North of Mason-Dixon makes its move
Every guy in the band wears black.
Whether that's coincidence or not, the members of North of Mason-Dixon seem well cast as outlaws. Not because they are surly malcontents; to a man, they're affable and approachable.
When it comes to their brand of country music, however, there is a grim determination, as if they are desperadoes on an unspoken mission:
You will listen, you must listen, the music demands it.
On a warm night in early October the band -- known as NOMaD to its fans -- is playing Village Park, the new urban gathering spot at Point Park University. A few students pay attention, but most casually glance at the band before turning to the night's starring attraction: free pretzels, popcorn and lemonade. If this disinterest bothers the band, it isn't apparent. NOMaD plays as if it is at an arena. The music cascades across the Boulevard of the Allies and into the city, where it gradually fades away.
A fitting metaphor for a band that can't gain traction in its hometown, but can draw hundreds, sometimes thousand, at shore towns in New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.
"Pittsburgh loves country music," says drummer Bobby Kunkel, who hails from Greenfield, "but it doesn't necessarily love its country bands."
There is also a sense that NOMaD is going against the tide of what works in contemporary country music. Bob Bender, who owns a production company in Nashville and has worked with artists including Michael Martin Murphey, LeAnn Rimes and Jo Dee Messina, says individuals are more likely to achieve success than bands. He points to talented acts such as the Smokin' Armadillos and the Clark Family Experience that "stalled or never went anywhere due to the costs of promoting an entire band rather than a single artist."
But NOMaD, Bender believes, could be the exception.
"They have established a fan base on a grassroots level," Bender says, "and have focused on creating their own style of music instead of attempting to create a replica of the 'Nashville Sound.' Their live show is full of an electricity on stage that is missing in many of today's recording acts. Most importantly, the members of NOMaD are personable. They spend time getting to know their fan base, and go beyond just performing on stage."
Jimmy Roach, a disc jockey with the Froggy family of country radio stations says he's always been impressed by NOMaD's willingness to stretch the boundaries of the genre.
"Their sound is always fresh," Roach says. "You get the feeling that they're not going through the motions. I've seen them put on the same energetic, creative show whether in front of a couple thousand people or a couple hundred."
You got that right
The story of NOMaD's forthcoming self-titled album, scheduled for release in mid--November, sounds like the premise of a country song. The father of lead singer Dave August passed away in 2008, and his dog, "who was like a son to me," died earlier this year. Personnel changes required the hiring of two new players, guitarist Dale Vincent of Valencia and bassist George Elliott of Washington, Pa. A scheduled release in late October is being pushed back to late November because of a production delay.
"There were plenty of roadblocks, and I would get seriously irritated," says fiddler and singer Luke Zacherl of Ellwood City. "It felt like I had the fiddle recorded two years ago, and then something else would come up."
"We had some of our parts done by a year ago or more," says guitarist and singer "Suitcase" Johnny Waclo of Dormont. "We were just waiting while other parts were changing."
The new record is the first time the band used outside help during the recording process. Sean McDonald of Sofa King Music Services in Swissvale was enlisted, and his presence required an adjustment because "we weren't used to working with a producer," says August, who lives in Monroeville.
McDonald, who has worked with Wynton Marsalis, Jewel, Ben E. King and The Clarks, felt the songs were uniformly strong when presented to him. He was impressed by the quality of the musicianship because "that's something you don't always see." But he also felt the band had to be prodded to do things differently.
"I could have been a jerk and just got right to the point," McDonald says. "But I didn't want to rush the record. When I start working with people I try to feel out their personalities. You have to find out how people are motivated and win their confidence."
The Atlantic City Expressway connects metropolitan Philadelphia with the Jersey Shore, a stretch of 44 unremarkable miles. But as tourists near Atlantic City, billboards featuring headlining acts at casinos pop up on the side of the highway, touting acts that can't be missed:
Kool & the Gang at the Tropicana!
Frank Sinatra Jr. at the Borgata!
Willie Nelson at Caesars!
And, for a few months in 2010, North of Mason-Dixon at Bally's!
From June 2010 through the end of the year, the band traveled weekends to the New Jersey resort town to perform on a stage built especially for them. Country music radio stations in New Jersey, including WPUR-FM in Atlantic City, WKMK-FM in Asbury Park and WHTJ-FM in Ocean City, started playing NOMaD songs.
"It started out really exciting, and you get into the meat of it and you become a little bit desensitized to it," August says, noting the grind of making the roundtrip from Pittsburgh to Atlantic City on Friday nights, then returning Sunday, with everyone in the band holding down a day job. "It became a little bit routine."
But as the summer months turned into fall, when the band was warned business would drop off, NOMaD still drew crowds. Other hot spots for the group -- notably Rehoboth Beach, Del., and Ocean City, Md. -- saw the band playing before hundreds, sometimes thousands, of fans.
In Pittsburgh, dates are few. Part of the problem lies in the band's approach to live shows. Because they have a full-scale production and tend to eschew playing cover songs, they don't fit in at bars and clubs.
"When we play live, it's like a concert," Kunkel says, noting the band performed 87 times in 2010 and about 70 so far this year. "We would hope our shows have the energy of Rascal Flatts or Keith Urban concerts. That's who we want to compete with, those types of bands, and that's what our show is going to be like."
Beatin' the odds
There are two things NOMaD hears every time it performs. Especially in Pittsburgh, the band gets asked where it's from. When Pittsburgh is mentioned, many people are surprised.
"What are you guys doing here• You should be touring nationally," are the usual responses, according to August.
"The other thing we always get is 'We ... hate country music, but we love your music,' " August says. "Every show, it's like a constant. I swear we're going to make it a slogan on our website."
The new album, which will finally be released on Nov. 26 at Silks Lounge at the Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Washington, is nearly five years in the making. It's country for sure, but with a definite rock aspect. At times, August sounds like Jon Bon Jovi, and his vocals have a charismatic star quality. Guitarists Waclo and Vincent can blaze with fury or pick notes with aplomb. Zacherl, the fiddler, exhibits a similar dexterity, and Elliott and Kunkel make for a solid, professional rhythm section. The first single "American Boy," is getting airplay in New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and in Europe.
"I'm happy about and proud of where it ended up," producer McDonald says of the album.
But what are the prospects for a band whose members range in age from early to late 30s• Bender thinks the group can take advantage of social media, iTunes and Internet radio to reach new listeners. Europe might be fertile ground for NOMaD's work. But their appeal, Bender insists, is universal.
"They are true entertainers along with great songwriters," he says, "a rarity in this business these days."
North of Mason-Dixon
Years in the making, the band's new album will be released at a party next month.