Clip: Two Cow Garage
- From Columbus Alive cover story
Smokes, Burgers & Roach Motels
Eight days on the road with Two Cow Garage
by Stephen Slaybaugh
While MTV might have you believe otherwise, life on the road for most rock 'n' roll bands
is not an endless series of parties and orgies moving from one city to another on
gigantic, plush tour buses. No, for most acts the tour circuit is a hard road, with
uncertainty at every turn: Will anyone come to the show? Will the van break down? Will
there be enough money for gas to get to the next town? Will there be any left over to eat?
But like most looking to broaden their audience to a national level, Two Cow Garage
understands that hard work and many miles spent in a cramped van are what's required,
especially if you're not backed by a major-label marketing machine.
The Columbus band formed in 2001 when bassist Shane "Boots" Sweeney teamed up with
guitarist Micah Schnabel and drummer Dustin "Spanky" Harigle. The three shared a common
background of growing up lower-middle class in small towns (Schnabel and Harigle are from
Bucyrus, Sweeny was raised in Lancaster) as well as a love for rock and country. They're
elements that ended up informing the band's music, a combination of twang and crush meshed
with lyrics about "18 years too many spent in a one-horse town" (as Schnabel puts it on
The band released its debut, Please Turn the Gas Back On, on manager Chris Flint's
Shelterhouse label late last year, taking to the road soon after to support it. In the
year that's followed, the band has rarely spent a full week at home, eventually giving up
their apartment since it didn't make sense to pay rent on a place that did little else but
house their few belongings. Since the beginning of 2003, the band has played more than 250
shows. As Sweeney told me, "I've resigned myself to the fact that I'm probably going to
die in either this van or some other van."
To catch a glimpse of what life on the road is really like for a relatively unknown band,
I hopped in Two Cow Garage's van last week to join them for six gigs in eight days. Here's
how it went:
Day One, Thursday:
Columbus to Nashville
The band is late picking me up because they had to get the starter replaced in the van, a
1985 GMC Vandura with nearly 140,000 miles on it. Finally getting on I-71 around 1 p.m.,
I'm given one last chance to get out while I still can.
Declining, I'm told each member's role on the road: Micah is the worrier; Shane is the
angry one; Spanky is the quiet one (typical for a drummer); and Chris, who will be with us
for the Nashville leg of the trip, is the instigator. It's a quiet ride to Nashville,
where the band will be playing at the Americana Music Association Conference, the annual
event organized by the roots-rock magazine No Depression.
We get to the Music City around six and check into the Embassy Suites, where the band got
a discount via the conference. I'm told that it's not typical of their regular lodging.
After unloading our stuff at the hotel, we head to the conference's opening night party,
where we happen to run into Columbus musicians Mark Wyatt (formerly of One Riot, One
Ranger) and Matt Benz (formerly of the Sovines). Drinks are had and we eventually decide
we need to eat dinner before the Bottlerockets play.
We hop in the van, but after several attempts it's obvious it's not going to start. We
call a tow truck, get the van towed to Firestone and walk back to the hotel. We order
pizza and watch a little TV before deciding to turn in, the night deflated by the
Day Two, Friday: Nashville
We wake up early and head to the conference, which is at another hotel, to get signed in
and to partake in the free breakfast. It seems the band is broke (they mention a string of
bad shows) until they get paid at the gig tomorrow night, and Chris buys them new guitar
strings at Gruehn's Guitars after breakfast.
For most of the day, they're content to relax in the hotel-it's the first downtime they've
seen in a while. The afternoon is spent jamming on acoustic guitars until we get kicked
out of the room so the housekeepers can clean. We head down to the hotel bar, where a
waiter fills in as a bartender, pouring strong drinks and telling us how he's an aspiring
songwriter (seems everyone in Nashville is trying to make it as a musician or songwriter).
After a couple rounds of drinks, the plan is to go to a party hosted by Catamount Records
(who released a comp with a Two Cow track on it) and where there's supposed to be free
beer and free food. While there's a keg of Shiner Bock (a Texas beer popular in the
South), there's no food. I'm starving so I get a catfish sandwich (which is excellent, by
the way). We have a couple beers, chat with the folks from Catamount, and then the band's
ready to go.
