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All Night Station playing "just to play"

Bluegrass-twisted alt-country band finds local groove

How do you define alt-country?

Not everyone knows the tune. But if you should ask the members of four-man local band, All Night Station, they’re likely to strum up a little definition that goes something like this.

“Think of it as country music you won’t hear on the radio,” according to the band’s new promotional package.

“Country music that’s defined more by the landscape than by Nashville hit factories. It’s rock-and-roll with banjos and mandolins. It’s old bluegrass tunes with an occasional electric guitar.

“It’s real country music — stuff from the dirt and from the heart.”They describe their musical influences as being “wide-ranging,” and they “span the decades from the old-timey musicians to modern alt-country and rock bands.”

All Night Station performs a range of covers from artists such as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Steve Earle and Bill Monroe, as well as writing a few of their own.

But if there’s one thing you should remember about All Night Station, it’s that they don’t just play for themselves. They play for the people.

The band, known as No Depression since it began in 2000, recently changed its name to All Night Station after a cease-and-desist order from a music magazine of the same name.

“They basically said we had to change our name or face legal action,” said Matt Swihart, the band’s resident banjo picker.

Given no other choice, Swihart and his band mates, Matt Mesa, Jim Drake and Dave Swann, chose to make a list of as many original band names as they could. They then narrowed it down by process of elimination.

“Out of several hundred, that’s the only name that survived on each of our lists,” said Swann, the upright bass specialist.

The name “All Night Station” pays tribute to the lyrics in Sunvolt’s mid-1990s song, “Windfall,” in which the band refers to the all-night radio stations one hears when driving through the lonesome plains of the Southwest.

“It’s that one station out in the middle of Texas that just carries you on into the night,” evoked Swihart.

“And I’d say the moniker fits,” adds Mesa, the band’s lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist.

“Our sound is kind of a bluegrass-twisted alt-country. It’s got some traditional bluegrass, but most of our songs are from the alt-country movement that you hear on those all-night radio stations,” he said.

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Sooner or later, the band would like to be heard over the airwaves, whether it’s in Texas, Oregon or Indiana (Swihart’s home state).

“We’re trying to put out a CD by fall,” says Swann. “Last fall we said, ‘we’re gonna do it’, but the trademark problem got in the way. We have all the songs on tape, and a friend who has the recording equipment ...”

“We just need a little dose of ambition,” Mesa said. “We’ve all been talking about it, but the time commitment is a big one for all of us to make.”

Mesa has been the most active in trying to get the band some new exposure. “But it’s not easy,” he shrugs.

“Even if we could get out and gig a couple times a month, that would be satisfactory,” he said.

The band currently plays a handful of shows every month at local venues like Full Sail Brewing and Sixth Street Bistro.

It also performs at seasonal gatherings such as Harvest Fest, the Dufur Threshing Bee, Stevenson Bluegrass Festival, The Dalles Cherry Fest, Saturday Market and First Friday.

“No one is in it to get rich,” Mesa said. “It’s mostly about having fun and sharing music with each other. I’m surprised it’s lasted this long.”

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To keep their skills sharp and their melodies tuned, the members of All Night Station try to meet once a week, usually at Swann’s wood-working shop in White Salmon, Wash.

Swann, also a White Salmon resident, operates a specialty wood-crafting business, and the band is thankful to have the space.

“We used to go to Swihart’s house, but he moved out to Odell,” said Drake, the band’s mandolin player and a production coordinator at the Hood River News.

“Going over to White Salmon is a little more convenient for everyone.”

Drake lives in Hood River, while Mesa, a fish biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, lives in Cook, Wash. Mesa has been playing guitar since 1995, and started singing just four years ago, whereas Drake has been playing mandolin since 1997.

Drake gradually toned down the rock-and-roll and blues guitar riffs he craved during his high school days in New Jersey, and now that he has discovered the mandolin, there is no turning back.

“When I moved out here, I got dragged over to a jam – which became my other band, Wild River,” Drake said. “I had brought my guitar along, but it was there that I picked up the mando and just kept on going.”

His Wild River band mate, Kent Olson, a long-time bluegrass picker from Husum, Wash., inspired him to learn the mandolin. And now that he’s picked it up, he can’t put it down.

“Jim’s the one that makes us practice,” said Swihart, a brewmaster at Full Sail. “Dave makes us tune, Matt makes us get gigs, and I make sure we have beer.”

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Amidst all the practicing and name changing, All Night Station is looking forward a busy spring and summer season, with shows lined up at the Spring Fest in White Salmon, the Bite of Hood River (May 17), First Fridays and the Stevenson Bluegrass Festival.

“We really had fun at the new band contest last year, and they asked us to come back,” Mesa said.

“Those type of events are really worth our time. We like to play to an audience, and we hope you enjoy listening to our music as much as we like playing it.”

If you would like to contact the band about playing an event, or just want to see them live, contact Mesa at 509-538-2053, or by e-mail at: mmmesa@gorge.net.

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