Progress can be measured in so many different ways. While memorable dates and events usually have a positive connotation to them, they don't have to. For the St. Louis-based Americana/alt-country band Les Gruff and the Billy Goat, a moment of profound change came with a last-second opening gig for Whitey Morgan at Off Broadway. The band's members had been looking for a different date and instead were offered a slot that weekend.
They took the gig. They played. And in a unique moment of musical reinvention/inspiration, they became a different band by not being at their absolute best.
"It came about because I was reaching out to Steve Pohlman about a gig," songwriter and guitarist Billy Croghan remembers, laughing about one interaction that night in particular. "There was one old guy — and I think he's a fan now — but at the time he was not having it. It was probably the last gig that we weren't prepared for."
These days, Les Gruff and the Billy Goat keeps a relatively sparse concert schedule in St. Louis, preferring to perform in meaningful headlining sets or opening slots that help advance the cause. That's not to suggest the group's not busy. Instead, it works a touring corridor that's heavy on long highway drives, with frequent trips through Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. And, as much as anything, its members get together for practice with a Swiss precision. Every Sunday from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays the band rehearses, with one night skewing towards new material, the other all about tightening up what's already on the setlist.
Initially a solo project, then something of a duo with fellow guitarist/vocalist Tony Compton, the group eventually grew into the current six-man lineup that includes bassist David Roach, fiddler Sean Kamery, guitarist Nigel Solomon and drummer Ed Daugs.
"Once I started getting good musicians, I had to work my tail off, too," Croghan says. "When Nigel joined as our lead guitarist, we started talking about his practice outline. He's a freaking wizard, and I knew I wasn't doing nearly enough. I knew that I had to work my butt off to get better."
With a lineup fully gelled, Les Gruff and the Billy Goat has been able to work at a faster pace than others might. Of course, the songs would have to be there, no matter the eventual lineup and its talents. And Croghan (who writes about three-quarters of the material) and Compton (who pens the balance of their cuts) have those. They cite an influence list with names including Waylon Jennings, John Prine, Ray Charles, Old Crow Medicine Show and Bill Monroe, and write/record the kind of no-nonsense material that appeals to fans of multiple subgenres of country. When he meets folks who ask about his music, he offers some options.
"I usually say it's country, roots rock, Americana," Croghan says. "One of those phrases usually hits. It's stuff you can relate to, and that's what I try to get across."
The band recorded its self-titled third album, coming out in December, in a single weekend session at St. Louis' Native Sound Studio. After all types of recording sessions in the group's past, the idea of a day of tracking followed by a second day to overdub was super appealing to its members, who'd used those weekly 90-minute rehearsal sessions to perfect a hit-record-and-rip-'em approach to the album.
Croghan says he enjoys leaving the production to the pros. In the case of this newest release, that meant leaving things in the capable hands of recording engineer Patrick Crecelius. As a songwriter, singer and guitarist, Croghan is not interested in fulfilling any additional duties in the recording studio.
"It feels more like somebody else is in charge when they're pushing the buttons," he explains. "We're not there to drink, to party. We're there to get work done. We've recorded an album in a basement and just didn't like how it came out. With this one, we anticipated how it would sound. We're a little older, which puts life into focus. And I particularly like Native Sound. Whatever it is about the space, it just feels homey."
Croghan expects to have the album on all streaming services on December 7, with the official release party at Off Broadway on December 8; the band will be sharing the stage with Elliott Pearson and the Passing Lane. Croghan alludes to some surprises that night, but declines to ruin the fun by being too specific about what might transpire onstage that evening.
The vibe of a full room, though, is what he wants, and Croghan jokes that he's "aggressively fliering" every single show at Off Broadway between now and gig night. He claims that it's his favorite part of the process. "A lot of our growth was coming out of having a bad attitude," he says. "'Why is no one coming to my shows?' Once we got over that and worked our butts off, it's turned around. We've got a good number of musicians who enjoy working with us."
With album three, then, Croghan feels that Les Gruff and the Billy Goat is primed for something new, something better, something upbeat. They've hired a publicist. They know where not to park in Chicago. They have free places to sleep in some of their favorite gig cities. They're collectively comfortable with a no-shorts-onstage rule. They can hang out for hours in a van and enjoy it. Most importantly, they can share their music with an audience that's growing.
"We feel prepared," Croghan notes. "It's honestly exciting to put out a record. We've got some really exciting stuff prepared and we're going to take a slightly different approach from a traditional country/Americana show. You have folks like Hayes Carll who get up and present their songs in an honest way, and it'll still be that, but we're throwing in a little bit of theatrical shenanigans.
"It's our party," he adds, "and we'll make it fun if we want to."