Dirt Drifters Bring ‘Something Better’ to Country Music
Newcomers the Dirt Drifters may have just released their debut single ‘Something Better,’ but all five members have been haunting Nashville for nearly a decade. Not to mention, having spent the last four years signed to Warner Music Nashville and working on their debut record, ‘This Is My Blood,’ which is expected out later this year.
Lead singer/guitarist Matt Fleener and his brother, guitarist/vocalist, Ryan Fleener grew up in Oklahoma and met drummer and Baton Rouge native Nick Diamond at church once they moved to Music City. Nick introduced to siblings to bassist Jeremy Little, originally from Chattanooga, Tenn., and then they met New Jersey guitarist/vocalist Jeff Middleton while he was playing backup at Nashville’s French Quarter bar. The rest, as they say, was history.
The Boot caught up with the guys during a recent West Coast swing of their first radio tour to talk about the single, songwriting and how their families are adjusting to their new lifestyle.
How did you settle on the Dirt Drifters as the band name?
Jeff Middleton: Obviously, we come from all over the place so we had the name Drifters in our head when he were trying to come up with a name. Although, ‘Under the Boardwalk‘ was a big hit for the Drifters, so we couldn’t use that. We spent some time trying to figure out, what kind of drifters are we? Our music is a little dirty from the sound of the guitars, so that’s where we got that.
Tells us about the events leading up to y’all landing your record deal.
Ryan Fleener: Matt and I had a duo act, and had tried to get a record deal forever. We just never could. This band just happened naturally, and we just started putting music together that we loved and playing around Nashville. Then people started showing up out of the blue. It was the second we started doing stuff we loved that it started happening. Our A&R rep now called us and said, ‘Do you want to go have breakfast at seven in the morning?’ On Music Row, that’s early in the morning, so I knew we were getting a deal. They offered us a record deal that morning.
Jeremy, you moved to Nashville as a member of a different band and that didn’t work out for you. Did you ever consider the solo thing?
Jeremy Little: I don’t understand how people can do music without doing it in the band situation. When you’re playing music with your buddies — the act of creating the art with your friends — is a big thing that solo artists are missing out on. When it’s great there are five of us who are smiling ear to ear. It’s encouraging a lot of times.
Who are your musical influences?
Nick Diamond: My dad’s a pastor in Baton Rouge, so I listened to a lot of black gospel music. We got down in church. [laughs]
Ryan: I was a fan of ’80s country music. I didn’t really get into the writing side until I listened to a George Strait box set. I just enjoyed the writer aspect of how the songs were crafted.
Jeff: I was a metal head: Iron Maiden, Mötley Crüe. Then I grew up. I started writing songs on acoustic guitar and was in a funk band. As a Jersey guy, you’re obligated to listen to Bruce Springsteen. Country for me started with Garth Brooks. Even though we’ve got all these different influences musically, ultimately it all comes down to what the song is and we write country songs.
You’re all songwriters, and at least one of you shares writing credit on 10 of the album’s tunes. Talk to us about the process of choosing the 11 songs that made the record.
Matt: We probably have 200 songs that are Dirt Drifters songs. It was pretty hard to whittle it down to 40.
Nick: Then we had to pick 20, and then we had to choose 11. That was a nightmare.
Jeremy: The hardest part was getting down to those 40 songs. All the talks after that were cool, because it wasn’t from the perspective of who wrote the song and cared about it. When they’re up there on an index card and you’re looking at them. They came out. It wasn’t really that much of an argument.
How did you go about choosing the songs? Was it put up to a vote?
Matt: The best song wins but it’s also a democracy. Although, when picking the songs we wanted them to all come from the same place. All of us being Nashville songwriters, we can wear different hats, so we wanted to make sure that what we were saying on this record was fluid with what was going on in our lives at the time. We wanted to make sure it was honest.
Nick: It’s not just random songs. We really did a good job of making a complete record showcasing who we are and where we’ve been.
The first verse of ‘Something Better’ talks about working that job just to get by, is that somewhere y’all have been recently?
Matt: Nine to five is the phrase, but we were working more like 12 hour days. Me and Ryan lied when we moved to Nashville and said we’d waited tables before because we couldn’t find any construction jobs. We were horrible at it. We got a job after that building sunrooms which was another horrible job. We did commercial glass. I drove a truck for a while. Anything other than going to school we did.
Jeff: It’s just this past year that we’ve been full-time in music.
Nick: Even since we’ve had a record deal, most of us have had to carry real jobs. That’s just a fact of life. We’ve been waiting for ‘Something Better’ for a long time.
Ryan, Matt, Jeff and Nick all share co-writing credit on this song, how did it come about?
Matt: The song started at a soundcheck in a bar in Illinois. It was Cinco De Mayo night and the place was a complete dive. It was a weird night. Nick and Jeff were just messing around with sounds and were just line-checking. It was one of those deals where what they were playing just made us go, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ Jeff saved it on his phone and when we got back to Nashville, we recorded it. At the time, the label was waiting for the song.
Jeff: They were waiting for ‘Something Better.’ [laughs]
Matt: Right [laughs] and we gave it to them. We took a great groove and riff that these guys came up with and put our story to it.
Ryan: We ended up recording three different versions of this song. For a long time, it just didn’t seem right.
Nick: The cool thing about it was that it was our first band write. Most of us write separately with other people or two or three of us together. That was our first band, sit-down come up with some grooves, do it the old school band way.
