Love is hard, and its path sometimes torturous, which is basically the idea behind the Dead Winter Carpenters' name. The Lake Tahoe, Calf., country-roots quintet formed just about four years ago out of the North California jam community, initially calling themselves Sandpaper Mittens before adopting a less frivolous name with similar intent.
"It sprouted from a story by a friend of mine up in Bar Harbor, Maine, where there are some backwoods kinds of people," says singer-guitarist Jesse Dunn of the original euphemism for a not-so-glad-handed lover. "We decided we couldn't keep it because responsible adults were like, 'What is a sandpaper mitten?' And you're like, 'Uh....'"
DWC started as an acoustic string act, but eventually added drums and electric guitar to the pre-existing fiddle and upright bass lineup. The resulting sound is well-suited to their shared love of Bakersfield country, as evidenced by their recent Dirt Nap EP. The six-song collection followed two full-lengths — 2010's D.W.C. and 2012's Ain't It Strange — during which they slowly soft-pedaled their jam influences, tightened the songcraft and continued to sharpen their harmonies.
"That's really become a focal point of the band, working out the harmonies, because I think that separates a lot of bands," Dunn says. "We have some pretty serious musicians in our band, so they can really pick out the harmonies. But still sometimes in the live environment we just sound like crap. So we're definitely working on it."
Dunn, who shares lead vocal duties with fiddler Jenni Charles, grew up in Vermont, where his childhood musical experience was limited to digging through his parents' deep music collection. Charles, meanwhile, hails from a musical family — her father leads the San Francisco-based Montana Slim String Band — and was playing violin by the age of 5.
"She's been around musicians her whole life," says Dunn. "It takes a certain personality and demeanor to survive life on the road, and she definitely has that going on."
At a time when every other musically inclined (and typically bearded) 20-something is sporting a banjo, upright bass or mandolin, Dead Winter Carpenters are carving out a nice niche at the intersection of jam roots, bluegrass and honky-tonk country. They released an album during their first year of existence — in order to have something to sell at shows — then used Kickstarter to raise over $12,000 toward a proper debut.
"We had been around for only about 18 months," says Dunn, whose band managed to attract some 350 donors. "And we're endlessly grateful for that," he adds.
The resulting album, Ain't It Strange, was recorded in a proper studio and actually sounds like it. It's highlighted by the twangy, shuffling wanderlust ballad, "Find Your Home," and the lively, fiddle-fueled blues stomp, "Cabin Fever," which sounds like a 19th-century mining camp hoedown.
The new EP trades the haunted backwoods vibe for an open-throttle country-rock sound that suggests Buck Owens, Bill Monroe and The Band. They also play an eclectic range of covers, from M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" to Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day."
"We are by no means trying to invent the wheel — if it's even possible to invent the wheel anymore," says Dunn. "We're really just trying to find our own happiness personally in our music, and that can come from any direction. That's why we don't want to limit it."