An Exclusive Interview with Jeff Middleton of The Dirt Drifters

Blake Boldt | September 14th, 2011

The Dirt Drifters have recently made headlines with one of the more unique marketing moves Music Row has seen in recent years. The band distributed 30,000 copies of their debut, digital-only album, This Is My Blood, as a way of building their fanbase. The “Give Blood” initiative presented concertgoers with an exclusive: a pair of physical copies, one to keep and one to share.

The songs on Blood espouse the blue-collar work ethic that the band members needed as they pursued success. With their music careers firmly intact, manual labor has had to take a back seat. The band, composed of lead singer/guitarist Matt Fleener, vocalist/guitarist Ryan Fleener, vocalist/guitarist Jeff Middleton, bassist Jeremy Little and drummer Nick Diamond, begins their “Always A Reason” tour this month. The tour is named after the band’s second single, released to country radio in early July.

In an interview with Engine 145, Middleton discussed those developments and the band’s first meeting with Willie Nelson.

Blake Boldt: Who was the creator of the “Give Blood” concept?

Jeff Middleton: Our record label, Warner Bros., actually had the idea. We just wanted to get our music into people’s hands. When we first started, we were not getting a lot of traction in town. Our goal was to get people to listen to our music, so this summer we sat down to come up with ideas. A lot of labels now will put a 3-4 song sampler together. John Esposito, the label head, said to us that this is a great album and we should get all of this music into people’s hands. So they created this really cool packaging with two full-length albums, so people can take copy for themselves and give the one away. I think it’s one of the first times a label has tried something like that.

BB: Marketing can be a challenge for a new act, especially with country radio having so much competition.

JM: Yeah, it’s a challenge for every artist. Radio has such a broad reach and it’s such a big power, especially in the country format. It’s still the biggest marketing tool to get music in front of the audience. A lot of it is due to consolidation. When they put a cluster of stations together, they cut staff, they cut money, they cut playlists. They stick with artists that work and are a little bit more proven. Across the board it’s hard to break via radio. It used to be that singles ran up the charts a lot faster. It’s just one of those things where you’re proving the value to the radio programmer because they’re thinking “What does my audience want to hear?” We’re a little more outside the box, but I think we made a commercial country record. When we sat down to make a record, it was always the intention that radio would be part of our plan. We’re unproven and we’ve got a unique sound, so that’s a risk for everybody—the label, the marketing team, radio.

BB: There must be an eclectic mix of musical influences in such a diverse group.

JM: I think it’s actually one of the strengths of the band since we all come from different places. We all have respect for each other’s influences. I come from Jersey with more of a rock background. Matt and Ryan are more country. Jeremy’s more of a rock bass player, and Nick grew up in gospel. As long as the songs are country, that drives where we’re going creatively.

BB: How do your live performances affect the recording process?

JM: When we first went to Nashville, we got some session guys and they’re amazing and they play on records. That’s how records are made. One of the most important things for us is to play as a band. That’s what makes us sound different, having that group of guys who complement each other. We happen to do that on the road. When we sat down to make the record, we wanted to come as close as we can to what happens. We tried to keep the tracks the same, from the rhythm guitar to the drums. We have an energy live. Our live show is aggressive and loud and it’s got a good energy to it.

BB: What themes or ideas do you see spreading throughout the album?

JM: Of the songs we wrote, the ones that rose above are all about real places for us. For instance, “Something Better” (the band’s first single) was really Matt’s life. He had a job at a lumberyard where he drove a forklift. That was his life coming out in the music. All of the songs like that, except “Married Men and Motel Rooms,” which is obviously not about us. (laughs) The songs are real and honest. That’s where the diversity of the band comes into play I think. In order for the songs to get through the filter of the fans, they have to hit us all. It has to be real; it can’t be sort of this contrived lyric. We want to play music that means something to us. We’ve gone through these experiences, like when you have a hard time in your relationship with your dad, and then later you think “He might’ve known something after all.” I hope it comes across that we’re a bunch of guys who are friends, and we’re having these experiences on the road and share that common bond.

BB: Willie Nelson makes a guest appearance on “I’ll Shut Up Now,” which features a sample of his song “On the Road Again.” What was it like to share a studio with him?

JM: It came back to us that he was willing to sing on it. After that it was kind of this covert thing, like “Are we going to get to be there? How is this going to happen?” It was one of those experiences that it’s very quick. He’s sung “On the Road Again” so many times that he got it done pretty quick. Then we got to meet him after he sang. To have such a legend sing on a piece of our music was special. After we finished and he left, we went out and had a beer and just stared at each other wondering if it really happened. Still to this day when I hear that track, I can’t believe that he’s on there singing with us.

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