You could easily reach for a handful of different genre terms to describe the Winston-Salem band Whiskey Foxtrot — Americana, country rock and Southern rock all come to mind. But none of them seem quite right. Americana suggests a degree of folkiness and acoustic string music that’s not quite what Whiskey Foxtrot is about. Country rock has that hint of Southern California mellowness associated with it. And Southern rock implies extended guitar heroics, while Whiskey Foxtrot is more of a singer-songwriter showcase. Still, Southern rock also includes bands like Drive-By Truckers under its umbrella, and it’s probably the safest way to give someone an idea of what Whiskey Foxtrot is up to. The two main singer-songwriters in the band, Sam Foster and Seth Williams, each had solo careers before they officially joined forces and put together a rhythm section about a year ago.
The band plays a show at The Crown at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro on March 30.
Foster and Williams had played a number of shows together, each joining in on the other’s songs, and they knew they were simpatico.
“We kind of met at an open jam a mutual friend put together,” Williams said.
Foster said the partnership made perfect sense. “We had the bright idea — you know, we were doing so many shows together we figured we might as well start a band.”
With Brad Cardille on bass, Terry VunCannon on lap steel and Steven Worley on drums, the band has a solid rhythm section to support Williams’ and Foster’s songs, and they add a little horsepower to the mix.
Whiskey Foxtrot has been releasing singles and a few live recordings, showcasing their vocal harmonies, the driving muscle of their guitars, the lonesome moan of steel guitar and the mix of stoicism and vulnerability of their songs.
If Whiskey Foxtrot sound distinctly Southern, with the drawl and twang of Williams’ and Foster’s singing, there’s also a fair amount of classic-rock riffage to bring to mind artists like Tom Petty and Stone Temple Pilots.
A song like “Turn Off the Headlights” runs through the time-honored territory of how a car, a loud stereo and the night time can spur romance in mysterious ways.
Foster and Williams both started playing music early. Williams started playing when he was 13 or 14, connecting with bluegrass through a grandfather and eventually meeting up with members of the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society, an organization that introduced Williams to music and players from a wide spectrum. “Everything from bluegrass to folk to rock and roll to blues,” said Williams, who will turn 21 later this year. He had his first paying gig by the time he was 15, and his family helped make it all happen.
“Dad would help me set up equipment and mom would help me book shows,” Williams said.
Foster gravitated to songwriting with the help of a guitar teacher who encouraged his interest in telling personal stories. He remembers listening to Dwight Yoakam and the excellent classic country station 98.1 WBRF out of Galax, Virginia. Along the way, other influences shaped his perspective.
“Guns N Roses Appetite For Destruction just ruined my life,” said Foster, 24, with a laugh.
“I got into the heavy metal thing for a while. Then I got into Bruce Springsteen, and that changed everything. I started taking songwriting more seriously.”
You can hear the Springsteen connection in some of Whiskey Foxtrot’s songs. The recent single “San Isidro” is about a love that doesn’t play out according to the standard storylines. It’s about the confusion and heartbreak after the intensity of intimacy, about “empty promises and dreams that ran off track.” You might hear a hint of the Eagles, but with a little more snarl and anger. A lot of songs of heartache and faded love focus on the details of what happened and how people betray each other, but “San Isidro” is more of a meditation on how one’s future is often sketched out in plans that involve a long-term partner. When a lover leaves, everything comes undone, and people sometimes can’t see clearly into the next day. A choice detail involves a jilted lover writing letters to his ex’s mother, hoping to make sense of why he was left alone. None of the answers solve the problem.
“I do my best writing if I’m in a more vulnerable state,” said Foster, who wrote that song. “For me it’s cathartic.”
That touch of wounded sensitivity is what makes the song tick. It’s not just mad, and it’s not just sad, there’s a real genuine confusion that seems true to the experience of having one’s life upturned by emotion. Whiskey Foxtrot makes a kind of Southern rock that sounds evolved past some of the rote patterns of the genre.
“We’re from rural North Carolina,” Foster said, “so no matter what we do, it’s probably gonna sound Southern.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Whiskey Foxtrot at The Crown at the Carolina Theatre, 310 South Greene St., Greensboro, on Saturday, March 30, at 7:30 pm. www.carolinatheatre.com