Stump Tail Dolly: Doing Unthinkable Things To Country Music
The successful merging of metal and country-western music has been like a mythical animal (with the head of a unicorn) in the roots music world: often attempted, seldom achieved.
Charging into the void filled by only a few, Stump Tail Dolly rides the monster metal, jazz-influenced guitar riffs of Ryan Clackner (guitar, vocals) to a big sound, perhaps more metal than country. Meanwhile, Lucy Cochran (fiddle, vocals) creates her own eclectic fiddle style, throwing in old time fiddle riffs that rise out of the music and make clear the country is still there.
That’s been part of the band’s mystique since they formed in 2016. You’ll hear it on their new full-length album coming out this summer (vinyl included!), currently being mixed and mastered by Jack Gibson (Exodus, Coffin Hunter), and engineered by Juan Urteaga from Vile. “We’re still in the mixing phase, and by now Jack is regretting working with us, haha,” says Cochran. “The mixing process has been a long one and there’s no cut-and-paste mix option, we’re all just feeling it out on the way.”
It’s going to be a big year for Stump Tail. “Last year was kind of about making noise, letting people know we exist,” says Clackner. “This year, we’re going to hit the fests, including the Westport Roots Festival, of course. We’ll do some touring, and keep working on our music.”
Speaking of mythical animals, seen a Stump Tail video yet? Here’s one to watch before you read on. PRO TIP: Keep an eye out for some badass new videos coming soon. And, yes, the red-cloaked, bearded wizard and swimsuit-wearing unicorn will be back.
Clackner: Metal, Jazz & Old-Time Music
For his part, Clackner started playing in bands as a young kid, and was “…listening to Appetite For Destruction and The Black Album by Metallica on cassette back in the fourth or fifth grade.” Down the road, he started playing in jazz bands and studied jazz in college, but was still hearing metal in his head. “I was always jazz and metal at the same time. I don’t know if they ever worked together, I just never really stopped with Pantera and Sabbath,” says Clackner. “I didn’t get super deep into metal until the last five or six years, besides the bands I grew up with, like Down, Superjoint Ritual, and Mastodon.
Clackner grew up in New Jersey and then studied jazz at William Paterson University in New Jersey, where he was one of 60 people in the music program, spending 12-hour days playing and teaching classes. “It was Army Ranger shit versus basic. It altered my brain and was fairly damaging in that other students were so freakishly good and hardworking, perfectionist and very competitive–on a toxic level,” says Clackner. “I benefitted from it, but I can’t just sit down and play a song. I have to think about it every possible way because my brain is doing musical Tetris all the time. It’s like that stereotypical mad scientist kind of thing where you’re searching for some formula that may or may not exist.
“At a certain point in my early 20’s, I looked at my friends who are some of the best musicians alive on the planet and they were living in shoeboxes. I just wasn’t feeling it,” he says. “At the same time, I had friends who were at the beginning of this Brooklyn country music thing. I had one roommate really into Johnny Cash and the big legends and I really liked it, related to it. Not long after that, I moved to Nashville [in 2007] without any plan whatsoever.”
After barely picking up a guitar during his first five years in Nashville, not finding a musical direction, he founded a band called Junkyard Road–which ended up being the prototype for Stump Tail Dolly. “It was more Southern rock than STD, a mixture of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pantera, really fun and ridiculous,” says Clackner. “We had problems with the record label and broke up. I was pretty broken hearted about it. I needed to start playing again, to get my head together.
“Some of the songs we play in Stumptail Dolly are Junkyard Road songs that I re-dressed and updated to where my mind is now, but that kind of cross-current thinking of taking some metal ideas and some country ideas and merging them together has been in my head a while,” says Clackner. “The glue that holds them together is jazz and, loosely, classical composition ideas that I studied. I could explain where the jazz comes in song by song. It’s not like we’re playing jazz by any means, but it is what I was planning to do with my life, so it’s in there.”
Born With A Fiddle In Her Hand
Cochran grew up in Delaware, but also claims the eastern shore of Maryland. She first started playing violin in school, but there’s a rich bluegrass tradition in the area and Cochran grew up right in the middle of it.
“The whole D.C.-area bluegrass thing started in the ‘70s and is still going strong, and includes lots of people in my community,” she says. “One of Hank [Williams] Jr.’s fiddle players, Kerry Craig, taught in the area and I learned a lot from him as far as fiddling goes.
“No one in my family played, but my parents were fans of bluegrass music, so I grew up going to bluegrass festivals, competing in fiddle contests, and playing in bluegrass bands. At the same time, I was making trips to West Virginia to visit my uncle a lot and that’s where I was exposed to old-time music,” says Cochran. “I started going to festivals and playing with old time bands. Then, I went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston where I kind of learned all the fancy music stuff.”