I tell them there's supposed to be a cocktail hour with free food before the AMA awards
show. We stop at our hotel first, though, and by the time we get to the conference the
food is gone. Everyone is hungry (except me), so we go back to the hotel, where we're in
time for the free happy hour there. We load up on beer and snacks. There's talk of going
out to see music, but no one seems motivated enough to head out. As much as I'd like to
see Wanda Jackson, I'm there to observe the band, so I don't desert them. Room service is
ordered, television is watched, and then everyone falls asleep.
Day Three, Saturday: Nashville
I wake up early and go down to the reception area where the hotel has free breakfast. The
band eventually comes down and tells me that the van will be fixed today, which is good
because they need it to get all their gear to the club where they'll be playing tonight.
It ended up needing a new alternator, which is why it wouldn't start, but also a new
radiator. In the past week they've sunk $2,000 into the van, which is more than they
originally paid for it.
The afternoon is once again without much activity. The band seems to be just waiting
around to play. We watch football, with the band only leaving the room to retrieve the van
and get food from Arby's. The hotel's free happy hour rolls around and we finally leave
the room. By the time happy hour ends at 7:30, it's time to head to club.
Twelfth and Porter is a nice club that holds around 300 people. Since it's a showcase, Two
Cow Garage has to use the next band's drum kit and amps to cut down on the set-up time
between bands. Though they have to fight to get the sound they want from the other band's
equipment, they play a good set to about 50 people, mostly industry folks from the
Overhearing other people's conversations, the response is definitely positive. In fact,
Micah tells us after the show that a guy from Lost Highway, Universal Records' alt-country
imprint, told him that they're "just the kind of band [they're] looking for." This bit of
information doesn't seem to phase the band; they've been told such things before with
little coming from it. Everyone's hungry again so we get burgers from Checker's and eat
before going to bed.
Day Four, Sunday: Nashville
Chris leaves for Columbus before any of us get up. After breakfast we head to Clear Voice
Studio, where the band is recording a track for a Billy Joe Shaver tribute album to be
released on Twang Off records. Two Cow is doing "Georgia on a Fast Train." They knock out
the basic track after just several tries, then a guitar solo and Micah's lead vocals are
overdubbed, again after only a few attempts. At 5:30-after just five and a half hours-the
song is finished, just in time for the hotel happy hour. We pick up 10 hamburgers for
$4.90, Checker's Sunday special, and head to the hotel lobby for drinks. I've noticed that
Spanky and Micah always ask for their burgers plain.
Tonight's show is at Windows on the Cumberland, a small club nestled in the back of an old
building that also houses an ice cream parlor and a coffee shop. It's a dark and rainy
night, which doesn't bode well. When we get to the club, we're greeted by the owner,
Boots, and tell him that Shane's called Boots too.
While the band sets up, I go to the bar and Boots gives me a free Michelob Amber Bock,
which he's apparently trying to get rid of because that's what the band is given all
night. I start a conversation with a couple from Seattle who have spent the last two
months traveling around the country camping and living thriftily. They came to the show
after reading the two sentences in one of the local weeklies that compared Two Cow Garage
to Uncle Tupelo, a comparison of which the band has grown tired.
The band goes on at 10, and though there are only nine people in the audience (including
me, Boots and the bartender), they're having a great time. They play for about an hour,
surprising me with both the song they recorded today and a cover of Burn Barrel's "Mrs.
Tubbs." Everyone hangs out for a while afterward before Boots is finally ready to close.
This night Two Cow was playing just for tips dropped in a bucket in front of the stage (a
Nashville tradition), and though they only made $7, the club owner's good will and the
friendly people attending the show made for a great night.
Day Five, Monday: Memphis
We check out of the Embassy Suites, and it feels good to be moving on after having spent
so much time cooped up there. We make the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Memphis and check
into a motel, the Memphis Inn, on the east side of the city. Opening the door to the room,
it's obviously much different than our previous accommodations. The room has a funky
smell, but it also has HBO, which the Embassy didn't, so we relax and start watching a
movie. We soon realize that this motel has something else the Embassy didn't: roaches. A
few have started crawling out from behind the pictures on the wall. We make sure all our
bags are sealed and brave it for the rest of the movie before heading to the club.
