Craig Gerdes - Tough As Nails
Steeped in the white lines, black tar and diesel smoke of the American highway, Tough As Nails—the latest LP from Craig Gerdes—is raw and real, a document of a road-tested band fast on the rise. Ever since the central-Illinois songwriter released his lauded 2018 debut LP, Smokin’ Drinkin’ & Gamblin’, he’s been on tour almost constantly, playing upwards of 150 shows per year, including opening slots and festival support for top country and Americana artists from Tyler Childers and Paul Cauthen to Jamey Johnson and Cody Jinks, as well as a lengthy run with hard-rocker-turned-country-star Aaron Lewis.
“There’s definitely a lot of the road in this record,” says Gerdes, who travels with his band and his wife Janel in the van. “I love moving—that part of traveling where you’re actually rolling down the highway. It’s when we feel most at home. Things are just different—your sleep patterns and your mindset change. But the thing I love the most about being on the road is meeting different forms and facets of people—talking to them and hearing their stories about where they come from and what they do. I find that intriguing. So there’s a lot of that in this record, too. The title track and the album, when you boil ‘em down—that’s what it’s about. We wanted to speak to the people.”
For Tough As Nails, Gerdes and his road band—lead guitarist Jake Baxter, bassist Britton Wood and drummer Randy Noy—hit St. Louis’ Native Sound Studio revved up and ready to go, with producer/engineer David Beeman at the helm. Beeman had also worked with Gerdes on 2019 single “Tailgate n’ Tallboys,” a theme song commissioned by the festival of the same name, a six-day, 30+ band country concert, held annually in Peoria, Ill. “Tough as Nails was the first time that I was able to be like, ‘Alright, boys, we’re pulling off the highway and going into the studio for a week,’” Gerdes says. “Capturing the energy of our live performances was crucial to me. So we just went in fresh off the road and banged out the meat and potatoes of it in three days.”
The resulting LP—spruced up by Robby "Man of Steel" Turner on steel guitar—reeks of spilled Jack Daniels, truckstops, pool halls and tobacco-stained green rooms. Its second track, a hi-octane, four-on-the-floor cover of Roger Alan Wade’s “If Guitars Were Guns,” acts as a manifesto for Tough As Nails, a record that packs more grit and wallop than most of its country contemporaries: “I play country music in my little cabin home in the hood, I play rock & roll because it makes me feel good / I play them ol’ blues to take a load off my mind, I play what I please, out of tune and out of time.”
As with any artist worth his salt, Gerdes’ sound has been evolving since the last record. Smokin’ Drinkin’ and Gamblin’—anchored by Nashville pedal-steel icon Jim Vest—was deeply indebted to the ’70s country on which Gerdes was raised. But with Tough as Nails, he and his band just “let it all go.” “We approached it like we would a live performance,” Gerdes says. “I didn’t put no reins on it or nothing like that. I just let it evolve into what it became. It’s a mixture of all my different influences. With country music, the way I see it, it’s a melting pot: rock & roll, Southern rock, rockabilly, the blues—it all goes in there.”
The new album’s rock & roll leanings make sense when you consider the influences of the lineup that has solidified as Gerdes’ backing band. Baxter, now in his 20s, has been playing guitar with Gerdes since he was a 16-year-old worshipping at the altar of Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Duane Allman. And it’s a similar story with drummer Randy Noy. “Ottawa, Ill., the part of the state Randy’s from, is pretty blue collar, pretty rock & roll,” Gerdes says. “He didn’t really know much about country music when he joined the band. His biggest influence is John Bonham, which is cool because I always wanted that kick, that drive to my sound. When we started playing together, I was like, ‘Don’t hold back just because you think we’re playing country. Play them drums like they owe you money, brother.’ We were able to capture that kind of energy on the new record.”
Sit with him for five minutes and you’ll know that Gerdes is a natural-born storyteller. Really, Tough as Nails is a documentary in album form. It deals with real people, real places and real struggles, collected along the Interstate as Gerdes and his band play an endless parade of one-night stands. The record is about family, community, honesty, tragedy, travel, the fleeting nature of existence, even silent visitations from the ghosts of our loved ones. Above all, though, Tough as Nails confronts the elusiveness of the American Dream in the 21st century, giving voice to the plight of the working poor, brought to life by an ex-steel worker from Pennsylvania, an out-of-work coal miner from Alabama, a suicidal veteran wrestling with PTSD in rural Ohio, and a teenage girl from god knows where trying to shake herself free from the grip of heroin. Track after track, it’s a testament to fighting for your ideals, taking your blows and doing your damnedest to press on in the face of adversity.
“All the stories in these songs are true,” Gerdes says. “It’s about the people. I wanted the album to speak directly to them, to things they’ve gone through. In my mindset, country music has got to be real.”
Two years ago, with this same spirit of authenticity and connection in mind, Gerdes launched a weekly, hour-long Facebook live series called The Gatherin’. “Janel had the idea that we could reach people who couldn’t make it to my shows,” he says. “We do it every Tuesday night—either from the road, or at home in my garage, interacting with people as we go. I play songs, they make requests, but most importantly, there’s a back and forth. We talk about what’s going on in their lives. And we try to help in any way we can.”
Gerdes refers to the people who tune in regularly not as fans, but kinfolk. Many of them have started to identify as “The Gatherin’ Family.” Through this community, lasting friendships have been made, with Gerdes and Janel, the band members, and with each other. “Life can be tough and we all need each other,” Gerdes says. “Music is a great vehicle for that. If that’s a way we can bring people together, that’s what we’re gonna do—make a difference in their lives through the music, and bring them together around a common passion. And the more they’re together, the more they find out just how much they have in common.”
Craig Gerdes’ Tough as Nails is out April 3rd