Brooks: He plays it like a lead guitarist in a metal band [laughs]. And it sounds awesome.

Swisher: I don’t know, I’m just going with what I’m doing because it works, and I understand it.

Brooks: And it fits with what we’re doing. That’s the thing Jason was hitting on about how we all have different influences and tastes, but somehow it’s gelling into something that’s new. Not a lot of people sound like what we do, but at the same time everybody’s like, “Okay, yeah, I get that.”

John Judkins, Jonathan Brooks and David Talley

What were your first gigs like?

Brooks: Just showing up at The Boro.

Nikki Oliff: I was at The Boro drinking, and I was like, hey, there’s my friends and they’re playing music. So I went home and got my accordion and met them over at the pub.

Talley: That was the first time we went on tour, actually. We went to the Handlebar, then The Boro, then the pub. And the tour was great. I think we, at one point, played “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” with everybody rip-roaring drunk and singing along.

So, you just went on a pub crawl with instruments?

Collective: Yeah.

Brooks: Then people started asking us when we were playing.

Dietz: We didn’t play our first official show until February. All that stuff was just fun and us learning. We weren’t an official band band yet, because there were still multi-possible members. I was still inviting people over on Wednesdays to jam. “Bring your guitar, and come hang out with us!”

John Judkins: I don’t know how many times you said that before I came over.

Dietz: There’s a good 10 other people I invited in Murfreesboro to come over.

Talley: Once Judkins came and jammed, I think we all kind of pooped our pants a little.

Brooks: It took us to the next level. I can’t imagine us doing something consistently without that sound, without that voice in the ensemble. John is responsible for that.

Where’d the name The Hardin Draw come from?

Swisher: We were going to call ourselves Engine No. 7.

Dietz: Yeah. The hardest thing to do is name your band. It’s impossible, but I saw a fire truck that said Number 7 and I thought that was pretty cool. I think we were all cool with that for a while, then I was watching Pawn Stars one night and they were talking about John Wesley Hardin, and I was like, “I remember that guy! He shot somebody for snoring or something.” And they were talking about the way he draws his guns, which is called the Hardin Draw. And I was like, “Holy crap, that’s the most amazing band name ever.” I Googled it, and no one had that band name.

Swisher: Since then I’ve been scouring anything I can about John Wesley Hardin and American outlaws and incorporating some of that terminology into songwriting maybe.

Brooks: And enough of our music has a kind of Western flair to it. We’re debuting a new song tonight that has an outstanding Western tint to it, which ties back to the band name.

Jason Dietz and David Talley

You guys have played in bands that are vastly different from what you do in The Hardin Draw, so how did your sound develop?

Swisher: I think that’s what we wanted to do—make something totally different from what we’ve done before. I’ve never sang in a band before, though I sang in choirs my whole life, my dad directed choirs and orchestras, and I grew up knowing how to sing and enunciate words. All of a sudden, vocals came into play. I could play instruments, but had never attempted to sing in a band before. One night we were talking about vocal harmonies, and I was up for it, so that was a fun challenge.

Talley: I think all of us, overall, are very melodic in a musical nature. A lot of guys, like Judkins and Jason, come from a metal background. I’ve always been a poppy singer/songwriter kind of guy and more mellow. But I grew up with The Beach Boys and The Temptations, so vocal harmonies have always been a big part of my life. I think when all the songs got constructed, there was an aggressiveness there that I think everybody brings because of their musical backgrounds. Everybody also likes to experiment with space and melody. I think we all love it so much because it’s like a big canvas we let loose on. We all hear melody in our heads.

Judkins: Dietz works in a studio. Nikki and I teach kids, and so does Talley. We’ve gotten used to working with other artists and hearing what they want to get out. It’s not always what you want when someone comes to you with a need and you have to deliver. With this music, we already have all these skills and use them to our advantage.

What do you individually bring to the table in terms of your own influences?

Judkins: I love music, I don’t care. I’ll listen to things that someone else may think is the worst, like Def Leppard. I know what I like, and I’m not afraid to admit what I like. We all take ownership in that way. It’s not like when you’re 15 and it’s all Slayer and Metallica, and I really loved Weezer and didn’t want to tell anybody, you know what I mean?

Swisher: We were headed to Memphis and Talley’s going through the iPod and goes, “Here’s one,” and puts on Celine Dion. Here’s the thing, it was on my iPod.

Talley: I really like singer/songwriters.