While still in college, Cochran played in a band called Joe’s Truck Stop, a four-piece, old-time string band. If that band sounds familiar, it is. Mandolin player Joe Macheret was in the band and has kept it going, releasing an EP fairly recently and you’ll also see Joe playing with The Tillers. Then, at the age of 21, she became an Outlaw Carnie.
Driven By Demons
Clackner meets Bob Wayne, becomes an Outlaw Carnie: “I needed to start playing again, get my head together. I knew a guy who put me in touch with Bob, who was like, ‘Hey, I’m at Andy Gibson’s house tracking. Why don’t you come over?’ I got there and he and Andy were listening to me warm up. They decided to have me record right then and played a song they’d been working on, ‘Fuck The Law.’ He gave me the chord changes and I put a solo down that, if I remember correctly, is the solo on that record.
“Anyway, he hired me. I went from working at Kroger in Nashville to playing sold-out shows across Europe. It was a big expansion of consciousness. I had never been on any kind of long tour and my first was three months in Europe.” A stand-out moment? Hanging out with Lemmy and Alice Cooper backstage at the Wacken Festival in 2013.
“I didn’t even know Bob at that point. Here’s this guy driving around in this beat up old limo, touring the world. I’m a night owl and he is, too, so I’d pick his brain about how to have a band, book a tour, change a flat tire, to be an adult, to talk to girls–relentlessly, to the point where he’d be like, ‘Dude, stop talking.’ Or, he’d go along with it for awhile, then he’d be like, ‘Alright, alright. Stop. We’re going to listen to Pentagram now.’
Clackner was playing guitar for Wayne at the time, and Liz Sloan and Jared McGovern (now of the Urban Pioneers) were also part of the band. When they left, Cochran came into the picture and played two summer tours with Wayne–both cementing her stand-out skill at putting a hard edge on the fiddle with all the grace of an honky tonk angel. In addition to touring with Wayne, the two played a memorable set with the godfather of trucking music, Red Simpson, at Muddy Roots 2013. After a tour with the New Orleans metal band, Eye Hate God, was canceled, and looking for work, Clackner took over guitar duties for Fifth On The Floor, based out of Lexington, Kentucky.
“I was hired to do a tour with Fifth On The Floor and it was fucking awesome. We did really cool shit, toured with great bands, from Roger Clyne to Unknown Hinson, and George Thorogood. Those were some of the biggest crowds I’ve ever played.” And that’s not all Clackner remembers about Thorogood. “When we were leaving on our second little run, we had kind of buddied up with him and his crew a little bit, and he invited us onto his bus to have a drink. We must have been on his bus for 10-15 minutes and he was getting fidgety, ready to kick us out, and said, ‘Let’s take a picture real quick,’ puts his arms around us, and goes, ‘Guys, it’s been great for you. Now get the fuck off my bus.’”
Enter Stump Tail Dolly
After that, while Clackner was playing with Fifth On The Floor, the two started talking about Junkyard Road and here’s how Cochran tells it:
“Ryan’s band, Junkyard Road, has been in his head for at least a decade. It’s the reason he came to Nashville from New Jersey,” says Cochran. “He had all these brilliant ideas that were sitting on a shelf. I found them, blew the dust off, and it was really good,” says Cochran. “We put our heads together with and it became Stump Tail Dolly, but the bulk of the credit goes to Ryan. I kind of put my own little bit into it with offering suggestions and bits as far as the country parts.”
“It was really hard at first. We practiced as much as we possibly could. Our first drummer, Kevin Hogle from Fifth On The Floor, did the first EP with us. We got together and did a couple marathon full band rehearsals before doing our first shows in Newport, Kentucky, then Circleville, Ohio at Tootles Pumpkin Inn,” says Cochran, with a chuckle. “I’m not sure anybody knew what was happening at that first gig, including us. Tootles is an awesome place. They’re good to every band that goes through there and they were very kind to us for that second show.
“I will say it’s been a little bit of a learning curve for all of us, playing music we don’t have a pattern for. Each one of us is responsible for coming up with our own parts and being able to collaborate in a way that’s semi-functional,” continues Cochran. “There’s no blueprint for this music. I don’t think we got into the swing of things until we started playing with our current drummer, Brian Weinberg, and Jamie Garry on electric bass. I think we’ve hit our groove with them.”
The list of performers with which Clackner and Cochran have toured, together or separately, is a long one, and includes (in addition to those already mentioned): Shooter Jennings, J.D. Wilkes, The Legendary Shack Shakers, Sarah Gayle Meech, and many more. They’ve also opened for Social Distortion, Tiger Army, Hank 3, Scott H. Biram, and more.
Head Shaking Music
You can thrash to Stump Tail, no problem, but when I say head shaking, I’m thinking more like you’re standing there shaking your head, trying to figure out what the hell you’re hearing and why you like it so much. Whether you’re a metalhead or a classic country purist, you’re going to hear things in Stump Tail Dolly’s music, things that might…disturb you. But that feeling will pass, and then–if you’re like me–you’re realize that Stump Tail’s already redefined what it means to mix country and metal.