After taking a 14-year break from music, Darrell “D.W.” Whitt has come back with a vengeance in his new band with a very creative name, Whiskey Stills & Mash.
If you’re a fan of Southern rock like Blackfoot, Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, you’re going to love this three-piece band based out of Hiawassee.
We recently spent a few minutes getting to know D.W. and heard about how his long break from the music business has actually re-ignited his love for entertaining audiences around the Southeast. In fact, you can see the band playing at Rocco’s in Jasper on July 10.
You can also see and hear Whiskey Stills & Mash led by D.W., who is endorsed by Cross Rifle Custom Guitars out of Blairsville, performing on the web at www.whiskeystillsandmash.com.
Let’s start out talking about the history of the band. How long have y’all been together?
Basically I formed the band back in 2015. The current members include of course myself, and the drummer is Charlie Sanders. I took a 14-year break from music. I was in a band back in the ’80s and ’90s that our sole purpose was to get a record deal so we toured all over the place and actually got a record deal and turned it down in 1993. I joined another band after that and we played until 2001. The first band was called Damnage; it was pretty heavy, like a metal band, and that was all original music.
Why’d you turn down the deal?
We were a five-piece band, and the singer had a new family, a new job, and that sort of thing, and it just didn’t feel right to him. So it was basically all or nothing for us. We all had to agree or not. We followed his lead and just didn’t take it. Not long after that he left, and then I left. The band went on with different members. The next band we put together was called Bugs Meenie. Our last show was the night before the 9/11 attack. We were playing Birmingham, Alabama, and the band kinda disbanded after that.
What kind of music did y’all play in that one?
Just rock, basically rock. It was all original music; we recorded a full-length album, and we toured all the Southeast, major clubs, that sort of thing. That’s when I kinda took a 14-year break; I was just kinda burnt out with the whole business aspect of everything. I still played, just didn’t play in any bands. This band kinda came about – I walked into a music store up here (Murphy, N.C.). I was playing a guitar, and the guy heard me play and asked me if I would audition for his band. So I said sure and went out and got the gig immediately – played a gig in two weeks after I was sitting in his music store. I had never played in a cover band in my life, so I had to learn 40 songs in two weeks, played the gig for Electric Circus (out of Murphy, North Carolina), did that for a little bit and then my calling’s always been original music so that just kinda propelled itself into this, into Whiskey Stills & Mash. My whole thing is writing original music, playing original music. We do play covers, obviously, but our main focus is writing and recording.
I didn’t play with them very long. Kinda got my beak wet, so to speak, and got my taste of playing music again and immediately went out and started (the current) band. I pretty much write all the music for everything we’ve ever recorded, with the exception of I believe two songs – I had a collaborator that wrote some lyrics, but other than that I write everything.
There’s six songs on the debut CD “Southern Grooves – The Ledbelly Sessions.” “Rolling Blues” is one of them I didn’t write, as a matter of fact. I wrote the music but did not write the lyrics. But I wrote all the others on that album. We’re actually finishing up our new album right now; we’re mixing it as we speak.
Where can we get your albums now?
They’re available on all the digital music outlets – iTunes, Spotify, Reverb Nation, all those you can get it. Then we have a website that you can buy it direct on there. There’s a link on our Facebook page that’ll take you to that.
How did you get started in music originally?
I came from a very, very poor family. I was born in Georgia obviously. My mother if I showed some kind of interest in whatever, she would find a way to make it happen. So for instance, I was interested in the banjo at one point so she went out and got me a banjo. When I started talking about guitar, she went out and got me a really nice guitar. I believe I was 12 when that happened. My uncle showed me a few chords, a few songs, and it sorta took off from there. Back then, my main influence was old school country music, you know, back in the ’70s and ’80s, it was all AM country radio back then. The outlaw country music, the original country music is what I really liked. Of course, that progressed into rock. I love all kinds of music, but my roots are basically country music.
It IS interesting.
So who was it exactly that influenced you back in the ’70s and ’80s?
Waylon, Willie, Alabama, Hank, Merle Haggard were huge to me, those kind of people. And still are. I still listen to that and still love it.
Yeah, that’s hard to beat. I just started watching Dukes of Hazzard again, and I love to hear Waylon do the theme song and narration for the show.
That’s funny. I’ve been watching it, too. I watch it on Amazon. We’re incorporating some country into our sets now, especially the outlaw country type stuff. We do definitely rock ‘n’ roll, basically Southern rock, classic rock, got a blues influence, but we’re definitely bringing some country back to it.