Oliff: I think we’ve all opened each other’s eyes, too. We all come from different places and we all have things in common and stuff we give each other shit for, but then there’s stuff each of us listen to that other people say, “That’s really cool,” which is just helping us grow.

Swisher: What I heard growing up was string bands and swing. My parents were older and Glenn Miller was a regular in my house. Then I heard ’80s hair metal when I was seven, and then started playing guitar.

John Judkins

Judkins: Black metal, country, Americana. If it’s disgusting, it’s got artistic merit to it, and I really enjoy it. The person making the music, if I can tell they love it, it doesn’t matter what kind of music it is; I can get on the level with it. If you’re adaptable, if you like every flavor, you’ll never be disappointed.

Talley: I think what ties us all in together is that we like raw musicians—people who play from their guts. I think that’s the point.

As the songwriter, how do you write from your gut?

Talley: You live life, and you go through pain and happiness and the big roller coaster. Some people just can’t say anything unless they write it. And for me, that’s all it is. I have to write it or I’ll get all plugged up inside. That’s the rawness, or the honesty of it. I think any fabricated songwriter in Nashville who’s playing top 40 country bullshit is writing the same song we’ve heard over and over again. There’s no guts in that. It’s just clever punch lines and a million-dollar paycheck, and I think it’s stupid. If you took the time to tap into your emotions and understand why music connects people, that’s where good songwriting comes from. As far as who influences my songwriting, I listen to Bruce Springsteen. Not the happy Bruce Springsteen; more like Devils and Dust and The Ghost of Tom Joad. Hearing Devils and Dust changed the way I wrote a lot because I heard open tunings in a really dark way and really heavy lyrics on top of that. And I love Bob Dylan. And John Mayer. He’s a great songwriter. I’m a guitar player and a songwriter, so there’s two sides of it. On the guitar side, I’m obsessed with guitar players, but the songwriting side is really simple.

What are your favorite songs on the upcoming record?

Brooks: “Long Black Train” was probably the most collaborative. Dave came with the simplest of ideas, and we just built this monster around it.

Talley: Lyrically, for me, there’s a song called “Wage War,” which is my favorite. I don’t write anything I haven’t felt at one point. “Home” I think is really good.

Swisher: “Home” is the first one where we all did big, huge vocal harmonies.

Brooks: What’s funny about the vocal harmonies is, I don’t sing. So I get a nice little outside perspective on that. You mentioned “Home” is the first one with vocal harmonies, but those didn’t exist in the first incarnation of it.

Do you believe that old adage that songwriters have to be uncomfortable to write?

Talley: I think that expressing yourself honestly is uncomfortable. I wouldn’t say it’s uncomfortable; I don’t sit down to write a song and think, “Oh, this is gross,” but it’s more like, “Finally. I had to get that shit out or I was going to lose my mind.” There are moments when you say the one thing you haven’t said yet. It’s weird because you just put it out into the universe.

Aaron Swisher and Nikki Oliff

When is the record coming out?

Dietz: We are going to have something done by the time we leave for tour in October. Our LP may turn into an EP, but we will have something done . . . and it will be done. We still have plenty of time, but I . . . record a lot.

Is it harder or easier to work on . . . ?

Dietz: I hate recording myself. If someone else could record my bass tracks, it would be done a lot quicker. I like recording this. I obsess over it. Before anyone else comes over, I’ll mess with washboards, shakers and think about all the songs constantly. It’s a constant work in progress.

Considering how your band formed and started out, did you ever think you’d record an album?

Dietz: I was hoping that we would do something we could record, for sure.

What’s it titled?

[Sounds of uncertainty]

Do you think you’d title it after a song, or get more creative than that?

Brooks: More creative.

Judkins: We were thinking Back In Black, but that was taken. And we’re not really coming back from anything . . . Here In Black. We don’t know. Once the record is complete, we’ll figure that out.

In the short time you’ve been a band, what’s been the best part so far?

Judkins: Friendship.

Collectively: Yeeeah.

Brooks: We don’t have any of the horror story hang-ups that other bands have.

Oliff: We just wanted to do something that we love together, and it’s awesome.

Brooks: You heard the origin story, and we didn’t set out to make a band. We set out to hang out and jam. Luckily, that’s kept going. We’re still just hanging out and jamming.

Catch The Hardin Draw Aug. 31 at the Muddy Roots Festival, or Oct. 5 at Wall St. in Murfreesboro.


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