The term "country music" is a lot broader than it used to be, even a few years ago.
When you turn on country-pop radio and hear Sheryl Crow and Darius Rucker, you may think you mistakenly landed on a '90s rock station. Even Kid Rock and Bon Jovi have had "country" hits at this point.
While mainstream country has added pop-rock elements, bands that used to be labeled country are now more likely to be classified as Americana. But more and more emerging country acts are moving away from a "Journey with fiddles" sound while retaining a rock edge.
WheelHouse are one local band whose high and lonesome harmonies come with a little bit of grit.
"It's not your typical Nashville country," says bassist Mark Noxon.
Noxon, Frank Busch, Nic Adamany, Kenny Leiser and Joel Brantmeier joined forces to form WheelHouse earlier this year, after long stints in two Americana bands. Noxon and Leiser played in the Lucas Cates Band for six years, and the rest of the musicians played in Mighty Short Bus, which existed for nine years.
"Frank and I started playing weekday acoustic shows with Kenny and Mark," Adamany says. "We had a lot of fun, and the chemistry was there from the beginning. The time was right to form the new band, so we did."
It wasn't long before WheelHouse became a full-time gig for all of its members. Adamany says the group will finish 2013 having played more than 220 shows.
"I think our collective experience on the road is something that makes WheelHouse successful," he says. "We know how to balance the partying with the occasional night of sleep."
"Speak for yourself," Noxon adds.
"We play wherever we can and where there are people who like good music," Busch says. "More than anything, I think the road just makes us closer friends."
Busch says one main difference between WheelHouse and the members' previous bands is the outstanding harmonies. Another involves putting a fiddle and guitar front and center. Plus, there's an upright bass.
"I had never played this style much before this band," Noxon says. "Taking on the upright bass was something I hadn't done in a number of years, so getting back into it has been fun."
WheelHouse recently celebrated the release of their first album, The Comeback, with a show at the Club Tavern in Middleton.
"It sounds great, and I think people are going to enjoy all the songs and the production," Busch says.
Leiser says that making the record went as smoothly as possible, considering that the band began the process immediately before a summer packed with gigs.
"Not only were we on the road and away from the studio for 60 to 80 hours a week, but we had to get it done almost entirely ourselves," he says. "With the exception of having mixing master Mike Zirkel mix the record, we engineered, tracked, edited and did the album design all in that same time frame. It was a whirlwind."
In addition to making a new record, WheelHouse have created their very own brand of whiskey through Yahara Bay Distillery.
"WheelHouse Whiskey was something we decided to do partly because of our love for whiskey and partly because of the unique cross-promotion [opportunity] it will allow us to explore, bringing our whiskey to music lovers and vice versa," Busch says. "We took our idea to Yahara Bay, and they jumped at the chance to collaborate with us."
Busch adds that WheelHouse plan to continue touring heavily. And their local schedule is stuffed, with four shows booked in the upcoming week alone. The band would also like to produce a few records this winter. And they'll partner with Shiner beer for some shows in 2014, including a showcase at South by Southwest.
"I think the time is right for a band like us," Adamany says.