The Dirty River Boys careen (“Down by the River”) and combust (“Thought I’d Let You Know”) with absolute precision. Evidence: The El Paso-born quartet’s superb new self-titled collection. Few bands today match elegance against energy as effortlessly.
“For the most part, these are new songs, but there were a few older songs that we reworked with our producer Frenchie Smith,” singer Nino Cooper says. “We all do a bit of writing, and there are songs that (singer and guitarist) Marco (Guitierrez) and (bassist) C.J. (James) and I all brought to the table. … We went song by song and focused on preproduction, the layout of the tune and the part, and we added a musical bridge to our current single, ‘Down by the River.’”
CMT Edge: Tell the story behind writing “Down by the River.”
Cooper: We co-wrote that song about the drug violence in Juarez, Mexico, which borders El Paso. Being from there, it was a personal song for us. It’s been part of El Paso culture for years. You go over to Juarez to restaurants and bars and enjoy the day life and the night life, and there’s a bar there called the Kentucky Club that’s been there since my father was in high school in the ’50s. They’d cross the border and go to the bar, and when I was in high school, we did, too.
A lot of that changed because of the drug violence. People were not going over because there are massive amounts of drugs and murder. People were shot, and places were getting burned down. I think it’s getting better now, though. That’s what inspired the tune. I had this groove that I thought would be great for Ray Wylie Hubbard to co-write with us. Sure enough, he agreed. That was pretty cool.
Describe writing with Ray.
Yeah, he came over to Austin, where we live now, and Marco and I wrote with him. We showed him the idea, and we talked about the story behind the song and what we wanted the song to be. I had a verse, and we tweaked that and then he had an idea for the chorus. We knew we wanted it to be a chant piece, an all-vocal chorus. Ray Wylie had the great idea: “Undertaker looks like crows/Red eyes dressed in black.” It’s that classic Ray Wylie image-provoking lyric. We’re all Ray Wylie fans, so it was an honor to write with him. He does add that special touch.
Explain how the new record represents your evolution as songwriters.
One thing we wanted to do was showcase our individuality while maintaining the holistic DRB sound. You definitely hear more of our influences on this record than the past. The songs on [2010’s] Long, Cold Fall and [2012’s] Science of Flight are a little more raw, less produced. This time, we really spent more time mapping them out — the parts, the chanty choruses — while showcasing our individual roots.
I mean, I grew up on rock ‘n’ roll and blues and folk. Marco grew up on everything from ’80s country to punk rock. C.J. grew up on old country like Hank Williams and George Jones. (Drummer) Travis (Stearns) grew up on the Police. I think you can hear a little of each of us in these songs.
What songwriters are you specifically drawing from?
Oh, man. I grew up in the ’90s, and I love Counting Crows and Don Henley, man. Dave Grohl. For Marco, Ryan Adams is a big one. One thing I love about Ryan Adams is his ability to release a new record that almost sounds like a completely different musical genre but still sounds like Ryan Adams.
I think we’ve done that with this record. It’s a little different genre-wise, but it sounds like DRB. As far as lyrics and storytelling, it’s Ryan Adams, Josh Ritter, who’s an incredible writer right now, and Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt. Townes is definitely one of our influences. We used to cover a few of his songs, but we don’t that much anymore.
You did the Townes song “Lungs” on the last album.
Yeah, that song has haunting lyrics that evoke imagery that tells the story. … The cool thing about the lyrics is that you really have to think to understand what he’s talking about. You’re like, “I wonder what he means with this metaphor.” You have to dig into it, and it can have a different meaning for different people listening to it, people relating in a different way. The rawness of that song was definitely something we were drawn to. We wanted to take a stab at recording it.
How does living in Texas shape you as songwriters?
Where we grew up in El Paso, it’s its own musical bubble. It’s so separated from the rest of Texas. When we grew up and were initially forming the Dirty River Boys, we weren’t even familiar with the Texas scene, but living on the border, you’re definitely having some Latin influences and that desert feel in the songs that you’re writing. I grew up learning old Mexican songs from my dad and sitting in with a band he had called Los Paisanos that mainly did Mexican and American folk songs.
Definitely far removed from the current Texas country scene.
Yeah, I don’t know if you can consider El Paso a part of the Texas music scene. That might’ve helped us develop a more unique sound than a lot of the Texas bands, but it’s shaped us in a way that the Texas scene has created the Dirty River Boys by allowing us an opportunity to be a part of that. We started out opening for Cory Morrow and many others in the scene, and we followed that circuit. The bands and audiences have been incredibly supportive. We definitely owe our status as professional touring musicians to the Texas music scene.