Kentucky has a long history of churning out skilled country musicians: Bill Monroe, Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam. So it’s no surprise that a new crop of talent is emerging. The best-known member of this Kentucky wave is probably Sturgill Simpson, who has a new album coming in May and recently received a favorable mention in Rolling Stone. But Sundy Best, whose members grew up in the eastern part of the state, beat him to the punch with a strong album, Bring Up the Sun, which came out in March.
Nick Jamerson (guitar, lead vocals) and Kris Bentley (drummer), who make up Sundy Best, knew each other growing up, and they reconnected to form the band after college. What immediately makes them stand out is their unusual percussion: Bentley prefers to use a cajon, basically a wooden box, instead of the normal drum kit. “[E]ven when we first got together in 2010,” Bentley wrote in an email, “I was still playing the drums.” But circumstances called for something different. “Some of our first gigs were at restaurants… it's hard to turn the volume up or down on a drum set. I saw a cajon being used on a YouTube video, and decided to go buy one… It fit what we were trying to do and soon after seemed to be getting more of a response from people in the crowd.”
It also gives Bring Up the Sun an unusual texture. You don’t hear crashing cymbals or any of the standard percussion combinations. Instead, Bentley smashes away on the cajon. (In an interview with CMT Edge, he said he’s already “been through like 30 drums or so.”) He has a fondness for slamming several beats hard in a row, which gives the defiant “Smoking Gun”—“I come from a long line of lovers and a long line of saints/but it skipped a generation and I’m fine with what I ain’t”—an unpredictable, lurching momentum. On “Beautiful Mess,” something light clicks along behind Bentley’s thunks. On “These Days” (not a Jackson Browne cover), he wrings an assortment of different sounds out of his instrument.
Sundy Best slip a number of other quirks into their songs, diversifying their take on classic country rock. (“We're old school,” they acknowledged in their email, and “still listen regularly to the Eagles, Bob Seger, Petty, Allman Bros.”) “These Days” adds handclaps and rhythmic shouts. On the pounding “Count On Me,” the guitar suddenly takes on a wah-wah-like effect at the start of the second verse. “NOYA”—as in, want to know ya—incorporates a funky organ, while “Lily 14,” ends with sweetly orchestrated backing vocals echoing “say goodbye, say goodbye,” over and over.
“Lily 14” actually appeared in slightly different form on the band’s first album, Door Without a Screen, as did “Home,” the first Sundy Best single—Bentley and Jamerson aren’t afraid to revisit their earlier work. “Both of those songs have been very good to us since the beginning,” the band wrote. “We loved how they turned out on Door but after having played them live for a couple years now, they've both changed slightly. So we wanted to capture a little more of that live energy this time…”
But Sundy Best isn’t just about energy. “Painted Blue,” one of several tragic ballads on the album, would sound good on country radio—which needs more heartbroken ballads in rotation right now. “When your name rolls off my tongue,” Jamerson begins, “I start to lose control.” The second half of verses trail off, difficult to hear, and steel guitar adds to the feeling of romantic devastation. “I just lay here with a bottle on a floor/So when the pain starts to creep in/I just pour another shot again/So I don’t have to miss you anymore.”
Jamerson and Bentley, excited about the renewed interest in their home state, are “hoping to help bring attention back to the Kentucky music scene.” The band declared their love for Chris Stapleton, “from our neck of the woods in Eastern KY” (Stapleton has written songs for almost every big name in Nashville). They also plugged Sturgill Simpson as an artist “that needs to be known.” “Kentucky, especially eastern KY, has always been rich in musical talent,” they noted. So when they sing, “I wanna go home,” it’s easy to understand why.
—Follow Elias Leight on Twitter: @ehleight