Music doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective, according to Wes Hamilton. The 33-year-old guitarist and songwriter should know. Growing up in a musical family in Shelby, he fell in love with the gonzo boogie of Commander Cody and the workingman’s honky tonk of Johnny Paycheck and Moe Bandy, country music that is direct, catchy and fun. It was only a matter of time before he picked up an instrument, and he got his first guitar from his grandfather when he was 13 years old.
“It was nothing special but it got the job done,” Hamilton remembers. Guitar lessons didn’t pan out, so after getting a few pointers from his grandfather, Hamilton taught himself to play. After gigging with punk bands, Hamilton decided to emulate his country music inspirations. With a pair of guitar-playing friends Evan Stepp and Dan Smith, Hamilton launched the alt-country outfit Pullman Strike.
As the band’s pedal steel player, Hamilton plucked his way into the hearts and tapping toes of Charlotte and regional audiences. The band grew to become a six-piece, including drummer Daniel Beckham and vocalist and guitarist Neil Mauney. After a five-year run that yielded two twanging, foot-stomping country rock albums, People We Know (2011), Silver Lining (2015), Pullman Strike amicably called it quits.
Now, after stints as the consummate sideman, Hamilton has set aside the pedal steel for acoustic guitar, at least for the time being, as he steps into the spotlight as singer, songwriter and band leader of Wes and the Railroaders. Hamilton’s new band plays with Radiator King and the Pintos at Tommy’s Pub on April 10, then with Folkfaces at Snug Harbor on April 23.
Queen City Nerve: What was the first song you learned to play?
Wes Hamilton: [Deep Purple’s] “Smoke on the Water,” obviously, and after that it was [Black Sabbath’s] “Ironman”. Everybody has to learn those first when you get a guitar. “Smoke on the Water” teaches you scales without you realizing it.
What drew you to country music?
I like a lot of the storytelling. Some of the songs stand out for me because they’re tongue-in-cheek and kind of goofy. Without being overly corny, they’re novelty songs. That way they can be clever. Plus I’ve always loved the pedal steel guitar. I loved the sound. It brings out an emotion. When pedal steel is in a song and it’s done the right way, it makes the song. A lot of times it’s not really doing much, but it’s perfect for what the song needs. It’s color. I [still] play pedal steel in a band called Biggins, after our frontman Daniel Biggins. It’s a Southern rock band based out of Sparta, North Carolina.
I know a guitarist who taught himself pedal steel guitar. He said it was really hard, like learning to play guitar upside down.
It’s definitely a tough instrument. I taught myself how to do it watching videos on YouTube, and I have [read] 15 or 20 books just trying to figure it out. I’ve been playing pedal steel for eight years now, and every time I play it, I learn something new. It’s probably the most frustrating instrument in the world, but when you get it, and it sounds great, it’s just the best feeling in the world.
Is there a pedal steel part in a song that really nails it for you?
I’ve always been a big fan of the intro lick on the Johnny Paycheck song “The Only Hell My Momma Ever Raised.” It’s a melody that makes the song. It’s a good intro and it just keeps coming back. Lyrically that song is definitely cool, but without the pedal steel it wouldn’t be nearly as cool.
How did Pullman Strike come together?
My previous band had split up and I was itching for a new project. I’d always wanted to start a country band but I never played country music before. So I called up my buddy Evan Stepp who is in Atlanta now. My roommate at the time Dan Smith and I had been throwing the idea of a country band around for a while. We said let’s invite Evan over to the house and we’ll see what we can do. Slowly we started adding more people. [Late Bloomer’s Josh Robbins was also an original member of the band.]
At first we didn’t really know what we were doing. We all used to play in punk or metal bands, so we were loud and full force the whole time we were playing. But we all progressed together and figured it out over time. We went from being an abrasive and loud rock ‘n’ roll thing to having more dynamics and being a more polished band.
In 2017 you toured with Peewee Moore. Tell us a bit about Moore and the honky-tonk and outlaw tradition.
He comes through town and plays at the Thirsty Beaver. I met him a couple times there. At the end of 2016, he made a post on Facebook that he was looking for a pedal steel player. I was at a point where I thought I might be interested in that. So I sent him a message. He’d never heard me play before. I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but he decided that he wanted me to play with him. We traveled the country for three months. We played up in Sturgis, [South Dakota, home of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally]. That was pretty crazy. We were out in California for a solid month traveling up and down the coast. It was a good time. I got to see all kinds of stuff that I’d probably never see any other way. Also, I learned a lot about the business end of things and I made some cool connections with people. I think I got better as a musician just because I was playing almost every day of the week.
Did the tour inspire you to pick up your acoustic guitar and start writing the songs that eventually became the set for Wes & the Railroaders?
In a way, yes. I had attempted to do it before in 2016, but I’d never sung and I’d never written a song before. I was always the sideman. So I wrote some songs and played them with some people, but it never really panned out. I wasn’t as confident as I should have been. I was still learning. When I came home from that [Peewee Moore] tour I felt that I just wanted to play music as much as I can, because I had it in me. I put some effort into writing a handful of songs and then I found some people. It worked out and it’s been nice having people who have been able to help me get better as a musician, and to gain confidence and experience at being a frontman.
Who is in the band and how did you find them?
I made a post on Facebook while I was touring with Peewee, saying that I was thinking about putting a country band together when I got home. Justin Fedor (The New Familiars, Ancient Cities) said to check out this guy, Pat Bowden, who plays drums with Ancient Cities. So I met [Bowden] that way. Steve Longo is our lead guitar player. I met him through an ad on Craigslist. Steve had just moved to Charlotte from Long Island only a few months before we met. He had been playing in similar bands up there, rock ‘n’ roll, country, and honky-tonk bands. Ethan Ricks is our bass player. He went to school with my wife, so I met him that way. He was playing in an alt country band out of Charleston. He’s from Charlotte, so he moved back to town. I knew he was a good bass player and I knew he would be a good fit. I’m lucky to have the group of dudes who play behind me. It’s helped me out a lot. It makes it easier when you don’t have to explain something to anybody. They just know what we’re going for.