When it comes to jazz, Philadelphia is a city steeped in music history, with seminal names like John Coltrane and Sun Ra at one point calling The City of Brotherly Love home. The same can be said for Philly’s relation to hip-hop. And punk. Even electronic.
But not country.
While it’s true that national powerhouse country station 92.5 XTU is headquartered in nearby Bala Cynwyd, aside from esteemed ‘90s alt-country crew Marah, there is a relative lack of non-glossy, edgy country music emanating from Philadelphia. That’s why you’ve got to be rooting for country music upstarts The Wallace Brothers Band. Not only are they based out of Philly, but they’re trying to help foster a grassroots country scene here too.
“In Philly, when we play country music, people don’t have a very well-rounded view of what country is, so we don’t go too deep,” says lead singer and guitarist Zach Wallace, who confesses that the band makes sure to play a more crossover-friendly style when performing here. “About two weeks ago, we played a gig out in this really rural part of New Jersey. We played four hours of country music there that we would never play in Philadelphia.”
Wallace, who likes to refer to his band’s style as “psychedelic country,” is well aware of the often-negative connotations that country music can get, especially in a hip northern city. “We’re more into traditional stuff that’s a little more soulful, like honkey-tonk, outlaw music. It’s kind of like punk music,” he adds. “It’s the same kind of message a lot of the times, just a different style.”
And Wallace should know; he and his twin brother, Colby, spent their formative years in Kutztown playing in bands with styles that ranged from grunge to gospel. But Wallace credits the brothers’ childhood experience at the sing-alongs at Pinemere Camp, an overnight summer getaway, with their continued interest in country music. “With Pinemere, we grew up listening to folk music,” he says, “so that sort of stuff was always in the back of our heads.”
It was an accidental road trip to Nashville that really set the then-18-year-old boys in their honky-tonk ways. “We weren’t even meaning to go there. We were going to New Orleans, and we basically ran out of money and ended up in Nashville,” admits Wallace. “It was the middle of the day on a Tuesday, and we were having our minds blown by these musicians. That was it. We were like, ‘Okay, everything we thought about country music up to this point was completely false.’”
With their newfound love of country music, the Wallaces kept playing music through college; Zach attended West Chester while Colby studied at Kutztown. Along the way, they recruited a band. “My brother and [pedal steel guitarist] Khoa Pham were in college together. We told Khoa, ‘You’ve got to go to Nashville. You’ve got to get a pedal steel guitar,’” recalls Wallace. “We joined a country band up in Berks County, sort of a bar-rock, country band. We had a gig in West Chester the one night, and the rest of the band didn’t show up. It was just me, my brother and Khoa. We did the gig anyway and were like, ‘Okay, this sounds good.’”
They moved to Philly about a year ago, a decision made simply for a “change of scenery,” says Wallace, but with some success at their weekly country music showcase—which brings together a revolving cast of local country acts—it may not be long before the Wallace Brothers are as popular in the bars here as they are in their backwoods counterparts. “This is sort of my brain child,” Wallace says of the free sessions, held on Tuesday nights at Bob & Barbara’s on South Street. “I’ve wanted to try to bring this sort of natural theme to Philly. Just get people dancing and listening to country music.”
And with a sound that falls somewhere in that murky alt-country camp, the Wallace Brothers Band certainly knows how to keep a crowd entertained. Their past showcases have had enough sweet harmonizing, guitar twanging and whiskey shots to make even the staunchest flannel-wearing hillbilly proud. Plus, they get all those diversity points that city-dwellers seem to covet so much.
“We’ve got two Jews and an Asian guy,” says Wallace with a laugh. “What we’re doing in Philly doesn’t really stick out like a sore thumb.”
Tues., Dec. 10. 9:30pm. Free. Bob and Barbara’s, 1509 South St. 215.545.4511. bobandbarbaras.com
Top 10 shows around Philly this week