Texas Troubadours: The Dirty River Boys Make the Best of their Border Town Background

Towns situated along the Southwest border have the benefit of absorbing Mexian culture. In some cases, there's an element of danger associated with being a border town. That's certainly the case for El Paso, which sits across the Rio Grande from Juárez, a city that made international headlines in the late 2000s when violence associated with two feuding drug cartels spiraled out of control.

For the Dirty River Boys —Marco Gutierrez, Colton James, Travis Stearns and Nino Cooper — El Paso has been an inspiration. Now based in Austin, the alt-country band formed about five years ago and has been steadily touring (it’s logged some 200,000 miles in the past few years) in the attempt to expand its fan base. Recorded at Sonic Ranch, a studio bordered by the Rio Grande and Old Mexico, its new self-titled album alternates between hard rock and bluegrass and draws equally from the Stones and Willie Nelson.

“To be honest with you, I wouldn’t want to have grown up anywhere else,” says Cooper of his El Paso upbringing. “We’re proud to be from El Paso. It is a little bit excluded from the rest of the Texas music scene. It’s in its own little bubble and I think that’s to our benefit. We naturally evolved into our own unique style. In high school, we used to cross the border to go restaurants and bars. It’s been a part of El Paso culture for a long time.”

“Down by the River,” the first song on The Dirty River Boys, is about the drug violence in Juárez, Mexico.

“It definitely was difficult crossing [the border] and people felt unsafe because there was so much violence going on,” says Cooper of the hard-rocking garage-rock track that starts with a thick bass riff and snarling vocals. “There was kidnapping, and cartels were burning down buildings and shooting people everyday.”

Originally, the Dirty River Boys had a long list of possible band names. But they settle upon Dirty River Boys and are happy they did.

“We ended up with Dirty River Boys because it sounded like the music we wanted to portray, which is a post-modern interpretation of an old sound —folk with an edge,” says Cooper, who was working in the “business world” when he quit his day job and joined the band. “The river isn’t dirty per se; there’s just not much water. It’s more muddy than anything.”

Devoted to playing whatever gigs they could get, the band played anywhere and everywhere in the early days. “We just started playing anywhere that would allow us, including hotel lobbies, brunches and birthday parties,” says Cooper.

While the group released a handful of EPs prior to The Dirty River Boys, the new album represents the band at its best. The group benefited from recording at Sonic Ranch, a first-rate studio where indie acts such as Animal Collective, Flogging Molly and Of Montreal have recorded.

“Our producer Chris ‘Frenchie’ Smith came out to the ranch with us,” Cooper explains. “He stayed with us for two weeks. You stay there and they cook for you. You’re secluded from everything. It’s an amazing experience. We recorded the other half at the Bubble in Austin, which is the studio Frenchie co-owns. That’s where we finished it up and mixed the record.” The band members’ assorted musical backgrounds play a role in the diverse sounds that find their way onto the album.

“We like to let that individuality show,” says Cooper. “We have some songs that I sing and songs that Marcus sings and they were brought individually. We get together as a group and work out the musical arrangements.  You’ll hear a rock song and a folk song and a more soul-sounding song. The Dirty River Boys’ element remains throughout the record.”

Cooper has said Americana might be the best term to describe the band’s music, a rich and rowdy slew of styles.

“America is such a melting pot of different cultures,” he says. “That’s what we are as a band. That’s what you hear in our music. We don’t want to contain ourselves in a single genre. In reality, our music is a melting pot of influences.” Expect the live show to be just as adventurous as band members switch instruments mid-show.

“It’s a pain for our tour manager and sound guy,” Cooper says.

“We switch instruments quite a bit and we’ll switch spots. He’ll set up different scenes for each one of those switches. We try to keep the live show energetic and it’s always changing and evolving. We have a full-blown, in-your-face rock song and a bluegrass set where we all crowd around one condenser mic.  You’ll see a variety of things at our live show.”

The Dirty River Boys with Shivering Timbers and Rebekah Jean

8:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $10, beachlandballroom.com.

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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