Wakarusa Interview: J Bratlie of Dirtfoot

Dirtfoot, a six-piece gypsy punk rock band from Shreveport, LA, has become a staple of the Wakarusa Music Festival. Furthermore, they’re strong supporters of the unofficial festival Chompdown (a free breakfast by the people and for the people of Wakarusa) where the band provides morning entertainment as hungry campers file in for Friday morning grub. After this year’s Chompdown came to a conclusion, Dirtfoot vocalist and banjoist J Bratlie took a few minutes to chat with me about their recently released high-profile music video, the band’s ongoing involvement with Wakarusa, and explains how the beginnings of Dirtfoot were born of a tornado tragedy more than ten years ago.

MOJO: Tell me about the video for “Cast My Plans” from your newly released album. The concept for a prison narrative was discussed as an idea that quickly turned into storyboards. Then, suddenly, you had big names involved in all aspects from cast to crew.

J: We’re friends with William Sadler, the actor who played the warden. He was filming The Mist in Shreveport about four years ago and caught one of our gigs and just started sending us emails every once in a while. He writes songs, so he would send us these songs saying, “This sounds like a Dirtfoot tune. If ya’ll wanna use it, you can use it.” He’s a real cool cat and a funny guy. All of his music has a funny quality to it. So we called him up and said, “You wanna be the warden in our video?” and he said, “Get me there and I’ll do it.”

We rented a 35 millimeter film camera and shot the entire video on it. That, and getting Bill to the set, were our only real expenses. Everything else (AD work, assistant directors, producers, camera operators, etc.) was all donated time. Everybody just wanted to work on the project. The guy that ran our camera actually worked for the movie Wolverine. The fight scene with Daniel was choreographed by an actual stunt coordinator. There were all these big-time movie guys going, “Dirtfoot’s doing a video?! RIGHT ON!”

For anyone that’s interested, there is a special DVD that’s coming out soon that tells the whole story and includes interviews of all the people involved with the video’s creation. Visit their online store to order your own copy.

MOJO: Dirtfoot has a pretty decent history with Wakarusa, correct?

J: This is our fifth year at Waka. We actually got into Wakarusa through one of the Waka Winter Classic Competitions where they pick local bands and people vote. We came in third place out of five bands after driving from Shreveport to Tulsa, but we were happy with the response we got. After the gig, the guy running the thing said, “We really like you guys. You may be getting a phone call.” So a few months went by and we didn’t hear anything. Whatever, whatever. Then they called us up mid-April/early-May and said “Do you guys wanna play at 11 o’clock on Thursday on the little stage way out in the sticks for free?” and we’re like… “Sure!” We were happy to be involved and to say were going to be a part of the festival.

So, then I had friended Jon Cabrera on MySpace who was doing the Chompdown. That was the first year for the Chomp and Jon was like, “Hey, you guys are kind of an acoustic band. You wanna set up and play with a breakfast?” We expected it to be 50 people, a friends-of-friends sort of thing. And this was when Waka was still in Kansas. It was back in a little corner of the campgrounds and everybody in that corner heard about it and came over. People actually brought food and it got bigger and we ended up feeding about 250 kids.

Dirtfoot plays for Chompers at Wakarusa 2011

MOJO: You guys have become a hugely popular band in a relatively short amount of time. How long has Dirtfoot been around?

J: Well, the lead singer and I (who are kind of the core of the group) were brought together through a tornado in 2000. I lived down the street from the guy and didn’t know him. The tornado dropped a tree on his house. He was out front and I was walkin’ by and was just kind of like “You guys okay?” and he was like “Yea, sure. Wanna see the house?” So he showed me all the destruction and as I’m walking out of the front room, there’s a banjo and a guitar and an accordion. So we started jamming and it just grew from there.

We had a revolving door of musicians for quite a while, about three years. We had numerous percussionists, bass players, drummers. But in the lineup we have now, the bass player is the newest guy. He’s been with us for about a year. Everyone else has been around about five or six years. We call our official start getting out there January of 2006. We won a Battle of the Bands in Shreveport that kind of helped get things going for us, and then from there we started trying to get into festivals.

We got pretty lucky; the guy that runs Wakarusa kind of took a shine to us. And now he’s our manager. We signed with him at the first of the year and The Agency Group out of New York. But up until January 1st of this year, we’ve done everything ourselves- all the booking, promotion, making the CD’s. This CD we just did was all our ideas, our vision.

MOJO: You seem to have a very loyal and devoted local (and growing) fan base.

J: We did our kick start campaign for the new CD and it was interesting. We expected to see a few people, but there were a lot of folks that we thought were kind of the fringe of the circle that were really some of the best supporters. It’s always kind of funny when they say, “I’ve been following you since…” and it’s like “You heard us THAT long ago? Oh, that wasn’t even really a gig!” A guy named Kyle, he’s one of the Chompers, he and his wife asked us to play at their wedding reception. So we were just there in front of their family and friends, but we still have people from that come up to us and say “I saw ya’ll play a wedding reception in Columbia!”

I guess because we’re such a multi-genre type of group, it’s like if people like country music, they call us a country group. If they like rock, they call us a rock band. So, these people from different walks of life walk away from our shows going, “Yea, I like that… alternative -country Dirtfoot.” Or, “I like that rockabilly Dirtfoot.” You know? But we’re not really bluegrass. We’re not really rockabilly. We’re not really… well, we just call it “Gypsy punk country grumble boogie.”

Dirtfoot at The Chompdown 2011 (Wakarusa Music Festival, Arkansas)

All photos by C-Style Photography.