The Delta Drift’s ramblin’ fever

by Jordan Green

Every spring in Kentucky when the rains clog the bottomlands with moisture, the noble thistle pierces the soil in cow pastures and alongside tobacco fields, spreading willfully across the landscape. Its purple flowers bloom brilliantly along country roads, though the prickles on its sturdy stems and leaves bear punishment for any unfortunate man or animal that stumbles into its turf.

Thistle suppression is generally handled by dispatching a laborer with a hoe, who chops at the roots, bags the severed stems in burlap sacks with gloved hands, and burns the contents lest the seeds dry and begin the proliferation of the alluring and infernal plant all over again.

Nick Foltz grew up in the northern Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati, a county or two removed from those pastoral scenes. His voice has been compared to Axl Rose’s because of its scratchy quality, and thistle-like, it contains a pretty bloom sheathed in prickly armor. But if Foltz’s voice suggests Axl, then it would be best to forget about Guns ‘n’ Roses and the LA glam-rock circus in which that band flourished. No, freed from the constraints of time and space, Foltz would more likely be found tooling the Mississippi back roads with Robbie Robertson in pursuit of Sonny Boy Williamson or copying Merle Haggard accompanied by Jerry Garcia on pedal steel.

The story of the Delta Drift, a band greater than the sum of its parts that provides the vehicle for Foltz’s vision, is both familiar and somewhat distinct. The first thing to know is that they come out of Salisbury, a Piedmont city of roughly 25,000 situated midway between Greensboro and Charlotte off Interstate 85 that is perhaps best known as the nominal residence of Sen. Liddy Dole. Salisbury is also the home of Catawba College, a liberal arts institution affiliated with the United Church of Christ, and that’s what drew Foltz from Kentucky; guitarist Cameron Thomas from Columbia, SC; and drummer Jimbo Martin from south Florida. Bass player Jeff Hansen, who grew up in Nebraska and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, is the only band member without a Catawba College connection.

Foltz and Thomas struck up a friendship while working sound and lights together at a college theater, and Hansen hosted an open-mic session in Salisbury. Martin was simply the best drummer around. So far, those are all standard circumstances to bring together a quartet of young men interested in exploring the country and blues byways of rock and roll. But before there was a band, Foltz relocated to New York City, where he paid some dues by playing in the subway. He honed his songwriting craft, periodically telephoning Thomas in Salisbury to relay the results over the line.

The more they talked across the geographic distance the more the idea of starting a band made sense, so in June 2006 Foltz moved back to Salisbury. He and Thomas got a house together, and spent a month or so fleshing out Foltz’s songs, Thomas’ electric tremolo guitar adding a high-gospel ecstasy to Foltz’s earnest folk sound. They worked awhile with a female fiddle player from Greensboro. Then, in August of that year instead of making their debut in Salisbury, they booked their first show in Cincinnati. The fiddle player bowed out at that point. Almost on a whim, they invited Jimbo Martin and Thomas’ friend, Josh Goodwin, to join them on their pilgrimage to Jim & Jack’s, a rock-and-roll nostalgia joint on the banks of the Ohio River. At that moment the Delta Drift was born.

The Delta Drift released a long-player called Desolate City last year. Goodwin and the band parted ways in March, and Hansen came on as his replacement. Salisbury is not the kind of town that has a steady live music venue, so the Delta Drift has never really had a musical home base. While the inertia of families and jobs might lead other North Carolina bands into residency and pliancy to the demands of a hometown audience, the Delta Drift has been a road band from the start, their circuit steadily widening from an inner ring of Winston-Salem, Raleigh and Charlotte to include destinations such as Knoxville and Columbia.

“The drift part [of the band’s name] came out of a lyric,” Foltz says, as the band waits for the opening band to go on at Elliott’s Revue in Winston-Salem on a recent Friday night. “The music we make could be derivative of where the blues is from. Originally, it was the blues. Then there were all kinds of jazz, rock and roll and country. The ‘drift’ is all an exploration of where that music came from. I guess it’s kind of an homage.”

This particular gig falls midway in the band’s regular three-week rotation at its primary Winston-Salem location, the Garage. The hipsters whistle and clap appreciatively at the end of the songs, but remain seated at the bar and the cocktail tables, or casting appraising glances from the pool table at the back of the room.

The Delta Drift is a dance band, but the Elliott’s Revue regulars are not exactly a dance crowd. It doesn’t matter because the road gig is almost second nature to this band. They start with the title track of their album, with its foreboding undertow of a bass line and reverb-drenched guitar. “It’s the only road I travel, it’s the only one I know,” Foltz sings. “It only seems to lead me back this way.”

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