Editor’s Note: This review was written by freelance journalist, and long-time Saving Country Music reader/commenter Matthew Bashioum.
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Central Appalachia is in a midst of a revitalization: abandoned coalfields are being converted into hemp cooperatives and agricultural greenhouses, petrochemical ethane “cracker” plants are slowly starting to replace obsolete coal-fired power factories and outsourced steel mills, and the mountain music founded by the Carter Family and Ralph Stanley is being redefined by a new generation of musicians lead by 49 Winchester. This close-knit band from southwest Virginia colors outsides the lines of gatekeepers, but their skill, work ethic, and commitment to their roots keep them authentic as they amass sub-genre labels like “Appalachia Soul.”
49 Winchester has recorded all of their albums in either Bristol or rural Charlottesville, Virginia (not Nashville) and thanks to technology, all business is conducted from home in Castlewood, VA (not Nashville). Lead singer Isaac Gibson’s dad (who I’d guess really uttered the words “more damn gear than the Rolling Stones”) is still their van driver, merch table rep, and biggest fan, having attended every 49 Winchester show. Isaac and bassists Chase Chaffin grew up and attended school together and rounded out the band with fellow gritty, talented Appalachians. Gibson told me he wants to be to southwest Virginia what Tyler Childers is to eastern Kentucky and West Virginia (and you can’t be that in Nashville).
Friday night (4-7), 49 Winchester rolled into Pittsburgh, a.k.a the Paris of Appalachia, and played the newly renovated Thunderbird Cafe on a hot sell-out streak. After warming up the crowd with the road weary anthem “All I Need” and a soaring rendition of “Second Chance,” the crowd really got rocking with a rousing version of “Chemistry.”
Gibson’s soulful voice draws many comparisons to Chris Stapleton, and is a force to be reckoned with in concert. While some fans are partial to his hollow yodel in “It’s a Shame,” his brute vocal prowess was on full display during fan favorite and highlight of the night “Hays, Kansas.” The dichotomy of being on the road and missing home is a recurring theme in 49 Winchester’s music, and was played out in the love letters home “The Road Home” and signature song “Russell County Line,” which the fans admirably tried to match chops with Gibson on the chorus.
No matter how outside the lines or boundaries 49 Winchester push, pedal-steel player Noah Patrick and lead guitarist Brandon “Bus” Shelton are there to rope everyone into pure honky tonk bliss. “It’s a Shame,” (It just like it’s a shame to see a woman who’s white trash and pretty) “Long Hard Life” (well I done the best I could but I still wound up on jail) and “Hillbilly Daydream” (I know what I’ll do, crawl up the holler in an hour or two mix me up a big batch of mash start making my own moonshine) were just beautiful, unhinged hillbilly chaos that have me convinced that if these boys weren’t so damn musically gifted, they might be (like many others in this region) ‘shine-running or “selling ice” to make ends meet. But like most of us, they just work so damn hard every day to stay out of that trouble.
Sneaky low-key Tim Hall on keyboards might be the special sauce in the band with identifiable intros that fire up the crowd on “Second Chance” and “Damn Darlin.’” And drummer Justin Louthian keeps everyone in rhythm and on track. The guys stretched out their legs with a jammin’ swampy cover of “Waymore’s Blues” by Waylon Jennings (which would have sounded trite in any other hands), and featured a new song, “I Think I Should’ve Stayed in Tulsa” as the well-earned encore.
Isaac Gibson told me the last few weeks have been trying on the band as they ran into some medical issues/bumps and bruises from being on the road—stomach illnesses in London and guitarist Brandon Shelton had to seek out a chiropractor hours before the Pittsburgh show. But without hesitation, they all said the fans showing up in droves and singing along each night keep them going.
Without a doubt, 49 Winchester is competing with Mike and The Moonpies and American Aquarium for the hardest working and best live band titles. I can’t implore you enough to do whatever it takes to see 49 Winchester currently in these venues they’ve already outgrown, because next time they roll through your town, they may be playing arenas.
According to Thunderbird Café manager, Kelsy Schira, the rise in popularity of Appalachian country artists has been a welcoming economic boom to music venues in Pittsburgh. Local venues have been overbooked with shows, even having to hand off shows to competing bigger venues due to demand. Last night while 49 Winchester was on stage at the Thunderbird Café, Arlo McKinley was playing across town at Club Café. Wednesday Chris Knight played Club Café for the second time in 8 months, Billy Strings, Charles Wesley Goodwin (a sold-out homecoming show), Cole Chaney (twice), and Town Mountain with The Local Honeys have been just some of the Appalachian artists that have played Pittsburgh.
To see 49 Winchester’s Current tour schedule, CLICK HERE.
49 Winchester Set List – The Thunderbird Café, Pittsburgh, PA (4-7-2023)
1. All I Need
2. Second Chance
4. Fortune Favors the Bold
5. It’s a Shame
7. The Road Home
8. Waymore’s Blues (Waylon Jennings Cover)
9. Long Hard Life
10. Everlasting Lover
11. Russell County Line
13. Hillbilly Daydream
15. Damn Darlin’
16. Hays, Kansas
17. Last Call
18. I Think I Should’ve Stayed in Tulsa