Matt: It was a blast.
The album’s title track, ‘This is My Blood,’ is the only tune on the album none of you had a hand in writing; How did you find it?
Ryan: It was written by a guy named Casey Woods, he’s a Nashville songwriter and one of my close friends.
Matt: Casey had been through the Nashville ringer, working for publishers and had a bad experience. He got a bad taste in his mouth, didn’t want to write anymore. Then, I got a call from one of my other good friends, who said, ‘Casey’s writing again, and it’s some of the best stuff I’ve heard in a long time.’ ‘This is My Blood,’ was one of the songs, and I asked Casey if it was OK if we recorded it. We just wanted to see how it translated for us doing it, it wasn’t even for the record. It came across great, so we decided we had to do it for the record.
You all seem to be rooted in your faith, do you want that to come across in your music?
Ryan: We aren’t the guys to preach to you. It’s very subtle.
Nick: It’s just a genuine and sincere thing. If it’s who you are, it translates into other aspects of your life. It comes out in the way we treat each other and the way we treat others.
While upbeat songs like ‘Something Better’ are great, country music definitely touches on the sadder side of life. Your song, ‘Name on My Shirt,’ seems very country in that regard, as it talks about not wanting to be like ones father with your ‘name on’ your ‘shirt.’ What inspired it?
Matt: Me and Ryan’s dad, Randy, was a mechanic at a radiator shop that my mom’s dad started in the early ’50s, outside of Oklahoma City. Growing up and seeing my dad — his walk, what he was doing — he came home wearing blue jeans and dickeys with ‘Randy’ on his shirt. That’s my childhood. There were just some times that I thought my dad was just an idiot. I don’t know why boys do that. Then I got older, got into the real world, had some kids, and realized he was paying a price.
That was a tough song to write. Lots of times as songwriters we can put hats on and be creative and go different places, but when it’s that close it’s really tough. I wrote it with Jeff and a guy named Jon Mabe. All of us had a really hard time doing it, because all of our dads came through those places. That’s a song on the record that for me still gets me sometimes when we do it. You can unplug a little bit when you play music sometimes, but when you plug into that one it gets you.
Jeff: That’s part growing up. You transition through things and realize the sacrifices. Everybody in this band has kids, except for Jeremy, but everybody’s family sacrifices for things. At some point, my kids will probably think I’m an idiot. That’s why it gets me, you see the transition and how you grow up.
Nick: There’s still times when we do it on radio tours that, at some point, a few of us actually get a little choked up while we’re playing. That’s the one song on the record that when we play I cry. Sometimes it just hits me.
Between the five of you, you have seven kids, ranging in age from seven to just under two years old. How do you the kids deal with this new lifestyle?
Jeff: The reality is that our lives haven’t changed that much.
Nick: If anything, we’re in more debt than ever. [laughs]
Jeff: Yeah! Yesterday, my wife and my mother were walking at a shopping mall and my mom asked him, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you heard Papa’s music here?’ He was like, ‘No!’ [laughs] And that’s cool, because I just want him to be a kid and he’s a kid. Family has been such a big part of this. Everyone has a wife that is so supportive. The other night my kids stayed at Ryan’s house because they got snowed in. It’s a family thing and hopefully that comes through in the music, too.
Being five guys, when you get together, do you like to write love songs?
Ryan: They’re the hardest to write, because we don’t do the sappy love song thing.
Matt: The thing with a love song is that you can punch the time clock and you can do the old river and the ocean lines. But if you truly want to be real with a love tune you’ve got to be honest.
Nick: Everybody writes loves songs about the first stage of love: the butterflies, the mountains, the cross over seas. True love is tough: it’s real, it’s ups and downs. Most of the time it’s downs. If you really want to write a true love song, write about the crap and how tough it is.
What are some of the more unique places you’ve performed recently?
Jeff: We’ve played a bowling alley, and an agricultural equipment expo, the biggest one in the world, apparently.
Ryan: Compared to the places we’ve played in the last four years, nothing’s really a surprise.
Matt: All we’re doing now is traveling with less gear and staying in nice hotels. [laughs] This is a cakewalk for us.
Willie Nelson makes an appearance on the record for ‘I’ll Shut Up Now,’ was that a dream come true?
Ryan: Willie Nelson was our dream collaboration, so that was huge.
Nick: We had already recorded our part, when he came in and sang.
Jeff: But we were in the studio when he came in.
Matt: We just stood there with out mouths open, looking like idiots.
Ryan: We were just asking each other, ‘Is this really happening?’ There were five excited guys that day. What’s really cool, though, is that John Esposito, the head of Warner Music Nashville, was there and he was just as excited to meet Willie Nelson. Even our producer was excited. We all looked like little boys.
You mentioned label head John Esposito, who is a musician himself, what’s it like having a fan of the music at the top of the ladder?
Matt: I think it’s an advantage, not only for us, but for the music. If a lot of other companies would start looking around and thinking, ‘Maybe it would be cool if all these guys in power positions were into music and like music, it would be like it used to be.’ Music industry by musicians, wow!
Ryan: We’ve sat in John’s office numerous nights and played music until three or four in the morning. He knows more songs than we do! For a guy running a label, it’s a breath of fresh air to be working with a guy like that.
Jeremy: It’s good for the artist to know that the guy in charge of getting the music out loves music and loves the uniqueness of all the different artists and all the different acts. That’s cool because you find a place to fit.