God of the Townies

Ryley Walker on loving Dave Matthews Band and refusing to apologize for it.

I’m always fascinated by kids who grow up in households surrounded by sick fucking records. I have friends whose parents had John Coltrane albums strewn about while they were learning to walk and shit in a toilet that didn’t have Barney the dinosaur on it—parents who jammed Philip Glass while they cut up their kid’s steak into bite-size little crybaby pieces. But you can’t pick your folks, and certainly not the records they spin.

In no way do I pass judgement on hip families. It’s a beautiful thing. I just grew up on the opposite side of the spectrum: Total dumpy, townie, Chicago-satellite-city folks who smash fucking appetizer platters from Applebee’s and get heady on Jackson Browne’s “Hold Out.” (I would later learn that term is for somebody who has drugs but won’t share. Jackson Browne, you subliminal genius, king of the hold outs.)

I was born and bred in Rockford, IL. As a little kid it was heaven—cool family, lots of parks. Then by 13 I was a fat kid who just wanted to rip on guitar and get the hell out. LA was a city I saw on the Disney Channel; I assumed everyone rollerbladed to school, and their lockers were outside and every kid got suspended for doing a double backflip on a BMX bike while holding a tray of chocolate milkshakes that spilled all over the principal. Very detached from any sort of ocean. My discoveries came through basic cable and FM radio. No deep cuts. No heads. No nothin’. Dave Matthews Band was the king of it all. He was the guy on cable and FM radio who the kids got lit up to.

Prior to becoming a record head, Dave Matthews Band was the first band I got fucked up to. Like, truly fucked up. Eating nutmeg and smoking mids out of a jeep fucked up. Idiocy shrouded in curiosity fucked up. Off the deep end, page 37 of the erowid.com “Can smoking a banana peel get you high?” thread fucked up. I’m the funkiest suburban kid out there. My roots run deep into a flat cornfield of Illinois surrounded by Buffalo Wild Wings and Payless Shoes that are housed inside of a Target inside of a Sam’s Club.

The pitch I got to be a DMB fan was that they were all prodigies: Dave is the best guitarist, Carter is the best drummer, Stefan is the best bassist, etc. I had to reach their level. To crack their code would mean I too could go toe-to-toe with the best. They were the stuff of legend. Their annual summer tour was the mecca for suburban townies to go get juiced up at. Friends’ older siblings brought back tales from Alpine Valley in Wisconsin such as, “I drank 30 Bud Lites,” or “nine of us got arrested.” The townie right of passage was to hit a DMB gig. I wanted in.

I’m a total second-generation Dave fan; The OG heads hold early- to mid-’90s as the main shit. “You had to be there, kid.” They went from a Charlottesville, VA bar band to the biggest band on the planet. Their star had risen above the universe and exploded. Their technicality and major talent had been reduced to “band of jocks and their douchebag fans” by the record head community. By the time I became a fan around 2001, I was a seventh grader waiting for my time to go see a Dave gig (and hopefully drink Keystone, this delicious shit I had been seeing all over 7-11 parking lots since I was young). Before I had any subversive music in my life, Dave was the way out. Despite him being the most popular artist in music at the time, he was truly the first deep-fried artist in my life, an early figure on guitar for me to aspire to be.

Eventually, through TV shows and various skate videos, my friends and I discovered sick fucking hip-hop and punk bands. Jackass especially was our shit; Shitting and pissing in public could now be a career; Vomiting up cheese-filled breadsticks and school pizza at lunch time made us cool. Truly inspiring times. The tribalism of punk vs prep kept us busy. Lots of time walking by Abercrombie & Fitch at CherryVale Mall screaming “fuck you preps” into the store. Damn. Evil-ass cold-hearted shit.

My stupid punk rock friends never let me hear the end of their hatred towards my fandom of Dave. Dave was the jocks’ favorite band and I was crossing enemy lines. (I 100% realize people have actual problems in life. Believe me, it was a big deal at the time.) This started my fascination with making punk rockers angry. Super easy to do. (Side note to touring musicians: You ever notice aging rockabilly couples are ALWAYS at the bar during load-in asking “what kind of music you play?” They SUCK.)

I became a more quiet fan of DMB. My too-cool-for-school peers were relentless in their vitriol towards anything that wasn’t a fat alcoholic singing “Oi!” or a West Coast speed freak yelling about taking a dump on a cop (both of which are great). I’m so happy to have such great pals. Indie rock had come into my life and any association of being a Dave head was thrown to the wayside. Jesus, I’m an idiot. What wasted time. DMB fucking stomps and you need to punch pillows to get your anger out. Take it easy—we’re all on the same side. When the aliens come back with their ray guns that make us explode into pink chunks, which side you gonna be on? We gotta stick together. Good tunes is good tunes. Tap your foot a bit, cut loose. It’s all wavy gravy.

To this day, I remain a big DMB fan, albeit much more vocal than I ever was. The current “no guilty pleasures” era of music has sort of decentralized indie rock and record dork tribalism, which I’m all for. Also, I’m older and less concerned with what my teenage punk friends think of me. I gotta hand it to DMB and DMB fans for giving me an out from the banality of growing up where I did. I discovered how to get fried, how much to pay for weed, and what the idea of a “30 minute jam” was. The chemistry they have is undeniable and brilliant. And sure, at times, hokey. It’s so self aware and genius, and the community that surrounds it feels very strongly about what they do.

I have so much love for Dave and the tunes. My biggest fear going into covering a bunch of Dave songs for my version of The Lillywhite Sessions was not record nerds, it was DMB fans. I don’t want the project to come off like we’re making fun of, or trying to be better than Dave. We are total heads and life long fans who grew up on the shit and came out on the other side with drippy goo brains that were made better by playing along to the classics. Dave is an all timer that got me off my ass—a true genius and fucking god of the townies. These songs are a dedication to that part of my life.

(Photo Credit: Left, Evan Jenkins)

Ryley Walker is a singer-songwriter who grew up in Rockford, Illinois. His latest album is a lovely, unironic tribute to a lost Dave Matthews record, The Lilywhite Sessions.

(Photo Credit: Evan Jenkins)