A quick list of true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool, I'm-so-St.-Louis bona fides may include any of the following metrics: recognition of local high school mascots, tolerance for extreme humidity and the presence of Provel in the bloodstream. But another local rite of passage extends beyond the city limits and has long been a defining tradition of Missouri summers: the float trip. The cost of admission is low — all that's needed is a canoe, a cooler of beer and a willingness to let the mighty Huzzah or Black rivers take you where they will.
In the case of Vondrukes' bassist and co-lead vocalist Jeff Griswold, a leisurely weekend of camping and floating with his wife turned into a kind of backwoods Caligula. On their first night, the couple settled in for an evening of card-playing and gentle boozing. Their neighbors, two young women, proceeded to goad and tease Griswold, culminating in loud, performative copulation that Griswold calls "audio porn."
"Two girls were heckling us and being rude," says Griswold. "We just kind of laughed it off. We ended up going to bed, and they started to loudly make love for hours on end; they were obviously overdoing it just to annoy us."
The next morning, likewise, didn't go as planned. Their initial two-hour trip down the river turned into a 24-mile odyssey that culminated in Bourbon, Missouri, with salvation coming in the form of a good-ol' boy truck driver with a faulty engine.
Such a story might normally be the stuff of campfire tales, but for the Vondrukes, Griswold's saga became song fodder. The two-part travelogue "Garrison's Trip" acts as a bifurcated centerpiece to the Americana sextet's new LP, On This Ride Together, and it taps into the band's uniquely Midwestern blend of rock riffs, story-songs and skewed humor.
Together marks the Vondrukes' third release overall and its first since 2012's album Runaway, Goodbye Love and a relatively recent lineup change. Griswold and Bob McKee still split the lead vocal and songwriting duties, but its former three-guitar attack is trimmed to two, with McKee and Jason Kettler digging into more riff-oriented rock & roll this time around. Allison Williamson's backing vocals and Justin Ellis' work on trumpet and organ help fill out the contours of the songs, and former Kentucky Knife Fight drummer James Baker is an able traffic controller of the more dynamic, dramatic moments on the album.
The Vondrukes sprung from the ashes of McKee, Griswold and Kettler's old band Ten High in 2010, and over the years the band has refined its reliance on the rugged and twangy earmarks of alternative country. That the group has a somewhat chameleonic character is due in part to playful instrumentation — Ellis' trumpet offers mariachi flair here and there — but also Griswold's and McKee's differing approaches to songwriting.
"Bob's style is lyrically very poetic and symbolic, and mine is more of a storytelling style," says Griswold. "His stuff is less of a literal meaning — sometimes you have to search for the meaning of the song."
McKee's song "On This Ride Together" serves as an urban counterpoint to Griswold's river sojourn, taking its inspiration from an Orange Line ride through Chicago on his way to Midway Airport. The clang of Baker's ride cymbal and the raw tone of the guitars helps mirror the setting, which picks up speed as the narrator gets closer to his destination. Nothing much exciting happens, but the ride gives him time to pause and ruminate — the best moments on the record show the songwriters, McKee in particular, taking stock of life as middle age approaches, as he does on "Disenchanted Always."
Griswold describes the recording of the album, which was done at Jacob Detering's Red Pill Studios, as an attempt to recreate the band's on-stage energy. "We wanted to see if we could hold true to the live, rugged feel," he says. "A lot of bands will record things they can't reproduce live. We wanted to play the music live, as intended. We went for more of a classic-rock approach."
The four-year gap between recordings from the Vondrukes is partially due to the lineup shift but is more a byproduct of six adults, all with full-time jobs and families, trying to find time to chase their respective muses. If the band members find themselves on real and metaphorical journeys, the Vondrukes seem to be doubling down on their commitment to the music and the relationships within the band.
"Both as a band and all of us in the world, we are on this ride together," says Griswold. "We thought that the song title was very fitting for this album."
Stream "I Awake" from the new album below: