Acoustic country trio the Whiskey Charmers play by their own rules

No censorship allowed

The Whiskey Charmers just might have the most appropriate name ever. For starters, the band plays a brand of country, folk, and Americana that's perfectly suited to dimly lit whiskey bars, where a few shots of fire will help get you in the right frame of mind. And the trio will charm the pants off you with their moody aesthetics and clever wordplay. Two big reasons this band — which formed last year — is starting to gain some traction is that they march to the beat of their own creative drum, and they don't pull any punches.

"I read an article once [about] Lucinda Williams," says Carrie Shepard, who sings and plays acoustic guitar for the Charmers. "She was talking about her father, who was a poet. He told her that his biggest rule was 'Don't ever censor yourself.' I read that a long time ago, but I took that to heart."

Giving herself the freedom to say whatever she wants in a song allows Shepard to explore a wide variety of subjects and feelings, and while the band has not released a proper album or EP yet, they have a number of live recordings on Soundcloud to whet your appetite. "Vampire" is a chilling piece of bluesy country where Shepard regales you with a tale that doubles as an illicit encounter with a creature of the night and a story about sinking deeper into a destructive relationship, while the Americana track "Neon Motel Room" waxes philosophical about freedom that is about to disappear within a storyline about a manhunt for a criminal on the run.

But then Shepard changes direction with the more upbeat folk number "Smile" and uses lines such as "You're like a bed I want to flop in" to demonstrate how a guy makes her feel, and this track adds a nice bit of balance to the band's repertoire.

It's easy to get lost in debates over what kind of music the band actually plays. They don't fit neatly into one genre, and they avoid cookie-cutter molds like the plague, but you wouldn't be completely out of line if you suggested that they play one of five or six different styles of music. Shepard, for her part, is just as curious as anybody else when it comes to this subject and enjoys seeing what other people come up with when trying to describe their sound to others.

"Somebody once called us 'country noir,' and I think somebody else called us 'shoegaze Chris Isaak Americana,'" Shepard says with a laugh. "It's funny to hear what people call our music because we're not exactly sure what to call it ourselves. We've just been calling it Americana for a while now, for lack of a better category to put ourselves in."

One reason people might have so many different ideas of what this band sounds like is that the group has been trying to find the right lineup. Originally formed as a quartet, the band then scaled itself down to a duo, featuring Shepard and electric guitarist Lawrence Daversa, before finally deciding to be a trio. With the recent re-admission of original drummer Brian Ferriby into the band, there's a stronger sense of purpose and direction.

"When we first started, the sound was a lot different," Shepard says. "It was louder and heavier, but that wasn't really what we wanted to do. So we played as a duo for a while and the songs evolved, and our sound had time to gel. Now that Brian is back playing with us again, we have an even better idea of what we want our sound to be like. It's sparser than when we first started playing."

Sparse is a good word to use here because most of the band's songs are free from any sort of bombast, extended guitar solos, and the like. Both Shepard and Daversa play their guitars in a very intentional way, with virtually every note seeming to have a purpose outside of just sounding great; you never get the sense that they're killing time just to make a song longer. And Shepard's vocals are largely no-frills, as well. She delivers many of the lyrics in a soft, subdued downtrodden sort of way, which helps set the mood and tone for many of the songs and creates an atmosphere of beautiful melancholy that surrounds the lyrics like a hand holding a shot glass.

Having a firm sense of who they want to be as a band — and being increasingly comfortable in their own creative skin — is something they're relishing these days. While such clarity is undoubtedly bringing a steady presence to their live shows, it should also help them feel more confident about the music they're making at the moment, as they're currently working on their debut studio album.

So what can fans expect of the as-yet-untitled project slated to be released next spring?

One song, called "Straight and Narrow," could be a good barometer. The story focuses on a woman who is done playing the game of love and is bound and determined not to stray from this path. Shepard sings with a steely resolve that anyone who has ever had their heart broken can respect, Daversa augments the narrative thread by playing a series of strong guitar notes that accentuate the feeling of distance that Shepard's lyrics highlight, and Ferriby's steady drumming brings to mind someone traveling down a road at an even pace without stopping to glance to either side or get distracted by anything.

This song, like many of the other songs the band has written, has a noticeably personal slant to it. It feels as though it's been culled from a diary, but Shepard cautions against putting too much stock in the idea that these songs are ripped straight from her life.

"I wouldn't say all my songs are autobiographical, but everything comes from something I feel," she says. "I'm not the greatest at fiction writing. I'm drawn towards ideas that sound like they would make good songs, or songs where even though an artist didn't write it, it still feels like they did. I like seeing how that resonates with them."

Resonance is key for Shepard. It helps drive her creative process as she seeks to write songs that other people can relate to. A show for the Charmers is as much about entertaining as it is connecting, so it's crucial for them to give the audience something they can latch onto long after the show has ended.

"That's the most rewarding part of playing a show," says Shepard, "when one or two people come up afterward and talk to you and you can see they clearly enjoyed the show and were moved by it. That's always the best part."

But Shepard's not about to get a big head from any of this. A little gratitude for all her hard creative work is nice, but this is not someone who's going to start screaming from the hilltops that she's the queen of the world because a couple of fans like her music. Shepard gives off a very humble, genuine vibe in conversation, plus there's a certain aspect to fandom that seems strange to her. Shepard appreciates it, but sometimes those moments seem like the equivalent of an out-of-body experience to her, especially when the adulation comes from people she knows.

"It's very surreal in general, but it's even surreal if it's just my own friends singing my songs back to me. Even that seems completely bizarre on some level," she says with a laugh. "I'm not even sure I can explain why, but it's definitely surreal."

Whether Shepard's singing about the euphoria of love, the gut-wrenching pain of heartbreak, or any of the myriad emotions that populate the chasm between love and hate, it's clear that she and the band want to keep things as fresh as possible. Variety for the Charmers can be found in the host of genres their music encompasses, just as easily as the number of songs they have in their repertoire, depending on how long they're given to play a set. And despite their tunes being more on the mellow side by comparison, the Charmers do like to crank up the energy a bit when the situation calls for it.

"Depending on where we play, it will always be very different," Shepard says. "Sometimes we'll play at a winery and be very quiet. But if we play at someplace like PJ's where we can turn it up, that's what's the most fun for me. There will be a lot more energy there than if we have to play somewhere that's more subdued."

The Whiskey Charmers play with The Youngest and Rattletrap at PJ's Lager House on Wednesday, Nov. 12. Show starts at 9 p.m

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