How did you come up with the band name?
I was sitting in my office. I remember distinctly I was sitting in my office, which is kinda adjacent to my bedroom. My wife’s sitting on the bed, and I had my feet kicked up on my desk and I was just trying to think of something that connects me to my Appalachian roots. It just popped in my head – a light came on. I wrote it down. We played our first show – it was at Rocco’s as a matter of fact. Our very first show was one of those jams they have there. I remember Roger Shepherd was there hosting the event. When he announced our name, he came up to me and said, man, that’s a great name, you need to copyright or trademark that. I went home and did it immediately right then. I just wanted to connect to the local culture, our roots, so that’s kinda where it came from.
You said you grew up in Georgia. Where were you born?
I grew up in Stone Mountain on a little farm my granddad built. My grandmother’s family is from up here in the mountains, in White and Towns and Habersham county. He came up here – good grief, in the late ‘30s, early ‘40s, I guess it would have been – and courted her and actually took her back to the farm where I grew up on. Horse and buggy from the mountains all the way back to Stone Mountain, so that’s where I grew up. My best friend in elementary school, he was my drummer, so I would carry my amp to his house every day – it was like two or three miles to his house, walk down the road with an amp and a guitar, jam again, and then come back home. We’d play all the Kiss – I’m sure it sounded pretty horrible, but that’s kinda where it started. He was in another band in Atlanta; we did a lot of shows together but never really played in the same band after that.
Now that first band you were talking about – when did that kick off?
Damnage, we started that band … I was maybe 16, 17 years old. So that would have been ’86, ’87. And I played with them until ’94 or ’95, I believe.
When did you feel confident enough to go out and perform in public?
Oh, as soon as we started Damnage, it was immediately, within a couple of months. It wasn’t long.
So I guess just a natural ability?
We were hashing it out – did a lot of rehearsal, me and the drummer. We spent a lot of time together before the band started. Retrospectively, you look back and I feel like I progressed. I practice every single day on my guitar so I feel like I get better every day. Back then, I thought I was pretty good. A few years down the road, you look back and go wow, I pretty much sucked. We were good, just young, cocky, and confident, that sort of thing, you know. We played with a lot of really big bands, opened for a lot of big bands. One band in particular, we did a lot of shows with, was another Atlanta band, Nihilist. Richard and Britt, the bass player and the drummer, are now in Blackberry Smoke. I’m still friends with them. We kinda played the same circuit. Funny thing, we kinda lost touch with one another; they went on to do the Blackberry Smoke thing, which is very in sync with the kind of the music we’re doing. But that wasn’t intentional; I had no idea those guys were doing that. We just hooked back up after many years and kinda had followed the same path so it was funny because we were both very heavy bands back in the day and we all just both progressed to the Southern rock thing.
Do you have a family history of music?
Not really. My uncle played a little bit of guitar, but nothing serious.
During that 14-year break, what kind of things did you do?
I still played my guitar, but honestly I had started a new career with a construction company and really dug into that and did a lot of hunting and fishing to be honest with you. I just kinda took some personal time. I’d probably be a whole lot further along with the music thing if I’d stuck with it, but the good thing is when I came back, everything was fresh and new to me and very exciting, where a lot of my compatriots that stuck with it are kinda burnt out now. For me, it’s all exciting and new so it’s kind of an ironic thing. The break gave me a breath of fresh air. Just step away from the business aspect of it. It was getting to where the art was twisting into business. Once you do that, it just compromises the integrity of the whole thing in my opinion. I mean, I like to keep it real so I don’t want to be influenced by the industry. You know, whatever I write, I want it to be real and connect with people. I don’t want anything to be contrived. I want it to be as real as possible.
How would you describe the original music you create?
The style of music is obviously countrified Southern rock sort of thing, but the lyric content lately has been introspective, stories about my life, just the Southern experience, the Appalachian experience, that sort of thing. I draw from a lot of real-life experiences, but I do write some that are just 100 percent fiction but I try to keep it true to the Southern experience. That’s the whole thing with this band; I want it to connect to the – not intentionally trying to be quote, unquote Southern rock. That’s just who I am and what I am, so that’s just what comes out. It’s not intentional. I heard an interview with somebody talking to … I forget who it was, but basically if a good musician or band if they’re playing someone else’s song, if you can make the person that’s listening to it believe you wrote that song and it’s about you, then you’ve done your job, even if you didn’t have a thing to do with writing it. I think it’s even better when you can actually write it and connect all the dots, you know.
