If you are familiar with 500 Miles to Memphis you know that they are a band that rocks but also has country roots in their sound, incorporating instruments that are traditionally associated with country music; lap steel, fiddle, banjo and mandolin. As a matter of fact, singer-songwriter/guitarist (and founder of the band) Ryan Malott chose the band’s name inspired by the distance of his hometown (Bethel, OH) to the town of Memphis, TN, where arguably American roots music was born.
500 Miles to Memphis started out in 2003 and has evolved to the current line-up of Ryan Malott (vocals, guitar, banjo, mandolin); Noah Sugarman (bass, vocals, guitar, pipe organ); Kevin Hogle (drums, percussion, vocals); David Rhodes Brown (lap steel, guitar, vocals); and Aaron Whalen (guitar, vocals). The band has put out 4 albums to date and now their 5th studio album, Blessed Be The Damned, will be released in January 2019.
For Blessed Be The Damned, 500 MTM brought in musician and producer, John Pedigo (The O’s, Old 97’s) for production and engineering and Grammy nominated engineer, Adam Pleiman leading the charge with engineering and mastering. “I’ve been an avid fan of John Pedigo since 2003 when he had a band called Slick 57,” recalled Malott. “We were on the phone catching up this past winter when I mentioned our new album. On a whim he offered to produce it and I realized how amazing it would be to share a studio with my musical hero.” Pleiman, who is an accomplished musician himself, was nominated for a Grammy last year for his work with the Collingsworth Family. The band had worked with him while recording their sophomore album, “Sunshine in a Shot Glass” and stayed in touch. “He’s an incredible talent. I can’t say enough about him.”
Besides producing, Pedigo lends his talents to the album with some banjo and vocals. Philip W Peeples (Old 97’s) plays bells and percussion on a few songs and other guests include Paul Patterson (violin, viola, cello) and Nathan Hickey (Vocals, Percussion).
Blessed Be The Damned is different from the previous 4 albums the band made in that the band approached it with a very specific sound in mind. They wanted to draw on the influences of their region (Appalachia) and give their take on the bluegrass and folk music of their ancestors. This is also the first time Malott and Sugarman tried co-writing. “Previously all songs were written by me alone,” said Malott. “Our albums have always been a collection of songs with no over arching theme. This time we sat down to write an entire album, not just a song.”
“The River” is the song that kicks off the album and was the first joint songwriting effort. It has the 500 MTM signature sound with the perfect cross-section of Appalachia, gospel, and punk rock. The album then goes to “Bonnie”, a song that has the sound of traditional bluegrass folk, followed by the pop gems “Hold on Tight” and “I Said Babe”.
On the title track, “Blessed Be The Damned” you have the sonic boom of a mountain string band sharing the stage with a massive punk rock band. Noah Sugarman’s R & B background sounds strong on “Save Me”, which has a gospel punk rock vibe--big church organ and Marshall stacks mixed with a healthy dose of harmonies and gang vocals. Ending with the only ballad on the album, “I’m a Bastard” Malott claims it as “an epic divorce song” and one of the tearjerkers that 500 MTM is known for.
The band is based out of Cincinnati, but its members are spread out through the area with Malott in Cincinnati, Kevin Hogle in Alexandria, KY, Aaron Whalen in Lawrenceburg, IN, Sugarman in Milwaukee, and David Rhodes Brown in Rabbit Hash, KY where his dog used to be Mayor. “It’s not a joke,” Malott imparts, “google it.” Though not in the same town everyday, the band has played together for so many years now that their level of tightness and musicianship have soared. “We definitely elevate each other,” said Malott. “We’ve reached levels I’ve never thought possible. Nothing but love after all these years.”
Up to 2014 the band was logging in 250 days a year on the road and needed a break from their extensive touring and from alcohol and drugs. Sobering up, they all moved on to other projects. “We were at a point where we weren’t sure we’d ever make another record or do a big push,” Malott explained. “We had struggled so long in this business that we became pretty jaded. In 2017 I sat on my back porch and began writing “Bonnie” and I knew I was on to something. It was only a few months after that we were back in full swing. New life had been breathed into the band. We had direction, focus, and a very clear plan laid out on how we were going to do this thing. Blessed Be The Damned literally saved us from giving up.”
Winning many entertainment awards for their “wall of sound” live shows, Pedigo and Pleiman have captured the band’s sound on Blessed Be The Damned. If you are a fan of high-octane punk rock, bluegrass and Appalachia, these boys are for you.