It’s not terribly common for a band to stick together for a whole decade, let alone two! This year, the Bottom Dwellers celebrate our 20th anniversary! We even threw a big ol’ block party. I figured this would be a good occasion to share a few stories.
Twenty years ago, I was between bands. The primary vocalist for my punk band, The Cripes had called it quits. I shared lead vocals and guitar duties with him, but I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of fronting the band by myself. My buddy Ivan and I had been working together at the R.H. Phillips winery for a few years, and we talked off and on about playing music together, so I invited him to the next rehearsal.
Chris (drums), Nigel (bass), Ivan (guitar) and I (guitar) continued our weekly rehearsal schedule for a few weeks or so. Nigel was in the process of moving from the Bay Area to Sacramento, and both he and I were new fathers. It was pretty difficult for him to commit to a weekly schedule, so Ivan, Chris and I continued without him, and I switched to bass.
At some point Ivan suggested we try playing country music. None of us had experience with it, or even liked the genre much up to this point. I had written a few twangier songs recently and was kind of into the idea.
Ivan had a substantial catalog of original folk songs that worked well in this format, and we began learning and arranging some of those for a full band. Country bands need guitar solos, though, and we weren’t super strong in this area. Ivan had recently found a guitarist on Craig’s List for his swing band, 5 Tons of Rhythm.
“Should I ask Adam if he can play country music?” I think is what he said.
Like Chris (and Nigel), Adam was a recent Bay Area transplant who was looking for some people to play music with up here. And yeah, it turned out that Adam could, in fact, play country music.
We took our name from a song Ivan wrote in college called Bottom Dweller. This is likely the most difficult song we play, and we bring it back into rotation every now and then.
Our first show was on the patio at Ludy’s Main Street BBQ at 666 Dead Cat Alley in Woodland, CA., right outside of the rehearsal space I rented for my band Floss just a few years prior. Adam and his wife Shannon invited a few friends to the show that had moved up from the Bay Area earlier that year, and that’s how we first met Robbie. We shared a few bills in San Francisco with Robbie’s band, The Real Sippin’ Whiskeys before he would end up fronting the Bottom Dwellers many years later.
A Major Award
In 2007, we were nominated for a Sacramento Area Music Award (SAMMIES) for best Country/Bluegrass band, and to our complete and utter amazement, we won! The SAMMIES was a reader’s choice competition. You were actually voted in by the public. The Alkali Flats, Richard March, Stars & Garters easily had way more visibility than we did. Or so we thought.
Opening for Dale
From then on we became part of a small, but relatively thriving Americana scene. We played pretty regularly with Richard March and Stars & Garters. We even subbed out band members from time to time with them. Later that year, Stars & Garters kicked down a sweet opening slot for Dale Watson to us who was looking for a pickup gig between tour dates.
The night before, Ivan and I went to the Palms to see Robbie Fulks, and we passed out a bunch of hand bills to the crowd as the show let out. It was pretty short notice, but I think our promo blitz paid off.
The gig was at Willamina’s, a now-defunct rockabilly bar in the basement of a building in Old Sacramento. We provided the PA, and I did sound for Dale Watson.
I was tied up with sound, gear, and playing all night, and didn’t really get a chance to meet Dale until the end of the night. He was sitting at the bar in a black trench coat with his arms around three young ladies. I didn’t want to cramp his style, but I thought fuck it, and approached him anyway.
He immediately stood up to shake my hand, and thanked me for handing the sound and putting the show together on such short notice. I don’t remember very much of the conversation, because the $20 bill he subtly handed me in that handshake caught me very off guard. That was a pretty nice gesture given the situation. None of us made very much money at places like that, and I think it said a lot about his character.
Opening for Billy
Some years later, we had earned the respect of Dave, the primary owner and booker of The Palms Playhouse in Winters. He liked to pair us up with cool country acts like The Derailers and I See Hawks in LA, and ended up booking us fairly regularly for headlining gigs there.
One day, Dave found himself in a pickle. Billy Joe Shaver was playing that night, but had to push his flight back a few hours due to being acquitted that day for a little incident involving a gun outside of a bar in Waco Texas. You may have heard something about that.
Dave called us late that afternoon and asked if we could do a last-minute opening slot to keep the crowd entertained until Billy Joe got there. The catch was that he wanted us without drums so as not to fatigue the crowd. We brought Chris along anyway for moral support.
We had a great set, and Billy Joe showed up at just the right time to headline a perfect night. I have never seen a man be so thankful to Jesus for letting him off the hook before, at least outside of a church (Billy Joe, not Dave).
Those are just a handful of adventures we’ve had over the past few decades, and early ones at that. We have many more and we’re still going at it. I think I’ll start documenting them here. Stay tuned to hear how we almost got a song picked up by a big Broadway production, and what happened when we didn’t heed Deke Dickerson’s warning about propane vans, or that time Chris got our song played on NPR’s Car Talk!
I wouldn’t say it’s been a wild ride, but it certainly has been a memorable one.