Matt Whipkey takes compliments with suspicion.
When told that the new Whipkey Three album, Two Truths, sounds like “a Whipkey record,” he immediately raised an eyebrow.
“Is that a negative thing? Does that mean it’s stagnate? That there’s been no development?” he said over Sunday morning coffee at Caffeine Dreams.
It’s only after it’s been explained that having a distinctive style — like Springsteen or The Rolling Stones or Tom Petty — is a good thing that he begins to get the gist of the comment.
“My girlfriend was digging on me last night about how I take criticism,” Whipkey said, “but I think it’s different for musicians.”
He better get used to it. Very few Nebraska artists have such a well-defined musical style and unique voice as Whipkey. Within a few measures of any song, those familiar with his material instantly recognize the booming, golden-hearted power chords touched with a hint of twang, and Whipkey’s Nashville-by-way-of-Benson “southern” drawl that injects each phrase with his big-sky, Heartland roots.
It’s a style that he’s been defining for more than a decade as a solo artist and leading man in a handful of bands including The Movies, Anonymous American and now The Whipkey Three, a band whose name is more of a misnomer. Defined as Whipkey on guitar, vocals and harmonica along with veteran drummer Scott “Zip” Zimmerman and bassist Travis Sing, the new record also features producer J. Scott Gaeta on Hammond B3, piano and keyboards on almost every track. So when The Whipkey Three takes the stage for their CD release show Saturday night at Stir in Council Bluffs, skip the head count.
“If it was up to me, I’d have six guys on stage,” Whipkey said. “The songs work well as a three piece, but in the studio I felt free to indulge, and that can be your own worst enemy. There’s no more than 24 tracks on any given song. We didn’t bring in a Baptist choir.”
But most of the album simply highlights the trio, with Gaeta’s whirling Springsteen-esque Hammond glowing in the background on songs like high-flying rocker “Wasn’t Thinking” and CD-closing back-beat ballad “Reagan Era.” Always at the center is Whipkey’s pure rock sensibility distilled from years of listening to American FM radio. He may be a true indie artist (the album is being self-released), but there’s nothing indie about his style. Whipkey’s songwriting is unapologetically straightforward, un-ironic and ultimately familiar to anyone who grew up listening to arena rock.
At age 31, he says his career goals haven’t changed since his early solo days. He’s managed to make a sizable mark on the local music scene, but has only rarely strayed outside the state lines, despite his efforts to break through to a bigger market.
“I’ve done the college radio thing. It’s a joke,” Whipkey said. “But what else do you do? I wish someone could tell me. I’m back to handing flyers to people I meet. Maybe that’s the best thing you can do. Is it all about who you hang out with? I think it is. I don’t know. Someone tell me. I know how to write songs and perform them, and we do it very well.”
He also knows how to teach, augmenting his income with a day job giving private guitar lessons at Dietz Music. When asked if he still harbors dreams of being as big as Ryan Adams he says, “You have to,” but quickly adds, “You can let those ideas destroy you, because they can make you feel like a failure.”
Instead, Whipkey’s content letting it all hang out on stage and making his own records, right down to meticulously hand-stamping and constructing the cardboard holders for his new CD. “If I give you one, you better listen to it,” he said. “We’re not getting 1,000 jewel-case copies. We pressed 300, and we’ll sell them all.
“This is what I do, it’s who I am,” he said. “Between teaching and playing and performing, it’s my livelihood, my career, and I take it very seriously. I get more out of making music now than I ever did.”
The Whipkey Three plays with The Big Deep Saturday, May 12, at Stir Live and Loud, 1 Harrah’s Blvd., Council Bluffs, Iowa. Showtime is 9 p.m. Admission is $7. For more information, call (712) 328-6499 or visit harrahscouncilbluffs.com.