The band is playing at the Hi-Tone. As we pull up in front, there are posters for upcoming
shows with notable acts like Erase Errata, the Shins and Clem Snide, so we're hopeful. The
club is roomy with a nice ambiance, and the stage and sound equipment are in good shape.
After we load in, we take a seat at the bar. The club serves food and the bartender gives
us menus. The band's rider includes dinner and a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The menu
offers more than just your typical pub grub, and I order a Shrimp Po' Boy and Shane orders
a grilled cheese. But even though we had Wendy's for lunch, Micah and Spanky again order
We find out from the bartender, though, that Two Cow Garage is the only band playing. The
club had tried to get a local band (as they had promised Two Cow's booking agent), but was
unsuccessful. After some games of pool and watching the news, which included a helpful
segment on high school slang ("jankity" soon became the most used word in the van), it's
10 p.m. and no one has come through the door.
The bartender tells us it's not happening and the band doesn't have to play. There wasn't
a guarantee for the show, so the food and beer we've consumed is all the band gets. We
load up and go back to our roach motel, where Shane and I sleep fully clothed on top of
Day Six, Tuesday: Raleigh
It's a 12-hour drive to Raleigh so we leave the Memphis Inn by 8 a.m. after not sleeping
very well. We'll be traveling I-40, which Shane calls the "death road" because it goes
through the Smoky Mountains. The drive takes a little longer than expected and we don't
get to the club, the Pour House, until 9:30.
We find out once again that there is no local support, and the band will have to pay $150
to use the club's PA system. Two Cow is prepared, however, and have their own PA with
While the band sets up, I, having started to empathize with them and thinking that this
looks to be a crappy gig, decide I'm going to drink as much of the free beer the club is
willing to give me. The band is playing for a percentage of the bar sales tonight (there's
no cover). There are about 20 people in attendance, including reps from Yep Roc Records
and its distributor, Red Eye, as well as three women the band knows from the last time
they came through town.
Despite the poor sound of their PA and a less than capacity crowd, the band delivers
another great set, which includes "Hillbilly," a song that Micah wrote when he was still
in high school and that's fast becoming a favorite of mine. After a short break, they
return to the stage for a second, equally good set that ends with a cover of "Freebird."
I'm pretty drunk by the time the show's over, having managed to imbibe six pints of
Harpoon IPA. Arianna, one of the women the band knows, offers to let us stay at her place
and we take her up on it. We get to her apartment in Chapel Hill, and I promptly pass out
on her couch.
Day Seven, Wednesday: Atlanta
I wake up early and am greeted by Arianna, who's heading out to school. I make coffee and
drink and smoke till the rest of the band gets up and Arianna returns from class. We say
our goodbyes and head off. Chris calls Spanky on his mobile and tells him that Lost
Highway called again, as did the guy from Yep Roc, who wants them to send him a live
recording. They decide they'll get the club to do one tonight.
After seven hours on the road, we get to the Star Bar, which is located in the Five Points
area (the "hip" hood of Atlanta), around 8:30. There are two opening acts on the bill:
Dodd Ferrelle and the Tinfoil Sisters from Athens and Lamont Skylark from Wilmington,
North Carolina. We hang out with the guys from Lamont Skylark, who Two Cow has played with
before, and drink free PBR.
Dodd Ferrelle goes on first and aren't very good; Lamont Skylark plays next and is
alright. When Two Cow finally takes the stage there are about 30 people in the club. Their
friend Jeff is there and sits in on pedal steel, as he's apparently done in the past.
Two Cow's set is as good as ever and they finish with Uncle Tupelo's "Give Back the Key to
My Heart," at Jeff's request. After the show, Micah is approached by a group of loud and
loudly dressed guys that had come in about halfway through the show. They say they work
with Jermaine Dupri (the producer who discovered Kris Kross) and that they want to work
with the band and put them in Versace suits. This is good for a laugh later. The band's
friend John has also come to the show and he lets us stay at his place for the night,
which is good because the band only got $25 for the show.