You mentioned about a new album you’re putting together right now. How many have you done so far?
This will be our second album with Whiskey Stills & Mash. But I’ve recorded probably 10 or 12 in my life with the different bands I’ve been with.
I’ve been listening to your songs on your website, and I’m really getting into that song, “Tore Down.”
Oh, cool. There’s actually a video for that if you look it up.
I saw that on your website.
A lot of that was filmed at a show we did up here at the Anderson Music Hall opening for Molly Hatchet and Blackfoot. We’re friends with Blackfoot so we do a lot of things with them, and we do a lot of things with Molly Hatchet too.
Those are two good bands.
Yep. Actually one of the songs we’re doing right now, it’s called “Blood Mountain.” I had some friends, local music legends, some guys up here in North Georgia, Andrew Chastain, Chris Key, and also Craig Wilson played keys on this song, and then Jimmy Elkins from Molly Hatchet did some guest vocals on it as well so it’s a pretty exciting song that’s coming out. It’s obviously about THE Blood Mountain up here so it’s pretty neat.
When will that be out?
I’m looking at fall. We’re actually mixing right now and got to finish up the photography and art and that sort of thing. I’m gonna wait because we just released the other album in September so I’m kinda wanting to wait just a little bit before we drop this one out. It’s a pretty neat record.
Who do you listen to right now, some of your favorite artists?
Blackberry Smoke is huge to me. Even though they’re friends of mine, I’d still love the music if I didn’t know who they were. It’s great. I’m listening to a lot of Whiskey Myers, Preacher Stone which they’re friends of ours – we’ve played some shows with them. They’ve got some great music.
One that’s kinda out of the ball park – it’s not Southern rock at all – is a band called Rival Sons, one of my absolute favorite bands. It’s almost like a throwback to ‘60s, early ’70s type rock music with a modern edge to it. It’s a four-piece band – vocals, bass, keys, drums. They’re just phenomenal, great guys. Another one is the Steelwoods, they’re a great band.
Where all do y’all play?
We play all over the Southeast. We go outside that if the opportunity arises, but we’ve got some big shows down in Florida opening for Blackfoot, Molly Hatchet. We’re doing one with Preacher Stone in October, play all over Georgia. We play Atlanta, North Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee. We play a lot of the bars. We love playing the bigger clubs, but we do bar gigs too. Anything to spread our name and hone the band, you know? I was actually ready to go to Nashville a few years ago, and my buddy Brit Turner, the drummer from Blackberry Smoke, discouraged me from going. Basically he’s the one that said, you just need to get out there and play every bar, bike rally, festival, any place you can play to get your name out there, so that’s kinda what I’ve been doing.
My goal has always been to do it for a living. Back in the day it was to get a record deal, but nowadays you don’t really have to have a record deal. You can do it all on your own. You can get distribution deals, but nowadays you can put the whole album together yourself and put it out there yourself. You don’t really have to rely on a record company anymore. So basically to do it for a living and have fun doing it. When it’s not fun to me anymore, that’s when I’ll stop because music is pure joy to me, 100 percent. I mean I literally play my guitar every single day, and I love doing it. It’s not because I have to. So when it becomes not fun, that’s when I’ll put it down and stop.
Do you have another job now?
Yeah, I own a small construction company. I actually walked away from a 20-year corporate job, very, very good job to be able to focus more on music, to be able to have a little more leeway to play shows and do the things I need to do without compromising my career.
Can you walk us through your jobs over the years?
Actual jobs? It’s mostly been construction. I started when I was 14 working with my stepdad doing concrete construction and basically went on to be a supervisor for his company and then went on to join another construction company as a superintendent and then two or three companies as superintendent after that, leadership roles.
In the mid ‘90s, started my own flooring company for a few years. Then I started with a company called Parker Young in Atlanta, and I was there for 20 years. I was project manager for that company, and when I left them I started my own construction company in 2017 called Appalachian Construction Services based out of Hiawassee.
What kind of things do you do with that?
We do everything. I build houses, build a lot of decks for some reason, renovations, remodels, that sort of thing. But like I say, my whole life has been in the construction business so I’m pretty well versed in doing anything, whether it’s commercial, residential, or whatever.
