photograph by Jusint Fox Burks
The Memphis Dawls performing at the 2012 Cooper-Young Festival main stage.
The Memphis Dawls have been playing together for two or three years, but they still feel like a candidate for best “new” Memphis band of 2012.
The trio — guitarist Holly Cole, violinist Krista Wroten, and cellist Jana Misener — did a local release of an eponymous four-song debut EP last summer, but in the early stages of the group each member was pretty busy with other projects.
Cole, a singer-songwriter who has long been a fixture among the “Makeshift” collective-of-sorts of local indie-rock bands, recorded a full-length solo album with a studio band that turned, for a time, into a regular one, Holly & the Heathens. Wroten, who was one of the Heathens, spent a lot of time on the road as a member of Amy LaVere’s band. And Misener was a principal figure in the local roots-rock band Giant Bear.
But, as the calendar flipped to 2012, Cole, Wroten, and Misener each focused her attention on the Dawls and, in recent months, the band has begun to take off.
While the band is ostensibly pretty new, the Memphis Dawls have known each other since they were teenagers and were each a member of the first graduating class of Cordova High School, in 2001. There, Cole first started writing songs. “My band, Pith, was terrible,” she says, remembering doing a cover of the grunge hit “Hunger Strike.” “It didn’t last very long.” Meanwhile Wroten and Misener were in youth symphony and performed in chamber groups together.
"The crowd was so awesome and supportive. I think they responded to the fact that we were from Memphis."
After graduation, they went separate ways: Cole lived out west before returning home to work. Wroten and Misener went north for school, with Wroten spending time in a band in Chattanooga afterward, but both eventually joined Cole back home.
“It just happened in a really organic way,” Misener says of the trio coming together. “When Krista moved back from Chattanooga, they would play together, and I would play with Holly, and eventually we all three played together. We never practiced for it [initially]. Around the time the Holly & the Heathens album came out, we started practicing and made it a real deal. But this January is when we started going on tour and really promoting the EP.”
The Dawls’ biggest break this year came when the group was tagged to open the local Jack White show at the New Daisy Theatre in mid-March. Just a few days before the show, Cole got a call from James Manning, who had booked the group at Otherlands Coffee Bar and was helping line up an opener for the White concert.
“He called me and said, ‘Don’t get your hopes up, but I’ve sent them a few different bands,’” Cole remembers. “I was getting my tires changed and thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to get home.’ So I called Jana, and she sent them an email with some videos of us and our press bio.”
“An hour or two later we found out [we got the gig] and had separate screaming matches all over the city,” Misener says.
Cole remembers the show as “electrifying.”
“The crowd was so awesome and supportive,” Wroten says. “I think they responded to the fact that we were from Memphis.”
If the show went well, the aftershow went better, when the band took White’s manager and other members of his crew to Earnestine & Hazel’s and the manager asked them to open the next show in Tulsa.
The White shows have been the highlight of a regional touring schedule that’s put the Dawls in a lot of different kinds of venues and in front of a lot of different kinds of crowds, demonstrating a diversity of appeal that makes the group similar to what Wroten has seen playing with LaVere.
“All different kinds of shows,” Cole says of the band’s touring so far. “Listening rooms, coffee shops, bars, outdoor shows, everything. It can be tough with a three-piece playing in a bar.”
Locally and in-studio, the Dawls prefer to play with a drummer (initial drummer Jonathan McLaren has recently moved to New Orleans) and a trumpet player (Snowglobe’s Nahshon Benford), but on the road they’re usually just a trio, all that can fit in their car given the instruments they play.
“We have a system,” Misener says of making room for her cello when they hit the road. “One of the back seats goes down and one stays up.”
“The person in the back is the napper,” Wroten continues, “So they take pillows and make a little nest and cuddle with the cello.”
The rootsy side of the Dawls’ sound — a fruitful middle ground between folk-country and chamber pop — was only hinted at when Cole first emerged, with her 2006 debut Fearless & Free, which contained the retro gallop “Turtle Dove.”
“‘Turtle Dove’ was the only country thing on that album. I really grew up listening to alternative music,” Cole says.
“But I got to a point,” she continues, “where I realized that I can’t do something that’s not me. [Roots-related stuff] is where I feel most comfortable. And those have been my most successful songs. So I just started writing more country songs. The Heathens were a little more like that than my first album.”
Given the instruments they play, the classical influence that Wroten and Misener bring to the band shades easily into folk/country territory.
“It’s somewhat natural to go from a classical kind of background into more of a shuffle/fiddle sound,” Misener says. “My family was very bluegrass concentrated. That’s what they listened to all the time when I was growing up.”
The rootsy material also helps showcase the group’s vocals.
“We started singing together and it was so powerful, and that was a huge part of it becoming more country,” Cole says. “Because the three-part harmonies lend itself to that.”
In developing this sound, all three say that Emmylou Harris was a key influence.
“When we really started getting serious we were all pretty much obsessed with the Trio album,” Misener says, referencing the classic 1987 album collaboration that brought together Emmylou Harris (for whom the Dawls opened at the Levitt Shell last month), Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt. “We would attempt to cover a song or two from that, though I don’t think we ever played one live.”
Much of the band’s initial repertoire consisted of re-worked versions of Cole songs from her solo records, but The Memphis Dawls EP — a collection of slow-burn folk laments — showcases a more unified sound.
Future releases will likely further explore collaborative songwriting, as well as expand the cello-violin-guitar template, with Kramer working on her upright bass skills and Wroten employing mandolin and accordion.
After giving the EP a national digital release this summer via iTunes and other platforms, the band is looking to cut a seven-inch single and expand their touring in preparation for a debut full-length album in the near future.
“We’ve got about 95 percent of the material ready for a full-length,” Wroten says. “We just have some decisions to make.”