Day Eight, Thursday: Athens
John had to be at work so we hit the road at 8:30 a.m. We get to Athens around 10 and park
the van in a parking lot. Shane goes to hang out on the University of Georgia campus and I
go in search of coffee while Micah and Spanky go to sleep in the van.
Athens is a nice college town with several streets of restaurants, clubs, record stores,
bars and shops that makes the OSU campus area look like a slum. Most of the day is spent
just biding our time till the show. The band tries to get ahold of friends from the
Possibilities, who also put a record out on Shelterhouse, but to no avail.
The band will be playing with Dodd Ferrelle again tonight and we see several posters for
the show in record stores. The local alt-weekly has a blurb on Two Cow, but it calls them
a duo and has them listed as playing at another club. We pass the time shooting pool at
the Nowhere Bar with a slimy lawyer who buys us beer when he finds out the band only has
$5 and tells us about cheating on his wife with a twentysomething woman.
Around 7:30 p.m. we head to the club, Tasty World, which has a big stage and a sound
system perhaps too big for the venue. We hang out outside watching drunken college kids
dressed in gaudy formal wear spill out of stretch SUVs and stumble to the club's upstairs
for a private party.
Clay Cook, who has co-written songs with John Mayer-one of which won him a Grammy-opens
the show and plays innocuous electric singer/songwriter stuff similar to that which Mayer
plays. There are about 20 people watching, most of whom leave when he finishes. Those few
remaining depart once Two Cow takes the stage.
Essentially playing just to me, they're visibly frustrated. Shane makes a comment about
the "drunk douche bags" upstairs and they play their songs especially noisily. Micah
doesn't make any commentary, as he has at the other gigs, until the sound guy tells him
they've got one more. "This is one more!" he shouts before the band closes with "Wait."
The band removes its equipment from the stage while Dodd Ferrell and the Tinfoil Sisters
start to move their stuff to the stage, often getting in the way. Their guitarist says to
Shane, "You guys do some weird, wacky stuff," imitating Johnny Carson.
We get the van loaded and the band waits to get paid while the headliners do soundcheck.
Ferrell has changed into his "gig shirt," which had been hanging on a hanger backstage.
It's obvious that he and his bandmates think highly of themselves, which is ironic since
their music is so lackluster, especially their cover of Abba's "SOS," done without the
slightest hint of irony. Magically, about 30 people show up right before they go on, which
I suspect was not a coincidence.
Two Cow gets paid ($25, plus an additional $25 they were supposed to get for food before
the show) and we hit Taco Bell and then Kroger for cigarettes. After some discussion, they
decide to get a hotel room instead of sleep in the van and we check into a Travelodge and
promptly go to sleep.
Day Nine, Friday: Heading Home
We get up around 10 a.m. and head to the Atlanta airport, where my flight back to Columbus
leaves at 2. The band hopes that tonight's show, opening for Lamont Skylark at their CD
release party in Wilmington, will go better (I learn later that they made nearly $300). At
least they have a $350 guarantee the next night in Murrels Inlet, South Carolina, which
they'll need for the three days they have off (without going home) before staring another
week of shows in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Reflecting on the week, I remember something Shane told me. "I grew up barely lower-middle
class. I've bailed hay and hauled roofing tiles up a rickety ladder. I may be poor now,
but I've always been poor, and at least I'm doing something I love."
Two Cow Garage may or may not make it, but they splay their hearts and play great sets
every night no matter how many people are there, whether they're tired or hungry and
regardless of whether there's any money to be made. And that, in my opinion, is already an
Two Cow Garage will be back in town for a show at the High Beck on Friday, October 17.
Click to twocowgarage.com for info.
- It should be noted that Two Cow is playing several shows in late
October/early November with Grand Champeen. Here's the tour
schedule with those east/midwest dates:
Incidentally, Grand Champeen's record release party was on
S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y night, and they put on one of their best shows
in awhile. Played their entire album in order from start to
finish and then muscled their way through covers of The Beatles,
Clash, Guns N' Roses, Thin Lizzy, and Brooooce. Not a dry eye
in the house, lemme tell ya, and that wasn't just because of le
grande champagne being sprayed forth. They are en fuego, so
don't chump out on your chance to see em.
"One good thing about music ... when it hits, you feel no pain."
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