I try to do a lot of hands-on for a couple of reasons – I want to make sure the quality is where I want it to be, and second, to kinda get my hands dirty because I spent 20 years basically wearing starch Oxford shirts, dress shoes, dress pants. I didn’t get to get my hands dirty too much. Now it’s kind of a spiritual thing to get back and work with the guys and get dirty a little bit.
I noticed on your website it looks like the pandemic shut you down.
Oh yeah, about two and a half months. I think our last show before this happened was March 14 at the Wild Wing Café in Cumming, and the first show we played was last weekend (May 23) up here – we did a little acoustic thing to kind of get our feet wet. The first full band show was May 30 at the Sand Bar.
You try to schedule gigs on Friday and Saturday?
We do have some Wednesday and Thursday night gigs throughout. Some of the Dixie Tavern gigs were on Thursdays, and there was some acoustic stuff during the week. We would play more, but we just don’t want to oversaturate the market playing the same club, same area too many times too close together. It’ll burn the audience out more than it’ll burn the band out. But if we could play every night and make a living at it, that’s what we would do. Which, you know, we could, but it’s just making that jump. That’s what we’re working toward; I think eventually we’ll take that leap. It’s just right now we’re focusing more on the weekend thing.
Can you talk more about your connection with Rocco?
I met him – we did one of those jam sessions, it was literally Whiskey Stills & Mash’s first gig. Typically they want to call you up one person at a time and let you play with the house band, but they let us get up and play and they really liked it. We played several songs, and of course, got invited to start playing some shows there. So that’s how Whiskey Stills & Mash got in. I couldn’t tell you how many times we’ve played there – a bunch! In the interim, my drummer was in a band called Slickfoot; he was playing in both bands, and his guitar player got sick so I filled in for him and that ended up being a little over a year gig so I was playing in two bands at the same time. So I got more connected with Rocco’s because I was playing in two bands so I saw him quite often. Started talking to him about bringing Preacher Stone, connected him with those guys, and we’ll be opening up for them on June 13. They’re a pretty big band. Rocco is just a straight-up guy, always really liked him, connected with him as soon as I met him. Really enjoy playing there, like the atmosphere.
Any interesting experiences at your shows?
I love meeting and talking to new people and get ‘em excited about music. I miss shaking their hands because you can’t do that anymore.
I guess y’all are excited about getting back on stage?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Last weekend was pretty exciting. It was an acoustic thing, but it was still a lot of fun.
Bands like Molly Hatchet and Blackfoot – where do they play these days? What kind of venues?
They seem to do a lot of big festivals, of course the big biker rallies, a lot of outdoor festivals. They do bigger venues obviously. We had actually talked about possibly going on a tour in Europe with Blackfoot just before the pandemic happened. They don’t really do clubs; they do the much bigger venues, that sort of thing. If they’re in the area, they typically call on us to come open for them. Again they’re good friends of ours, great guys.
Overall, what is it that’s drawn you to music basically your whole life? Being on stage … the creation … the songs?
A little bit of all of that. Obviously there’s a rush when you walk on stage. Years ago I would get nervous before a show, but now the stage just feels like home to me. I’m very comfortable on stage. When you really get in the moment and you’re playing live music, you’re kinda live without a net. There’s no safety net or anything like that; you make a mistake, it’s there for everybody to see so you gotta be humble.
If you do make a mistake, make fun of yourself and laugh about it, don’t get too serious about it. Especially like soloing, if I’m playing a blues song, you’ll never hear me play the same solo twice in something like that because to me if you’re thinking about it, you’re thinking with your head, not your heart so I try to give everybody a different experience every night.
It’s kinda like the Allman Brothers’ Live at the Fillmore East album. It’s a great album, the perfect album, but people that were there and saw that show said that the very next night, you heard a whole different album – it was different, it wasn’t the same thing because they played it from their heart. But they captured that album and recorded it, and when most people hear those songs, they hear it the way it was presented on that night.
But like I’m saying, they play that stuff different every single night because they played it from their hearts. That’s kinda what I’m about, you know, making it a fresh experience not only for the people listening to me but also for me so I’m not regurgitating something over and over and over and being predictable. But writing music and playing music is very cathartic for me; you’re able to lay your feelings out, your thoughts on a page and reflect on things.
I just wrote a song about a good friend of mine who passed away in 2005. Usually I write songs pretty quick, especially lyrics; they flow pretty quickly. This particular song, it took me months to write because it was about him. But once that was done, it was kind of like a weight off my shoulders sort of thing. He was my best friend and a singer in my band. It just releases, I guess, is the way to put it.